Quick Guide to Fixing Computer Hardware




by Howard Fosdick       Updated: 2023  --   Feel free to share with everyone under the open source CC-BY-ND license.  Originally published in OSNews.


You can fix most computer hardware problems yourself, even if you lack formal training or mechanical aptitude. This easy guide tells you how.

All the software tools we recommend are free.

Here's the outline --


Read This First
Step 0: Identify the Problem
Computer -- How to Access the Configuration Panels (UEFI/BIOS)
Computer -- Unexpectedly Shuts Down
Computer -- Turns On But Won't Boot
Computer -- Won't Turn On
Computer -- Boots into Windows But Fails Somewhere Along the Way
Computer -- Loses Date and Time
Computer -- Is Noisy
Computer -- Got Wet
Mouse Problems
Keyboard Problems
Memory Errors
USB Memory Stick Problems
Display Screen -- Pixels Get Stuck or Die
Display Screen -- Dies Entirely
Disk Problems -- All Disks
Disk Problems -- Hard Disk Drive (HDD)
Disk Problems -- How to Completely Erase a Disk
Optical Disc -- Disc Stuck in Drive
Optical Disc -- Disc Read Errors
Optical Disc -- Drive Fails
Resources

Read This First

  1. Before you open up your computer, always unplug it first! Protect yourself from a terrible electrical shock.
  2. Ground yourself before touching the inside of any computer. Otherwise, you might give your computer a tiny static shock you won't even notice -- but it can kill your circuitry. Either buy a $10 USD anti-static wrist strap, or be very careful to always ground yourself.
  3. Enter error messages to Google to see how others fixed your problem. Why reinvent the wheel?
  4. Download your computer's documentation from the manufacturer's website if you don't already have it. This provides essential machine-specific information.

Step 0: Identify the Problem

The first step in fixing any problem is to identify it. Don't jump to conclusions. Run free diagnostic software for problem identification:
  • Boot-time diagnostics are available in many computers' "configuration" or "setup" panels.
    (These are the so-called "UEIF" or "BIOS" panels. Learn how to access those panels here.)
  • Some computers come with diagnostics installed on their drives or with diagnostic DVDs.
  • Download free test suites like Hiren's Boot CD and The Inquisitor.
  • Free live Linuxes like the Ultimate Boot CD and System Rescue CD have hardware testing tools plus software aids.
Don't know if your problem is hardware or software? Run a different operating system. If the problem disappears, it's software.

If you're using Windows, boot a live Linux from USB or DVD to determine whether your problem is Windows or a hardware issue.

Here are the most common hardware problems and their solutions:

Computer -- How to Access the Configuration Panels (UEFI/BIOS)

Fixing many computers problems requires you to access the "configuration" or "setup" panels. These hold various settings essential to your computer's operation that are stored across sessions. (Your computer has a small battery inside to provide the power needed to maintain these settings when the computer is turned off.)

These configuration panels are also sometimes called the "BIOS," the "UEFI", or the "UEFI/BIOS" panels. If your computer displays the option to enter "Setup," it's referring to these configuration panels.

There are several ways to access the configuration panels. The most common is simply to press a PF key while your computer boots.

Unfortunately, each manufacturer has its own "magic key" to enter these panels. And sometimes they change them over time, or by model.

Here are the most common keys. Just tap the appropriate one during startup and you'll enter your computer's configuration panels --

Acer: F2 or DEL
ASRock: F2 or DEL
ASUS: F2 or DEL
Dell: F2 or F12
ECS: DEL
Gigabyte/Aorus: F2 or DEL
HP: ESC or F10
Lenovo (Consumer Laptops): F2 or Fn + F2
Lenovo (Desktops): F1
Lenovo (ThinkPads): Enter then F1
MSI: DEL for motherboards and PCs
Microsoft Surface Tablets: Press and hold volume up button
Origin PC: F2
Samsung: F2
Sony: F1, F2, or F3
Toshiba: F2
Zotac: DEL

If you can't get into the UEFI/BIOS with these keys, it won't hurt if you try others. Hit a whole bunch of PF keys during boot and it's likely you'll get in there with one of them.

