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Essential Guide:

Troubleshooting
PC Hardware
Essential Guide:
Troubleshooting PC Hardware
Learn to identify common ATX motherboard components ............................................................3
Where the heck is pin 1? Here are five ways to find it ..................................................................5
Intel inside? Find out exactly which one with the Processor Frequency ID ..................................7
Upgrade your RAM knowledge ..................................................................................................12
Keep the core system in RAM ....................................................................................................15
Troubleshoot memory chip problems..........................................................................................16
Learn how to fix bad memory ....................................................................................................17
Test your PC’s memory with Memtest86 ....................................................................................18
Diagnose faulty RAM with the Windows Memory Diagnostic utility ............................................20
How to diagnose a faulty power supply ......................................................................................21
Put your power supply to the test with a multimeter ..................................................................24
Troubleshooting PC power supplies ..........................................................................................27
Dissecting the disk drive ............................................................................................................32
Hide drive letters in My Computer ..............................................................................................35
Troubleshoot hard drive failures in seven easy steps ................................................................36
Troubleshoot NTFS disk problems with Windows XP’s Chkdsk parameters ..............................41
Improve ZIP drive performance in Windows XP ........................................................................42
Get SMART to predict hard drive failures ..................................................................................42
All about CD-R and CD-RW........................................................................................................45
All about DVD ............................................................................................................................49
Don’t throw out a bad CD-ROM drive until you’ve tried these techniques ..................................52
Learn how to support DVD drives ..............................................................................................54
DVD troubleshooting checklist....................................................................................................56
Troubleshooting a dial-up session ..............................................................................................58
When good connections go bad ................................................................................................60
Windows 2000 Professional: Troubleshoot dial-up errors ..........................................................64
A bad floppy drive or a bad controller? Here’s how to tell ..........................................................64
Restrict access to floppy drives in Windows NT ........................................................................65
Quick steps to service a broken floppy drive ..............................................................................66

Executive Editor Contributors Copy Editor


Erik Eckel Ken Dwight, V. Edward Gold, Louis Linda Watkins
Senior Editor Nel, Steven Pittsley, Brien M. Posey, Graphic Artist
Jim Wells Kyu Rhee, Greg Shultz, Natalie S. Eckerle
Faithe Wempen, Rodrigo Zamora
Learn to identify common ATX motherboard
components
U Figure A: Slot 1 and Socket 370 ATX motherboards
nless you frequently handle PC hard-
ware, finding your way around a moth-
erboard’s plastic slots and silicon chips Slot 1
I/O Ports
can be a bit confusing for the novice tech or
even the seasoned IT pro.
Although different motherboard designs
abound, all ATX form factor motherboards
have common components that you should
CPU
recognize. You may already be able to identify
Interface
some components, such as the PCI slots or
CPU interface. But can you tell the difference
between a motherboard with onboard sound
and one without?
While this is not a complete description of Memory
every resistor and capacitor, the following arti- Slots
cle will help you to more quickly distinguish Expansion Slots
common ATX motherboard components, • ISA/EISA slots (Industry Standard Architecture/Extended Industry
such as the IDE and floppy drive controllers, Standard Architecture). Usually colored black.
onboard sound and video chips, expansion • PCI slots (peripheral component interconnect). Usually colored white.
slots, and RAM memory slots. • AGP slot (accelerated graphics port). Usually colored brown.

ATX form factor basics Socket 370


Figure A shows two ATX form factor mother- I/O Ports
boards. Although the boards are configured
for different CPU types, they do have many
similar features. The expansion slots are
located on the end of the board opposite the
CPU. The I/O ports are stacked behind the CPU
CPU, and the memory slots are in front of the Interface
CPU. All ATX motherboards also use the
same colors for denoting the different types of
‹
expansion slots. ISA slots are black, PCI slots Memory
are white or beige, and the AGP slots are Slots
brown.
When installed in the PC case, the power-
supply cooling fan is also placed to blow Expansion Slots
• ISA/EISA slots (Industry Standard Architecture/Extended Industry
directly on the CPU. This greatly aids in cool- Standard Architecture). Usually colored black.
ing the CPU and other internal components. • PCI slots (peripheral component interconnect). Usually colored white.
(See Figure B.) • AGP slot (accelerated graphics port). Usually colored brown.

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Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 3


Figure B Figure C

Onboard video chip

Onboard sound and video


Many ATX motherboards have built-in sound,
video, and network adapters. Figure C shows
built-in sound and AGP video chips. Although Onboard sound chip
several manufacturers make these chips, most
are clearly marked for easy identification.
Some boards not only have built-in video
but also an AGP slot that allows the addition
of a separate video card. The same option is
available for upgrading sound, but a PCI or
ISA slot would be used to install a separate
sound card.

Floppy and IDE controllers


Most modern motherboards have one floppy
drive controller with a 34-pin male jack, as
shown in Figure D.
The IDE drive controllers are similar to
floppy controllers but have either 39 or 40 pins,

Figure D Figure E

Figure F

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Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 4


and there are normally two of them, as shown Figure G
in Figure E.

RAM memory
ATX motherboards use either 168-pin DIMM
or 184-pin RIMM RAM chips. They are not
interchangeable. Figure F shows three slots for
168-pin DIMMs, and Figure G shows four slots
for 184-pin RIMMs. ‹

Where the heck is pin 1? Here are


five ways to find it
By Ken Dwight

Y
ou might be troubleshooting a PC or Figure A
installing a brand-new device. Inevitably,
there you are, holding a dangling ribbon Serial and parallel ports
cable and wondering which way it connects.
IDE & floppy controllers
That’s right; you’re searching for pin 1.
While some ribbon cables are keyed so that
they can be plugged in only one way, many used
today are still symmetrical. In other words, the
connector can be connected backward if you’re
not careful. This is where the pin number desig-
nations become important. The ribbon cable
has a stripe, usually red, to tell you where pin 1
is on its connectors. It’s finding pin 1 on the
device and on the motherboard that’s the real
headache.
Motherboards may use any of five methods
to designate pin 1. You may need to use differ-
ent identification techniques for different moth-
erboards, and you always want to verify the pin
1 designation by at least two of these methods,
if possible. The first two methods are rules of
thumb. They won’t apply to all boards, but in
the absence of other clear indications, they’re
The floppy disk and the primary and secondary IDE controller connectors are oriented
trustworthy. Use them to crosscheck the other front-to-back on this motherboard, which lets you use method 1. On the other hand, the
methods. serial and parallel ports (upper right) are oriented left-to-right, so this method can’t be
used for those connectors.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 5


1. It’s all about location Figure B
Connectors that are positioned on the board
front-to-back, with respect to the computer
case, will almost always have pin 1 toward the
back of the case (See Figure A). There are rare
exceptions, but generally you can rely on this
rule for connectors oriented in this direction.
For connectors parallel to the back of the case,
sorry, no rule of thumb applies.

2. Consistency counts
Connectors oriented in the same direction will
be consistent. In other words, pin 1 will be at
the same end of all these connectors. If you These IDE and floppy disk controller connectors have a
can’t identify pin 1 on one connector, you might distinctive white marking under pin 1.
on another one facing the same direction. Here
again, there may be exceptions, but you can Figure C
generally count on consistency.

3. Read the signs


Look for a label on the board around the con-
nector. It may be called pin 1, or it may simply
show a 1 and 2. Other possibilities include 39 Pin 1
and 40, or 33 and 34, which would mean you
would find pin 1 at the other end. The only
problem with this rule is that many mother-
boards have so much writing on them that a “1”
may refer to something else nearby. That’s why
it’s so important to crosscheck with at least one
other method.

4. It’s symbolic
This method has the most variations: Look for
distinctive white markings around or near pin 1.
Markings may take the form of an arrow or Note that the lower right-hand pin of each connector is a square solder joint on the
arrowhead, a box drawn around pin 1, or a white motherboard, designating pin 1. These connectors are for (top to bottom) the primary
and secondary IDE controllers and the floppy disk controller.
block or circle painted under the pin (see Figure B).
Sometimes a box will be drawn around or adja-
cent to the connector, with a white isosceles tri- the other pins’ solder connections will be
angle painted in the corner that contains pin 1. round. If you haven’t seen this technique
Some motherboards don’t use any of these before, you might have trouble recognizing it
methods; in some cases you may have your (see Figure C). Once you get the hang of it,
doubts. If you reach that point, try the fifth though, you’ll recognize the square pin.
method. This one requires that you look on the The downside to this fifth method is that all
back of the board, so you will need to remove it motherboards don’t employ it, and you may
from the case if it isn’t already out. even find this technique applied inconsistently
to some connectors and not others on the same
5. Want to see my etchings? board. The great majority of boards use it on all
Look at the rear of the motherboard; in most connectors using ribbon cables. Most jumpers
cases, pin 1 will be a square solder, whereas all use the same technique. So if you have a 3-pin

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 6


jumper and aren’t sure which end has pin 1, easy for you to see. If you can’t find the marking
look for the square solder joint on the back of on a hard drive or CD-ROM, locate pin 1 at the
the board. end adjacent to the power connector. You can
count on this alignment with hard drives, CD,
Stay close to the power and DVD devices. A high percentage of floppy
The above five methods cover motherboards. drives don’t follow this standard, however.
The number of methods that apply to each If you connect the ribbon cable backward on
motherboard will vary, but all will use at least a floppy drive, you’ll know as soon as you apply
one. Of course, as a last resort, your mother- power to the unit. The floppy drive LED will
board documentation should provide this infor- stay on as long as the system is on. Any time
mation as well. But what about other system you see that symptom when you power up a PC,
components, such as hard drives? shutting it down and reversing the floppy cable
On the drives themselves, pin 1 is usually should solve the problem. ‹
marked, though not always in a position that is

Intel inside? Find out exactly which one


with the Processor Frequency ID
By Greg Shultz

H
ow many times have you gone to the this information is so cryptic that it’s useless for
System Properties dialog box in Win- most IT support professionals’ needs.
dows to find out the exact speed of Fortunately, there’s a little tool from Intel
the CPU and encountered a generic description called the Processor Frequency ID Utility that
like the one shown in Figure A? As you can see, can help. In addition to the exact CPU speed,
this utility will provide information on the bus
Figure A
speed, the size of the processor’s built-in cache,
and much more. Keep in mind that the utility is
designed for identifying certain Pentium and
Celeron processors—not all Pentium proces-
sors are fully supported. (Another utility is avail-
able for identifying AMD processors.)

Supported processors
As I mentioned, not all Pentium processors are
fully supported by the Processor Frequency ID
Utility. The utility is designed to provide infor-
mation in two categories: CPU Frequency/
Speed and CPU Identification Data. This
utility will provide information from both
categories on some Pentium and Celeron
processors, while on older processors it will
provide information only in the CPU Identifi-
cation Data category. Table A lists some Intel
processors and identifies which categories are
This type of generic information isn’t very useful in identifying
a system’s CPU. supported.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 7


GOT A COMPUTER WITH AN AMD PROCESSOR?
If you know that the computer has an AMD X Processor signature
CPU in it, and you want to get detailed infor- X Vendor ID
mation about it, you’ll need to use a specific X Approximate speed in MHz (Windows
utility from AMD. Called the AMD CPU Infor- only)
mation Display Utility (http://www.amd.
X L1 Data cache size
com/us-en/assets/content_type/utilities/
X L1 Instruction cache size
cpuinfo.exe), this tool will run under DOS, a
Command/MS-DOS Prompt window, or right X L2 Cache size
from Windows. When you run the AMD CPU X Processor Family, Model, Stepping
Information Display Utility, it will provide you X Instruction sets supported: 3DNow!,
with the following details on an AMD CPU: 3DNow! Extensions, MMX, and MMX
Extensions

Downloading the utility com/support/processors/tools/frequencyid/


Downloading the Processor Frequency ID Util- freqid.htm), which you can run from within
ity from the Intel site is easy. As I mentioned, the operating system, and the Bootable version
there are two versions of the utility: The Win- (http://support.intel.com/support/processors/
dows version (http://support.intel. tools/frequencyid/bootable.htm), which you

Table A: This table shows the amount of information reported by processor.


Processor CPU Frequency CPU ID Data
Pentium 4 Yes Yes
Mobile Pentium 4 Yes Yes
Xeon Yes Yes
Pentium III Yes Yes
Mobile Pentium III with SpeedStep Yes Yes
Mobile Pentium III Yes Yes
Pentium III Xeon Yes Yes
Pentium II No Yes
Mobile Pentium II No Yes
Pentium II Xeon No Yes
Celeron with 0.18 micron core Yes Yes
Celeron with 0.13 micron core Yes Yes
Celeron with 0.25 micron core No Yes
Pentium Pro No Yes
Pentium No Yes
Mobile Pentium No Yes
Pentium with MMX technology No Yes
Mobile Pentium with MMX No Yes

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 8


Figure B Figure C

Once you peruse the information in the Welcome screen, you can click You can launch the Windows version of the Processor Frequency ID
Next to begin the installation. Utility without rebooting the system.

can run from a floppy disk. When you arrive at Figure D


either of these pages, you’ll simply need to click
on the appropriate language version. You’ll then
be directed through several intermediary pages
before you can start the download.
At the time of this writing, the most current
version of the Processor Frequency ID Utility
is 7.1. The installation file for the Windows ver-
sion is Fidenu3.msi, and the installation file for
the Bootable version is Bfid_e16.exe. After you
download the utility, proceed to the appropriate
installation section of this article.

Installing the Windows version


You can install the Windows version of the
Once you run the DOS-based executable, the files will be extracted.
Processor Frequency ID Utility in every version
Figure E

Once the installation is complete, you’ll see a message telling you that the disk was created successfully.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 9


Figure F
TIP
To make installing and using the Bootable
version of the Processor Frequency ID
Utility easier, I suggest that when you’re
prompted to select a location to save the
file in, you create a folder in the root direc-
tory called CPUID and download the file to
this new folder.

of the Windows operating system except Win-


dows 95 and Windows NT 3.x. For computers
running these versions of Windows, you need
to use the Bootable version of the Processor
Frequency ID Utility.
To begin the installation, close all open
applications, open Windows Explorer, locate
Fidenu3.msi, and double-click on it. You’ll then The Frequency tab reports the processor speed, as well as the system bus speed.
see the Welcome screen for the installation wiz-
ard, as shown in Figure B.
The rest of the wizard asks you to accept the Figure G
software license agreement and to choose the
installation destination folder. Once the utility is
installed, the last screen of the wizard, shown in
Figure C, allows you to choose whether you want
to run the utility right away. There’s no need to
reboot the system.

Installing the Bootable version


Installing the Bootable version of the Processor
Frequency ID Utility is also a relatively straight-
forward procedure. All you need is a regular,
formatted floppy disk.

NOTE
Do not create a bootable system disk. If
you do, the Processor Frequency ID Utility
installation procedure will fail and a mes-
The CPUID Data tab displays the technical specifications of the processor.
sage stating that the disk is not empty
will appear.

To begin, insert the floppy disk into the To install the Bootable version of the
drive. Then, open a Command/MS-DOS Processor Frequency ID Utility on your floppy
Prompt window, change to the directory con- disk, simply type Setup at the prompt. You’ll
taining the Bfid_e16.exe file, and launch the then be prompted to press a key to start the
executable file by typing its name at the installation procedure. In a few minutes, you’ll
prompt. When you do, the installation files be informed that the bootable disk is ready, as
will be extracted, as shown in Figure D. shown in Figure E.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 10


Running the Windows version down the File menu and select the Save As
Once you’ve installed the Windows version of command. When you see the Save As dialog
the Processor Frequency ID Utility on your com- box, simply give the file an appropriate name
puter, running it is just a matter of selecting the and click Save.
Intel Processor Frequency ID Utility shortcut
from the Start menu. When you do, you’ll see the
Running the Bootable version
Once you’ve created a Processor Frequency ID
License Agreement dialog box and will have to bootable floppy disk, you can use this disk on
click the Accept button to continue.
A few moments after you click the Accept Figure H
button, you’ll see a two-tabbed dialog box that
provides you with detailed information about
the processor installed in the computer. Figure F
shows the contents of the Frequency Test tab
run on my test system.
As you can see, both the processor and sys-
tem bus speeds are reported here. In addition,
the processor is identified by its official Intel
logo. When you select the CPUID Data tab, as
shown in Figure G, you’ll see the technical speci-
fications of the processor. Each specification is
explained in great detail in the Definitions sec-
tion of the utility’s Help system.
It is interesting to note that the Family classi-
fication indicates the processor’s generation and
brand. For example, a Family classification of 6
indicates that my example system is a sixth-gen-
eration Intel processor, which includes the
Celeron, Pentium II, Pentium II Xeon, Pentium
III, and Pentium III Xeon processors. If you The Bootable version of the Processor Frequency ID Utility will display a report like
this one.
want to save this information to a text file, pull

MAKING THE BOOTABLE VERSION MORE PORTABLE


If messing around with floppy disks isn’t your quency ID floppy disk as the source. You’ll
idea of a good time, you’ll be glad to know then select New CD Project | Bootable CD
that you can run the Bootable version of the from the File menu. Next, select Floppy Disk
Processor Frequency ID Utility from a bootable Emulation as the Bootable CD Type and click
CD. Of course, this means that the computer OK. Once the bootable CD is set up, you can
must support booting from the CD drive. then use Easy CD Creator as you normally
All you need to do is install the utility on a would to copy the files from the Processor
floppy disk as I’ve described in the main arti- Frequency ID floppy disk.
cle. Then, fire up your CD-burning software, Once you’ve created the CD, simply insert
select the option for creating a bootable CD, it into the CD-ROM drive of the computer you
and then copy the contents of the floppy disk want to test and then restart the computer.
over to a blank CD. When you do, you’ll end up with the same
For example, if you’re using Roxio Easy CD report as you would if you had run the utility
Creator, you’ll begin by selecting the floppy from a floppy disk.
disk drive containing the Processor Fre-

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 11


any computer. To do so, power down the com- real processor identification, there’s still help for
puter, insert the disk, and then turn on the com- you. You can download the Intel CPUID Utility
puter. When you do, you’ll see the license for DOS (http://downloadfinder.intel.
agreement screen and will have to acknowledge com/scripts-df/Detail_Desc.asp?ProductID
it by pressing the number 1 key. You’ll then see =52&DwnldID=454), which is designed to
a screen similar to the one shown in Figure H. identify 386 and up processors. However, it
won’t report the processor’s speed. ‹
Identifying legacy processors
Finally, if you encounter a computer that is defi-
nitely not a Pentium class system, but lacks any

Upgrade your RAM knowledge


By Steven Pittsley, CNE

B
ecause the price for RAM has dropped referred to as DIMMs or SIMMs, the actual ref-
so drastically, more and more companies erence is being made to the form factor, which
are upgrading the memory in their exist- defines the size, pin configuration, and other
ing systems. It makes sense when you compare specifications of the module. Thus, when
the savings afforded by giving a system a per- ordering memory to upgrade a computer, you
formance upgrade with more memory to pur- would ask for a 256-MB stick of RAM, rather
chasing a new computer. However, there are than a DIMM or SIMM.
many types of RAM out there, so before you
run off and buy it, you need to be sure you get
Determining capacity
When manufacturers calculate the capacity of a
the correct type. Let’s review the different types
RAM stick, they first determine the capacity of
of RAM available and some tips to help you
the DRAM chip in megabits. This can be con-
correctly identify whether or not a system needs
fusing since a stick of RAM is normally meas-
more memory and, if so, what type to install.
ured in megabytes. However, some simple math
Basic RAM facts will help eliminate confusion.
The computer industry is chock-full of Think of DRAM chips as very large spread-
acronyms. Let’s review some of the acronyms sheets, each one made up of millions of cells
related to computer memory that you might that hold one bit of data. Determining the
come across. Terms such as single inline mem- organization of the cells will allow you to calcu-
ory module (SIMM) and dual inline memory late the capacity of the chip. For example, a
module (DIMM) may be familiar to you, but chip described as 8 Mb x 8 is telling you the
there are others that are often misunderstood. chip is eight million rows deep and eight
When manufacturers first invented memory columns wide. If you multiply the depth by the
chips, they were called dynamic random access width, you come up with the density, or capac-
memory, or DRAM. Similar DRAM packages ity, of the chip. In this example, the capacity of
were used on the memory modules in the per- the chip is 64 Mb.
sonal computer until just a few years ago. Once you know the capacity of one chip,
The printed circuit boards that are used to you can calculate the capacity of the entire
hold the DRAM chips are called sticks. stick. If your stick of RAM has eight 64-Mb
Although sticks of RAM are commonly chips, the total capacity is 512 Mb. To convert

