Building a PC is a little like walking a tightrope without a net. Okay, it’s not quite that dangerous, but unlike buying an off-the-shelf system, you have to be your own tech support staff. Sure, you can try to get support from individual component suppliers, but that can be frustrating–your motherboard maker points at your memory suppliers, who blames your graphics card manufacturer, and so on. Before you know it, the money you saved from building your PC has been outweighed by the time you spent getting it to work.
Fortunately, we have a few tips that can help you find and fix your home-built PC’s problems. First, we’re going to cover some troubleshooting tips, and then we’ll take a look at some common issues with DIY PCs.
How To Troubleshoot Your PC
Here are a few tips to avoid getting stuck in a troubleshooting rut.
State the problem clearly, even if it’s only to yourself. If you need to, write it down. “The system won’t boot” isn’t good enough. Instead: “The system won’t boot; when it tries to boot, it generates an error saying that no operating system is installed. When I try to reboot, I can see that my hard drive isn’t visible to the BIOS.”
nVidia GeForce graphics card.
Pay attention to your system’s changes. If something isn’t working that was working before, ask yourself, what’s different? Was an app installed? A new driver update? A BIOS update? In the above example, of the system not booting, you might realize that you just installed a second hard drive in your system.
Make only one change at a time. If you’re experienced, it’s particularly tempting to shortcut this process. “I’ll update the BIOS, detach the second new hard drive, and swap out the power supply.” If the system starts working, you don’t know what actually solved the issue. If the system still doesn’t work, it’s possible that one of your multiple changes may be the new cause of the problem. Make one change at a time!
Document your changes. You don’t have to keep a detailed lab notebook. Just grab a sheet of paper and note each step along the way, what worked and what didn’t. Once you solve the problem, throw the page or pages into a folder for future reference.
Getting frustrated? Walk away from the problem. A little downtime can bring new inspiration or help you catch clues you may not have noticed.
Ask for help. If you’re still having problems, bring in a second pair of eyes. Even a nontechnical person can make useful suggestions, if you’ve explained the issue clearly. Also, try an online forum (like the PCWorld Forums). If you go online for help, make sure you present a detailed description of the problem, including brand names and model numbers, if appropriate.
Using a well-defined process to work through problems will result in speedier, more satisfying solutions–and save you a few bucks. While it can be tempting just to throw money at a problem (“This motherboard is dead! I’m going to go buy a new one!”), make sure to pull out your credit card only after you’re sure you’ll need it.
The System Won’t POST!
AMD Phenom II processor.
Every PC goes through POST–power-on self test–when it first powers up. One mistake many new system builders make is to assemble the entire system, then try the first boot. The problem with this approach is that it’s difficult to narrow down the actual culprit behind a boot problem. Instead, install the CPU (with CPU cooling solution), memory, and (if applicable) the graphics card. Don’t connect hard drives, external storage, or optical drives. Don’t install additional expansion cards yet, either. Try a bare-bones boot first, with only the monitor and keyboard attached to the system.
With that in mind, let’s look at first-boot issues.
Nothing happens on startup. After attaching the monitor and keyboard, you press the power switch and… nothing. The fans don’t spin up, lights don’t come on. The system appears to be completely DOA. While it’s possible that the motherboard is completely dead, it’s been my experience that defective motherboards will still light up their diagnostic LEDs. If you’re getting no indication of power, something else is likely the culprit.
- Is it plugged in? This may seem like a ridiculous thought, but it’s worth checking the power. Even if the power cord is plugged in, I’ve found that the plug to the system PSU might not be firmly seated. I’ve also plugged systems into power strips, but the strip itself wasn’t turned on or plugged in.
- Check the switch on the power supply to make sure it’s in the “on” position.
- Check the internal power connections. Ensure that the main power and the ATX12V connector (a small 4- or 8-pin connector) are both firmly attached.
- Check the power switch and reset switch connectors. I’ve sometimes reversed these, and discovered I’ve made the reset button the actual power button by accident.
