How To Destroy Your Computer

Originally published in Australian Personal Computer Magazine, January 1998.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Many computer users perform their own hardware upgrades, and a distressing number of these result in insufficient damage to the system. Destroying your own computer is every user's right and is the pattern of behaviour expected by the manufacturers and, especially, repair personnel, whose very livelihood is put in peril by those users who perversely persist in correctly upgrading their equipment.

This article will explain to you, the user, the most common ways by which you can cause your computer to cease to function. Follow the instructions carefully and you will shortly find yourself making appropriate contributions to the all-important service sector.

Keep your hair on, people

Yes, this article by Sander Sassen at Hardware Analysis is a bit similar to the page you're looking at.

No, it's not a rip-off. Great minds just think alike.

Thank you to everyone who wrote to me expressing their concern, and to everyone who wrote to Sander and called him rude names. The boy's going to be in therapy forever.

First, it is essential to be incorrectly prepared.

When opening the case of your computer, you will probably be presented with a number of hexagonal head Phillips-slotted screws. These can be easily removed with a Phillips screwdriver or 6mm nut driver, but using a flathead screwdriver, especially one that is slightly too big, maximises the chance of the screwdriver slipping from the screw head and smashing into one or another of the computer's connectors. Personal injury is also possible, especially if excessive force is used when turning a screw the wrong way, but the object is to damage the computer, not yourself.

If any components of your computer are held in place with Pozidriv screws (superficially similar to Phillips head screws, but recognisable by the cross scored on the screw-head at 45 degrees to the slots), use of a Phillips head driver instead of the squarer tipped Pozidriv gives the maximum chance of reaming out the screw head and, with luck, damaging the driver as well.

When removing screws from the back of an ordinary clone case, ensure that you extract every screw in sight, not just the ones around the edge that actually hold the case on. This will, with any luck, cause the computer's power supply to fall off inside the case and cause serious damage, before you even have to take off the lid.

Leaving one fastening screw still done up in the corner and then attempting to wrench off the case may cause significant damage to the metalwork, but this is generally easily bent back into shape and not very expensive to replace. You can do better.

Fortunately, there are a plethora of computer case designs, and a gratifying number are fiendishly difficult to take apart and, especially, reassemble. To maximise the chance of damage, ignore any locking tabs and slots, don't worry about pinching cables in the case, and make sure you push really hard.

When replacing screws, remember to tighten everything as if the computer were a major structural component of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Overtightening screws increases the chance of reaming the heads, and the extra frustration involved in removing super-tight screws increases the chance that someone will give up and turn the machine over to a professional. Use of an electric screwdriver makes screw destruction easy for anyone.

Use of computer cases as furniture is an excellent way to obey your entropic imperatives. Many PC cases are in fact very strong, and so it's necessary to balance large monitors, tabletops, grand pianos and twelve foot fireproof safes upon them to ensure rapid destruction. Fortunately, the pop-riveted construction of most cases and their poor endurance under lateral loads means that even relatively small stresses can, over time, cause sufficient structural creep to snap a solidly attached motherboard. Patience, and not buying enough chairs, can be a virtue.

Static Is Your Friend

It is possible to destroy computer components just by touching them, thanks to electrostatic discharge (ESD). Static electricity accumulates best on humans when the air is dry and both the carpet and the soles of the shoes are made of synthetic materials.

Unfortunately, static discharge damage is actually a fairly rare cause of computer problems. On the bright side, however, a discharge as low as 200 volts is sufficient to destroy a chip, and this level of charge can easily be accumulated in just a few steps on carpet. Static discharge can only be felt when the charge gets up around the 2000 volt mark, so it's possible for a truly adept user to unknowingly destroy several components in one session.

If the user employs an anti-static discharge strap connected to an earthed object or simply leaves the computer plugged in (thus maintaining the chassis earth connection) and takes care to touch some exposed metal on the power supply before handling static-sensitive components (and periodically during the job), the chance of static damage becomes depressingly low.

Old-fashioned belt-drive vacuum cleaners are quite efficient static electricity generators, so cleaning computer componentry with one is an excellent way to bolster the income of a service engineer. Newer cleaners are still good at accumulating static, and are also quite powerful enough to seriously damage fragile components with sheer suction.

