Do-it-Yourself Desktop Troubleshooting

This blog post was originally written by Brian Satterfield at TechSoup. This post has been adapted and expanded for a Canadian audience by TechSoup Canada.

You sit down at your desk, press your computer's power button, and nothing happens. You see no familiar flashing lights, hear no pleasant whirring sounds, and detect absolutely no signs of life. You pick up the phone and call your nonprofit's IT consultant, only to learn that she's on vacation for the next six weeks. As panic sets in, your mind races and you worry about how a visit to the computer-repair shop will adversely affect your nonprofit's already tight budget. But before turning to a high-priced technician or asking a consultant to take a look, follow our steps to solve the problem yourself — or at the very least, narrow down its causes.

This article focuses on troubleshooting four common scenarios that occur with Windows-based desktops:

  1. Computer won't power up
  2. Computer powers up but monitor is blank
  3. Computer won't boot from hard drive
  4. Windows won't start up properly

To troubleshoot your computer, follow the steps in each section below in order. If these steps fail to address the issue you are encountering, you will need to seek advice from a professional or, if your computer is still under warranty, the manufacturer.

The troubleshooting tips provided here address basic, often-overlooked problems that do not require you to open your computer's case, handle hardware components, or delve deeper into Windows' core. Remember that your goal here is to solve an existing problem, not create a new one. If you feel uncomfortable performing a certain action, call in someone with more expertise.

Computer Won't Power Up


  • Is the PC's power cable plugged firmly into a wall socket or power strip, and is the power strip on? If so, try plugging the PC or the power strip into another wall socket. Likewise, check that the power cable is firmly connected to the PC's power-supply outlet.
  • Is the power supply (the part on the computer to which the cable is attached) switched to the "on" position? Does the PC also have a voltage setting, and if does, did it get changed to an incorrect setting?
  • If all the above fails, attach a known working power cable to the PC's power supply. Plug it in and try to power on again.
  • Unplug all external devices from the PC, such as printers and scanners, except the monitor. If the computer powers on without the devices, add the peripherals back one at a time until you can identify the problem device.

Computer Powers Up but Monitor Is Blank


  • Is the monitor plugged firmly into a working wall socket or power strip, and is the power strip turned on? If so, try plugging the PC or power strip into another wall socket.
  • Is the monitor's power button switched to the "on" position?
  • Are the monitor's brightness and contrast controls properly adjusted?
  • Is the monitor cable plugged firmly into the back of the display, and is the pinned end tightly screwed into the video output on the back of the computer's case? Try removing the existing cable and replace it with a known working one.
  • Obtain a working monitor and hook it up to your PC. If this new display works, contact a technician or buy a new monitor. If the monitor doesn't work, your video card may not be working, and you will need a professional to diagnose the problem more closely.

Computer Won't Boot from Hard Drive


  • Make sure there are no bootable media such as DVDs or flash drives inserted in the computer.
  • Remove all external drives or devices and try restarting the computer.
  • If you receive a series of beeps or error messages, write them down, as they could be instrumental in diagnosing your problem. Beep codes vary by manufacturer, so consult your BIOS ("basic input/output system") documentation for more in-depth information on what those beeps mean.
  • Listen to make sure your hard drive is spinning. If you hear a "clicking" sound, your hard-drive no longer works, and you will need to replace it.
  • Enter your computer's BIOS (access key varies by machine; usually you'll need to push the F1 or Delete key as the computer boots) and write down the current settings before proceeding further. Keep an eye out for any built-in diagnostic tools; you might be able to find an error by using these.
  • If no diagnostic tools exist, go to the BIOS's hard drive section and make sure it's configured as "Auto."
  • If the BIOS has an autodetect feature, run it to make sure that it can actually detect your hard drive.
  • If the BIOS has a failsafe default option, try loading it and rebooting.

Windows Won't Start Up Properly


  • Make sure there are no bootable media such as DVDs or flash drives inserted in the computer.
  • Remove external drives or devices and try restarting the computer.
  • Enter the Windows Advanced Options menu by pressing the F8 key during the BIOS's Power-On Self Test (POST). Select the option Last Known Good Configuration. (Note: if this works, you will lose any recently installed software or newly created files.)
  • In the Windows Advanced Options menu, boot into Safe Mode with networking, and perform a System Restore.
  • While in Safe Mode, run Windows' built-in diagnostic tool to check your drive for disk errors that may be affecting the startup process. While still in Safe Mode, scan your computer for viruses, Trojans, spyware, and other threats that could be causing problems.
  • If you cannot boot into Safe Mode, and if you have a recovery bootup disk created by your antivirus program, use that to boot up and scan for issues.
  • If you cannot boot into Windows at all, use the manufacturer's default recovery procedures to recover the drive and reset Windows to its original configuration. After that is complete, you will also need to restore your data.


Additional information contributed By Henry Kumagai, former technology analyst at TechSoup, Zac Mutrux, nonprofit technology consultant, and Christopher Postoloff, network support engineer at TechSoup.

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