Hardware Diagnostic Tools

Hardware Diagnostic Tools

Since the world is not perfect you will eventually have to deal with a crashed system. In many cases, how the system behaves when it boots (or doesn’t boot) will give you an indication of what is going on. However, it also will happen that there is nothing that specifically identifies the problem. It is also possible that your system boots fine, but exhibits odd behavior as it is running. The most common solution for this kind of problems on Windows machines is to re-install. However, this only corrects the problem if is related to the software. What about hardware problems?

There are a number of hardware diagnostic tools on the market. Some run under Windows, whereas others have their own "operating system" which you can boot, allowing you to directly access the hardware. Those that run as stand alone products, typically have a much wider range of tests they can conduct because they are not limited by the operating system. Keep in mind that this more that just reporting the IRQ or base address of the devices. These products actually test the various components of your system.

Personally, I think you should use tools which run under the operating system in conjunction with stand-alone products. It is possible that you might get incorrect results if you are running under any operating system as it often "interprets" the information for you. Although this is useful for "configuration" issues, defects and other problems are often missed.

There are also a few products that come with interface cards that are inserted to the bus, allowing you to diagnostic problems even when your system cannot boot. These have a small, digital display on the card which shows you the post code being sent across the bus. Based on the code, you can determine where the problem lies.

In general, the software products have a common set of tests they run through. The tests normally include:

  • System Board
  • Video Alignment Aids
  • Video Adapter
  • Parallel Port
  • Serial Port
  • Floppy Disk Drive
  • Hard Disk Tests (0 & 1)
  • Main Memory Tests

One of the key features to look at is the extent to which you can configure these tests. This might mean defining a specific set of tests to run, as well as how many times to run each test. Both are important aspects. If you already have an idea of where the problem is, you should not have to wait for the program to run through unnecessary tests. Also, with hardware you often have sporadic problems. Therefore, you might have to run the test continually for an extended length of time before the problem re-appears.

Another thing to look at is what values or configuration settings can be changed. Keep in mind that changing settings is not always a good thing. Particularly if a novice is running the tests.


TuffTEST from Windsor Technologies is a powerful and very inexpensive stand-alone diagnostic tool. Although you could order it with all of the packaging, you can save time, money and trees by ordering and then downloading it from the web.

One key aspect is that it is designed specifically for user with less experience. Although it has most of the features of high-end tools, the emphasis is on ease of use, as well as providing the user with sufficient information to diagnose the problem.

This is a stand-alone product, in that it can be booted from a floppy. This sounds confusing at first, because you download it from the Internet. What you download is a program which allows you to create the bootable floppies. Once booted, TuffTEST "takes over" the computer, without the need for an operating system like DOS or Windows. As I mentioned before, often this yields more accurate results. TuffTEST has its own set of device drivers, which can access hardware directly.

Windsor boasts that TuffTEST is "safe for use by anyone." This is because none of the tests change data on the hard disk. In addition, the program is so configured that once it boots, it will wait 10 seconds for a menu selection and if no key is pressed it runs through the complete suite of tests.

Another advantage of TuffTEST is that it is complete written in assembly language which means more compact code, and faster execution. In addition, it take up just 125K of memory, which is actually relocated when then program runs. This ensures that every memory location is tested. In other cases, the program is actually too large to be able to check all of memory.

TuffTEST is not just a diagnostic tool as it can also display all of your hardware configuration information. This information can then be printed or saved to the disk. Each saved session contains the test results as well as the system configuration. Since you can save up to five previous sessions, you can compare the results from multiple tests.

Higher up on the scale is TuffTEST PRO, this is intended for the professional. This has the same basic functionality plus you can edit your configuration and make other changes to your system. Like TuffTEST. TuffTEST PRO is a stand-alone product, meaning you boot your operating system from the diskette and it becomes your operating system.

In addition, there are a number of tests that TuffTEST PRO has that are not included in TuffTEST. For example, TuffTEST PRO can report the switch positions on your motherboard, conduct I/O tests on your serial and parallel ports, determine the optimal interleave and low-level format your harddisk, and many other tests. Using the optional loopback test, you can do I/O tests on your serial and parallel ports.

One of the most interesting aspects of TuffTEST is sales approach. You can order a packaged version of the product, including a printed manual , if you feel it is necessary. However, there really is no need. The on-line manual contains all of the necessary information, plus the product is extremely intuitive.

Lifetime support is provided for free. However, the product is so easy to use it is hard to think of a reason why you would need to call them. In addition, updates range from free for minor changes to a slight fee for major new releases.


If you are concerned with diagnosing PC hardware problems, take a look at the wide range of products that Micro2000 has to offer. The products range from self-booting diagnostic tools to POST reader cards to remote diagnostics and beyond.

Micro-Scope is their self-booting diagnostic tool that can run on any PC. Regardless of the CPU manufacturer (Intel, Cyrix or AMD) or bus (ISA, EISA, MCA, PCI, and PCMCIA), Micro-Scope can identify problems on your PC. Version 7 (the newest, as of this writing) contains tests for your CD-ROM drive, without the need to load DOS-based CD-ROM drivers. Something which many other diagnostic tools do not have. In addition, the version 7 also contains support for the AMD K6-II and Intel Xeon processor, even those with a clock speed above 500Mhz. Upgrades for new processors are available for download from the internet.

