Atomic I/O letters column #144Originally published 2013, in PC & Tech Authority
(in which Atomic magazine is now a section)
Reprinted here October 3, 2013 Last modified 16-Jan-2015.
I tried to upgrade an old Pentium 4 2.8GHz WinXP SP3 PC as a giveaway for an impoverished student, and after replacing the faulty RAM and old CMOS battery and reinstalling the OS all seemed well.
Then it refused to boot, just a blank screen. Plus a few beeps. I took this to mean RAM.
So I swapped out and tried a dozen different sticks of DDR1 RAM, but same effect. I tried all the RAM from the malfunctioning machine in a PC that worked and found 1 dead module only. I swapped out the power supply for one that worked, still no go. I disconnected everything from the motherboard but PSU and RAM. Still beeps. Blank screen. Screen is fine on other PC.
Could the motherboard be dead? Intel brand board.
(Image source: Flickr user Mike Sisk)
The subtle, but distinctive, symptoms of the dread capacitor plague.
Yes, the motherboard certainly could be dead, and you've ruled out pretty much every other component.
First: Make sure there isn't some gross electrical problem, like a loose screw that's fallen down behind the mobo and is shorting something to the case.
If that isn't it, then given the symptoms and the vintage of the board, I'd strongly suspect "capacitor plague".
In the early 2000s, countless motherboards and other electronic devices were made with electrolytic capacitors that were doomed to die in a few years, because they used the wrong electrolyte for one reason or another. If the tops of any of the vertical cylindrical electrolytic capacitors on the mobo are bulging outward, or visibly leaking red-brown electrolyte, then that's the plague, all right.
Those large caps are there to smooth power-supply ripple. This means that many motherboards (and other components, like video cards) can continue to function with some dead caps, though the computer will probably be less stable.
This only applies if the caps are decent enough to retain some of their function or fail "open circuit", though, effectively behaving as if you just snipped them off the board. If a cap fails to a short circuit, you'll either pop a fuse (which is probably a tiny device soldered to the mobo...) or let the magic smoke out of some other components.
Capacitor-plague victims don't have to go out this spectacularly, though. Sometimes the cans don't even bulge very noticeably.
There are many other ways for a mobo to die, some of which also match your symptoms. Electrostatic damage from careless handling without using an anti-static wristband, for instance, can in unusual situations give you a mobo that runs for a little while longer... until a static-zapped component finishes killing some others.
My Windows 7, Core i3 PC (more details on application) got some kind of "ransomware", which popped up a BS warning saying I owed $200 to the "FBI" (wrong country, mister virus man). It disabled my firewall, and Malwarebytes, and Microsoft Security Essentials, and eventually everything else too. Computer wouldn't boot.
I got it started again in Safe Mode and reinstalled the antivirus, but scans didn't find anything, though the computer seemed OK.
Now I'm getting weird disk flogging and network activity and popup ads on Web pages that I know don't have them, though. Virus scans still find nothing and there haven't been any more ransom demands, but the computer won't start in Safe Mode any more. I've tried other virus scanners (the online Trend Micro and Bitdefender ones, and the free trial version of Kaspersky) and THEY don't find anything either, except for Trojans trying but failing to install earlier today.
Something's clearly not right, though. Is there some DEFINITE way to deal with this?
There certainly is: Format, and reinstall.
It's possible that screwing around with antivirus software and ComboFix and manual malware killing and the rest of that folderol will actually solve the problem, especially if you use a bootable antivirus CD or DVD or USB stick or whatever, or plug the system drive into another computer for cleaning.
I'd personally bet, however, that your computer has more than one flavour of malware installed. For years now, the bastards who make these things have been making them harder and harder to kill. It's got to the point where even if you manage to completely destroy the metastasised tumours of multiple interlocked malware infestations, you're likely to have chopped into so many of Windows' vital organs that you'll end up with a half-broken computer anyway. No Safe Mode and no Windows firewall, even if they don't happen at the same time, are very bad signs.
So if your data is backed up, it really is a way better idea to just nuke from orbit and start again than to hunt and kill every termite, silverfish and dust mite that currently infests your PC.
My dad decided to clean out his ancient WinXP machine, which still works fine for his purposes, but had a good eight years of dust in it.