- Check under the motherboard–you might have a grounding problem. I once found a motherboard mounting nut installed in the wrong location inside the case. It was in exactly the right place to create a ground fault in contact with the back of the board. After removing the nut, the system booted without a hitch.
- If possible, try another power supply. A dead power supply can certainly prevent a system from powering up.
Sometimes your system appears to boot, but doesn’t. All the fans will start up and run for a few seconds, and then the system will shut down. Another symptom that’s similar, but usually caused by a different issue, is the system starting up and shutting down, repeatedly, with no human intervention. For such cases, here are a few things to try:
- The fans run briefly, and the system shuts down. The most common culprit I’ve discovered is an improperly seated CPU cooling fan (or a disconnected or broken CPU cooling fan power wire.) If the CPU cooler isn’t properly seated, it will overheat incredibly quickly. The system then shuts down to protect the CPU.
- The system enters a power-up/power-down repeating cycle. This can be a sign that the motherboard is defective. If it’s not the motherboard, then make sure the CPU and memory are properly seated. I’ve found that the problem occurs most often when I’m trying to use an old power supply in a new system. Newer motherboards with current-generation graphics cards sometimes require higher startup current than some older PSUs can deliver. The result: the system keeps trying to start, but doesn’t get quite enough juice.
The pattern and colors of diagnostic LEDs can help you track down the cause of your startup problem.
Diagnostic LEDs and PC speakers can be your friend here. Most new boards have diagnostic LEDs. The pattern and color of these can help narrow down the possible sources of the problem.
Some systems even have alphanumeric LEDs. Unfortunately, these are often poorly documented in the motherboard manuals, though you might be able to find them listed on the manufacturer’s Website. Sometimes, though, you have to resort to Google to find out what the codes mean.
Alphanumeric LED codes are more useful than simple beeps, provided you know what the code means.
Is your PC beeping? This might be a clue–the beeps are generated by the BIOS as it detects errors. For example, one short beep means all the POST diagnostics have passed. Two short beeps usually means the system has found a problem with memory. One long beep, followed by two short beeps often indicates a problem with the graphics card. Here’s a complete list of diagnostic codes.
These tiny piezoelectric beepers plug into your motherboard’s speaker connector, so you can hear any diagnostic beeps.
Many modern cases no longer ship with small case-mounted speakers. Some motherboards (mostly Intel-designed boards) have onboard piezoelectric beepers. If your case lacks a speaker, and your motherboard doesn’t have a built-in beeper, you can find tiny beepers in shops and online that plug into the speaker connector of the motherboard.
You can see video, but the system hangs before boot. Sometimes, everything seems great–until the system hangs during POST. You can see either the motherboard maker’s logo screen, or some text. The three most common places I’ve seen these boot locks is just when text starts to appear, at the storage controller enumeration, or when the USB controller is being checked.
If your system locks up at the first sign of text, your memory might be incompatible or faulty. Try some spare memory modules if you have any lying around.
If the system hangs while the onscreen messages say it’s checking USB, try a different keyboard or mouse. While it’s not supposed to happen, I’ve had expensive keyboards turn out to be incompatible with certain combinations of chipsets and BIOSs. Often, updating the BIOS can cure these issues. Also, make sure no other USB devices are attached. On one occasion, a USB flash memory card reader had gone bad, and having it plugged into the system caused the PC to hang at the USB section of the POST.
I Can’t Boot!
Boot problems are pretty common with new builds, but fortunately the fixes are often simple. Let’s look at some of the more common headaches.
Can’t find the boot disk? When this happens, you’ll see a message that indicates an unformatted disk, or the operating system can’t be found (with an unhelpful message asking you to restart). In a new system, this often means you’ve got the wrong boot device specified in the system BIOS. For example, if you need to boot from the optical drive to install the OS, you need to set the optical drive as the first boot device. It’s possible to be fooled by this boot-device consideration.
