bit-tech.net

What to do when hardware goes wrong

Posted on 20th Sep 2012 at 08:01 by Antony Leather with 34 comments

Antony Leather
Anyone who's built a PC themselves or owned one for long enough has undoubtedly had moments that made them question their hobby. Random crashes, complete failure, even smoke and flames are usually part of the course as far as being a PC enthusiast goes (thankfully random crashes are rare these days, complete failure even more so and it's been years since we've smelt the sickly-sweet smell of burned silicon.)

When things go wrong, it's certainly something I consider to be a pain in the rear, but having dealt with these problems for as long as I can remember, I'm fairly confident that I'd be able to fix my PC for a lot less than it would cost to buy an entirely new one. I'm also thankful that I'm actually able to do this - we were all noobs once and fixing a PC can be particularly difficult if you don't have a lot of money to throw at it, or simply don't know where to start.

What to do when hardware goes wrong *When hardware goes wrong
Click to enlarge

For me, having a little spare kit around is a massively encouraging thing. Should a motherboard, CPU or stick of RAM die, I could be up and running again in an hour, just by troubleshooting the issue by installing different hardware to try to isolate the problem through trial and error. Remove dead hardware, replace with new hardware, done - that kind of trouble-shooting was the first I learned.

While it does mean spending even more money on spare kit (it doesn't have to be cutting-edge, only enough to be able to swap things around to find bits that are flaky), if you're taking on the burden of keeping your PC up and running in a mission-critical situation (this is anything from doing coursework at school or university to keeping a PC used by the whole family operational) it can make life a lot easier.

What to do when hardware goes wrong *When hardware goes wrong
Click to enlarge

My second tip is never discount a piece of hardware as being the cause of your issues. If all other possibilities have been eliminated, the answer, however improbable, will be left. For me this lesson was learned the hard way. I'd built my parents a PC and instead of going all-out on performance gear, I held back and spent a good deal on the PSU and case to make sure that power stability or cooling weren't going to cause issues.

A year later, the PC had trouble. A hard disk had been fried and the system was flaky as hell before the motherboard died too. For some reason, probably because it was a very well-known and generally well-made brand, I refused to believe the PSU was the cause of the issue and shoved a spare motherboard into the PC. A short while later I had two dead motherboards.

At this point I realised that I hadn't replaced the PSU, and it was the only item left. Sure enough, on installing a new one, the second motherboard I assumed dead actually came back to life, although the first was still dead as a doornail as was the hard disk, sadly with some unbacked up data on it. With a new PSU installed, the PC was up and running again, and it still going to this day several years later. Even if you have the best hardware, it can still go wrong without warning so never discount anything for being the cause of your problems.

Once you've identified the flaky item, the next step is to pursue a warranty claim. Building a PC is as stress free as ever today thanks to warranties from the likes of Scan that cover issues during the build process, and many companies will even replace motherboards with bent pins at no charge too. The distance selling act also means that in a vast majority of situations, you can return an item without charge within seven days of receipt for a full refund. Items that are DOA (dead on arrival) aren't uncommon either - as much as it might seem like the world is against you when your hardware arrives on a Friday ready for a weekend of building, only for a key component to be dead as a doornail, don't take this out on the retailer.

What to do when hardware goes wrong *When hardware goes wrong
Click to enlarge - many etailers will accept returns on motherboards with bent pins

It's probably not their fault and it won't help your cause, but don't expect to be up and running instantly with a replacement either. It takes time to complete a return - if in doubt, send it back under the distance selling act (in the UK, you're able to send most online purchases back to the retailer for a full refund within 7 days or so) and buy a replacement. It will cost you more till you wait for your refund but that's they way things are, and no amount of screaming will help. Further down the line you'll be left with fewer options but if your hardware is in warranty, either with the etailer or manufacturer, then things should be straightforward.

