Is it Plugged In? No, REALLY, Is it Plugged In???

In my adventures helping people to get the most out of their home and office technology, from time to time I’ll run into issues that I’m happy to resolve, but the client ends up a bit embarrassed by the simplicity of both problem and solution. Here, as a public service, are a few items to check, before calling tech support.

(Apologies in advance if any of these tips seem so obvious that you feel I’m insulting your intelligence. All of these have come up in real-world scenarios with very smart, mentally-sound clients. The fact is, from time to time, technology makes fools of us all.)

1. Is That Cable Stable?

Always start by checking if all the cables are securely plugged in. It seems obvious, but this wasn’t always as necessary as it is now. Many years ago, computer data cables would be secured to the PC via small screws on the sides of the plug. VGA and DVI monitor cables still utilize this method, but old parallel printer and serial mouse cables are no longer in vogue with computer and peripheral manufacturers, having moved on to USB cables. However, for all its advantages, it’s harder to secure a USB cable to the computer; so if enough tension is applied, it can get wiggled loose. And a loose cable is just as bad as—and often worse than—an entirely unplugged cable.

loose-plug-01

This, for example, is MUCH WORSE than being all the way unplugged. (Source: electricalsafety.lbl.gov)

As far as monitors, many have moved on to HDMI cables, which—you guessed it—have no method for staying secured to the device. Interestingly, another high-resolution alternative to HDMI is DisplayPort, which uses a push-button method for securing it. If your computer and monitor support it, I recommend DisplayPort over HDMI.

detail-image-hero

That button on top, and those two “teeth” on the connector, keep the DisplayPort securely connected. (Source: displayport.org)

Incidentally, even if the cable is fully plugged in and secure on both ends, there could be issues somewhere in between. Before thinking of replacing a computer or attached device, consider swapping out the connecting cable to see if that fixes it. Cables are typically the least expensive elements in your setup, but that’s a double-edged sword; they’re the cheapest to replace, but being so cheap, they could be prone to failure sooner than the other components.

Also, inspecting your cables during the troubleshooting process can be beneficial in other ways. I recall one client who hired me to solve her internet outage, only to discover that her pet rabbit had chewed through the phone cable.

2. Switching Things Around

Just because a device is fully plugged in (and don’t forget to check BOTH ends of the cable!), doesn’t mean that’s the only link in the chain. More than one client has contacted me to repair an internet connection, only to discover that the modem was switched off. Many hardware manufacturers use push-button power switches, and it’s hard to tell at first glance whether the button is in the “on” or “off” position. It’s especially frustrating on devices that either don’t have any lights indicating power, or they have only one, very small, dim power light.

dsl320b_power

Look closely at that “ON/OFF” button. Would you say it’s “on,” or “off”? Are you sure? (Source: community.plus.net)

If you can confirm the device is indeed switched on, look at its power source, going all the way to the wall. If your device connects via a surge strip, think back on my first tip and confirm that the strip’s power cord is firmly plugged all the way in to the wall outlet. Then, make sure your device is likewise plugged all the way in to the surge strip. You should also check the outlets, both on the wall, and in the surge strip. Get a small lamp that you know works, and plug it in to each of the outlets in question. If it doesn’t turn on when plugged in to the wall directly, it may be time to contact an electrician.

Once you’ve established that the wall outlet is putting out electricity, you can check the surge strip. Make sure that if the strip has its own power switch, that it is in the “on” position. Often these strips live under the desk, where an errant foot can accidentally kick a plug out, or the power switch off. I personally recommend keeping the power strip on top of the desk, for easy access to plug new items in, or to remove power cords as part of the troubleshooting process. In addition to avoiding all the dust and lack of ventilation under the desk, placing it on top also eliminates the risk of an accidental kick.

photo1

An all-too-common sight under many desks. Careful with your feet! (Source: techdekproducts.com)

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Poweradd’s Desktop Surge Protector Power Strip. (Source: ipoweradd.com)

 

