Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

Hardware Can Break

It’s a fact that not everyone keeps in mind.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!


This is Leo Notenboom for

Computer professionals take a lot of things for granted that we simply
shouldn’t. I know I’m often guilty of it, but reading through the stream of
incoming questions is typically quite the wakeup call.

For example: did you know that many people seem to assume that hardware
doesn’t break.

To anyone who’s used computers for any length of time, it seems like an
incredibly odd assumption to make. We’ve all experienced various types of

I get it most commonly in two forms: keyboard issues, and boot time

Quite often when someone’s keyboard begins to mysteriously misbehave, their
first reaction is to blame the software, and often they know just enough terms
to sound dangerous. For example “My ‘Q’ key stopped working, where in the
registry do I fix this?” Yikes! As you might expect, as one of the most heavily
used and abused pieces of hardware on your computer, the keyboard is much more
likely to have developed a bad key. And that’s easy to test for if you have a
old or spare keyboard lying around.

Another example: “My machine wont boot; it gets so far and then reboots
again, over and over – how do I fix Windows so it’ll boot?” In this case it’s
not so easy to tell, but once again, many different types of failed hardware
can result in that symptom: a motherboard that’s gone bad, RAM that’s developed
a problem, a failing hard disk, or much more.

And yet, the end-user’s finger points, more often than not, at software
first. Or more specifically, at Windows. Let’s face it, that constant reboot
could also be the sign of a virus or other software related problem.

And that’s why it’s really no surprise. We spend so much time talking about
obscure configuration settings and vulnerabilities and spyware and viruses and
bugs and crashes and crash reports and more … They’re all software related so
of course that’s where people look first.

It’s where we’ve trained them to look.

And to be even more fair: I’ve seen the opposite too. People who rid
themselves of viruses and spyware by … purchasing a new machine. (And in at
least one case, more than once.) But fortunately that’s much less common.

Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to make the distinction without
experience. And the lines between hardware and software are definitely blurry,
and it seems getting more so each day.

So, ask the questions, of course. But consider all the options as well.

It might just be that the “Q” key is simply broken, and that a new keyboard,
not an obscure registry setting, is all you need.

I’d love to hear what you think. Visit and enter 11359 in the go
to article number box to access the show notes and to leave me a comment. While
you’re there, browse over 1,100 technical questions and answers on the

Till next time, I’m Leo Notenboom, for

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

8 comments on “Hardware Can Break”

  1. If the Q key stops working, the obvious thing to do is hook up another keyboard. If the Q key works on the other keyboard, then it’s not the software.

    Sadly, that’s obvious to some, but not to others.

  2. I can think of one hardware failure that many users began to recognize correctly – the Iomega “click of death”. The old ZIP drives would commit suicide and take all of the user’s data with them.

    Other joys included the RLL drive grind, the Seagate click, and the magic smoke smell.

    My favorite recovering was a keyboard incident. Someone accidentally poured a full cup of heavily sugared coffee into an IBM terminal keyboard – one of the super-expensive units with a jillion function keys. It immediately began to “type” crazy text… the user was petrified. I took the keyboard home, popped off all of the keycaps, and soaked it in the bathtub (NOT A RECOMMENDED PROCEDURE!). After giving it a few minutes to soak, I rinsed it off and blew out the water with a hair drier. The next day we plugged it in – success!

    Favorite hardware error – the jumping mouse cursor. It just takes a tiny bit of lint, in the sensor hole on the bottom of the mouse, to drive a user crazy. The mouse pointer will jump erratically around the screen. This is fun to fix for co-workers, who think there is something wrong with their Windows installation – flip the mouse over, pull out the offending bit of fuzz, and ta-da!

  3. My Logitech brand optical wireless mouse cursor is jumping erratically. I’ve read internet (and your) comments, but still can’t eliminate this. No pattern is apparent. Toshiba Satellite laptop works fine, etc. I’ve blown on the opening, no dust apparent….what to do?

  4. My first computer was a 486sx which crapped out on me after only 6 months. Major hardware failure. (it was second hand).

    My second computer, 486Dx2. Just shortly after getting it, I thought it was possessed, turned out to be a bad keyboard.

    Then I had a second problem. I kept getting a hard drive controller error and my computer would not boot with a CD in the drive. This turned out to be a misplaced jumper on my hard drive, that should of been set to ‘master’ rather than ‘cable select’.

    I also almost lost a keyboard when a nephew wasted a glass of juice on my keyboard. I ended up taking all the screws out the back and discovered the plastic circuit ‘board’ was all gumed up. So I cleaned it with a paper towel and alcohol rub. Worked just fine after that.

    On my first Pentium (P166), my motherboard went bad. One of the memory slots stopped working. I was able to confirm it was not the chips.

    And yet dispite all of this, I plead guilty of always assuming its a software problem. Maybe because its usually cheaper and easier to replace??

  5. Recently had a PSU failure – symptoms quite obvious, PC totally dead! Replaced PSU, all seemed fine – except that computer then started to reboot at random. Eventually tracked problem to bad memory chip (replaced foc under 5-year warranty!) – memory problem was probably caused by power ‘spike’ when PSU died – seems it’s quite common for PSU failure to kill other components as well.

  6. Still another way to diagnose (maybe) faulty hardware is to use a live linux CD like Ubuntu and Knoppix. This way you will have ruled out OS sofware completely.

    Linux OSs have gone quite far in polishing their User interface. Of course, there is a learning curve but other than that I see hardly any drawbacks with linux OSs.

    Windows is pretty and works well most of the time and everyone likes pretty. However linux is more like a beast ready to spring into action when needed otherwise it sits so quietly which may at times make one wonder if the OS has frozen /stalled.

    I keep a linux CD handy just to delete nasty virii from launching at times.


  7. Back in the days of the 386 I had a computer that started acting erradically. I think the symptoms were random rebooting. I had a “feeling” about it and in those days the motherboard chips were plugged in, not soldered and not the CPU. Since I never throw away any old computer parts I happen to have had an old motherboard that I had upgraded from that had plugin chips of the kind I needed. I exchanged them and cured my problem.

  8. Just recently I was sitting next to a less than 3 year old laptop that was on and had a display on the screen. All of a sudden out of the blue the screen went black and white text on the screen indicated chkdsk was starting to run. Not a good sign! Long story short it still functioned somewhat, but it was clear the hard drive had failed. Fortunatly I had created a set of recovery disks, (no OS disks were included)and I had created backups on an external HD using Acronis TI that was recommended in Leo’s news letters. Since the laptop came with VISTA installed and I had upgraded to Win7, I had a lot of work to do to get it back to where it was when it failed. I actually had forgotten the Acronis TI backup or the job would have been even easier. Since I was replacing the HD anyway I increased the size from 160GB to 320GB.


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.