The capacitor plague strikes again!

One of the things I believe very strongly in for our 21st Century learners is that they must have basic computer troubleshooting skills. What I am going to detail goes a bit beyond the basics, however, knowing what to do when faced with a problem (a.k.a. critical thinking) is a key skill all learners need to possess.

About 2 weeks ago, one of the Windows-based computers in the household started exhibiting random lock-ups and displaying ‘sparklies’ on the monitor.

At first, I thought that it might be the video card driver, because it started to occur just after a pretty large Windows update, and from time to time, the auto update includes new drivers to make all of your internal components better talk to the CPU and other controllers.

After a couple days, the symptoms got progressively worse, so I took the computer out of service and replaced it with another PC that was just hanging out in my computer history museum (er… work shop).

Since I had a couple minutes, I decided that I’d check out what was going on by first checking for any physical problem, such as system memory sticks that may need to be reseated or CPU heat sink compound has dissipated or dried up and is no longer effective.

I opened the case up on the PC, an Aopen 761GX mini cube, and started to look around for anything physically wrong.

Immediately I noticed a problem. Two capacitors in the motherboard power section were swollen and leaking electrolyte.

Since I’ve seen this in at least 10 other computers, I knew that this machine is pretty much a lost cause.

The capacitor plague is very well detailed and started out in about 1999 and has been appearing up until about 2007. The short story on the root cause of the failures is that poor quality control in the manufacture of these simple, but key components, lead to this widespread issue in many type of electronic equipment – not just computers.

There is some speculation that industrial espionage or counterfeiting was involved on the part of manufacturers of capacitors and somehow they used the wrong mix of ingredients leading to eventual failure of millions of capacitors.

Bad CapacitorsIf you are electronically inclined, possess good soldering skills and have enough time and patience, you can attempt to remove and replace the capacitors on the board. I may eventually fix this one – but chances are I’ll just put it in my computer history museum, and use it as a parts machine, not unlike you do at the car junkyard.

Electrolyte material has left the silo.

There are a few websites that go into the problem in detail, such as BadCaps.net, where you can read the entire history of this multi-million dollar event.

So, what have you learned today? I break down any type of computer troubleshooting down into two parts: physical and software related.

This incident is a bit more complicated than the average problem, but still was solved by looking at physical manifestations as the first step.

So, next time your computer starts to act flaky, think about the lowly .45 cent capacitor lurking on the motherboard too.

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