The dead home desktop problem returns


The computer I bought not a year and a half ago decided to keel over last week. When I push the power button, the power light goes on, the drives spin up, but there is nothing out the video card and not even a reassuring beep from the power-on self test. I've disconnected all the external peripherals as well as all the IDE devices, and no change. The problem might be a fried motherboard connection or something. I'm not a hardware person, so I'm not sure how to diagnose it.

This is easily the shortest life for a computer I've owned (not counting the ones that were dead on arrival). I feel kind of bad buying a replacement for a computer that's barely fifteen months old, but I also can't think of what else I can do. All the stuff I can easily swap out I think I've already swapped out. And I don't know if I can find a new power supply or motherboard that fits the custom case.

So it's back down to Fry's to buy some random bottom-feeder computer just so I can whack my hard drives into it and get back in business. But man, is that machine going to inherit a lot of memory!

(Then again, maybe my problem is that I keep buying bottom-feeder computers?)

Comments (41)
  1. SM says:

    Maybe, but the top-of-the-line stuff seems to have a sizable share of problems and failures these days also.  

  2. Spike says:

    I’ve been buying and/or building PCs for myself since about 1988.  Wow, that’s 20 years.  I’ve bet you’ve got readers who aren’t that old.

    I’ve never had any hardware failure of any type at all.  Except when my 1200baud modem got fried by a lighting strike.

    Maybe you work them too hard Raymond.

  3. Neil says:

    Some motherboards are more helpful than others; for instance, you might have access to a backup BIOS in case your main BIOS is fried, or you might even have an onboard boot code display.

  4. Darryl says:

    Wow, no HW failures except a modem.  

    I have had pretty good luck.  But I find power supplies tend to go fairly often.  I had to replace two in my personal machines last year.  

    I had one machine were I thought I lost a HD, but it actually turned out just to be the PS.  

  5. Boris says:

    Yeah, really, Spike’s pretty lucky. I had a computer stop working and give off a burning smell about 9 months after being bought. This was 2003 and it was ordered from a no-name web store (the box the keyboard came in said it was copyright "This Company" (I hope that company name is not deleted by Raymond)). When I called them, they told me to replace the power supply. That worked… for less than two months. Then the problem returned. Swapping the power supply no longer helped, so I sent it to them for repair. They took a long time "testing" it and when I got it back, it fried instantly because the processor was not seated in the heat sink properly. They refused to fix it again, even though it was still in warranty.

    Needless to say, the next computer was bought at CompUSA. It’s still a no-name brand, but I would not need to send it to California should it ever break.

  6. Jeff says:

    Step 1: Check the 120/240 volt switch on the power supply. With some power supplies, an incorrectly positioned switch will cause these symptoms, for some reason.

  7. Rick C says:

    Another thing to check is the CMOS.  I had an HP desktop that gradually stopped POSTing.  The symptoms were exactly the same as what you describe.  HP’s tech support wasn’t very helpful, but eventually they swapped out the machine.  A year later, the replacement started doing the same thing.  In desperation I pulled the cmos battery, powered up the machine, shut it back down, put the battery back in, did a Load BIOS Defaults, booted up again, shut down, and then put the BIOS settings back the way I wanted.  It worked perfectly after that for another 3-4 years.

  8. David Walker says:

    I generally build my own computers, but I have occasionally used motherboards and whole computers from the top-5 OEMs.

    When I buy motherboards, I buy from the middle of the price range of well-known brands.  I don’t currently need a $150 or a $200 motherboard, when a $90 motherboard will do just fine to support a dual-core 64 bit CPU.

    Actually, power supplies can partially die, it seems.  The power to the motherboard might have died while the power to the disk drive connectors is still alive.

  9. Brian Schkerke says:

    A lot of speakers aren’t actually hooked to the motherboard nowadays; another "cost saving" measure.  That may be why you’re not getting the POST codes.

    I bought a POST diagnostic card a few years ago (similar to http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16815158065; hope you allow links) and it’s saved me several times.

