Beginners Guides: Most Common Ways to Kill a PC

Beginners Guides: Most Common Ways to Kill a PC
(adrian_sk^^) [email protected]

Beginners Guides: Most Common Ways to Kill a PC PCstats guides you through the list of the most popular ways by which you will eventually kill your PC, despite your good intentions. This is a good primer for "what not to do" folks. - Version 1.0.0

Computers should be essentially immortal right? They are just a collection of circuits and signals, and as long as power flows to them, they should continue to operate; there's nothing to break down, nothing to age... uh-huh. Anyone who's ever owned a computer knows that this is not quite true.

Computers and their component parts do have a finite life span, and just like us, they have a list of afflictions that are most likely to claim their digital existences. Also just like us, most of these problems stem from careless handling, neglect, unhealthy environments and old age. Toss careless manufacturing into the mix, and you can see why the average computer system rarely survives more than ten years without some sort of catastrophic failure.

Ordinarily, this brief lifespan would not be of concern, since the average useful life of a computer system, the time in which it is still relevant and capable of running the software of the day, is far shorter, five years tops. The thing is though, careless handling can cut your computer down while it is still in its prime. I know this is true, I worked in a computer store. Chances are anyone who has ever owned more than one computer has experienced some sort of unexpected computing catastrophe from a system that still had years of useful life left to it.

A few months ago the PCstats Newsletter asked its readership a pretty simple question; "have you ever killed your PC?" Hundreds of stories flooded in, encompassing everything from standard computer failures to tales of blue smoke and fire.

If you had a story about a system that died unexpectedly, or that you killed, we wanted to hear it. To say that we were overwhelmed by the responses would be an understatement. So before we go on, I'd just like to say "thank you!" to everyone who took the time to share their story. As it turns out there have been plenty of PC's accidentally killed, hundreds of CPU's fried, and more than a few power supplies unceremoniously cremated.

Out of all these tales, one thing became clear; sometime soon, one of your computers or one of its essential components is going to get fried and fail. So here are the most common ways this is likely to happen!

The Power Supply (PSU)

Three little words, but loaded with such destructive potential. Faulty power supplies are by far and away the most common source of computer mortality. In our reader survey, power issues accounted for over 30% of all dead-PC tales, and after working in a computer store for a few years I'm surprised it wasn't actually higher. We saw system after system come into the store for service with the immortal words "it just won't turn on" or "smoke came out of the back... Will it be ok?"

Here's a typical tale of bright lights, big balls of smoke;

"...The customer came in saying that the PC wouldn't start at all. Of course I suspected the PSU, but had to test it anyway. Plugged in the unit and pushed the power button and was illuminated by a flash of light. The PSU had indeed failed, and now had also blown a MOSFET on the system board and scorched the 512mb stick of PC3200 RAM..."

That the power supply is the most dangerous of PC components should come as no surprise. After all, its responsibility is to filter the massive wall voltage into the bite-sized 12V, 5V and 3.3V DC allocations that modern PCs need.

Power Supply Failures

When a power supply fails, it often sends random jolts through the rest of the system, killing (and sometimes burning) your valuable computer components. Unfortunately, many power supplies are manufactured by no name companies with little quality control and packaged in cheap 'white box' systems. The result is a steady stream of computers dieing before their time.

"...when I switched on my computer at night, suddenly there was a loud firecracker sound and lots of blue sparks came flying out from the back of my computer. It was from the PSU..."

It's worth mentioning that of all the problems we list here, this is also the one most likely to cause damage to your home and/or yourself. A third of the responses we received claimed that the defective PSU in question had burst into firely flames or belched out clouds of blue smoke or sparks. Needless to say this can present a very real fire hazard to more than just the expensive bits and bobs inside your computer!

This readers story sums up the dangers with a hilarious twist;

" friend was over and we decided to have a small 1 on 1 LAN game of half-life. I grabbed a rocket launcher and fired it at him as he was jumping. as the rocket hit him he froze in mid air. lag I thought. so I yelled downstairs "It'll fix itself in a few seconds" and he yelled "I'm fairly certain it won't", "whys that?" "come downstairs for a second." so I walked downstairs and into the office. smoke was pouring out the back of my New PC! The virtual rocket had made my very real power supply literally explode. I unplugged it and brought it out to the shop, opened it and some blue sparks shot out..."

How Not to Kill Your System This Way

It seems simple, but just two words are necessary. Brand name. The best way (not a sure way, but the best way) to avoid a power supply incident is to buy a power supply from a reputable company that specializes in manufacturing them. Here at PCstats we've reviewed several high quality power supplies, so you can use us as a guide, or ask your computer guru friends what they use and recommend.