If you're running Windows 10 or 11, you can also access the configuration panels from Windows by going into SETTINGS. Read one of these articles for details on how to do this.

Your computer's documentation also tells how to access the configuration panels.

Finally, it's possible you can't access the UEFI/BIOS because boot timing doesn't allow you a chance to press a PF key. In this case, follow this procedure to remove your computer's battery. This resets the UEFI/BIOS parameters to their original state, and will allow you sufficient time to hit a PF key to enter the configuration panels.

Computer -- Unexpectedly Shuts Down

There could be many causes for this one -- a short circuit, damaged electronics, and more. Most random shutdowns are caused by overheating.

Laptops are especially prone to random shutdowns due to overheating because they cram so much circuitry into too small a package for easy cooling.

Every computer has internal sensors that immediately shut down the system to prevent electronics damage if the temperature gets too high. Since you can not relate the timing of the shutdowns to your actions, they appear random.

View your laptop's internal temperatures by running a free monitoring app. Download SpeedFan or other free monitors for Windows or use lm-sensors for Linux. These tools will also help you verify that your fan(s) are spinning when they should be.

To fix overheating, ensure all fan(s) are spinning when they should. Unclog the air vents. Make sure you aren't blocking the vents by placing the laptop on your lap or pushing your desktop up against a flush surface. Don't pre-heat a laptop by leaving it in the direct sunlight or in a car window. Use the computer in an air-conditioned room.

Open the computer and remove dust, especially that coating circuitry. Since static electricity kills electronics, don't rub circuitry with a dust rag. Blow out dust with an inexpensive canister of compressed air.

If this doesn't fix your problem, you may need to replace the fan(s). Fans burn out as their ball bearings fail. Here's how to replace a case fan.

If it's specifically the CPUs that are overheating, many processors have a CPU heat sink. This is a metal flange of some sort that draws heat away from the CPU chip. Over time, these sometimes become less effective as the glue that binds them to the chip degrades. You may need to "re-seat" the heat sink. Here's how to re-seat a CPU heat sink and the CPU.

Anyone who reads the documentation specific to their computer model can perform these procedures so long as they exercise care. You can also find many helpful "how-to's" on Youtube.

Computer -- Turns On But Won't Boot

You flip the Power switch on and your computer appears to start up. The power light goes On, the fans spin, maybe the disks kick -- but nothing further happens. You can't get into the computer's configuration (UEFI/BIOS) panels to perform problem determination. That means you have a hardware problem.

Some computers will give you "beep codes" or flash panel lights to tell you what's wrong. Look in your machine's doc to decode them. Or visit this webpage.

Without beep codes or other indicators, this one's tough to diagnose. You need a methodology to identify the problem. Here is one that is time-consuming but effective in isolating a defective component. It identifies these problems:
  • Improperly seated or burned out adapter cards
  • Faulty devices
  • Loose or bad connector cables to devices
  • Wires that aren't properly connected to the motherboard
  • Improperly seated or defective memory sticks
To start, turn off and disconnect the computer from power, open it up, and write down where every wire, insertable adapter card, and connector attaches to the motherboard and the devices. Record this so you can reattach everything later. Then disconnect every wire or plug from the motherboard, except for the power connectors from the power supply. Detach all devices. Remove all adapter cards and all memory.

Now you're down to a naked motherboard with its CPU, attached to the power supply. Insert one good memory stick into the first slot nearest the CPU, attach a working display (with a video card you know works, if necessary), and turn on the computer. If you can't access the configuration or UEFI/BIOS panels now, the motherboard or CPU circuitry may be bad. Visually inspect the motherboard for leakage, especially near the capacitors and battery. You might succeed in cleaning up leakage, but most of those boards are goners.

