Motherboard Troubleshooting Guide

Posted October 19th, 2004 at 4:04 PM by Big B

It seems like every hardware community I go to on-line has a newbie (aka n00b) that has trouble setting up or troubleshooting a motherboard. There is a way to do this, but many folks simply don’t know the proper procedure to do so.

That’s where this little guide comes in. It’s not going to cover manufacuter-specific problems, although I will drop names. It will not address issues specific to particular motherboards either, as you could write volumes on these. This is more or less a list of standard things to do when setting up or troubleshooting a motherboard.

RTFM: Read the Freakin’ Manual

If I had a dollar for everytime someone found an answer to their question by reading the manual, I’d be able to retire now at the ripe age of 23. While the quality and details vary depending on the manufacturer and the target market of the board, they contain information specific to the motherboard you have. This is the very first thing you should find and look at before you even think about toying with the motherboard.

The manual contains schematics of the motherboard’s layout, as well as jumpers, dipswitches and various headers. Anymore, these are labled in some fashion, but they may not be recognizable. For example: your jumper to clear CMOS may be labled as JP21. If you didn’t read the manual, you probably don’t know what you’re looking for. Sometimes the clear CMOS jumper is close to the battery, but not always. Additionally, some extra features may be toggled with a jumper and are close by the CMOS battery. How are you going to know which one is the right jumper? Let’s take different headers.

If you don’t know what burning electronics smell like, I imagine you would by plugging a USB bracket into a firewire header. With the motherboard outside the case, it’s usually not to hard to read the lables of the jumpers, headers and dipswitches. Once inside the case, however, it can be extremely difficult to read the lables for them. Even the crummiest manuals have the placement of headers and such marked so you can find them.

Another thing the manual contains is a listing of the BIOS settings. While the settings may be cryptic, the options are typically listed. Certain BIOS setting names vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. While, say Abit may label a setting as “CPU FSB”, Epox may have that setting marked as “External clock frequency”. Even the locations of settings vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Award is a popular BIOS, but each company tweaks it to the needs of the motherboard. What if you’re motherboard doesn’t use the Award BIOS, and uses an AMI one? They both serve the same purpose, but the nuances between them can throw you off if you haven’t read the manual. Lastly, the manual may also contain an explanation of the software packaged with the board.

Use Only What You Need

Nothing can put a damper on that brand new rig you built like pressing the ON button and seeing the machine just sit there doing nothing but taking up space. Before you throw together the rig, save yourself the possible trouble of one thing causing trouble.

It’s much easier to deal with the motherboard when it’s outside of the case, so before you even put it in the case here’s what you need:

  • A flat, non-conductive surface, such as the motherboard box.
  • The motherboard (duh)
  • The CPU
  • The CPU heatsink
  • A video card
  • 1 stick of memory
  • The power supply
  • A small, flathead screwdriver

Never, ever power on a motherboard without the CPU heatsink installed. Do not just place the heatsink on top of the CPU either. It has to be installed for it to work properly, and, speaking from personal experience, you can kill the CPU and possibly the motherboard by doing so. Anymore, motherboards have some type of thermal protection on them, but don’t count on it being enabled.

In addition to not frying the motherboard, installing the CPU heatsink before putting the motherboard in the case just makes things easier. On some motherboards it may be impossible to install the CPU heatsink inside the case. Some heatsinks use mounting on the underside of the motherboard that dictate installing the heatsink prior to installing it in the case.

Another thing you need to start up would be the memory. Only use one stick, even with motherboards that have dual-channel, unless the motherboard manual has explicitly stated that you have to have a stick in each channel for the board to boot up. If the stick or memory slot happens to be bad, it’s a lot easier to diagnose with one stick in the mix as opposed to two or more.

Of course, before you put the motherboard in the case, install all of the memory sticks you are going to, mainly because it’s easier to do so outside the case, but also because some AGP or PCIe (PCI Express) slots can interfere with DIMM slots that have the tabs out.

If your motherboard doesn’t have on-board video, you will need a video card if you want to see anything on the monitor. It doesn’t have to be anything special at this point, however, it would be a good idea to use the video card you’re planning on using with the motherboard at this time. If the video card happens to have plugs for power, make sure they are connected as they are there for a reason. Make sure the card is firmly inserted or it may not make the proper connections in the slot.

You won’t go anywhere fast without the power supply, obviously. Make sure that all the power connectors on the motherboard are present on your power supply. Some motherboards may not start up at all if it doesn’t get enough juice, which is part of the fuction these extra power connections provide, so it is important.

You should know that you do not need a case at all to test a motherboard. Okay, how do I power on the motherboard without the case? Great question. The power button simply makes a short between the two pins to start up the motherboard, which are typically located with the rest of the front panel connections (check your manual as to where).

You can do this with a flat-head screwdriver by temporarly shorting the two jumper pins. Just make sure not to keep it there after the motherboard boots or it will shut itself down. It should be noted that a few motherboards, mostly DFI’s LAN Party motherboards and a few Abit ones, have some power and reset buttons on the motherboard, but these are the exceptions.