    For those who haven’t had computer issues, I consider you very lucky.  Admittedly I have four servers and seven desktops in my house, but I do seem to have a problem with at least one of them most of the time. :)

  10. Glaurung_quena says:

    I had the exact same symptoms (turns on but nothing happens, no POST) on a computer with a broken power supply recently, so check that before you buy a new machine.

    The power supplies on mass market brand name computers tend to be barely adequate (such that putting more than one hard drive and one optical drive in the box can tax it beyond its limits). And an overtaxed PS can cause all kinds of hardware problems, like a box that won’t boot after only 18 months.  

    Oh, and the first thing I would do with a cheap store bought computer is yank out its power supply and replace it with one with good reviews made by a reputable company.

  11. DaveN says:

    I agree with the poster who suggested power supply, just because in my experience it’s almost always that, especially when i happens without warning.  And more so for cheap hardware.

  12. Will says:

    Do yourself a huge favor Raymond and become a hardware guy for at least as long as it takes you to research and build you own PC from parts.  It’s easy to build a rock solid PC that lasts years and you don’t have to spend huge sums to do it.

    Decide on your minimum specs and go from there.  I don’t think you’ll have any difficulty finding assistance no matter where you ask.  I’ll refrain from making suggestions except for two.  Don’t scrimp on the power supply – get a hefty one with a good reputation for reliability.  Definitely look into building a nearly silent PC – eliminate every fan you can in favor of passive cooling.  It’ll cost more, especially at the power supply, but it’s worth every penny.

    [I used to build my own computers, but gave up when prebuilt computers were half the cost of the parts I would’ve gotten had I decided to build it myself, and as a bonus, they worked when I turned on the power. -Raymond]
  13. Josh McFarlane says:

    If your computer still has an internal speaker hooked up to it, try removing the video card also. If your video card goes bad, it will occasionally prevent posting, but removing it should give you the missing video card POST signal. If it doesn’t, it’s most likely your motherboard or CPU.

  14. Jeff Parker says:

    I have to laugh, I am not much of a hardware guy either, however if you go into the spare bedroom you would never know it. There are at least 5 computer there, not a single one has a case on it, they just kind of get stacked up. Parts get stolen out of them and put into others to diagnose problems. Pre-broadband I used to go through a lot of Modems for some odd reason, even with phone line surge suppressors, however since about 2000 it seems to be video cards for me, about 1 a year, sometimes I get a year and a half out of them. I am thinking of trying liquid cooling on my next PC to see if that helps any, I just seem to burn up Video cards. My computer beeps at me when something else is wacky, but for some reason the video cards only symptom is no display. Hard drives power up and everything. just no display. I get no sounds because I have to log in, logging in is easy when yo can see the screen, but a pain when you can’t but I have managed to do it, then you hear the windows startup sound and you know it is the vid card.

  15. MS says:

    I just experienced this exact same problem a few weeks ago: I got power and everything seemed to turn on, but no video output.  The problem was that the RAM went bad.  Replacing the RAM got everything to work again.  YMMV

  16. asymtote says:

    It sounds like either motherboard or power supply (or, possibly, both by now). Power supplies are relatively interchangeable, you will almost certainly have an ATX power supply in your machine, the same as most modern PCs.

    If the harddisks spin up but the mobo doesn’t post then likely the 12V supply is working but the 5V and/or 3V supplies used for the digital electronics are not working for some reason.

    If you have a PC at work that can live without its PSU for a night I’d go ahead and borrow it. You’ll want to check that it is the same type, most likely ATX, and that it has the same or higher power output, measured in watts, of your machine at home (there is almost always a label on the PSU that describes its output capacity).

    Regardless, I think you identified the root cause of your problem. Hardware costs can always be cut by using components with lesser tolerances and poorer reliability. This is doubly true for power supplies which tend to be under a lot of stress anyway, especially if the manufacturer tries to save money by putting in the bare minimum capacity (the closer a PSU is loaded to its max capacity the more stress it is under). In the bottom feeder world they will always take the quality/price tradeoff.

