Dell notebooks suffer from widespread memory problem

In a letter to customers, the computer maker says some of its Latitude and Inspiron notebooks shipped last year could contain defective memory chips.

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Between 200,000 and 400,000 Dell notebook computers sold last year contain defective memory, a problem the PC maker has acknowledged and is moving to fix.

Dell representatives stated today that the Round Rock, Texas-based PC manufacturer purchased 400,000 potentially defective memory chips, which can cause data corruption and loss in certain circumstances. These chips were incorporated into Latitude and Inspiron notebooks shipped between Feb. 1 and Nov. 30 last year, Dell said.

The defective memory chips affect between 200,000 and 400,000 notebooks, a Dell spokesman estimated. Dell shipped 1,269,530 Latitude and Inspiron portables last year, with the largest volume in December.

In a letter to its customers, Dell this week warned that affected models include the Latitude CPiA, CPiR, CPt, CPx and CS, and Inspiron models 3500, 3700, 7000 and 7500.

To rectify the situation, Dell will change the memory in systems affected by the problem, the spokesman said.

The problem is most likely to occur "when returning from memory self-refresh mode and/or when resuming from suspend mode, potentially resulting in data loss and/or corruption," the letter warned.

To determine if a notebook contains the flawed memory, Dell is providing customers with a diagnostic utility diskette for checking whether memory is defective. The utility is also available as a free download from Dell's support Web site.

Because the PC maker custom-builds systems and ships them directly to customers, finding potentially affected notebooks is not a problem.

"We know where the customers are, and we are contacting them and providing (utility disks)," a spokesman said.

The customer letter spells out some of the signs defective memory is present: "Because of the issue with these modules, affected notebooks may display various irregularities, including blue screens, system hangs, and other potentially less noticeable symptoms."

Not all notebooks with defective memory will show signs of problems, the spokesman said. That depends on the notebook's BIOS, which could be set in such a way that no problems visibly occur.

Dell customers have a number of short-term options available to them, including downloading a BIOS upgrade--which degrades battery performance--and refraining from using suspend mode. But both options could be hard on frequent travelers who need to squeeze every bit of juice out of their batteries.

The PC maker encourages all customers who diagnose defective memory to get it replaced. Dell will ship new memory directly to corporate customers and consumers who request it. Dell will also send representatives to customers' homes.