Troubleshooting

If all goes well, the system will boot up, and typically give a short, single beep. If this is the case, install any extra sticks of memory you plan to add and then boot the setup again. Pending no issues at this point, install the motherboard in the case with the standoffs in place. Install your OS and then add the extra hardware following this one at a time. The reason to do this with a machine in the first place is if there’s a problem, it’s easier to target the problematic piece.

But, lets say the basic setup doesn’t work as planned. First, it’s going to give a beep if the motherboard has a built in buzzer or is connected to a case speaker. Some motherboard manuals have a diagnostic section detailing the beeps, but if yours doesn’t, check out BIOS Central. Besides the beep code, you’ll want to know what BIOS you have.

The most common are Award, followed by AMI and Phoenix, if you’re not sure and the motherboard manual doesn’t tell you, you can see this information at the bottom of the screen when your motherboard is going through POST. It may POST too quickly for you to see, so hit the [Pause/Break] key on the keyboard to pause the POST sequence.

Alternatively, you can check the motherboard itself. The two most common places for the BIOS type information would be on the BIOS chip itself (see the manual for the location) or on top of the rear I/O panel connections.

What to do

Okay, what do you do if something goes wrong? This part is a general troubleshooting guide of the most common issues and common fixes. Try these fixes first before asking around, so that you can specify what you’ve tried if these answers don’t fix your problem. Keep a cool head; cursing at the hardware does not fix it. Really, it doesn’t.

You can always step away from the motherboard for awhile if you’re having problems. Being frustrated and trying to figure out a solution don’t go over very well. Some motherboards, specifically Abit, MSI, and Epox come to mind, have a POST debug display on the motherboard or through an external module. This can be used in addition to the beep codes to help track down the problem.

CPU errors

If the CPU speed isn’t properly set, the motherboard will let you know it’s speed is incorrect. Most of the time you will be able to boot. However, it may not boot if the CPU is overclocked. While many motherboards make use of the CPU multiplier and FSB controls in BIOS, not all do. Most motherboards do have the multiplier control in BIOS, but it’s not uncommon to see a motherboard with the stock FSB set with a jumper.

Another issue is making sure the heatsink is installed and seated correctly. If this isn’t done, the CPU may be overheating, causing boot failure. Reinstall the heatsink and check that you have applied thermal paste to the CPU core in a thin layer. Having too thick a layer of thermal paste will insulate the heat generated by the CPU and cause overheating. Having too little won’t properly transfer the CPU’s heat to the heatsink for dissappation.

RAM issues

First off, make sure the RAM is seated in the slot. If the clips haven’t clipped in, the stick probably isn’t seated. If you’re sure it’s seated correctly, try another slot. If you’ve tried all the slots with one stick, try another stick. Some motherboards may have issues with certain memory sticks due to the memory chips used or the voltage required for them, so keep that in mind.

Additionally, you may try the RAM out on another, known working system to help isolate the problem.

Video card issues

Some high-end video cards have a plug for a power connection, and that’s because it’s required for the card to operate. Make sure it’s plugged in and secure. The next thing to check is that the card is fully inserted in the slot. If it is, you may try the on-board video (if you have it), or another known working video card.

If these don’t work, try the card in another known working system.

Motherboard issues

Okay, so the fans spin, but nothing happens. You’ve tested the CPU, RAM, and video card and they check out. So, the motherboard’s going to get packed up. Not so fast. Make sure that all the power cables are plugged in. Some motherboards will not boot without all the power connections plugged in. Another power-related issue is the power supply.

This is an entire topic in itself, but in short, the wattage on the power supply means very little. The key is the amperage, and the higher, the better. The power supply may not necessarily be bad, but it may not have enough amperage for your system.

If you’re fairly certain the power supply isn’t the problem, unplug it from the motherboard and clear CMOS. Now, put the jumper back in it’s original position and reconnect the power. If that doesn’t work, unplugg the power again and remove the CMOS battery. Leave it sit for a few hours or even a day or two before putting it back in and trying to boot the system with the power supply connected.

Now, if you’ve tried all that and you’re still having trouble, make a thread in our forums.

Like I said, this isn’t an in-depth guide, but rather a few common issue and remedies that new builders aren’t aware of. I won’t guarantee this will fix anyone’s hardware problems, but it may save you an unnecessary RMA process or trip to the local PC store.

This is useful, not only in setting up a system, but later on if you have a problem with the system.

Comments

2 Responses to “Motherboard Troubleshooting Guide”

  1. Imtiaz on May 15th, 2009 6:06 AM

    An indicator shows that power supply is OK. I tested it manually, it is OK. But still my computer is not starting, fans are not spinning. Not sure whether MB is dead or not. Pls help.

  2. Sniper on June 5th, 2009 6:25 PM

    please ask for help over at http://www.hardwareforums.com

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