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How to Identify Which Hardware Component is Failing in Your Computer

hard-drive-detects-failure

Concluding that your computer has a hardware problem is just the first step. If you’re dealing with a hardware issue and not a software issue, the next step is determining what hardware problem you’re actually dealing with.

If you purchased a laptop or pre-built desktop PC and it’s still under warranty, you don’t need to care about this. Have the manufacturer fix the PC for you — figuring it out is their problem.

If you’ve built your own PC or you want to fix a computer that’s out of warranty, this is something you’ll need to do on your own.

Blue Screen 101: Search for the Error Message

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This may seem like obvious advice, but searching for information about a blue screen’s error message can help immensely. Most blue screens of death you’ll encounter on modern versions of Windows will likely be caused by hardware failures. The blue screen of death often displays information about the driver that crashed or the type of error it encountered.

For example, let’s say you encounter a blue screen that identified “NV4_disp.dll” as the driver that caused the blue screen. A quick Google search will reveal that this is the driver for NVIDIA graphics cards, so you now have somewhere to start. It’s possible that your graphics card is failing if you encounter such an error message.

Check Hard Drive SMART Status

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Hard drives have a built in S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology) feature. The idea is that the hard drive monitors itself and will notice if it starts to fail, providing you with some advance notice before the drive fails completely. This isn’t perfect, so your hard drive may fail even if SMART says everything is okay.

If you see any sort of “SMART error” message, your hard drive is failing. You can use SMART analysis tools to view the SMART health status information your hard drives are reporting.

Test Your RAM

RAM failure can result in a variety of problems. If the computer writes data to RAM and the RAM returns different data because it’s malfunctioning, you may see application crashes, blue screens, and file system corruption.

To test your memory and see if it’s working properly, use Windows’ built-in Memory Diagnostic tool. The Memory Diagnostic tool will write data to every sector of your RAM and read it back afterwards, ensuring that all your RAM is working properly.

windows-memory-diagnostic

Check Heat Levels

How hot is is inside your computer? Overheating can rsult in blue screens, crashes, and abrupt shut downs. Your computer may be overheating because you’re in a very hot location, it’s ventilated poorly, a fan has stopped inside your computer, or it’s full of dust.

Your computer monitors its own internal temperatures and you can access this information. It’s generally available in your computer’s BIOS, but you can also view it with system information utilities such as SpeedFan or Speccy. Check your computer’s recommended temperature level and ensure it’s within the appropriate range.

If your computer is overheating, you may see problems only when you’re doing something demanding, such as playing a game that stresses your CPU and graphics card. Be sure to keep an eye on how hot your computer gets when it performs these demanding tasks, not only when it’s idle.

speedfan-temperatures

Stress Test Your CPU

You can use a utility like Prime95 to stress test your CPU. Such a utility will fore your computer’s CPU to perform calculations without allowing it to rest, working it hard and generating heat. If your CPU is becoming too hot, you’ll start to see errors or system crashes.

Overclockers use Prime95 to stress test their overclock settings — if Prime95 experiences errors, they throttle back on their overclocks to ensure the CPU runs cooler and more stable. It’s a good way to check if your CPU is stable under load.

cpu-torture-test

Stress Test Your Graphics Card

Your graphics card can also be stress tested. For example, if your graphics driver crashes while playing games, the games themselves crash, or you see odd graphical corruption, you can run a graphics benchmark utility like 3DMark. The benchmark will stress your graphics card and, if it’s overheating or failing under load, you’ll see graphical problems, crashes, or blue screens while running the benchmark.

If the benchmark seems to work fine but you have issues playing a certain game, it may just be a problem with that game.

Swap it Out

Not every hardware problem is easy to diagnose. If you have a bad motherboard or power supply, their problems may only manifest through occasional odd issues with other components. It’s hard to tell if these components are causing problems unless you replace them completely.

Ultimately, the best way to determine whether a component is faulty is to swap it out. For example, if you think your graphics card may be causing your computer to blue screen, pull the graphics card out of your computer and swap in a new graphics card. If everything is working well, it’s likely that your previous graphics card was bad.

This isn’t easy for people who don’t have boxes of components sitting around, but it’s the ideal way to troubleshoot. Troubleshooting is all about trial and error, and swapping components out allows you to pin down which component is actually causing the problem through a process of elimination.


This isn’t a complete guide to everything that could likely go wrong and how to identify it — someone could write a full textbook on identifying failing components and still not cover everything. But the tips above should give you some places to start dealing with the more common problems.

Image Credit: Justin Marty on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 10/21/13

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