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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 How To Diagnose Hardware Problems When Your Computer Won't Turn On How To Diagnose Hardware Problems When Your Computer Won't Turn On Last week I showed you some of the simplest DIY repairs and upgrades that you can do yourself, but one reader asked how to diagnose which component was the problem. Today I’d like to walk... Read More and it’s a great read – this article offers methods specific to the motherboard rather than a holistic strategy.

motherboard troubleshooting tips

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.

Common Problems

  • Faulty or loose cable
  • BIOS/UEFI errors
  • Defective motherboard

Simple Tools

  • 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.

jumper and speaker

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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 What Is UEFI And How Does It Keep You More Secure? What Is UEFI And How Does It Keep You More Secure? Read More (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 How To Build a Media Center That Will Play Anything How To Build a Media Center That Will Play Anything I've been building a media centre recently. Actually, scratch that – I’ve been building two. One is a compact device (my Raspberry Pi) running the RaspBMC distribution of XBMC, while the other is a traditional... Read More . 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.

sata ports on broken mobo

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 Why Does My Motherboard Have A Battery? Why Does My Motherboard Have A Battery? Whether you’re using a desktop computer or a laptop, your computer’s motherboard contains an integrated battery. Unlike a standard laptop battery, the motherboard’s battery doesn’t power your computer while you're using it. Quite the opposite,... Read More ? 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.

cmos battery

  • 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.

Conclusion

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.

  1. Ankur
    November 25, 2016 at 4:52 am

    I assembled a new pc. But it wont post, i took my motherboard and cpu to retailer. They checked and said its posting. They told me that "you are probably putting your rams in the wrong slot. Put it in 2nd and 4rth, it will work fine. I came home and tried it still not posting. Any suggestions?
    My motherboard msi H170
    Cpu-i5 6500
    Psu-650 evgo

    • Kannon Y
      November 25, 2016 at 10:15 pm

      You can put RAM in either slot, it shouldn't stop the computer from POSTing. Paired RAM is for dual-channel.

      But you never want to do a first-boot with both sticks of RAM installed. If one stick is bad, then the computer may not POST. The correct first-boot methodology is to only install the parts that are required to boot the system. That means power supply, motherboard, 1 stick of RAM, and processor. You want to do this inside the PC case for ESD reasons.

      You also want to do a quick pre-boot check to see if everything is wired right and properly seated. It's imperative that you do this check because 99% of the time it's always something not wired properly.

      The deep reset is for when you've observed the correct protocol and the computer doesn't boot. The idea is you want to, by process of elimination, remove all the possible causes of boot failure until you reach the primary source.

      If a computer doesn't even POST, and you've tried all the first run steps, the best option is to check for beep error codes. There are motherboard error code speakers. They attach to the motherboard. Each board has different error codes.

  2. Ankur
    November 25, 2016 at 4:45 am

    I built a new computer, but my motherboard doesn't post. I took my motherboard and cpu to the retailer. They checked and it posting over there. They said i think you are not putting your 2 rams in right spot. They said to put the ram in 2nd and 4rth slot. I tried that, it still didnt post. Any suggestions?
    My motherboard is MSI H170
    Cpu is i5 6500
    PSU evgo 650

  3. Neil Varma
    July 28, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    Hi,
    I did a deep reset after my motherboard failed to boot.

    i applied the jumper on configuration mode. next morning motherboard booted everything seemed to be fine. A maintenance menu appeared on screen. I cleared all the passwords and loaded optimal defaults in BIOS menu.

    after exiting message popped up said power off the computer, apply the jumper to normal mode and then turn on.

    exactly what i did. but as soon i pushed the power button nothing happened.
    cpu fan did not spin, nothing at all.

    Any help would be appreciated.

    Mobo model: Intel D865GSA motherboard

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 28, 2016 at 2:18 pm

      I'm not fresh on my knowledge of Pentium 4 motherboards, but are you absolutely certain that you removed the clear CMOS jumper before starting the computer up? It sounds like your motherboard uses the jumper to switch between BIOS mode and normal mode, which is something I've never seen before or can't remember seeing.