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 12


this into megabytes, simply divide the total chip work on computer hardware. For example,
capacity by eight, which is the total number of EDO and non-EDO RAM may look the same,
bits that are in a byte. Thus, 512 Mb divided by but they cannot be mixed in the same computer
eight bits equals 64 MB. system without causing memory address errors.
If you have a computer that uses EDO RAM or
Types of RAM if you have EDO SIMMs, be sure to label them
Early PCs used DRAM memory. These chips to avoid any confusion.
were manufactured individually, and each one
had to be installed on the motherboard by SDRAM
hand. In those days, the packaging used for The next and current generation of memory
DRAM was called the dual inline pin package, began using the much faster synchronous
or DIPP. Each chip had two rows of pins that DRAM chips, or SDRAM. This type of mem-
could be easily bent when inserted into the ory is so named because it was tied, or synchro-
socket on the motherboard. nized, to the system clock. For example, if the
CPU wants a piece of data that’s stored in
DRAM, SIPP, and SIMM memory, it sends a request to the SDRAM,
In an effort to make memory installation easier, waits for a certain number of clock ticks, and
computer manufacturers began to package then retrieves the data when it has been located.
DRAM chips on printed circuit boards, similar Because SDRAM is tied to the system clock, the
to what we are used to seeing today. The first CPU will not waste time trying to access the
generation of this type of DRAM packaging data before it has been found. Also, to combat
was called the single inline pin package, or SIPP. the bandwidth and latency issues inherent in
These 30-pin modules were a step in the right memory access, SDRAM uses the “divide and
direction, but they still contained the same pro- conquer” theory by breaking up the RAM into
truding pins as the DIPP. two banks of memory. While one bank is serv-
The trend to simplify the upgrade process icing one request, the other bank will be receiv-
continued with the next generation of DRAM ing another request. This process is also
packaging called the single inline memory mod- synchronized to the system clock, with each
ule, or SIMM. SIMMs were designed to use a request and reply occurring on the tick of the
special 30-pin edge connector socket, called a system clock.
SIMM socket, on the motherboard. These mod- SDRAM chips are packaged in dual inline
ules were much easier to install and looked simi- memory modules, or DIMMs. This package
lar to the RAM installed on today’s computer uses a 168-pin socket and is 64 bytes wide.
systems. Because SDRAM is tied to the system clock, its
When the Pentium processor was released, speed is measured in MHz, just like the proces-
the motherboards were changed to include a sor. You can find SDRAM sticks that work with
72-pin SIMM socket on the motherboard. In 66-MHz, 100-MHz, 133-MHz, 166-MHz, 200-
addition to having more pins or edge connec- MHz, and 266-MHz bus speeds. Also, some of
tors, the new RAM sticks were also 32 bytes the higher-speed SDRAM is backward-compati-
wide, which increased the RAM’s performance. ble with slower bus speeds.
EDO RAM DDR SDRAM
A later generation of 72-pin RAM called The latest version of SDRAM to hit the market
extended data out, or EDO RAM, was devel- is double data rate SDRAM, or DDR SDRAM.
oped in an attempt to improve the speed at It is somewhat similar to SDRAM in that both
which memory operates. This type of memory break the RAM into smaller chunks for simulta-
helped reduce latency by allowing the DRAM neous and synchronized request-and-reply
chips to be refreshed less often. Although this access. However, DDR SDRAM performs the
did improve the performance of the system, it request and reply on both the rise and fall of the
also caused some problems for those of us who clock cycle, effectively doubling the bandwidth

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Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 13


and increasing the speed at which the system can Figure A
access data in memory.
DDR SDRAM modules use a 184-pin inter-
face. Thus, to use DDR SDRAM, you must
have a motherboard with a DDR SDRAM
DIMM interface. DDR SDRAM is offered in
two speeds. PC1600 is used with a 100-MHz
memory bus, and PC2100 will work with a
133-MHz memory bus. Because DDR
SDRAM effectively doubles the speed of
memory access, the stated memory bus speeds
will be doubled, making the 100-MHz bus
seem like a 200-MHz bus and the 133-MHz
bus seem like a 266-MHz bus.
DRDRAM
Another type of memory that has not yet
gained widespread use is called Direct Rambus
DRAM, or DRDRAM. This design is com-
pletely different from traditional SDRAM
because it uses a high-speed, 16-bit bus that
You can access Performance Options via the System Properties
runs at a clock rate of 400 MHz and uses the dialog box.
Rambus inline memory module (RIMM) socket.
Because memory access is performed on the dows, go to the Advanced tab of the System
rise and fall of the clock cycle, DRDRAM can Properties dialog box and click the Performance
theoretically run at speeds of over 1 GHz. Options button, as shown in Figure A.
Although the bus is only 16 bits wide, as To make changes, click Change, as shown in
opposed to the 64-bit bus used with SDRAM, Figure B.
the narrow channel allows the data to flow at Figure C shows the Virtual Memory dialog
a higher speed than if the bus were wider. box, which allows you to set the paging file size.
These settings should be near the total amount
Determining whether or not a of RAM currently in the computer.
computer needs more RAM
The amount of RAM that is in a computer sys- Things to think about before
tem contributes greatly to the overall perform- upgrading
ance of the machine. Insufficient memory can If you decide that a computer needs a memory
cause the system to run as much as 50 percent upgrade, the first thing you should reach for is the
below its capability. motherboard’s system book. If you don’t have
One of the telltale signs that a computer the book for the system, you can probably find
needs more memory is when the hard drive is the information on the manufacturer’s Web site.
accessed more often. When this occurs, the The two things you are looking for are the type
computer is reading and writing information to and total amount of memory the system can use.
the hard disk because the RAM is full. Doing After determining this information, take a
this is much slower than accessing the informa- moment to think about the future use of the
tion in RAM and will definitely degrade the sys- PC. If the system can use PC 100 RAM even
tem’s performance. though the bus speed is 66 MHz, you might
More obvious signs are virtual memory want to get the faster sticks; you will be able to
errors. If a user begins to receive these types of use the same memory in another computer
errors, you should check the virtual memory with a faster bus, which would allow you to
configuration on the system. To do this in Win- reuse the RAM.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 14


Figure B Figure C

When you open the Performance Options dialog box,


you can view the current virtual memory settings and
change them.

You should also consider the number of


sockets on the motherboard. If the system has
only a couple of RAM slots, you will be better
off buying a larger stick of RAM, such as a
256-MB stick. Although adding a 64-MB or In the Paging File Size For Selected Drive section, enter a
128-MB stick of RAM may meet the user’s cur- value and click Set to adjust the file size.
rent needs, when you want to upgrade to, say
512-MB or more, you will be forced to buy two Conclusion
larger sticks. Also, you may be unable to use the Upgrading PC memory isn’t too difficult. If you
smaller stick of RAM on that system unless it purchase the correct type of RAM for the sys-
has an extra socket on the motherboard. tem and consider the future use of the com-
Besides, with the current prices of memory, puter, a memory upgrade will improve the
even a 256-MB stick of RAM should be able to system performance and might take only a few
fit into most IT budgets. minutes of your valuable work time. ‹

KEEP THE CORE SYSTEM IN RAM


Windows XP takes portions of the operating 1. Launch the Registry Editor (Regedit.exe).
system, applications, and data files that aren’t 2. Go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\
currently needed in RAM and temporarily SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\
stores the data on the hard disk in the paging Session Manager\Memory Management.
file. During a normal computing session, Win- 3. Double-click DisablePagingExecutive
dows regularly moves data back and forth DWORD value.
from RAM and the paging file.
4. Change the value in the Value Data text
If you have a considerable amount of RAM
box from 0 to 1, and click OK.
in your system—512 MB or more—you can
5. Close the Registry Editor.
improve system performance by preventing
You may need to restart the system or log
the OS from sending user-mode and kernel-
out of Windows XP for the change to take
mode drivers, as well as kernel-mode system
effect.
code, to the paging file.
Note: Editing the registry is risky, so be
You can do so by changing a setting in the
sure you have a verified backup before mak-
registry. Here’s how:
ing any changes. ‹

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 15


Troubleshoot memory chip problems
By Kyu Rhee

P
hysical memory chips rarely go bad, but
memory-related errors are some of the BEWARE WHEN INSTALLING
most common problems faced by the NEW RAM CHIPS
support pro. Learn how to accurately diagnose Incorrect handling of chips can cause elec-
and troubleshoot various memory problems so trostatic discharge (ESD). This is where
that memory errors become less of a hassle and static from your body can damage the
more of a quick fix. chips. Try to hold the chips by the edges,
Is it really the memory? never touch the contacts, and ground your-
So often, reported memory problems are actu- self often by touching the metal part of
ally due to software or other component issues. your computer. Use a grounded antistatic
To eliminate this possibility and save myself wrist strap if possible.
some time, I ask the following questions before
doing anything else:
True memory problems
X Is the computer brand new? In this case, Once you’ve eliminated all other possibilities, it’s
get your computer vendor to fix the problem time to check for an actual memory problem.
under warranty. If this isn’t an option, read on. The following list addresses several potential
X Were new memory chips recently memory problems and tells how to resolve them.
installed? Check for incorrect or incompati- X The screen is blank: Check that the VGA
ble chips and make sure that they are cor- card and memory chips are seated properly.
rectly configured and seated properly in their Check compatibility between the mother-
sockets. board and the chips.
X Has any new software been installed? X Not all memory is counted: This often
If the problems occurred soon after new means incompatible RAM chips have been
software was installed, this could be the installed. On many machines, chips are
cause. Make sure the latest patches have been installed in pairs. If a new pair is not
installed. Sometimes just reinstalling software counted, check for compatibility with the
will fix the problem. Since newer software motherboard and/or the existing chips.
tends to be more memory-intensive, older Error checking and correction (ECC) chips
machines may not be able to handle the also have the habit of gradually counting less
increased load. In this case, your only option and less when there are problems. If the
may be to replace or upgrade the machine. missing memory count is small, such as less
X Was new hardware installed or removed? than 10 MB, I usually leave it alone for the
Check the computer’s components for any time being. After all, a 10-MB loss in a com-
loose connections and make sure that the puter with 128 MB of memory is really not a
new hardware is working properly. cause for alarm.
X Did it happen on a computer that was X Computer hangs or suddenly reboots:
previously working? Most perplexing Check that there is sufficient memory. Check
memory problems tend to be of this kind. for possible corrosion between each socket
First of all, if the computer does not boot and chip. A faulty power supply can also be
but merely beeps, usually this means that the the culprit.
CPU is not able to communicate with the X General-protection faults: This is often
hardware. Ensure that all components are caused by two pieces of software trying to
properly installed and that you have the latest occupy the same memory address. Rebooting
BIOS.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 16


usually solves the problem. If the problem X Memory errors reported by server system
occurs immediately after installing new mem- manager: System managers are usually
ory, replace the chips. If the problem does shipped with servers to monitor and report
not reappear, check with the manufacturer of component abnormalities. Unless you are
the problem chips for known difficulties. I using ECC chips that automatically correct
usually fix this problem by making sure that soft errors, a system manager will report a
all the chips belong to the same batch from memory error if the rate of soft errors is
the same manufacturer. greater than acceptable levels. I take this
X Memory errors reported by computer: problem very seriously, as it can lead to server
If you get a “memory mismatch” error, failure. Replace all the chips as soon as possi-
make sure that settings are correct in CMOS ble. Also make sure you have the latest BIOS.
(complementary metal-oxide semiconduc-
tor). Other errors such as “memory parity Conclusion
interrupt…,” “memory address error…,” Since memory problems can be caused by com-
“memory failure…,” and “memory verifica- ponents other than the chips, they need to be
tion error…” tend to occur when written resolved through a process of elimination. If
information is not read back correctly from quality brands are used, chances are good that
memory. The best way to check for incom- you will not encounter defective chips or cor-
patible chips is to remove the new chips and roded slots. However, incompatibility, dirty
see if the problem goes away. If it does, your sockets, outdated BIOS, and newly released
old and new chips may be incompatible. software will always require your investigative
Install all new chips to solve the problem. expertise. Hail to your job security! ‹

LEARN HOW TO FIX BAD MEMORY


If you receive either of the following mes- System.ini file, add the following line to the
sages during Windows 98 startup, you may [386enh] section:
have bad memory chips: MaxPhysPage=01000

“Invalid VxD Dynamic Link Call to Device 3 However, if you suspect that other errors
Service B.” are the result of unreliable memory, such as
drivers not loading, other startup errors, and
“While Initializing Device <filename> Win- blue screens, you may want to variably limit
dows Protection Error. You need to restart the amount of memory that Windows 98 is
your computer.” allowed to use. The easiest way to do this is
In addition, if you attempt a startup in Safe to use the Windows 98 System Configuration
mode, you may receive this message: Utility. Here’s how:
“Himem.sys Has Detected Unreliable XMS 1. Type Msconfig.exe in the Run dialog box,
Memory at <address>.” and click OK.
2. On the General tab, click Advanced.
To successfully start Windows, try swap-
ping out your DIMMs or SIMMs. You can also 3. Select the Limit Memory To check box,
try limiting the amount of memory that Win- change the value to 16 MB (or another
dows uses to less than 16 MB to see if that value), and click OK.
cuts out the bad memory. Boot Windows in 4. Reboot the system and see if the restricted
Safe Mode Command Prompt Only. In the memory usage improves the occurrences
of errors. ‹

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 17


Test your PC’s memory with Memtest86
By Brien M. Posey, MCSE

E
ven small problems with a system’s loaded a version other than the ISO images,
memory can cause a machine to act simply extract the files from the ZIP archive,
strangely. However, memory is one of open the directory where the files were
the harder components to accurately test, partly extracted, and run the install program. You
because the system reserves various portions of will be prompted to enter the floppy drive letter
the memory for internal functions while other and also insert a blank floppy disk. Once you’ve
portions are consumed by the operating system. done so, press [Enter] and the install program
But there is a tool you can use to overcome will create the Memtest86 bootable floppy.
many memory-testing obstacles—it’s one of the Memtest86 will run automatically when this
best that I have found for such testing—called disk is used to boot a PC. To create a bootable
Memtest86. CD, just use your favorite burning software and
one of the ISO images.
Downloading and installing
Memtest86 Why Memtest86 can run
Memtest86 is a freeware utility released under better tests
Gnu Public License (GPL). I’ll leave the One of the problems with testing a system’s
legalese to the lawyers, but basically the license memory is that a large portion of the memory
states that anyone can use or copy the program is usually used by the BIOS and by the operat-
for free but that modifications aren’t allowed. ing system. However, it’s just as important to
You can download Memtest86 at test these areas of memory. After all, your sys-
http://www.memtest86.com/. tem needs to have reliable memory, regardless
At the time of this writing, the current release of what that memory will eventually be used
was 3.1a, but 2.9 was also available. If you are for, so why test only part of it?
using an earlier version of Memtest86, I strongly But like many other memory testers out
recommend upgrading to one of these two ver- there, Memtest86 is unable to test 100 percent
sions because of the way memory size is deter- of a computer’s memory. It is, however, able
mined. Starting in version 2.9, the E820 method to test more memory than most testers,
of testing memory size is used. This technique because Memtest86 doesn’t require an operat-
seems to be less problematic than the technique ing system. And Memtest86 is designed to run
used in previous versions. from a bootable floppy or CD, which means
There are also several download options, that since an operating system hasn’t filled up
including: the system’s memory, the memory is free for
X Linux Memtest86 v3.0 Source and Binary testing. Sure, a bootable CD does technically
Package (http://www.memtest86.com/ use an operating system, but it’s usually some
memtest86-3.0.tar.gz) derivative of DOS and occupies only a few
kilobytes of memory and not the countless
X Pre-Compiled Memtest86 v3.0 installable
megabytes occupied by Windows operating
from Windows and DOS (http://www.
systems. Another advantage to using a
memtest86.com/memt30.zip)
bootable CD for Memtest86 is that by doing
X Memtest86 v3.0 ISO Image (http://www. so, you can test a PC regardless of what oper-
memtest86.com/memtest86-3.0.iso.zip) ating system is actually installed. This means
X Memtest86 v3.0 ISO Image (http://www. that Windows, Linux, and UNIX machines are
memtest86.com/memtest86-3.0.iso.gz) all fair game.
Once you’ve downloaded Memtest86, the Another reason Memtest86 can test so much
installation couldn’t be easier. If you down- of a PC’s memory is because of the E820

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 18


method. In the E820 method, Memtest86 looks won’t work. In such cases, Memtest86 can use
at a table provided by the BIOS that lists the the E801 and the E88 testing methods. While
various memory segments and what they are these methods do work, the BIOS-All method
used for. Unless you tell it otherwise, isn’t supported when using them.
Memtest86 will test all memory flagged as avail-
able and the area that’s reserved for advanced
When you find an error
Now that you know a little bit about Memtest86,
configuration and power interface (ACPI)
you may wonder what to do if you find a mem-
tables. The ACPI table memory can be tested
ory error. Most of the time, the results that
because the test doesn’t rely on the data stored
Memtest86 provides are valid. However, there
in these tables and because the ACPI memory
have been reports of tests 5 and 8 failing on
space can be reused for other purposes once
perfectly healthy Athlon systems.
the tables have been copied.
If your test indicates a memory failure and
Getting even more from Memtest86 you believe that the test results are reliable, I
If you want to test even more memory, there are recommend removing one memory module at
a couple of other options you can use. One a time and repeating the test until you are able
option is to use the BIOS-All command. If you to determine which memory module has the
use the BIOS-All method, Memtest86 will look problem. When using this method, you will
at the E820 memory address to determine the likely have to shuffle around some memory
memory size and will then proceed to test all the modules so that sequential memory sockets are
system’s memory, regardless of what the mem- occupied.
ory is intended to be used for. The exception to If you have tested each individual module
this is that memory above 3 GB isn’t tested, and the test results are still showing bad mem-
because doing so causes stability problems. ory, one of two things has likely happened.
Another technique called probing can also be Either the test results are inaccurate or one of
used. The probing method can be more thor- the memory sockets is bad. You can experiment
ough than the BIOS-All method. However, the with moving around your memory modules to
two tests usually produce the same results. Fur- various sockets on your system board to see
thermore, the probing technique isn’t entirely which is the case. ‹
stable.
If you are testing an older system that doesn’t
use ACPI tables, the E820 method of testing

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 19


Diagnose faulty RAM with the Windows
Memory Diagnostic utility
By Louis Nel

F Running the diagnostic


aulty RAM can play havoc on a com-
puter, whether it’s a file server or a desk- To start the tests, boot your computer with the
top workstation. RAM failures can result disk you created. At this point, you may notice
in computer lockups, data loss, and file system that the utility is a little rough around the edges.
corruption problems. The problem is that these Even though Microsoft has called it “Windows”
symptoms can occur because of other causes, Memory Diagnostic, you’ll notice that it resem-
such as general motherboard problems, operat- bles a DOS utility more than anything remotely
ing system bugs, viruses, etc. You need a way to Windows-like.
separate RAM problems from these other After Windows Memory Diagnostic has
causes. To help diagnose RAM problems, loaded, it starts running the first of three test
Microsoft provides a free utility, Windows suites, the Standard test suite, without offering
Memory Diagnostic, that will allow you to thor- you any options. The Standard test suite is the
oughly test RAM on your systems. most basic of the three, the other two being
Obtaining and installing Windows progressively more thorough.
Unless you pause or exit the test at this stage,
Memory Diagnostic the rest of the test passes of this suite will run.
You can obtain the Windows Memory Diagnos- To run more thorough tests, you’ll have to
tic utility from Microsoft’s Online Crash Analy- press [T] while Windows Memory Diagnostic is
sis Web site (http://oca.microsoft.com/ running. This gives you the option to select the
en/windiag.asp). Click the Download link. Extended Test suite. You can also select the
The file you’ll download, mtinst.exe, is only Basic Test suite (somewhat more thorough than
640 KB, so it will download quickly. the Standard suite) or create a custom test suite
After you’ve downloaded the file, run it. You by going to the Advanced Options menu and
must accept the license when the wizard begins. selecting Change The Test Suite.
You’ll then see the Windows Memory Diagnostic To get to this menu, first press [P] to pause
Setup screen. Here you have only two options: Windows Memory Diagnostic, then press [M]
Create Startup Disk or Save CD Image To Disk. for menu. You’ll notice the following Advanced
The first choice creates a bootable floppy disk. options can be set:
The second creates an ISO image that you’ll
X Change Cache Settings—This allows you
need to burn to a CD. For the purposes of this
to run the tests with the processor cache on
article, we’ll just create the boot floppy.
or off. If you turn the cache off, the tests are
Windows Memory Diagnostic will work with
more thorough.
all types of RAM, except ECC, on x86-based
computers. The computer can have CPUs from X Change The Memory Map—You can
Intel (Pentium or Celeron) or AMD (K6, choose to use an extended memory map for
Athlon, or Duron). According to Microsoft, the more thorough testing.
utility might not report errors on ECC RAM, The Extended tests can run a couple of
because ECC automatically detects and corrects hours, so you might want to let it run overnight.
the errors. It is also possible that Windows The tests will continue running until you pause
Memory Diagnostic might detect errors that the utility, exit it, or restart the computer.
ECC RAM cannot correct.
Windows Memory Diagnostic will test only Identifying the culprit
the first 4 GB of RAM. If you have more, For some hardware configurations, Windows
you’re out of luck. Memory Diagnostic can identify which memory

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 20


module is the culprit. If Windows Memory X Microsoft warns that even if you DON’T
Diagnostic finds an error in one or more mem- receive errors, it doesn’t necessarily mean
ory modules, you’ll see the View Errors By there isn’t a problem with the RAM on your
Memory Module option in the menu. This system. Something could still be wrong, but
option will show you which specific memory the utility just might not be able to detect it.
modules are failing and need to be removed or Microsoft has tested Windows Memory
replaced. Diagnostic with more than 70 different
When interpreting test results, keep the fol- motherboard, motherboard chipset, and
lowing in mind: RAM combinations, but naturally the com-
X Even though you can run the test multiple pany hasn’t tested it under all possible
times, if no errors appear after one pass, the combinations. ‹
RAM is probably working correctly and the
utility probably won’t find errors on subse-
quent passes using the same settings.
X If errors are reported on all memory mod-
ules, instead of faulty memory, you’re proba-
bly encountering a faulty motherboard.

