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Motherboards put PCs at risk

A component maker charges that low-quality motherboards are causing system crashes and data loss for PCs.

Personal computers may be at risk for system crashes and data loss because of low-cost motherboards from small firms that aren't following all the manufacturing rules, according to a company that makes parts for the boards.

The motherboard is the main circuit board in a PC and contains all the computer's core electronics.

While some large PC manufacturers make their own motherboards and many others buy them from Intel, a wealth of smaller firms supply the boards to computer makers.

But a component firm charges that some of these manufacturers are not altogether scrupulous in their design techniques. As a result, PCs built around their boards may be suffering unexplained system crashes.

Linear Technology, a Milpitas, California-based manufacturer of circuits for motherboards, contends that "personal computers with low-cost motherboards are suddenly failing, losing data, and becoming completely inoperable because the manufacturers of the motherboards are using substandard parts in the power supply," said Robert Dobkin, vice president of engineering for Linear Technology in a written statement.

The root of the problem is capacitors--or the power supply for the main processor itself--that don't meet Intel's specifications for its chips, according to Linear. Capacitors store an electrical charge that processors use as a power supply. Linear says too many companies are using low-quality capacitors or not enough of them.

"The cause of failure is difficult for users to pin down and is often wrongly attributed to software problems. The actual cause is poor performance of substandard parts in the computers' power supply section," Dobkin added.

Some analysts aren't so sure that the problem is as dire as Linear makes it out to be. "I really don't know if it's a serious problem. It could be trumped up a bit," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Dataquest.

But even Brookwood agrees that, as processors get faster, they will draw even more power and the occurrence of these problems may increase. "Higher [processor] speeds makes it harder to regulate power changes. Older processors five years ago didn't pull as much power. There wasn't as much fluctuation," Dobkin said in an interview.

The problem may also arise when systems are upgraded with faster processors. "The upgrade processor is drawing more power, faster power transitions, so the board may become inadequate to handle that, especially after aging a year or two," Dobkin explained.

Not everyone agrees that the problem is already widespread or that it applies across the board with today's processors. Other component makers do say, however, that this is a potential problem for powerful next-generation processors such as the Pentium II.

"Our motherboards passed the test. The problem is that processors like [the Pentium II] heavily tax the power supply [and the capacitors]. You need to make sure all the parts work well," according to Larry Barber, president of motherboard manufacturer Tyan Computer.

To test motherboards, Linear said it used a device made by Intel that lets the company measure the power supply and the quality of the capacitors. "Our measurements shows that power supplies are worse than spec or just barely meeting it," he said, referring to tests on several motherboard models.

Intel, one of the largest motherboard manufacturers in the world, says it requires high-quality "tantalum" capacitors. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

But not all companies maintain the same standards. Dobkin says some are using an inexpensive, low-quality capicator with a limited lifespan: the "aluminum electrolytic."