Air force

Electronics stores stock canned "air duster", which is actually compressed difluoroethane or tetrafluoroethane gas, and can be used to clean various devices. Air duster is quite useful for cleaning more robust items, but can also be usefully employed in computer destruction, where it is more than capable of blowing chips out of sockets, spinning fans to prodigious speeds and destroying their tiny brushless motor assemblies, and, of course, redistributing dust from relatively accessible locations to far more exciting ones, like deep inside expansion card connectors and CD-ROM drives.

For truly powerful air-blasting, though, the discerning user will have to employ the services of an air compressor. These can be rented cheaply from many equipment hire shops, and as well as their greater power (which can snap a RAM module and its socket right off the board) offer the added bonus of high-speed water delivery, provided of course that the user makes sure not to use the condensation drain valve provided for less focussed operators.

Get it wet!

Contact with plain water is surprisingly unlikely to destroy computer componentry, unless the device in question is left wet for a while. Beverages like coffee, tea and (especially) cola are much more effective, and so it is important to have a tall, unstable container of one or more of these within elbowing distance of the work area. Crumbs of food can foul connectors and floppy drive moving parts, but intensive open-mouthed chewing over the computer is required for a reliable kill.

Killing chips

If the job involves inserting or removing socketed chips, the options for destruction of expensive devices open up enormously.

Inserting and removing Pin Grid Array (PGA) processor chips in Zero Insertion Force (ZIF) sockets is unlikely to break anything, unless the user somehow manages not to operate the locking lever and forces the issue. PGA chips in old-style sockets are easier to damage; PGA pins are annoyingly hard to bend, but the forest of pins under the processor gives many chances to bend just one and make the chip uninsertable.

If the computer is an 80486-based system, the Central Processing Unit (CPU) can be plugged into its socket in more than one way. One corner of the processor is bevelled and the matching corner of the socket will also be marked, but if these markings are disregarded - or if the user decides instead to line up the printing on the CPU with that on the motherboard - then the processor can be inserted in one of the three other alignments. This makes the chip's destruction, possibly with the emission of smoke, quite likely. Intel regrettably made processor misalignment impossible with the introduction of the Pentium series, unless of course the enterprising user is equipped with a mallet.

Conventional Dual Inline Package (DIP) chips, with a row of pins along either side, are much more gratifyingly susceptible to damage.

The very best tool for bending and breaking pins on DIP chips is the inexpensive springy "chip extractor" available at various electronics stores. U-shaped, the steel tool has an inward bent lip on the end of each leg, and is designed to hook both ends of a chip at once, and give the user the impression that it will in fact extract both ends at once.

This never happens.

When one end of the (usually very firmly inserted) chip comes out of the socket, the considerable pull being exerted by the user immediately causes that end to be lifted well clear of the board while the last few ranks of pins are still plugged in, resulting in badly bent or broken pins which are difficult to bend back and very, very difficult to repair.

Truly adept users can also hook a DIP chip extractor under the socket, not the chip, and bodily rip it from its soldered-in location. This can lift tracks from the board and render it practically irreparable, if done with sufficient gusto.

Chips are much less likely to be damaged if a small screwdriver is used to lever each end in turn up a little at a time, until the whole chip comes free at once. Those who have purchased stock in chip makers recommend against this strategy.

The other common kind of chip package is Plastic Leadless Chip Carrier (PLCC), which is square with a row of contacts on each side and which fits into a socket somewhat reminiscent of an above-ground swimming pool. It is difficult to insert these chips incorrectly, since one corner is bevelled so they can only fit into the socket one way, and firm pressure snaps them into place annoyingly reliably.

It is also hard to break PLCC chips when removing them; a purpose-built PLCC extractor does it in a snap and has none of the redeeming danger of the DIP extracting tools, and removing PLCCs by prying under the corners with a very small screwdriver is annoying, but not very hazardous. Fortunately, users seldom have to work with PLCC chips, and the other types are satisfyingly easy to break.

Inserting Single Inline Memory Modules (SIMMs) should be relatively simple, since SIMM sockets require one only to insert the module at an angle, then swing it upright until the locking clips click into place. Fortunately, many PCs are cramped inside and have at least one SIMM socket fouled by the power supply or other metalwork, making it more difficult to insert a memory module in that socket without damaging it or the socket. Inserting modules backwards (even though they are designed not to fit that way), jamming them straight in vertically and, of course, using plenty of force, increase the chance of a misadventure.

