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Software To Diagnose Faulty PC Hardware? 274

Posted by timothy
from the diagnostics-are-underrated dept.
Etylowy writes "Over the years I have repaired my own PC and those belonging to family and friends many, many times. While in most cases it turned out to be restoring a system after malware/the user/Windows made a mess, or simple cases of 'follow the smell of smoke and molten plastic,' there were some nasty ones where the computer mostly works. By 'mostly,' I mean: you can boot it up, it might even work for a while, but will crash way too often to blame it all on Microsoft — what do you do then? Once you strip it of any extra hardware (which, with today's motherboards that have pretty much everything integrated, might not be an option) you are left with the CPU, motherboard, graphics card, RAM and HDD. You can test the HDD, you can run memtest86+ to check the RAM, but how do you go about testing the CPU, motherboard and graphics card trio to find which is to blame? Replacing them one by one isn't really an option. Do you know of any software that would help the way memtest helps with RAM?"
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Software To Diagnose Faulty PC Hardware?

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  • OCCT (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PFAK (524350) * on Saturday October 10, 2009 @03:50PM (#29705577)

    It will stress your RAM, CPU, and GPU or all at once with pretty temperature and utilization graphs (for Windows only): http://www.ocbase.com/perestroika_en/ [ocbase.com]

    • Overheat (Score:5, Informative)

      by gd2shoe (747932) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @04:22PM (#29705793) Journal

      That's a marginal idea at best, but a common one.

      While the technique of blasting a processing unit to see how it behaves at maximum temperature will sometimes find a faulty unit, many faults are not temperature related, and will not show up on this test. It's fine that you brought it up here, but something that both heats the CPU/GPU and tries to test as many pathways / as much of the instruction set as possible would be far more useful. (cf memtest86+ for RAM)

      • PSU (Score:5, Informative)

        by gd2shoe (747932) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @04:24PM (#29705809) Journal

        Oh, and don't forget to check the PSU. When it acts up, it will often appear to be a hardware fault somewhere else in the machine. (often RAM, but can be MB, CPU, GPU...)

        This certainly doesn't answer the posters question, but it is related and important.

        • Re:PSU (Score:5, Informative)

          by Daneurysm (732825) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @06:04PM (#29706433)
          I was just about to mention this. I used to work in a mom-n-pop shop, the only one in the area, for a long time.

          I have seen some of the most ridiculous problems that were PSU related. Serial mouse not working, VGA card outputting in B&W, slow and or intermittent performance, HD's that constantly reset (and sound like click of death in the process), new memory being blown, known good memory acting like bad memory, CD-R's that can't burn (or finish burning successfully), software modems that couldn't go off hook, AGP cards crashing, PCI cards crashing, VLB SCSI cards not working at all.

          The list really just goes on and on and on. Software to diagnose faulty PC hardware? Sorry, no thanks. I had tried all manner of diagnostic and test software over the years. Some worked some of the time. (mem tests and HD scanners), the rest were borderline use-less pieces of crap. Not only that, but because of faulty PSU's (usually overloaded, or just old, or overheating, etc etc etc) I have seen those same programs misdiagnose just about everything.

          Aside from simple sensor reading and verification (of code, built in HW diagnostics, etc) I do no trust 'software based' hardware diagnosis, especially on a PC.

          YMMV.
          • Re:PSU (Score:5, Insightful)

            by mysidia (191772) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @07:37PM (#29706999)

            Check supply voltages first.

            There's a really fancy test program to do this... it's called a digital multimeter, and it's a piece of hardware with two probes.

            You touch one probe to ground, and then use the other to check all the leads going into MB for supply voltage.

            For desktops that is.

            For servers, the power supplies are generally smart modular units, and you check their voltage outputs in the BIOS screens, or using remote management via BMC: IPMI, iLO, Drac, or ALOM

            • by gobbo (567674)

              Mod parent up. A proper multimeter and a power supply voltage chart is the skeptic's answer to all kinds of hardware voodoo.

            • Re:PSU (Score:5, Insightful)

              by robbak (775424) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @08:08PM (#29707227) Homepage

              While that is good "Bad or Maybe" test, most PSU problems are transient over- or under-voltage conditions, which a DMM is not going to reveal.
              And there are testers that will measure all (or most) of the voltages produced at once - you jut plug the atx cable into the device, and many of them have a pass-through, so you can test the PSU under load. I'd look for one that could flag a transient problem, if it exists.

              Mind you, since writing the above I have looked around for one, and have failed! They all are pretty simple devices that do not detect transients, I could find no pass-through devices, and they all test under very anemic loads. All told, I am not impressed by any of them.

              • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                by mysidia (191772)

                Yes... but unless you are doing this professionally, or going way out of the way to build a full blown test rig and load bank [tomshardware.com] yourself, the gear required to fully test a PSU anywhere near max load is not worth it to the average person, a spot check with a DMM on the bench or in the PC (if the PC is working) is a good tradeoff, and if there is any question, try replacing the PSU.