To make things as easy as possible, it's always a good idea to keep the box for your hardware so you can send it back properly packaged or indeed sell it as 'boxed' and get more cash for your future upgrades. If you own a credit card it's also worth using this if it's of the type that offers an extended warranty on purchased items.

Another option for dealing with both troubleshooting and getting hardware replaced is to try your local PC store. We've heard of all sorts of horror stories from people using chain stores, so we'd suggest trying your local PC shop instead. Explain to them the problem, ask how they'll test it and make sure you confirm prices for everything beforehand, just like you would with a car garage. If you don't have any spare hardware, this is the only way to go the fault-finding method but it's also easier and cheaper than buying a whole PC.

Speaking of whole PCs, we all get a lot of joy out of building our own. However, you shouldn't overlook buying a complete one instead, even if you're an expert. I've reviewed many over the last couple of years that cost just a few pounds more than the individual components bought at retail prices separately, but come with the benefit of Windows being installed for you and the boon of a warranty. These can be as decent as two years on-site, meaning you shouldn't be out of action too long, and all the hassle is taken care of for you.

What tips do you have for dealing with PC troubles? Let us know in the forum.

34 Comments

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guvnar 20th September 2012, 09:37 Quote
A good back to basics article. Nice reminder...
Jezcentral 20th September 2012, 10:06 Quote
I had the same problem. A few years ago, I bought a Be Quiet! 650W PSU, that won every award going from every hardware magazine. I suspected loose connections, heat build-up, anything other than the PSU.
Parge 20th September 2012, 10:15 Quote
Nice article Antony. Is it really the case that some companies will replace motherboards with bent pins? I would have thought that that would be put down to damage by user and would not qualify.
Dave Lister 20th September 2012, 10:26 Quote
Me too, I bought an antec 750w high current pro to replace a cheap temporary PSU. Spent about ten months replacing everything in my system at great cost only to find out the antec PSU was faulty from the start. I'm still running with the cheap temporary PSU as well because the amazon seller of the antec haven't refunded me yet ! So I'm fully behind local PC shops as well now.
Griffter 20th September 2012, 10:43 Quote
a tip: always start ur fixing late at night if u can help it. the times i messed up the family PC (only me ever using it but my dad got it so its the family pc) and stressing late at night-morning just before sunsrise trying to swop the cdrom jumpers with the hdd ones that just fell on the ground and i cant find, with he B.S.O.D. staring me down to the pc not even going on.

and just when they all waking up its fixed. makes u feel alive during these moments of WTF... nooooooooo (whispers)
Shirty 20th September 2012, 11:24 Quote
Nice article Anthony, and clearly written from the perspective of a man who has grown up and matured into a level-headed tech enthusiast.

However, lest we forget many geeks are young and impatient, with a poor grasp of human interaction and etiquette. When something goes awry patience doesn't even make a fleeting appearance, and the poor old retailer will get an ear bashing, a forum trashing and more besides.

Thankfully I stopped being that person in my early 20s, and nowadays whilst I'm disappointed when something goes wrong I don't throw my toys out of the pram. Honestly the best way to be.
Guinevere 20th September 2012, 11:27 Quote
The important take home lesson? Spending crazy money on a PSU is pointless and doesn't give you any more guarantee than buying a cheaper (but still decent) PSU.
Combatus 20th September 2012, 11:33 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Parge
Nice article Antony. Is it really the case that some companies will replace motherboards with bent pins? I would have thought that that would be put down to damage by user and would not qualify.

That's what I thought too until recently, but at least one retailer I know of will actually replace motherboards with bent pins in the UK. I think they've had so many people do this (it's incredible easy to do after all) that they've had to come up with some sort of arrangement, which is good I suppose.
Combatus 20th September 2012, 11:42 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Guinevere
The important take home lesson? Spending crazy money on a PSU is pointless and doesn't give you any more guarantee than buying a cheaper (but still decent) PSU.