      There are motherboards that will become damaged if you leave the CMOS clear jumper in place when applying a power source.

      • Neil Varma
        July 30, 2016 at 7:59 pm

        The jumper has to be in place. and exactly what worked for me is i pulled off cmos battery then applied jumper to normal mode and did a deep reset.
        after almost 15 hours i put in a new cmos battery plugged in mouse keyboard RAM stick and HDD. and pushed power button. And guess what It worked. Deep reset did the trick. My computer is working like before now.
        Thanks buddy for these troubleshooting steps.
        Appreciate your efforts.
        cheers

  4. Alejandro
    February 7, 2016 at 4:32 am

    I just logged in to thank you, Kannon Yamada "Deep Reset" made the trick!!

    My mobo, gigabyte after several OS reinstalls/reboots stopped booting up. No light, no beep, no nothing, just didn't boot up! and after struggling for 30 minutes I applied the "Deep Reset" method and yeyy! mobo booted up again :DDD

    • Kannon Yamada
      February 9, 2016 at 8:32 pm

      Thanks for letting me know Alejandro. The deep reset method is one of the older methods out there, but it's bulletproof. I learned it from an older tech with lots of experience. I'll let him know it worked again.

  5. Wokawonka
    March 27, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    I can add another possible cause: a faulty HDD. I have 3 drives connected my Hackintosh and it was my data disk causing all the trouble! 2 Entire days of software troubleshoot led to nothing, while my system booted normally under Linux or Windows.

  6. Raj
    March 25, 2014 at 7:16 am

    SIr,
    Can you please describe the same methods for laptop motherboards also.
    Thank You.

  7. Blacksmith
    March 23, 2014 at 1:32 am

    My friend gave me his Vista Home Premium desktop to check out as it would not boot. All it would do is start the processor fan. No POST, no video, nothing! Tried the HDD in a spare machine and it booted ok . Put it back in the nogo machine. I quickly swapped the power supply but still no good. Reset CMOS, still no good. Decided to do the 'wiggle test', That's where I check all plugs and wiring. That was when I found one of the memory sticks had one end unclipped. I removed both sticks and reseated them. Fired it up and it booted just fine. Job done. It is easy to overlook the simple things

  8. The Duncanater
    March 22, 2014 at 6:46 am

    Good article. Back in the day of 8 and 16 bit boards would use a board that would show post codes but with a pc speaker the beep codes will say alot. Some boards and os's will only start with minimal RAM with additional RAM being added after first boot and install.

    Kevin; Your dual boot problem can probably be fixed by installing the doze first then booting to your linux of choice install it where you see fit and GRUB typically will see your windoze boot and set itself up accordingly.
    I have setup dual boot on many configurations mostly to run Skyrim these days and the GRUB install has been flawless. Don't install linux first or the doze boot sector will mess everthing up, you will have to edit GRUB from a live CD or USB boot. For most remote desktop work or typical operations where widows is needed its hard to beat virtual box. I run it in the 4th window of the cube, and use the first 3 desktops for more useful operations which just look and work better in linux.

  9. catweazle666
    March 21, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    A number of years ago many/most motherboards had a three pronged position for the BIOS reset jumper, and left the factory with the jumper in the "reset" position, which meant the board wouldn't boot.

    So you stuck it all together, plugged it in, switched it on and...

    Nothing happened.

    Especially amusing if you had a client observing the process.

    I wish I had a pound for every time THAT caught me out!

  10. Kenny D
    March 21, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Not having a dig, but step one would be inspect for damage. Always start with the physical, what you can see. Saves time.

  11. bben
    March 21, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Troubleshot a 'dead' MB for a friend doing their first build. They had put a metal standoff in every location the case had - then installed the MB by putting the screws in those that lined up. One (or more) of the unused standoffs had grounded the 5V line. I didn't see it until I removed the MB from the case. After removing the offending stand off, it booted and worked. Luckily they had a quality PS that shut down ( crowbar) on a short instead of a cheap smoke generator PS.

