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Tech tips

Fix common PC problems

The toaster is the poster child for a simple electronic gadget. Pop in some bread, select how brown you want it and press down the lever. After a few minutes, a ding lets you know your toast is ready. Anyone can operate it, and, unless you choose the wrong setting, it’s relatively foolproof.

It will be a good day when computers achieve toaster-like simplicity. Unfortunately, they aren’t quite there yet, even with touch-screen mobile gadgets and newer, “simpler” versions of Windows. That’s why we at still regularly get plenty of computer repair questions.

While some of those questions are about really strange situations, many of them deal with the same basic problems. And, here’s a secret: Many of them the typical computer user can diagnose and repair themselves instead of calling a tech.

This can often save you hundreds of dollars. At the very least, you can rule out simpler solutions and confirm if there really is a major problem that requires repair or replacement. Find out when it’s better to replace a computer instead of repairing it.

Now, on to the problems.

1. The computer is ‘dead’

Let’s start off with the big one. You press your computer’s power button and nothing happens. No lights come on, no fans whir, nothing. Your computer is dead.

Your first step is to make sure the computer is plugged in. Yes, even if you’re sure it is, it doesn’t hurt to double-check. If it is securely plugged in, then check your power strip to make sure it’s working. You might need to reset the protection circuit (usually just turning the power switch back to “On”).

If nothing else plugged into the power strip, such as your monitor or a printer, is working, then it might be time for a new power strip. You should also try plugging something directly into the wall socket to make sure the problem isn’t with the power in the room.

While it’s very rare for these to fail, you could also try swapping out the power cord going to your computer. You probably have one or two in a closet somewhere, or you can often grab the one from the back of your monitor.

If you’ve verified that all your electrical systems and cables are good, then the problem is likely the computer’s power supply (if the problem is something else in the computer, usually you’ll hear the power supply fans going). So, let’s deal with a broken power supply.


For a laptop that isn’t plugged in, the problem could be the battery. Try plugging it in and seeing if it works. If so, you’ll need a new battery.

If you plug in the laptop and it still doesn’t work, then it’s time to call a repair person. Replacing parts in a laptop is tricky business.

In some situations, it could be the laptop’s power brick is dead and your battery has just run down. However, you should have noticed your laptop having a low battery for a while and giving you warnings to plug the laptop in. Have the repair person try plugging in a new power brick first to see if that’s it.


For a desktop, replacing a power supply isn’t so bad. First, unplug all the external cables, and then open the case by removing screws, or untwisting the turn screws, in the back.

The power supply is usually in the upper-rear area, although some newer computers have them at the lower-rear section. You’ll know the power supply because it’s usually a silver, gray or black box with a bundle of wires headed to the motherboard and various drives. It’s also the spot where the power cable plugs into the back.

On the side of the power supply, you’ll see the power rating. For a budget or midrange system, it’s probably in the 300 to 500-watt range. Go online to find a match; expect to spend $15 to $60. You want a watt number that’s the same or higher than what you currently have.

Note that while power supplies are fairly universal, smaller computers might have non-standard sizes. You might want to look for power supply replacements for your specific model before buying a generic power supply.

Once you have the unit, it’s time to replace the broken one. Use a grounding strap to attach yourself to the computer’s frame (an unpainted part) or the power supply itself because otherwise, static electricity can kill your electronics. In this case, because you’re removing the power supply from the case, grounding to the power supply is better.

You’ll need to plug your power supply back in for this to work. To prevent shocks, make sure the power switch on the back of the power supply is turned off. If you don’t have one, plug it into a power strip and turn the power strip off.

Remove the screws attaching the power supply to the computer. Move the burned out unit out of the way, but don’t detach the cables.

Install the new power supply. Then, move the power cord to the new supply and ground yourself to it. Unhook the old power supply’s cables and replace them with the ones from the new supply, one by one. If space is limited, you can do this before installing the new supply. If for any reason you have to unhook multiple cables, take pictures so you remember what goes where.

Now plug in the power cord and fire up your computer. It should start correctly. If it does, then put the case back on the computer and congratulate yourself on saving several hundred dollars in repairs.