You will pay more for a brand name supply, but it's worth it. From our experiences; PC Power & Cooling, Seasonic, Antec, Aopen, Vantec and Sparkle are reliable manufacturers.

Another good tip is to keep your PC off the floor and away from dusty environments (and family pets) to minimize the amount of dust and debris that build up inside the power supply. This accumulation of stuff often contributes to an eventual failure, and most commonly a seized cooling fan.

Low quality power supplies may also be set off by poor AC power conditions in your area. Consider purchasing some sort of UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) or power conditioner. This advice is actually echoed in some of the later entries in this article also.

That Heat-Sinking Feeling

"...a CPU really stinks when it burns..." Modern processors produce a lot of heat for their small surface areas. That's why they come with the huge aluminum and copper finned monstrosities of heatsinks that they do; they're not for decoration. Cooling is absolutely essential to the life of your CPU the split second after it is turned on, and to your system in general. Nothing will kill processors faster than a heatsink mishap. Some recent processors can survive without adequate cooling by throttling themselves down automatically, but this is a hit-or-miss procedure. In the most extreme cases like AMD Athlon and Athlon XP+ chips, the processor can cook itself to death in less than two seconds without a heatsink.

"...I fried a processor - a AMD Duron 950. I was testing out a motherboard, and tried to do things a little quickly. I knew that Athlon processor run hot and can burn out quickly, but thought I would have a little leeway with a Duron. So instead of clipping the heatsink in place while I started up the motherboard, I just held it down in place. It only took about 5 seconds (or so it seemed) before I realized that the motherboard wasn't going to boot, and I noticed a funny new smell..."

"Sure" you say, "I believe that, but I'd never be fool hearty enough to turn my system on without a heatsink." Ok, so what if your heatsink fan decides to malfunction? Or what if you didn't put the heatsink on exactly straight in the first place?

Or what if you used a little too much force putting it on and cracked the core of that new $700 chip? Or what if you forgot to remove the plastic covering over the thermal compound? Or what if you did everything right, then forgot to plug in the fan? There's a lot of ways that you can destroy your system if you are careless with the heatsink, which explains why of all our reader responses, the-dead-CPU-by-user category ranked number two.

"...a friend of mine bought a new 1.3GHz Pentium 3 processor and installed it into his PC. He then plugged everything in and turned the power on. After realizing he could smell something burning, he noticed he was still holding the processor's heatsink and fan in his hand!"

How Not to Kill Your Processor This Way

First of all, be careful. Follow the directions included with your heatsink when installing it; apply thermal compound or remove the protective plastic over the pre-applied thermal compound as necessary. Make sure it is installed in the right way on the CPU socket, and flatly sitting on the core of the CPU. Remember to plug in the power cord for the fan, and ensure you attach it correctly to a motherboard fan header.

Once you have the heatsink installed properly and working, keep an eye (and an ear) on it from time to time. If your system is making more noise than usual, or making grinding sounds, it could be that your CPU fan is on its last legs. You can try to service it yourself (as detailed in this PCstats Guide ) or get a new one. Finally, try to keep your system off the floor and away from excessive dust and pet hair.

Computer Assembly Issues

According to the results of PCstats' survey, the third leading cause of unexpected early PC mortality is... you. To be more specific, there are a large number of potentially fatal mistakes a newcomer to computers (and even a veteran) can make while assembling his or her own system, and judging by the letters we received, you've committed every one of them at some point or another.

While most crucial computer components are keyed to only fit in one way, there are still steps in PC assembly which are absolutely crucial, but not necessarily common knowledge to computer rookies. Steps like using the metal spacers that came with the case when screwing in your motherboard.

"...while putting in the motherboard I forgot to put in the metal spacers. Booted up first time and nothing came up to the screen. Turned off fine. Then tried to boot again after checking connections. This time nothing, and there was a glow coming from within the case, getting brighter and brighter. Look inside, and viola. A little random chip on the mobo is glowing bright orange... Oops."

Few things kill a motherboard faster than being screwed to the bare metal of the case. [Also check out PCstats article on How Motherboards Are Made - A Gigabyte Factory Tour.] A hardwired short-circuit if you will. Another common issue we saw in the reader responses was incorrectly seated memory.

"When I was taking a PC class a couple of years ago, the guy that sits next to me fried his RAM. I think it was seated wrong when he booted the PC because it made a loud spark noise and smelled like burnt hair. It not only destroyed the ram but also the slot. The slot actually had singe marks in places. His computer continued to smell like burnt hair for the rest of the year."