    Buying a cheap PC is like buying a cheap bottle of wine. Out of the $3 you pay for that bottle the amount that actually goes to the wine itself is about 30c, the rest of your money goes to the bottling process, glass, label, transportation, retailer profit etc. At that end of the market paying 50% more often gets you 500% increase in quality.

  17. brian says:

    Raymond,

      Part of the cost reduction you see in prebuilts is from cheap parts.  When comparing cost and parts, i would compare it to a Mac, not a Dell or a Frys referb.  There is a reason the MacBook Pro is the best laptop to run Vista on.  The hardware Combination is stable and performs.  The Combination is very important.

    Buying all top of the line(or top of the line from last year) name brand parts can be expensive if you get it at Frys, try newegg,    but pay off in the long run when it comes to lack of issue and performance. You can count on certain combos working together well.

    Buying a refurbished PC is asking for trouble.  Who knows if its mobo likes your raid drivers or  OCed graphics card.

    Then again a prebuilt has a waranty and all that jazz.  So buy a mac, warranty and good hardware, jk.

  18. Erzengel says:

    Does the Fry’s up there have a service department? If so, you may want to just get a PSC for the next "bottom-feeder" you get; when it stops working, they’ll give you a loaner while they fix your computer. (You may want to backup your hard drives before taking it out to them, though) They will completely replace parts with brand new ones at no additional cost to you. If you get a PSC on something that they can’t fix (monitors, for example), they just go grab a new one from the store and give it to you.

    Plus, being in store, you can actually get something resembling customer satisfaction that you can’t get with the bucktards over the phone.

    If you’re not going to be a hardware geek, you can have someone else be your hardware geek.

  19. Aaron says:

    I assume you’ve tried swapping out memory sticks, right?

    This type of thing is usually a problem with either the memory or video card.  They’re both cheap to replace.  If the power light goes on and the drives spin up, it’s not that likely to be a problem with the motherboard (maybe the CPU, if you’re truly hosed).

    At least pick up and try a $20 bottom-feeder video card before you blow 10 times that much on a new bottom-feeder PC.  Unless you’ve got one of those worse-than-bottom-feeder motherboards with integrated video, in which case, forget I said anything…

  20. James Schend says:

    Hi, I’m just leaving a comment to let you know that I’m not going to leave a comment with some speculative advice on how to fix your busted computer like the last 15 people.

  21. John says:

    Building your own is the only way for people like us to go.  Unless you’re buying really high-end, you are going to get garbage parts.  The worst thing about buying a computer is all the "craplets" it will come with, and they don’t even offer installation media.  At best you get a DVD or hidden partition that will re-image your computer to its factory state (i.e. with all the "craplets" already installed).  This is probably the main reason I still build my own computers.  The up-front cost is somewhat cheaper, but when you factor in the couple hours of your time that it takes to get everything installed and running it doesn’t seem so advantageous.  Still, there is a certain satisfaction you get out of doing it yourself.  Also, you get to set it up exactly as you want; no cheap hardware or "craplets" or any of the other junk you have to put up with from the other guys.

    As far as hardware failures go, I have been relatively fortunate.  I’ve had two power supply failures, two hard drive failures, a floppy drive failure, and a few dead modems (lightning / power surges).  This is all over the span of about 10 years across 4 machines.

  22. MichaC says:

    My experience is that you get what you pay for. If you put together the parts you want and the total is more expensive than a prebuilt machine then the prebuilt is probably skimping somewhere you didn’t.

    I’ll throw out another thing to consider. I don’t know what the cases are like that Fry’s puts its bottom feeders into, but a case where everything slides out and is easy to get to is worth the investment, at least it is if you ever open up your case and swap hard drives or cards.

  23. john says:

    Try the power supply, low output will cause that problem.  Things will run but not well enough to start.  I’ve had that problem with several computers now.

  24. Julian says:

    I sympathize – my 3 1/2 year old LCD died suddenly on me (of course, just after the warranty expired). Oddly enough, it wasn’t the backlight – that seems to be the one bit that is still working!