How to diagnose a faulty power supply


By V. Edward Gold

M
ost computer failures come from one
of two places—hard drive failures or JUST THE BASICS
power supply problems. Most power In this article, I’ll show you how to locate
supply problems usually don’t result from inter- power supply problems using a minimal
nal component failure, but rather from external understanding of electronics and a basic
events that place unreasonable demands on
understanding of the multimeter. You can get
components within the power supply. For
a multimeter at most any electronics shop.
example, if lightning or a large power surge
The scope of this article is limited to the
were to hit the electric lines, you would expect
this to damage the high voltage section. Here’s least complex portions of the power supply.
what makes up the typical power supply and Fortunately, these account for almost all the
how you can figure out what’s wrong with it. problems I have ever seen, so odds are very
good that your problems will be similar.
Electricity 101
Electricity is the flow of electrons from a lower
potential (more negative) to a higher potential ventional current. It’s important since all the
(less negative). When Benjamin Franklin discov- electronic components are drawn according to
ered electricity, he mistakenly assumed that elec- this convention.
tric current flowed from positive to negative, so Electrons flow through components, and
you honor this mistake to this day by describing you call this flow current. Current is measured in
current flow in this manner. This is called con- amperes. Current flows only when a potential

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 21


difference exists. The measurement of potential currents while blocking lower frequency cur-
is based in volts. rents (DC being the lowest frequency of all).
Lastly, you must understand the differences X Inductors—These are really just coils of
between alternating current (AC) and direct cur- wire, sometimes wound around a metallic or
rent (DC). Alternating current changes polarity ferrite core. These can take on a number of
following a sinusoidal pattern. Electrons initially appearances such as a donut shape, a small
flow in one direction, and then they reverse to cylinder with axial leads, or numerous other
flow in the opposite direction. Power compa- packages. Typically, you will find markings on
nies distribute AC power because it’s easier to the printed circuit board such as L1, L2, etc.
generate and transmit. Unfortunately, in the where these components are mounted.
United States, our power standard calls for 60- Inductors block higher frequency alternating
Hz oscillation between current polarities. This currents while allowing DC to pass through
is the absolute worst frequency for the human unobstructed.
heart, since it is perfect for causing fibrillation.
For this reason, extreme safety precautions X Diodes—These devices are usually long
should be taken when performing any of the cylinders with leads sticking out of both
debug procedures described in this article! ends axially. Usually, they are painted black
and have a silver or white stripe on one end.
DANGER! Normally, there will be additional markings
House current is very dangerous, and it on the printed circuit board that identify
claims a number of lives every year. I will these parts using symbols such as D1, D2,
include safety instructions along with each etc. Diodes allow current to pass in only one
debug step I offer. If you stick with the
direction. You are most concerned about the
diodes that will be used to rectify AC current
method discussed, you will not get hurt. If
into DC current.
you plan to deviate from my suggestions, I
hope you will at least have a loved one X Transformer—You will be concerned only
stand nearby with a broom. In the event
with the power transformer that steps down
the AC house current to a lower voltage.
that you become part of a 110V circuit, the
This component should have an iron core
broom will be useful for knocking you free
and coils of wire wrapped around the core.
from the electricity! The coils will have some kind of insulator
coating around them.
Basic electronic components that X Voltage regulators—These devices will
make up your power supply look very much like transistors, in that they
The components that make up your power have three leads that connect to the printed
supply include: circuit board. These devices are typically
X Capacitors—These have many shapes and mounted to a heat sink, which is a large
sizes, and they can be made from any num- metal plate that allows heat to dissipate away
ber of materials. They always have two wires from the package. The voltage regulators
(leads). They are typically round or cylindri- ensure that the power supply outputs never
cal, but sometimes rectangular. They are usu- exceed the desired voltage levels. The power
ally made with a ceramic, plastic, or even supply might generate a slightly higher volt-
metal exterior. Markings on the device will age, which enters one terminal of the voltage
usually declare the capacitance in mF, uF, or regulator. On the output terminal, the volt-
pF. Typically, you will find markings on the age regulator would then supply a regulated
printed circuit board such as C1, C2, etc. +5V or +12V to the rest of the computer.
where these components are mounted. X Metal oxide varistors—Really well-designed
Capacitors pass higher frequency alternating power supplies will have these somewhere

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 22


very close to the socket where AC power ensure that the cord properly delivers house
enters the power supply. They look very current to the power supply.
much like capacitors in that they usually have If none of the lights come on and the fan
a round body with two leads. Almost always, doesn’t spin up, this is almost certainly a power
they will have a plastic enclosure, and they supply issue. However, you cannot be certain
will usually be denoted by symbols such as that the power supply is at fault yet, since a
MOV or V on the printed circuit board. number of problems could cause this exact
These devices are normally used as surge same symptom. For example, if a floppy drive
protectors. You can mentally imagine them shorted out, it would essentially create a prob-
as being two diodes that face opposite direc- lem for the power supply, which would ideally
tions. Normally, no matter which way the blow a fuse!
current is going, one diode or the other will In order to determine whether the power
block the current from flowing. When a volt- supply has failed, you must disconnect the
age spike hits the MOV, it causes one or the power supply from all other components.
other diode to break down and conduct the Before doing this, I highly recommend that you
wrong way. This would be analogous to take a roll of masking tape and label each wire
flood waters overtaking a dam. When this before removing it. The specific connections
happens, the MOV conducts current and that must be removed are:
hopefully shorts out the voltage spike before X The four-wire connectors to each of the
it harms other system components. If the peripherals like floppies, hard drives, etc.
surge lasts too long, this will usually damage
X The big cluster of wires that connects to the
the MOV, which makes it a very likely cause
motherboard (might be two bundles, or
of power supply failure!
might be just one).
The FCC sets standards for how much noise
is allowable, so designers use capacitors like X The two connectors found in most older
these to achieve compliance. Likewise, induc- power supplies that attach to the mother-
tors such as L1 and L2 also serve to block high- board. These connectors could easily be
frequency noise from sneaking out of the reattached incorrectly, if you don’t pay atten-
power supply. Notice that the two MOVs con- tion to where each one of them goes. So
nect both of the high voltage lines to the outlet make sure you know how to reconnect the
ground. Normally, the MOVs will act like they motherboard properly, before you remove
aren’t even there. However, if a surge comes in the connectors!
on either AC line, the MOV will short the surge Once you remove all of the connections,
to the outlet ground. repeat the same test. If the fan doesn’t spin up,
this probably means the power supply is failing.
Determining whether the To be certain, you can verify the failure with the
power supply is failing multimeter. If you set the meter to measure DC
First, you have to be sure that the computer voltage, using a scale that handles at least 15V,
problem is even a power supply issue. The easi- you can measure the voltage going to any of the
est way to determine this is to make a few peripheral connectors. By inserting the negative
observations. After having made sure the com- probe into one of the black wire contacts in the
puter is plugged in and the wall outlet works, connector and the positive probe into the red
switch the computer on. If the fans and lights wire contact of the connector, you should see
don’t come on, this definitely points a finger at the meter read 5V. If you move the positive
the power supply. Before condemning the probe from the red contact to the yellow con-
power supply, make sure the power cord is con- tact, you should see 12V on that contact. If
nected and intact. You can swap power cords neither of these occurs, you know the power
between the monitor and the computer to supply is not functioning.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 23


In the event that the fan does spin up after power cord and then remove the power supply
you’ve removed all the connections, then you from the chassis, along with its metal cover.
can easily figure out which component caused Upon opening the cover, inspect the power
the failure. Just remove the power cord, and supply circuit board for charred components.
then reconnect the motherboard and test again This is often the easiest way to identify a prob-
with power. If the fan doesn’t spin up, you lem. If you find burn marks anywhere on the
know the motherboard is hosed. If everything printed circuit board, this usually identifies
is okay, again remove power, and then reattach components that got very hot just before some-
power to each of the other peripherals one at a thing failed. This doesn’t mean that these are
time, and test. Whichever component prevents the components that caused the failure, but they
the fan from spinning up is the guilty party. are most likely defective now. ‹

Remove and inspect


Assuming you determined that the power sup-
ply was defective, you must first remove the

Put your power supply to the test


with a multimeter
By V. Edward Gold

N
ormally, it’s easier to just replace a PC
power supply than it is to fix one. DANGER!
However, some PC manufacturers House current is very dangerous and claims
produce custom cases with custom power-sup- a number of lives every year. I will include
ply enclosures. This scenario forces you to have safety instructions along with each debug
to order a costly replacement directly from the step I offer. If you stick with the method dis-
manufacturer. In many cases, an hour of time cussed, you won’t get hurt. If you plan to
invested and $10 worth of parts can save you deviate from my suggestions, you’re at risk
$30-$100 that you would otherwise spend on a
of serious injury.
new power supply. Here’s how you can test the
components inside of your computer’s power
supply. supply. The voltage regulators are the last stage
of the supply and connect the power-supply
What can go wrong? outputs to the various other components within
In my experiences, nearly all power-supply the computer.
problems occur in either the high-voltage sec-
tion of the power supply or in the voltage regu- Testing the high voltage of
lator stage. This makes a great deal of sense the power supply
since these are the circuits closest to the exter- The power supply’s high-voltage section trans-
nal world. The high-voltage section transforms forms house current into a lower-voltage alter-
the house current from the wall socket to the nating current that can easily be filtered and
lower voltages needed by the rest of the power distributed to the PC. You can see an example

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 24


of a typical schematic in Figure A. This Figure A
schematic will not exactly match your power Power
Fuse Switch L1
supply, but it illustrates the typical configura-
tion. The graphic shows the typical arrange-
C1 L2
ment of the various components and lets you
see how each component might fail and ulti- MOV1 MOV2
mately cause power-supply failure. C2 C3
Looking at the schematic in the figure, you
can see that if any of the capacitors were
replaced with dead shorts, this would cause the Transformer
Primary
fuse to blow. Likewise, if the metal oxide varis-
tors (MOVs) fail in the same manner, they
would also cause the fuse to blow. Now, if these
Transformer
components were to fail and become open cir- Secondary
cuits, nobody would ever notice. These wouldn’t +V
DC
cause a catastrophic failure. Likewise, if an + To next
inductor became a dead short, again you might - C4 stage of
power supply
not realize it had failed. However, if the induc- -V
tor burned up and became an open circuit, this Rectifier DC
would render the power supply inoperative. You Here are the basics of what a power supply looks like.
can check for each of these conditions using
your multimeter.
To use the multimeter for component valida- from the circuit using a soldering iron and test it
tion, you need to set it to measure resistance. again. If it reads something on the order of 10
Most of the cheaper multimeters have a num- to 100 ohms, the meter is probably picking up
ber of different scales for measuring various the parallel circuit formed from L1, L2, and the
ranges of resistance. The more expensive transformer primary. If you exhaust all other
meters will automatically scale. If you have one possibilities, pull the capacitor and test it.
of the economy multimeters (as I have), set it to Testing the inductors is much easier. Again
measure on the lowest scale. On my meter, this you measure the resistance across these com-
is the 100 ohm scale. The meter is most sensi- ponents and hope they are very low. If they
tive when set on this scale. If you measure measure anything short of infinity, then every-
across the fuse, you should see very close to 0 thing is good.
ohms measured. If you discover the fuse is The metal oxide varistors should work
blown, you must keep searching. A fuse rarely exactly the opposite. If you read anything less
blows without something else having caused a than 100 ohms, the device is damaged. Nor-
more serious problem. mally, if these devices are damaged, the fuse will
Likewise, you should be able to measure also be blown out. These devices will fail if a
across the power switch and see infinite resist- prolonged surge strikes the power supply. If
ance in one setting and 0 ohms when the switch these are found to be defective, you can replace
is pressed. If the switch doesn’t read 0 ohms in them, replace the fuse, and then put the power
at least one configuration, you know the switch supply back together. Almost always, these
is defective. devices fail early enough to protect everything
When you measure across a capacitor, you else. Technically, you could just remove the
expect the resistance to be very high. The only MOVs and test without them. If this is the only
exception to this rule would be for C1, which problem, then the power supply will function,
might read falsely low because the multimeter will but it will have no surge protection.
also see the parallel circuit looking into the trans- The last component in the high-voltage sec-
former primary. If C1 reads 0 ohms, remove it tion is the transformer primary winding. This is

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 25


just a coil of wire, as far as the high-voltage cir- Look for a 25-volt or 50-volt scale on the meter.
cuit is concerned. You can expect it to have a Measure the voltage between the black wire and
fairly low resistance when measured with the the red wire on any of the peripheral connec-
multimeter. If the resistance measures very tors (four wires: two black, one red, one yellow).
high, say more than 100 ohms, the transformer If you see 5 volts on this connector, measure
has burned out and must be replaced. the yellow wire to see if it carries 12V. If both
At the bottom of the figure, you can see a are present, you can install the power supply
full-wave rectifier circuit constructed from back into the computer (after first disconnecting
four diodes. This circuit might actually be four AC power from the supply).
separate diodes on some power supplies, while
it might be a single device with four leads on Testing the voltage regulators
others. Regardless of how it appears, it’s very After fixing the high-voltage section, if the +5V
easy to test. If you connect your multimeter or +12V outputs are still not working, you have
across any diode, you should see a very low one last easy debug procedure to perform. You
reading in one direction and a very high read- will again need to remove power, remove the
ing when you reverse the probes. If you get a power-supply enclosure, and locate the voltage
very low reading regardless of which way you regulators. These parts always have three leads,
connect the probes, then the diode is bad. and most every power supply I have seen uses
In the case of the single package rectifier, the the very same part labeled LM7905 for the 5V
same rules apply. You can imagine the diodes regulator, and LM7912 for the 12V regulator.
being between neighboring leads. If you get low It is possible that the power-supply manufac-
resistance in both directions, the device is turer chose some other part for voltage regula-
defective. When the rectifier fails in this man- tion. If you cannot find the LM7905, try
ner, it will sometimes burn up the transformer following the red wires back from any of the
and will always blow the fuse eventually. If this peripheral connectors. The land pattern on the
happened, it’s very fortunate since the failure printed circuit board should flow directly from
would probably not propagate beyond the recti- this wire to the voltage regulator.
fier. If you had a burned-up transformer and Once you locate these parts, you can choose
the rectifier was still intact, the problem might any of several ways to determine whether they
have been within the internals of the power are working or not. Perhaps the easiest way is to
supply. just remove them and replace them with new
After making all the appropriate repairs to ones you obtain from an electronics store. They
the circuit, check carefully to make sure you cost under $1 each, so this might be the most
didn’t accidentally drop any solder blobs on the efficient use of time.
circuit board. If you replaced any components Alternatively, you can remove the regulators
with new ones, make sure you trim the leads and solder three wires in their place. Label each
short so they won’t make contact with anything of the wires and make sure they are long
else, especially the metal cover. Once you have enough to be accessible once the enclosure is
checked everything carefully, reinstall the again restored. This will let you inspect the
power-supply printed circuit board within the input voltage going to the regulators when
power-supply enclosure. Don’t install the power power is applied. To do this, you must again
supply back in the computer just yet. You will have the multimeter set to measure voltage on
want to test it out before going through the the 25-volt or 50-volt scale. With power
trouble of putting it all back in the computer. restored, you then must measure the voltage
When the enclosure is properly restored between the ground terminal wire and the input
around the power supply, reconnect the power terminal wire. The voltage measured across
cord and inspect to see if the fan has spun up. these two wires should be 5 volts or greater for
If the fan functions, check the output voltages the LM7905, and 12 volts or greater for the
using the multimeter set to measure voltage. LM7912. If these voltages do appear, replace

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 26


the defective regulator and the power supply power-supply failures, you should feel comfort-
will again function. able opening up and diagnosing some of the
However, if they read zero, unfortunately the more common power-supply problems. The
problem is outside the scope of this article. procedures I’ve outlined won’t cure highly com-
Power supplies are quite different in their inner plicated problems; those are best left to techni-
workings, so it would be nearly impossible for cians with the proper training. ‹
me to write an adequate tutorial that would
apply to most of them.

A place to start
Now that you know the procedure for identify-
ing and correcting the most common PC

Troubleshooting PC power supplies


By Rodrigo Zamora

I
solating PC power supply problems can be Even if you do have a replacement available,
either very straightforward or extremely dif- you may find that the power supply is not the
ficult, depending largely on the type of source of the problem. So to save time, you
problem, the symptoms that you observe, and should do some simple troubleshooting first.
when the symptoms occur. Although a com-
pletely dead PC is almost always due to a faulty ATX power supplies
supply, other types of problems are not nearly Although the general principles discussed in this
as obvious. In fact, there are some power supply article can be adapted for AT types of PC power
problems that can be easily mistaken for a prob- supplies, I will primarily discuss the ATX sup-
lem with another component or with the con- plies since they are the most common. Unlike
figuration of the system. Since every device or AT supplies, ATX supplies are connected to a
component attached to your PC depends either PC’s motherboard at a main 20-pin connector.
directly or indirectly on the power from the sys- The ATX 12V supplies have an additional 4-pin
tem’s supply, developing a methodology for iso- +12V connector, and the ATX standard also
lating power problems can be quite useful. allows for an auxiliary and optional connector.
Why not try to isolate the problem by imme- For this article, however, I am only concerned
diately replacing the supply? Simply replacing a with the main 20-pin connector, whose pin-out
power supply is common practice when a sup- is shown in Figure A. The color at each pin repre-
ply problem is suspected. Although this can be sents the color of the wire on the supply cable
a very effective troubleshooting method (espe- that will be connected to the pin. Most, but not
cially for dead systems), there may be situations all, ATX supplies use this color scheme. Notice
where doing so is just not an immediate option. that ATX supplies use five different voltage rails
For example, if you are working in the field or a of which the +3.3V, +5V, and +12V are the
system uses a proprietary supply, you may not most important. The GND pins are at common
have a proper replacement readily available. In ground potential that on PCs, like on most other
some situations, it may be ineffective and incon- electronic devices, is also the potential of the
venient to replace a supply as a first option. system chassis.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 27


When you plug in an ATX supply—and the Figure A
rocker switch on the supply, if there is one, is
1 10
on—there will always be a nominal +5V at the
5VSB pin (pin 9) regardless of whether the +3.3V +3.3V GND +5V GND +5V GND PWOK 5VSB +12V
computer is turned on or not. This standby volt-
age is used to power the push-button circuitry +3.3V -12V GND PSON GND GND GND -5V +5V +5V
that actually turns on the machine. It is also used
in conjunction with the PS_ON pin (pin 14) to 11 KEY 20
allow software such as the operating system to
This shows the ATX main 20-pin connector and color scheme. The key keeps the supply
control the power to the system. Normally, the cable from being connected backward.
PS_ON pin will be at a nominal +5V when the
system is off. When you press the case switch to
power on the system, the voltage at the PS_ON Figure B Figure C
pin will drop to ground potential (0V), and the
ATX supply will be powered on. A short time (a
few hundred milliseconds) later, the power sup-
ply will send a Power OK signal to the mother-
board via the POWER_OK pin (pin 8), and the
system will start its boot procedure.
Proprietary power supplies may not use the
standard 20-pin ATX connector. However,
An ATX power supply tester is a simple device.
these power supplies will still provide the ATX
voltages and signals albeit in a different configu-
ration. You should still be able to troubleshoot
these supplies in a similar fashion as standard
ATX supplies. Here, a DMM measures an AC line voltage.