                Versus buying a $100,000 Sunmoon or Chroma tester. Or bench Oscilloscope + DC Load generator + Variable AC output gear (for

            • by hannson (1369413)

              This can also be done very quickly by using a ATX power supply tester like this one [coolmaxusa.com]. It has a LCD screen which shows the voltage for IIRC every connector on your power supply. In use image here: http://www.ocia.net/fullsize.php?filename=32_9.jpg [ocia.net]

          • by hairyfeet (841228)

            Preach fellow repair man, preach. That is why I always try to keep at least a couple of decent 400 watt PSUs around, as all kinds of hardware 'problems" could be traced back to those suckers. At the last shop I worked we had one of those PSU multimeters to test, but frankly I found that to be crap. You'd be surprised how many would test fine when first fired up only to get crappy once it had time to heat up. So with PSUs I'm of the "when in doubt, toss it out" mindset. 400 watt PSUs are cheap, and it is bet

        • by Cloud K (125581)

          Agreed, speaking as a sufferer of now 3 Enermax PSUs with "right, I'm going to die now kthxbai" syndrome. And these are supposedly *good* PSUs. In my case 2 identical systems did this on the same day. Put PSU2 into PC1 and it worked for an extra month - albeit risky - but some motherboards seem to have a greater tolerance of dying PSUs than others.

          But the really crap PSUs that you get bundled with a case etc are most likely output all kinds of crap and cause random weirdness and crashing.

          The unfortunate

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Narpak (961733)
      More than once I have experienced that the on-board sound chip from Realtek causes the computer crash or have significant slowdowns. Disabling and putting in a budget soundcard fixed it. So I would suggest that disabling various on-board components in turn could uncover the culprit. That being said, identifying hardware problems have always, for me, been a bit hit and/or miss.
    • by astar (203020)

      On your sig, English dictionaries have a lot of definitions of free, and as I understand it, none that exactly match free as in free software. That is why people who need to be precise say gratis and libre. You are playing nominalist.

      Not all your fault. The current English dictionaries are probably the result of the ongoing long-term cultural deterioration. I would expect that really old English dictionaries have the meaning.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by JMandingo (325160)

      Use a can of compressed air to purge out any accumulated dust. Less dust means a cooler box, which may just bring the unit back within whatever temperature (or, by extension, power) tolerance it is pushing the envelope on. Another technique is to wiggle every cable and connector and slotted card, just to make sure nothing has come loose. Check to make sure all the fans are running whilst powered on.

    • by Cylix (55374)

      I also praise the authors of "stress" a handy application for linux which can perform non-destructive stress to hard disks as well as provide load on the processor and memory.

      For memory I really do like memtester, but I wish it was a bit less verbose. (For a user space app it's not bad)

  • what about PTS? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by midol (752608)
    The phoronix test suite is a good profiler, at least it would narrow the search. But, as you observed, once you are down to the RAM and integrated devices what options do you really have expect to toss the mobo?
    • Integrated devices can typically be replaced with PCI/PCIe devices. If an integrated network or sound card gives out, it can often be easier and less expensive to shove a new device into the case and disable the old one in the Device Manager. Still, integrated devices don't go out that often. It's more common for the MB itself to go (my experience, anecdotal).
      • by sortius_nod (1080919) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @05:31PM (#29706257) Homepage

        Even when they do, it's usually a sign the rest of the board is on it's way out too. A device on the board not functioning can mean a number of things (MB controllers acting up, visible/non-visible corrosion in the board, blown capacitors, etc), so you can be up for a lot of weird behaviour from the board that you can't pin down.

        To be honest, relying purely on a test suite to tell you what's broken will lead to disaster. Only through experience do you get the pointers toward what is actually faulty. Add to this that true diagnosis only comes from swapping out parts, and, well, test suites don't look at all like a viable option.

        When I am repairing hardware about the only suite I use is memtest86+ and a decent live linux distro. You can usually pick devices that have failed with lspci, however this is not always correct. It all goes back to having test hardware & the knowledge of what certain behaviours in systems are caused by certain faults. After 15 years of working in IT with both hardware & software faults, there's only so much you can do with limited or no test hardware. Most of the time when you're diagnosing hardware faults on the phone it's an educated guess at best, the only time you truly get a decent diagnosis is when you have the machine with you and can swap parts out. Hell, we don't even use the Dell diagnostics at work due to their inability to give decent results on anything other than RAM.

        • by gd2shoe (747932)

          There is a lot of truth in your post. I think you're mostly right. I also think you might be holding a one-sided argument through much of your post.

          Even when they do, it's usually a sign the rest of the board is on it's way out too.