Some newer boards with both IDE connectors and SATA connectors will treat them differently. You may see “CD-ROM” as the boot device, set that, and the PC will still fail to boot. You check the BIOS only to find a different device listed as “ATAPI Optical Drive” or something similar–which turns out to be the correct device. Similarly, if you’ve got multiple hard drives, make sure the hard drive order is set correctly, because specifying “hard drive” as the boot device means only that the system will attempt to boot from the first hard drive.
Blue screen on startup. If you’re trying to boot from an existing Windows installation on a hard drive transferred from an older system, then a BSOD on startup can occur. This often means that the system can’t find the right storage controller; the actual error code is 0x0000007. Maybe your old system had its SATA ports set to IDE mode and your new one is set up for AHCI. Or perhaps your new board has a different chipset.
If this is the case, you may have to resort to a Windows repair installation, which you can perform with either Windows XP or Windows 7. The repair install option is available when booting from the Windows XP CD if you’re running XP. (If you’re running Windows Vista, you may have to reinstall from scratch.) With Windows 7, you have two options. One is to boot from the Windows Setup DVD, and select the Repair my system option. The other is to press F8 during the boot process to get the Windows boot menu and select Repair your computer.
Can’t install Windows!
So you’re happily installing Windows, and the setup process aborts for some reason. It may be a blue screen. It may just hang. It may stop and tell you that it can’t continue.
One of the most common culprits here is either bad or overclocked memory. The Windows boot CD ships with a memory diagnostic. Just boot from the DVD and run the diagnostic, which should tell you if memory is the culprit. Boot from the Windows 7 setup DVD, pressing F8 to get the boot menu. You’ll be prompted to either load Windows (which is Windows setup) or the memory diagnostic. Alternatively, you can schedule it from within Windows. In the Start menu search box, type mdsched and press Enter. You’ll be prompted to either restart immediately to run the diagnostic, or to schedule it the next time the system boots up.
Windows Setup is also extremely sensitive to overclocking. Even modestly overclocked systems, which might be stable when running an application, will often crash when running Windows setup. So always, always install Windows with your system set at standard default settings. Save the overclocking until after you’ve installed all your hardware and drivers.
Wash your Windows setup disc. If there are visible fingerprints, cleaning the disc is fairly obvious. However, this often works with brand-new discs. Sometimes oils or residue from manufacturing can make a disc unreliable, even if your naked eye can’t see the problem.
My System Isn’t Stable!
Initially, everything seems great: The system boots up fine, Windows is running, and the drivers are installed. Then the problems really begin.
Random blue screens. You start seeing random blue screen errors. Unfortunately, they go by so fast, you can’t figure out what they’re telling you. Windows XP and Vista had a setting in the Startup and recovery section of the system properties control panel that would force a pause on restart. Windows 7 makes this a little easier–press the F8 key repeatedly until you get the system startup menu. One of the selections should be “disable automatic restart on failure.”
A host of possible blue-screen errors exists, so we can’t touch on all of them. Perhaps the most common one we’ve seen is “IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL”, followed by information on which driver or system DLL crashed. This can often be fixed by installing a different graphics or sound driver, if those hardware subsystems are indicated. If the error occurs repeatedly, you may have an incompatibility (try a BIOS update, if available), or you may have failing hardware.
I’ve also seen this problem occur when the graphics card overheats. Clean out your graphics card cooling fan (which is a dust magnet) This sometimes helps if you’re reusing an older card.
Another culprit can be CPU overheating. There are various tools–usually on the motherboard’s own installation CD–that will monitor the CPU temperatures and let you know how hot it’s running. If the CPU is seriously overheating, then you should try to reseat the CPU cooling solution. Alternatively, you may want to invest in a new cooler. Also, make sure the case cooling fans are working properly.
Random application crashes. Tracking down random app crashes is an exercise in patience. Random, intermittent problems are the worst kind to figure out. These can range from bad or incompatible memory to driver or hardware conflicts.
One thing to try is to bring up MSCONFIG (bring up the RUN dialog box and type msconfig.) Select the Diagnostic Startup option, then reboot and see if the crashes continue. Unfortunately, this runs Windows in a very bare-bones mode. A better process–but one that takes much longer–is to pick the Startup tab, and try disabling one startup service at a time. But this could take hours or days to run through, depending on the complexity of your Windows installation.