2. The monitor is ‘dead’

This one is for desktop PCs. If your laptop’s monitor is dead, there isn’t much the average user can do, aside from replacing the laptop or plugging it into an external monitor.

Just note that some laptops have a presentation mode that switches off the screen (often activated with Function key + F5 or similar). Check your laptop’s manual to see if it has that, and make sure that didn’t get bumped accidentally. Now, on to the desktop.

Perhaps your desktop starts just fine, but nothing is showing on your monitor. If you don’t see even a power light on the monitor, then check to make sure it’s plugged in and the power strip is turned on. Check the previous section for troubleshooting a power problem.

If the monitor itself is dead, you’ll need to replace the monitor; repairing one is just too expensive compared to what you can buy for these days. Even 24-inch models can go for less than $150.

If the monitor’s power light comes on, but you don’t see anything on the screen, first make sure the video cable is securely plugged into the monitor and the computer. Once that’s done, if the picture hasn’t come back, find and press the “source” button on the monitor (you will need your computer on for this).

If you see the words “Auto Detect” leave it and the monitor will find you the right source if one is working. Otherwise, you want to make sure the monitor is to VGA, DVI, or whatever connection you’re using. Alternatively, just press the source button until you go through the entire cycle and see if something pops up. Be sure to pause after each press to give it a second to display something.

If the video cable is solid and the monitor is set to the right source, and still nothing comes up, then it could be a bad monitor, monitor cable or the problem could be the video system on your computer. If you have another monitor in the house, try swapping the video cables. If that works, it’s time to buy a new cable.

If that doesn’t work, try swapping in the other monitor. If it works, then you need a new monitor, and if not, then the problem is your computer’s graphics system. For most budget and mid-range systems, the graphics system is built into the motherboard.

You can either replace the motherboard, which is a chore; buy a new computer, which is expensive; or get a cheap add-on graphics card, made by EVGA, ASUS or Gigabyte, for $30 or $40. This will bypass the graphics system on the motherboard.

You just need to make sure you have an open PCI or PCIe slot on your motherboard. The free download Speccy can tell you without opening your computer case. Install it, run it and look under the “Motherboard” section for the number of PCI or PCIe slots. Buy a card that has this interface, then follow the directions on the package to install it.

Of course, if one part of the motherboard fails, it’s likely the rest could fail soon, so you might want to start saving up for a new system.

3. The blue screen of death

So, your computer is working fine. You’re playing a game, racking up points. Suddenly, you get a blue screen that says there’s been an error, and the computer must restart. It also includes a bunch of random gobbledygook you can’t decipher.

Don’t ignore that information. Instead, write it down or grab your phone and take a picture. Then turn off your computer by holding down the power button for 5 to 10 seconds. Turn it back on again and see if it comes up correctly.

If it does, go back to using it and see if the error pops up again. You can usually pinpoint what you’re doing when the error occurs. Learn more detailed tricks for fixing a computer that keeps freezing.

If the computer goes blue screen again, put the error number from the blue screen into Google using another system, your phone or tablet. It should bring up what the error means from Microsoft’s Knowledge Base or a PC repair forum somewhere. Quite possibly, someone else has had the same problem and there may be a solution available.

Many times, the blue screen of death is due to failing computer memory. Fortunately, memory is cheap and easy to replace. Get step-by-step instructions for buying and installing memory.

Recurring blue screens could also be a sign that your computer is on the way out.

Bonus: Have a backup plan

After troubleshooting your PC or laptop, you may find that your device is irreparable. As annoying as it is, it happens. At a certain point, every device will reach the end of its life.

Predicting when a gadget is nearing the end is no easy task. Sometimes the signs are evident for weeks, even months. But sometimes your computer is working fine until it encounters a virus. Since there’s no way to predict the future, it’s always wise to have a backup plan in case something goes wrong.

Our sponsor, IDrive lets you backup data on every internet enabled device in one account. This means you get one account for your computers, laptops, tablets, phones as well as your online accounts like Facebook and Instagram.

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