Sunday, April 09, 2006

"But What's the Precise Technical Reason?"

As I've been told in a computer user group, it's a well-known issue that many computers built from around the year 1999 are now having their capacitors ballooning, blowing up and/or leaking.  I've always used the word "shocking" as a sarcastic joke, but this time I really am... shocked... to discover that the sudden death of one of my computers (a Dell Dimension-C - a model that was only sold in Japan) was due to such a mundane problem!  I had thought that capacitors lasted far longer than just a few years.

When I did an autopsy on the Dimension-C, I found nearly all the capacitors (other than the really tiny ones) with ballooned tops and a couple of them had leaked goo across the circuit board!  And then yesterday, I was given a custom-built computer that is working fine, but when I took a close look at the main circuit board, I discovered that all of its large capacitors (something like 14 of them) have ballooned tops.  So how long does that computer have to live?  There are very few specific model names listed, but so far we have Dell Dimension-C, Optiplex-GX270, and Optiplex-GX280.  I also had an Optiplex-GX-150 suddenly die on me, but the visible capacitors seem to be okay (something in the power supply then?).

Anyway, let's look into this via the net a bit, with links and some quotes from a few different sites:
"...... the bad capacitor problem has been plaguing computer motherboards since about 1999 to the present day.  It now being 2006, I am STILL seeing later model P4 and Athlon boards with this problem.
     Over the years, there have been massive quantities of name-brand, high quality motherboards failing prematurely due to these faulty electrolytic capacitors used in their manufacturing process.  This has doomed many popular and expensive brands of motherboards, including: Abit, Asus, MSI, Gigabyte, Supermicro, DFI, Dell, Hewlett Packard, IBM, and many more!"

Those first six names - Abit, Asus, MSI, Gigabyte, Supermicro, DFI - are they all manufacturers of component mother boards made for custom computers?  That might explain the reluctance of some people in user groups to name specific companies they're having trouble with.  In the case of the custom box I was given, I haven't yet discovered who made the mother board.  Probably it's written somewhere not visible until removed from the box.
Published: November 10, 2005
     "Last week, Dell announced it was going to take a $300 million financial charge on its earnings to cover costs associated with the replacement of motherboards with faulty capacitors in some of its Optiplex workstations. The Dell system boards in question were manufactured from April 2003 to March 2004, according to several contract computer repair firms that are starting to replace the systems.
     PCs from Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer and other PCs using Intel motherboards have all faced similar issues, according to the companies, contractors and several online bulletin boards."

Dell, HP, Apple "and other PCs using Intel motherboards", and Athlon (got one sitting beside me as I write this).  The manufacturers are doing a good job of hiding information on this.  It's not a "mystery of the universe" type of thing.  The capacitors came from somewhere and there is some scientific cause for their early demise!  But from reading the stuff on the Internet, you'd think we were talking about distant galaxies or something that could only be surmised with a loose theory and not pinned down to good science and investigative journalism... "some", "many", "and others"....

     "At issue are faulty capacitors on motherboards that store power and regulate voltage. Defective capacitors found in the Dell Optiplex workstations, some Apple iMac G5s, HP xw-series workstations made in 2004 and PCs with the Intel D865GBF motherboard have been found to bulge, pop, leak and crust over, causing video failure and periodic system shutdowns.
     Photos showing Dell's Optiplex GX270 and Optiplex GX280 with defective capacitors have been widely reported on Web sites such as, Pictures of other faulty capacitors have been spotted on Apple's own discussion boards,, and
     Only HP would identify the maker of its faulty capacitors: Nichicon, of Kyoto, Japan.
     Nichicon, which has been in the business of making capacitors for 50 years, has a strong track record, and the majority of Nichicon's products have no problems at all, HP representatives and enthusiast sites said."

And of course Nichicon is not supplying any information about WHY this is happening.  I - for one - would like to know.

     "The bad capacitors are found in some motherboards, video cards and power supplies for PCs, monitors, video tape players and televisions."

I had thought only in motherboards!  In monitors and power supplies as well?  This is becoming a bigger issue all the time it seems.

     "Experts say that if capacitors are not made right, they start to deteriorate after three or four years, rather than lasting the expected seven years."

Seven years?!?  I look over beside my computer and see my 1981 Sony TV - full of capacitors - that has never been serviced and is still working fine after 25 years on the job.  Seven years?  Okay, how about some detail here!  Maybe it's something along the lines of: "High performance capacitors with ultra thin insulating layers and in constant use are only expected to last around seven years and large batches of substandard capacitors are failing after only two or three years of use."  So, were the "experts" quoted in the article in fact experts, or just lawyers and/or PR types engaged in damage control with the media?  I suspect the later!

     "'Faulty capacitors were attached to Intel D865GBF motherboards, which are sold to computer manufacturers and in some electronic retail stores.'  Intel has acknowledged previous problems within the capacitor manufacturing industry and has an advisory posted on its site talking about electrolytic capacitor leaks on some 875-based and 865-based desktop motherboard products."

Okay, "previous problems within the capacitor manufacturing industry" - but what problems exactly and with precisely which manufacturers?  Why no details?

    "In August, Apple issued a limited recall of some of its first-generation iMac G5 models sold between approximately September 2004 and June 2005 featuring 17- and 20-inch displays with 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz G5 processors. The official cause was blamed on an unnamed 'specific component failure.'"

Fear of product liability lawsuits seems to rule the day.  A friend of mine had his iMac die on him....
Published: October 31, 2005
     "Blackburn said Dell receives its capacitors from a variety of vendors and declined to specify which supplier was responsible."

Why?  Why does the manufacturer get anonymity  The parts didn't come from the outer galaxy, they came from a factory right here on earth.  Why not own up to the problem and shed more light on what's going on?  Damage to the company's reputation?  Oh, right - mustn't harm the companies responsible, never mind the users, they can just buy new computers.

     "A picture posted by a Dell Forum member shows two black- and gold-colored bulging capacitors with "1500 hF 6.3 v" printed on the sides."

Sloppy!  The capacitors are black, with gold lettering saying "1500 uF 6.3V +105C" on one side, and large polarity markings on the other.  (I know, because I have the dead motherboard from my dead Dell Dimension-C sitting right by me now - I just had a good look.)

     "As for a possible industry-wide problem caused by the faulty capacitors, calls to various PC manufacturers were not immediately returned."

What people don't know can hurt them but not the manufacturer, so they're hiding everything.  About the only information that seems to have come out is via user groups.

     "A person familiar with the problem said Dell's capacitor issue is unlikely to be related to any specific Intel processor used in Optiplex systems, but did note that similar bulging issues from some Taiwanese suppliers have been observed."

Better than nothing... does anyone else out there have additional information?  It's not going to come from the manufacturers responsible, so it has to come from us.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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