PCs plagued by bad capacitors

Some Dell, Apple and HP computers with faulty motherboards are at risk for video failure and periodic system shutdowns. Photos: Defective 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.

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.

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