Troubleshooting a USB flash drive

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A user of a company I know recently told me the following experience he had with a USB flash drive. The user traveled a lot and had a laptop that he used to connect to the company's network when he was in the office. And he was used to plugging his flash drive into the USB slot on his laptop so he could transfer files to another machine he used at home. But one day he came into the office, connected his laptop to the network, plugged in the flash drive and nothing happened -- normally an Explorer window would open displaying the contents of the drive. This was disconcerting, so he opened My Computer and discovered that the USB drive wasn't there. Puzzled by this, he took out another flash drive from his pocket and tried it, and this time it worked fine so he knew at least the problem wasn't with his computer.

He was just about resigned to throwing out his first drive when he decided to send me a quick email detailing the problem. My immediate reaction too was that it was that the drive had failed, but then I thought about it some more. One of the key steps in troubleshooting problems is to ask what just happened. The drive failure had occurred after he connected his machine to the network, so could it be an issue with the network? I emailed back and suggested he disconnect his laptop from the network and try the flash drive again, and a short time later I received an email saying the drive now worked!

Then it dawned on me. I told him to remove the drive, connect to the network and open My Computer again and look for something different. He did this and told me there was a new mapped network drive that he hadn't seen before. Aha! The network administrator must have modified their logon script to map a new drive on users' computers, and this new mapped drive probably assigned the very same drive letter that this particular user's laptop had previously assigned to his first USB drive. I told him to plug the USB drive in again, open Computer Management, and change the drive letter of the USB drive. He did this, and right away an Explorer window opened displaying the contents of his USB drive. Problem solved.

It's rewarding to be able to help users with their problems like this, but it's also a good lesson on how to troubleshoot. The key, I've often found, is to picture the entire process in your mind and then try to ask yourself at each point in the process whether this could be the culprit.

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