If the system does display the UEFI/BIOS panels, the motherboard and its embedded circuitry is good. One at a time, reattach each connector or cable or insertable adapter card. After reconnecting an item, turn on the computer. If you can still get into the UEFI/BIOS panels, you know that whatever you just attached is not causing the freeze-up or failure. As soon as you attach an item and the computer dies, you know that that component was the problem.

Here's an example. My friend's year-old computer completely baffled him. It would start up, display the "HP Welcome" panel, and freeze. He couldn't get into the configuration panels. I stripped the system down to this:
Motherboard  +  CPU +  One Memory Stick  +  Display  +  Power Supply
Then I powered on and got into the UEFI/BIOS panels, so I knew the motherboard and CPU were good. Then I attached each item, one at a time, and booted after each, and got into the UEFI/BIOS panels. Until I attached the disk drive! Then the symptom re-appeared. We replaced the defective disk and the system has worked fine since.

Computer -- Won't Turn On

What if your computer won't turn on at all? Check the power supply and ensure it's getting electricity. Was it plugged into a live wall socket with a good power cord? Test the socket with a lamp. Don't assume that one socket in a power strip is working just because the other sockets in the strip work. If you just upgraded memory verify the secure seating of the ram sticks.

Check the wire that goes from the Power On button to the motherboard. If this doesn't connect you're not turning on the computer at all. Is the power supply (PS) working? Did its fan spin when powered on? Is the PS properly connected to the motherboard?  If you have a spare try the motherboard with another power supply to see if a burnt out PS is the problem. Find how to diagnose PS problems here. If you have a volt-ohm meter (VOM) verify the current.

If these procedures don't work, try the disassembly/reassembly procedure in the section "Computer -- Turns On But Won't Boot" above. Sometimes you'll find a short caused by improper connection this way.

Computer -- Boots into Windows But Fails Somewhere Along the Way

If the computer boots and gets into the Windows start-up process, then freezes or fails, nearly always you have a Windows software issue rather than a hardware problem. To find out for sure, boot a live Linux from USB or DVD.  If Linux boots and works you have a Windows problem. This is a hardware article so I unfortunately don't have space to address how to fix Windows software... you'll have to do some googling.

Computer -- Loses the Date or Time

If your computer loses the date or time across sessions, you probably have a dead battery. This is the little round watch-type battery that keeps configuration information across sessions, the CMOS battery.

Before you replace the battery, write it down any unique configuration information you've entered into your UEFI/BIOS panels. Because this procedure will erase it, and you'll need to know it to re-enter it later.

After you've totally shut down your computer and disconnected it from the electrical socket, open it up, then pry out the battery and replace it. They cost only a few bucks. After you install the new battery, update the date and time and re-enter any unique configuration info into the UEFI/BIOS. Here's how the battery might look on a desktop's motherboard:

CMOS Battery

Courtesy: www.PCTechNotes.com and www.TechNibble.com


Computer -- Is Noisy

As computers age, they often make more noise. Sometimes this gets to the point where it's annoying. Here's how to fix this.

In most cases, the cause of the noise is the one or two fans inside the computer. Maybe they're having to work more than they used to because your computer is cluttered with dust. Or, maybe their spinning itself is causing more noise.

First, make sure you're not blocking the computer's fan(s) or air holes by where you've positioned it. Then clean any dust out of the fans or aeration holes from the outside.

Next, ground yourself, and open your computer. Clean dust out around the fans, near the central processor, and from all internal surfaces. Remember that you can't rub circuitry without risk of damaging it, so you may want to use a can of compressed air for this. Be sure to blow out the power supply and its fan with the compressed air.

Close up the computer and see if that solved your problem. If not, listen closely to the fan(s) themselves. If their spinning is the issue, sometimes you can apply a very tiny drop of lightweight mechanical lubricant oil to the fan shaft. You want to be careful not to apply too much oil, or you could pollute the inside of your computer! So be sure to apply the tiniest droplet you can.

