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Problems defying all logics - it could be failing hardware

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Introduction:

When experiencing some peculiar problem with the functioning of your PC, how many times has it happened that you look for a solution and even google can’t help?

It could be that you are one of the only few people on earth who may have experienced it.

The above is generally a sign of some part (hardware) that is about to die but has not given up completely and is still working. To most of us and most of the times, it may seem normal until the hardware fails completely.

Basic Diagnosis:

When looking for a solution, my first gut reaction is to Google it (or search here on EE!). Nine times out of ten, I do land up with the information I was seeking. Well, if you are searching carefully, and still can’t find an answer, it is time to look into your hardware. I have always been inquisitive enough to go to extreme lengths to get something to work right if it ain’t working right. Listed are incidents that I have faced in real life that made me learn the lesson the hard way.

1. Case

It was quite some time ago, when even a 512MB Ram stick was precious. My PC had 512 MB Ram. Somewhere out of my Computer junk yard, I managed to get a spare 512 MB stick. Well, I plugged it in the spare RAM slot of the motherboard of my PC. BIOS memory test picked up 1024 MB and my spirits were held high. Windows booted and showed 1024 MB under the Properties sheet in “My Computer”.

Few days after many hours of operating merrily, my monitor screen would freeze. No Blue Screen. Just the system froze (Ctrl-Alt-Del also did not work) and the display got distorted as if you are watching a scratched DVD.

My first reaction was to suspect the memory. Since Windows and BIOS detected it fine, I decided to run Memtest (a Linux utility to test memory) for a thorough 8 hours. Memtest came up clean without errors.

Now I checked the page file (Virtual memory in Windows) for errors, maybe due to a Bad sector on the Hard Disk. I moved it here and there, on to a different partition on the Hard Disk. But the problem would surface randomly. A reboot cleared the issue but I would be faced with it sooner or later.

I suspected my display card going bad or it could be the monitor. I did not have a spare display card but did swap the monitor and the problem persisted.

It could be corrupt display drivers. I reinstalled, upgraded with no luck in this field too. Finally, the big step, I reinstalled Windows from scratch. No joy again.

I was confident it was some hardware but what, I had no answer. It could be anything – a failing hard disk, the display card, the motherboard or the RAM.

I had learnt to live with it until finally my computer service engineer came on a casual visit. We were good friends and I narrated the problem. He simply pulled out the RAM stick and the problem never showed up again.

Despite all checks coming up clean, it was the newly added RAM stick.

2. Case

I have an adsl modem that supports USB connectivity. After installing the required drivers in Windows, it would create a virtual LAN connection. The modem had a light (to indicate connection to USB) that would constantly blink when the virtual LAN connection was active (up and running, even though no data was being transferred).

All of a sudden, I was unable to access the modem. The “ipconfig” command in Windows would return a Hardware failure with regard to the Virtual LAN interface. However, the USB light on the modem would now become stable. Other than rebooting the modem, there was no way out.

I posted in various forums about the issue and no one responded. I thought that there might a problem in the USB driver implementation and studied many articles related to that but maybe that was too extreme.

I went through the User manual of the modem more than ten times but there was no clue. I called the phone company and had my adsl line checked for noise but they said that there was no problem at their end.

Until finally one day, when switching off the lights, I noticed that as soon as I switched off the Lights (fluorescent light), the modem light went from blinking to stable. It was a peculiar problem though. When I switched the lights “On”, the problem was not there. The USB port would only fail when I switched off the lights.

Well, I retired the USB connection that day itself, and got an Ethernet Card. Typically the LAN ports of the modem did not show the same behaviour.

Later, I discovered that improper earthing of my PC was causing this problem.
 

3. Case

I had a Bluetooth adapter that I purchased for a dirt cheap price from ebay. Using Windows XP, I could connect my phone in modem mode and browse the internet using a rock solid Bluetooth connection. File transfers between my phone and PC were smooth without any hiccups. I could pair my Wireless Bluetooth Nokia Headset BH-503 and listen to the music. The sound was amazing and in full glory as if I was listening to a home theatre system.

Now I have always been a big fan of watching movies. My TV is quite old and doesn’t provide a way to connect to a computer. I needed to install a TV card with AV jacks that would provide output to the TV or play the movies on the PC itself. But I was unwilling to spend on the additional hardware. Windows Media Player wouldn’t play Divx and AVI formats so I turned to VLC media player.

Then, there came an issue that horribly spoilt my movie experience. The audio would lag behind going out of sync with the video. I did try to get it in sync by tweaking the settings in VLC but no joy. When I played the sound on Desktop speakers or wired earphones, it played in sync but the Bluetooth headset would always play the sound with a lag. Now that left me with many points of failure –

VLC media player was not supporting Bluetooth as it was using a different audio driver altogether. I updated to the latest versions several times but the issues persisted. Uninstall / Reinstall would not fix it either. However, when a major update to VLC version 2.0 came, I was confident that the problem would be gone but it remained.
Bluesoleil, the software driving the Bluetooth adapter probably had errors but updates to the latest version too did not solve the issue.
My Nokia Bluetooth headset probably did not support such a setup since it was primarily designed to work with a cellphone. However, there was no way of verifying that.
My Bluetooth dongle could be the issue, but it was working fine like a champ as already seen earlier.

Ruling out the above 4 issues and being quite tech-savvy myself, I could not think of anything else and gave up. Like many things in life, with issues that don’t seem to have an answer, this would also probably linger on till doom’s day.

Lately I upgraded to Windows 7, (I know Windows 8 could be out any time now, but I don’t tend to make a switch that fast, as I have plenty of software to work with, including some 16-bit applications). Guess what! the problem went from bad to worse in Windows 7. It gave me a blue screen.

Its been a long time since I saw a BSOD in windows XP itself, leave alone Windows 7. Blue Screens generally point to failing hardware. That was the issue. The Bluetooth dongle was going bad. I replaced the dongle and the audio wouldn’t lag now.

Just for giggles, the Dongle still works in Windows XP. Remember, I purchased it for dirt cheap on ebay. I swear to God, till date I have always been asking for quality hardware from my vendor.

4. Case

Now this one is not about computers but my car. Suddenly, I noticed that my car would not accelerate. Despite pushing the gas pedal far enough, it would not pickup. Yes, it did make up for the speed but in much more than the required time. Also the full throttle did not manage to get it racing past the 90 km/hr mark. Earlier, I had sped it up to 140 km/hr, so I knew something was wrong.

I put it in garage at the Company’s Authorised Service Centre and they said that they needed to clean the engine and overhaul it. They also asked to get the Fuel Tank cleaned as they suspected high adulteration levels in fuel. Later, they reported that wiring from the Car Microprocessor to the Spark plugs needed to be replaced. I said ok, go with it.

Despite all that, the problem persisted though it may have diminished but it was still there. I again sent it to the garage and this time they replaced the Clutch plate. Now, a lot of money was already wasted without fruitful results.

Some days later, my brother just had to go out of town and he decided to take the car. He was also aware of the problem and decided to get it checked elsewhere. Diagnosed properly, it revealed a poorly running fuel pump. The fuel pump was not pumping the fuel at desired pressure to the engine and that was causing problems.

Conclusion:

The last case was not my call anyway, but sometimes everybody fails against things which are working in a diminished manner. Things that are about to fail and haven’t failed yet. Most of the times it is because that particular piece of product was not manufactured up to the desired standards or is simply failing without reason.

So, I just conclude this article with the advice that if something is not working properly, try swapping hardware with known good spares. It will save you a lot of grief.

Ravi.
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