Test and Fix Your Computer Hardware

Category: Hardware

Is your computer acting strangely? If 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 Do You Know Your Computer's Worst Enemy?, 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. SpeedFAN is a long-standing favorite temperature monitoring utility. It also monitors voltages in various devices and the speed of the fan(s) which cool your CPU, power supply, and other components. Unfortunately, the download link on the SpeedFan website is hard to find. Be sure to click the Download link near the top of the page (next to Screenshots). On the next page, look for "The latest version is..." You'll find the download link there. Clicking other links on the site may not get the desired result.

Another tool to display temperature readings is Speccy. Speccy reads temperature sensors built into your motherboard, graphics adapter and hard drives. In addition to that, Speccy also gives you detailed information on every hardware component inside your Windows computer. I do recommend that you try one or both, just to make sure your computer isn't running hot. 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 8 gigabytes of RAM memory, installed as a pair of 4GB 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. 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 Your Hard Drive Going to Crash? 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. TestDiskis a powerful free tool can recover lost hard drive partitions, recover deleted files, and even rebuild scrambled file s.)

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.

PCMark 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 [SPEED] Is Your PC Fast Enough? 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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This article was posted by on 27 May 2022


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

Posted by:

Wild Bill
28 May 2022

Odd you pick the left turn example. I had a old GMC pickup that tended to hesitate during left turns. One night, on trying to start it, it was stone silent. The next day I found where the wiring harness had rubbed on the frame on left turns until it wore through the insulation and shorted the wire to the ignition coil. Two wire nuts and a foot of 18g speaker wire fixed the issue. Only took a year and three unsuccessful trips to the shop to fix.


Posted by:

Chris
28 May 2022

Excellent article as always, Bob.

I like to use Passmark to test the hardware performance of a PC. It gives scores for CPU, 2D and 3D graphics, RAM and disk performance. You can use it free on a trial basis.

You can also look up the CPU scores on their database for any processor chip ever made (almost!) at www.passmark.com. Very useful when deciding whether a particular PC is the one for you.


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