You may just find it easier to buy and install a new fan. They cost less than $20 and only require a screwdriver to install. Measure your current fan first to ensure you buy the right size.

Laptop users sometimes buy a cooling pad to reduce how often their fans spin. And be sure not to leave your laptop in direct sunlight or inside your car and heat it up before you use it! If you do, you ensure your fans will spin to the max to keep the machine cool enough to operate.

Finally, there is the special case where a desktop computer's power supply is the source of unwanted noise. First off, blow accumulated dust out of its enclosure with compressed air.

Second, you might find that some other internal component is rubbing against or interacting with the power supply to cause noise. Inspect inside the case for this. And check to see if the power supply is still securely mounted. Screw it in tighter if it isn't.

If the power supply is making a buzzing noise, it might be that its fan has worn out its ball bearings. In this case just buy a new power supply. Be sure to measure yours first to ensure you purchase an appropriately sized replacement.

You should NEVER open up your power supply to try to fix anything inside it. Unless you are a professional electrician this could be dangerous.

Computer -- Got Wet

Oh, no! You spilled your drink on your desktop keyboard. Or worse, all over your laptop! Is this recoverable? Usually it is.

First: turn off everything off immediately. Pull the power cord or push the OFF button.

Do not take the time to perform a graceful shutdown! The longer electricity goes through the electronics the greater the chance for permanent damage.

Do not touch or move the device. Wait a full day or even two to ensure everything has completely dried out. Then, turn on the system. If you're lucky it will work.

Sometimes people are impatient and want to speed up the evaporation process. If you can point a fan at the affected device it may help. I don't recommend toweling it down or blowing at it with a hot hairdryer as these can cause further problems if you're not very careful and knowledgable about what you're doing.

Simple evaporation doesn't always do the trick, but I've picked up computers left out in the rain or snow for days, let them dry out, and used them without any ill effects. Just dry them out completely before powering on.

If you spilled a drink on your keyboard, it may be sticky. Get it back in working order with the instructions in the section on keyboards. If you spilled water, don't bother. Just let it all evaporate.

Mouse Problems

With optical mice, the only cleaning you need to do is to ensure that no lint is clogging the optical opening beneath the mouse. Sometimes optical mice don't track well on glossy or transparent surfaces, including some mouse pads.

If your plug-in mouse doesn't work at all, ensure the connection is secure. Verify the operating system is using a valid mouse driver. Test your questionable mouse on another computer or plug in a different mouse to your computer. Reboot and test. This shows whether you have a dead mouse rather than a software issue.

If your mouse is wireless, the most common problem is simply a dead battery. Replace it and you're done.

If that doesn't fix it, other problems are: (1) a wireless connection problem (2) device drivers that are not correctly installed, or (3) a dead mouse. Ensure the wireless adapter or USB linking device is securely plugged in. Verify the drivers. Use the wireless control program to diagnose and resync the mouse. Try resyncing the mouse by powering everything down, then rebooting.

Keyboard Problems

If you prevent food, hair and other debris from falling inside your keyboard, you've avoided 90% of all problems. To clean a keyboard, detach it, turn it upside down and vigorously shake it.

If this doesn't do the trick, then carefully pry off sticky keys and eliminate the gunk underneath. You can easily get the keys off with a penknife. After you clean underneath them, just push them back into place. Keys will often make a little snapping sound so that you know you got them back into place properly.

Cleaning the keyboard with rubbing alcohol or electronics cleaner can help, too. Especially if you spilled a drink over the keyboard, and it's become sticky.

Desktop keyboards are so cheap you might as well buy a new one for all but the simplest repairs. Laptops are another matter, with their embedded keyboards. You don't want to trash your entire laptop due to a keyboard problem.

Here's a good article on repairing laptop keyboards. And here are several instructional Youtube videos. Hiren's Boot CD includes free keyboard testing programs. Though it might sound challenging, anyone can replace a laptop keyboard if they exercise due care. Just find the instructions for your particular laptop model on the web. They're all a bit different so it helps to have model-specific instructions.