That'll do some damage! A third leading cause of system damage is that annoying little floppy power cable, which is quite possible to plug in incorrectly, leading to situations like this:

"I was showing my class what would happen or not happen when wires are plugged in incorrectly. When I plugged in the power to the floppy drive I unintentionally shifted the power plug to the left one pin, causing a straight short from 12vDC to ground when the power was turned on. Needless to say, when the smoke cleared and the laughter stopped, my class knew what not to do on their PCs."

How Not to Kill Your Motherboard and Devices This Way

If you are not confident in your computer assembly skills, either have a pro do it or find a guide that will not steer you wrong. We've yet to have any complaints about our guide to assembling a PC, so we'll blow our own horn a bit here. Most importantly, once you've put everything together but before you turn the power on, take a few minutes to go over the computer and double check all your connections. It could save you a few hundred bucks' worth of heartbreak.

The Wrath of Zeus

Hmm, the fourth leading cause of computer catastrophe is... Acts of God?" vicar's house was stuck by lighting and her PC has never worked again."

We were somewhat surprised about this, but maybe it's because of the climate in Toronto. Up here, thunderstorms are a pretty isolated event, reserved to maybe four months a year. Make no mistake though, lightning strikes do cause serious damage to electronic components, especially your computer, and especially the modem.

"It was a cloudy day, lightning flashed in the next county. Since I am near the county lines, my telephone lines go into that county. A electrical surge came... my modem caught fire."

Lightning strikes can cause huge electrical surges in the power and phone lines entering your house. Over longer distances this gets filtered out, but at close range it can be devastating.

"...yeah my XBOX, DSL modem, a network hub and every network adaptor in the house died when lightning hit the phone lines outside. This fried the modem then the hub and from the hub, all the NICs in the house including the one in my XBOX."

Often modems and other phone line devices are more vulnerable to this than other computer components that depend on the better-shielded power lines. Of course, if your modem is built into your motherboard, it's not looking good for you.

How Not to Kill Your Computer This Way

Remember when your mother used to tell you not to watch TV during a thunderstorm? She had it right (well mostly). You should not be using your computer if lightning is striking anywhere close to you, and for its safety, unplug the modem from the phone jack. Go watch TV instead, TVs are easier to replace. Actually, go outside and watch the thunderstorm; thunderstorms are cool.

If you are in an area that sees frequent lightning strikes, get a decent quality UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply)that also monitors and conditions power and has a phone line/network cable surge protector. This will provide protection against sudden surges and other lightning-triggered electrical freakiness through the power, phone, or cable modem LAN.

The Bad Seed

"I tried powering up the system but it wouldn't. I tried tapping the switch a couple more times then a bright light appeared, followed by a bang and some smoke. Turns out the power leads on my $5 lazer LED accessory were switched."

This is kind of a catchall category, but it's an important one. One of the major killers of computers is the installation of parts that are inimical to the system, whether the parts themselves are faulty or just incompatible.

"One day I got an old HDD from my cousin and I installed it into my computer. It was fine when I booted into Windows but suddenly the screen showed nothing and I started to smell something burning... I quickly switched off my computer and removed the HDD and tried again but it didn't work. When I opened my case to try to figure out what's happening, the IC of the mainboard started to smoke..."

The Bad Seed. Sounds menacing and it is. Once a computer component (like memory or a video card) or peripheral goes bad, possibly due to damage caused by a power supply failure, it can continue to kill system after system like a virus as its hapless owner tries to figure out what is causing the problem.

Bad Gear, Dead PCs

This can also happen with brand new components, as anyone who works in a computer store knows.

"My friend's system had died due to a blown PSU, so I told him to put his RAM in another system for testing. Moving the RAM to a second system resulted in... you guessed it, a second dead PC. I figured he had just been careless and duly chastised him. Deciding this type of work was best left to the pros, I took the RAM home with me to test on my system. And you guessed right, a third dead PC..."

Also, as computer technology progresses, incompatibilities with older parts are introduced, meaning in some cases parts that fit perfectly well in your system may go up in smoke as soon as you turn the power on.

How Not to Kill Your Computer This Way

Be diligent. It's hard to protect your system against defective new components, but if you are adding something old or second hand, make darn sure that you know it works and is compatible with your computer's technology before plugging it in (or at least make sure you have a fire extinguisher handy).

If one of your systems suffered a power supply failure or other major damage and you need to test which parts survived, don't do the testing with a brand new system. If you or your friends don't have an expendable system to test with, take the wreck into a computer store and have them test it. It should be worth the price to avoid the risk of having a damaged RAM chip or video card toast your next system too.

Power On, Brain Off

It's a little disappointing to see this particular category so high up on the list, but then all of us have had our share of brain-dead computer incidents, things that you just know you shouldn't do, things like plugging and unplugging cables inside your case with the computer on.

