As more homes are being populated with personal computers, owners are becoming more inclined to perform troubleshooting, maintenance, and repairs on their own. As many PC technicians may agree, it truly is not all that difficult, many thanks to the forums and articles such as these for reference over the internet. A common failure that can sometimes be the most elusive to identify is when a motherboard within the system is in a failed or failing state; the intent of this article/guide is to provide useful troubleshooting tips for identifying a failed or prone to fail motherboard.
The first and simplest means of quickly identifying a failed or failing motherboard would be the status of the capacitors. (see list for pictures) These are the cylinder shaped components soldered all over the motherboard, typically with an X or Y impression across the visible face of them. If any of these appear slightly bulbous or swelled in any way, this is a strong indicator of a failed or failing motherboard. These can make for the simplest means of isolating what can often be a very elusive problem with a computer or really many electronic devices. The reason being that often times the system may appear to still function but have erratic behaviors such as the computer locking up while in use, or simply rebooting on its own for no obvious reason. These by no means are the exclusive symptoms of such a problem however; sometimes a failed or failing motherboard can halt the loading of the Operating System (Windows to most), or prevent a reinstallation of that operating system as well possibly halting or producing errors during the process. Sometimes swelled capacitors can be easily spotted right away, other times due to their quantity, can be easily overlooked until no other hardware has been addressed. Since the motherboard is literally the spinal column of the computer, it can more often than not be a chore to remove or replace. Catching swelled capacitors early on during diagnostics of a problem computer can often save time for troubleshooting other components. The simplest means is to simply look over the motherboard for any suspiciously swelled or even at times burst capacitors. If upon finding any you are uncertain of, be certain to ground yourself from any potential static discharge, simply running your finger across the top of these to verify they are as flat as the others will provide the verification. Even a slight bulge on these are indicative of something within the motherboard having a failure, though it is possible for the motherboard to continue functioning with them, there is no assurance of reliability, and when no other hardware failures can be found but the symptoms of address continue odds are no matter how miniscule that capacitor may seem to our perceptions, it is a very likely culprit in the problem.
Swell capacitors may be the simplest means of determining a failure in a motherboard, however it is definitely not exclusive to as much. They also are not a constant symptom, sometimes the motherboard may be failed or failing without a single swelled capacitor. Troubleshooting a potentially failed motherboard without swelled capacitors can sometimes prove a feat, and exhibits the efforts and need for resources to best isolate the issue.
When there are no swelled capacitors to give solid evidence, the troubleshooting process of the motherboard can become one of elimination. Although a system will not fully boot with certain components removed, it should still power up enough to give indication of powering on with the CPU fan kicking on anytime it is powered up while properly connected to the power supply. While it may be simplest to have an arsenal of known working components to swap out until isolating the problem, this is not always an option; when reliably working components cannot be swapped for those attached to the suspect motherboard (and even sometimes when they can) another measure of isolation is the removal of components for a process of elimination.
The fact is any failed hardware in a computer has the potential to halt the boot process or cause symptoms similar to that of a failed motherboard. Some may agree the easiest approach is to remove as many additional components from the motherboard as possible, leaving only the power supply, CPU, and RAM installed while all other additional expansion cards, disk drives, or any other additional components are disconnected. With only these three items attached, if when you attempt to boot the internal fans do not engage, odds are another device is the hindrance to the boot process. If however still nothing is happening and you are certain the power supply and outlet being used are good, removing the RAM and attempting to boot again would be the next step.
Many motherboards and sometimes the chassis will have a speaker for the issuing of what are known as POST codes (Power On Self Test), while all motherboards will have the functions of these programmed in, they are not always matching on their code translations. These codes can definitely help in isolating issues as well, often times they can even identify what is missing to the motherboard (i.e. RAM, video card or CPU) The POST code most are familiar with, even when ignored or unnoticed, is that initial 'beep' your computer issues while powering on prior to the operating system load. Various meanings for these codes can be found from the board manufacturer or often times in the documentation included with a system. It is not uncommon for these to go unheard if/when the person that assembled the PC does not connect the chassis speaker or possibly there isn't one in either the chassis or built into the motherboard. While these codes may be of some help, the reality is they are not absolute, a motherboard could issue a POST code indicating no video card is present, this might lead one to think that if the video card is attached it has failed, but if the video card is an expansion card and not built into the motherboard itself it could be the slot used on the motherboard has failed and not the device attached.
The final pieces in the process of elimination would be the CPU or power supply. Hopefully you have a means of verifying the power supply or a spare to assure that it is not the culprit. If you are suspect of the CPU, unless you have another of matching socket type to try swapping these, depending on the age of the computer it may simply not be worth further toil. If the PC being troubleshot is 3+ years in age, it may be more cost effective to replace both CPU/motherboard than attempt tracking down a potentially outdated socket type processor to try or even to replace a failed one.
Regardless of the method by which the determination is made, once the problem has been isolated to a failed motherboard, it is a good idea to run any diagnostics or checks you can on any hardware originally attached to the system during the point of failure; it's not at all uncommon for a failed or failing motherboard to take out other devices due to that failure.