Don’t forget to try running the Windows memory diagnostic. This diagnostic can catch intermittent memory problems that may be causing random hangs.
Another possible culprit is heat. Gradual heat buildup inside the case can set off intermittent problems. Check your cooling fans and make sure they’re moving hot air out of the system fast enough.
If different games randomly crash, then the problem could be an overheating graphics card, or an inadequate or gradually failing power supply. Check heat first (and clean out that GPU cooling fan). If that doesn’t work, and you’re sure that heat and memory aren’t issues, try a different power supply unit.
Mysterious shutdowns. Sometimes your system will just stop running–either Windows will just shut down by itself, or sometimes the system will abruptly power down. This is almost always due to one of two causes: heat buildup inside the case, or a power supply that’s not adequate to the job (or is slowly failing).
Troubleshooting Your Sound Problems
When Microsoft developed Windows Vista, it decided to remove all support for hardware-accelerated audio. That’s because one of the largest single sources of tech support calls involved sound problems. Even now, sound problems crop up all too frequently.
Sound system not available. The obvious symptom is that you don’t hear any audio from speakers or headphones. One of two other things can happen: Your speaker icon in the system tray area shows a red circle with a slash through it. Or you have no speaker icon at all.
Make sure your sound device isn’t simply muted, as it is here.
The first case usually means your sound system is simply muted. You can open up your volume control by clicking on the speaker icon and bringing up the simple volume control. Then click on the speaker. The red circle should clear, and you’ll get audio playback.
The second case is more involved. When no sound device appears, it’s often one of three causes: The driver isn’t installed, Windows can’t see the device, or Windows can’t use the device (so it won’t start).
The first cause is the easiest to solve. Just bring up Device Manager, and check for a red exclamation point next to “unknown device”. You’ll need to locate your sound device drivers (the motherboard install CD, if you’re using integrated audio, or your sound card CD if you’ve got a discrete sound card). Install the drivers, and you should be good to go.
Look for “SoundMAX Integrated Digital HD Audio” in the list above.
In the screenshot at right, the primary sound device is “SoundMAX Integrated Digital HD Audio.” If you see a yellow triangle with an exclamation point, right-clicking on the device and bringing up the property sheet will give you a brief message on the nature of the error (such as “device cannot be started”). Note that if the system really doesn’t recognize it as a sound device, you may see “unknown device” in a different location, with that exclamation mark.
If the device can’t start, you’ll see a little yellow triangle with an exclamation point beside it. That indicates a problem with the device. If you right-click on the device icon and bring up the property sheet, you’ll get a description of the problem. One trick that often works is to remove the device (right-click and select uninstall), then reboot. When you reboot, Windows will often find the device and reinstall the existing drivers.
If you see no sound device at all, and you’re using integrated audio, reboot the system and enter BIOS setup. Check to see if the sound device is enabled–it may have been disabled if the system once used a discrete sound card.
You can’t hear the sound–but you can see it. So your sound device appears to be working. You run Windows Media Player or some other sound application and launch a song or video. You can see a visual representation of the sound playing, but nothing comes out of your speakers.
If you see audio playing, but can’t hear it, check to make sure that speakers are set to be the default device.
First, take a look at the obvious things to check: Are the speakers plugged into the correct port on the motherboard or sound card? Do the speakers have power? If you have speakers that also support a separate headphone jack, unplug the headphones. If those don’t work, bring up the control panel, click on Hardware and Sound and select Sound. Make sure the speakers are the default output device. For example, if you have ever plugged in a USB headset, that driver may still be present, and Windows may think that that is the default device.
Remember the Rules of Thumb
Usually, building a new PC is a relatively straightforward process, particularly if you take a little care and deliberation while you’re building it and then installing the OS. However, problems can crop up. There are far more potential problems that can occur (though rarely), and we can’t possibly cover them all here. This article should have given you a few rules of thumb for the process of troubleshooting; just remember them, and you can be your own best tech support.
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