I heard the voice on the other end of the phone say, “My computer blew
My response: “Why do you think this?”
“The monitor started smoking and we ran out of the room. Now it won’t
I said optimistically (or was it foolishly), “Well, if the smoke was
coming from the monitor, it might not be that bad. Bring it to me and we’ll
see what we can do.”
I opened the case, which looked fairly clean inside, and plugged it
in. Nothing happened when I pushed the power button. “The smoke came from
the monitor — right?” Feeling brave, I swapped power supplies. This time,
the computer responded — with flames that leapt from two chips uncomfortably
close to the processor! The smoke was not coming from the monitor.
I gutted the case and installed a replacement motherboard. When I pulled
the processor and fan from the old motherboard, I discovered they’d become
quite attached to each other over time. Since breaking this bond can render
the heat sink fairly worthless (without significant reconditioning), and
could damage the processor, I decided to hope for the best and leave them
I applied power and the fan started spinning, but nothing else happened
— no beeps, no video. Figuring the processor was fried, I pried the fan
off and surveyed the processor’s charred top. Pulling a doppelganger (my
wife’s new favorite word) from stock, I replaced the crispy critter. The
cheery beep of POST greeted me, and the monitor came to life. With this,
I was pleased to discover that the video card and memory from the old system
seemed to have survived. I connected the floppy and quickly arrived at
a DOS prompt via the Windows 98SE start disk.
The hard drive came next, but the scan of the bus failed to find the
drive. After checking the connections, I placed my hand on the drive and
rebooted. The drive was silent and motionless — another casualty. With
a new hard drive in place, it was on to the CD-ROM. I wasn’t optimistic
with its chances, since it had been on the same cable as the hard drive.
The power light came on, but nobody was home. The drive motor wouldn’t
spin and the tray wouldn’t open.
I decided to load Windows next, to better test the memory, the video,
and then the other expansion cards. The operating system installed without
error, so I moved to the modem. This card appeared healthy on the outside,
so I placed it in the last PCI slot and turned the computer on. The modem
came up and was soon screeching that familiar sound of going on-line. The
sound card was not so lucky. A major crack was visible on one of its primary
chips — the normally green PCB around the chip was charred where portions
of the chip had melted. Adding a new sound card, and placing a NIC which
was removed from the old system before the power spike, on the motherboard
completed the restoration. A few drivers, a few reboots, and a series of
Window’s updates later — the computer was restored to life.
So, what morals can we learn from this story?
The time to invest in a good surge protector is not after a huge storm
hits town. Make the investment up front to avoid the pain and suffering
in the end. I always recommend APC surge protectors and UPS devices.
When the time comes to test a new processor on a motherboard, do not forget
to put the heat sink in place and plug in the fan. Modern processors can
overheat in less than a second, and will not give you time to see the POST
before they overheat for good.
Do not reuse old heat sinks without cleaning the surface that touches the
processor and replacing the padding. Forming the proper bond between the
processor and heat sink is crucial. Apply heat dissipating grease as necessary,
but do not over use it. This grease can actually cause a short circuit
on processors where the core is exposed on the top.
It’s always good to have a Windows 98SE start disk. This disk contains
generic drivers for accessing nearly any CD-ROM drive and also provides
tools for formatting and repairing hard drives. This is a critical tool
when diagnosing and rebuilding systems.