how old computers die

Plenty of older computers die not because of overheating, or power surges, or your nephew fiddling with them, but because of faulty capacitors.

Wikipedia dubs the phenomenon the “capacitor plague“; at work, we just point into an open PC and say “blown caps“.

Here’s a video card I pulled from a machine at work today. It’s not hugely obvious – I actually missed it myself at first glance – but zoom in and you’ll see the two leftmost caps are actually bulging at the top.

This, frequently, isn’t completely fatal to a bit of computer hardware; I see plenty of computers that seem to work just fine with several leaky capacitors, and obviously this doesn’t just happen overnight.

Here’s the back view of the same video card:

Note the green discolouration. That’s heat damage, from a very unhappy transistor.

This was not the only problem with that particular computer. It also had faulty RAM, which combined with the video card, made it very annoying to troubleshoot.

(The heatsink had also fallen off the northbridge chip. I don’t think that actually caused any damage, but if that’s not bad juju, I don’t know what is.)

All electrolytic capacitors will eventually wear out this way, but the story surrounding the current plage involves industrial espionage and theft of formulae for new, untested capacitors. The competition put them into production early, sold them to millions of people, and a few years later tons of computers and DVD players and such just started dying.

Soltek motherboards were notorious for these early-death-prone caps; rumour has it they actually went under because of the losses they took honouring warranty for all those dead boards.

Nowadays, hardware manufacturers offer “solid caps” as a premium feature. They cost a bit more, but are supposed to last longer than normal caps; it’s a peace of mind thing.

I personally don’t see the point, because I reckon if you care enough about your hardware to know about bad capacitors you’re already going to spend the money on quality stuff in the first place. You’re also likely to upgrade your whole PC before the age of any of the components grows into failure territory, so you’re probably not the one who’s going to have to deal with it anyway.

I guess solid caps look nicer, though, and on that basis I’d spend the extra $20 if given the option. I’m that kind of geek.

It’s worth knowing about, though. The computer at work beeped like it couldn’t detect a video card at all, it’d failed that completely. A motherboard with bad caps may not be completely healthy or completely dead; it’ll be wandering some thin line in between. You don’t want something like that responsible for your family photos or your essays, now do you?

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