If you’re like me, you’ve seen this problem more than a few times: you boot a system, the fan starts, maybe the drives spin up…and then nothing. No beeps, no video, just the sound of a fan whirling away in the guts of the computer. Your computer won’t POST.
Or how about this: every so often, your hard drive hiccups or maybe now and then you can’t see your printer. Not every time, but often enough that you know that something is wrong.
How do you fix these problems?
The long, slow, expensive way is to start replacing parts. Swap something out and test to see if that fixed the problem. That might be OK if you have just one or two computers and a big box of parts sitting around the house, but what if you repair computers for a living? What if you’re a technician in the IT department of your company? You probably don’t want to spend a lot of time chasing down the source of a problem.
Micro2000 knows that, and to help with the headache of fixing dead and dying hardware, they’ve produced The Universal Diagnostics Toolkit. It contains, in a nicely laid out zippered vinyl case, Micro2000’s Post Probe card, Microscope diagnostic software, parallel and serial jumpers and manuals for the whole lot.
The Toolkit is really two tools in one. Let’s take a look at the Post Probe card first.
The Post Probe is designed to diagnose systems that will power-up, but won’t complete the Power On Self Test, or POST. It fits in PCI, ISA, EISA and MicroChannel sockets. The card measures all of the critical voltages and signals on whatever bus it is attached to, as well as monitors the sequence of events as the computer boots up. Using the card is really quite simple. You just insert it in a slot on the computer and turn the computer on. LEDs indicate the status of key voltages and clock signals and the two digit display indicates a code that signifies the last step that the computer’s BIOS executed. A series of tables in the card’s manual correlates the code with the BIOS manufacturer to reveal which step the computer failed at. Each code is cross-referenced to a chapter in the manual that provides some background on the functions of the component that is suspected of failure. Based on the instruction that failed, you can determine which component in the computer is the likely candidate for failure.
While that is a simple enough task to accomplish, Micro2000 notes that not all computer manufacturers play by the rules, so the card may not always support the hardware under test. To that end, they’ve included a section in the manual covering “beep codes” that many BIOSes emit when they fail to boot, giving clues to what portion of the system has failed. The chapter containing IBM PC error codes is also quite valuable to those folks who have the unenviable task of keeping those dinosaurs alive.
Obviously the real test is in the card’s usefulness. Since I always have a ton of old and broken equipment laying around, I put the card through its paces. I tested an old Intel Zappa Pentium board with defective cache memory and a dead IDE controller. I also looked at an IBM PS/2 with a defective 80386 processor. And finally, I used a dead Pentium III-866 processor in an Abit SA-6R and an Aopen AX34 Pro II. None of these boards would POST. And the Post Probe card identified the offending component in each case. At the office of a local business that makes extensive use of computers, I picked through a stack of eight or nine dead PCs and, with the card, identified the problem with each system that failed to boot.
In fact, I’ll point out an improvement over the previous incarnation of the Post Probe card that I tested last year. That card returned inconclusive results on the dead processor test, reporting a different motherboard-related failure every time I ran it. From a purely economic view, this counts as a win to me, since it would have saved on the cost of a new motherboard.
The manual for the Post Probe is quite complete and well written. It contains relatively brief but accurate descriptions of the functions of various parts of a computer’s hardware and possible troubleshooting clues that failures might exhibit. The bulk of the manual is taken up with tables linking various BIOSes with the codes displayed on the card. A chapter is devoted to configuring the card, particularly for potentially odd situations where the default settings won’t work.
The other half of The Universal Diagnostic Toolkit is the MicroScope diagnostic software. This suite of testing utilities was designed to analyze computers that boot, but either don’t work correctly or need to be “burned in”. The software contains its own operating system and is designed to be booted on its own. It will boot on virtually any IBM compatible computer, regardless of the operating system that is installed.
Version 9 of MicroScope contains some very welcome updates. DMI (Desktop Management Interface) support accesses a portion of the BIOS to give detailed information on PCI slots, memory sockets, CPU information and more. Plug and Play devices are identified and described. USB devices are detected and can be diagnosed.
Other improvements include fine tuning of memory tests and more extensive testing of advanced video card technology. The software will perform low level formatting of any EIDE drive. Also, FAT32 support has been incorporated and FAT32 disks can be directly edited. Cache memory can now be tested as extensively as extended memory. Improved modem support allows testing when the modem is connected.
MicroScope includes a single, bootable floppy disk and a detailed manual. The floppy includes a copying program that allows the user to make copies of the disk to use in testing in order to save the master disk as a backup. The program itself is menu driven, with each test or test combination explained in great detail in the manual.
The sheer number of tests available are far too lengthy to list here, but are organized in the program as a series of hierarchical menus. I tested the software with a number of known good and bad systems. The software correctly detected the dead parallel port on the Intel Zappa board, found the defective memory chip on the dead DIMM that I installed in several systems and told me that my beloved (but non-working) US Robotics Courier HST modem had a defective UART.
The System Information tool is an excellent utility for a quick examination of what’s installed in a system. One nice feature is that it identifies the processor, its stepping and its speed. The tool will also pluck extra information from the DMI area of the BIOS, including extra information that the system’s manufacturer might have placed there.
The software has a suite of tests that are tailor made for burning in a newly built (or newly repaired) system. They are user controllable for type of testing and number of times they run. The tests will completely exercise the entire system.
With all the good news, is there any bad? Not really. There are a couple of nits, though. If you have a dual monitor system, the software will only recognize the primary display adapter. Also, the disk can only be copied with the built in utility. Neither of these issues is particularly troublesome, though, and don’t detract from what is really a very fine product.
The final word is that The Universal Diagnostics Toolkit is a must-have for any technician who wants to be able to quickly and positively identify a defective piece of hardware without having to swap parts in and out. I’ve used one for over a year and I’ll testify that the headaches that it’s saved me from make the Toolkit almost priceless. Any company’s IT department that performs repairs on computers should have this package on hand. The savings in troubleshooting time will definitely offset the cost of the tool.
On the web:
The Universal Diagnostic Toolkit
Web posted: April 17, 2001