  12. Victor O
    March 21, 2014 at 8:06 am

    One of the reasons my entire build didn't work was because I recieved a board that wasn't fully updated to the newest BIOS. My processor apparently didn't work with the older BIOS...

  13. BAM
    March 21, 2014 at 7:09 am

    BTW, that should read "failed to POST" as in the acronym Power On Self Test (ok, even more technically P.O.S.T. I guess :) )

  14. Danny Z
    March 21, 2014 at 7:06 am

    This article is very interesting but you forget one thing, after the cpu gives the command to start, first to be initialized is the video card, and if the video card doesn't work, then looks like the motherboard have a problem and shuts down.

  15. likefunbutnot
    March 21, 2014 at 12:11 am

    Something else that tends to happen at the end of any CPU socket's lifetime: It's absolutely possible to find an older, physically compatible motherboard, that, while technically capable of supporting newer processors, never actually got the BIOS flash that will allow it to do so.

    I actually ran in to that several times with Ivy Bridge CPUs and H61-based motherboards last year. Even though I was purchasing new hardware, the parts I was getting had been sitting on a shelf long enough to have 1 year+ old firmware. The solution is to have an older CPU on-hand so that you can do a BIOS upgrade, but if you're not someone who frequently deals with computer hardware, that's exactly the sort of thing that would make you call a motherboard defective.

    Another potential gotcha for hobbyist builders: Super ridiculous high-frequency gamer RAM (usually the kind of with silly lighted heat spreaders and skulls or dragons or something equally ridiculous on them) often requires a motherboard that is configured to deliver a higher-than-normal voltage to your DIMMs. If you're not using an equally ridiculous skull and dragon encrusted $250 hobbyist motherboard, you might find that the board you DO have will either refuse to operate with your out-of-spec RAM or might require you to boot the motherboard with spec-conforming RAM so that you can properly configure overvolting for the RAM you're about to put in.

  16. Kevin
    March 20, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    I made the mistake of getting a Windows 8 ready MOBO for my dual boot build. I was going to put Linux on one hard drive and Windows 7 on the other for gaming. After days of BIOS adjustments, I came to the conclusion it wasn't going to happen. It's now a killer Linux box and the doze ended up on an old laptop. I never had those issues with older MOBOs. I'll not make that mistake again.

    • likefunbutnot
      March 21, 2014 at 12:23 am

      Every white box motherboard I've ever seen that has shipped with UEFI has included options to revert to legacy operations mode. Sometimes those options are hidden in the section with the Boot Order and sometimes they're tucked in with some kind of Advanced Options screen, but they're there. There might be some corporate products from tier-1 OEMs with deliberately crippled firmware (e.g. The Surface Pro) but right now absolutely no one is shipping generic motherboards missing the ability to shut off trusted boot.

      Anyway, why dual boot? Why not run your second OS in a VM?

    • Kevin
      March 21, 2014 at 2:05 am

      It's an Asus M5A97. I tried messing with the legacy and UEFI and the MMIOU (I forget the exact acronym) and it would only accept one hard drive at a time. If I plugged in the doze 7 pc builder os hard drive it would work. I plugged the pclinuxos fullmonty hard drive in and it would work. I plug them both in and Only doze would boot (sometimes) and never recognized any network for internet. I love the BIOS set up, but got tired of messing with it. As for virtual box, I couldn't get full screen and doze still wouldn't recognize my network. I did dual boot and virtual box on a 2003 Compaq Pressario with no problems at all. I must be missing something. Thanks for the reply.

    • Victor O
      March 21, 2014 at 7:56 am

      I actually use that exact motherboard Kevin! I'm not sure why only one worked... it has an easy UEFI BIOS that allows you to to select boot options with a GUI...

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