Repair of electronic components

Repair of electronic components.

Sometimes, particularly for the beginner, it can be difficult to tell if your motherboard is dead or still functioning. Unfortunately, when it comes to computer repair, motherboards dying are among the most dreaded repairs. Why? They’re often one of the priciest components of a computer, and when a motherboard suddenly dies, it’s usually means the processor and RAM need to be replaced as well.

However, it’s important to not jump to conclusions before running some important tests to ensure whether the motherboard is dead or not.

Warning Signs

In most cases, there are some early warning signs when a computer part is going bad. Here are some things to look out for with your motherboard:

  1. Motherboard doesn’t recognize/show peripherals plugged in
  2. Peripherals will stop working for a few seconds or more
  3. Slow boot ups could indicate that your motherboard is going bad, though it could be other components as well (more on this below).
  4. Computer won’t recognize flash drives or monitor sometimes shows strange lines (particularly relevant if you have onboard video on your motherboard).
  5. Motherboard doesn’t POST (Power On Self Test).
  6. Burning smell or burn marks anywhere on the motherboard itself.
  7. Bulging or Leaking capacitors

Signs of Failure

Motherboards are historically the most difficult pieces of hardware to diagnose because, in most cases, you have to rule out every other piece of hardware that is connected to it. There aren’t usually any real signs of failure, other than that your motherboard is either dead or working. A hard drive will give you signs of failure, such as blue screens or lost files, but a motherboard just doesn’t give you that advance notice.  That being said, here are some things you can try first to ensure the problem is with your motherboard instead of another hardware component.

Diagnosing the Problem

ATX Motherboard

To determine whether your motherboard may be indeed going bad, further troubleshooting steps must be taken.  Below we break the troubleshooting procedure into two categories:  1) What to check if the computer still passes the POST and boots (or attempts to boot) the operating system, and 2) What do check if the computer no longer passes the POST or does not even turn on.

Computer Passes POST And Boots OS

If your computer still turns on and even boots into the operating system, it is time to rule out other hardware components first to make sure these aren’t causing the computer to become unstable and cause the symptoms listed above.

Harddrive(s):  Are the system’s harddrive(s) operating normally?  Are files taking a longer time to transfer?  Are you seeing errors or blue screens?  Has boot time increased significantly?  Do you hear any clicking or loud whining noises?  Under these circumstances your harddrive may be going bad.  It will be worthwhile to run the diagnostic utilities in Windows and/or from the drive’s manufacturer.  Also, see our companion article on PCMech on Hard Drive Failure:  Warnings and Solutions.

Video:  Does the display seem garbled or do you see artifacts on the screen that you did not see before?  Are you experiencing blue screens or instability during graphics intensive tasks?  In this case your videocard may be going bad and will warrant further testing.  Also, see our guide on video card failure symptoms for further troubleshooting.

Memory (RAM):  Even though it doesn’t have any moving parts, there is a chance that your memory could be failing and causing your system to error or become unstable.  In this case, a running a diagnostic tool such as Memtest86 or Memtest86+ is recommended for further troubleshooting.

Processor (CPU):  Although somewhat rare, CPU failure could be cause of system instability.  If you have an Intel processor, downloading and running the Intel Processor Diagnostic Tool may shed some more insight into if there are issues with the processor itself.

Power Supply (PSU):  A failing or insufficient power supply (or one that is operating out of spec) can quickly cause a system to become unstable and also potentially cause damage to the other computer system components.  Ensure you have the proper power supply for your system and double check that the supply’s voltages to make sure they are operating in line with their rated output (the voltages can easily be monitored in the BIOS or in software utilities supplied by motherboard manufacturers).  If you are still unsure, please also read through our article on power supply troubleshooting.

Motherboard BIOS Updates:  Many times system instabilities are fixed by a motherboard BIOS update (especially on newer hardware).  Please consult the support site of your motherboard’s manufacturer for more details.

Finally, also a brief word on system cooling:  In many instances, errors are experienced due to improper cooling or even cooling failure in a computer system.  If any of the system’s components are operating out of spec due to overheating, system instability can result.  A visual inspection of the system is suggested to make sure that all components are seated properly and being cooled sufficiently (i.e. case and component fans are operating normally).   Temps can also be monitored for anomalies inside the operating system using a wide variety of tools – we suggest a few free ones you can use in our article on PC temperature monitoring.