So far, so good, he didn't use a vacuum cleaner or sandblast it or anything, but he did decide to remove the Pentium 4 CPU cooler to replace the thermal grease, and while he was there he took the CPU out... just to see what it looked like.
Then he put it back in off-centre, slapped the heatsink down on it again without looking, and bent half the pins. The thing looks like a wheatfield after a hurricane now.
Can this be fixed? The pins are really small, and really close together; dad's got plenty of tools but no pliers fine enough to bend CPU pins back up. Is this likely to have wrecked the socket, too?
Presuming the CPU hasn't been murdered by electrostatic or internal mechanical damage - which it probably hasn't - then yes, it is at least possible that you can fix it. The socket should be fine, too.
If any of the pins are bent flat, you're in trouble. They're quite likely to snap off before you can bend them back vertical. Less extreme bends can indeed be fixed, though, and it's actually quite easy with the right tool.
What you need is a narrow tube you can slide down over the pins, then just swing back up to vertical to fix them. The tip tube of a 0.5mm mechanical pencil, preferably an all-metal one, does this job nicely. Once you get the pins close to correct, carefully inserting the CPU back into the socket will finish the job.
If pins break off, it's possible to solder them back on, or kludge up a solution involving wires stuck into the appropriate socket holes to turn the socket into a sort of half-LGA arrangement. This is about as easy to do as it sounds. If you break some pins, I'd suggest you just hit eBay for a new Pentium 4 to suit the socket. Used P4s now often sell for less than $10 delivered.
The other day it was REALLY hot and my computer was overheating while playing games, bouncing off the limiter as it were and throttling the CPU, which did bad things to my framerate.
So I took the front of the case off and removed the clogged foam dust filters and washed them and put then back and then my computer ran considerably cooler. The heat graph stayed low for a while, then climbed some more, though not nearly as high as it was before.
On a hunch, I removed the filters again, washed them again and replaced them, and the temperature went DOWN with the damp filters in place, below where it was with no filters at all!
So now it occurred to me that I could keep a spray bottle of water by the computer and spritz the front of the case whenever I wanted a little more cooling.
How moronic is this idea? Can you actually wreck your computer if water gets into it, or would the computer just hang until it dried out, or something?
First up, my standard answer for anybody who has a PC that's teetering on the edge of overheating all the time is that you need a proper solution to this problem. Add another fan or two, go all out and install a water-cooling kit if you don't have one already, take the ghetto option and remove the side of the case and point a desk fan in there. Or, of course, just overclock less.
But you're not really in that position, are you?
If no water gets into the computer, only water vapour evaporated from the damp fan filters, then it's possible that bare steel inside the computer - mainly the chassis of any normal steel case - will rust a bit faster than it otherwise would. And that's all that'll happen.
The open-cell foam of fan filters isn't what you'd call rainproof, though, so droplets of water will probably make it inside the case. If they hit hot hard-drive casings then they'll do no harm, and you could probably even get away with them hitting the motherboard. Tap-water is slightly conductive, but not necessarily conductive enough to cause anything to hang, in fine enough droplets. If you were more systematic in your madness and used distilled or demineralised water you might be able to spritz the whole mobo with the computer running and not crash anything.
Not that I recommend this aberrant practice, you understand, but it's not as blatantly nuts as it looks. The relative innocuousness of clean water is why electronic devices can so often recover even from complete immersion, as long as you dry them out pretty soon.
My favourite inexpensive extreme cooling technique is to build your computer actually inside a refrigerator, with holes cut for cables going in and out. Even if you open the door and let in moist air to condense on the components, this isn't likely to harm the computer.
The only problem with this idea, besides bulk, power consumption and the fact that it'll heat the room it's in considerably more than the PC by itself would, is that fridges do not expect to have to deal with something that's emitting heat inside them. The fridge's compressor will therefore have to run a lot more than it would otherwise, and it can wear out quite quickly as a result, especially if you're using the sort of small bar-fridge that would at first glance seem ideal for this purpose. A small fridge is actually quite likely to be unable to cope with the heat output of a running PC at all.
And even if your fridge can pump enough heat to keep a computer cool, if the overworked compressor dies, you've now got a computer inside a well-insulated box with no cooling at all, and severe overheating will occur very soon.
If you're going to try something crazy, though, why not go for broke?
And now, because it's wonderful, the refrigerator episode of The Secret Life Of Machines.