Thursday, July 5, 2007

Exploding Caps

Q: I just got my computer back from another repair place after they kept it for 10 days. They said they had to erase everything on the computer to correct the problem. The computer would shut down with no warning or would lock up and reboot randomly. Well, I just got my computer back and it’s still doing the same thing. Any ideas? Paul G. - Florence

A: I’m surprised that the other repair shop took 10 days to diagnose your problem. It should be immediately obvious to any computer technician worth his salt that you are the latest victim of a deranged Japanese scientist who unleashed an evil conspiracy upon an unsuspecting world at the beginning of the century. Yeah, seriously. Read on and I’ll explain.

After Paul called me with his symptoms, he brought his computer into the shop. A quick inspection of the innards of his computer confirmed my suspicion of swollen capacitors on the motherboard. We see this issue most often with computers manufactured sometime around 2001 to 2003. Older eMachines brand computers seem to be the most susceptible but we have seen it with most other major brands including Dell and IBM and some “clone” systems using Abit-brand motherboards. Swollen “caps” require a motherboard replacement which can be quite expensive.

Before we get into the exciting story of the evil scientist who victimized Paul we need to understand a couple of boring basics: The motherboard is the “mother of all circuit boards” in your computer. The processor, RAM, hard drive and everything else inside your computer connects to the motherboard.

Capacitors are components that are soldered onto motherboards that look like tiny soda cans. The cans are filled with a precisely-formulated compound that stores electrical energy much like a battery. This chemical compound resembles dried clay. The top of a capacitor is normally flat but if the chemical compound goes bad or is defective, the capacitor swells so that the top looks like a dome. In some cases, the clay-like ooze will leak out of the top of the capacitor or it may even explode. When this happens, you get the symptoms Paul described.

The story of the swollen capacitors goes something like this: Once upon a time at the beginning of this century, an evil scientist stole the chemical formula for the capacitor compound from his benevolent Japanese employer.

Shortly afterwards, this scientist got a job with a shady Taiwanese electronics firm who used his stolen formula to make their capacitors. This Taiwanese company sold millions of these amazingly-inexpensive capacitors to various companies who, in turn, used them in their motherboards that were then sold to some major computer manufacturers. The problem is that the formula was wrong. Some key ingredients were missing which caused premature failure of the caps.

The faulty capacitors generally lasted about two years – well after the typical warranty period expired. The problem peaked in 2003 with an alarming spike in motherboard failures. There are still plenty of those computers out there failing as we speak.

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