"I was frustrated one day because every configuration I had set up would not read my second slaved hard drive. All the jumpers were set right, cable was perfectly fine, and still no second hard disk. So with the computer on, I finally noticed with my last try that the power cable was not in the second drive. I then decided to plug the power connector into the second hard drive with the computer still on. I'm sure you can figure out the end result."

Just for the record, nothing inside your system should be touched while the power is on. I don't care if Joe at your local AlphaBetaGamma computer store told you that floppy drives were hot swappable, just don't do it!

"Once, in my early days of Hardware work, I decided to swap in a hard drive while the computer was running (It was taking a long time to shut down). Unfortunately, the Molex connector on the Hard Drive was upside down, and when I attempted to connect it, I put the connector in off centre, creating sparks. I then dropped the Hard drive (steel side down) onto my new graphics card. Sparks went everywhere, and I lost a hard drive and a video card..."

Another common source of amusingly pyrotechnic computer disasters is that little self-destruct switch that most power supplies possess; that's right, the red switch that changes between 115 and 230 volts. Changing this to the wrong setting can cause a power supply failure as in the first part of this article in a matter of seconds. You really should know better.

"My friend was having booting problems. Figuring it had something to do with his hardware, he turned the system around. Seeing a switch, he figured it might fix his problem, so he decides to flick it... 120v to 240volts... a huge white light illuminated inside his case and then his computer gurgled to a halt."

How Not to Kill Your Computer This Way

Don't be an idiot. You have a power button; use it.

Power Struggles

A large portion of your computer's well being depends on the quality of the power being fed to it. Power surges, blackouts, brownouts and defective cables can all contribute to making your beloved system's stay on earth a short one.

"So one day, there was a short somewhere in the house, and the only place that there was a ground, was.... you guessed it, my computer. Mom smelled smoke and went running down the stairs to find a thick, black cloud floating in the living room. My computer had flames coming from the top fan hole about 10 inches high..."

Now it could be argued that this category could also be lumped in with power supply failures, but we wanted to make the distinction that lousy power can make even the best power supply turn into a demon.

How Not to Kill Your Computer This Way

Every computer system should be covered by a surge protector at the very least. Better to buy a UPS if you can afford one. For maximum protection, buy a UPS that conditions power to make sure that the voltage being fed to your precious system stays consistent. A good UPS costs a little over a hundred dollars, how much does your entire PC cost to replace?

Common sense rules also apply here. If there is an outlet in your house that has been unreliable with other electrical devices, don't plug your system into it. Avoid the plugs that have that telltale smudge of smoke on the wall above them too.

The Short Circuit
(Number 5 may be alive, but your system is DEAD).

As we mentioned above in the 'assembly issues' category, using the spacers that come with your case when mounting the motherboard is a good idea. The reason for this is that some parts of your computer are just not supposed to touch other parts. Given the miniscule tolerance for current that most integrated circuit components have, creating a short circuit to them is really not the best thing for your system's health.

"...a power cable had fallen from the bundle of un-used power cables that I tie-wrapped to the chassis frame and had was sitting on the video card. The electrical contacts of the power cable are insulated, however, this particular cable had dropped perfectly on a somewhat "raised" solder joint on the video card. bang !"

Short circuits in computer systems are generally caused when a component of the system is installed incorrectly, and metal from one component ends up touching the circuit traces or electronic parts of another. This allows current to pass between them, possibly bypassing any of the normal safeguards that might be built into either components circuit path. A common source of these incidents is lost screws which tend to get lodged in all sorts of wacky places. A screw making contact between the wall of the case and your motherboard can have disastrous consequences.

How To Avoid Killing Your Computer This Way

If you are assembling your system or adding new components, take a moment to ensure that everything is in place and that no components or unshielded cables are touching the motherboard (excluding components plugged into the board of course). Make sure to retrieve lost screws promptly. Forget about them and you might well regret it later.

USB Device Mishaps

"The USB drive melted in my hand..."

This is one that we've experienced first hand. Max, our esteemed Editor-in-Chief, had routinely plugged one of his USB flash drives into a Pentium 4 system to transfer data when * pop * off went the computer in a silent flash of nothingness. Needless to say the motherboard, processor, and all the optical drives were toasted. As for the USB key... well, we've never had the courage to try it again.

I've also had Windows XP systems crash on me a couple of times after I've inserted USB devices, though the systems suffered no apparent damage,

USB mishaps and short circuits seem relatively rare next to some of the other entries in this list, but we did receive quite a few letters about them. The defining factor with these incidents seems to be the sheer randomness. A device might work perfectly for months or even years with a given system, then kill it the next time it is plugged in.

