How To Troubleshoot Your Home-Built PC

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My System Isn't Stable!

Initially, everything seems great: The system boots up fine, Windows is running, and the drivers are installed. Then the problems really begin.

Random blue screens. You start seeing random blue screen errors. Unfortunately, they go by so fast, you can't figure out what they're telling you. Windows XP and Vista had a setting in the Startup and recovery section of the system properties control panel that would force a pause on restart. Windows 7 makes this a little easier--press the F8 key repeatedly until you get the system startup menu. One of the selections should be "disable automatic restart on failure."

A host of possible blue-screen errors exists, so we can't touch on all of them. Perhaps the most common one we've seen is "IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL", followed by information on which driver or system DLL crashed. This can often be fixed by installing a different graphics or sound driver, if those hardware subsystems are indicated. If the error occurs repeatedly, you may have an incompatibility (try a BIOS update, if available), or you may have failing hardware.

I've also seen this problem occur when the graphics card overheats. Clean out your graphics card cooling fan (which is a dust magnet) This sometimes helps if you're reusing an older card.

Another culprit can be CPU overheating. There are various tools--usually on the motherboard's own installation CD--that will monitor the CPU temperatures and let you know how hot it's running. If the CPU is seriously overheating, then you should try to reseat the CPU cooling solution. Alternatively, you may want to invest in a new cooler. Also, make sure the case cooling fans are working properly.

Random application crashes. Tracking down random app crashes is an exercise in patience. Random, intermittent problems are the worst kind to figure out. These can range from bad or incompatible memory to driver or hardware conflicts.

One thing to try is to bring up MSCONFIG (bring up the RUN dialog box and type msconfig.) Select the Diagnostic Startup option, then reboot and see if the crashes continue. Unfortunately, this runs Windows in a very bare-bones mode. A better process--but one that takes much longer--is to pick the Startup tab, and try disabling one startup service at a time. But this could take hours or days to run through, depending on the complexity of your Windows installation.

Don't forget to try running the Windows memory diagnostic (see "Can't install Windows!" on the preceding page for instructions). This diagnostic can catch intermittent memory problems that may be causing random hangs.

Another possible culprit is heat. Gradual heat buildup inside the case can set off intermittent problems. Check your cooling fans and make sure they're moving hot air out of the system fast enough.

If different games randomly crash, then the problem could be an overheating graphics card, or an inadequate or gradually failing power supply. Check heat first (and clean out that GPU cooling fan). If that doesn't work, and you're sure that heat and memory aren't issues, try a different power supply unit.

Mysterious shutdowns. Sometimes your system will just stop running--either Windows will just shut down by itself, or sometimes the system will abruptly power down. This is almost always due to one of two causes: heat buildup inside the case, or a power supply that's not adequate to the job (or is slowly failing).

Troubleshooting Your Sound Problems

When Microsoft developed Windows Vista, it decided to remove all support for hardware-accelerated audio. That's because one of the largest single sources of tech support calls involved sound problems. Even now, sound problems crop up all too frequently.

Sound system not available. The obvious symptom is that you don't hear any audio from speakers or headphones. One of two other things can happen: Your speaker icon in the system tray area shows a red circle with a slash through it. Or you have no speaker icon at all.

Make sure your sound device isn't simply muted, as it is here.
The first case usually means your sound system is simply muted. You can open up your volume control by clicking on the speaker icon and bringing up the simple volume control. Then click on the speaker. The red circle should clear, and you'll get audio playback.

The second case is more involved. When no sound device appears, it's often one of three causes: The driver isn't installed, Windows can't see the device, or Windows can't use the device (so it won't start).

The first cause is the easiest to solve. Just bring up Device Manager, and check for a red exclamation point next to "unknown device". You'll need to locate your sound device drivers (the motherboard install CD, if you're using integrated audio, or your sound card CD if you've got a discrete sound card). Install the drivers, and you should be good to go.

Look for "SoundMAX Integrated Digital HD Audio" in the list above.
In the screenshot at right, the primary sound device is "SoundMAX Integrated Digital HD Audio." If you see a yellow triangle with an exclamation point, right-clicking on the device and bringing up the property sheet will give you a brief message on the nature of the error (such as "device cannot be started"). Note that if the system really doesn't recognize it as a sound device, you may see "unknown device" in a different location, with that exclamation mark.

If the device can't start, you'll see a little yellow triangle with an exclamation point beside it. That indicates a problem with the device. If you right-click on the device icon and bring up the property sheet, you'll get a description of the problem. One trick that often works is to remove the device (right-click and select uninstall), then reboot. When you reboot, Windows will often find the device and reinstall the existing drivers.

If you see no sound device at all, and you're using integrated audio, reboot the system and enter BIOS setup. Check to see if the sound device is enabled--it may have been disabled if the system once used a discrete sound card.

You can't hear the sound--but you can see it. So your sound device appears to be working. You run Windows Media Player or some other sound application and launch a song or video. You can see a visual representation of the sound playing, but nothing comes out of your speakers.

If you see audio playing, but can't hear it, check to make sure that speakers are set to be the default device.
First, take a look at the obvious things to check: Are the speakers plugged into the correct port on the motherboard or sound card? Do the speakers have power? If you have speakers that also support a separate headphone jack, unplug the headphones.

If those don't work, bring up the control panel, click on Hardware and Sound and select Sound. Make sure the speakers are the default output device. For example, if you have ever plugged in a USB headset, that driver may still be present, and Windows may think that that is the default device.

Remember the Rules of Thumb

Usually, building a new PC is a relatively straightforward process, particularly if you take a little care and deliberation while you're building it and then installing the OS. However, problems can crop up. There are far more potential problems that can occur (though rarely), and we can't possibly cover them all here. This article should have given you a few rules of thumb for the process of troubleshooting; just remember them, and you can be your own best tech support.

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