Motherboards sometimes don’t boot for bizarre reasons. Most system builders experience “mobo” failures at least once. In fact, many retailers employ different return policies specifically for their motherboards, due to a high rate of return. In my experience, though, motherboard problems are largely user-related. With the exception of user-incurred damage, most unbootable scenarios can reverse with three simple tips. I’d like to share my experiences with a supposedly unbootable motherboard and how to go from barefooted to booting.
I recently acquired an early production run HD-Plex H1.s, the only heatpipe-cooled mini-ITX case widely available to consumers. Unfortunately, after throwing my system together, it failed to post – or in other words, it wouldn’t boot up. I used a standard troubleshooting methodology and after an hour of labor (but 24-hours of waiting), my computer successfully started up.
This article covers basic motherboard troubleshooting methods, common faults and anti-consumer friendly return policies, if all goes wrong. James covered how to diagnose unbootable computers and it’s a great read – this article offers methods specific to the motherboard rather than a holistic strategy.
What Causes Motherboard Boot Problems?
There’s a lot of potential issues that can cause a motherboard to fail post. Three main categories tend to dominate problematic motherboards. With some simple tools (most of which you may already have), troubleshooting is a snap.
- Faulty or loose cable
- BIOS/UEFI errors
- Defective motherboard
- Motherboard tester: I don’t use these, but they can provide error codes if the motherboard is defective. However, rarely do I encounter defective motherboards.
- PC Speaker: If you don’t have a speaker in your computer case, these can plug directly into the motherboard and provide “beep” error codes.
- Jumper: A jumper plugs into a specially designated portion of your motherboard, clearing the CMOS memory. This will reset your motherboard.
- Non-conductive surface: Some builders use cardboard. As long as the surface is non-conductive, you should be alright. I prefer to build inside of the case. Note: Anti-static packaging is potentially conductive. I don’t suggest putting a motherboard on it. Definitely do not place a motherboard on it and connect the power supply.
The Troubleshooting Process
Troubleshooting your motherboard doesn’t take a lot of work. Just check to see whether your components are properly seated. Next, check your BIOS/UEFI (preboot environment) for errors. Finally, make sure your motherboard isn’t actually defective.
Step One: Start With the Easy Stuff and Check Your Wires
In my experience, the majority of unbootable computers originate from loose wires or improperly seated components. With the right build methodology, you only need to check four components for problems. A computer in its minimal boot configuration requires only the following:
- One stick of RAM
- A power supply
- A CPU
- A motherboard (of course)
Newer computers integrate a GPU into either the motherboard or CPU. By booting with a narrow selection of components, you bypass potential errors with a discrete graphics processor, hard drive or other peripherals.
After first building your computer, you shouldn’t boot it with anything else connected. No keyboards, monitors or USB devices. You can, alternatively, connect a miniature speaker to the speaker port on your motherboard. This will allow the creation of “beep” error codes, which will give you an idea of any potential motherboard problems.
A non-bootable scenario could mean that one, or more, of the preceding components possesses a fault or suffers from improper connection.
While James’s article published great information on how to diagnose computer boot issues, it doesn’t go into the nitty gritty of the motherboard. This article addresses problems specific to do-it-yourself builds and provides tips that might get your machine up and working in short order. Christian wrote a complementary piece on building your own media center. I suggest augmenting his article with James’s. If you encounter problems, come back to this article.
Step Two: Inspect for Physical Damage
Like most complex systems, motherboards consist of a variety of subsystems, which are highly fragile. Pay close attention to signs of physical damage – in particular, check your capacitors for signs of bulging, which James wrote about. Also check for signs of scratches on the integrated circuits of your motherboard. Pay attention to signs of damaged or misaligned SATA ports, if you experience hard drive issues.
James also touched on this issue, but motherboards can easily break through physical contact. In many tightly fitted cases, it’s possible to cause damage to sensitive components simply by applying mechanical stress to ports. While electrostatic discharge leaves no physical trace, improper insertion or removal or a SATA cable can leave very visible, tell-tale indicators of damage. In my case, I possibly broke the SATA port housing on the motherboard. Keep in mind that if you experience hard drive issues on your build, that all subsystems related to the drive, including the SATA ports and cables could possibly be the culprit. However, if you spot physical damage, chances are where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
The motherboard’s capacitors can continue to supply current, even after the CMOS battery gets removed. But why does your motherboard need a CMOS battery? The memory inside of your motherboard requires a constant stream of electricity to remember its settings. But if these settings cause boot failure you need to interrupt the flow of electricity to clear its memory.
Step Three: Reset Your Motherboard
The problem could be your motherboard’s internal software. There are three different ways to reset your motherboard if you can’t post (reach the BIOS/UEFI). First, pull your motherboard’s CMOS battery. Second, apply a jumper and let it sit ten minutes. Third, perform a “deep reset” by applying a jumper, removing the CMOS battery and waiting overnight.
- CMOS Battery Pull: This is the lightest method. Simply pull the CMOS, coin-sized battery, and wait ten minutes. This should reset your motherboard to factory settings.
- Jumper Reset: The jumper reset method simply requires that you apply a jumper to the specially designated two or three-pin connector on your motherboard. Once located, just apply the jumper gently over the two pins and leave it there for ten minutes. Make sure you’re disconnected from the power source when you use a jumper.
- Deep Reset: This is the method that actually fixed my problem. Simply pull the CMOS battery and put the jumper over the designated portion of the motherboard, gently. Then let it drain away any residual power overnight. I highly recommend this particular method.
Where Might You Have Gone Wrong?
If after performing all the necessary steps you still have problems, consider these issues:
- Electrostatic discharge: Not wearing the right protective gear, or using improper procedure, may cause a phenomenon known as “electrostatic discharge”. Anyone who has ever worn wool socks and Moonwalked across a carpet knows this intimately. The electrical discharge from touching sensitive electronics can wipe the microcontrollers on board your motherboard or subcomponents.
- Bent CPU pins: Sometimes manufacturers can ship motherboards with bent pins. If you fail to observe these and insert a CPU, the pins can be damaged further. Most of the time they can be bent back into position, but there’s always the risk of breaking a pin.
- Bent motherboard: Overtightening the screws that anchor the motherboard to the case can cause the board to bend, which may be irreparable. I suggest tightening until you feel slight resistance – and then using a quarter-turn to finish it off.
- Improperly seated RAM: Improperly seated RAM will cause your system to fail to post.
Returns, RMAs and Refunds
Unfortunately, many retailers do not respond well to returned motherboards. This is likely a response to the myriad number of motherboards that get sent back, which suffered user-inflicted damage – or actually had nothing wrong with it. While many brick-and-mortar companies will take motherboard returns – most online companies only offer limited returns or no returns at all. Be sure to read the return policies – specifically regarding your motherboard. For example, many have complained regarding Newegg’s motherboard return policy.
Fixing motherboard problems only requires three basic steps – first, check your board for signs of physical damage. Second, make sure your cables properly connect. Third, reset your BIOS/UEFI. While, additional factors can complicate a troubleshooting process, such as ESD damage, these three basic steps should solve your motherboard problems. And if all fails, if you’ve purchased from a seller with a good return policy, you can either get your money back or a motherboard replacement.