PC intensive care

I am currently in the middle of a string of problems quite annoying on one of my home PCs. Apparently randomly, and more and more often, it stops, locks down or reboots without warning. If I don’t use the PC, it may take a long time; But when I am trying to work (with OpenOffice, Opera, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Photoshop, Corel Draw! or any other useful software application) it will take anything between a few minutes and half an hour. Rather annoying. More than merely annoying…

Very first tests

After a few initial checks because I noticed that the first symptoms seemed to appear near the recent upgrades to Opera v9.10 and to a newer Flash plug-in, I now think that it may come from ageing hardware and some related failure. But this leads to very difficult sleuthing.

First things, first: check the RAM memory. I started by stopping the computer, removing the memory boards, then setting them again into their slots (in case of bad contacts or small corrosion issues). Nothing very conclusive since it did not change anything. But I wanted to dig deeper there and, for this, I needed a more conclusive tool.

Tests with UBCD

I remembered the existence of a PC memory test utility tool, named Memtest-86. Not difficult to find on the Internet. Nevertheless, I found even better: A Live-CD containing this utility and dozens of others, UBCD or Ultimate Boot CD. Advantage: No big effort need; I boot on the CD, all the tools are immediately available from a DOS menu. Ten seconds, two key presses and Memtest-86 confirms that there is nothing obviously at fault with my RAM memory.

UBCD has the enormous advantage of including only free software tools, easy to start without any installation. Many of them run from a mini GNU/Linux install; The others use their own pseudo-MS-DOS.

The main categories of software tools foudn there are:

  • Mother board tools (This also takes into account memory and CPU; Here is where you will find Memtest-86 and Memtest-86+).
  • Hard disk tools.
  • File system tools.
  • Other tools (including anti-virus).
  • Some boot disquettes (e.g. FreeDOS, OpenDOS, Netware Boot Disk, BasicLinux or Trinux).

In the spotlight:

Tests

There are quite many checks available. Some are long to run (some are very long). My own tests and trials went through:

  • Memtest-86 during a few minutes: No problem detected on the 1-GB RAM
  • DocMem RAM diagnostic V1.45a: Immediate lock down in the first test loop
  • CPU Burn-in v1.00: 200,000 loops without any problem (very short test)
  • Memtest-86+ v1.65: One full test pass (about 30 minutes)
  • Lucifer burn-in v1.0
  • CPU Burn-in v1.00: 5,000,000+ loops without any problem (about 30 minutes)
  • Testmem4: 2 hours without glitch

With or without the solution to my PC configuration problem, the Ultimate Boot CD is clearly a critical tool to keep on a CD-ROM ready for emergencies. It is a the kind of jack-of-all-trades tool box. If your approach to PC maintenance and repair does not stop to Windows re-install from scratch and new PC purchase, you must have Ultimate Boot CD wainting on a shelf. A kind of cross-breeding between life insurance and ER team…