Troubleshooting tools
The following basic and relatively inexpensive contains high voltages and should never be
tools for troubleshooting power supplies are opened by someone not qualified to do so. Line
ones you’re likely to have on hand. voltage (i.e., voltage from a wall outlet) will be
about 115 VAC RMS (U.S.) or 230 VAC RMS,
Multimeter so remember to set your meter to AC and use
The multimeter is the single most important
caution when measuring it.
troubleshooting tool for an electronics techni-
cian. Multimeters come in two flavors: analog ATX power supply tester
and digital (DMM). Both types serve the same This very simple device (Figure C) consists of
purpose, but I will concentrate on DMMs since two power resistors connected to +5V and
they are easier to read and use. Figure B shows a GND through an ATX 20-pin connector. An
DMM. LED is provided to show POWER_OK, and a
An important consideration when using a jumper wire drives PS_ON low so that the sup-
DMM to test PC power supplies is to set the ply can turn on.
meter for the type of voltage you will be read- This tester provides an inexpensive and
ing (AC or DC), and if your meter is not auto quick good/no-good test that does not require
ranging, set it to a range higher than the voltage any devices to be attached (not even the moth-
you will be reading. All modern PCs use low erboard), as shown in Figure D. Notice that the
DC voltages inside the case, so set your meter power supply is not connected to any devices
to DC when reading these voltages. The excep- other than the tester. Although hard to notice in
tion to this rule is when measuring voltage this picture, the LED is lit, indicating a good
inside the actual power supply housing, which supply.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 28


This simple test allows you to quickly deter- Figure D
mine if the source of a power problem is the
power supply or another PC component. To use
an ATX power tester, you first unplug the power
cord at the PC end. Then, you disconnect all
devices from the power supply including drive
bay devices, motherboard, and any fans that are
directly attached to a power supply connector.
Next, attach the power supply’s main connector
to the tester’s 20-pin connector. Reconnect the
power cord to your PC and check to see if the
tester’s LED lights up and if the fan is working.
If the LED does not light up, you can be quite
certain that your supply is bad. If it does light This image shows testing a power supply with an ATX power
supply tester.
up, you can be reasonably sure that it’s good.
However, as Figure E shows, these testers are not Figure E
extremely thorough so use them as a general test
only. Remember to unplug the cord before
removing the tester.
BIOS setup and sensor software
Most motherboards manufactured after 1997
come with onboard sensor circuitry that meas-
ures system temperatures and voltages. This can
be helpful when a supply problem is suspected.
Most of these boards will provide the readings
in a section within the BIOS setup, but they can
also be accessed through software usually pro-
vided by the chipset or motherboard manufac- ATX power testers are not necessarily thorough.
turer. An excellent third-party sensor program
for Windows is Motherboard Monitor. It’s Figure F
shown in Figure F.

Isolating the supply in


a dead system
A completely dead PC is one where no activity
or power can be detected when you try to turn it
on. Its symptoms are very easy to spot. There
will be no lit LEDs, no spinning fans, no video,
and no beep codes. Faulty supplies are the main
cause of completely dead systems.
Many times, a power supply will not fail Motherboard Monitor can display a variety of motherboard
immediately but will instead fail gradually. sensor data and can be set to trigger an alarm or send
notification if a value is not within the limits you specify.
Before complete supply failure actually occurs,
the system may lose power during operation
and then power up again only after an extended on the display and no BIOS boot activity. You
period. Eventually, you may be able to turn on can treat this situation in the same manner as a
the power supply (i.e., the fans spin and the dead system problem and troubleshoot it
power LED lights up), but there will be nothing accordingly.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 29


Another important cause of completely dead Check internal power
systems is using an ATX power supply that Remove the cord from the supply and open the
does not provide enough current on its +5VSB case. Make sure that the supply’s connectors to
rail to power the Wake On LAN (WOL) feature the motherboard and those being used with
of newer motherboards. This usually involves devices are firmly inserted.
older ATX supplies that are not compliant with If you have an ATX tester, you can save time
the newer ATX standards. Removing the cable by using it with the method discussed earlier to
that connects the NIC to the WOL header on immediately isolate the supply from the rest of
the motherboard will resolve the issue but will the system. If the tester indicates that the sup-
leave the system incapable of using the WOL ply is bad, you should replace the supply. Other-
feature. wise, the problem may be related to a failed
You could use the following steps to quickly internal device.
isolate a power supply as the source of a dead If you are using a multimeter instead, set it
system’s problem. to measure DC voltage and connect the black
Check the obvious probe to any convenient place on the chassis.
Start by looking for problems that may be easily Reconnect the power cord. Before proceeding,
overlooked. This can save you from wasting determine whether or not the ATX supply is
precious time and also helps to keep your pro- actually turning on when the system power
fessional pride intact. Make sure that you are switch is pressed. Do this by first placing the
getting power at the receptacle by checking to red probe on the PS_ON pin (14) that usually
see if other devices plugged in to the same out- has a green wire attached. This should give you
let have power. You could use a DMM to check a reading of about +5V on your meter. After
the actual AC voltage at the receptacle and pressing the power button, the signal should
make sure that it is at or close to nominal. swing close to 0V (a few millivolts), indicating
Determine if the cord has continuity either by that the supply has been switched on. Next,
using a meter, swapping the cord with a known determine whether or not the supply is provid-
good one, or plugging it in to the outlet and ing stable power to the system. To do this,
measuring the AC output at the connector end move the red probe to the Power OK or Power
(as shown in Figure B). After establishing that Good pin (8) that usually has a gray wire con-
the cord is okay, make sure it is firmly con- nected. Your meter should show approximately
nected to both the receptacle and the supply. 5V, but a reading between 3 to 6 volts is accept-
Check that the 115/230 VAC selector switch (if able. If this value is close to 0V or out of range,
the supply uses one) on the back of the supply your supply is probably bad. Replacing the sup-
is set to the proper voltage. Checking the selec- ply at this point will often fix the problem.
tor switch is especially important if you have However, there are situations in which a bad
just installed a supply or built the system. Try internal device can result in the supply not pro-
powering the system to see if the problem has ducing the proper output voltages. To be thor-
been resolved. ough, you should isolate the supply from
internal devices.
Disconnect external peripherals
To isolate the system from all external peripher- Disconnect internal devices
als, disconnect them and leave only the power Since PC power supplies must have loads con-
cord connected to the system case. If you can nected to operate and provide proper regulation,
then turn on the PC, the problem is due to an you should not operate them when completely
external peripheral. Reconnect them one at a disconnected. Test one internal device at a time
time to determine which peripheral is at fault. by using the following technique:
Remember to turn off the system before X Disconnect a device from the supply.
reinstalling each device. X Try to power the system.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 30


X If the PC does not turn on, reconnect the X Dirty power or poor regulation.
device and test the next device. X Malfunctioning supply fans.
Keep in mind that the 20-pin connector
X Malfunctioning internal supply components.
from the supply must remain connected to the
motherboard in order for the supply to turn on X Supplies with poor Power Good timing.
and provide a POWER_OK signal. If the sys- You can begin isolating a power supply as a
tem does not turn on after all internal devices source of lockup and stability problems by
directly connected to the supply have been examining the most common causes of these
checked, you can then unplug the system, problems. Use a DMM, BIOS sensor info, or a
remove all adapter cards from the motherboard, program like Motherboard Monitor to deter-
reconnect the cord, and test for power. If the mine how close output voltages are to nominal
PC still does not turn on, the most practical (Figure F). Voltages that deviate greatly from
option left is replacing the supply. nominal (especially at lower voltages) can indi-
cate supply problems.
Lockup and stability problems Notice that in the figure, all the voltages
If the system you are troubleshooting is suffering shown are within one percent of their nominal
from random lockups and reboots, it could be values. This indicates that the supply is providing
that the power supply is to blame. Unfortunately, excellent regulation and should be working well.
there are many other culprits that can cause the Determine if your power supply’s output
same types of symptoms. Lockups and sporadic power specifications are adequate to support all
reboots may also be related to software, hard- of your system’s components. If your system
ware, power supply problems, external power tends to lock up during bootup, you may be
problems, system configuration, etc. One of the overloading the +12V rail.
difficulties in determining that a power supply is To continue isolating the supply, try to elimi-
the source of lockup and stability problems is nate as many other sources of lockups and sta-
knowing to suspect the supply in the first place. bility problems as possible. Some of the most
Although it is hard to establish a trou- common include:
bleshooting methodology for isolating a supply X Bad or incorrectly configured RAM.
as the cause of lockup and stability problems,
there are a few symptoms and situations that X Heat-related problems. (Check your fans and
may lead you to suspect the supply: airflow.)
X Problems began after upgrading a system X Hardware conflicts. (Even on PCI, some
with a power-hungry device. devices do not like to share IRQs.)
X You’ve experienced sporadic memory X Software conflicts. (Keep your firmware and
errors that do not occur at the same drivers up to date.)
memory location. X Corrupt system or program files.
X Lockups and/or reboots are not related to X Noisy and dirty outlet power. (Make sure
any single program and do not occur at any the power received by the PC is clean,
specific moment. properly grounded, and contains no ground
X You have a power supply that feels very hot loops.)
when operating. These are the most common causes of sys-
X You experience poor hard-disk performance, tem lockups and reboots but are by no means
even after reformatting the drive. the only possibilities. After you have exhausted
your options, try replacing your supply with a
Some power supply problems that may cause
high-quality unit. Remember that cheap power
boot, lockup, and stability problems include:
supplies that operate very closely to or at their
X Overloaded power supplies—loads that specified maximum ratings are the cause of
exceed either the maximum output of the many problems.
supply or of a particular voltage rail.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 31


Conclusion problem. This is not always easy and can require
Replacing a suspect power supply can be a quick a considerable amount of patience before the
and effective solution. However, it can also be a actual problem is found, but by recognizing
hit or miss proposition that can result in wasted symptoms, analyzing operating information, and
time. To ensure thoroughness, and as a require- understanding system requirements, you will be
ment for some types of problems, you should able to establish system stability. ‹
try to isolate a power supply as the source of a

Dissecting the disk drive


By V. Edward Gold

E
ver since I first saw an advertisement tion of each data item. Those of you who can
for the Apple II personal computer, I remember back to the 5¼-inch floppy might
have had a strong fascination for the recall that those floppies had a tiny hole near
disk drive. I must have taken apart dozens of the center spindle hole. If you manually spun
the little monsters in my quest to fully under- the disk, you could see that there was a hole in
stand their functionality. the media as well. The floppy drive would shine
I’ll disclose everything I learned along the way. a Light Emitting Diode (LED) through the hole
In addition, I’ll unlock some of the secrets of and would sense the light pulse whenever the
the Master Boot Record (MBR), how BIOS disk was in a specific position. By counting time
boots from a disk, how disks are partitioned, and from the detection of the disk hole, the disk
how the operating system formats the disk. I’ll drive could determine the position of any data
then compare the disk-manipulation tools of the bit on the floppy. This technique was known as
various operating systems: Linux and Windows. hard sectoring since it depended on a physical fea-
ture of the disk.
Take a look at a floppy
Let’s begin our journey by thinking about a sin- Solving the hard-sectoring issue
gle-sided floppy drive. Such a drive has only a The hard-sectoring technique was somewhat
few basic parts. A servomotor spins the flexible problematic because different disk drives would
disk media at a precisely controlled speed. The have to count time exactly the same way. The
speed must be accurately controlled or the drive variations in timing crystals and other compo-
will never be able to find the data it previously nents made this a bad approach. Also, the
stored. Magnetic read/write heads float above longer the drive had to count time, the greater
the magnetic media surface on air currents pro- its chances were for being wrong! So different
duced by the spinning disk. If the heads contact areas on the disk might be less reliable than
the media, the friction normally carves deep other regions.
concentric rings in the media. This is called a A better technique, called soft sectoring, helps to
head crash, and it’s usually catastrophic. The drive eliminate this problem. Instead of relying on any
also has a positioning motor, which moves the hardware-based measurement, the disk drive
heads back and forth above the disk. itself writes a data pattern onto the disk. The
At this point, we know just about everything pattern is generated based on crystal-controlled
about the physical hardware. Next, we need to timing, so it should be nearly exact. Once this
understand how the disk drive finds the loca- pattern is written over every track of the disk,

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 32


the disk drive can watch the pattern go past the the bootstrap code extracts the partition infor-
heads and easily determine where the heads are mation from the partition table, the bootstrap
in relation to the stored data. Essentially, this program will load the operating system kernel
data pattern acts like street signs or an on-the-fly from the disk and then transfer control to it.
road map. We often refer to this data pattern as
low-level formatting. In the large disk drives of BIOS, bootstrapping, and loaders
today, this pattern is generated at the factory and It’s important to understand that the bootstrap
stored (permanently, we hope) on your drive. code relies heavily on the BIOS to handle the
basic disk I/O functions. If you study the code
Tracks, sectors, cylinders, and described in the link above, you’ll see the INT
heads... oh my! instruction called in several places. This gener-
Anyone who has ever installed a hard drive has ates a software interrupt to a BIOS routine.
no doubt seen the terms tracks, sectors, cylinders, This interrupt is necessary because the MBR is
and heads. Tracks are just the concentric rings only 512 bytes long and couldn’t possibly con-
on a disk surface. A track is divided into sectors, tain the required code to perform all the needed
each of which is usually 512 bytes. A hard drive functions. Therefore, the boot code relies on
has a number of heads that all move in parallel. the BIOS to enable it to read the disk. This is
Thus, if the first head is on track 0, then every why BIOS limitations can impact your ability to
other head is also on track 0. For this reason, we boot partitions outside the geometries that the
normally discuss cylinders as being the collec- BIOS can understand.
tion of all tracks spanned by the heads at the Many people first experience this problem
same time. In other words, cylinder 0 would be when they buy a big hard drive and then try to
track 0, head 0 plus track 0, head 1 plus track 0, attach it to an older system. The operating sys-
head 2 plus.... You can imagine the disk drive as tem can handle the disk just fine, but the boot
a bunch of disks stacked vertically with heads code can’t get it started! This is why special soft-
usually on both sides of each disk. ware like EZ-Drive from Western Digital and
MaxBlast from Maxtor was written. These pro-
The Master Boot Record grams circumvent the BIOS limitations for
Hard drives come in many geometric variations. installing DOS and Windows, but they are a
The computer needs some way to know what major source of confusion to people hoping to
kind of disk is being used. It gets the basic drive install Linux into a dual- or multiple-boot sys-
geometry from the BIOS, but that doesn’t indi- tem. If you’re considering doing this, I’d
cate what’s on the disk. Thus, a standard for strongly recommend installing a second disk
booting disks and disk drives is necessary. The drive instead of trying to use this software
most sensible location is, of course, cylinder 0, along with Linux on the same drive.
head 0, sector 1. No matter what disk geometry Systems that boot multiple operating systems
exists, the BIOS can always count on finding the have additional loaders or other programs that
first sector of the first cylinder with the lowest run before a kernel is loaded. For example,
numbered head. This location has the distin- Linux boots a program called LILO (the Linux
guished name of Master Boot Record (MBR). Loader), which allows the user to choose any
In the MBR, we find a tiny bootstrap pro- bootable partition from the partition table.
gram and the partition table. The entire MBR is
first copied into memory, and then the proces- Partitions
sor begins executing the bootstrap program. Unfortunately, partition means different things in
The bootstrap program reads the partition table different contexts. Often, people use slice and par-
from memory and determines which partition is tition interchangeably, so it’s often hard to know
the active one. All the information needed to what someone is describing. In the DOS/Win-
find code in the active partition exists within the dows world, the only partitions we ever see are
partition table. The BIOS contains the code those physically defined by the partition table in
needed to fetch the data from the disk. So once the MBR. These are contiguous regions of a

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 33


hard disk. They may span any number of heads, to an expert menu. From the main menu, the
tracks, and cylinders, and they must always con- typical commands that I use are:
tain an integral number of sectors. X m—to display the list of commands.
Tools of the disk trade X p—to print the partition table to the screen.
Now that we understand the inner workings of X d—to delete a partition.
the disk drive, let’s look at the software tools we X n—to add a new partition.
use to manipulate the disks.
X l—to list the various partition type IDs.
DOS/Windows X t—to change the partition type.
Let’s start with the DOS disk utilities. The DOS
Fdisk.exe program pretty much lets the user X w—to write the modifications to the disk.
examine the disk slices and modify them. Basi- X q—to exit the program.
cally, this utility allows the operator to read, Linux has two other disk-partitioning utilities
modify, and write the data in the MBR’s parti- named cfdisk and sfdisk. Cfdisk is supposed to
tion table. Very few people realize that this util- be a very nice cursor-based (terminal screen-
ity can also reinstall the MBR by calling it with handling and optimization) alternative to the
the command traditional FDISK. From what I’ve read, this is
FDISK /MBR the ideal choice for people who want typical
FDISK, when called with this switch, shows configurations. It does very good error check-
no obvious signs that it has done anything. It ing and protects the operator from doing harm-
immediately returns to the command prompt as ful things. The sfdisk program is recommended
if nothing has happened. You’d think that there for hackers and people who want to do things
would be a message stating whether the opera- directly from scripts.
tion was successful or not. Regardless, FDISK
is useful if the MBR has been corrupted. Uses for a small DOS/Windows
The DOS/Windows program Format.exe is partition
used to write filesystem information into the On every Linux system I’ve set up, I’ve always
slices created by the FORMAT utility. FORMAT insisted on having at least a small DOS/Win-
writes a boot sector, followed by the file alloca- dows partition on the primary IDE master
tion tables, a root directory, and a data area. If an drive. This is just in case the system will ever
operating system is installed into a partition need to communicate with the DOS/Windows
(slice), its boot code is stored in the boot sector. world on its terms. Although this is becoming
This code needs to be smart enough to find, less important, there are still some Web sites
load, and execute the Command.com file in that don’t interface well with Linux or UNIX in
DOS/Windows. The file allocation tables keep general. Therefore, it’s a good idea to maintain
track of files that are stored in the filesystem, some degree of compatibility. If you want to
which are all stored within the data area. use the machine for games, you simply must
support Windows.
Linux I always put Windows on the disk first. I use
Linux also has several programs available to the traditional DOS/Windows FDISK to create
partition a disk. Linux originally came with an a DOS/FAT32 partition and then use the tradi-
FDISK application that performed the basic tional Format.exe to create the filesystem. Then
partition-manipulation functions. This program I install Win95 or Win98. Next, I throw in the
supports the basic functions of displaying parti- Linux install disk. Each variety of Linux has a
tion information, adding a partition, deleting a slightly different installation process, but they all
partition, and changing the partition type. It’s end up relying on FDISK at some point. I always
menu driven, so you can get hints from it rather use the p command to verify that the Windows
than having to rely on a manual or a help file. partition is there and that FDISK knows about
Also, the really tricky commands are confined

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 34


it. Then I use the n command to add three par- filesystem information into a disk partition.
titions: a low-hanging root partition, a swap This is not needed for swap partitions, only for
partition, and a main filesystem partition. partitions that will contain a filesystem. If you
The low-hanging root partition must be visi- use either the Slackware or the Red Hat Linux
ble to the BIOS. The Linux Loader (LILO) install procedures, this step will be performed
depends on BIOS disk I/O utilities to load the for you automatically. The man page for mkfs, as
kernel into memory. Once the kernel is in mem- well as for these procedures, can be found at
ory and running, they no longer depend on the http://www.linux.com/.
BIOS to understand the disk geometry; how-
ever, the boot loaders typically rely on the BIOS Conclusion
for disk I/O since these loaders must fit in a sin- In this article, I’ve explained how the disk drive
gle sector. I usually stick with this strategy if I works and which tools are required to configure
think there’s any chance of ever connecting the drives to your needs. We’ve discussed the MBR,
disk to a machine that might have an older the boot code, and the slices (partitions). We
BIOS. If you’re certain that the disk will be used also examined how the BIOS limitations require
only on a machine that has a modern BIOS, kernel partitions to exist within the reach of the
then you can create just a Linux filesystem parti- BIOS disk I/O utilities. And we’ve seen how
tion and a Linux swap partition. The Linux the BIOS limitations forced hard disk vendors
operating system needs these other partitions. to produce software solutions to get around
Next, each filesystem must be formatted. these BIOS issues. ‹
Linux uses a utility called mkfs to build the

HIDE DRIVE LETTERS IN MY COMPUTER


Have you ever needed to hide a drive on a A: 1
system? For example, suppose you manage B: 2
a system shared by multiple users in a public C: 4
area, and you keep diagnostic and manage- D: 8
ment applications on a separate drive. E: 16
Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to hide that F: 32
drive from users to prevent any mischievous 7. Close the Registry Editor.
exploration? You can do so with a simple reg- You must restart the system or log out of
istry edit. Windows in order for the change to take
Follow these steps: effect.
1. Launch the Registry Editor (Regedit.exe). To hide other drive letters that we didn’t list,
2. Navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\ follow the pattern of doubling the number for
Software\Microsoft\Windows\ Current- each successive drive. For example, drive G:
Version\Policies\Explorer. would have a value of 64.
3. Right-click the Servers key, and select To hide multiple drives, add the values
New | DWORD value. together. For example, to hide drives A: and
4. Name the value NoDrives. B:, use a value of 3. If you want to hide all
drive letters, use a value of 67108863.
5. Press [Enter] twice to open the Edit
Note: Editing the registry is risky, so be
DWORD Value dialog box.
sure you have a verified backup before mak-
6. Using the list below, type a number that
ing any changes. ‹
corresponds to the drive you want to hide
in the Value Data text box, and click OK.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 35


Troubleshoot hard drive failures
in seven easy steps
By Faithe Wempen, A+, MOUS 2000 Master

