How to Test and Fix Your Computer Hardware

Category: Hardware

If your computer is acting strangely, and you've already ruled out a virus, it might be gremlins. But more likely, a software error is being caused by a hardware component that's flaky, damaged, or overheated. Here are some tips and tools to help you diagnose and fix those annoying or intermittent computer problems that just seem to pop up for no apparent reason...

Testing Your Hardware

Computer problems that happen on a repeatable basis are usually pretty easy to diagnose and fix. For example, you try to run a certain program and it locks up your computer every time. Uninstalling, reinstalling or upgdating a program may solve the problem. A malware scan may find and remove a virus. But when problems pop up randomly, or they don't happen every time, you need to do some detective work to find the cause.

In this article, I'll introduce you to a virtual toolbox of useful diagnostic utilities that you can use to test your hardware, detect problems and possibly even prevent a future problem from happening.

Monitoring System Temperature and Voltage

I often say that heat is the enemy of electronics. And just like an automobile engine, excessive heat in your computer's components can cause them to malfunction, seize up, or become damaged. As I've discussed in my article Is Your CPU Overheating?, some of the symptoms of overheating include sluggish performance, software crashes, as well as random reboots and restarts.
Test and Fix Hardware

Modern computer motherboards are equipped with sensors to detect the temperature and/or voltage of the CPU, hard drives, graphics adapter and the motherboard itself. You can download free software that will monitor these components, and alert you if any potentially dangerous conditions are found. Motherboard Monitor and SpeedFan are two such utilities that I recommend. I do recommend that you try one or both, just to make sure your computer isn't running hot. You'll find links to these programs, as well as other tips to help cool down your system if needed. Many times, reducing the temperature inside your system unit (or a specific component) will "magically" fix a problem that's been dogging you.

Testing RAM Memory

Did you ever have a car that ran just fine, except once in a while, when you're turning left on a Tuesday, just after a full moon, it makes a funny noise and almost stalls? Sometimes a faulty or flaky RAM chip can cause seemingly random system glitches, such as lock ups, restarts, or the dreaded Blue Screen of Death. Let's say you have 4 gigabytes of RAM memory, installed as a pair of 2GB chips, a pretty common scanario. There might be a defect on one of those chips, which only causes a problem when a certain amount of memory (or a certain program) is being used. (Note that RAM memory is not the same as your hard drive storage.)

Memtest86+ is a tool that will help you test the RAM memory in your Windows computer, to see if it's functioning properly. Unlike the quick BIOS tests run when you start up your computer, Memtest86+ does a thorough and rigorous test of all RAM, and will report if any problems are found. One of the most common problems is when a program writes data to a memory cell, and an adjacent cell is erroneously written with the same data. It's also possible that a faulty memory location will record the wrong value, or no value at all. These errors occur rarely, but when they do, the results can be unpredictable. It might be something you'd never notice, like the wrong shade of blue in one tiny pixel of a large photo. It could manifest as a system crash, or the computer might refuse to boot up at all.

I recommend that you install the Memtest86+ software on a USB flash drive. First, download the zip file that's labelled "Auto-installer for USB Key". Double-click to open the zip file, then double-click on the EXE file inside, and the setup program will install Memtest86+ on the USB drive you specify. If you prefer, you can also install the program on a CDROM disc. Memtest86+ is a stand-alone program, which requires you to restart your computer, and boot from the USB or CDROM you just created. If your computer doesn't boot up into Memtest86+, you'll need to change your BIOS settings to set the USB or CD as the first boot drive. I suggest that you try Memtest86+ if you have what appears to be a random software problem, but it's also a good idea to run it once in a while (maybe just once a year) to make sure all your RAM memory is in good working order.

Testing Your Hard Drive

Your hard drive is the permanent storage space for your computer files. Don't confuse this with RAM memory, which is just temporary working space for programs. To keep them straight, think of RAM as the top of your desk, and your hard drive as a filing cabinet. A hard drive should outlast your computer, but you never know. Hard drives can develop bad sectors, due to excessive use or faulty hardware. A power surge, a dropped drive, or software glitch may result in lost or damaged files.

If you hear odd noises from the hard drive, or you're seeing errors such as "file cannot be accessed", "error reading disk", or the more ominous "no fixed disk present", it's time to run some tests on your hard drive. Windows comes with a disk diagnostic tool called CHKDSK that can analyze and fix certain errors. Other tools such as Seagate SeaTools, and the Hitachi Drive Fitness Test may be helpful also. See my article Is My Hard Drive Dying? to learn more about the signs of hard drive failute, links to these programs, and other hard drive maintenance tips.

If your hard drive is not able to boot up, or it appears that you've lost all your files, don't depair just yet. My guide to Hard Drive Data Recovery will point you to some special tools that can work wonders. Pay special attention to the FIXMBR command and the TESTDISK utility. Both have gotten me out of jams where I thought my hard drive was completely lost.

Testing Your Speed

Would you like to know if your spiffy new computer is performing at the advertised specs? How about testing the impact of installing new RAM, a graphics adapter or hard drive? Or maybe you'd like to go head to head against your friend's PC, to see who has the fastest rig. Fortunately, there's an abundance of software that will test and benchmark the performance of your computer's components.

FutureMark offers PCMark, which tests a wide range of components. PCMark will simulate and report on a variety of conditions, such as web browsing, gaming, general computation, image manipulation, and data storage. There are free, Advanced, and Professional editions, depending on your needs.

Other options, such as SuperPi, NovaBench and SANDRA, are discussed in more detail in my related article How Fast is Your PC? If you want to test or tweak your Internet connection speed, see How Can I Speed Up My Internet Connection?

Do you know about other tools that help you to test, tune or tweak your hardware? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Posted by on 9 May 2012


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Most recent comments on "How to Test and Fix Your Computer Hardware"

Posted by:

Buffet
09 May 2012

I only see where FutureMark works on Windows 7 and Vista. What about for XP, which everyone with any sense uses? Am I missing something?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, but you know what that is. There's an older version of PCMark here: http://www.futuremark.com/download/pcmark05/


Posted by:

Jim Huffman
09 May 2012

Bob, Thank you for another helpful article. What is your opinion of PC Pitstop? I have been using it at least since before 2000. On several of my PCs & Laptops, as often as every 3-months.

EDITOR'S NOTE: PC Pitstop is a good program, but I'm confused when you say you use it "as often as every 3 months." Doesn't PC Pitstop run continuously once you install it?


Posted by:

Manish
10 May 2012

Great Informative Article. Going straight to My Top Picks Folder.

Thanks Bob.


Posted by:

Steve Spats
10 May 2012

I don't see any zip file labelled "Auto-installer for USB Key" on the Memtest86 site. Am I missing somethimg? Great newsletter, I trust your opinion!!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Are you on memtest.org? Look for the Download links under the "About Memtest86+" heading.


Posted by:

jphuf
15 May 2012

EDITOR'S NOTE: PC Pitstop is a good program, but I'm confused when you say you use it "as often as every 3 months." Doesn't PC Pitstop run continuously once you install it?

No! I use it to diagnose my computers, nothng more. Have to activate the procedure on-line each time that I want it to do it.
Gives out a report, that when printed out, can be several pages. Tells about all the problems etc and to some extent, how to fix them. It gives comparable rating of my system in addition & a list of software, programs & hardware that I'm using. And much more. I find it quite worth while.


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