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Most computers develop problems over time. Learning what they are and how you can deal with them is important if you don’t want to be paying through the teeth for professional repairs. Don’t worry though – that’s exactly why we’re here. Today I will present you with a list of things most likely to fail in a computer, how you might identify and fix the problem, and anything you can do to prevent it.
Remember – if you have Internet access on another device, our helpful Answers community is on hand and ready to help. Also, before embarking on any kind of hardware repairs, be sure to download our Complete Guide To Your PC, Inside & Out. Part 1 deals with the case, power supply and motherboard, and part 2 addresses CPU, hard disks, memory and everything else.
The Operating System
This isn’t hardware obviously, but it is the single most likely thing to break and therefore worth mentioning – and preparing for. Fixing OS issues is an immense topic though. Malware is the number one cause, so I’d suggest you grab a copy of our free malware removal guide before you really need it.
Incorrect drivers is another common problem that prevents your OS from booting properly, and fixing this involves booting into safe mode and removing the offending drivers.
Pro-tip: Even if something catastrophic and non-recoverable does happen to Windows, you can always re-install. Partitioning your drive to separate data from system files makes the process painless. Once you’re back up to a working state, consider creating a full image of your system drive, so in future you can simply restore that and have a fully working system up again in minutes. Tina showed a few ways of doing a full system image back in 2009 that are still relevant.
Usually the first bit of hardware to go because of cheap electronic components, burnt out or leaking capacitors, or power surges from electrical storms. Diagnosis is simple if you have more than one lying around; just switch them around. Symptoms of a bad power supply are numerous:
- Failure to power on.
- Spontaneous rebooting and lock ups.
- Failure of certain internal components (hard disk or fans not spinning).
- Overheating due to fan failure.
- Electric shocks from the case.
Assuming no other internal damage has been done, fixing the issue is a simple case of buying a new power supply. There are four screws holding the actual PSU to the case, and numerous power leads leading to the motherboard and every major component. Take the broken one if you need to and ensure it has all the right connections – particularly 20/24 pin motherboard and SATA power for hard disks rather than the older 4 pin style.
Hard disks contain many moving parts – platters of metal that spin at thousands of revolutions per second with a precision head that moves over to read their data – so wear and tear is to be expected. Any kind of knock may also cause scratching, leading to an unreadable disk.
Generally speaking, a faulty hard disk will fail within its first three months; once you’re past that, expect a long and healthy life. Hard disk problems can also manifest in a variety of ways, from slow reading of large files to random crashes. With critical hardware failures, you may even hear the hard disk physically grinding itself, or clicking loudly as the read head tries and fails to move into place. Sometimes you’ll have time to pull some of your data off first, often not.
Replacing the actual drive is trivial, and a good chance to upgrade to a larger capacity. The problem is the data. In most cases, it’s safe to say it’s completely unrecoverable without costing tens of thousands of dollars for specialist services. We really can’t possibly emphasise more how absolutely critical it is to take regular backups of your data. Read my own account of the triple backup system I’ve got in place for my Mac for ideas.
Again, moving parts can lead to wear, and fixings may come loose with constant movement. Fan problems can either manifest by overheating – which your computer should automatically shut down to protect itself from – or more usually in the form of a loud whirring (sometimes fixed by giving your case a whack – but don’t do this!)
To fix a faulty fan, open your case up and identify which fan isn’t spinning, or where the noise is coming from precisely. A build-up of dust can also be a cause of blockage, so you really ought to clean the fans off once every six months or so. Remember than a non-spinning fan may also be caused by a faulty power supply, so try changing the PSU first before diagnosing a faulty fan.
If your CPU fan is causing the issues, you’ll need to purchase a replacement CPU cooler, and reseat it with some heat transfer compound; it’s relatively advanced fix and you may need to remove your motherboard entirely to perform it correctly. Case fans depend upon the model in question; some have bespoke plastic clips connecting the fan to the case that are hard to find; if you can find a replacement fan, that is.
Though there’s no moving parts on a motherboard, I’ve come across numerous cases over the years where capacitors are bulging or leaking electrolyte – these are usually due to cheap components. These have affected both Macs and PCs from a variety of brands, and fixing them is certainly not an easy task – it involves desoldering the faulty ones and replacing them with new ones. I’ve had about a 50% success rate with this kind of fix, so if you’re happy with a soldering iron then it may be worth a try. Otherwise, replace the motherboard.
Of course, other components can fail too, but it’s quite unlikely. Memory quite often develops errors if it’s been handled or subjected to static electricity, which is why you need to always an anti-static wrist strap when working inside a PC. Unfortunately, memory issues are quite difficult to detect, and can manifest themselves randomly over a period of months.
Do you have any other tips for components that often fail? In your experience, what has failed first? Let us know in the comments!