W
hen a floppy or CD-ROM drive after physically moving the PC, or after the cover
doesn’t work, it’s an annoying but has been taken off, start your troubleshooting by
not particularly scary problem to fix. checking the physical connectivity. It’s possible
However, when a hard disk fails, the computer for plugs to jiggle loose when you’re moving a
doesn’t boot—as in the case of a boot drive PC, and it’s easy to uproot a ribbon cable con-
failure—and the frenzy to save important com- nection when pulling circuit boards or perform-
pany data ensues. When faced with such a prob- ing other maintenance tasks inside the case.
lem, don’t panic. Just remember these simple A hard disk works with any Molex connector
troubleshooting tips for hard drives. from the PC’s power supply. Make sure the plug
is fully inserted. Molex connectors require a lot
Seven steps to my of pressure to fully insert, and even more pres-
troubleshooting process sure to remove, so don’t be afraid to push hard
Here’s a quick look at the process I follow when or pull, as the case may be. Just make sure you
troubleshooting a hard disk. I’ll elaborate on handle the plastic connector, and do not try to
each of these points in the proceeding sections. push or pull the wires.
With each point, ask yourself the question(s) As the PC starts up, place the palm of your
that follow. hand on the flat part of the hard disk. If you
1. Physical connectivity—Is the drive receiv- can detect any vibration, the drive probably has
ing power? Is it plugged into the PC by a power. If there’s no movement at all, either the
correctly connected ribbon cable? For IDE drive’s physical mechanism is shot or the Molex
drives, are its jumpers set correctly? Or with connector you have selected is faulty. Try using
SCSI drives, are its SCSI termination and ID a different connector before assuming the drive
set correctly? has a problem.
2. BIOS setup—Does the BIOS see the drive? Systems like the AT/LPX have a small con-
nector that runs from the front of the case to
3. Viruses—Does the drive contain any boot the hard disk. On ATX systems, it runs from
sector viruses I need to remove before the motherboard to the hard disk. This enables
continuing? the LED on the case to illuminate when the
4. Partitioning—Does FDISK find a valid hard disk is in use. Don’t rely on that LED as a
partition on the drive? Is it active? positive indicator as to whether or not the hard
5. Formatting—Is the drive formatted using a disk is receiving power, though. The light could
file system that the OS can recognize? be burned out, the wire disconnected, or the
drive might be receiving power but not be con-
6. Drive errors—Is a physical or logical drive nected correctly to the PC.
error causing read/write problems on the The other physical requirement for a drive is
drive? the PC itself. If it’s an IDE model, the drive
7. Operating system—Does your OS have a should be connected via a ribbon cable to the
feature that checks the status of each drive IDE bus on the motherboard. Connections can
on your system? If so, what is that status? also be made with a SCSI or proprietary expan-
sion card. Secure both ends of the ribbon cable
Checking physical connectivity connector and make sure the connector is cov-
To work properly, a hard drive needs power and ering all pins. On systems where the pins are
a connection via a ribbon cable to the PC. If a bare instead of surrounded by a plastic ridge,
drive doesn’t work after moving it to a new PC, it’s easy to offset the connector by a row or two

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 36


on the pins. If the drive is getting power but the cause problems when you move a drive from
BIOS can’t find it, try a different ribbon cable; one PC to another.
the one in use might have a broken wire or Depending on the drive, the following
other flaw. jumper settings may be available:
X Single—Use this setting when the drive is
AUTHOR’S NOTE the only one on that IDE subsystem; that is,
There are two types of hard disk ribbon the only one on that ribbon cable. Not all
cables: 40-wire and 80-wire. UltraDMA 66 drives have a Single setting; if there is none,
and above requires the 80-wire cable. If use the Master setting instead.
you use the 40-wire type, the drive will be
X Master (MS)—When there are two drives
limited to UltraDMA 33 performance. on the IDE subsystem and the other drive’s
jumpers are set to Slave, or if this is the only
The red stripe on the ribbon cable must
drive on the subsystem and it doesn’t have a
match up with pin 1 on both the drive and the
separate Single setting, use this setting.
motherboard or expansion card. Sometimes,
though, it’s not easy to locate pin 1. Look for X Slave (SL)—Use this setting when there are
tiny numbers at one end of the connector. If two drives on the IDE subsystem and the
you see a 1 or 2, that’s the end with which the other drive’s jumpers are set to Master.
red stripe should be matched. Some connectors X Cable Select (CS)—If you are using a cable
are notched on one side while the ribbon cables that relies on the device positioning to deter-
have a tab that fits into that notched area. How- mine its Slave/Master status, use this setting.
ever, this isn’t always the case. Unlike with This setting is uncommon.
floppy drives, where the drive light stays on In Figure A, Master has been selected.
even if you have the ribbon cable backward, Jumpers are set with the jumper running up-
there is no simple way to tell whether you have and-down; setting them side-to-side would be
the cable backwards. Without the notched con- the same as using no jumpers at all.
nectors, your only choice is to use the trial-and-
error method. Checking SCSI termination
If the machine uses a SCSI drive, there are two
TIP factors with which to be concerned: termina-
Don’t mount the drive in the computer case
Figure A
until you’re sure it works. Sometimes those
little screws can be hard to reach, so you MSC
want to mount the drive only once. For
testing purposes, the hard disk can tem-
SLS
porarily sit at an angle, unmounted but
propped up in some way. Don’t allow the
drive to hang suspended by the ribbon
cable or power cable; this puts stress on Depending on the drive, the jumper positions may or may not
be clearly labeled. There should be a chart or sticker on the
the cable and can cause broken wires or drive showing the positions. If you see neither, try visiting the
dislocated connectors. drive manufacturer's Web site to see if a diagram is available.

Checking jumper settings tion and ID. These settings are not an issue
On an IDE hard disk, one or more jumpers on when troubleshooting a drive that has suddenly
the drive must be set to determine its Mas- gone bad in an existing system, but if you are
ter/Slave status. This setting isn’t usually an moving a drive from one system to another and
issue in an existing hard disk installation that it doesn’t work in the new system, improper
suddenly doesn’t work anymore, but it can SCSI settings may be the culprit.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 37


If this is the last SCSI device in the chain, it of IDE devices was part of the ATA-3 stan-
must be terminated. Termination methods vary. dard, released more than 13 years ago, though,
On some devices, you set termination with an so the need to do so would be rare.
extra jumper; on others, you use a cap or plug
over a connector. On most hard disks, you ter- AUTHOR’S NOTE
minate using a jumper setting. To enter the BIOS setup program, watch the
SCSI-based drives usually have jumpers just screen at startup. It should list the key you
like ATAPI ones, but instead of setting the need to press to enter Setup. The most
Master/Slave status, they assign a SCSI ID common ones are [Delete], [F1], or [F2].
number to the device. Some SCSI devices have
a wheel or button instead of jumpers with a lit- Some BIOSs also have a separate Detect
tle window indicating the setting, but this is IDE Devices utility built in. If the BIOS con-
uncommon on a hard disk. tains such a utility, you can use it to prompt the
There can be up to seven SCSI devices on a BIOS to detect the new hard disk. This comes
single narrow SCSI bus, and up to 15 devices in handy when you aren’t sure whether or not
on a wide SCSI bus. There are either eight or 16 the drive is working, because you can get an
addresses in total, depending on your system. answer immediately rather than rebooting and
The host adapter takes one of those addresses, waiting to see whether the BIOS finds the drive
leaving seven or 15 for the remaining drives. on startup.
Usually, the host adapter claims the highest
number for itself.
Virus checking
If you’ve come this far in the troubleshooting
The SCSI ID comes from a binary represen-
process and the drive still isn’t working, check
tation of the jumpers. For example, on a device
for viruses. A drive containing a boot-sector
with three SCSI jumpers and all of them are
virus will not only malfunction, but it can
without jumper settings, the ID would be 000b
spread the virus to the disk you boot from,
(b stands for binary here), or 0. An ID of 001b
such as your emergency startup disk (DOS or
would be 1; 010b would be 2; and so on.
Windows 9x/Me).
The problem lies in the fact that some manu-
On a system that you know is good and that
facturers set the jumpers to read from left-to-
has an antivirus program installed, update the
right, while others use right-to-left. So on one
virus definitions, and then make a virus-check-
drive, the leftmost jumper set would be 1, while
ing boot disk. Write-protect it, and then use it
on some other drive, the rightmost jumper set
to start the system containing the nonworking
would be 1. Check the drive’s label for informa-
hard disk and check it for errors. If the drive is
tion about which way the drive works. If all else
not partitioned and formatted, the boot disk
fails, try the manufacturer’s Web site.
might not be able to check the data area of the
Checking BIOS setup (IDE only) drive. That’s okay for now; just let it get as far as
In most modern systems, the BIOS can auto- it can before moving on to the next step, check-
matically detect your hard disk, so no special ing the partition.
BIOS setup is required. However, if you are
working with an older or quirky BIOS, you
Checking for a valid partition
If the BIOS can see the drive but the drive isn’t
might need to enter the BIOS setup program
working, make sure the drive is partitioned. Use
and change the drive’s IDE channel—i.e., Pri-
FDISK, a command-line utility you’ll find on a
mary Master, Primary Slave, etc.—from None
Windows startup disk, to check. Boot from the
to Auto so the BIOS will attempt to find and
write-protected startup disk and type FDISK.
identify the drive.
When asked whether or not you want large disk
On an old BIOS, you occasionally may need
support, type Y.
to select User as the drive type and manually
enter the drive’s settings. Automatic detection

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 38


Figure B
AUTHOR’S NOTE
If you choose N when questioned about
enabling large disk support, any partitions
you later format on the resulting partitions
will be formatted as FAT rather than FAT32.

From the FDISK main screen (Figure B), type


4 to view the existing partitions.
If the active partition’s type is FAT, FAT32,
or NTFS, it should be recognized by the operat-
ing system (Figure C). One exception would be if
you put an NTFS drive into a Windows 9x/Me
system. The OS wouldn’t recognize the NTFS
because it doesn’t support NTFS, not because it
was partitioned incorrectly.
Figure C
If it is a partition problem, you have two
choices: Try to recover the data using a disk
recovery program, or give up on the data, delete
the partition, and re-create it in FDISK. If you
want to try recovery first, see the section
“Advanced data recovery options.”
If you want to delete the partition and re-
create it, return to the FDISK main screen by
pressing [Esc] and deleting the partition (option
3 on the screen), and then return to the main
screen again and create a partition (option 1 on
the screen). After using FDISK to create or
delete partitions, you must reboot the machine If FDISK reports that it’s a non-DOS partition, the drive’s partition information has a
problem. The most likely cause is a virus.
before doing anything else.

Checking drive formatting


If FDISK recognizes the drive and it has a TIP
valid partition type, you should be able to If you booted from a Windows 9x/Me boot
view the drive’s content from a command disk, but your system ordinarily runs Win-
prompt via your startup disk, or from the dows NT, 2000, or XP, the disk might be for-
Recovery Console in Windows 2000 or XP. matted with NTFS. The fact that the boot
Change to that drive by typing its drive letter disk’s OS cannot read it does not necessar-
followed by a colon and pressing [Enter]. ily mean there is a problem with the format-
Then, display a list of files on the drive with ting. For those OSs, try booting to the
the DIR command. Windows Recovery Console to see whether
If you see a message about an invalid media or not you can access the disk from there.
type, the drive is probably not formatted using a
file system that your OS recognizes. You can
either try a data recovery program, or you can Fixing physical and logical
give up on the drive’s data and reformat it with drive errors
the FORMAT command. Let’s assume at this point that your OS finds the
drive and can read some files on it but not all of

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 39


them. Maybe you’re receiving read or write errors,
or certain programs aren’t working right. The TIP
problem is likely a physical or logical disk error. A physical and logical check takes much
A physical disk error is a bad spot on the longer than a logical check alone, so I typi-
drive. It can result from physical trauma to the cally do not perform a physical check unless
computer, like knocking it off of a table while I have reason to suspect a physical disk
it’s running. error. Today’s hard disks are more physically
A logical disk error is a discrepancy between robust than in earlier years, so physical
the two copies of the file allocation table (FAT) errors are rare.
on the disk, or a discrepancy between the FAT’s
version of what clusters are stored on the drive
and the reality of actual storage. Such errors are Checking and reactivating disks
typically caused by improperly shutting down the in Windows 2000/XP
PC or abnormal program termination. Windows 2000 and Windows XP both have a
Disk Management feature that checks the status
AUTHOR’S NOTE of each drive on your system. This utility allows
For many years, hard disks have been self- you to convert to dynamic disks, change space
parking; when you shut down the PC, the allocation, and much more.
read/write head on the drive moves to the With Disk Management, the most impor-
parking area of the disk where no data is tant thing to check is the status of each drive.
ever stored. Then, if the computer gets For example, in Figure D, you can see there are
bumped or jostled while it’s off, and the two hard disks: one FAT32 and one NTFS.
Both are reported to be Healthy. If a drive
read/write head bounces up against the
reports that it is offline or a status other than
drive, no data will be lost. However, while a
Healthy, right-click it and choose Reactivate
computer is running, damage can occur
Disk.
from physical trauma.

A message about a data error while reading


or writing the drive is probably a physical Figure D
error. Logical errors are manifested in many
different ways, not always directly attributable
to the disk itself. For example, certain pro-
grams might fail to run or might lock up after
starting. Such a problem could mean a mem-
ory parity error or even a bad cooling fan; you
never know until you check the system and
eliminate the possibilities.
It’s best to try the simplest solution first,
so run a disk-checking program. Windows
9x/Me/2000 comes with ScanDisk, which will
check for both physical and logical errors. Win-
dows XP comes with a similar utility called
Check Disk. In Windows XP, access Check
Disk from the Tools tab of the drive’s Proper-
ties sheet. In early versions of DOS, a com-
mand-line utility called CHKDSK does the
same thing. Use it with the /F switch to fix
any errors it finds. Windows XP reports that both of these hard disks are healthy.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 40


Advanced data recovery options costs about $89. For recovery of unlimited files
There are several good data recovery programs from a single PC, the Personal Edition will run
on the market today that can help you retrieve you $199. For around $1,499, there’s a version
files from a hard disk that has suffered some that lets you recover unlimited files from unlim-
type of disaster. The cheapest solution I’ve used ited PCs.
is the Lost & Found program by PowerQuest. I There are many other brands of recovery
recently picked up a copy of this for only $15 software on the market; a search for data recov-
on eBay and was able to use it to recover the ery software in any search engine will turn up
entire contents of a 20-GB drive that had been several. You can also seek out a company that
wiped out by a virus. However, Lost & Found is does data recovery, rather than buying the soft-
no longer manufactured or distributed by Pow- ware yourself.
erQuest, so you won’t find any reference to it
on their Web site except in the support archives.
Conclusion
Because so much is stored on hard disks these
It’s also not a very friendly program to use, and days, knowing how to revive a failed hard drive
it has trouble writing the recovered files to any- is an important function for support techs. Hav-
thing except a FAT16 drive. ing an effective guide to the recovery process
At the other end of the spectrum is EasyRe- might mean the difference between a total loss
covery by Ontrack. This program offers a very and full recovery. With my seven-step process,
user-friendly interface and flexibility in its sup- though, you’ll be ready to tackle nearly any type
port of various drive partitions. The Lite Edi- of hard disk error that presents itself. ‹
tion allows you to recover up to 25 files and

TROUBLESHOOT NTFS DISK PROBLEMS WITH


WINDOWS XP’S CHKDSK PARAMETERS
As you probably know, you can run the Here’s a closer look at these parameters:
Chkdsk.exe utility to see how much disk X /X—This forces the volume to dismount
space is available and if any problems exist first. This operation invalidates all open
with the disk. handles to the drive.
You can run Chkdsk.exe on a Windows XP X /I—This instructs Chkdsk to perform a less
system by right-clicking a drive letter in My vigorous check of index entries, which
Computer and selecting Properties. In the reduces the amount of time needed to run
Properties dialog box, select the Tools tab, Chkdsk.
and click the Check Now button in the Error- X /C—This instructs Chkdsk to skip the
checking section. This opens a dialog box checking of cycles within the folder struc-
with options for automatically fixing file sys- ture, which reduces the amount of time
tem errors and attempting to recover bad needed to run Chkdsk.
sectors.
X /L[:size]—This allows you to change the
However, the command-line version of
size of the log file to the specified size. If
Chkdsk offers four additional parameters that
you omit the size parameter, /L displays
apply only to NTFS-formatted disks. These
the current size. ‹
parameters can be useful in a number of disk
troubleshooting operations.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 41


IMPROVE ZIP DRIVE PERFORMANCE IN WINDOWS XP
Are you using a ZIP drive that’s connected to 5. Select the Policies tab in the Device Prop-
your Windows XP system via a USB port? If erties dialog box.
so, you may have noticed that it’s a bit slug- 6. Select the Optimize For Performance radio
gish when transferring large groups of files to button.
or from your hard disk. 7. Click OK twice to close both dialog boxes.
To improve performance, you can change Here’s something to keep in mind: While
the default Optimize For Quick Removal set- this process helps improve disk performance
ting to the Optimize For Performance setting. by enabling write caching on the ZIP drive, it
Follow these steps: also means that you must use the Safely
1. Press [Windows]E to open My Computer. Remove Hardware icon in the taskbar notifi-
2. Right-click the ZIP drive icon, and select cation area in order to disconnect the drive
Properties. from the computer. ‹
3. Select the Hardware tab in the Properties
dialog box.
4. Select the ZIP drive in the All Disk Drives
panel (if it’s not already selected), and click
the Properties button.

Get SMART to predict hard drive failures


By Rodrigo Zamora

D
espite their reputation as being deli- lems that worsen over time and that might
cate, modern hard drives are incredibly eventually lead to complete drive failure. It is
reliable devices. Nevertheless, their implemented with a SMART-compliant hard
reliance on moving components makes them drive and either firmware included with your
vulnerable to mechanical failure and therefore system’s BIOS or software provided by a third-
more likely to fail than a solid-state device. party utility. The hard drive monitors certain
Since hard drives often contain critical data that mechanical and electronic characteristics (attrib-
has yet to be backed up, it would be very useful utes) and compares their values to the drive
to be able to predict hard drive failures before manufacturer’s base (threshold) values to deter-
they occur. If you received some kind of alert mine if a hard drive is beginning to fail or is
that a hard drive was about to fail, you might be currently failing. Then, the drive makes its sta-
able to prevent data loss and minimize down- tus and attribute information available to the
time. SMART (self-monitoring analysis and BIOS or software that polls it for this informa-
reporting technology) is a feature of most mod- tion. The software will poll all drives in the
ern hard drives that attempts to do just that. system at a set time interval. If a problem is
detected—that is, if an attribute value
SMART operation and use approaches or falls below its threshold value—
SMART is a nonproprietary standard that a SMART error occurs and an alert is added to
allows for predictive failure analysis of hard the status information. When the BIOS or soft-
disk drives. SMART attempts to detect prob- ware polls the drive and detects the SMART

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 42


error, it will notify the user that a problem has Also, the BIOS method will provide only lim-
been detected. The user or system administrator ited details relating to the problem and is not
can then take precautions to prevent data loss. configurable like a software solution.
The drive manufacturer determines which If your system BIOS supports SMART, you
attributes will be monitored on a particular may see a message indicating HDD SMART
drive model based on that model’s characteris- Capability during system startup. If your system
tics and previous reported failures of the tech- does not display a message, you can look for a
nology used in the drive. While there are SMART setting in your BIOS Setup. You can try
well-known attributes that tend to be com- looking for the setting in the BIOS Features
monly monitored on different manufacturers’ Setup, Advanced Chipset Setup, Advanced
drives (including head flying height, error CMOS Setup, or any other area that deals with
rates, spin-up time, retries, throughput, and IDE channels or peripherals. Once you find it,
temperature), there are also attributes that are you should set it to Enabled to use the feature.
considered proprietary because they represent If you are going to be using a SMART utility
specific technology used in the drive. The instead, you should make sure that this feature is
threshold values are determined by empirical disabled before you attempt to use the software.
data obtained through analysis of the previ-
ously reported failures. These threshold values Windows SMART programs
are placed in the drive firmware and cannot be There are many programs available that will
changed by a user. allow you to take advantage of the SMART fea-
If a failure is reported by SMART, it usually ture on your drives. These range from relatively
means that drive failure is imminent. However, simple diagnostic utilities to very elaborate
this is not always the case. Other problems enterprise solutions (such as IBM’s SMART
related to the hard drive controller, IDE cable, Reaction, which is part of its Universal Manage-
or environmental conditions may be at fault. ability Services package). Programs created
Nevertheless, a backup of critical files should explicitly to monitor SMART-based drives often
be performed immediately after an error. You have several features in common. These include
should try not to power down the system the ability to vary the polling rate of the soft-
before performing the backup in case the hard ware, notify an administrator via e-mail or
drive fails totally at boot-up. After a backup, you through a network when a SMART alert is
can proceed to analyze the problem in further issued, and launch a program or script when an
detail. You may have to contact the drive manu- alert is detected. The latter could be used to
facturer if a proprietary attribute has caused the automatically back up drive files or initiate a
alert. Unless you must return the drive to the series of preventative steps.
manufacturer, you should continue to use it Some relatively inexpensive Windows pro-
until it fails. grams available for SMART monitoring are
SMART-ER from Apricorn and SmartMonitor-
Enabling SMART through Plus from SystemSoft (http://www.system-
the system BIOS soft.com/l-2/l-3/products-smartmonitor.htm).
It is not necessary for your system to have There are also hard drive diagnostic packages like
SMART support in its BIOS for it to use Ontrack’s Data Recovery (http://www.ontrack.
SMART. However, if SMART is a supported com/) and various utilities provided by hard
feature of your BIOS, it can be a simple way to drive manufacturers. The diagnostic packages
monitor hard drives without adding any extra are not intended to constantly monitor your
software. The main limitation with enabling drives but are instead used to derive informa-
SMART through the BIOS is that this method tion when you are troubleshooting hard drive
supports IDE drives only. If you need SCSI problems. Before you purchase a SMART pro-
support, you will have to use a software utility. gram or diagnostic package, you should first
check with the system’s drive manufacturer, as