Just to rephrase that, I'd still avoid sub £40 PSU's like the plague. We've proven them to be often very more unreliable, noisy, unable to meet the ATX spec in voltage stability as well as their rated wattage, and to have very poor efficiency. TBH this is the only example of a decent PSU I've used on a long term basis fail - I'd still recommend buying a proven PSU that has been tested properly. The point of the article was really to suspect everything and trust nothing when it comes to problems. If I'd used a cheapo PSU in my parent's PC, that would have been my prime suspect for the issues! ;)
fodder 20th September 2012, 12:24 Quote
Most of my troubles over the years have been down to the PSU. Eventually I wised up and bought a PSU test plug. Although not the cheapest tool in the box, it has saved me a lot of time and money in unneeded components and returns.
mi1ez 20th September 2012, 12:29 Quote
Quote:
and it's been years since we've smelt the sickly-sweet smell of burned silicon.
It's been less than 18 months since had a motherboard smoke itself...
Bungletron 20th September 2012, 13:12 Quote
Really enjoyable article.

My main in to building and upgrading my own PC? PC went bang, smoke, failed power supply. Was obviously the power supply as it did kind of explode and emit smoke. Replacing it made me open the case look round and get my hands dirty, I realised this was not rocket science.

One observation, I have never had a good quality power supply fail in the manner described in the article, furthermore I would suggest that it is equally likely that the power circuitry in the motherboard could cause the failure. Since the board was dead too and the supply was dead, either the supply killed the board or the board killed the supply (difference in my example was only my supply was dead), a bad failure or short on the board can cause a spike that will kill the supply instantly.
BLC 20th September 2012, 13:13 Quote
Don't be too eager to put your trust into local computer stores either. The article does give some good advice on checking prices, etc, before handing anything over, but there are still a lot of charlatans out there who are more than willing to rip you off. It could even be something as simple as proceeding with further testing/fault diagnosis without agreeing it with the customer, thereby landing you with a nasty bill for labour you didn't agree to which needs to be paid before you can get your PC back from them.

That last sentence was horribly written. Sorry, couldn't think of a better way to put it!

I used to work in an independent computer store and it was always our policy to give a rough estimate of the amount of labour involved before accepting a repair; if we thought it would take longer we'd always call the customer first to make sure they're happy to proceed (and indeed once we've found what the problem is and what it'll cost to fix, if replacement hardware was needed). Sadly not everyone has the same scruples and I've caught more than one local store trying to rip off friends and family; being more expensive than online retailers is one thing, but being deceptive and misleading when dealing with customers just isn't cricket.

I'm quite lucky to have a Novatech store in Cardiff. They may not be the best online retailer, or the cheapest, but they have a store about 5 minutes away from me: if I ever get any problems I can go and speak to someone face to face, rather than having to trust that they read my emails. So far I've had no complaints about their service, including returns.
MrJim 20th September 2012, 13:23 Quote
It's interesting you should mention Scan's warranty service, because in my experience, it is utterly abysmal. I bought a £190 Silverstone case from them a while back, which arrived with broken fan fixings & screws rattling around inside the case. I tried to return the case because it was obviously faulty, but because I neglected to report the fault within 48 hours of delivery (I hadn't been well so it was some time after its delivery that I inspected the case). They told me I had to take up the matter with Silverstone, who then informed me that I should take up the matter with Scan. Fantastic. Anyway long story short, Scan did finally agree to take the case back and replace the faulty fans, but only after many letters & a great deal of grief. I've never used them again since.
themassau 20th September 2012, 13:32 Quote
if you buy a psu really look for reviews where they test the output of the PSU whit special psu oscilloscopes. (pm me if you want a list of them but i don't want to post them except if I'm to do it allowed by bittech itself)

they look for the derivation of the voltage output in some cases even whit good brands the variation might be to high and cause system instability

there are even reviewers who pull it fully apart and test the efficiencies at 40 C to give the real world performance. these kind of sites made me chose the hx850 of corsair.it has 6 years warranty. the reviews also show that some psu of the same line might be very different in quality.
(so 750 watt might be from different quality then the 850watt)
hrp8600 20th September 2012, 13:48 Quote
had a problem once , got it down to PSU or MB any way phoned local PC shop and they wanted £20 to test a PSU that was out of the case.
So got a PSU test plug for around the same price and did it my self.

