Ok the layout for this guide is simple - we have to start at the very heart of your PC and work our way outwards from there. That means starting with the hardware, then moving on to the BIOS and ultimately the software such as operating system and drivers. If you really want a tight, fast, stable rig then you will need to shore up each department. The latest drivers won't do anything if the problem lies with a faulty graphics card, poor overclocking or incorrect BIOS settings.
Where I refer to other guides/utilities/sites I highly recommend you take time out and read them. I don't just throw in links for the hell of it - this is stuff I use myself to optimize my system and so far it's worked extremely well for me, so I'm sharing the wealth.
The first thing to do is to make sure that your PC is physically operating correctly and that no hardware is faulty or badly set up. Just because your computer boots up into Windows and everything seems ok, doesn't mean your PC is set up 100% correctly or that the hardware is working to its fullest potential.
- How Do I Know What I've Got?
If you've bought a pre-built computer and you have no real idea exactly what's "in the box" then the first thing you have to do is get all your system specifications. Ideally you should have a listing of each component, its manufacturer/brand, model number, and details such as amount of onboard memory. If this is not available to you, or you just want to be sure, download SiSoft Sandra, which is a free benchmarking and system information utility, and run the relevant modules such as Mainboard Information, Video System Information, Sound Card Information, etc. There you'll see the exact specifications of the components, and you should note these down for future reference.
You should also note if you've got a pre-built PC and little knowledge of PCs in general, that the following information can potentially be harmful to your system, so please don't open up your case, fumble around, break the pins on your CPU, then email me angrily saying you're going to sue. Read, read, read...then do!
- Correct Setup
I recently built a PC and foolishly forgot to connect one of the obscure power connectors on the motherboard. Others with the same motherboard tell me it's a common mistake, but my PC seemed to be working fine initially. It did explain the occasional crashes I got in games though, and once I plugged in the extra connector - no more crashes.
By now the above example's got you thinking "so why am I listening to this guy?" My point is that it's easy for anyone to make a mistake when building a PC. Overlooking a connector, not setting a dipswitch correctly or not using the right type of cable are common mistakes. You can be thankful that one of the PC world's authorities, Tom's Hardware, has a recent 2-part guide on building your own PC which I recommend to everyone:
Building Your Own PC - Part 1
Building Your Own PC - Part 2
Even if you still think your PC is rock solid, there are a lot of great tips in those guides. Pay particular attention to their instructions on how to properly connect a hard drive and CD-ROM/DVD drive. This is something I see done incorrectly by a lot of first-time PC builders, or for people who've added drives to an existing pre-built machine. The optimal primary/secondary master/slave configuration is very important to getting the best performance out of your drives.
- Faulty Hardware
This is one area I believe is either "over-blamed" or "under-blamed", depending on whether you're new to PCs or a "veteran". The new tend to think everything that's going wrong with their PC is due to faulty hardware. The veterans are convinced there is a setting somewhere which will fix that dead hard drive. The truth lies somewhere in the middle: PC hardware components are just like any other electronics devices - they can malfunction, or be damaged through abuse, and eventually they will just plain stop working.
How do you determine whether your hardware is faulty or not? It's not always easy, but try following these basic steps:
1. Read software tweak guides such as those linked to in this guide to optimize all the software and BIOS settings. If that doesn't improve the situation then that's the first indication that it is hardware-related in some way.
2. If you've overclocked your PC components, set them all to their defaults. For starters, the overclocking itself may have damaged a component (see Overclocking section), but sometimes a component which is overclocked too far can behave in a faulty manner. Remember that overclocking automatically voids your warranty, so at the very least don't expect support from your PC dealer if you mention the component is or has been overclocked.
3. Try the drastic step of a full reformat of your hard drive and then a clean reinstall of your operating system (see Operating System section). This should resolve a lot of problems. If it doesn't then the remaining areas of exploration are the configuration of your PC components or the BIOS settings.
4. Go through your BIOS settings carefully (see BIOS Optimization section) and if in doubt, or if you're still having problems, choose the "Load Fail-Safe Defaults" option.
5. If you've reached this step, it's time to open up your PC and refer to your components' instruction manuals, and/or the guides linked above, for correct setup. It may well be that a badly set switch or missing/incorrect cable is the source of your problems, or perhaps a build up of heat. While you're in there, look for any signs of extreme heat such as scorch marks, a burnt smell, or strange noises. Remember to completely switch off and all your hardware before opening anything up, and to avoid damage to components from static electricity, wear a special wristband or ground yourself by touching the power supply box first.
6. Once you've exhausted all of the above options and you still suspect a component is faulty, it may be hard to determine which one. If in doubt don't attempt to repair or muck around with an item yourself. Take your entire PC to an authorized dealer or specialist PC technician. Sometimes it's better to cut your losses and get something fixed correctly or replaced under warranty than to wind up losing all your data or suffering a destroyed component just because you decide to play PC Doctor one afternoon.