Many tools simply report on the problems they find. However, Micro-Scope not only allows you to make changes, but also gives you detailed benchmarks of your system. This is useful when you "feel" something is wrong with your machine, but there is no identifiable hardware problem. With the report generated by the benchmark, you can see if the machine is performing as it should.

During the testing, Micro-Scope examines the CMOS and POST information. Anything that is inaccurate or questionable is flagged, allowing you to change it as needed. Part of this is being able to accurately identify your hardware, including brand name and model. This is extremely useful when buying brand name computers, which normally do not tell you exactly what components you have.

Microscope supports all common bus types including ISA, EISA, PCI and MCA. You can even display the POS registers on IBM PS/2 systems, including all slots, which adapters are in which slot, which ADF (adapter description file) to use and whether the ADF is loaded.

In addition to being able to diagnose CD-ROM problems, Micro-Scope can test many other multi-media components, such as DVD drives and sound cards. It has full synthesizer tests and can test the volume and left-right channels of your sound card.

Tests can be run once or repeatedly. The results of which can either be printed out or saved to disk (or just viewed on-screen if you want). In addition, you can use the printscreen capability to print directly from the application.

As with other products, Micro-Scope will thoroughly check your memory, using all of the common tests (checkerboard, walking-ones, etc.). Low memory is tested before the entire program is loaded, which is then relocated in memory to enable you to test all of your memory, regardless of how much you have. In addition, Micro-Scope will tell you exactly what bank is failing. This includes the ability to test internal and external system cache, as well as video RAM up to 64Mb.

Another bonus is the tools Micro-Scope has for data recovery. It can identify and correct many problems in the master boot record of your hard disk. It also includes an editor to allow you to make changes yourself anywhere on the disk (assuming you have the knowledge to do it).

In addition, to free download of patches, Micro-Scope comes with lifetime technical support. After using the program, I find it difficult to conceive of a reason why someone would need to call to support, as it is so intuitive, but the offer is nice. The product package contains both 3.5″ and 5.25″ disks, a uses manual, as well as 9 pin serial, 25 pin serial, and 25 pin parallel loopback connectors, to diagnose serial and parallel port problems.

Unfortunately, something like Micro-Scope cannot always do the job. This happens when your system just won’t boot for any number of reasons. Using a diskette with its own operating system does no good, because the computer does not get that far to boot from anywhere. This is where Micro2000’s product POST-Probe comes in handy.

As its name implies, POST-Probe monitors the POST codes being sent across your system bus as the computer is booting. It can fit into any ISA, EISA, PCU or MCA slot (although it requires the included adapter for the MCA). These codes are displaed on two seven-segment displays, indicating what the POST is testing at the moment. There are also four LEDs which monitor to the power, as well as four voltage pads (+5vdc, -5vdc, +12vdc, -12vdc and an additional 3.3V for PCI) to test the system using a voltmeter.

There is an additional LED which monitors clock signals, one for the RESET signal, and one for I/O reads and writes. You can therefore use POST-Probe after your system is running to identify other bus problems and possible problems with specific cards.

When your system stops, the last code displayed gives you an indication of what is wrong. Although the code does not always tell you the exact place where there is a problem, the included users manual lists each phase of the POST. By looking at the steps around where it stopped, I have never not found the problem. In one instance, I accidentally loosed up the cable to my hard disk. When I tried to boot, nothing happened. Using the POST-Probe I quickly found the problem.

As I will talk about in later chapters, I am a stickler for documentation. I am really impressed with the POST-Probe manual. It is written in an easy to understand language. POST failure codes are on the left side of each page, with the description of the device or chip that is causing the problem. This helps finding and understanding the problem.

For the true profession, Micro200 has combined Micro-Scope and POST-Probe into a single product, which they call the Universal Diagnostics Toolkit. Both products are combined in the full version within a case, which is not only large enough to hold both products, but tools and many other things. Each product as the same lifetime technical support as the stand-alone versions.

Micro2000’s product Burn-In takes much of the functionality of Micro-Scope to the next level. As its name implies, it is used to conduct "burn-in" tests of computers. This can be either new machines or ones that you have repaired. This is an extremely useful tool to prevent deploying products that will only cause you problems down the road. Particularly in cases where machines have multiple problems and only one is apparent, burn-in tests can save you a great deal of both time and money.

Like Micro-Scope, Burn-In is compatible with all CPU manufacturers and system buses. In addition, Burn-In performs all of the same tests that Micro-scope does.

Burn-In has a couple of very useful features for companies that install a larger number of PCs at once. First, the tests can be run without a monitor or keyboard. Therefore, you need a lot less space allowing you to simply stack up the PCs and run a large number of tests at once. Using the floppy drive light and speaker, the program send a few signals to the technician when it needs a "scratch" disk or the loopback plugs. Other than that, the program runs completely on its own, saving the results to disk.

As the tests are run, Burn-In writes a complete log to the scratch disk you provided. Since the log is ASCII, you can read it with any text editor. In addition, the log is being update the entire time. Therefore, if something should happen to the machine (like someone accidentally pulling the plug), Burn-In will be able to continue where it left off.

In addition, you only need to run the setup once. The test configuration is then saved and performed the same way each time the disk is booted. If the program determines that hardware is not present for a test is was selected to do, that test is simply skipped, without the need to configure the test for different hardware variations.