    One thing to check is the memory – the same computer uses DDR memory, and so far I have had 4 sticks die after variable periods of time. One one occasion the death resulted in exactly your symptoms – try removing all the memory (it is not clear if you tried that already) – if you are lucky you might find you get a POST error beep!

  25. Gurmeet says:

    Try getting the memory stick(s) out, clean it, and put it back in and try again. Hope it works!

  26. N. Velope says:

      You should ask at a meeting or put up a piece of paper asking if anyone has an unused, but reliable computer that is at least 1 GHz at home that they would trade for a couple of DVDs you have lying around, then put in your hard drive (tell them to take their hard drive(s) out first and keep it).  

  27. Igor Levicki says:

    Raymond,

    1. Try re-seating video card and RAM. That usually helps.
    2. Try cleaning contacts on RAM stick with eraser.

    3. Try taking out the battery or resetting CMOS otherwise.

    4. If the computer doesn’t beep without RAM / VGA then mainboard or the CPU are most likely dead.

    5. Check for bulged capacitors on the mainboard, if there are some then the board should be repaired or replaced.

    6. Check for bulged capacitors in the power supply (disconnect it first from the mains first and leave it alone for a few minutes before opening), if there are some then the power supply needs replacing.

    As you can see there is a lot of simple troubleshooting you can do if you have time instead of buying new computer.

    As for building your own, check newegg.com — you will be surprised that parts are not that expensive. You will be able to put together much better performing computer for less money then you pay for off-the-shelf crap.

    Finally, check my configuration to get some ideas about good performing parts which won’t break your budget:

    http://www.levicki.net/pc/pc.php

  28. I hate capacitors says:

    Two words, busted capacitors.

  29. oakfed says:

    I’ve had something fail on most of the computers I’ve owned and/or set up for relatives. Let’s see if I can remember…

    CMOS battery failure and a dead hard drive on a no name 286; power supply died dramatically (it can make a really loud bang) on a no name 386SX; motherboard fried by a power surge from a nearby downed powerline (*%&^# drunk drivers) on a no name Celeron 466; monitor and hard drive died on a no name Duron (though I was saved from data loss by SMART monitoring – kudos to whoever came up with  that feature); CPU fan died on a Dell P4. I only recall two computers  that went into retirement without a significant problem – a no name 486 and a Dell Pentium II.

    Had several after-market peripherals fail too (a USB hard drive died after only a month; a DVD-RW drive was murdered by a music CD that broke up while I was ripping music from it – that too makes a really dramatic noise, and it’s remarkable how much sparkly dust you get from a CD that breaks apart at high RPMs).

    Can’t really blame a couple of the accidents on low reliability, but we’ve obviously got a ways to go before computers are as reliable as other consumer hardware – they do have a lot more complexity and moving parts to them, though.

  30. steveg says:

    Nobody likes to waste money, but depending on your circumstances, you might find it preferable to spend $1000 (give or take) than spend all that time messing about.  Really depends on how much enjoyment you get from messing about with hardware.

  31. Cheong says:

    Raymond, I have exactly the same problem at my home PC. Have replaced power supply but no luck. Suspected it’s a motherboard problem.

    The workaround is to wait the system stay in cold boot condition for 5 minutes and then press power 4 seconds to power it off. Then immediately press the power button again and the system will boot normally. (Sometimes have to repeat the steps 2-3 times to make it works. And I found not to switch off the extension outlet’s button makes the situation better)

    See if it works for that machine…

  32. Jonathan Wilson says:

    I think my worst hardware failures were:

    1.When I made the stupid mistake of using the heatsink and fan from a Pentium 166 MMX for a Cyrix 300MHz part with the part ultimatly frying completely (last time I used anything other than the recommended cooler and last time I used anything other than an Intel chip)

    2.When lightning fried a bunch of my hardware (I can still picture in my mind the burn mark on the controler chip of the hard disk that had data on it that wasnt backed up. Of course, since then I now back stuff up to CD/DVD regularly :)

  33. Marc K says:

    A couple of times I priced out parts to see if I could build a computer as cheap as some of the better deals out there.  I found that I could put together a PC of the same specs for the same money.  But, it’s not worth the effort to do so.

