Basic Computer Repair for Beginners

So you wake up one morning, grab a cup of coffee, and fire up your computer to find your once prized piece of technology has betrayed you, so what do you do? Cursing and throwing things aside, if your reading this I'm guessing that your interested in attempting to diagnose and possibly repair it yourself. In this article, I will show you how to go about solving the mystery of the misbehaving computer. A note of caution is due here, If your computer is under warranty from whomever you bought it from its best to let them handle it. Any time you open up your computer case and mess with its insides chances are you are voiding the warranty so you will be stuck fixing or paying for repairs yourself.

The first thing you need to do is narrow the field of possibilities down. So ask yourself, What is this machine doing that it shouldn't be? What is it not doing that it should be? If, for example, its not booting up properly but it is displaying a loading screen correctly then there is little need to worry about your graphics card. To troubleshoot properly you need to get familiar with the different components of your setup. Following is a list of basic parts and their function. This is only a basic list of functions and by no means is is a complete list of possible errors, but I hope it will get you headed in the right direction.

  1. Motherboard. Sometimes called the mainboard, this is like the nervous system of your computer. It connects all the other parts together and helps them work together properly. Almost any hardware related issue can be caused by the motherboard, and its the most time consuming replacement, so its best to rule out other possible causes before worrying about this.

Your motherboard is also where your BIOS is stored. BIOS is basically a set of instructions telling your computer what to do before loading your operating system. It starts up all the individual parts along with the fans, lights, ect. If your computer is not starting up the operating system, or OS, it can mean a failure of one part or another. Lucky for us, BIOS can give you a hint to whats going. If you listen to your computer when you start it up you will usually hear a single beep long before your OS shows up to take over. That is called "posting" which is BIOS way of saying it thinks all is functioning as expected at that point. If instead you hear a series of beeps, BIOS is telling you something is wrong and what it thinks it is. There are several different brands of BIOS and the meaning of the codes vary between them. The best thing you can do for yourself is go to the manufacturer of your computers website and find out what version of BIOS you have long before you have a problem. Then look up that BIOS with your favorite search engine. I would recommend writing down, or printing out the different beep codes ahead of time so if something does go wrong you have the information handy.

  1. CPU. This is the main brain of your system. The CPU or "chip" controls the thinking of your machine. It is what takes information from software and translates it into the interface we see on the screen. If the CPU is bad the system will most likely not load its Operating System at all.
  2. Power Supply. This is the part responsible for taking the power from your wall, dividing it up and sending the correct voltages to all the other components of your computer. If your having intermittent issues, usually more frequently when you are doing more with your machine, this may be the culprit. To test if your power supply is bad, or inadequate, download and install voltage monitoring software from either your motherboard manufacturer, the maker of the power supply, or any number of 3rd party sites. The good programs will show you the optimum power load for each component in a list form and then show you what its actually getting. The power for any given part of your PC should be steady, so watch for any large jumps or discrepancies in the voltage.
  3. Hard Drive. This is the long term memory of your system. Its what stores your OS, data, programs, and just about anything else you "save" on your machine. Symptoms of a failing hard drive are random boot up errors, frequent program crashes, lost data, or any number of Window system errors. Most hard drives still work on a spinning magnetic tape, so listen when your starting and running your computer. If you hear a whirling highs pitch noise accompanied by any of the previously listed errors its a good sign that your hard drive is failing. These usually go out gradually, although not always, so if you pay attention you can save yourself some headaches by catching it early enough to still be able to back up most of your data.
  4. RAM. Your RAM or memory, is your short term memory/brain of the system. It temporary stores basic data and tasks that are done frequently so that your computer does not have to refer to the hard drive all the time. Having enough RAM, and it being properly functioning is essential to running the larger more demanding programs. The biggest symptom of dying RAM is frequent program crashes and errors. Sometimes it will only crash to the error reporting stage, other times it will randomly reboot your computer. If you suspect your memory is going bad, there are several free programs to test it. I would recommend downloading Memtest 86 or Prime and following the instructions there.
  5. GPU. Your GPU, or graphics card, is what tells your monitor how and what to display. Depending on your setup it can be either a standalone card, or an integrated card, which means its part of your motherboard. If your GPU is failing you will often times see artifacts, off colored pixelated symbols and letters, popping up at random times on your screen. It also can result in no video at all. If your having video related issues, chances are this is the culprit. The simplest way of testing if this is the problem is to plug your computer into another monitor that you know works. If it does the same thing on two monitors this is most likely the problem. If your using a card type GPU and your motherboard has an integrated one available you can also remove the GPU and switch to using the integrated chipset to test your monitor if no other way is available.
  6. Sound Card. Just like the graphics card this can come either as integrated chip set on your motherboard or as a stand alone card. This ones simple, if your having no audio, and you know your computer speakers are working chances are the sound card is the problem. Just like the GPU you can switch from using a card to the integrated to test your other audio components.

Thats it for the basic parts, so i will leave you here with a few tips. If you have recently changed any parts of your computer or taken it in for upgrades or repairs, that is the best place to start. Often times amateurs will install a shiny new part without thinking about how it will interact with the rest of the machine. If you install a new graphics card for example, aside from it needing to be compatible with your motherboard, you also have to make sure that the power supply can put out enough juice for it. You also need enough fans to cool off all the parts of your machine as high temps can cause errors, and eventually complete failure of any component.

Visually inspect your computer. Are the lights coming on as normal? Are the fans spinning? Are any wires or cards hanging loose or disconnected? Anything you can see or hear that is abnormal can be a clue to whats going on. If your fan on your CPU is clogged with ten pounds of dog hair, you may quickly solve your problems by removing the hair allowing proper cooling of the chipset.

Google is your friend, or at least some search engine should be. Often times quickly typing your problem into a search engine will bring up a slew of people with the exact issue you have, sometimes with a solution that someone else already figured out. If not, hey at least you tried. Id rather waste time typing a five word phrase into google and find nothing than to spend three hours figuring out something myself that would have been a five minute fix had i bothered searching. If you suspect a certain part of your computer is the cause, try including the brand name along with the part number or name with the search.

Remember this guide is only meant to cover basic hardware failures, for any possible hardware problem there are most likely ten possible software issues. Virus, driver errors, and OS errors are just a few of the things that can turn a completely functioning computer into a complete headache overnight. I would quickly quadruple the size of this article if i started covering all the different possible problems with software and as its all very case specific so i will not go into great detail here. I will say ,however, if you have recently updated or changed any drivers, or had any problems with virus, you may want to look into that before you start blaming hardware.

Know your limitations. Its great that you want to learn about your computer, but knowledge can be dangerous, or at least lead to dangerous actions. If your computer has no warranty and you feel confident that you are capable of fixing it then by all means proceed at your own risk. If your in doubt, ask someone who knows what they are doing. Just because you know how electricity works it doesn't mean you should rewire your house by yourself. There is a reason people pay others to fix their PC for them. A mistake can be very costly and render that brand new $600 processor you bought into a worthless paperweight very quickly. So do not be afraid to call a pro if you feel your in over your head.

Knowledge is power. Even if you do not feel comfortable fixing your computer yourself, having a general idea of what is wrong with it before heading off to a repair shop can be very helpful. In a perfect world you would take your machine in for repairs, they would fix it, and you would be on your way a happy customer, but we all know the real world does not always work like this. Knowing the terms and functions of the basic parts of your PC can help you avoid being overcharged or otherwise scammed out of your hard earned money.