          It can be. You have to wonder, why did it fail? Was there a surge? Is the PSU dying and stressing things? Was that particular integrated chip part of a bad batch? Did it get an ESD on installation? Has a controller failed? In the last case, you will usually see additional symptoms. Most integrated devices are hooked into the PCI bus as if they were pl

          • by Khyber (864651)

            "In short: It is possible to diagnose a computer entirely from software."

            Tell me a piece of software that'll expose a dying capacitor, please?

    • Quicktech has a nice (non-free) test kit that includes software and hardware. I have seen the software used on my machine, and it has tests for just about every hardware component you can think of, including the video card.
  • Eurosoft PC Check (Score:5, Informative)

    by jdb2 (800046) * on Saturday October 10, 2009 @03:54PM (#29705611) Journal
    This is probably one of the best and most comprehensive OS agnostic boot-CD/floppy general purpose PC hardware testing and burn-in tools I've come across IMHO.

    Here's its web page : http://www.eurosoft-uk.com/pc_check.htm [eurosoft-uk.com]

    In any case, I recommend plugging the ATX cable into a power supply tester that presents a non-trivial load as a first step in diagnosing any PC. You'd be surprised in what ways the problems caused by out-of-spec voltages can be manifested.

    jdb2
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Omnifarious (11933) *

      I second this. I've had 2 or 3 PCs now that have begun acting very strangely only to discover that the real problem was the power supply. Replace it and the PC acts fine again.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by piero.grimo (1652185)

      Same here. I've consistently had problems with a PC to discover years later that the PSU was defective (it actually blew up). I got a 450W PSU and all the bizarre symptoms have vanished.

      • Re:Eurosoft PC Check (Score:5, Informative)

        by Artifakt (700173) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @06:20PM (#29706527)

        Every power supply which I've found failed was visibly broken once you opened it up, and it was always the capacitors. No Exceptions - capacitors had sprayed gunk all over, their Aluminium cans had popped off the bases, etc. Typical electrolytic fluid is white-ish, but once it bakes dry will scorch, and so gradually turn reddish brown. Many capacitors have grooves scored into the tops which form sort of impromptu blow out panels, and often you will see them bulging, with traces of fluid escaping from these grooves where they are actually splitting open, or scorched fluid forming a red-brown powdery residue outlining them. The grooves are usually in either an X (or Plus) or a sort of K shape. The PSUs are often still working (somewhat) at that point, and often, the PSU may be putting out nominally correct voltages when cool but deviating when it heats up. I had one client's PC that made a loud bang twice over a period of about a week, but the PC didn't really start acting funny until the third bang. Opening the PSU revealed three small caps that had blown completely off the board. It had probably kept running with no obvious symptoms through the first two.
                Of course, only a trained pro with good tools should ever examine the inside of a power supply while live. But, if you are willing to unplug one and take it out of the PC and let it sit overnight, just to make sure the larger capacitors have fully drained, I recommend examining them. Yes, that voids the warranty if you aren't a pro, but if you were going to junk it and buy a new one anyway, so what? But before you open one, read this:

                DON"T EVER OPEN A PLUGGED IN POWER SUPPLY. IF THIS DOESN"T APPLY TO YOU YOU ALREADY HAVE AN ELECTRICIANS LICENCE, A EE DEGREE, OR SIMILAR. DON"T OPEN A POWER SUPPLY UNLESS YOU KNOW THE LARGE CAPACITORS INSIDE ARE DISCHARGED - THEY CAN MAKE YOUR ARM MUSCLES CONTRACT HARD ENOUGH TO BREAK YOUR BONES. GIVE THEM AT LEAST AN HOUR TO RUN DOWN, THEN USE AN INSULATED TOOL TO CROSS THE PLUG PRONGS BEFORE YOU OPEN THE CASE.

                Split caps or scorched ones will confirm you are right in your guess that it's the PSU. While you're at it, if you think the problem is the motherboard, check for capacitor damage there too, as it's not all that uncommon for that to be why a mainboard fails. Cheap electrolytics are probably responsible for more than half of all consumer electronics failures, they are by far the most likely source of intermittent failures, ones that come and go with temperature, or glitches that only partly disable something, and they are detectable.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by rickb928 (945187)

          Don't trust the caps with the 'X' pattern. The 'K' pattern is more reliable.

          Ask any of the many who had Dell machines from about 2000-2004. And HP/Compaq. And Acer. Not so much IBM/Lenovo. I have no reports for Gateway.

          Also affected ASUS, MSI, AOpen, Gigabyte motherboards, pretty much all brands.

          For a period of time, there werw substandard caps being used, but the maker either faked the testing or used different component parts in production runs than in certification. If you got stung by these, you a

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Cylix (55374)

          YOU SHOULD NEVER USE CAPS LIKE THIS AND NEVER SUGGEST SOMEONE BRIDGE COMPONENTS WITH A SCREW DRIVER.