    The PCs I build are either super-quiet or gaming PCs.  If I build a PC for myself or if someone wants a high quality machine like that, I’ll build it.  If someone just wants something cheap, I recommend a name brand.  Then I tell them to bring it to me so I can remove the shovelware.  "PC Decrapifier" is usually a big help there.

  34. Simon Cooke says:

    Don’t buy memory from Fry’s :)

    The last stick I bought lasted just long enough to outlast their return policy (15 days).

    I came home, and my laptop was dead to the world. And by dead, I mean dead. Wouldn’t come up. Took out the battery – still no dice. Took out the memory – hey presto, it’s back up with just one stick.

    Try the memory first – especially if you bought it at fry’s :)

  35. Erzengel says:

    Simon Cooke:

    Sooo, 1 stick from Fry’s is bad, therefore all memory you get from Fry’s will go bad?

    Sounds familiar. (Hint: "[Windows XP is] worst program ever!")

  36. Andreas Magnusson says:

    I’ve always found that building my own computer is the best way to do it. I’m not much of a hardware guy either but it’s not too difficult, it just takes some time of research to find out what goes well with what. My current computer is six and a half years old and counting. No hardware related problems yet!

    The problem with pre-built computers is that in order to give you a low price (and still make $$$) the producers cut corners on everything that an average Joe wouldn’t really care or even have a clue about. I mean a power supply is a power supply is a power supply, does it matter if it’s called "No Name" or "Zalman"? The same with hard-drives, motherboards and memory. The only thing average Joe cares about is CPU speed, amount of memory, size of HD and a graphics card with high enough model numbers.

    If you’re careful you can easily build a computer that will outlive its usability time (like mine almost has).

    So yes, Raymond, I believe your problem is that you buy bottom-feeder computers. Buy top-of-the-line computers instead and have more fun and be more environment-friendly at the same time.

  37. Bikedude says:

    "And I don’t know if I can find a new power supply or motherboard that fits the custom case. "

    To diagnose the problem, the PSU doesn’t necessarily have to fit inside your case… If the case is so small that it dictates which PSU you can choose, then buy a bigger case… :P (these things are pretty standardized you know)

    That said: If you assemble your own (what I usually do), then you do end up having to diagnose on your own. A few years ago I bought a new motherboard and some other components. After switching PSU and memory, it turns out the motherboard itself just wasn’t up to the task. A new motherboard was rock solid whereas the old one would randomly freeze. Buying components for diagnostic purposes can be expensive. My current home rig was quite advanced (dual Opteron and eatx motherboard) and I’ve been surprised at how troublefree it has been (except nVidia doesn’t want to supply the correct drivers for their ethernet controllers and the version I’m using can trigger BSODs every six months).

    But if you buy e.g. a Dell, you get cheap components (except they often charge you plenty for any additional memory or hard drive you’d like to add) and a system that is pre-filled to the brim with adware. (saves you time if you’re in the habit of downloading and installing crappy software I guess) If you go this route, the best thing would be to buy a Mac and install Vista on it. Beautiful hardware (unfortunately not a good OS, but hey, you have to wipe that anyway, so…).

  38. AndyC says:

    Cheap computers are generally cheap for a reason and are more prone to failure in my experience. Like many things, you can often save money by spending a little more.

  39. mbangwa says:

    Take the RAM sticks out. Clean the contacts (both RAM and mobo)with cotton buds dipped in an alchohol base. Replace and try one at a time.

  40. It was the video card.

  41. Simon Cooke says:

    Erzengel: Nope, this is the 4th time I’ve had bad sticks from Fry’s. Two high-end Corsairs for my desktop, two kingston sodimm PC2700’s for my tablet pc.

    I will now buy my memory somewhere else… because it appears I can’t guarantee it hasn’t been restocked.

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