Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what exactly is going wrong with your computer. What do you do if you’ve run all the scans, checked all the files, and everything says the PC is malware free? Here’s a list of common problems that resemble cybersecurity issues, but could be caused by something hardware-related instead.

My computer is overheating

Some types of malware try very hard to go unnoticed, but others can be CPU hogs capable of turning your keyboard into a waffle iron. The encryption routines in ransomware demand a lot of resources, for example. But there are other, far more obvious signs of a ransomware problem, so if you’ve got this far, it’s not that. So perhaps it’s a cryptominer grinding away in your browser or System32 folder. If your antivirus says “no” though, it’s more likely to be one of the problems below:

  • One or more of your fans aren’t working. If you have a PC, you should be able to follow the wire connecting the problem fan to the motherboard / associated socket. Sometimes there’s so many wires in there, they can get nudged out of place. This is especially common when removing the panel on the side of the motherboard to clean behind the wires.
  • A software change has affected your fan profile. A fan profile is software that exerts a specific amount of control over your fans. It tells them when to ramp up, and how. Sometimes updates to your fan control program or associated hardware can do odd things to settings. You’ll have to go back in and set them to your liking.
  • Your thermal paste needs a refresh. A layer of thermal paste sits between your heat sink and your processor and conducts the heat—that would otherwise engulf the CPU—into the heat sink. It’s possible your paste needs replacing. This is quite a precise process however, so watch a few tutorial videos before attempting it.
  • Your graphics card is about to die. This is the worst case scenario. If you’re lucky, a good clean may solve the issue, though you should be looking to regularly clean everything inside your PC anyway. Dust build up? Get rid of it sooner rather than later. Contacting your PC / parts supplier at this stage is also a good idea.

My computer keeps restarting / Blue screen of death

Plenty of malware files make PCs restart or trigger the dreaded blue screen of death (BSOD). Plenty of other things do too though. Here are some alternative causes to think about:

  • Loose or faulty RAM sticks. I’ve had machines which restarted, popped a BSOD, or simply stuttered and staggered while on the desktop. Check to make sure all of your RAM sticks are in securely. If one seems a little loose, remove and reinsert it correctly. You can also run diagnostic tests on your sticks if the machine runs long enough for you to do so. If not, the long-winded approach is to remove one stick at a time and see if the problem magically goes away. If it does, there’s a good chance you’ve identified the problem.
  • Peripheral devices left in at shutdown can cause odd issues when you boot up. There’s no real rhyme or reason to this. I’ve seen USB sticks, cameras, phones, and even a digital keyboard cause a PC to not load correctly or act strangely after booting up. I’ve also seen PCs refuse to boot because of a peripheral one minute, and ignore it entirely the next. If in doubt, just take it out.
  • You might have a Windows-specific issue going on under the hood. You should consider sorting out various recovery tools and backup plans now.
  • Your PSU (power supply) may not be working correctly, or on the verge of failure. This is a bit of a tricky one to test, because messing around with PSUs and electricity can be incredibly dangerous. If the thought of paperclip tests or getting out the multimeter fills you with dread, you’re better off asking the company you bought the PC from for help or switching it out for a different PSU.

I can’t see my files / my hard drive is missing

Yes, some malware will happily scrub all of your saved documents. Most won’t. There can be other explanations:

  • Check your wires. I’ve seen PCs where the caddy holding the drive has broken, the hard drive has fallen to the bottom of the case, and a wire has been dislodged. Reattaching the wire and securing the caddy was all that was needed to stop the drive randomly disappearing and reappearing whenever it felt like it.
  • Check your Windows. Some people reported files going missing after upgrading to Windows 10, or (occasionally) other updates. Considering Windows 11 is on the way, it might be worth revisiting what happened.
  • The files might be hiding, or somewhere else. If files aren’t where they’re supposed to be but your hard drive usage suggests everything is still present, never fear. Fire up an app which tells you exactly how much space is being used, and what is using it. A relative of mine had some files go walkabout after a system update, and they were able to find them with a third party tool.
  • Check the drive for signs of corruption or imminent failure. Sometimes hardware just fails. This is a mechanical issue and not something you can hope to prevent. Back everything up as soon as you can, if you aren’t already.

Conclusion

Computers are often surprisingly delicate, and their rugged cases don’t accurately reflect the 24/7 juggling operation taking place down on the motherboard. There are many other hardware problems, but the ones listed above tend to be the first port of call for budding hardware fixers.

If you can deal with both software and hardware issues as they arise, there’ll be no stopping you the next time a relative gives you a call at Christmas with a “small problem..”