          I'm getting a bit tired of replying to all of the bad advice I see flying around. However, never discharge caps by bridge the connectors (even if the tool is insulated). A large enough power source can cause some serious problems.

          The proper way to handle this is to terminate the load into a ground source capable of dissipating the load. Earth ground will suffice, but don't dump a crap ton of current into the

  • random thoughts (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 10, 2009 @03:54PM (#29705613)

    self-checking programs like Prime95 can be useful to test the computer more generally (if you've verified with memtest a failure here basically means cpu/chipset at fault).

    Other things I've tried before have been (if the motherboard allows) things like significantly underclocking sections of the motherboard/processor, if an specific underclock fixes the problem you just significatnly narrowed down the list of possible failures.

    there are similar programs to memtest that will check a GPUs output conforms to what it should, but if you just have random-crashy-badness that can be a pain to diagnose. Sometimes things like just running without graphics drivers for a while can help spot those problems, if the computer no longer crashes you can look a bit further away from the graphics card as most of it's capabilities won't be used.

  • Just replace it. (Score:2, Informative)

    by lukas84 (912874)

    Repairing hardware makes no sense anymore. Just swap in a new machine from the pool, so the user will be happy again, call the manufacturer to send someone onsite to replace the system board, redeploy the image, and put the machine back into the pool.

    At home, i usually replace the machine before it has a chance to get old and flaky.

    • by Trahloc (842734)
      That works awesome for the corporate world. But last I checked friends and family dont have a pool to draw from and if you at least read the first couple words of the summary.

      "Over the years I have repaired my own, family, and friends' PCs many, many times".

      I know RTFA is too much to ask on other articles but RTFS's first sentence on askslashdot can't be THAT much ... can it?

  • How to test? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @03:55PM (#29705619)

    Well... typically you find the fault by using an application which stresses one of those components far more than any other and then seeing if the failure condition you're observing occurs more often. This is just basic troubleshooting, it's not even specific to computers.

  • by jackchance (947926) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @03:57PM (#29705631) Homepage

    Most home computer hardware failures come from "brownouts".

    If you notice that your lights dim a little bit when your fridge compressor or AirCon comes on, that is a recipe for a computer failure. Spend $50 get a UPS [amazon.com]
    Btw, i noticed that my linksys wifi router was also extremely sensitive to brownouts. It would get funked up and need to be power cycled. Plug it into a UPS , no more wifi problems either.

    I learned this the hard way when i moved to an old building in the east village of NYC and had 3 motherboards/cpu fail within a 3 month period.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by lukas84 (912874)

      That's not an Online UPS, so it won't protect against all grid issues. And Online UPS are expensive and noisy.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by a09bdb811a (1453409)

      If you notice that your lights dim a little bit when your fridge compressor or AirCon comes on, that is a recipe for a computer failure.

      Why? Doesn't the computer's PSU have enough juice in it to survive a quick dip in voltage? Besides, almost all PSUs are rated ~90-260V, so I always assumed if it dips from 230V, it won't matter.

      Occasionally my lights dim but I don't seem to have had problems. I'm still waiting for my decade-old P3 to die so it can be replaced by an Atom board, but the darn thing keeps on ru

    • by The Grim Reefer2 (1195989) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @04:25PM (#29705813)

      Most home computer hardware failures come from "brownouts".

      If you notice that your lights dim a little bit when your fridge compressor or AirCon comes on, that is a recipe for a computer failure. Spend $50 get a UPS [amazon.com]
      Btw, i noticed that my linksys wifi router was also extremely sensitive to brownouts. It would get funked up and need to be power cycled. Plug it into a UPS , no more wifi problems either.

      I learned this the hard way when i moved to an old building in the east village of NYC and had 3 motherboards/cpu fail within a 3 month period.

      What you really need in the case you describe is a good line conditioner. I didn't look at the 'UPS' you mentioned, but many in that price range are not a true UPS and will still allow for under voltage to occur, albeit for a shorter period if you're lucky. .

    • by gd2shoe (747932)
      I doubt it was the dips that killed your equipment. More likely, it was the spikes on the line that shortened their life. (same crummy electric grid that caused your brown outs) Of course, each dip can be accompanied by a spike as the power recovers. As the other poster here mentioned, its not a matter of keeping power to your devices, it's a matter of conditioning the power that's coming in.
    • You have a source to back that up? Because if not, I'm calling shenanigans. That seems real unlikely for a number of reasons:

      1) This would be a recipe for lawsuits. After all, this situation of momentary power drops happens ALL the time on all kinds of circuits. If computers weren't able to handle it, that'd be a great way to get sued. With consumer devices you don't get to say "Oh this thing is super sensitive you have to take all kinds of measures to protect it." You device is expected to deal with common

      • I concede that i was incorrect to place the blame on the brownouts specifically. I should have said home PC hardware failures are caused mostly by electrical problems.. I mention the brownouts because that is something visible (as opposed to the spikes.)

