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A plague of bad capacitors


Almost every piece of electronic equipment contains capacitors. Normally, they work without fault, unseen to the outside world. When they give out though, all sorts of interesting and bizarre failures can come about.

Our school has had 7 computers this year become faulty due to bad capacitors on their motherboards. It is an insidious problem, as the computer will be working fine the one day, and will be faulty the next. Out of nowhere, computers were blue screening or refusing to go past a certain point in the boot sequence. Before we knew what to look for, we ended up checking and reseating the ram, the graphics card and so on, all normal diagnostic processes. The problem so far has been pretty much exclusive to a series of MSI motherboards that were among the earliest to support the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU. Fingers crossed, other makes and models won’t be affected.

When we failed to diagnose the problem, we gave the first computer to our external hardware support person, and he informed us it was the caps that had gone on the board. He showed us what to look for, so that we know in case it happened again. Some of the stricken computers only had 3-4 bad caps, but some had 10-12. Luckily he knows how to replace the caps; all he does is solder on new ones. It’s quick and cheap, and you don’t have to replace the computer.

A few years ago, I read about a situation in the computer industry where manufactures had resorted to using the cheapest possible caps on their entry level motherboards to save some cash. The thing with these cheap caps though is that they don’t die straight away. They work fine for a few years before they die. From what I read on Wikipedia, they can’t be checked at the factory to determine if they are good or bad caps.

Since then, manufacturers have used better quality caps, with some using solid state caps. We are due to upgrade our lab at the end of this year, so I hope that the existing old computers can last a few more years without dying.

Wikipedia link on bad capacitors: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capacitor_plague

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