Bugger the BIOS!

The ceaseless march of progress has made it possible to wreak functionally unfixable harm upon essential computer components without inflicting any physical trauma at all. Modern "flash" BIOSes, which allow the Basic Input/Output System software of a PC motherboard to be upgraded by the user, afford considerable potential for harm.

If a flash BIOS is "flashed" with the wrong data - preferably a BIOS for a completely different motherboard, or, if the flashing software will accept it, even some randomly selected file; an MP3 of William Shatner's "Mr Tambourine Man" is ideal - the motherboard will, upon restarting, utterly fail to do anything useful until its BIOS chip is physically removed and re-burned with correct data. Interrupting the flashing procedure will produce the same results.

If the BIOS is socketed, exchanging it for a working one is disturbingly easy. Fortunately, many current BIOS chips are soldered to the motherboard, and cannot be economically replaced. The iniquitous invasion of motherboards with built-in BIOS backups must be stopped at all costs, lest their terrible reliability paralyse the industry.

Cables, connectors and calamity

Ribbon cables are often difficult to plug in incorrectly, because the connectors they go into are "keyed" to match the cable in only one orientation. If a ribbon cable plugs into a bare pin header with no surround, though, damage can result if the user takes note of the tiny "1" often printed on the circuit board by the connector to indicate pin one, and also takes note of the stripe on the cable which indicates which side is should connect to pin one, and reverses the connector. Incompetently made cables with one end backwards make this much simpler. Note that reversing a cable at BOTH ends is likely to result in perfect operation of the hardware, which is not the aim of this exercise.

If the pin header on the motherboard isn't "shrouded" - surrounded by a plastic box to correctly align the plug - the intrepid user can quite easily connect the plug in such a way as to miss one row or column of pins. This can very excitingly change the details of the connection being made.

When connecting an older style, "AT" power supply to a motherboard, the two-part power connector offers a marvellous opportunity for destruction. Make sure at all costs to avoid the plug configuration shown below.

AT power connectors

This configuration, with the black wires towards the centre, will cause the computer to work perfectly. Reversing the two plugs so that the red wires are towards the centre will, gratifyingly, destroy the motherboard. Some manufacturers appear to have temporarily abandoned their sanity and made AT power supplies that will not work when connected incorrectly. Such supplies are, of course, to be avoided if at all possible.

Fortunately, modern motherboards have introduced a new way to blast tracks clean off the board. On-board fan connectors have three pins, and two adjacent ones are the positive and ground supply. Mistaking one of these connectors for a motherboard configuration jumper allows the adept user to slip a jumper block onto the fan connector and short the positive pin to ground, which can and will burn out traces on the motherboard and render it useful only as a wall decoration. Motherboard manufacturers are clearly aware of this possibility, and some assist by labelling, say, a three pin CMOS clearing jumper block "JP2", and marking the CPU fan connector "J2". The use of the normal motherboard annotation font (one point Flyspeck Sans Serif) makes misidentification simple even for those with perfect vision.

Plugging and unplugging peripherals that attach to computer ports while the machine is turned on is unlikely to damage the peripherals and not much more likely to damage the computer - plugging and unplugging cards inside the computer when it's on is a much better way to damage things.

If, in the course of diagnosing a problem, you have a hard drive out of its assigned bay and resting on top of the open machine, remember that the logic board under the drive can generally be shorted out easily by chassis metalwork and position the device accordingly.

PSU pulverisation

Power supplies can be obliterated in a number of ways. The simplest is provided by the ubiquitous voltage selector switch on the back. If the user is lucky enough to reside in a country where the mains supply is 220V or higher, switching a computer PSU to the 110V setting will result in a satisfyingly exploded supply, and possible considerable secondary damage.

In comparison, the more pedestrian sport of dropping screws into the PSU fan in hopes that they will cause a dramatic short circuit is scarcely necessary. Particularly in view of the fact that the fan often spits them back out.

Remember - slapdash, ill-informed, incompetent work is what's expected of you. Don't let the industry down.

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