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The technologist's guide to troubleshooting hardware


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Avoid vendor support hell with these tips for PC, Mac, smartphone, and tablet.

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Anyone who has ever done desktop support in any capacity, whether it was for an office with hundreds of employees or just for your family, knows that calling to get warranty support can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the job. You’ve got to run through a troubleshooting script with someone who assumes you don’t know anything, and there’s no secret code that techs can use to signify that they know what they’re talking about. You can get bumped from department to department before you finally talk to someone who can help you, and often have to re-state your name and all of the pertinent information each time. It’s a huge time sink, and it’s one I prefer to avoid if at all possible.

Learning how to expedite this process is a vital part of any technologist’s skill set. So, drawing upon years of sad practice, we’ve put together a master guide to troubleshooting for PCs, Macs, phones, and tablets in a way that should minimize the amount of time you spend on the phone with support people who are always going to start by asking you whether your broken hardware is plugged in.

Known-good parts: the troubleshooting silver bullet

Before we get into specific symptoms and fixes, there's one silver bullet that's guaranteed to get you past most of the support person’s troubleshooting script and right to what you want: the known-good part. That is, a power adapter, stick of memory, hard drive, or other component that has been plugged into another system and is known to be working properly.

Let’s say you’ve got a laptop that won’t power on. If you switch its power adapter for one that is known to work (or if you use its power adapter with a laptop that will power on and charge), you can say with a fair degree of certainty that the power adapter is not the problem. This method does require you to have working spare parts available for testing. But if you tell a phone tech that you’ve tested a particular problem with known good parts, you’ll automatically skip through a lot of the script—and quite possibly to the end of the conversation.

PC troubleshooting

PCs are always getting simpler and more streamlined, but there are still a lot of different parts to most of them, which means that there is a lot more that can go wrong with them. We’ll go through potential problems component by component, matching symptoms to issues and telling you the best way to inform your friend on the other end of the phone. Pay attention here, because many of these symptoms and procedures are also going to be useful when troubleshooting Macs, phones, and tablets.

Some computer manufacturers may ship (or make available for download) special diagnostic tools intended to detect problems with particular components. It's not always necessary to use these tools to diagnose problems, but getting support will often be easier if you have the error messages and codes generated by their tools. Having these error codes handy is the ultimate phone support shortcut, and if you open with them, you’ll almost always skip straight to the part where they set up the dispatch for you.

Power problems

Symptoms: Computer won't power on, battery won't charge.

If the computer simply isn't responding to any attempts to turn it on, you may be having power problems. Remember that there's a difference between not powering on and not booting—a computer with power problems won't light up or make any noises when the power button is pressed. If lights and fans are coming on but the operating system won't load, you may have a memory, hard drive, or even motherboard error instead.

As a first step, unplug the computer from power and remove any batteries, then press and hold the power button for 10 to 15 seconds. This will completely power cycle the computer, draining out any electricity that may be left lingering in its circuits (some desktop motherboards have a light on the motherboard that will stay on for a while after the computer has been unplugged—once this light goes out, you've discharged all of the power). If you plug the computer back in and still have no luck, it's time to start troubleshooting the different stages of the journey between the wall and the computer:

Start with the surge protector. Does the computer behave the same way if connected directly to the wall, or to another outlet that is known to be working normally?

Then look at the power brick if you've got a laptop. Most power bricks have two cords: one that runs from the outlet to the brick, and one that runs from the brick to the computer. If either of these cords can be detached from the brick, try again with a known good cord if you have one. If you've got a desktop, you'll usually just have one cable to check, the one that goes from the outlet to the back of the computer.If your laptop’s cables and adapters are working normally, you’ve probably got a motherboard problem, and it’s time to call support.

If you’ve got a desktop, your problem could be either with the motherboard or with the system’s internal power supply. Again, a known-good power supply will tell you exactly which is the problem, but be sure to check for things like the aforementioned motherboard status light—if it lights up when the computer is plugged in, it may point to a motherboard issue rather than a power issue.

If your computer will turn on but your battery won’t charge, you’ve almost certainly got a bad battery. As always, try a known good battery in the computer (and, if you can, try the suspect battery in a laptop that is known to charge) and make sure it’s not an issue with the contacts in the computer.

If you do have a bad battery, it likely isn’t covered under warranty unless it failed prematurely. If the battery is less than a year old, you may be able to get a replacement. But if the battery is over a year old, any loss of capacity or breakage will generally be seen as “normal wear and tear” and you’ll have to buy a new one. Most laptop manufacturers will insist you buy a first-party battery to avoid voiding the warranty on the rest of the computer.

Memory

Symptoms: Blue screens or crashing applications, computer powers on but will not boot, other erratic behaviors.

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