Memory is one of the safer open-box items to buy: Plug it in - it either works or it doesn't - then check the frequencies and voltage and it's either accurate or it isn't. That doesn't preclude memory from catastrophic failures, though. There's no telling what the guy who owned it before you did to it, so we need to check for everything.
As mentioned in the tips to not getting screwed section of our hardware warranty comparison guide, always take photos before you begin -- this even goes for memory. If you see any flaws at all (scraped corners or modules, evidence of someone jamming it where it doesn't belong), make sure you photograph it in the event it needs to be returned.
That said, once you get all your memory plugged in, it's time to start testing.
Check the Specs
Our first stop is the BIOS System Information screen; most motherboards have nice menus now, so it should be easy to find this information. Check for your memory frequency (1333MHz, 1600MHz, 1866MHz, etc.) and make sure it matches the product's advertised frequency. If not - and at your own risk - you may wish to use BIOS to overclock the memory to the correct frequency (don't fret: some boards simply don't default the memory to its maximum capacity, this also depends on the CPU's limitations). If everything checks out or if you've got it set up the way you like, it's time to move on to actual burn-in.
Memtest86+ is one of the simplest and most accessible memory testers out there. You'll need to download Memtest86+ and burn it to a bootable CD before we begin.
Boot to the Memtest86+ CD and let it start running memory tests. We recommend leaving this on for an extended period of time to beat those memory modules up sufficiently. When I used to run test cases on memory in a lab, we'd always allow Memtest86+ reach test #8 at a minimum, if not more. You should see errors before then, but it's good to allow for prolonged testing just in case something's buried and not initially discovered. Stability crumbles over time on borderline-faulty modules - Memtest86+ and our other tests should root those instabilities out early.
Prime95 is powerful for both CPU burn-in and memory burn-in, making it an excellent 2-in-1 combo (for free, at that) to minimize the user-input requirements. You'll need to first download Prime95 and run it before we begin.
When first launched, Prime95 will offer a "Torture Test" option, with four subset tests. Each one is fairly well-defined within the pop-up box, but to re-iterate: Small FFTs will maximize CPU testing and minimize RAM testing, so we won't use that one here; Large FFTs will beat up on the CPU and motherboard, but still not much on RAM; Blend will test a bit of everything, with heavy focus on the RAM. Of course, the fourth option is custom, but we'll leave that alone for now.
Run the "Blend" test on all available threads (it should default to the correct number, but if not, run CPU-Z and check what it reports) and hit 'OK.' Let the test run for a while - it should be continuous, which means it'll keep going until you tell it to stop. We recommend letting this one run overnight or while out of the house, since it's one of the better beat-em-up tests out there. Go to Test -> Stop to cease the test.
If nothing fails or crashes, you should be in good shape.
Hard Drive/Solid-State Drive Burn-in
In our experience at GN, hard drives have always been the most likely candidate for catastrophic failure when using used or refurbished parts. Whether testing a refurbished laptop or simply plugging in a new drive, it's always good practice to - in the least - run a few stress testers to draw-out any clunk-ka-dunk noises that the drive may produce.
Hard drives might not fail catastrophically, but that doesn't mean it's good to go: Listen for the hard drive "tick of death" noises when testing the drive. If you hear strangely loud or odd noises coming from the drive, get rid of it and get a new one immediately. It won't last for long.
Of course, magnetic hard drives aren't the only type of drive prone to failure - used SSDs may have limited P/E cycles remaining (reducing the lifespan of the SSD) or otherwise be damaged by the previous owner; if it's in a refurbished 'complete' system or laptop, it's just good practice to test it (in the event someone dropped it or worse). All the below testing can be used on SSDs as well as HDDs.
Check the Specs
As with everything else in this guide, it's good practice to make sure the device being tested is, in fact, the device that was advertised. The easiest way to do this is to check the actual label (for RPMs, cache, and storage size), then check an OS for its writeable space. Keep in mind that the drive may need to be formatted before it can be detected properly.
We don't need to run all the testing tools for drives - a select few will get the job done admirably. HD Tune is one of the best options out there (and has a pro version, which is quite extensive) and will do what we need done; go grab HD Tune before we start (the free version is fine).