3. A Battery of Tests

If your device has a built-in battery, checking the power cord to the wall may not help. Notebook computers are designed not to run off wall power, so if you keep yours plugged in all the time, you’re not doing its battery any favors. Go ahead and unplug it and let it drain all the way down. You can then plug the charging cord back in so it can get back to 100%. Once it’s full, disconnect the charging cord again, and carry on until you get low, then recharge it, back to 100%, then disconnect again. That’s how it’s supposed to work. But when the notebook doesn’t power on, the issue could be its battery. If your model allows it, remove the battery and plug in the power cord. If you can start up that way, you may need to replace the battery or bring it in for service. Pay attention to the shape of the battery: a bulging battery needs to be removed and replaced immediately.

swollen-battery

Lithium batteries come in many shapes and sizes, but it should be easy to tell an unhealthy battery (left) from a healthy one (right). (Source: atbatt.com)

If the computer doesn’t turn on whether it’s plugged in or not, consider this possibility: if that charging cord wasn’t working, or if it wasn’t correctly connected to both outlet and computer, then the battery was draining and not getting recharged. This is why it might not work unplugged. Try removing the battery as I said, then plugging in to a different outlet in your home or office via the charging cord. If that still doesn’t work, try replacing the charging cord. If even THAT doesn’t work, you may have bigger issues (and I’ll get to that with item #5).

If your notebook does not allow you to remove the battery, don’t do anything that might void your warranty—or worse, that may cause you any harm.

4. Who’s Got the Button?

If you’ve determined that everything that should be connected is connected; that no cables have been chewed through; and that everything that needs to be in the “on” position is indeed in that position, there may be an issue with the actual physical integrity of your power buttons. In extreme cases, if your computer is “vintage,” the plastic used to make its buttons (e.g. the power button) may become brittle and break with normal use.

Youtube DIY host Ian “Druaga1” Anderson recently discovered how old plastic can prevent powering up properly, when the power button on a Power Macintosh 7500 fell apart on him:

Luckily, he was able to replace the power button with a 3D-printed replica, as seen in this follow-up video:

(CONTENT NOTE: Druaga’s videos contain NSFW language, and he opens each video with the greeting, “Hey, smokers.” He’s not referring to tobacco. Viewer discretion advised.)

5. When It’s Actually Broken

So you’ve gone through all the steps. Your power cord is intact and connected fully to both ends. All batteries are healthy and capable of holding a charge. All power buttons are intact and in the “on” position. You’ve confirmed that electricity is coming out of the outlet. And still, the computer doesn’t turn on. At this point, I recommend reaching out to tech support. I recall a client having me check his desktop PC that wouldn’t turn on. It was out of warranty, so asking the manufacturer for free phone support was out of the question—and I was able to provide some answers without having to ship the computer away.

Upon my inspection, I could see that all elements were fine, from the wall outlet all the way to the power cord plugged in to the back of the computer. As it turns out, the PC’s Power Supply Unit (PSU) had died, a common cause of death in the PC world. Luckily, it is possible to replace most desktop PC tower PSUs, so we were able to swap in a new unit, saving my client the cost and hassle of buying a new computer. If, however, even THAT hadn’t solved the problem, then I would have felt confident, knowing that we had tried all avenues, in recommending a brief period of mourning, followed by the purchase of a new PC.

computerpowersupply

Not all PSUs look like this, but if you’re going to replace yours, why not add a little pizzazz? (Source: pctips3000.com)

It’s trickier with notebooks and all-in-ones like iMacs, as those power supplies aren’t separate components you can buy off the shelf. In cases like that, where the machine still won’t turn on and it’s out of warranty, my advice typically is to salvage as much of your data as you can (usually by removing the hard drive) and transferring it to a new computer. But every scenario is a little different, so this advice is generalized. If you have a specific issue that doesn’t quite line up with what I’ve described so far, I would be happy to hear from you. You can contact me and let me know how things are looking for you.

But, sorry, I am going to ask if it’s plugged in.

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One thought on “Is it Plugged In? No, REALLY, Is it Plugged In???

  1. Pingback: On Language and Understanding (and Misunderstanding) | The At Home With Technology Blog

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