Anti-Buzz Self-help: Computer Won’t Start

by Andrew Emmott on May 22, 2012

in Anti-Buzz,Hardware

The Buzz: Your computer won’t start! Better call IT!


The Anti-Buzz: Not so fast. You can sometimes solve your own problems …

I have been encouraged to give tutorials on computer trouble-shooting. This column often lacks the space to go into depth on some issues and I sometimes resort to advice that is flippant: Be brave! Solve your own problems! Explore! Which is all sound advice, but sometimes details are more encouraging. I could give another cursory treatment of this issue, provide a list of common foibles and a quick solution. Instead I will focus on one problem and give you a list of things you can do to resolve it. This won’t be a series in the sense that I will take a different direction next week, but I will do this again for different problems. This week?

Your computer won’t start

The end of days. Armageddon. The scariest moment of any PC owner. You’re going to fix it.

This advice assumes that the computer in question is a desktop computer. This could be your home computer or an office machine, but if you are having trouble with a laptop, I would defer to an IT professional. Anyway, the recurring joke in IT is that you should try a restart first. I will tell you to restart again and again. Right now, see if a restart doesn’t clear up your problem first. No? Okay.

A number of things can cause “not starting” – it is actually a family of problems. We’ll start at the beginning. Your computer is off. You turn it on. Look and listen for the following:

  • The usual mechanical whirring sound you get from your case – this is your CPU fan and if it’s not running, you have problems.
  • Any sort of beep. Your computer will usually make a simple beep on startup. This is your motherboard announcing everything is fine. Listen for this or possibly any angrier beeps.
  • The wall of text. Are you able to see the usual text that accompanies a startup? If you aren’t getting any video at all, then this is likely the problem.

Many common problems are just a matter of some piece of hardware coming loose and can be solved either by a simple adjustment or a simple replacement. Sometimes this can be addressed from the outside, but often you will need to go inside your computer and check a few things out. Your ability to self-help will increase tremendously if you are willing to at least poke around the guts of your machine. While many basic computer tutorials might be beneath your skill level, they often include a very good overview of what your machine’s internals look like. I recommend this guide, especially the video tutorial, if you are still afraid to gets your hands dirty.

Here is a list of possible problems that you can diagnose and maybe fix yourself:

Power problems: First, if your computer does /nothing/ when you press the power button, then obviously you have a power failure of some sort. Additionally, if your CPU fan is not receiving power, your motherboard will likely issue an angry warning and may even refuse to start up. Either way, your computer isn’t making normal computer noise when it starts up and this could be a matter of a busted power supply, or simply a loose wire. Check the power cable on the outside. Checking all the power connections on the inside of the computer is a bit trickier, and not something that gets covered in basic tutorials, but you should be able to follow all the cords that come out of your power supply and ensure that they are snugly plugged into whatever it is they are plugged into. If you can’t bring your computer out of brick status, seek an IT professional, but fear not, the solution might be simple and inexpensive.

No video: The simplest and most common failure. If your computer makes all the right noises – CPU fan, happy beep – but you see nothing on your monitor, then your problem probably lies somewhere between your monitor and your video card; your computer is actually starting up fine, you just aren’t seeing anything on your monitor. If you wait long enough, and your speakers are on, you might even hear your OS make the “start up noise.” Check the power and connections between your computer and monitor. “Check” does not mean a simple glance, either. Unplug your monitor from your PC, then reattach; do a restart, in other words. If your symptoms match this scenario, but none of this works, go inside your computer and make sure your video card is snugly attached to the motherboard, (you can find your video card by noting that it is the part your monitor directly plugs into). Failing this, ask an IT professional, but usually video problems are resolved by finding the missed connection.

Angry beep or otherwise not starting: Some piece of hardware is failing. The wall of text is your friend here, because it will usually tell you what the hang-up is. The course of action is simple: identify what part isn’t working, and reconnect or replace it. Ideally your computer has already told you what is ailing it, but if not, a simple thing to check is the RAM. Most computers have at least two sticks of RAM, but if one goes bad, the system won’t start. RAM is easily removed and replaced, so don’t hesitate to toy with it. Make sure your RAM is snug and restart, then try each stick by itself, to make sure that you don’t have a bad one. If your computer starts up with one of the sticks removed, then you have identified the problem. Your computer is safe to use, but you will want to replace that RAM when you have a chance. Otherwise, if you can’t get any obvious indication of what is wrong, check all connections inside your computer and, failing that, seek IT help.

Computer won’t boot: So everything checks out up until your OS is supposed to take over. Happy beep. CPU Fan. Wall of text. Then you get some message or other about something not being able to boot. The good news is we’ve identified the problem! The bad news is that it is a software problem. You will likely need to reinstall your OS. If you need to recover some data first, this becomes more difficult. I refer you to my recent article on personal data recovery for some more advice, but the short story here is that you are going to have to wipe your hard drive and start over. On the bright side, all of your computer hardware is fine!

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