Launch HD Tune. Everything should already be good to go for testing -- select the proper drive in the top drop-down menu and hit "Start" for the read test. Let it run until completion. Once finalized, you should be presented with a graph that looks something like this:
Now, of course, the numbers of each drive will vary based on its abilities, but that's the general idea. If a ludicrous amount of spiking is present or if the drive fails to complete, you may have a problem. The other testers will verify this for us.
Despite its name, this little program can be applied to both HDDs and SSDs for testing. AS-SSD offers a few different synthetic benchmarks (gaming, compression, and copy) that will give an idea of your drive's performance. Download AS-SSD for free before we begin.
The program will detect your drives at first launch - go ahead and wait for it to do so. Once open, select your drive in the top drop-down box. We'll proceed to run a few quick tests on it, in addition to the above HD Tune test. Check to make sure no errors are displayed in the top-left mini-box; if "PCIIDE - BAD" is displayed, you may need to change your BIOS settings for your drive from IDE to AHCI. For the first iteration, go ahead and hit "Start" - the default test will do well enough. Double-check those numbers against the advertised rates, if it's an SSD, and make sure no odd noises are emitted by the drive.
For our second test, go to Tools -> Copy Benchmark, check all three options, and hit "Start" again. As before, make sure speeds are reasonable (ask us below if you require assistance) and ensure no clunking noises are produced.
The final test is just as easy. Return to the main window, go to Tools -> Compression Benchmark, and start it as-is.
If your system is still running after these, you should be in good shape to continue on.
Video Card & Monitor Burn-in
There's not a lot that can be done in terms of consumer monitor testing, but we can try to kill any last-limb pixels before the shortened warranty expires and look for other failure indicators. Video card testing is very well-backed, though, and will couple nicely as a monitor tester.
Check the Specs
Run GPU-Z before we begin and check the output against your card's advertised specs.
Afterburner is one of the most powerful, versatile tools for GPU reading and temperature monitoring (and overclocking, if your GPU didn't come with its own proprietary tool). We'll use Afterburner to log frame rates and temperatures throughout these other tests, but it's also good to check that the shader clock, core clock, and memory clock are the correct frequencies (and that the temperatures are reasonable). Download MSI Afterburner here.
Once Afterburner is running, check the clock speeds and compare them against the advertised rates (Note: Afterburner isn't always 100% accurate, but it's pretty damn close; if your card has trouble being detected, ask us what to do below and provide as much info as possible). Go to "Settings" in the bottom, then the "Monitoring" tab, and then check the "Log history to file" option and specify a location. You'll want to limit the log size to something like 10MB; anything bigger might cause issues in notepad, so Notepad++ is an option if you have trouble opening the log file.
Heaven by Unigine
Heaven's Dx11 benchmark is one of the best out there -- it's pretty, efficient, and pretty. And also beats up video cards quite extensively. Download Heaven (for free) before we start.
Launch Afterburner and enable logging (see above) before we start. Now launch Heaven and notice its awesome array of options. For those uncomfortable with what all these mean, run the default settings for starters and then graduate through the settings with each iteration, stopping only when Heaven becomes unrealistically slow (20FPS or slower, for the most part). Many of you are gamers, though, and have a good intuition for how much the graphics options will beat up a GPU.
Let's make it simple: Top-of-the-line GPUs should be running, well, nearly-maxed settings on Heaven. Medium-range GPUs (let's call those the $300 area) should be running around High/Normal/8/4 settings. Low-end cards will be closer to defaults.
Click "Benchmark" in the top left of Heaven to run the pre-packaged benchmark.
Check your log files from Afterburner afterwards and skim it briefly for any out-of-bounds temperatures or framerates. If anything looks questionable, it may be return-worthy (ask us first, if you're unsure).
Allow Heaven to run overnight (disable Afterburner's logging first) for extended testing. Make sure your setup has sufficient airflow before doing this, and make sure the graphics settings aren't unrealistic for your video card. Running it overnight will also abuse the monitor in a real-world environment, so we'll have a better idea of the monitor's reliability.