Computer Does Not POST Or Turn On

Miniature technicians working on a computer circuit board or motherboard. Tech support concept.

If your computer doesn’t pass the POST test or even turn on, hardware failure is almost certain.  In this case, however, we want to rule out and make sure that it is not the motherboard that is actually failing.

The first to thing to do is perform a brief visual inspection on the system itself.  Are all components seated properly?  If the system turns on, are all the fans spinning?  If the motherboard has a visual LED indicator, what color is it (usually green means everything is ok)? If there is any doubt, try re-seating components as necessary and try starting the system again. Some more modern motherboard will even have LEDs for individual components. For instance, if there’s a problem with your RAM or CPU, you should be able to find an LED near that specific component, indicating if there’s a problem or not (again, green usually means everything is OK).

The second to try to see if the motherboard is alive is confirm whether the motherboard produces error (or beep) codes when trying to start the system up with key components missing (e.g. CPU, RAM, video).  This is assumes, of course, that the system still turns on.  For example, if you remove the RAM from the computer system and try to start it, does is respond with error beeps?  Do note that some modern motherboards no longer support beep codes (please consult the manual of your motherboard to make sure yours does).   For more details on different motherboard beep (error) codes and what they mean, please consult these resources here and here.

In some cases it’s actually the power supply that’s bad and not the motherboard. Power supplies can appear to still be functioning, as the power supply fan may still run, as well as the CPU fan and any lights that you might have on your computer. Unfortunately, while these parts may come on, it doesn’t mean that the power supply is supplying enough juice to the motherboard or other parts of the computer.

Motherboard-CMOS-Battery

The silver CMOS battery inside a motherboard.

Finally, there are two more quick tests you can do. The first and quickest would be to reset the board’s CMOS by removing the batteryLastly, we have a great step-by-step guide over on the PCMech Forums that will take you through the steps of testing your components outside of the PC case to determine if you have a short or faulty component.

It’s Dead – Now What?

Unfortunately, if going through the diagnostic procedures above did not help, it’s may be time for a new motherboard. There’s no real way to tell why or how your motherboard died, other than that electronic parts experience wear and tear like anything else. All parts do eventually die; it’s a normal thing, though sometimes motherboards can die from being shorted out by a low-quality power supply. Again, this is something you can determine by putting a new and hopefully higher quality power supply in your machine and seeing if it runs or not.

If you know your motherboard is dead, as an alternate route, you could try and repair your motherboard, but it’s no easy task. You would need a solid understanding of electrical components, such as capacitors, for instance. You’d need to not only understand the risk of electrical shock, but also that it’s difficult to check if a capacitor is dead on modern motherboards. However, if you want to give it a go, Tom’s Hardware has put together an excellent and well-researched guide on replacing capacitors.

The difference between a good capacitor and a capacitor that needs replacing.

The difference between a good capacitor and a capacitor that needs replacing.

For most people, though, they’re much better off buying a new motherboard. In this case, its best to look for an exact replacement. If it’s too old, you might want to consider looking into a newer motherboard for your system as long as your components will work with it. On the other hand, it might be worth looking into building an all-new PC if you can afford it.

It’s worth heading on over to the PCMech forums and consulting some of our experts on what board is best to buy for your system. Alternatively, you could get some good advice on building a new PC, if that’s the route you decide to take!

Data Recovery

Another tech support concept of miniature technicians working on recovering data in a hard drive.

Another tech support concept of miniature technicians working on recovering data in a hard drive.

As far as data recovery goes with a dead motherboard, you’ve truly lucked out. If it was a dead hard drive, chances are, you’d have to send your hard drive to a data recovery service who would then charge you hundreds or even thousands of dollars to recover your data. Well, that’s if your data was even recoverable.

Recovering your data is as simple as getting a new motherboard and putting the computer back together. However, with your old hard drive plugged in, you’ll need to select it as the boot device in the BIOS settings first. After that, all of your data should still be there on boot up.

Alternatively, all you need is an adapter that turns your hard drive into an external hard drive. At that point, you can just plug it into another computer and all of your data should be available to you.

Have you had motherboard problems before? What were the symptoms and how did you fix the problem?  Let us know in the comments below or by starting a new discussion in the PCMech forums.