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 43


some versions of programs can be downloaded Figure A
for free or are included with hardware.
SmartMonitor-Plus can support IDE drives
only but includes built-in file backup to another
local or network drive as well as e-mail notifica-
tion. SMART-ER provides an offline diagnostic
test as well as standard SMART monitoring and
is capable of logging all errors. While these
SMART monitoring programs should be more
than sufficient for most administrators or users,
there are more sophisticated programs that can
monitor drives in an enterprise environment.
SANtools’ SMART Disk Monitor (SMART-
mon) (http://www.santools.com/
smartmon.html) is one such program.
Unlike the other programs mentioned,
SMARTmon is designed solely for technology SANtools’ SMARTmon is shown monitoring two IDE disks.

professionals. As such, it provides many more


capabilities and configuration options. It is Figure B
especially useful for monitoring SCSI devices.
SMARTmon can monitor serial SCSI devices
such as Fibre Channel and SSA drives, parallel
SCSI, and IDE/ATAPI. (Fibre Channel is a
high-speed data transfer technology used
mainly for connecting computers to peripherals.
Serial Storage Architecture [SSA], as the name
implies, is a serial transfer technology developed
by IBM for connectivity to disk drives.)
SMARTmon’s main window, shown in Figure A,
is divided into three main sections. The main
area is a device and controllers box, where all of
the monitored drives and their controllers are
listed. On the right is the Status Polling section,
where you can change the polling interval of the
program and set up the e-mail notification fea-
ture. At the bottom is an event window, where SMARTmon’s IDE Drive Information box showing values for standard and proprietary
polling results are displayed. If you select a drive attributes
in the device and controllers box and then press
the Show Disk Or Adapter Details & Perform tored attributes along with their names (if
Advanced Functions button, SMARTmon can known), number, current, worst, and threshold
provide extensive details about the selected drive values. All the data is color coded to make it
in a Device Info box. The details vary depend- easy to distinguish between good, degrading, or
ing on whether the selected device is an failing attributes. The Drive Information box
IDE/ATAPI or SCSI device. for a SCSI device contains information about
Figure B shows the Additional IDE Drive the device and the features it supports. It also
Information box for an IBM IDE hard drive. allows you to access SCSI Mode Page Editor
Along with the technical drive information are and Caching Parameters sections. By changing
the SMART Threshold And Status Attribute values in these two sections, you can tweak your
Values. Displayed in this section are the moni- SCSI drive for optimum performance.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 44


When SMARTmon detects an error, it pro- Conclusion
vides a pop-up warning to the user that sum- SMART can be a very valuable tool to help
marizes the problem. SCSI Sense codes that prevent data loss and keep systems running
provide further information about a SMART smoothly. Programs that monitor SMART
error for SCSI drives are included in the warn- devices are easy to install, use very little resources,
ing. SMARTmon allows you to configure rules and can provide very easy-to-understand alerts.
for which errors will display or send alerts. Using more sophisticated SMART utilities such
This can be useful if you want certain errors to as SMARTmon grants administrators more
display a pop-up warning but not send out an opportunities to fine-tune their hard drive mon-
e-mail. Overall, SMART Disk Monitor is a itoring. This makes them ideal tools for alerting
very comprehensive and powerful program end users and administrators to drive problems
that does much more than basic SMART that could lead to a drive failure nightmare. ‹
alerts.

All about CD-R and CD-RW


By Faithe Wempen, A+, MOUS 2000 Master

C
D-R stands for CD Recordable. CD-R players (like in your home stereo system) can
discs can be written to only once (except handle CD-R discs with no problem, so you can
in the case of multisession writing, make your own music CDs and play them
which I’ll explain later). They are cheap (under almost anywhere that regular CDs will play.
$1 each) and work best when recording data
that will not change. CD-RW stands for CD How does a CD-ROM
Rewritable. CD-RW discs can be written to drive read discs?
many times, and they function somewhat like a To understand how CD-R/CD-RW drives write
hard disk or floppy. CD-RW is a good choice to a disc and how regular CD-ROM drives can
when you need to store small amounts of data read those discs, you need to grasp the basics of
over time, such as a daily backup of a few criti- how a CD-ROM drive reads data from a CD. A
cal files. Early recordable CD-ROM drives were CD-ROM stores data in binary form, as do all
CD-R only, but most drives sold today support computer media. The CD’s surface (beneath a
both CD-R and CD-RW writing. smooth, clear protective coating) contains alu-
minum film that reflects light. Data is stored on
Can all CD-ROM drives read the CD with a pattern of pits in the aluminum
CD-R and CD-RW discs? and unpitted areas called land. The CD-ROM
Some very old CD-ROM drives can’t handle drive reads the data by shining a laser onto the
CD-R and CD-RW, or can’t handle them consis- disc and measuring the amount of light that
tently. (A drive might be able to read one CD-R gets bounced back from it. Areas with pits
disc but not another seemingly identical one, reflect the light less strongly than unpitted
for example.) But most CD-ROM drives, areas. When the laser detects a transition from a
including all the drives manufactured in the last pitted to an unpitted area, it sends information
several years, treat a CD-R or CD-RW disc just about that transition to the PC as binary data.
like any other CD. Almost all audio-only CD As you can imagine, such a system is far from

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 45


100 percent perfect, so the CD-ROM standard Since CD-R discs have become cheaper in
has error correction built into the read process. recent years, the popularity of multisession
recording has waned. Although most recording
How does a CD-R drive software supports it, few consumers go to the
write to a blank CD? trouble anymore.
When you make your own CDs, you don’t have
the manufacturing equipment to create the pitted What do the different colors
aluminum layer that exists on a mass-produced of CD-R signify?
CD. Therefore, the recording process must be Different CD-R manufacturers have devised
different. The recording process for CD-R is different combinations of metals and dyes. Any
made possible by the fact that CD-ROM readers of them will work fine for almost any task, but
don’t actually touch the surface of the disc—they certain colors and combinations are especially
only look at it. A home-recorded CD need not advantageous for certain applications.
actually have the pits and land areas of a normal The following information comes from my
CD, as long as it appears to have them. all-time favorite hardware reference guide, Scott
Recordable CDs are physically different than Mueller’s Upgrading and Repairing PCs:
mass-produced ones. They are coated with X Green dye, gold metal: This is the stan-
metal and then overlaid with photosensitive dard type of CD-R and the first to be
organic dye. The dye layer reflects back to a developed. It has a rated lifespan of 10
CD-ROM drive just as a blank CD would (that years and uses cyanine dye, which can be
is, all land). During recording, a laser heats the more forgiving of disc-write and disc-read
metal and the dye layers in certain spots so that variations than some other dyes. This
they change their reflectivity to resemble a pit results in a CD that will likely play well in
on an aluminum-pitted CD. When a drive reads any CD player. Manufacturers include Ima-
the CD, the CD appears to have the normal pit tion, 3M, Memorex, Kodak, BASF, and
and land areas of a commercially produced CD, TDK.
even though there are not actually any pits.
X Gold dye, gold metal: The gold dye used
What is multisession recording? here is phthalocyanine. It is a more sensitive
When you write data to a CD-R, you perma- CD with less tolerance for power variations
nently change the areas on which it is written. and might be less likely to work in a wide
In the early days of CD-R, however, many peo- variety of drives. Manufacturers include Mit-
ple found that they had far less than the 650 sui, Kodak, Maxell, and Ricoh.
MB limit to store on a CD, so most of the CD’s X Blue dye, silver metal: The blue dye is azo.
space ended up being wasted. Because CD-R This combination has similar properties to
discs were so expensive, multisession recording the green-gold combo but is rated to last
was devised to help take advantage of the much longer: 100 years. These discs are great
wasted space. for long-term data storage.
With multisession-capable recording soft-
ware, you can reuse a partially used CD-R by Which CD-Rs should I buy?
creating a new session on the remaining blank It all depends on what type of data you plan to
space of the disc. When you do so, however, the burn, how much money you have to spend,
previous sessions become inaccessible. Only the how critical the data is, how tolerant you are of
last session on the disc can be read. This might the occasional CD ruined due to errors in the
be useful if you back up a small number of files recording process, and how long you plan to
every day and you don’t need the previous day’s keep the CDs.
backups after you have made today’s copy. You My experience has been that cheaper CD-R
could use the same CD several times and always discs, such as generic or store-brand, tend to
have access to the most recent copies. result in more errors during recording. I might

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 46


spend $10 for a huge spindle of generic CDs curious) with reflective properties that change
and discard 10 percent due to recording prob- depending on the temperature to which you
lems. After figuring in my lost time in waiting heat it.
for the recordings, it’s not much of a bargain. A CD-RW drive has a laser that has three dif-
These errors are usually caused by manufactur- ferent power settings. The high setting heats the
ing defects in the CDs, inferior scratch-resistant alloy to around 600 degrees Celsius, at which
coating, or scratches from being stored against temperature it liquefies. When it solidifies again,
other discs on the spindle. it has lost its reflective properties. This imitates
The discs you choose will also depend on a pit. The same spot can be reheated to a lower
how you plan to label them. If you have a CD temperature (around 200 degrees Celsius), caus-
printer that accepts CD-R discs and prints ing it to revert to its original reflectivity, imitat-
directly onto them, make sure you get discs that ing a land area. That’s how it rewrites an area.
have a blank face or only a minimal amount of The lowest power setting is used to read the
text on them. If you plan to slap a sticker on data without changing it.
them, such as one created with a CD labeling kit,
the writing on the face shouldn’t matter much. Can all drives read CD-RW discs?
If you don’t need jewel cases for each CD, CD-RW discs have less reflectivity contrast than
you can save some money by buying bulk CDs regular discs, so older CD-ROM drives might
on a spindle. I have had a few problems in the not be able to reliably read them. However,
past with dust getting in between the stored almost all regular CD-ROM drives manufac-
discs and scratching them, however, so if you tured today, including all multiread drives, will
do go with a spindle, make sure you keep a dust have no trouble with them.
cover on the spindle at all times, especially if
you work in a dusty environment.
How can I avoid ruining discs
Another consideration is disc capacity. Stan- when recording?
dard CD-Rs have a 650-MB capacity (74 min- This is the million-dollar question for most CD-
utes of audio), but discs are also available that R users. Almost everyone who has ever experi-
have a 700-MB capacity (80 minutes of audio). mented with CD-R recording has experienced
These high-capacity discs are more expensive, the dreaded “buffer underrun” error, which
and very old CD-R drives might not be able to means your recording has failed and the disc is
use them—or might not be able to use the trashed.
excess capacity. However, if you’re copying an Because a CD-R disc can be written to only
extra-long audio CD (within your legal rights to once, in a single pass (except in special cases like
do so, of course) or trying to fit just a little more multisession writing), recording success
data onto a CD, they can be a real lifesaver. depends on the CD-R drive being fed a steady,
uninterrupted stream of data at exactly the right
What’s the difference in media pace. The drive contains a small buffer in which
between CD-R and CD-RW? data from the PC waits to be recorded. If that
The CD-RW medium is physically different from buffer empties and no data is forthcoming from
a CD-R disc. It’s more complex and costs more the PC, the writing laser is idle and a buffer
to manufacture, which is why CD-RW discs cost underrun error occurs, thereby ruining the disc.
so much more. Earlier, you learned how data is Other problems can occasionally occur to
burned into a CD-R by heating the dye and metal ruin a disc, but by far the buffer underrun error
to change how it reflects in certain spots on the is the most common. Here, then, are some ways
disc. That change is permanent. to prevent the buffer underrun error from
A CD-RW disc, in contrast, does not have occurring:
the traditional dye-and-metal coating. Instead, it X Don’t use the PC for anything else while
is coated with a metal alloy (containing silver, recording. Don’t check your e-mail. Don’t
indium, antimony, and tellurium, in case you’re play solitaire. Don’t even move the mouse.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 47


X Turn off your screen saver before recording X Use a lower recording speed than the maxi-
so it doesn’t kick in and compete with the mum that your drive is capable of.
recorder for system resources. X Defragment your hard disk and run Scan-
X Disable all programs running in the back- Disk (or other disk-checking software)
ground before recording, such as your before making the CD.
antivirus program, for the same reason as X If you are making a CD from data on your
above. hard disk, turn off the power management
X If possible, turn on DMA support for the feature for your hard disk before recording.
CD-RW drive. This allows it to operate with X If your writing software supports it, create a
less CPU interaction. disc image first and then create the CD from
X Buy a CD-RW drive with buffer underrun the image.
prevention.
X If you have an IDE drive, place it on its own
Conclusion
CD-R and CD-RW are amazing, if delicate,
IDE subsystem (that is, a ribbon cable all by
data storage technologies. With their large
itself).
capacities and long data life, using these tech-
X If you are copying a CD from a CD-ROM nologies could solve most of your storage
drive to CD-R and both are IDE, make sure needs, provided that you understand the tech-
each drive is on its own IDE subsystem. nologies and how to troubleshoot them.
X If your writing software supports it, do a test
write first.

FURTHER READING
For more information about optical data storage and technology, I suggest the following
resources:

BOOKS
X Upgrading and Repairing PCs, 12th Edition by Scott Mueller
X The Complete PC Upgrade and Maintenance Guide, 11th Edition by Mark Minasi

MANUFACTURERS AND ASSOCIATIONS


X Roxio (new owners of EasyCD Creator, formerly by Adaptec; http://www.roxio.com/)
X Optical Storage Technology Association (http://www.osta.org/)

ARTICLES
X CD-Recordable FAQ (http://www.cdrfaq.org/)
X Packet Writing (http://www.mrichter.com/cdr/primer/udf.htm)
X The PC Technology Guide (http://www.pctechguide.com/09cdr-rw.htm)
X Disk-at-Once, Track-at-Once & Packet Writing
(http://www.octave.com/library/daotao.html) ‹

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 48


All about DVD
By Faithe Wempen, A+, MOUS 2000 Master

I
f you are curious about the inner workings
of your computer’s drives, you’ve come to WHAT ABOUT DVD-1
the right place. Here’s an article that sheds THROUGH 4?
some light on the specifications and usage of You might be wondering what happened to
the Digital Versatile Disc, or DVD. DVD-1 through DVD-4. Those were earlier
standards that used a disc of different
How does DVD compare thickness (80 mm as opposed to the nor-
to CD-ROM? mal 120 mm). DVD-1 (single-sided, single-
Let’s start with something easy—comparing a layer) held 1.4 GB or a half-hour of video,
regular DVD drive (nonwritable) to a regular
while DVD-4 (double-sided, double-layer)
CD-ROM drive (also nonwritable). DVD is
held 5.3 GB or 2.5 hours of video.
basically a souped-up version of CD-ROM,
technologically speaking. CD-ROM data is
stored in patterns of pitted and unpitted How do DVD speeds correspond
(“land”) areas on a disc. DVD data is stored the to CD-ROM speeds?
same way, except the pits are much smaller and DVD drives spin the disc faster and read the
closer together. That’s why CD-ROMs top out data faster than a normal CD-ROM drive, so
at about 650-700 MB of data, while DVDs can you can’t fairly compare the speeds using X rat-
hold multiple gigabytes of data. Since the pits ings alone. CD-ROM speed is measured in rela-
are more tightly written on a DVD disc, the tion to the original 1X standard of 150-Kbps
mechanism in the drive for reading them also data transfer rate. Because the data is stored on
has to be finer and more precise. That’s the a CD at a fixed number of bits per area, you
main reason that DVD drives cost more than can determine the drive’s raw speed at reading
CD-ROM drives. DVD drives can also read reg- data from the speed at which the disc rotates.
ular CD-ROM discs with no problem, since the Therefore, a 2X drive would have to spin twice
difference is mostly in the spacing. as fast as a 1X drive to double the data transfer
How much data are we talking about on a rate to 300 Kbps.
DVD? Well, with a single-sided, single-layer disc With a DVD drive, since the data on a DVD
of the same thickness as a normal CD-ROM disc is stored so much more compactly, a drive
(120 mm), it’s 4.7 GB of data or 135 minutes of spinning at 1X speed can transfer approximately
video. (That’s the DVD-5 standard, by the way.) 1.4 Mbps, which makes it roughly equivalent to
If the disc is double-sided (DVD-10), you can a regular 9X CD-ROM. The rates increase from
double that capacity to get a 9.4-GB or 270- there, with a 16X DVD drive topping out at
minute capacity. about 22 Mbps, or faster than a 140X CD-
The DVD standard-makers also have figured ROM (if there were such a drive).
out another way to squeeze more data onto a However, you can’t just look at DVD trans-
disc—they record it in two layers. The top layer fer rates when evaluating a DVD drive for your
is semi-reflective, so the read laser can pass system because in reality you will probably use
through it to read the second layer of data it mostly for regular CD-ROM discs; with
beneath it. This scheme doesn’t exactly double those, the transfer rate drops back down some-
the amount of data, but almost: A two-layer what. A 1X DVD drive spins about three times
disc (DVD-9) can hold 8.5 GB. Combine the the speed of a 1X CD-ROM drive, so you can
two methods for a double-sided, double-layer approximately triple the advertised X speed on
disc (DVD-18), and the capacity tops out at a DVD drive to determine how it will perform
15.9 GB. with regular CDs. For example, a 16X DVD

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 49


drive would be equivalent to a 48X CD-ROM One type of MPEG decoder is a separate
drive when reading from regular CD-ROMs. circuit card you install in your PC. You plug
your monitor’s VGA plug into it rather than
Can DVD drives read homemade into your video card, and then you run a pass-
CD-R and CD-RW? through cable from the decoder card to your
The earliest DVD drives could not read CD-R video card input. Some variants let you connect
and CD-RW discs because of the difference in the monitor directly to your video card, but
the light wavelength used for reading the discs. then an internal cable connects the video card
Regular CD-ROM drives use a wavelength of to the MPEG decoder card. While this tech-
780 nanometers (nm) to read discs, the same nique takes up system resources (a PCI slot, an
wavelength required by CD-R and CD-RW IRQ, and so on), it does result in good audio
discs. DVD uses a wavelength of 650 nm. Reg- and video playback performance. It also takes
ular mass-produced CD-ROMs are very reflec- most of the processing workload off your main
tive and can be read at a variety of wavelengths, system when playing movies.
so the 650 nm is not a problem for them. How- An alternative to the separate MPEG decoder
ever, CD-R and CD-RW discs are not as pow- card is a video card with MPEG decoding built
erfully reflective at other wavelengths, and a in. This is more convenient because a separate
650 nm laser has trouble reading them. card and separate resources are not required, but
Drive manufacturers struggled for a while to the performance can lag behind that of a sepa-
overcome this problem and finally hit upon a rate decoder card. In addition, more of your
two-laser system that blasts each disc with lasers main system resources are consumed when play-
at both 780 nm and 650 nm at once. That way, ing a movie, and if you don’t have a fast system
no matter what type of disc it is, some data will with lots of available RAM, playback perform-
bounce back from the laser that the drive can ance can suffer. Note that some new DVD
interpret. Such drives are designated MultiRead. drives include MPEG-2 software decoding. In
All DVD drives manufactured today are Multi- theory, these can substitute for a hardware-based
Read-capable. decoding solution. However, unless your PC is
When different types of DVDs became lightning-fast, you may encounter performance
available (including writable DVDs), the stan- problems.
dard underwent a revision, and the result was
MultiRead2. A MultiRead2-capable drive can How do writable DVD
read all CD-ROM formats (including all systems work?
writable CD-ROMs) and all DVD formats Writable DVDs work using essentially the same
(including DVD-ROM, DVD-Audio, DVD- technology, but there are some minor differ-
Video, and DVD-RAM). ences. First, let’s look at what’s the same. Both
technologies use a writable disc that’s coated
Are MPEG decoders required? with an organic dye (for write-once) or a metal
Many people who buy a DVD drive (or inherit composite (for rewritable). The laser heats an
one with their system) are confused about area of the disc, changing the properties of that
whether an MPEG decoder card is required. area so that it reflects light differently when the
The answer is that it all depends on what you read laser hits it.
are planning to use the drive for. If you want to Writable DVD discs, unlike CD-ROMs, have
use your DVD drive in your PC to play DVD predefined grooves or “tracks” in the blanks.
movies, you will need MPEG decoding capabil- The grooves are wavy, rather than straight like
ity. If you are just using the DVD drive for data, on a phonograph record (if you remember
you won’t need it. MPEG decoding processes what those are). The interval of the waves helps
the audio and video data and allows it to play on keep the timing correct when playing back the
your PC. When you are reading data from a disc on different drives that spin at different
DVD data disc, it plays no role. speeds. Depending on the writing technology,