If you're running 3D Hardware, like nVidia's 3D Vision, be sure to test its abilities in Heaven, too.
FurMark Burn-in Testing
FurMark is one of the best burn-in testers out there for GPUs, and while Heaven is fantastic, FurMark is spec'd a bit more heavily toward the stress-testing side. FurMark is for serious benchmarking - we highly recommend running it to abuse any new or used GPU you pick up. Download Furmark here.
Be careful with this tool - it can be deadly to GPUs if handled carelessly.
Launch FurMark once it's downloaded. Enable the Xtreme burn-in option and Burn-in option; click "Settings" and enabled the GPU Temperature Alarm. Set your max GPU temperature to something reasonable. If you want to be safe, set it to something around 80C. More experienced users should be able to deduce the maximum temperature if it is higher than this.
Set the benchmark duration as necessary. I always recommend running a short benchmark first (you can abort at any time) and manually monitoring temperatures for a few minutes before deciding on extended test settings. Check the "Log GPU temperature" option while you're in here.
Let's start simple: Run the preset 1080 benchmark (this is one of the least abusive ones) and personally monitor it until completion or boredom sets in. If things are looking good and the temperatures aren't crazy, go for the burn-in benchmark, get some food, and return in fifteen minutes. Overnight tests can be run with either manual settings or the "BURN-IN test" button. Just don't overdo it. Always ask us in the comments for recommended settings if you're unsure.
If no catastrophic failures have occurred after all of this synthetic testing, we can hope that the product is stable and will not fail any time in the near future. The hope is, to re-iterate, that we initiate failures in the first 24-72 hours, rather than 31 days from purchase. A reliable GPU will not be damaged by this testing - it's just like playing graphics-intensive games (again, just don't overdo the settings - if the FPS is low and temperatures are high, that's a sign to stop and lower the settings).
Entire System Checklist (Laptops, All-in-Ones, pre-builts)
Testing a refurbished laptop should be thorough and accurate. Be sure to run all previous tests on full systems or laptops that have been used, in addition to extra checks to see if you can uncover why yours was returned in the first place. Here's a list of items to check through:
Ports: Use all USB / SATA / eSATA / video ports at least once. Make sure they're able to transfer data reliably and do not 'die' or disconnect during the transfer.
Drives: If the system was advertised as having a DVD/blu-ray reader or burner, test all of those advertised functions to ensure it's working as it should. If it burns DVDs, try burning one -- if it reads blu-ray media, try reading a few.
Screens: Use the display in multiple viewing angles to check for flickers or outages. Some laptops may have cable disconnects if the screen is viewed at too obtuse of an angle, so watch carefully for flickering or black-outs.
Keyboards/Mice: Use every single key and button available. Make sure they all input properly and perform their functions as expected.
Storage: When running the hard drive burn-in test on complete systems, listen extra carefully for ticking or odd noises. Make sure you check to ensure the drive is the space that was advertised.
Device Presence: Check the Windows Device Manager (type devmgmt.msc in the Start bar) for device presence. Install any missing drivers and ensure everything detects properly.
LAN/WLAN: Be sure to use wireless or LAN before deciding to keep the item. Check for a constant connection - an easy way to do this is to ping a few websites and check for drop-offs (CMD -> ping google.com -> monitor for odd timings). Keep in mind that this will be impacted by your connection, so it's good practice to run it on another wireless or wired device to eliminate external causes.
Burn it in! Run all of our above-discussed burn-in tests on any completed systems before your return window times out. As always, ask below if special assistance is required or if you're unsure about something. Feel free to check our forums for more in-depth discussion.
You may find these items useful if you found this guide useful:
- PC Preventative Maintenance
- Souping-up Your PC
- Common PC Building Mistakes
- Cutting Costs in PC Building
- GN's Famous PC Builds (Tastes like chicken)
- Must-Have System building Toolkit
- Hardware Warranty Comparison Guide
- How File Deletion works
- Erase files permanently
- GPU Spec Dictionary
Enjoy your new components! Let us know how it all goes or if you have additional ideas for testing.
-Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.