        And getting a cheap UPS solved the problem. Specifically I got an , which was around $50. [apc.com]

        If you spend $500 to $5000 on a computer (or other electronics), it is a good investment to protect it with a $50 UPS.

  • Microscope (Score:4, Informative)

    by grapeape (137008) <mpope7NO@SPAMkc.rr.com> on Saturday October 10, 2009 @03:59PM (#29705649) Homepage

    I like the Microscope products...their newest version Microscope duo boots off of a USB stick. For machines that dont boot at all they also have a diagnostic card, its basically a pci card that has an led readout that give a series of post codes that can help diagnose if its the board, a card, memory, etc. They can be found at http://www.micro2000.com/ [micro2000.com]

    The handiest piece of diagnostic gear I use is actually a simple power supply tester. You would be amazed how many systems that appear to power up are actually suffering from a dead -5 or +5 rail on the powersupply. Many tend to think if the fans spinning the powersupply is ok but thats often not the case. The best part is they are cheap...around $10 for a basic one.

    • by Cylix (55374)

      A power supply tester is mostly useless. The basic features of any modern motherboard include sensors which display the voltage readings.

      A power supply tester simply identifies whether or not an unloaded voltage source is within the 5% variance. It would have to be extremely poor condition to not pass this test (sic, obviously failed and identified from the same common tools everyone has access too).

      In many circumstances I find it necessary to apply load to a power supply in order to quickly identify the fa

  • Hiren's... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Zakabog (603757) <john@jmaug. c o m> on Saturday October 10, 2009 @04:05PM (#29705681)
    Hiren's BootCD [hiren.info] contains a bunch of different utilities for doing just this. Plus it's bootable, so if you can't get into the OS you can still use the CD. It can do just about anything you'd need to in order to diagnose and repair a machine. You just gotta find it (usually the pirate bay or other torrent sites are a good place to look.)
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DigiShaman (671371)

      1. Hiren's BootCD is the only thing you need to diagnose hardware, repair, and transfer data. You can even make a bootable USB thumb drive instead of using it as a CD. It's the gift of the Gods!

      2. Be aware that just about every program in this collection is pirated. If you are making a profit through using this boot CD, purchase the F-ing programs by themselves!!! It's one thing to pirate software, it's quite another to ride off the backs of others work.

  • Hardware tester (Score:3, Informative)

    by iammani (1392285) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @04:06PM (#29705689)
    When you no longer trust your CPU/motherboard, I am afraid the only option to test them would be a hardware circuit (which can make decisions using its own CPU) specifically designed for your motherboard/processor. Which I believe only manufacturer will have access to. If you are looking for a more practical solution. The only way is to eliminate the possibility of all other hardware failing (by simply removing them or using them on a good machine) and assuming it must be CPU/motherboard issue(which means you may have to junk them both and buy new ones). And dont forget to test you power supply unit (not checking it on my old PC cost me hell a lot of hours)
    • by Cylix (55374)

      Most hardware is 'dumb' and does not have fault latches.

      This is a cost that was avoided in order to make cheap motherboards and system components.

      Hardware troubleshooting is in no form about trust. It is applying a series of logical steps designed to isolate and repair failures.

  • by Wrath0fb0b (302444) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @04:15PM (#29705747)

    http://sourceforge.net/apps/trac/smartmontools/wiki [sourceforge.net] is great for finding out what the drives think about their own health. Things to look out for are spin-retry counts (which lead to that annoying 2-5 seconds freeze), high reallocated sector counts (never never never use chkdsk to attempt to fix a broken hard drive. With the robustness of modern journaling file systems (HFS, extN, NTFS), storage errors are almost always hardware errors. Running chkdsk stresses the drive just as it's failing and usually pushes it over the edge -- and then users complain that you can't recover their data.

  • prime 95 (Score:3, Interesting)

    by LordKronos (470910) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @04:19PM (#29705775) Homepage

    Prime 95 is a good test of CPU/RAM, as well as to see if the system remains stable under peak temperature. It's often used to burn in overclocked machines.

  • by evilviper (135110) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @04:37PM (#29705917) Journal

    but how do you go about testing CPU, motherboard and graphics card trio to find which is to blame? Replacing them one by one isn't really an option. Do you know any software that would help the way memtest helps with RAM?

    There is no way to tell, with software, whether your PSU, CPU, or motherboard is to blame, in the overwhelming majority of cases.

    It's just idiotic to say "Replacing them one by one isn't really an option". In fact, that's by far the best option. I don't run memtest for a week to find out I have bad RAM, I take 30 seconds to swap it, and find out, for certain, in no time. PSUs are equally easy to swap, AND are the more likely component to fail, so that's the best place to start.

    If you don't know whether it's CPU or the MoBo, buy a new motherboard... Vastly more likely to be the cause, and pretty damn cheap just as soon as they're no longer brand new. Of course CPUs fail, but it's likely to be obvious from a visual inspection if they've been installed wrong, or otherwise abused.