If your issue is that you spilled on your keyboard, follow the instructions in the section "Computer -- Got Wet".

Memory Errors

Memory errors are easy to fix. Simply remove and replace the bad memory stick.

The problem is identifying that you have a memory error, since many are transient (they occur sporadically). If you suspect a memory problem, run an intensive memory checker utility like Linux's Memtest86 or Hiren's Boot CD. Take the time to run the long or extended test (not the short or quick test). Run it overnight if necessary.

You can also set the UEFI/BIOS to test the memory upon startup at the expense of a longer boot. This test will not be as thorough as Memtest86 or Hiren's.

If you need to add memory to your computer, you can take a look at the labels on your existing memory to see what kind of memory will work. But sometimes those labels are confusing.

An easier way is to use the online "memory finder" tools provided by various memory vendors. You just enter the manufacturer and model of your computer and the online tool burps back which memory sticks will work in your PC.

Here's Kingston's memory finder, and here's the equivalent tool from Crucial.

When you add memory into your computer, ensure it's seated correctly before booting. If the memory is not inserted properly most computers will beep and refuse to boot, telling you to re-seat. Hopefully no damage resulted.

After adding memory, always enter your UEFI/BIOS configuration panels on your next boot to ensure it's properly recognized before booting all the way into your operating system.

USB Memory Stick Problems

USB memory sticks go by several names. Some call them "flash drives" or "thumb drives." These are all the same thing.
==> If you store important data on your USB memory stick, you should be sure to run backups for it, just the same as you would for your regular internal disk drive.
If the computer seems not to recognize the flash drive at all, try plugging it into a different USB port. If that works, it means the first port you tried is either dirty or non-functional. With the computer off, you can try cleaning that port with a can of compressed air. Carefully clean the contacts on the USB memory stick as well.

If that doesn't fix the problem, you can go farther in the cleaning by using a dental tip and isopropyl alcohol.

You should also verify you have an up-to-date driver for your USB ports.

You could get any of several different error messages from your operating system indicating that the USB stick has suffered software corruption. In this case, run the operating system's check disk or repair utility on the USB stick.

You might, alternatively, reformat the USB flash drive. (Note that this will lose any data on the USB stick.)

As far as hardware failure goes, USB flash drives are designed to handle partially failing portions. This is transparent to you as a user -- you'll never even know it's happening. However, thumb drives do some day reach a point where they catastrophically fail. This often appears sudden to the user. This is why you always back up any data on your USB memory stick that you don't already have a copy of elsewhere.

How about opening up the USB stick to fix it? Just as with an internal disk drive, unless you're a hardware professional, this is usually a bad (meaning "counterproductive") move. Instead, if you don't have a backup and you're really desperate to recover your data, an expensive professional data recovery service is probably a better option. Don't get yourself into this position -- always back up your data!

Display Screen -- Pixels Get Stuck or Die

It's not uncommon to find that some display pixels fail over time.

Two situations can occur. A pixel either:
  1. Gets "stuck" displaying something and won't change
  2. Falls dark or "dead" and doesn't display anything at all
You usually can't fix a dead pixel, but you can fix a stuck one. Here's how.

First, identify which pixels are stuck by viewing your display with different color palettes.

Next, run a pixel-fixing program. You can find free ones by googling. JScreenFix is a useful one.

These programs will flash various palettes and lights to your screen. Usually they do the job, although you may have to run it more than once to get your fix.

If the pixel is still stuck, you can gently apply pressure to it to fix it. Be but very careful with the pressure, and be warned -- do this wrong by applying too much pressure, and you can actually make the problem worse.

To perform this procedure, first open a dark background in your display or within your browser. You need backlit pixels to work with.