As for scan they can give you the runaround from time to time on returns, but some times are quite good. but after they gave me the runaround of "it's not our problem its the manufacturer you want" and geting the same story from manufacturer "see scan" I will only use them as a last resort now my self.
Petrol head 20th September 2012, 14:06 Quote
It's great to know I'm not alone in being the family PC fixer. I now own a PSU tester and a box of bit's for this exact reason.

I would suggest only buying a PC from somewhere that is open about the components. I have change many PSU' s for rail failure on Dell, Evesham, etc. Some are easy but the Dell powered through a separate board. No 24/20 pin plug. Fun failure though 12v going through the 3.3v rail. Never knew the CPU fan could spin that fast. lol
Fizzban 20th September 2012, 17:10 Quote
I've been lucky enough to never have anything die on me while in use.

I have, however, gone back to old components to build a friend a basic pc, to find that the psu was dead as was the motherboard. They were working (though the system had been unstable for a time) when stored, and I always take care in how I store them. I reckon I dodged a bullet there as they must have been very close to dieing.
Star*Dagger 20th September 2012, 18:38 Quote
Never buy cheap garbage, and add 40% to the wattage for PSUs that BT recommends in their roundups.
Major_A 20th September 2012, 21:04 Quote
Many years ago my HTPC would randomly blue screen. Sometimes I would need to hit the reset button a few times to keep it from blue screening at the Windows start up. I wrote down all the error codes and began my Google hunt. Eventually I came up empty handed and figured I could just deal with it. 6 months later it became more of an issue and again I looked without luck. One day I was doing my Google hunt and came across a similar issue and the fix was that an IDE cable was bad. So I started swapping out IDE cables without much success. It wasn't until I replaced the IDE cable on the CD burner (that should tell you how long ago this was) that it fixed the problem. So for over half a year of dealing with blue screens it turned out to be a $.25 IDE cable going to the optical drive. That to date has the been the most oddball fix I've come across.
mandy_modded 21st September 2012, 00:59 Quote
The very 1st thing i was taught as a service tech on electronic test equipment back in the late 80's.

1. check the bloody power supply 1st -ALWAYS

no point looking anywhere else for a fault, as a single dodgy voltage rail will skew the working of something else.

ie a video card that might be a bit off can be replaced, but if the 2nd vid card is more "tolerant" of the dodgy voltage rail, you'll incorrectly assume the fault cured.
yougotkicked 21st September 2012, 02:05 Quote
Good article, reminds me of when I was just starting out as a techie, my first build just wouldn't start properly. It appeard to be POST-ing but nothing ever came up on the screen. took me about a month of fiddling and a new motherboard until I discovered the VGA to DVI adapter I had was flaky.

