November 10, 2005 4:00 AM PST

PCs plagued by bad capacitors

Capacitors are an inexpensive little component on a PC motherboard, but they can be a costly headache for manufacturers when a whole bunch of them go bad.

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.

The Round Rock, Texas, computer maker is expected to provide more details during its quarterly earnings call on Thursday.

News.context

What's new:
When capacitors go bad, computers get crippled. Faulty capacitors have caused video failure and periodic system shutdowns in some Dell PCs, first-generation Apple iMac G5s and other computers.

Bottom line:
Think you might have a cap problem? Look for swelling on the tops and along the base of the capacitors. If there is a brownish substance oozing from the bases, check your warranty and contact your computer company.

More stories on hardware problems

As Dell executives deal with the fallout from the bad capacitors, they can at least take some comfort in knowing they are hardly the only big PC makers to have dealt with the problem. In fact, 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.

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 Badcaps.net, PowerEdgeForums.com. Pictures of other faulty capacitors have been spotted on Apple's own discussion boards, MacOSG.com, and G5Support.com.

Dell declined to identify any of its component suppliers but did say that despite periodic system shutdowns, data loss was not a factor in the workstation PCs with the faulty capacitors. Representatives with Apple and Intel also declined to comment on parts inside their systems.

Only HP would identify the maker of its faulty capacitors: Nichicon, of Kyoto, Japan.

Bad capacitors

A spokesman at Nichicon's North American offices in Schaumburg, Ill., declined to comment. Repeated phone and e-mail requests for comment from the main office in Kyoto were not returned.

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.

This is hardly the first time a bad capacitor problem has popped up. Three years ago, in what appears to an entirely different situation, an industry-wide problem was reported by Passive Component magazine. The publication unearthed a problem with capacitors made by several Taiwanese manufacturing companies.

The bad capacitors--or "bad caps" as they are sometimes called--are black and gold-colored low-ESR (equivalent series resistance) aluminum electrolytic cylinders about an inch in length and marked HN(M) and HM(M) on the side with a letter "X" stamped on the top. The capacitors are found in some motherboards, video cards and power supplies for PCs, monitors, video tape players and televisions.

Related story
When good caps go bad
Are your PC capacitors bulging?
Here's how to diagnose the problem.

Various postings on message boards claim the trouble was caused by capacitors that were overfilled with a liquid electrolyte that helps the component protect the processor from excess power; convert energy from 5 volts to around 1.5 volts; and deal with current surges. The PC makers have not confirmed that that was the problem.

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. Underpowered power sources, excessive heat from the computer or outside temperatures, and putting extra strain or overclocking the processor are other causes for premature capacitor failure. Dell does not have a long history of PCs with capacitor problems.

How widespread is the problem?
Matthew Wilkins, a senior analyst with iSuppli, said it is hard to estimate what companies may spend on the problem, but there are clues.

"When the size of the financial implications potentially causes a major vendor to miss their quarterly guidance target (like Dell), a comment needs to be made," Wilkins said.

Blandon Ray, who used to work as a network engineer and administrator at a major university health care organization in Washington, D.C., began experiencing a rash of system board failures in Dell Optiplex GX270s around February 2005 that required service techs from Dell to swap out the system boards.

"After awhile we started to notice that all of the systems were from the same group, purchased around the same time," he said.

CONTINUED: Correct diagnosis is key…
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9 comments

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A major issue here, is that millions of used PCs are donated to Non Profit organizations, such as GiftfromGodComputerFoundation.org, inOviedo Florida, for FREE recycling with Linux, to students from pre-k through college, About a third of the donations now received are diverted to the waste bin as un-usable.

Without warranty, non-profit organizations have great difficulty finding suitable components and skilled volunteers to repair these Intel, MSI, ASUS, and other maker's boards.

Visits to the Technical Support sites, and phone calls placed to their Support numbers are always answered with the comment that can best be summed up as "screw off, you have no warranty"!

