Many first-time system builders are haunted by the question, “What if it doesn’t work?” Or, worse still, “What if it goes up in flames the first time I turn it on?” Set your mind at ease. This isn’t rocket surgery. Any reasonably intelligent person can build a system with a high degree of confidence that it will work normally the first time it is turned on. If you use good components and assemble them carefully, you’re actually less likely to encounter problems with a home-built system than with a prebuilt mail-order system or with a system off the shelf from your local superstore.
Shipping can be tough on a computer. We always pop the cover of PCs that have been shipped, and often find that something has been jarred loose. Our editor reports that when he shipped a PC to his parents, it arrived with the AGP card completely out of its slot. Not good.
Even worse, shipping can cause the CPU cooler to break loose, particularly on AMD Athlon XP systems. A heavy heatsink rattling around can do some serious damage to other components, but even that’s not the major concern. Running a system without a CPU cooler causes an Athlon XP to go up in smoke in seconds, literally. If someone ships a system to you, always open it up and verify that everything is properly connected before you apply power to the system.
Still, problems can happen. So, while it would take a whole book to cover troubleshooting in detail, it’s worth taking a few pages to list some of the most likely problems and solutions. Fortunately, it’s easier to troubleshoot a newly built system than a system that’s been in use for some time. Fewer things can go wrong with a new system. You can be certain that the system is not infected with a virus or malware, for example, and driver problems are much less likely on a new system because you have all the latest drivers installed.
The best time to troubleshoot is while you’re building the system. A good carpenter measures twice and cuts once. Take the same approach to building your system, and you’re unlikely to need any of this troubleshooting advice. As you build the system, and then again before you apply power for the first time, verify that all cables are oriented and connected correctly. Make sure expansion cards, memory modules, the processor, and so on are fully seated, and that you haven’t left a tool in the patient. Each project system chapter includes a final checklist. Verifying the items on that checklist eliminates about 99% of potential problems.
Possible problems fall into one of four categories: easy versus hard to troubleshoot, and likely versus unlikely. Always check the easy/likely problems first. Otherwise, you may find yourself replacing the video card before you notice that the monitor isn’t plugged in. After you exhaust the easy/likely possibilities, check the easy/unlikely ones, followed by hard/likely, and, finally, hard/unlikely.
Other than sheer carelessness—to which experienced system builders are more prone than are novices—most problems with new systems result from one or more of the following:
Cable problems. Disconnected, mis-connected, and defective cables cause more problems than anything else. The plethora of cables inside a PC makes it very easy to overlook a disconnected data cable or to forget to connect power to a drive. It’s possible to connect some cables backward. Ribbon cables are a particularly common problem because some can be connected offset by a row or column of pins. And the cables themselves cannot always be trusted, even if they are new. If you have a problem that seems inexplicable, always suspect a cable problem first.
Fortunately, most problems with defective cables involve ribbon cables, and those are pretty easy to come by. For example, when we recently assembled a new PC, the motherboard came with two IDE cables and a floppy drive cable. The floppy drive came with a cable, the hard drive with another IDE cable, and the optical drive with still another IDE cable. That gave us four IDE cables and two floppy cables, so we ended up with two spare IDE cables and a spare floppy cable. Those went into our spares kit, where they’ll be available if we need to swap cables to troubleshoot another system.
One of our technical reviewers observes: “A good flashlight with a tight beam (I use a mini Maglight) really helps to spot offset ribbon connector problems, even if workspace lighting is otherwise adequate. I’ve done systems where a handheld magnifier became an indispensable tool.”
Configuration errors. Years ago, motherboards required a lot more manual configuration than modern motherboards do. There were many switches and jumpers, all of which had to be set correctly or the system wouldn’t boot. Modern motherboards auto-configure most of their required settings, but may still require some manual configuration, either by setting physical jumpers on the motherboard or by changing settings in CMOS Setup.
Motherboards use silk-screened labels near jumpers and connectors to document their purposes and to list valid configuration settings. These settings are also listed in the motherboard manual. Although it is rare, we have encountered errors in the silk-screened motherboard labels or the manuals. (On one notable occasion, the motherboard labels and the manual agreed and were both wrong, which cost us several hours of aggravation.) Always check both the motherboard labels and the manual to verify configuration settings. If the motherboard maker posts updated manuals on the Web, check those as well.
Incompatible components. In general, you can mix and match modern PC components without worrying much about compatibility. For example, any hard drive or optical drive works with any IDE interface, and any ATX12V power supply is compatible with any ATX12V motherboard (although the power supply may not have adequate power). Most component compatibility issues are subtle. For example, you may install a 1 GB memory module in your new system, but when you power it up, the system sees only 256 MB or 512 MB because the motherboard doesn’t recognize 1 GB memory modules properly. All of the components we recommend in the project system chapters are compatible with one another, but if you use other components it’s worth checking the detailed documentation on the manufacturers’ web sites to verify compatibility.
Dead-on-arrival components. Modern PC components are extremely reliable, but if you’re unlucky one of your components may be DOA. This is the least likely cause of a problem, however. Many first-time system builders think they have a DOA component, but the true cause is almost always something else—usually a cable or configuration problem. Before you return a suspect component, go through the detailed troubleshooting steps we describe. Chances are the component is just fine.
A healthy PC finishes the POST (Power-On Self-Test) with one happy-sounding beep. If you hear some other beep sequence during startup, there is some sort of problem. BIOS beep codes provide useful troubleshooting information, such as identifying the particular subsystem affected. Beep codes vary, so check the motherboard documentation for a description of what each code indicates.
Here are the problems you are most likely to encounter with a new system, and what to do about them.
This chapter is from Building the Perfect PC by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson (O'Reilly, 2004, ISBN: 0596006632). Check it out at your favorite bookstore today. Buy this book now.
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