    • by Doppler00 (534739)

      I agree. When I build a new system I first:
      memtest86+
      cpu test with something like prime95
      CPU+GPU test with prime95 and then another 3D game running in the background.

      If it survives that last test, then it's good. I've found overheating of my system to be the main cause of crashes. I've actually had to underclock my RAM to get it stable. If something does fail, I swap that component or add more fans and try again.

    • by Cylix (55374)

      Unfortunately you left out one major component in this troubleshooting scenario.

      Before applying any troubleshooting steps you must first create a verifiable test condition to reproduce the problem.

      If the problem cannot be reliably reproduced it will be difficult to isolate the fault with physical isolation, reduction or replacement of specific components.

      Before beginning on such an endeavor strive to create a scenario in which the problem can be reproduced quickly.

      Waiting a week for the fault to reproduce c

  • by MoFoQ (584566)

    never heard of prime95?

    it's been used for years to check stability in rigs by overclocking and gaming enthusiasts.
    They even have various different "levels" of FFT tests to limit the torture tests to within CPU cache levels which tests the CPU...or more than tests the RAM, PSU, etc.

    Prime95 [mersenne.org]

  • I've done a significant amount of PC construction and reconstruction: approximately 60 from-scratch builds in 20 years. One thing that that has taught me is: do not bother to try to diagnose motherboard or CPU faults: just replace them, end of story.

    Even Integrated Motherboards can be had for £40, and CPUs for £25. You can get dual-core 1.6ghz Atom Integrated-everything-including-CPU motherboards for £90.

    For the amount of time and effort spent unscrewing components and testing combinatio

    • by vxvxvxvx (745287)

      Other than that: if you cannot find any evidence of firmware upgrades to potentially fix an unreliable machine - throw out the power supply, the motherboard and the CPU, without hesitation (or get them replaced under warranty).

      If you've only ruled it down to one of those 3, how will you get the companies to replace those parts under warranty?

  • by Linker3000 (626634) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @04:41PM (#29705945) Journal

    I stress my Linux boxes by telling them that if they develop a fault I'll re-image them with Vista.

    Not a single one has dared to fail on me yet.

    • by Artifakt (700173)

      Take all your consumer electronics to the movies once a year. Set them on the couch, give them a bowl of popcorn buttered with WD40, and let them watch "The Brave Little Toaster". (Popcorn is optional).

  • gcc is an incredibly good test application. it's horrendously cpu-intensive, and it is designed to eat whatever physical memory is available. compiling c++ applications is particularly memory-intensive, but the best test of both disk and memory has to be simply to compile the linux kernel.

    if you have multiple cores, you can use "make -j {number of cores + 1}" and this will test all of the CPUs, as well. if you particularly want to stress things, make that "make -j {number of cores * 2}" instead.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by cschepers (1581457)
      Or you could install Gentoo. That'll eat up the CPU, RAM, and hard disk for darn near eternity.
  • If your hardware is suspect, then the output of any program running on that hardware would also be suspect. Keep that in mind when you run diagnostic software - if it says the system is good then it probably is but if the software reports errors then the reported error isn't necessarily accurate. I've also seen these programs detect failures in perfectly working systems. I've tested many of these "technician on a disk" programs over the years and Microscope is the best of a bad bunch.

    A more productive diag

  • Your average PC hardware has utterly no way to "test" it. You can sort of test RAM - to the point of identifying there is a failure somewhere in the memory. OK, if you have four DIMMs what does that mean? Well, it means you have a RAM problem somewhere.

    Motherboard? Not really any sort of testing possible. There are some "pretend" diagnostic tools that will try to tell you if something fails, but what exactly does that mean? Nothing. If you have a ATAPI DVD drive and a SATA hard drive I assure you tha

  • 1. Check the software
    2. It's probably the software
    3. Really, it's going to be the software

    ...

    87. OK, now you should run some diagnostics

    Really. The bottom line is that computers and their parts (especially non-moving ones like processors and RAM), once they're burned in and assuming you don't try to run them overclocked for twenty years without rotating them out, are pretty reliable. I can't count more than a couple instances of hardware failure post burn-in across about fifteen different home machines

  • Toast and Pi and various other CPU stability test programs will let you test the CPU.

    Go into system configuration with windows and turn off auto-reboot, so that if the machine blue screens, you can see what the error code is. Sometimes that will let you isolate it to graphics or the motherboard.

    Ultimately, the way to find out IS to replace the components one by one. If you have several machines, or spares from an older machine, you should swap each component and run the machine until either you get a cras

  • Power supply (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Alioth (221270) <no@spam> on Saturday October 10, 2009 @05:48PM (#29706359) Journal

    You didn't mention the power supply.