As a computer engineer, I find this to be an un-ethical situation, which does affect the retail sales of those products, because word of mouth is the pre-eminent form of advertising, and "XXXXX-sucks" can affect both the bottom line, and the stock value, of major publicly traded corporations like Intel, Dell, Apple, MSI, ASUS, and others.

I am looking at about 1000 un-used computer donations this year, at GiftFromGodComputerFoundation,Inc., due do the failure of capacitors, and the ruin of motherboards, processors, memory, and Power Supplies.

Mouser, Digikey, and other sources seem to be "OUT OF STOCK" for replacement caps, even if we had the money to purchase them. The entire computer industry has earned a black eye.
Posted by Linuxiac38 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
@Linuxiac38: Seriously, *** do you want for FREE? And you're a computer engineer who can't even replace a capacitor? What good is your degree then, something to wipe your arse with when you run out of toilet paper?

I received a Dimension (SFF) C4700 for free, and it still ran but I discovered that it had 5 blown capacitors. I can't believe anyone would go and b-tch at or about the person who gave me this computer for free, when it's faster than anything I already had.

I did what I usually do...went online, bought some new ones for less than $3, and replaced them. Now I've got a pretty decent computer for next to nothing (especially when compared to the Windows 7-based crap you can buy new these days).

While upgrading the memory on a friend's Optiplex (SFF) GX280, I discovered the same thing. She barely has a pot to **** in and was already complaining that she had to spend a few dollars on new caps (that I'd be replacing anyway) and that she'd rather buy a new computer. So I told her she's welcome to sell me this one for cheap, then go waste her money on a new POS with slow-@ss Windows 7. Oh, but maybe it will crash less or be less susceptible to malware, right? I mean, isn't that why all the manufacturers are pushing Windows 7 like it's crack in the ghetto, because it's so awesome and has no security issues?

@atran6: I agree that a lot of these potentially defective units will be found on eBay. The sellers usually deal with hundreds of units per week, and say that the unit is not tested or guaranteed, and that returns will not be accepted. Be careful when dealing with these people, especially if you don't have the ability to repair them if necessary.
Posted by safef-cking (1 comment )
Link Flag
Well, seems like I found out about this problem just today when my Optiplex gx270 from Ebay just arrived and I turned on and no video, and the power light is amber and blinking. Any suggestions?
Posted by PDBTech (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Try www.thecapking.com for the replacement capacitors and color coded guides of the affected motherboards. badcaps.net also sells the kits but they are overpriced.
Posted by TheCapKing (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I purchased from CapKing. Fantastic service, best price, and free shipping. The users at the other site provide helpful tips but when you are ready buy the caps from CapKing. You will not be disappointed!
Posted by yobwan (1 comment )
Link Flag
Recently, thousands of used Dell PCs are sold on eBay from all over the country (USA). Most of them are Optiplex PCs, and amongst them, most are GX270. Most of the PCs are degraded or missing RAMs and Hard Drives. The price is about a hundred and fifty dollars each, and the price is declining for there are more used Dell PCs coming.
Used components from Dell PCs are also increasingly sold on eBay. This is a dishonest practice, and wee need to think about that.
Posted by atran6 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
While the OS debate provides the most provocative portion of the program, the rest will provide a great deal of substance - and, who knows, perhaps a few surprises as well.
http://www.dellgx270.com
Posted by seharelectro (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I'm so thankful to the person who blogged on Dell's website a few years ago about faulty capacitors in dell optiplexes. As a school tech assistant, I was replacing MBs constantly. The costs for replacements was mounting, so after reading the blog I felt I had nothing to lose by trying to repair the MBs myself. Now, 2-3 years later, I have successfully repaired over 150 dell's and have kept them in service. I'm amazed at how one person's blog saved our corporation so much money. Thank you, whoever you are!
Posted by karenrhoads (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Was there not a batch of bad caps from mainland China a while back?
Posted by Jacksparrowaye (118 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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