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 50


data can be written either in the grooves only requires less overhead recording, so it can actu-
or both in the grooves and in the “land” areas ally store more data per side than DVD-RAM
between them. (about 4 GB). Blanks cost about $15 for 50
The other details of writable technology discs. The discs don’t require a caddy, and most
aren’t nearly as clear-cut with DVDs as with regular DVD drives and players can read them.
CD-ROMs. There are a variety of writable On the rewritable front, there are two com-
DVD standards at the moment, and the jury is peting standards: DVD-RW and DVD+RW.
still out as to which will prevail. Some standards Both are based on the same technology as CD-
are write-once, like CD-R; others are rewritable, RW, but they vary in their backward compatibil-
like CD-RW. And each technology has its own ity with other standards. To date, the DVD
proprietary blank discs that it writes to. Forum (http://www.dvdforum.com/forum.
5html), which is an international association of
Competing standards hardware manufacturers, software firms, con-
One of the main competitors in write-once
tent providers, and other users of DVDs, does
DVD is DVD-RAM. A DVD-RAM blank costs
not recognize the trw format. The DVD+RW
about $8 and can hold about 2.6 GB per side,
Alliance, however, is making inroads into
writing both in the grooves and on the land.
changing trw’s acceptance.
This technology requires a disc caddy, so you
can’t use its discs in most regular DVD drives, Conclusion
either computer or video. Its main purpose is Most new PCs today come with DVD—evi-
mass data storage. dence that DVD is here to stay. Standards for
The principal competitor to DVD-RAM is DVD players and discs are fairly stable now, to
DVD-R. It’s a lot like CD-R and uses a similar the point that you can buy without anxiety. ‹
technology for recording. It writes data only in
the grooves on the blank (not on the land) but

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 51


Don’t throw out a bad CD-ROM drive until
you’ve tried these techniques
By Brien M. Posey, MCSE

C
D-ROM drives tend to be one of the is simply a CD with small brushes attached. As
more durable components in a PC. the CD spins, the brushes clean the lens.
Generally, when things go wrong with a If you’re a little braver, you can actually open
CD-ROM drive, the problem tends to be the CD-ROM drive and clean the drive with a
related to the cables connecting it to the PC, the cotton swab or a can of compressed air. Be
IDE controller, or the drive’s laser. If the CD- careful not to exert any force on the laser lens to
ROM drive on your PC goes out, you might be avoid damaging the springs that support it. Also,
tempted to just replace it. After all, you can get realize that by opening the drive, you are almost
a replacement CD-ROM drive for under $40. certainly voiding any warranty the drive may
But before you go and shell out 40 bucks, there have. This should be a last resort.
are a few simple techniques you can try to Laptops are much more likely to have dirty
repair the drive. laser lenses because often when you open the
drive door, the lens is exposed (see Figure A).
Clean the laser
Most of the time, you don’t have to worry too Check the cables
much about lasers in CD-ROM drives on desk- Once you’ve cleaned the drive’s lens, I recom-
top PCs because the laser is buried deep inside mend disassembling desktop PCs and checking
the drive. Unless the PC is located in a really all of the cables to make sure that they are con-
dusty environment, the lasers don’t generally get nected tightly and are aligned correctly. Before
dirty enough to cause problems. Furthermore, you begin the disassembly, make sure that the
many of the newer CD-ROM drives have built- drive’s power light illuminates and that the
in lens-cleaning mechanisms. drive’s eject mechanism works correctly. If so,
But just because a laser is unlikely to cause you can rule out the drive’s power cable as the
the problem on a desktop PC, don’t automati- source of the problem. Otherwise, the drive may
cally rule it out. I have seen 10 instances in the not be getting any power, and the power cable is
last five years of CD-ROM drives with dirty almost certainly the cause of the problem.
lasers. For desktop computers where the laser If you determine that the drive isn’t getting
isn’t exposed, you can use a cleaning CD, which power, but the drive’s power cable is connected,

Figure A Figure B

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 52


look for an alternate power connector inside Figure C
the PC. Sometimes the wires that attach the
power connector to the power supply will
come loose and cause the power cable to not
work correctly.
If the drive is getting power, check the IDE
cable, shown in Figure B. The IDE cable should
be oriented so that the red stripe faces the
power cable and lines up to pin 1 on the IDE
controller.
I also recommend making sure that the
drive’s master/slave jumper (see Figure C) is
positioned correctly. If the cables appear to be
snug and correct, you might consider replacing
the IDE cable with a known good cable. While
doing so, pay attention to see if any pins on the
controller are bent or missing. Figure D
Try a different IDE controller
If the IDE cable appears to be attached cor-
rectly and the jumpers appear correct, try mov-
ing the IDE cable to the machine’s other IDE
controller (see Figure D). If the drive works off
the other controller, the problem is a bad IDE
controller and not the CD-ROM drive.
If the drive doesn’t work off either IDE
controller, see if the drive is daisy-chained to
another IDE device, because the other device
could potentially be interfering with the drive.
Try removing the other device temporarily so
that the CD-ROM drive is the only device using
the IDE controller. Before testing the drive,
make sure that the drive’s jumper is set to Mas-
ter, since it will be the only device on the con- the laser lens, you can be reasonably sure that
troller. If the drive works then, the other device the drive is bad. You can usually test these com-
on the controller may be damaged or it may ponents in a matter of minutes. The biggest
have an incorrect jumper setting. thing to remember is not to spend too much
time diagnosing a CD-ROM drive. If a new
Troubleshooting vs. replacement drive costs $40 and you are paying a support
Once you’ve ruled out the IDE controller, the tech $50 per hour, an hour spent diagnosing the
IDE cable, the power cable, the jumpers, and problem could have bought you a new drive. ‹

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 53


Learn how to support DVD drives
By Steven Pittsley, CNE

P
laying DVD movies for training purposes card, simply plug it into one of your com-
is a common occurrence among many puter’s PCI slots.
companies today. The typical setup uses a
computer as the DVD player, which offers Installing your DVD drive
greater flexibility and usually is cheaper than Installing the hardware for your DVD drive is
buying a standalone DVD player. However, no different than installing an IDE/ATAPI
DVD drives often present a new challenge to IT CD-ROM drive and video card. First, remove
support pros. As a guide to help you support the computer’s case. Then, determine where the
DVD technology in your organization, I have AGP slot is located and carefully remove the
compiled an explanation of the technology used old video card. Next, install the new video
with this media, along with some tips on how to adapter in the AGP slot and secure it to the case
install a DVD drive in a computer. I also explain with the mounting screw.
some troubleshooting steps you can take to Then, you must determine where you will
resolve hardware issues that might crop up. mount the DVD drive in the computer case.
When you have selected a location, remove any
Talking the talk spacers or faceplates, slide the drive into the
The most popular use for DVD today is DVD- drive bay, and secure it with at least four screws.
Video, which is the format used to store digital Once the drive is in place, attach the audio cable,
movies. DVD-Video offers such features as sup- ribbon cable, and power supply connector to the
port for wide-screen movies, multiple camera drive and to the motherboard.
angles that allow you to select different view- You should then check the computer system
points during playback, and up to eight tracks of to ensure that the hardware has been installed
digital audio, each with up to eight channels for correctly and that you didn’t accidentally knock
things such as multiple languages. something else loose. When you’ve determined
DVD movies are stored in MPEG-2 com- that the computer and the DVD drive work,
pression format. MPEG is an acronym for the you can put the case back together and connect
Moving Picture Experts Group, which oversees the computer system again.
the MPEG-2 standard, as well as other industry
formats such as MPEG-1, MPEG-4, and Basic troubleshooting steps
MPEG-7. MPEG-2 is the industry standard When troubleshooting a failed DVD drive, first
video compression technique that also allows shut down the computer and power-cycle it. As
for special features such as easy navigation, simple as this may seem, this can help you
parental controls, and various camera angles. determine if the problem is recurring or inter-
To play an MPEG-2 movie, you must mittent. When you power the computer back
uncompress, or decode, it. Decoding requires a on, open and close the DVD drive to verify that
very fast processor and a video adapter with it has power. If your drive doesn’t have a tray,
MPEG decoding capability. If your computer insert a CD and eject it to verify power.
doesn’t have such a video card, you can either Next, open the computer’s case and make
upgrade the video card or purchase a dedicated sure the cables are connected correctly. You
MPEG decoder card. If your computer has a may even want to reseat the DVD-related
processor over 400 MHz, you should be able cables. Pay special attention to the ribbon cable
to simply upgrade the video adapter. If you and verify that pin 1 is connected to pin 1 on
have an older computer with a processor both the motherboard and DVD drive.
slower than 450 MHz, you will probably need If you think the problem is software related—
the dedicated MPEG decoder card to relieve you experience fuzzy video, screen lockups,
some of the strain on the CPU. To use such a etc.—update your virus scan files and run a full

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 54


scan on your system. This is another very basic narrow down where the problem originates and
step, but doing so will eliminate any doubt ultimately how to fix it.
about viruses. You might even find a virus that
could cause trouble elsewhere on your system.
Resolving common audio and
After updating the virus scan files, you should
video issues
Many DVD-related video issues are similar to
remove the DVD player software and reinstall it.
video problems that plague most high-end
When you do, close all other applications and
video users, such as gamers. As I recom-
disable any other software that’s running, such
mended, you should turn to the owner manu-
as the virus scan package. Occasionally, other
als for the DVD drive decoder board. Verify
software running on the system will cause the
that the computer system meets all of the
new software not to install.
hardware requirements for each component
If you are having problems playing a DVD,
and that all of the components are compatible
playing another DVD that you know has
with each other.
recently worked will help you to determine
Even if the system meets the minimum
whether the problem is related to the DVD or
requirements, it may not be up to the task of
the DVD drive or computer. If a different DVD
playing DVD movies, especially if you are using
plays, try cleaning the nonworking DVD with a
other applications at the same time; this can
lint-free cloth or using an audio-CD-cleaning kit
overburden the system. If there are no other
that can be found at most music stores.
applications running and the system still experi-
If you tried the above steps and it still won’t
ences video hiccups or frequent pauses during
play, launch Windows Explorer and try to view
video playback, the computer needs additional
the files on the disk. If you can view the files,
memory or a more powerful processor.
you can be relatively certain the hardware is
Also, CPUs without an L1 or L2 cache won’t
working correctly, and you should turn your
be able to process the data fast enough to pro-
attention to the software configuration.
vide good quality DVD playback. If your sys-
Electronic devices are dust magnets. Compo-
tem suffers from this problem, you will
nents such as DVD players are very sensitive
probably need to either upgrade the mother-
and won’t work reliably when dirty. If you are
board and processor or add an MPEG decoder
experiencing read and seek errors, you might be
board. I recommend upgrading the entire sys-
seeing the effects of a dirty read head. The best
tem because doing so will provide you with
bet for cleaning the read head is to check the
more overall flexibility and functionality.
drive’s manual or manufacturer’s Web site for
If you decide to use an MPEG decoder card
instructions. While some manufacturers recom-
in the system and you don’t see a picture or the
mend using a drive-cleaning kit, others don’t
video appears fuzzy, the decoder card may be
recommend using one and instead tell you to
conflicting with another card. To determine the
have the drive professionally serviced.
culprit, remove each non-DVD card one by one
Read and seek errors can also point to bad
to see if the problem is resolved. If you are
read head alignment. If you still experience
unable to resolve the problem, try seating the
these errors after cleaning the drive, you may
MPEG decoder board in the last PCI slot to
want to have the DVD drive professionally
ensure it’s the first card to be allocated system
serviced. However, with the cost of DVD
resources.
drives dropping rapidly, replacing the drive may
DVD audio-related problems are usually
be a cheaper option.
easy to resolve. First, make sure that the vol-
Intermittent problems, such as when the
ume on the speakers is turned up and verify
DVD drive plays one DVD but not another, are
that the system volume is not muted. Next,
sometimes the most difficult issues to trou-
check the sound card’s mixer to verify that the
bleshoot. Make note of what precipitated the
CD-ROM sound is not muted and that the vol-
issue and then see if you can make the problem
ume is also turned up. Finally, check the DVD
pop up on a regular basis. This will help you

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 55


player’s volume controls to ensure that they are Conclusion
correctly set. With the cost of DVD drives for your com-
On the hardware side of things, you should puter becoming much cheaper, many compa-
verify that the speakers are turned on and nies are finding a use for DVD drives, which
plugged in correctly. If you’ve just installed the means more IT pros will need to be able to
speakers, make sure they are plugged into the install and troubleshoot them. Installation is
correct adapter on the sound card. As a last fairly straightforward, and most problems aren’t
resort, open the computer’s case and make sure too difficult to correct when you know what to
the sound cable from the DVD drive to the look for. ‹
sound card is connected correctly.

DVD troubleshooting checklist


By Kyu Rhee

D No power
VD-ROM drive problems can be real
headaches. Even a small problem can Before doing anything else, check to see if the
be frustrating—users might see a pic- drive is getting power. The easiest way to do
ture but no sound or sound but no picture, bad this is to eject the tray. If there is no response,
sound/picture quality, and so forth. Here is a check for a faulty power cable or connection.
checklist for eight common DVD-ROM prob-
lems that can help you get that sick drive up and Incorrect installation
running in no time. While the thought of a faulty installation might
insult a pro, I have had to eat my share of hum-
DVD system components ble pie periodically. Make sure that the gray rib-
Computer DVD-ROM systems usually have bon cable is inserted correctly with the red wire
four or five components depending on the con- at pin 1. On some drives, it is possible to insert
figuration: a data cable (either SCSI or IDE, this cable upside down. This goes for the
depending on your drive configuration), a multi- ATAPI cable as well. Next, check the CMOS
colored power cable, a thin ATAPI cable for and ensure the system sees the DVD drive. If
sound, the drive itself, and possibly a decoder you have a SCSI drive, check the SCSI Select
card if your system uses hardware decoding. Utility. The drive will not work if the system
cannot see the drive.
What could go wrong?
DVD drive problems usually fall into the fol- Faulty parts
lowing categories: Bad cables do exist. I once spent hours trying to
X No power fix a sound problem, only to find that the man-
ufacturer had incorrectly wired the ATAPI
X Incorrect installation sound cable! Use spare parts to test for faulty
X Faulty parts equipment through a process of elimination.
X Incompatible Windows driver Incompatible Windows driver
X Bad or no sound If the DVD drive shows up in the CMOS but
X Bad or no picture not under Windows, check the software driver
and Windows Registry. Download the latest
X Bad disc drivers from the manufacturer’s Web site and
X Miscellaneous see if they fix the problem.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 56


A corrupt Windows Registry can also cause one edge with a finger and see if the opposite
DVD drive problems. If you have a good reg- edge lifts up (concave-up test); also, press the
istry backup, you might try restoring it, but edge of the hole in the center (concave-down
unless you are a registry wizard, reinstalling test). Use the glass top of a photocopier or a
Windows might be easier. Running the Win- scanner if you have trouble finding a very flat
dows Setup can also refresh corrupted files surface.
while keeping your data intact. Get a reliable
backup, however, before you do this.
Miscellaneous
Sometimes, the disc tray can become warped
Bad or no sound due to overheating. On one occasion, I saw a
If there is no sound, make sure the ATAPI warped CD-ROM disc tray on a server. Below
cable is correctly connected and is not faulty. its bay were six vertically installed SCSI RAID
Distorted sound may be fixed by enabling hard-disk drives, all “cooking” the poor CD-
Direct Memory Access (DMA) under Windows. ROM drive.
You can also try disabling multiple languages. Another headache lies with “Country Code”
or “Anti-Copy Code” issues. When DVD player
Bad or no picture software such as Mpact Mediaware or Software
If there is no picture, make sure that all video
CineMaster is installed, a Country Code must
cables are correctly connected. Typically, a video
be selected. Since the code is burned into the
cable starts from the video card and terminates
disc, a DVD disc purchased in Australia may
at the DVD controller card. Another video
not play in the United States and vice versa.
cable starts from the controller card and termi-
Condensation can also affect both the player
nates at the monitor. A choppy display may be
and the disc. If you suspect condensation might
fixed by enabling DMA. If the picture is dis-
be the culprit, try cleaning both or wait one to
torted, set the menu to 4:3 for monitors and
two hours before trying the DVD again.
16:9 for a digital TV. If you cannot see subtitles,
ensure the feature is turned on and the disc DVD burners
actually has subtitles. Many DVD burners have amber LEDs that
Bad disc may occasionally flash in a sequence of one,
Four scenarios are possible in terms of a faulty two, or three flashes. A series of single flashes
disc. They are a: often indicates a higher-than-acceptable internal
temperature. The drive will usually pause until
X Poorly mastered disc
the temperature returns to normal and then
X Dirty disc start working again. If the lens or the disc is
X Scratched disc dirty, you might get a series of two flashes. You
will need a special cleaning kit to clean the lens.
X Warped disc
A series of three flashes typically means that 90
With a poorly mastered disc, there isn’t much percent of the spare disc area has been used.
you can do but to get it exchanged under war- You will need to reinitialize the disc and repeat
ranty. A dirty disc can be cleaned with a soft the burning process.
cotton cloth. Rub the shiny surface back and
forth instead of rubbing in circles. Some The bottom line
scratched discs can be repaired using special DVD problems are resolved by a good dose of
chemical solutions. patience and perseverance. Hang in there and
If you suspect a warped disc, place it on a you will eventually find the culprit. ‹
flat surface with the shiny side up. Press down

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 57


Troubleshooting a dial-up session
By Brien M. Posey, MCSE

T
hese days, more companies are saving some of the communications techniques may
money by allowing employees to differ, the principles remain the same.
telecommute. The companies save
money on decreased absenteeism and usage of Test the phone line
office space and supplies. Of course, the The first step in the troubleshooting process is
employees can work from the comfort of their to verify that the phone line is working cor-
own homes, often with flexible hours. However, rectly. Doing this on the client end is easy since
there is one thing that can put a damper on we can pretty much assume that the dial-up
telecommuting: a telecommunications failure. client will always be using a Plain Old Tele-
Although users are increasingly taking advan- phone Service (POTS) line. However, depend-
tage of broadband options, many must still rely ing on your company’s network configuration,
on a dial-up connection. Unfortunately, a lot the client could be dialing in to just about any-
can go wrong with such connections. No one thing. If you work for a small company, the
solution can be applied to dial-up networking client is most likely dialing in to an analog
problems, because there are so many different modem that’s also connected to a POTS line.
forms of dial-up networking. For example, a However, things get a little trickier if the com-
user could be dialing in to a normal RAS server pany uses a VPN connection or a call-forward-
or to a terminal server. Another user could be ing system.
engaged in a remote control session with his or Check the dial tone
her desktop PC at the office, and yet another To troubleshoot a POTS line that’s connected
might be dialing in to the Internet and patching to an analog modem, the easiest method is to
through a VPN to interact with the network at simply plug a regular telephone into the phone
the office. Whatever method the employees are jack that’s normally used by the modem. After
using, there are some things that all of these doing so, listen for a dial tone. If you hear one,
methods have in common. In this article, I’ll try dialing the same phone number that the
discuss some general procedures that you can client usually dials to get into the remote net-
use to troubleshoot a variety of dial-up net- work. As you dial the phone, there are a few dif-
working problems. In the following article, I ferent things that you should be listening for: a
will discuss what to do after you have tried ring, a busy signal, or nothing at all.
these techniques and you are still having trouble If you don’t hear anything after dialing the
getting connected. remote phone number, there’s a problem with
either the client’s phone line or the server’s
Before I begin phone line. To determine on which line the
Throughout the article, I’ll use the word client to
problem exists, try dialing another phone num-
refer to the end user’s PC and the word server to
ber to see if you can complete a call. If you’re
refer to the machine that the end user is dialing
able to talk to someone over the phone, then
in to. However, just because I’m using these
the phone-line problem exists on the server’s
terms doesn’t mean that these techniques will
line. If you can’t call anyone, then the problem
only work in client/server environments. I’ve
exists on the client’s line.
designed my techniques to be as universal as
possible. Therefore, if you’re using some other Busy signals, unanswered calls,
dial-up method, just substitute the server for and more
the type of machine you’re dialing in to. Even if Now, let’s look at some other possibilities. Sup-
you’re connecting to the host through a VPN, pose that you manually dial the server’s phone
the client is still dialing in to another modem number and receive a busy signal. The problem
through an Internet service provider. Although is most likely that someone else is already using