    In my experience, a "crashy machine" is almost always down to the PSU. Out of the dozens of "crashy machines" I've had to fix, only one was due to bad memory. The rest were *all* down to faulty power supplies, and all of those were due to capacitors that had failed.

    I have an oscilloscope so I can easily test for ripple without needing to open up the power supply and look for the obvious signs (bulging capacitors, maybe ones that have leaked). We've had dozens of machines at work with supplies that have gone bad this way. Bad capacitors have been a real problem in recent years. Four years ago, it wasn't just in power supplies either - we had to return 70 machines to Hewlett-Packard under warranty after the capacitors on the motherboard began failing after 3 months of use. We've not seen anything on that scale on motherboards since, but we still have frequent problems with power supplies failing from "capacitor plague".

    A machine of mine was actually killed by a sudden power supply failure - the PSU let the magic smoke out with a loud "bang", and there was the sound of stuff richocheting around the computer's case. That sound turned out to be bits of exploding chips on the motherboard. The only thing that survived that incident was the CD-ROM drive - all other components were destroyed.

  • What's the best software to change a tire on your car and find the leak?

    Software can check quite a few things, but for the most part during a short time interval, digital hardware is either working or it isn't. So software performance tests may not be very good at revealing something marginal.

    Beyond a few software tests and ruling some things out by substitution, it generally takes someone with some hardware troubleshooting skills, and some test equipment.

    Of course test equipment starts with your senses.

  • I had this when I tried to run Windows 7 on my old machine (32bit). Random crashes, 7 or so alone in the first 48h. This machine never gave me issues with Linux, Windows XP or Vista. So I run Prime95 on Win 7 on it - guaranteed error in about 2h of processing. And now comes the odd part: Prime95 runs straight 9h on both XP and Vista without any problems. Anyone else got such problems?
  • http://www.passmark.com/products/bit.htm [passmark.com]

    burnintest. have used it for years. works fine. some systems which would run fine for days and then crash were driving us crazy. this software found memory, video and cpu problems. free version of version i bought only ran for 15 minutes. might be enough to find your problem. windows only though so that might be a problem.

  • by GuyFawkes (729054) on Saturday October 10, 2009 @06:21PM (#29706537) Homepage Journal
    Of course with time you get experience, dry joints tend to follow power tracks on a PCB, and by gently flexing you can hear them tick.

    Swapping out is the ONLY way.

    I have systems with intermittent (heat activated) dry joints on a mobo, partly duff RAM, and partly duff (rebranded at higher clock) CPU. ONLY swapping out will find it.

    HTH etc

  • Lots of good posts so far, but one thing I also do and would suggest trying as well (depending on what the problem you are dealing with) is to also drop in a live cd of Ubuntu or Knoppix, install whatever app would also put a strain on whatever part of the system appears to be failing, and see if the problem occurs in another OS as well. I've seen Windows fail in some pretty interesting ways that seems like hardware is failing. But when testing with another OS and the problem doesn't reoccur, I often then s
  • Check the event viewer for logged any errors or crashing drivers. It boggles my mind how many people don't know to check this, and how many nerds trying to help don't tell you to check this. Frankly many people don't know Windows even has such logs. It is essiential when trying to troubleshoot unexplained crashes on any platform that you RTFL (read the fricken LOGS).

    Most crashes in windows are either hardware related or shitty drivers. Windows these days is resilient to crashing applications, but crappy
  • RAM is easy to test using basic troubleshooting techniques: Remove some of it, see if the problem recurs. Replace some of it with good spares, see if the problem recurs. Etc, so on. memtest86 also does a decent job of finding bad modules if left to run long enough, but since it runs in isolation from the rest of the computer it will not detect certain corner cases of bad RAM.

    Power supplies are similarly easy: Swap it out for a known good supply, and see if the problem recurs.

    I've never had a CPU fail,

  • by skogs (628589)

    I've found the UBCD -- Ultimate Boot CD to be quite useful.

    http://www.ultimatebootcd.com/ [ultimatebootcd.com]

    It does come in handy, includes many of the necessary tools to determine HDD end of life etc.

    It certainly isn't perfect, but I am amazed nobody has mentioned it yet in the discussion. Obviously real tools are on my bench, but when the poster specifically asked for software....this is the easiest and most broad spectrum solution.

  • I recently diagnosed two desktop machines. One ended up having a bad stick of memory, with the original symptoms being a corrupted copy of Windows XP that wouldn't boot. The other a bad hard drive, the symptoms being it would hang during use randomly and even during boot.

    I used Prime95 and Memtest86+ to detect the bad stick of memory. Prime95 quickly came up with a error during the stress test, and Memtest86+ also came immediately came up with errors. In the past I have since subtle errors with Memtest86+ t

  • Half of your RAM issues wont' be able to be diagnosed with any piece of software. No RAM checking software will keep tabs on the operating speed of the RAM. Ditto with a CPU tester, there's hardware and socket adapters to help you plug in CPUs and test them with hardware.