Then, with a stylus or touchpen or microfibre cloth, gently apply a little pressure to the affected area. Press the stuck pixel and massage it for a few seconds, then release pressure. You may have to try this a few times for it to work. Don't press too hard or you could damage the display.

Display Screen -- Dies Entirely

Desktop displays are black boxes. The usual remedy is replacement. But verify you don't have a device driver or software issue before you junk your display.

Most desktop monitors die due to a failed capacitor. This is a one dollar part and replacing it is very cost-effective for those with the necessary skills.

CAUTION! You'll want to read about this and watch some Youtube videos before attempting it. You'll be opening up your monitor -- an electrical device that could still store a charge -- and also using a soldering iron. Anybody can accomplish this but you want to understand the process and what's involved before attempting it. Proceed intelligently and safely.

Laptops are a very different story than desktops. With laptops you have to either fix the display or else trash your entire computer. It's easy to buy a replacement screen for your specific laptop model and install it. There's no soldering involved and it's not challenging like fixing a burnt-out desktop monitor.

Here are some Youtube videos showing how to replace laptop screens. Anyone can successfully replace laptop screens and keyboards. Just be sure to download model-specific documentation and follow it carefully.

Disk Problems -- All Disks

Your computer's disk is either a solid state drive (SSD) or a hard disk drive (HDD). They both have their own unique ways of failing, but let's start with some common issues.

First, when a disk fails, the easiest solution is to buy a new disk. Disks are inexpensive these days. Then transfer your data from your backup to your new disk.

Messing with faulty disk hardware is not worth your time. The sole exception is if you've failed to back up your data. Then -- assuming your data is important to you -- you've put yourself into a pickle.

So the lessons here are:

==> The best insurance against disk failure -- by far -- is good backups!

==> Be sure to back up both (1) your data and (2) the operating system and your applications


A few generic rules of thumb for fixing drives:
  • Never open the drive enclosure. It is sealed to remain dust free and you can't fix anything in there anyway.
  • Download the disk drive manufacturer's free drive-specific diagnostic program. Some can mark off bad disk sectors and even fix disk errors.
  • Most UEFI/BIOS's have drive diagnostic and test procedures. These may not be as thorough as those you download from the drive manufacturer, but they're still worth trying.
  • If you're really desperate to get your data back, and you didn't make a backup, you might be able to retrieve your data by sending the drive to a data recovery service. They're usually expensive. Just google for "disk drive data recovery services."
  • Heat messes up disks just the same as it harms the rest of your computer's components. Make sure your computer is not running too hot, and that the disk gets proper ventilation. See the section Computer -- Unexpectedly Shuts Down for tips on how to cool your computer.

Here are common disk symptoms and how to fix them:


"Operating System Not Found"

When booting your computer, you might get an error message like one of these:
  • "Operating System Not Found"
  • "No Operating System on Disk"
  • "Missing Operating System"
  • "Invalid Partition Table"
These are all software errors. Your computer is telling you that the boot and/or partitioning data stored on the disk are either missing or corrupted. You can often fix this issue using tools like free TestDisk utility. Just google and you'll find good tutorials on this.


OS Detects the Drive But You Can't Access Your Data

Sometimes your operating system knows a drive is present but won't let you use it. Or it tells you the drive needs to be formatted. Or maybe it just shows a blank drive that doesn't contain any data. Or it won't show you the drive properties or let you format it. Usually this means a software problem: filesystem corruption.

You can usually fix a filesystem to recover all or nearly all of your data. Or, you may have a situation where you can't fix the broken filesystem, but you can recovery your data into another disk.

Here is a quick list of fix/recovery tools (with more here):  

Filesystem: Free Repair Tools:


FAT32, VFAT TestDisk, PhotoRec, Disk Digger, Linux dosfsck utility
NTFS Lots of free and shareware tools here, Ubuntu's tools, DTIDATA's tool, TestDisk, PhotoRec
ext2, ext3, ext4
Use built-in Linux utilities like fsck, e2fsck, ddrescue, TestDisk, or PhotoRec

For instructions on how to use any of these tools, just follow the links provided.