The problem with USB is that it transfers more power than most other I/O interfaces, so a short circuit can have disastrous consequences for the rest of your computer if the motherboard is not properly outfitted with board level fuses. Another possible cause is that the 'hot pluggable' nature of USB interfaces means that they are plugged in and unplugged much more than other I/O devices, leading to increased wear and tear and more chance of an electrical mishap.

How Not to Kill Your Computer This Way

Actually, there's no easy way to avoid this besides not using USB devices, which is not something we'd recommend. Taking a little time and care when plugging and unplugging your devices is probably the best path to safety. As an aside, several of our readers mentioned having problems specifically with devices that provided front-mounted USB ports, so you might want to reconsider using one of these if your computer case does not normally have front mounted ports. My recommendation is to put a USB hub on the desk, or use a USB port extension cable when plugging in devices frequently.

Excessive Cruelty

"...I was rearranging my speakers on my desktop, when I pulled out my knife to cut the wire ties. I heard this tone like when you unplug something. Turns out I cut my optical mouse cord. It shorted out my onboard USB ports as well..."

Sometimes we really are to blame when our computers kick the bucket. This category belongs to users who, through negligence, accident or direct physical violence, caused their systems to die.

"...I remember killing a 512mb stick of ram. It wouldn't quite fit in the slot, but a little filing of the notches and voila... nothing... ever again!"

It really must be difficult being a computer system in a world filled with owners who can carelessly inflict such damage on innocent digital devices. Oh the humanity!

"...I was leaning over the case to take a look at the motherboard when I dropped my travel mug full of hot coffee inside. Sadly, the lid did not hold..."

I really don't think we need to explain why any of the above actions would cause a computer to cease functioning, do we?

Static Shocks and Integrated Circuits

How Not to Kill Your Computer This Way

Take a deep breath, count to ten. Your computer is just a machine, it did not mean to crash and lose your last two hours of work, and it's not laughing at you. Throwing it against the wall might be satisfying, but drywall and plastering is expensive and time consuming. Computers make a big hole. Trust me, I know.

Static Shocks... Zaaap!

We've all heard about the dangers of static electricity and computer systems, and believe it or not, some of what's said is true. While static zaps may not be the lethal reaper of components that they are made out to be in some circles, the fact is that they can destroy your expensive components if you are careless.

"All I did was sit down to use my (running) PC, and ZAP! When I put my hand on the mouse, a static charge went into the mouse, shocking me in the process. The mouse and keyboard refused to work, and I noticed that the mouse started to feel very warm. I restarted my PC, but when it booted again, there was still no response from either the mouse or keyboard. The mouse then started to get so hot that I could not touch it!"

While the average static shock like you'd get if you walked across industrial carpeting then touch a doorknob may seem minor, the fact is that these jolts pack a voltage that can be lethal to delicate electrical components that are used to being spoon-fed only highly conditioned, minimal current. Your body packs much more electrical resistance than the average IC.

Carelessly touching the inside of your PC while you are 'charged up' can be expensive as well as painful.

How Not to Kill Your Computer This Way

When you are going to be working on the inside of your system for any reason, make sure you have a 'ground' source nearby to disperse any static electricity you may have accumulated. Obviously, anti-static wrist straps are good for this, though they are not the essential bit of kit they are made out to be. Having a computer power supply plugged in nearby will suffice, as touching the metal shell of the PSU will discharge any major static charges you've built up. Do this every time you've moved away from your desk and you should be fine.

Also, don't wear fleece sweaters. Fleece sweaters kill computers. And cats... cats are walking static death bombs. Keep them away from your system. I once found my cat sleeping inside my old computer. Needless to say, it was never quite the same afterwards (and the computer didn't work too well either).

Moving Violations

Computers contain many different parts, as you know. In the process of transporting said computers, some of these parts may be knocked slightly loose. The end result of this can be ugly.

"Came home from a LAN party at a friends. One of those clips that hold your memory in place popped out unseating the stick. Fried my motherboard. Memory still works though..."

It's unknown how many fatalities LAN parties contribute to the global toll of computers, but it's got to be a large number. Moving your computer too often is a recipe for disaster.

As heatsinks get larger and heavier along with video card cooling solutions, both of these components can place a strain on motherboards when the computer is still. Moving your system around just adds an extra load of strain.

How Not to Kill Your Computer This Way

If you've just transported your system any distance, take the cover off and check inside to verify that your expansion cards, memory, heatsink and video card are still seated correctly. Doing this before you power on your system can substantially increase its lifespan. Also, don't drop it.