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 58


the phone line. If the server has multiple phone but the server would never answer. In the
lines that are reachable through a common meantime, the call waiting beep could tem-
access number, there’s a good chance all of the porarily disrupt the communications session
available lines are in use. that’s already in progress. This disruption could
If you check the server, but the line isn’t come in the form of a short delay, gibberish, or
busy, then the problem lies elsewhere. Try reset- even a dropped connection.
ting or temporarily unplugging the server’s The second possible reason why the remote
modem to see if the busy signal goes away. If server may never answer an inbound call is that
the server’s phone lines use a call-forwarding the server’s modem may be physically damaged.
mechanism, I recommend resetting it as well. If It could have been struck by lightning, absorbed
resetting everything doesn’t do away with the an electrical surge, or any other number of
problem, there may be a problem with the potential catastrophes. I’ll explain how to diag-
server’s phone lines. For example, a wire could nose a damaged modem in the following article.
be shorting out or something else could be
plugged into an extension of the phone line. If
If all else fails, get a phone-line tester
Although it can be a little tricky to determine
you’re working with an analog phone line, you
whether or not a phone line has gone bad, a lit-
might be able to plug a phone into the server’s
tle logic can help you to figure it out. Remem-
phone line to test it.
ber that just because a phone line can make or
Now, suppose that you try to manually dial the
receive calls doesn’t necessarily mean that the
server’s phone number and the phone just keeps
phone line is good. I’ve personally seen count-
ringing on the other end, but the server never
less cases in which the phone company wired a
answers the inbound call. The problem could be
phone line incorrectly. In such cases, the phone
that the modem on the other end isn’t plugged
could make or receive calls, but not both. You
in, isn’t getting power, or needs to be reset. It’s
can check for such problems with a phone-line
also possible that the server isn’t communicating
tester. Such testers are available at any hardware
with the modem correctly. To solve this problem,
store for less than $20.
try cycling the power on the server’s modem and
In other cases, I’ve seen communications fail
verifying that it’s plugged into the power supply,
because of static on the phone line. Remember
the phone jack, and the server securely. If the
that static doesn’t have to be extreme to disrupt
modem still isn’t answering the inbound call,
communications. When static is present on a
there may be a software glitch. If this is the
phone line, transfer rates slow down to a pace
problem, you should stop and restart the remote
in which communications are still possible.
access service. If you’re using some other type of
However, even at the slower speeds, there may
communication’s software or if stopping and
be so many retries that communications are
restarting the remote access service doesn’t work,
unattainable.
then try rebooting the server.
Check for call waiting or Handshake issues
server damage One of the trickier situations I encountered
If the server’s modem still refuses to answer the with a dial-up client was one in which all of the
call, then there are at least two more possibili- phone lines involved seemed to be okay and the
ties. The first possibility is the server’s phone server’s modem actually answered the call.
line has call waiting. Normally, server phone However, after the call was answered, the hand-
lines shouldn’t have call waiting. If it does have shake process never completed or gibberish dis-
it, though, call waiting should be disabled. The played on the screen. This situation may seem
reason is if call waiting is enabled, a machine extremely frustrating to troubleshoot, but there
could initiate communications with the server. are some things that you can look for.
A second machine could then try to dial in and First, if you’re using stand-alone communi-
the server’s phone line would ring off the hook, cations software such as PC Anywhere, I rec-
ommend checking your communications

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 59


parameters. Make sure both machines are set to There are several things that you can do to
use the same number of bits, stop bits, parity combat these types of problems. The best solu-
settings, etc. If you’re dialing in to a Windows- tion is to run new phone lines using high-grade
based server, make sure the client and the cable and, if necessary, update your company’s
server are both set to use the same dial-up net- phone switches. However, this solution isn’t
work settings (client, protocol, adapter, etc.) and always practical because of budget, time con-
that those communications components are straints, or other logistical difficulties. Other
configured correctly. less effective ways of coping with the problems
Once you’ve verified that the communica- include reducing communications speeds and
tions parameters are correct, move one of the installing phone-line filters at every possible
machines to a different physical location and try point between the client and the server.
communications again. The reason for the
move is that there are a number of factors that Conclusion
can have a negative impact on communications. While there are many different forms of dial-
For example, older buildings may have low- up networking, there are components that are
quality phone lines that were never intended to common to all dial-up sessions. As well, there
carry data. Likewise, the phone lines could be are some basic troubleshooting techniques that
experiencing crosstalk from other phone lines you can use regardless of the type of dial-up
or could be getting interference from electrical session that your employees are trying to
wires or radio interference. If the phone line establish. ‹
has to pass through too many switches, com-
munications can also be disrupted.

When good connections go bad


By Brien M. Posey, MCSE

I
n the previous article, I discussed how you Panel opens, double-click on the Modems icon.
could tell whether or not a failed dial-up When you do, you’ll see the Modems Properties
session was related to a faulty phone line. sheet. Then, select the properties sheet’s Diag-
However, as you’re no doubt aware, the phone nostic tab, and you’ll see a summary of each
line isn’t always to blame. In this article, I’ll COM port and the device that’s connected to it.
explain some other problems that can cause a Select the COM port that’s linked to your
dial-up session to fail. I’ll also give you some modem and click the More Info button. After a
tips on how to troubleshoot and cure such brief delay, you’ll see a summary screen, similar
problems. to the one shown in Figure A, that displays the
results of the various AT commands. Different
Test the modems types of modems will display different results.
Once you’ve verified that your phone line is As long as you see a result screen, though, it
working correctly, the next step is to run a diag- proves that Windows is able to communicate
nostic check on the modems that are involved in with the modem.
the process. Running a diagnostic check on the
client’s modem is relatively easy. If the client Server-side modem diagnostics
computer is running Windows, you can perform If Windows passes the modem diagnostic
a diagnostic check by selecting Settings | Con- check, the next step is to check the modem that
trol Panel from the Start menu. When Control you’re trying to dial in to. The procedure for

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 60


doing this will be different depending on exactly Figure A
what you’re dialing in to.
For example, if you’re dialing in to another
Windows machine, the procedure for diagnos-
ing the remote modem would be the exact same
as the one that you used on the client machine.
If you happen to be dialing in to a Windows
2000 RAS server, on the other hand, the proce-
dure for testing the modem is slightly different.
To test a modem on a Windows 2000 server,
open Control Panel and double-click on the
Phone And Modem Options icon. Next, you’ll
see the Phone And Modem Options proper-
ties sheet. Select the Modems tab, select the
modem that you want to test, and click the
Properties button. Doing so will display the
modem’s properties sheet. Select the Diagnos-
tics tab and click the Query Modem button.
In a few seconds, you’ll see a summary screen If Windows is able to display a summary screen that’s similar
that’s similar to the one shown in Figure A, or to this one, then it is able to communicate with your modem.
you’ll see an error message like the one shown
in Figure B.
Testing a server’s modem is a relatively sim- okay and you suspect a modem failure, be sure
ple process. However, there are a few things to perform a check on each modem within the
that you need to consider before you can simply modem bank rather than just testing the
assume that the remote modem is okay. First, modem bank as a whole.
remember that if you’re dialing in to the net-
work through a VPN connection, the server’s
Troubleshooting the basics
Now, let’s assume that you have a standard
modem (if it even has one) is only a small piece
setup where the client is dialing in directly to a
of the puzzle. If you’re using a VPN connec-
single modem on the server but you received an
tion, you aren’t dialing in directly to the server;
error message similar to the one shown in Fig-
instead, you’re dialing in to the Internet (or
ure B. What do you do to fix the problem?
some other network) and are then patching
If either machine fails the communications
through to the remote network. In such a situa-
test, the next step is to figure out why. One of
tion, the best test that you can perform is to
the most common causes of a failed communi-
make sure that both the client and the remote
cations test is that some application previously
network are still able to access the Internet and
used the modem and never released it. Perhaps
that the remote network’s firewall is set to allow
the application crashed or was just poorly writ-
VPN packets to flow through.
ten. In either instance, the trick is to regain con-
Another potential complication occurs when
trol of the modem. The easiest way to do that is
you dial in directly to the remote network but
to completely power down the system (includ-
the server is connected to a modem bank rather
ing the modem if you’re using an external
than to a single modem. There are several dif-
modem). Then, turn the modem back on (if it’s
ferent types of modem banks out there. I’ve
an external modem) and boot the machine. Try
seen lots of cases in which the modem bank as
the test again.
a whole will be functional and will pass various
If the test still fails, it’s time to go through all
diagnostic tests, but a single modem out of the
of the standard checks. If you’re using an exter-
bank will be having problems. The best advice
nal modem, verify that the modem has power
here is that if the client’s modem checks out

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 61


Figure B

If Windows is unable to communicate with the selected modem, you’ll see an error message like
this one.

and that the cable is securely installed. If you’re ferent PC and testing it. If the modem works in
using a serial modem, verify that the modem is the other PC, then the modem is obviously
plugged into the correct COM port and that the good. Your problem lies either in a hardware
COM port hasn’t been disabled. If you’re using conflict or in a software problem.
a USB modem, verify that the USB cable is
securely plugged in at both ends and that the Get control of the COM port
system isn’t having some sort of problem with Earlier I stated that the dial-up problem could
its USB port. You can test USB functionality by be caused by some application taking control of
plugging in a different USB device or by look- the COM port and never releasing it. It’s possi-
ing at the Device Manager. ble that such a program (or driver) could be
If you’re using an internal modem, turn off loading from within the Startup folder or could
and unplug the computer. Then, remove and be initialized through the Windows Registry.
reseat the modem. Plug the computer back in, This is especially true if the PC’s user frequents
boot it up, and see if Windows detects the adult Web sites. There are several pornography
modem. Sometimes the vibration from the fan sites that secretly install a dialer program onto
will jar an internal card loose. your PC when you visit their sites. Such dialer
Once you’ve verified that the cables are programs typically connect to a remote server at
secure, the modem is getting power, and the start-up. This remote server is usually con-
modem is plugged securely into its slot, it’s time nected to some 1-900 number that costs an out-
to take more drastic measures. Try removing the rageous amount of money per minute.
modem’s driver and using the Add New Hard- If you’re concerned about such rogue appli-
ware Wizard to redetect the modem. If Win- cations, you can check the registry for their exis-
dows isn’t able to detect the modem, try to tence. To do so, open the Registry Editor by
remember the last time that the modem worked entering the REGEDIT command.
and recall what has changed since then. Perhaps
you’ve recently installed some new hardware WARNING
device that conflicts with the modem or Remember that the registry is pretty much
recently installed a new application, service the heart and soul of Windows. You can
pack, etc. If any such change has occurred, try destroy Windows and/or your applications
retracing your steps and seeing if a conflict by making a mistake in editing the registry.
exists between the modem and whatever change Therefore, always remember that the Reg-
has recently occurred. istry Editor saves changes instantly and
Of course, it’s always possible that the that you should never make a change to
modem has simply gone bad. Phone lines are the registry unless you’ve first made a full
notorious for having power surges. If a surge system backup and understand the full
protector doesn’t protect the phone line, then nature of the change that you’re making.
it’s possible that a power surge could have
burned out the modem. The only way to really Here are the registry locations from which a
be sure is to try plugging the modem into a dif- rogue application could be launched:

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 62


X HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\ To test to see if a client is receiving a
Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run dynamic IP address from a DHCP server, enter
X HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\ the command WINIPCFG at the Run prompt.
Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\ When you do, you’ll see the IP Configuration
RunOnce dialog box. Because you aren’t dialed in to the
server at the moment, the IP address should
X HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\ currently be 0.0.0.0. Remember that if your
Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\ client is connected to a network, there may be
RunOnceEx multiple adapters with various IP addresses.
X HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\ Therefore, make sure that you’re checking the
Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\ correct one. If you have multiple adapters, the
RunServices dial-up adapter will probably be listed as the
X HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\ PPP adapter.
Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\ Next, dial in to the remote network and try
RunServicesOnce running the WINIPCFG command again to see
if the adapter has been assigned an IP address.
Verify connectivity If the dial-up adapter has been assigned an
Up to this point, I’ve assumed that either the address, then communications are working. If
phone lines or one of the modems has sustained the client fails to get an IP address, you should
a level of damage that prevents them from con- check the server to make sure that it’s config-
necting. However, many times, the modem will ured properly and that all of the addresses
be fully capable of connecting to the remote haven’t been used.
server, but things just don’t seem to work after I should mention that if you’re using Win-
the initial connection has been established. There dows NT Workstation or Windows 2000 Pro-
are several things (beyond just noisy phone lines) fessional or XP, the WINIPCFG command
that can cause this problem. doesn’t exist. As an alternative, you’ll have to
One example is a DHCP problem. As you open a command prompt window and enter the
might know, a DHCP server assigns IP IPCONFIG command.
addresses to network clients. Many times, net-
works are configured to assign an IP address to
Conclusion
There are many different things that can cause a
dial up clients through a DHCP server. The
dial-up session to fail, from basic connectivity
client may not be able to communicate correctly
issues all the way up to IP address resolution
if it is configured to use a static IP address, but
problems. By reading the previous article and
the server is expecting to assign the client a
this one, you should have an expansive set of
dynamic IP address. Even though the client may
troubleshooting techniques to use the next time
be able to communicate using the static IP
someone has trouble getting connected. ‹
address, using a different address format (such
as addresses with different subnet masks) could
cause the client and the server to not be able to
communicate with each other.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 63


WINDOWS 2000 PROFESSIONAL:
TROUBLESHOOT DIAL-UP ERRORS
If you use a dial-up connection to the Internet if you’re calling long distance, and the line
or your office and you travel frequently, Win- from which you’re dialing doesn’t support
dows might occasionally fail to complete the long distance calls, you’ll receive this error.
dial-up connection and display “Error 678— You might also experience this error if you’re
There was no answer.” dialing with a credit card and haven’t entered
This is a general error that can appear in all the necessary numbers in the dialing
varying circumstances. For example, you string.
might experience this error if you use the To troubleshoot a dialing problem, make
wrong driver for your modem, in which case sure you’re using a line that includes long
the easy solution is to install the correct or distance service (if needed), and check the
updated driver. dialing string to make sure you’re dialing the
The error can also be caused by PPTP fil- access number if needed, along with any
tering at the server for VPN connections. other items such as a PIN. Also, turn on the
Turning off filtering at the server can cure the modem’s speaker so you can listen to the
problem. dialing string and any voice prompts that
If the problem is intermittent, a simple dial- might indicate the cause of the problem. ‹
ing conflict could be the cause. For example,

A bad floppy drive or a bad controller?


Here’s how to tell
By Brien M. Posey, MCSE

W
hen you encounter a problem with a drives. Then, put the machines back together,
floppy drive or disk controller, you power them up, and test them.
should first verify that it’s not being
caused by a corrupt disk, an OS conflict, or a
Scenario A: The controller’s bad
If the machine that was originally having the
loose cable. If you rule out these causes, you
problem is still having problems, the trouble lies
need to determine whether the problem lies
with the disk controller. Unfortunately, there are
with the floppy drive itself or the disk con-
no serviceable parts on a disk controller. Just
troller. Here are a few ways to help you deter-
make sure the CMOS settings are correct. If they
mine the cause of the problem and some
are, you’ll need to replace the disk controller.
possible fixes. I’ll also discuss the issue of
Most often, this requires replacing the sys-
repairing vs. replacing a dead drive.
tem board. However, I have been able to find
Try a known, good floppy drive PCI cards with disk controllers built into them.
To determine whether your problem involves If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on
the disk drive or the disk controller, locate such a card, disable your onboard disk con-
another PC whose floppy drive works properly. troller (usually through the CMOS, but possibly
Unplug both PCs, open the cases, and switch with a jumper) and connect the floppy drive to
floppy drives and the data cables attached to the the new disk controller.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 64


Scenario B: The drive’s bad, the cable’s Put the good floppy drive back into the good
bad, or the cable’s loose computer and return the computer to its origi-
If the computer that was having the problem is nal location. You now have a decision to make.
now working correctly, test the computer that You must decide whether to repair or replace
was known to be functional to see if its floppy the floppy drive.
drive is working. If its floppy drive also works,
you probably just had a loose cable; if it doesn’t,
Replace vs. repair: It comes
the problem is either the drive itself or the down to time
data cable. To find out which component is Price usually isn’t a factor in the decision to
at fault, move the data cables back to the replace or repair a floppy drive. In my experi-
machines they originally came out of so that ence, the biggest consideration in deciding
each computer uses its original disk controller whether to repair or replace a drive is time. It
and data cables, but the floppy drive from the may be faster to repair the drive than to drive all
other computer. the way to the store and buy a new one.
Test both systems again. If the problem In the following article, I’ll share several
moves back to the computer that was originally techniques for repairing a malfunctioning
having the problem, the cable is bad and needs floppy disk drive. As the vast majority of prob-
to be replaced. You can get floppy drive data lems are related to the drive heads, the tech-
cables from any computer store for just a few niques I discuss will focus on them. However,
dollars. If, on the other hand, the good com- these techniques won’t work if the drive has a
puter’s drive now doesn’t work, and the com- dead motor, cracked circuit board, or some
puter whose drive was broken now has a other electronic malfunction. If you suspect the
working drive, the problem lies with the floppy problem is as severe as these, it’s best to go
drive itself. ahead and replace the drive. ‹

RESTRICT ACCESS TO FLOPPY DRIVES IN WINDOWS NT


Floplock is a service that you can use to limit For <service name>, specify the name for
floppy disk drive access to Administrator the Floplock service. For <drive>, specify the
Group accounts for Windows NT Server, or drive letter where you’ve installed the Win-
Administrator and Power User Group dows NT Resource Kit, and specify the folder
accounts for Windows NT Workstation. When where you’ve installed the Windows NT
you install and start the Floplock service, only Resource Kit for <folder name>.
those users in the above groups have access If you want the Floplock service to start
to the computer’s floppy disk drives. automatically when you log on to Windows
To install the Floplock service, you must use NT, change the service to start automatically
the Service Installer tool (Instsrv.exe) that via the Services applet of Control Panel.
comes with the Windows NT Resource Kit. You can remove the Floplock service by
Follow these steps: entering the following command at the com-
1. Install Instsrv.exe and Floplock.exe from mand prompt:
the Windows NT Resource Kit. Instsrv <service name> remove ‹
2. At the command prompt, enter the follow-
ing commands:
cd\<folder name>
instsrv <service name>
<drive>:\<folder name>\floplock.exe

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 65


Quick steps to service a broken floppy drive
By Brien M. Posey, MCSE

I Figure A
f you’ve determined that your floppy drive
has problems, but those problems aren’t
related to the cables, controller, or disk,
there are some steps you can take to attempt to
repair the drive. In this article, I’ll walk you
through some common floppy drive service
and repair methods.

Before you begin


Before I explain the actual repair techniques, I
must emphasize that there are problems you
won’t be able to repair. Even though floppy
drives cost less than $25 these days, they’re still
complex pieces of equipment. Floppy drives
rely on computer-controlled motors to move
The drive motor connects to the metal center of a floppy disk
the disk and drive heads into the correct posi- and spins it at either 300 or 360 revolutions per minute.
tion to read or write data. There’s really nothing
that can be done from a user’s perspective to
repair a dead motor or an electrical problem Figure B
with the floppy drive’s circuit board. If you
have this type of problem, it’s game over: Go
buy a new drive.

Motor problems
It’s easy to tell when you have a motor problem.
If you don’t hear the disk spinning when you
attempt to access the drive, but the drive’s light
comes on, you can be relatively sure you have a
motor problem. The light proves that the drive
is getting power, but the drive motor that spins
the disk, shown in Figure A, isn’t working.
A second stepper motor, shown in Figure B,
moves the read/write heads. If you attempt to
read or write a disk and you can hear the disk
spinning but can’t hear the heads moving, you
The read/write head assembly in this floppy drive is connected to the
probably have a stepper motor problem. stepper motor via a screw drive shaft.
If you have either of these symptoms and an
older drive, it is possible that a belt that con-
nects a motor to the physical hardware could back over the disk spindle wheel and the wheel
have broken or come off the track. It’s pretty connected to the drive motor.
much impossible to get a replacement belt,
although I did once see someone use a rubber Read/write head problems
band as a spare belt to get them through the Fortunately, motor problems and electrical
night until the computer store opened the next problems are rare with floppy drives. The vast
day and they could get a new drive. If a belt has majority of physical problems with floppy
simply come loose, it’s usually easy to slip it drives have to do with the read/write heads.

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 66


This is good news, because these are the only any dust from the drive. Floppy drives tend to
serviceable components in the drive. accumulate an amazing amount of dust.
Most of the time when a read/write head If, after removing the dust, the drive still
has problems, it’s either dirty or out of align- doesn’t want to read or write, I recommend
ment. To find out which is the case, try to per- unplugging the computer and removing the
form a complete format—not a quick floppy drive. Next, use a cotton swab with alco-
format—on a disk. If the format is successful, hol to clean the drive heads. Alcohol is a solvent
write some data to the disk and then remove and will remove any stubborn dust, oxidation,
and reinsert the disk and try to read the disk. If etc., from the drive heads. Just make sure to let
you are able to read the data on that machine the heads dry completely before plugging the
but not on any other machine, the drive heads drive back in.
are out of alignment.
In the past when floppy drives cost hundreds Conclusion
of dollars, it would be time to get out the oscil- It’s often cheaper to replace a floppy drive than
loscope and align the heads. However, with to repair it. However, if the problems are
floppy drives being so cheap, head alignments related to a loose belt or dirty heads, you can
are a lost art. It’s cheaper and easier to replace quickly and easily fix the problem yourself. ‹
the drive than to align the heads.
If you suspect that the heads are just dirty,
you can try using a can of spray air to remove

©1995-2004 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Guide: Troubleshooting PC Hardware 67


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