Sometimes it’s easy to test for hardware failure in your computer, and sometimes it’s hard. The difficulty depends mostly on what hardware you want to test—hard drives are easy to test, computer processors and motherboards are hard, and most other things fall in between. Let’s look at how to test the main parts of your computer for hardware failure from easy to hard.
Testing Your Hard Drive
Almost all modern hard drives include Self Monitoring, Analysis, And Reporting Technology (SMART). A number of free and paid programs for Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux will read the SMART data off of your hard drive and tell you whether or not it has problems.
SMART testing isn’t perfect and even today some drives don’t support it, but it’s the easiest way to get reliable information about your hard drive. SMART works for both traditional magnetic drives and newer Solid State Drives (SSD) and hybrid drives. For traditional drives, you can also listen to the drive; if it makes lots of clicking noises, it’s probably about to fail.
Testing Your Memory
Unlike hard drives, computer memory rarely fails all at the same time, but any memory failure can cause weird problems on your computer as programs store information in memory but get the wrong information back when they retrieve that memory. Memory problems are a leading cause of Windows errors (blue screens of death).
Because your computer uses a large part of its memory when it’s running, you can’t test your computer memory while Windows, Mac OSX, or Linux are running. You need to test your memory before your computer boots. Happily, you don’t need any expensive tools to test your computer memory—you can test it using a free tool burned to a bootable CD you can burn at home. The free tool I recommend is MemFree86+ and you can find it on many Linux recovery CDs or the Ultimate Boot CD. This tool might be listed in our top 5 hardware diagnostic tools.
Testing Your Graphics Card
After hard drives, graphics cards are one of the most likely parts of your computer to fail—especially if you have a high-power graphics card. Graphics cards can get extremely hot and this causes part of the card to expand; if it expands too much, cracks form and electricity has trouble getting from one part of the card to other parts. When the card cools down, the cracks disappear and electricity flows smoothly again. This can create problems which only appear when you’re playing high-power games but not the rest of the time.
The easiest way to test your graphics card is to get some 3D benchmarking software and let it run all night. If you wake up the next morning and discover errors, try running it again the next night. If you keep getting problems, you probably have a graphics card hardware failure.
Testing Your Fans
Many of the hardware failures in your computer are caused by excess heat and it’s primarily the job of the fans in your computer to keep everything cool. If your computer sounds quieter than normal or is getting hotter than normal, you may have a fan problem.
The best way to test whether your fans are working is to open up the case of your computer and then power on your computer. (Make sure you keep pets and small children away from the open computer.) Most computers run the fans for a few moments on boot up until the temperature sensors come online. If you see any fans which don’t run, use your computer for a few minutes until it warms up and see if the fans come on then. If they don’t, you probably have a fan failure.
(Fans are fairly easy to replace, but you may want to bring your computer to a repair shop to have have fans replaced if you aren’t handy with computer hardware.)
If you have a laptop, you should be able to feel the air circulated by the fan come out of one or more vents. Laptops are particularly susceptible to heat-related damage, so if your laptop gets hot and there’s no fan activity, turn it off immediately. Replacing laptop fans can be a chore, so I suggest you take it to a repair shop.
Testing Motherboard And CPU Problems
Unfortunately, when your motherboard and CPU stop working correctly, your whole computer stops working correctly, so there’s not very many ways to test for problems until your computer no longer boots. The only effective tool I can recommend is a [easyazon-link asin=”B005EJMO56″ locale=”us”]Power-On Self-Test (POST) code reader[/easyazon-link]. This is a $15 device you can buy from eBay and many computer repair shops which plugs into computers and reads the codes the computer sends during boot up.
If the computer stops booting at a particular step, you can write down the last code printed and look it up in a book or online to see which test the computer failed. Sometimes you can fix that problem. (For example, my POST code reader once told me I didn’t have the memory inserted all the way.) See this article for more information about using post to diagnose computer problems.
Unfortunately, if you have an intermittent problem with the motherboard or CPU, there is no real way you can test your computer for hardware failure.