Diagnosing old PCs

By Glen6490 ·
Tags: Off Topic
Recently, I have been asked to oversee the computer department--of all things--of a non-profit church related resale store in Indiana that helps inner city children and a home for men recovering from their problems. Although I have grown up with the computer industry (since 1985, pre-DOS and beyond), I have not had any formal training; so all of my experience has been hands-on as an end user.

My question is:
I would like to find internet sites that could give me step-by-step instructions on how to troubleshoot and rebuild older machines. Most of the machines we get are Win98, but some are even 286 and 386s. If it doesn't work, I salvage what parts I can and trash the rest.

If a site has free instructional videos (not mearly streaming, like YouTube), or white papers I could download, that also would be helpful. A site that has diagnostic freeware for older machines would also be helpful. If it is not out of order (and TechRepublic is free to edit this part of the request if they wish), I would also like to ask anyone who has anything they would like to donate, like instructional videos, computers, software, etc., you may email me and I will send you the store's address.

I do not get paid for this job--it is totally volunteer and a labor of love to help the less fortunate. All donators may request a tax receipt for anything donated.

Thanks for your feedback and help.

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All Answers

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OK first thing I don't know of any such beast

by HAL 9000 Moderator In reply to Diagnosing old PCs

Though the individual Service Manuals may be of assistance to you.

For the 286 & 386 M'Boards they had an Electrolytic Capacitor on them which needed replacing regularly or they would leak and destroy the M'Board, this requires the right type of Soldering Iron and some Soldering Experience.

If you want to ask me on a case by case basis till you get to know that hardware I'm willing to help you out but I don't know of any specific things that you are asking for as most of that is just Experience from us Old Dinosaurs.

For safety sake don't attempt to repair any Cathode Ray Tube Monitors as they generate a large voltage to drive the electron guns that is more than capable of killing you if you get too close to the high voltage parts of the Monitor.


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Good ideas

by mjd420nova In reply to Diagnosing old PCs

Hal's got some good suggestions. I have a box of software and diagnostic diskettes in both 5 and one quarter and 3 and a half inch floppies that I have no idea why I kept them. Most are for IBM and Compaq units, 386 based and some 486 based units. I would gladly part with them for the cost of the shipping, but then you'd be left with a box that might or might not suit your needs. I know of no web sites that support this endeavor, and for the most part, I just recycle them if they won't support WINXP. That means at least A P4. I also have a box of assorted parts and peripherals that are from those older units, old floppy drives, video cards and serial/parellel interface cards and memory SIMMs. SOme i have donated to a local museum and the rest I'll just take to the local high school e-cycle day. Good luck

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Old Resource books!

by CuteElf In reply to Good ideas

Take a look at the 13th and previous versions of Scott Mueller's Repairing / Installing PC' old tome of a book but it's got a **** of a lot of good stuff in it.

What about calling mobo mfg's and getting links for .pdf for old old manuals?


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POST Card and Power Supply Tester

by TheChas In reply to Diagnosing old PCs

Like Hal, I don't have any specific web sites to direct you to.

I'm also willing to assist on a case by case basis. (I'm just up the road aways in Michigan.)

You can contact me using peer mail if you wish.

As to the 286's, and even most 386 systems, I would just send them on to a recycler. One that might be willing to work with you, and even offer some assistance is Comp Renew. Comp Renew has been through a number of different business models to provide both computer recycling, and free computers to those in need.

As far as diagnostic tools, my best recommendation is a POST card and a power supply tester.

Both are valuable trouble-shooting aids, and I have been dealing with the Geeks for years.

As to software based tools, check out the listings at and is also useful.

A useful site for very old hardware is:

It might even be worth the effort to join Win Drivers for a year as he has a lot of useful items on his site:

Another useful site is:

You can learn just about any detail you want about the PCI bus.


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One thing -

by bshaw400 In reply to Diagnosing old PCs

1st thing : get a copy of Upgrading and Repairing PCs (with CD-ROM) Que Publications by Scott Mueller. It's the "Bible" for what you need to do! You may even want to try and find a used older version (Edition 5-6) as a backup for some of the older gear you're stuck with. It may be a little tough to go through for someone who hasn't really had to use something like that but it's very good. Try your local B&N or Borders; there may also be some other decent titles.
As for websites, they're pretty thin on what you're asking for. Hardware drivers can sometimes be found on for the older gear; especially for gear whose company has since moved on. is good for DOS boot stuff, especially if you have a wide variety of gear you might be able to boot from. (linked to and has all sorts of BIOS patches for machines (although for 286/386/486 machines, BIOS patches are often problematic). Old hard drive parameters you can find at the manufacturers sites (some have bought others but still maintain the info).

I recommend when you're doing this to build a warchest of each series (286/386/486/586/etc.) on motherboards/power supplies mounted on some plywood and use those as testing boards for each piece of gear you're going to sample. Then, it's just a matter of whipping out the right board type and plugging in the piece and powering up. Otherwise, you'll have a tabletop/wall full of junk and it gets annoying to constantly sort through. Hope you have a lot of storage....

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Thanks, guys

by Glen6490 In reply to One thing -

I am grateful for all you guys have done to provide a wealth of information for me to begin my research. Keep it coming.

Just in the past week, I picked up an original, unopened, red, Compaq restore disk at a Unique store in Dolton, Illinois for $2.00! Guess what? Most of the CPUs we have are Compaqs! We must have 50 of them yet to be processed. I have discovered that the majority of resale people who process computer disks don't know the industry. They'll price disks separately that ought to be priced as a set; i.e. that it takes the three disks to make the program work, when they have them scattered in the pile with music CDs. But occasionally, I'll come up with a gem, like my original two-disk MS Publisher 2002 I got a couple of years ago for only a few bucks! Resale is great fun!

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