It's possible to have a hardware problem that shows the same symptoms. For HDD's, dirty contacts on the underside of the drive enclosure are one cause. This article has photos that lead you through how to clean the drive contacts simply by rubbing them with a pencil eraser.


Drive is Not Detected At All

First make sure that drives have fully connected power and data cables. You could get a variety of errors from this but "drive not detected" is common. Check the data cable connection to the motherboard as well as the side that connects to the back of the drive.

For HDD's, another cause of "drive not detected" problems is a failed logic card on the drive. This is the circuit board attached to the underside of the drive. The board circuitry may fail over time due to the heat coming off the drive and the temperature differential from the powered-off state.

Take off the drive's circuit board and replace it with another. You can buy one on the web or take one from another drive. The key to success is that the logic board must be for the exact same drive. If not, it will not work. Obviously, you'll only go to this trouble if you really need the data on the drive and have no backup.


Disk Problems -- Hard Disk Drive (HDD)

Some problems are specific to traditional hard disk drives (HDDs) because these involve the mechanics of a spinning storage media accessed by a disk arm.

HDD Makes Clicking Noises

This problem is unique to hard disks. It is the so-called Click Of Death. Drives make clicking noises when they have to move the disk arm multiple times to retrieve data. The drive is not functioning properly and this is its error correction procedure. Your drive may fail very soon! Copy any data you need off there immediately. You may have limited time so copy files in priority order.

If you can not get in to copy data off by normal means, here is a procedure that extracts data from even the most recalcitrant drives. It's more detailed than I can describe here but the key steps are:
  1. Hook up a second target drive to the controller (or you can use a USB thumb drive as the target)
  2. Use the ddrescue command to copy the raw drive image from the failing drive (instructions here)
  3. Make the target partition active so you can access your recovered data
ddrescue tries every trick in the book to read the data off the target drive, bit-by-bit, regardless of what filesystems or partitions the drive contains. It will even try to read the data backwards. It's very effective. But it might take many hours or even days to get your data back. Like all the software in this article it is free.


HDD Not Spinning

Another problem for hard drives only. If the drive is not spinning, most people assume it is dead. Usually, but not always. I've read about supposed home remedies like freezing or hitting the drive. But if you really must retrieve your data from that drive, don't mess with it! Instead, pay a professional data recovery service, like Data Savers or Ontrack. They often succeed because they ignore the drive hardware and instead directly analyze its storage media.

Disk Problems -- How to Completely Erase a Disk

There are two situations where you might want to completely and thoroughly erase all data on a disk drive.

One is where you're giving the disk away -- usually when you dispose of your computer at its end of life. You absolutely do not want to leave any trace of your personal information on that disk. You could be a victim of identity theft if you don't thoroughly wipe it.

The other situation is where you acquire a used computer. In this case you have no idea what data might be on that computer. It could include pirated or stolen software, films, music, or pornography. You can't afford to have illegal stuff on that computer that you could be held responsible for -- even though you didn't put it there and may not have even known of its presence.

So how do you completely erase a disk?

It depends on whether it's hard disk drive (HDD) or solid state disk (SSD).

What if you aren't sure whether you have a hard disk or solid state drive? Inspect the disk carefully. It will usually tell you which it is somewhere in the labels or the small print. If not, write down the manufacturer, model number, and part number, and google these on the web. It should be easy to find out which kind of drive you have. Then you'll know whether you need to run a traditional HDD data wipe program, or an SSD secure erase utility.

To completely erase a hard disk, just download and run a free tool like DBAN or a competitor.

For a solid state drive, you need a different kind of tool. You need to do what they call a secure erase.

Some computers come with an secure erase utility in their UEFI/BIOS. All you have to do is access the boot configuration panels to run it. It will usually be labelled something like "ATA Secure Erase."

The other option is the website of the disk manufacturer. Many offer free downloads of secure erase utilities for their SSDs.