My greatest realization over the years has been to think of the computer not as just the hardware components, or even the components and their connections, but as the truly complex beast that it is. Components have several pieces on them, and each of those can fail independently at times, learn what everything does and you can pretty easily sort out what's causing the problem.
fluxtatic 21st September 2012, 07:17 Quote
Just earlier this week I had a bit of a freakout, thinking I'd killed a Dell at work. Normally not a big deal, but I had to perform a bit of surgery on the case and it would have still been under warranty (had to pull the drive cage and swap out the PSU to put in a discrete VGA card.) It started giving a "power switch cable failure" error on boot...then the power button stopped responding completely. Turns out the bizarro 5-pin plug had popped off the headers completely...and the card was way too wide to fit the case, so had to swap in an older, smaller card, meaning I didn't have to spend three hours butchering the case in the first place. Stupid Dell >:(
karagiosis 21st September 2012, 12:19 Quote
I'm not so sure random crashes are rare nowdays but it could be that i have a magnet for broken PCs. Take for example what happened with intel motherboards. Although they modified the chipset to solve the issue with sata ports, i think sandy bridge is very weak when it comes to memory stability and it caused problems for lots of people (yes, i'm one of these pelople -_-).
Anyway, IMO the most important thing when you're fixing a PC is to find a way to reproduce the issue or you won't know if what you did was effective. I'll give you an example. I once had to fix an almost new PC that suffered from random catastrophic failure (data lost, SO lost, BSOD...). The funny thing is that every time i re-installed the SO it would work like a charm no matter how long or hard i stressed it but, after returning it, it would broke again for no aparent reason. As i couldn't find a way to rerpoduce the problem, I spent 2 whole months looking for it and it happened to be the damned memory. I found that If i were to power up the PC after 2 days of being completely off, the memory would show lots of errors (checked in memtest). It would work fine after a restart, though. It was not until i left it alone for more than 2 days that the error wold come back again... and that was why constant stressing was ineffective as a test. Once i could reproduce the problem it was easy. I should have replaced the memory first of all things but i didn't have a spare kit at the moment T_T
FaIIen 21st September 2012, 22:31 Quote
cry...
jimmyjj 22nd September 2012, 17:34 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jezcentral
I had the same problem. A few years ago, I bought a Be Quiet! 650W PSU, that won every award going from every hardware magazine. I suspected loose connections, heat build-up, anything other than the PSU.

Exactly the same thing happened to me. It even passed a PSU tester on every output. Took weeks before we narrowed it down to the PSU.

I know these things can happen to any manufacturer but by god I swore that would be the last Be Quiet PSU I ever bought.
rwb97 22nd September 2012, 17:36 Quote
just lost an R4E ..... isn't it ironic if you hold shift whilst typing 4, it is $
:'(
Risky 25th September 2012, 19:46 Quote
Before you do a build for family or friends do consider how much time you have to support it. If you are not going to be on hand that often it might be better to find a Dell or similar to meet their needs and makeing time to get it setup properly with the AV and any other junkware replaced/removed.
wiak 25th September 2012, 22:37 Quote
when i doubt, trow it at a brick wall
Huhupe 26th September 2012, 04:40 Quote
I am very lucky since one of my friends is a computer expert. Whenever my computer has problem, he can handle it well. :D
Fizzban 26th September 2012, 15:44 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by jimmyjj
Exactly the same thing happened to me. It even passed a PSU tester on every output. Took weeks before we narrowed it down to the PSU.

I know these things can happen to any manufacturer but by god I swore that would be the last Be Quiet PSU I ever bought.

I understand completely. I won't go near Gigabyte motherboards no matter how good the reviews are. Only takes 1 issue to put you off.
Rafe Zetter 17th October 2012, 21:20 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Dave Lister
Me too, I bought an antec 750w high current pro to replace a cheap temporary PSU. Spent about ten months replacing everything in my system at great cost only to find out the antec PSU was faulty from the start. I'm still running with the cheap temporary PSU as well because the amazon seller of the antec haven't refunded me yet ! So I'm fully behind local PC shops as well now.


I had the very same problem with the same PSU - spent 6 weeks problem testing to find out it was the PSU at fault - I yelled at antec directly, directing them to my forum posts about the issue and laying out all the testing I had done.

They responded by sending me a replacement, AND one of their 3d sound systems by way of apology, so thumbs up for their customer service (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Soundscience-rockus-3D-2-1-channel-multimedia/dp/B004NHT0PW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1350501375&sr=8-1)

Give this guy an email:

Stefan Geler
Customer Support & Service Coordinator

T +49 40 226 139 22 | Skype antecsupport.eu
Fax +31 10 437 175 2 | E-mail sgeler@antec.com
mars-bar-man 17th October 2012, 21:47 Quote
What do I do when hardware goes wrong? **** myself, say "Oh ****" a lot, and leave it.
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