Compared to complex software issues where the fix is sometimes stranger than fiction, hardware issues are much more straightforward. It’s physics after all. Unfortunately, physics also describes how all things move toward chaos and stop working throughout time.
By this same universal law of entropy, you can rest assured that all the computer hardware in the world will one day perish, piece by agonizing piece. It’s not a matter of if, but when, and despite its inevitability, hardware failure always comes as a thief in the night.
Certifications, like CompTIA A+, test your mettle against hardware problems. Here are a few solid pointers to solving the most common hardware problems, picked literally at random from the gazillion you will encounter on the helpdesk frontline or as the de facto IT pro.
1. The printer isn’t printing
Ah, an easy support call. Or so you thought. You’ll just turn the printer off and on again, or plug in the USB cable that managed to get itself unplugged. That’ll solve it.
Nope, didn’t work.
Okay, let’s back up. Remember the troubleshooting steps from CompTIA A+?
It must be a problem with the Windows Print Queue. You click the printer icon in the taskbar and it says the document is printing. False.
The document is not printing. No other documents are printing, either.
Hmm… Let’s try to restart the print job. Ten minutes later, it’s still trying to restart.
Time to deploy the big guns. You attempt to cancel the print job, and you wait another 15 minutes for it to really clear that sucker. But once again, you’re thwarted.
What could possibly confuse the printer that it won’t respond to such a simple command?
You begin to wonder: Could it be a driver problem? Possibly, but it was working yesterday. Drivers don’t just roll themselves back, and you’re not aware of anything else has changed on the system.
Wait… Could it be? With bated breath, you remove the ink cartridge and wipe the ink strip with your finger.
The real problem: Why didn’t it say it was low on ink?
That’s because stock Windows drivers for printers don’t always have the smarts to sense that the printer is low on ink. Error messages are important, but they’re not always included in Windows’ Plug and Play functionality.
If you’re brave enough to fix what isn’t truly broken, go ahead and update the printer drivers with the proprietary ones from the manufacturer’s website to get alerts for low ink.
Otherwise, grab the baseball bats. We’re going Office Space on that printer.
(Disclaimer: CBT Nuggets does not endorse or promote the “Office Spacing” of hardware. Even though it’d be really, really satisfying.)
2. The system clock keeps resetting back to days gone by
Date and time is important to a computer, and the wrong date and/or time can cause a host issues that appear to be software-related, such as broken software licenses and confused browser cookies.
To an end user, this looks like the end of the OS as they know it. Luckily, it’s a cinch to fix.
The motherboard’s CMOS battery, which powers the onboard Real-Time Clock (RTC), is too low or dead, and needs to be replaced.
In practically all motherboards, regardless of brand, it’s a ‘CR2032’ 3V button cell battery.
Keep a stash of these batteries in your Geek Bag and make this common hardware issue a non-issue.
3. Beeping coming from INSIDE the computer, but everything is fine
This problem is known colloquially as, “No, it’s not coming from the speakers. The box is literally beeping at me.”
It’s easy to forget that desktop PCs have a speaker inside the case. It beeps once every time the PC is powered on as part of the Power-On Self-Test (POST). I mean, who actually turns off their desktops?
Aside from that friendly chirp announcing a successful boot, the onboard speaker will lurk silently in the inaccessible depths of the computer casing, until that one day when it has something urgent to say.
When insistent beeping starts coming from inside the computer while it’s running normally, it is often accompanied by appropriately alarmed end users — which is good, because the main purpose of the built-in speaker is to alert nearby humans in the most annoying way possible that the CPU is running too hot.
It’s telling you, “Hey! I’m dying here. Can you please slow down, or I don’t know, open a window?”
It might not be catastrophic if you fix it immediately, so after you’ve explained that the box is not beeping because it’s about to explode (which is technically true), take these steps:
- Enter the BIOS and note the CPU temperature. If it’s over 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) then it’s getting too hot for comfort.
- Ensure the CPU hasn’t been overclocked by an enthusiastic end user.
- Check that the computer case is well-ventilated and all fans are spinning.
- Blow out the dust on the motherboard and system fans. Do this outside!
If the computer isn’t booting at all and emits only a short series of beeps, it’s time to break out the BIOS beep error codes for the motherboard. This will tell you which piece of hardware is failing, and how.
Or you can just Google it.
4. The computer is stuck in a restart loop
When the computer constantly restarts before getting to a login screen, a bit of troubleshooting is in order to make sure it’s not a software problem.
Try to boot in Safe Mode. If it doesn’t work, or you can’t even select Safe Mode before it restarts, then it’s almost certainly a hardware fault.
As many technicians can attest, RAM is the number one culprit. Essentially, the bootloader can’t load itself into RAM because the RAM has decided to take unofficial leave. The PC is able to power up normally, but it will constantly restart right before loading the OS.
The fix: Power down the computer, open up the case, and reseat the RAM modules. If the problem persists, the RAM might be bad. Keeping a few spare sticks of common RAM types (DDR2, DDR3) in your toolbox is highly recommended.
Now, if the restart loop is intermittent, but isn’t resolved by new RAM and you can still boot into Windows, here’s a tip for easy troubleshooting: Turn off Automatic Restart on System Failure. This makes the PC pause on the Blue Screen of Death so you can see the specific STOP error code.
The Microsoft support page on STOP error codes is incredibly helpful in diagnosing which piece of hardware is faulty. Use it.
5. The screen looks like it’s on drugs
This problem is known colloquially as, “The screen is all messed up” or “My computer monitor is possessed.”
The psychedelic screen issue manifests itself in many ways, but the root cause is almost always a connection problem between the VGA cable and the VGA ports.
When the VGA cable comes slightly loose, it causes the screen to glitch out in all kinds of wonderfully random colors, or display similarly spooky behavior. For this, the fix is so simple you don’t even need to be called out.
If you are already on-site, you can always make a show of the solution so it sticks in the affected end users’ minds, allowing them to fix it themselves in future. Crack your knuckles and tell the end user to step back. Now, carefully wiggle the VGA connector and then slot it firmly back in the port. Ta da!
One resume problem solved
If you read this blog post and thought to yourself, “I knew most of those” and you don’t have your CompTIA A+ certification, then you should give the exam a shot.
Certs let your current employer know you’re serious about your job, give you leverage for better pay, and prove to your next employer that you know your stuff.
You can replace many lines of technical detail from your resume with two words “CompTIA A+.” Already have A+? That’s great.
You might want to consider Network+ or even CCNA Routing and Switching next. You probably don’t want to be fixing monitor problems forever. Or maybe you do, and that’s cool, too.
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