Tech Support: Troubleshooting Motherboards by Phone

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Isolating the Problem

While you are conversing with yourself, ask, ‘Has the problem sufficiently been isolated?’

A caller may have already told you that everything was installed into the box, turned on the power and nothing happens. If this is the case then you know the first step: strip the unit down to the power supply, motherboard, processor, remote power switch and speaker. Nothing else is to be connected and the board should not be mounted in a case.

On average, it takes 3 or 4 times for a telephone technician to explain this step. Repeat it using various phrases, e.g. nothing is in the PCI slot, right? You don’t have a keyboard hooked up by any chance do you? If you hear ‘I already did that’, then you need to be careful not to offend the caller.

You might ask, ‘I’m sorry but to make sure I understand the configuration, would you please explain again all of the parts that you have in the computer case.’ When the caller starts listing things, listen carefully and type the notes into notepad.

Notice the question that was asked. Remember that troubleshooting the motherboard means that the board should not be mounted into the case. If the caller listed parts in the case, then you know it is mounted. Therefore, suggest that it not be mounted. The suggestion might be, ‘It is easier to determine if a motherboard is grounding out if it sits on the cardboard retail box.’

Also, notice that these are all verbal clues to the caller to reinforce the need to carefully follow your instructions.

Listen carefully to make sure the board is not mounted in the case (Do you hear the electric screwdriver after being told it isn’t mounted? Do you hear grunting and muttering?) In other words, listen to make sure the system is in the basic troubleshooting configuration: motherboard, processor, power supply, remote power switch, and speaker.

Also, while the caller is yanking and pulling things, you might take the opportunity to reinforce some safety tips. ‘By the way, the power cord is not plugged into the power supply, right?’

Troubleshooting, Step-by-Step

After the customer indicates everything is set, request that the processor fan and speaker connections be double-checked. I usually ask, ‘What type of processor fan do you have on the processor? Does the fan wire connect to the motherboard or the power supply?’

Next, give the instructions to plug the power cord into the power supply and to move the rocker switch on the back of the power supply so that the +5V is present. Sometimes, the client will say, ‘Already did that.’ This is a clue that you need to reinforce to the customer that your instructions need to be followed exactly and he/she shouldn’t get ahead of you.

Some motherboards have red lights on the PCB. Is this light on? If not, the power supply needs to be double-checked.

If all seems correct then give the instruction to use the remote power on switch. Remind the caller that this usually resides on the front bezel of the case. The switch should be pressed for only a moment to make contact. You can explain that this is why the remote power-on switch is also called a momentary switch.

Always take the opportunity to demonstrate that you understand basic troubleshooting skills. It helps comfort your caller.

Listen to the machine. Do you hear sounds? If yes, then you know you are well on the way to helping your customer. If not, ask if the processor and power supply fans spinning? If not, then have the caller shut the unit off immediately and check the CPU connections.

Another mistake a new assembler makes is hooking the connections for the LEDs up incorrectly. It’s easier to ask for the locations of the two-wire speaker and the two-wire remote power switch rather than saying, ‘Did you hook these up correctly?’

Motherboards with the BIOS setting the CPU speed require a fine touch. You may need to have the person hook up a keyboard and depress the INS key while powering on the board. This may set the BIOS back to defaults. Another method is to have the individual pull the battery for 30 minutes, use the CLEAR CMOS jumper, and then power on the unit.

Remember, also, that some motherboards will not provide a BIOS beep code. Therefore, you will need to go to the next step to determine if the board is a problem.

Another potential hiccup is that the caller didn’t remove the data cable for the hard drive or floppy drive – and that cable is hooked up incorrectly.

If all is satisfactory, have the caller add one bank of known good memory. For SDRAM this may be one module. For some higher end boards, two modules may be required. Remember to get the brand of memory they are using. Make sure it is the proper type – unbuffered or registered. Get model numbers to reinforce that you must know the type of memory.

Note that Rambus based systems require terminators and that dual processor systems should be set to a single processor configuration. Also, make sure that you instruct the caller to unplug the unit before adding the memory. The light on the board should also be off.

Once the memory is in place, turn on the unit. Do you hear the BIOS object to the lack of video? This is usually 1-3-3-1 or some variation. If you hear the beeps then explain to the person that this is good. The board is stating that video is not present. Be excited. It will break the tension.

If you still don’t hear beeps, ask a silly question. ‘Does your speaker require the wires to be in a certain place?’ As silly as that sounds, some computer speakers have different wiring. It would be a shame to learn this late in the telephone call.

Now have the caller unplug the power cord and then add the video card. Make sure it is a known good card, that the monitor on and it’s cable hooked to the video card.

While he/she is grabbing the parts, ask for the model and manufacturer. Make sure that the board supports this card; e.g. a 1x or 2x card uses different voltages from a 4x. If you don’t recognize the brand, then surf to the manufacturer’s web site while your caller is working.

We worked with one particular board that failed each time a person added a 4x or 2x card to it. The manufacturer finally released a notice of which cards worked. Older PCI video cards are also known to have issues with new motherboards. If the video card is PCI based, then you have the opportunity to discuss new technology.

With the video card inserted into the proper expansion slot, have the person turn on the unit. Explain that the power saving mode of the monitor should move from orange to green. They should also see something on their screen.

Wrap it Up…

If the customer doesn’t have a power saving monitor, this is another opportunity to up sell. At this point, he/she is usually extremely satisfied, seeing the BIOS logo on the screen.

However, your job is not quite done. To save yourself another call, you will need to suggest that the customer move through the assembly one piece at a time so that the new PC can be built without any more frustrations.

Now it’s your turn to relax – but first – answer the next call.


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