    My time spent in the hardware repair/replacement service has taught me that most software diagnostics just fall short. One place I worked for used a combo of Prime95 and some custom stress-testing software - almost every machine would pass

  • There are some fairly straight forward applications that several readers have mentioned.

    However, relying on software to determine a fault when no fault indicators are built into your motherboard is an inherently flawed logic.

    The vast majority of systems today are quite dumb and have no reporting. Even on more expensive systems this reporting is still not the most reliable method of troubleshooting hardware.

    That is to say that software cannot be helpful in the troubleshooting process. It can be immensely use

  • QuickTech or QT (Score:3, Interesting)

    by iq in binary (305246) <iq_in_binary AT hotmail DOT com> on Saturday October 10, 2009 @10:27PM (#29708165) Homepage

    My shop uses it, works pretty well. A full scan can take up to 6 or 8 hours (we set up hardware diags before leaving for the night, and in the morning on a 24-channel KVM), but it is THOROUGH. VRAM, RAM, HDD, CPU, everything is tested and thoroughly. First step should be testing the PSU, then running QT.

  • by bwave (871010) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @01:17AM (#29708881)
    We have repaired about in excess of 50,000 machines, and I'll tell you the tools needed are very simple. The process we do is, open the machine, dust with air compressor (with humidity drier, you can pickup at sears a 4gal with drier for about $99, saves alot of money on $3-6 cans of air) and central vacuum system (a shopvac will work), then inspect the motherboard & video card for blown caps. Take off the cpu fan and inspect the compound, if it is home built, lord only knows what you'll find. Test the power supply with a digital power supply tester (one of the $12 lcd ones) if good, still open the power supply, look for blown caps. (many will have blown caps, and be causing sporadic problems the simplistic tester will not). See if machine will power on / boot. If it doesn't power on, or hangs on post, remove modem and nic if it's a seperate card, when these are blown by lightning will cause no post. Ensure the hard drive is mounted properly with 4 screws installed, less than that the vibrations will cause the drive to go bad. (don't care what operating specifications you show me, or what G-rating the drive has, this is the case) Then test memory with Memtest86+ 1.70, and the hard drive with one of the 3 versions of Seatools by seagate. (some versions will lock on some video/chipsets, if you get a long string of bad sectors on a hdd bigger than 320gb, that begin about 2/3rds way through drive, test with a different version to be sure, as there is a sector count issue with some large hds) The 3 versions are an older GUI one, the newest GUI one, and the text version. If you have even 1 bad sector - replace the drive. We do the above process on EVERY machine before we attempt to do anything else, it is well worth the couple hours it takes to do. If you make it this far, than 99% of the time, you're problem is malware/viruses. Run Combofix, look for files not removed by it, boot with Ultimate Boot CD (the WinPE based one) or something like Knoppix and manually remove them. Search the WIndows, Windows/System32, Windows/System32/Drivers directories for files created in the past month, anything suspcious is probably a malware. Rename those files. Look under Program Files, Program Files/Common, ProgramData, and Users/UserName/ApplicationData for suspicious directories and rename/delete, these are where your AlphaAntivirus, Windows Police Pro, UltimateAV, etc, like to hide. Boot back into windows, run Hi-Jack This!, remove any suspicious entries, reboot, anything left? If so, remove manually with bootcd. In add/remove programs, remove all unneccessary programs. Then run CWShredder, Malwarebytes Antimalware, Spybot, and AVG Antivirus. (Feel free to substitute legimate antimalware/antivirus tools in place of these 3, but we find these 3 work best for us. Install all Windows updates, update all sytem drivers, try browsing the internet for 2 or 3 minutes. If all seems ok, reboot one last time, and be sure you can browse the inet still. All done! This fixes pretty much everything. Other than specific issue your customer may have complained about. Also, be sure to check the amount of ram here are what we recommend, otherwise, with latest service packs, etc. machine will seem sluggish. Windows 95 - 96mb+, Windows 98/ME - 196mb+, Windows 2000 384mb+, Windows XP 640mb+, Windows Vista Home Basic 1Gb+, Windows Home Premium 2Gb+, Windows Vista Ultimate/Windows 7 4Gb+ If you don't give machine back with this amount of ram, your customer will swear machine is slower than when the brought to you, doesn't matter how untrue it is, doesn't matter how much malware you removed or how machine didn't even go into windows! CPUs/Video Card rarely go bad unless abused. Normally, your find a under-rated power supply, or defective power supply to blame. Also, if you're working with a notebook, be sure to dust the exhaust/intake vents, if still power down/lockups, you need to disassemble and recompound cpu/video chipset with Arctic Silver 5. The other thing is power problems, mouse lockups, etc many times are caused by bad batteries, try running w/o a batter installed, just ac adapter. Any battery older than 2 1/2 years old is suspect. And of course, look for broken dc power jacks.

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