Unfortunately, some vendors don't provide a secure erase utility for some of their consumer drives. In this case, your only option may be to purchase a tool like Parted Magic for $15 (a delivery charge). Or, if your goal is just to get rid of your data before giving away the drive, you can instead physically destroy or "shred" the drive.

Optical Disc -- Disc Stuck in Drive

You're using your favorite DVD, when yikes! It gets stuck in the disc drive. No matter if you tell software to eject it or unmount it, the drive won't open and give you back your disc.

Fortunately, this is easy to fix. Look closely at the drive face and you'll see tiny hole. Stick a straight pin in there and push a lever that will mechanically push out the tray. Do this with the computer powered off since it is solely a mechanical procedure.

Optical Disc -- Disc Read Errors

What do you do when you pop a DVD or CD into your optical drive and it fails to read? You'll often hear shuffling noises and as the drive tries to error-correct by reading the disc multiple times.

You could have either a faulty disc on your hands, or a bad optical disk drive. You can tell which simply by inserting another disc into the drive. If it reads, you know your first disc is bad. If the drive can't read any discs at all, you know the drive is bad (see the next section for solutions).

If you have a bad disc, you can often fix it simply by carefully wiping fingerprints or other pollution off the disc. Wipe the disc with a proper cloth like you would use for cleaning your computer display screen. Don't use paper towels or toilet paper as these may scratch the disc.

Inspect the disc carefully to see if scratches prevent it from being read. You can eliminate these scratches, or at least reduce them to within tolerance of the reading capability of your optical disc reader. With a stream of warm water, rub toothpaste very lightly on the scratches. Rub from the center of the disc towards the outside.

Yes, I said toothpaste. It is a mild abrasive, meaning that rubbing it on the optical disk can reduce the depth of scratches.

Just rub a little -- not too much. Your goal is to reduce the depth of the scratches in the outer plastic layer while not rubbing through to the substrate media beneath. You may want to rub just a bit, dry the disc and try reading it again, rub again, try reading again, etc. Proceed carefully, and after several tries, you'll find that even a lot of scratches or a very deep scratch will yield to your efforts. Viola! You have a readable disc again.

Optical Disc -- Drive Fails

First ask yourself: do you really need your optical drive anymore? In many cases, you can just use a USB memory stick (or "thumb drive") instead. They cost less, read and write data faster, and store more data.

If you do still need your disc drive -- say you have a DVD/CD collection -- keep in mind that new drives are cheap. But first check all connectors, ensure the OS recognizes the device, and that you have a working driver installed.

What if the problem is sporadic? First ensure that it's not the individual disc you're trying to read that is the problem (see the above section).

If you're certain the problem is your optical drive, try cleaning the drive with these simple cleaning techniques.

Another possible cause is differing calibration between drives. It's possible to write a disc on one system and find another unable to read it. Determine if you have a calibration difference by testing multiple discs on several different drives.

You might find that your drive works well with certain brands of disc media but not with others. Media differences can cause sporadic problems even with healthy optical drives. Remember that there are many optical media standards and that you have to match them properly to the drives that use them. While current drives support multiple media standards, you can't always mix all media in all drives (DVD+R, DVD-R, DVD+-R, DVD-RAM, Blu-ray, CD-RW, CD-ROM, etc).

Summary

There's more to fixing computer hardware than any one article can cover. Yet you'll find that 90% of hardware problems are easily fixable. This brief article targets that 90%. I hope you've found it helpful.

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Howard Fosdick is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems. He's fixed up old computers for fun and for charity for many years. Read more how-to's and tutorials here.

Resources

Computer Hope Great for less technical people
FixingMyComputer.com Basic but comprehensive
Tom's Hardware Forum Great place for difficult questions, esp hardware
Techsolutions.com Troubleshooting tips
Computer Repair with Diagnostics Flowcharts Includes flowcharts for diagnostic repair

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