Does your motherboard have bad capacitors? Find out inside...


May 14, 2004 (Updated Sep 2, 2004)


The Bottom Line Low-quality capacitors are a big problem right now, worth checking out!

Problem Capacitors

While this is not strictly a review of motherboard specifications in the classical sense, (explaining AGP, FSB, PCI, PCI Express and other various sundry computer terms) the review does focus on one prevailing problem with several motherboards currently in use. I will explain the capacitor and what it is supposed to do, as well as how it is supposed to do it. This will lead directly into what the problem is with several computer boards on the market today, and what to watch for and then look for to determine if this is causing an issue for you!

Have you noticed this?

Let’s say you are on your trusty computer which has a fairly clean OS, not too many major programs and an internet application or two. You are chugging along, internet surfing and listening to music at the same time through the media player when all of a sudden your computer simply shuts off and starts to boot again. If this does not occur, you may be running along when all of sudden the screen freezes, no mouse movements, nothing. Finally, if during your normal boot screen you hear a lot of beeps from the system computer that you have never heard before AND you have not added any new hardware or software, this can indicate problems with the capacitors. If this has been happening infrequently in the past and is becoming more and more frequent, your board may be dying…

Oftentimes this will happen most frequently during a graphics intensive application, such as a game or video editing session. This has caused many people to target their graphics card, which may or may not be the correct diagnosis.

On the other hand, if you were to get a BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death) with a message such as IRQ not equal to or less than, or something pointing to a *.dll file, more than likely you have an OS issue or hardware issue other than the capacitors on the motherboard. That is more than likely not something that this review will help with…

What you should take away from this is that if the computer shuts down for no apparent reason, beeps during boot for no apparent reason, or freezes for no apparent reason you may want to check your capacitors. This is not the only problem that can cause these errors, but it is becoming more and more prevalent, and worth a look…

What is a capacitor?

You can skip this portion of the review if you really don’t care for the background. Scroll down the What To Look For section...(sorry, can't get the anchors to work to allow you to click through)

A capacitor is a small electrical component on your motherboard that can perform various functions. First of all, capacitors condition DC voltage to the components and thus provide a steady power supply. Electrical components are very sensitive to voltage swings, and as such a power spike can kill those expensive parts. We don’t want that now, do we? Therefore a capacitor is placed inline to the component, allowing for absorbing of spikes and supplementing valleys, keeping a constant power supply to the component.

Second, a capacitor can store an electronic charge to be discharged at a later date. Think of a camera flash for example. A typical battery cannot release large amounts of electrons at any given point in time, and therefore a capacitor is installed into the camera to build up a charge, which is then released all at once for the flash. Remember when you couldn’t take a picture for a few seconds when using a flash? The capacitor needs time to build it’s charge from the battery, and therefore it is not ready to discharge yet.

The most common use of capacitors on motherboards is for conditioning power to the components, and I speculate that if the capacitor is bad, it will not condition the power. If you put a suck on the power, such as engaging in graphics intensive applications, the capacitor is drained of its reduced capacity and the component loses power, thus shutting down the PC or freezing the screen.

A capacitor in a computer looks like a small battery standing off of the motherboard. The capacitor is actually two metal sheets with a dielectric between to block current flow and keep the capacitor charged. There is also electrolyte liquid inside the capacitor, and this is being pointed to as the major problem. The metal, dielectric and electrolyte are encased in a cylindrical case and sealed on both ends to hold the electrolyte in.

Capacitor life will vary on the quality of products used in the manufacturing as well as the heat of the system. Given a good material and low temperature, capacitors can be expected to last up to 32,000 hours of service. With some of the poor quality electrolyte, life expectancy has been reported to be as low as 200 hours! Not too great for an expensive component in your PC. Add some heat to this and it will go even quicker…

Capacitor electrolyte is important in the transfer of electrons, and therefore the utility of the capacitor. Electrolyte will dry out over time naturally, although sealing the system does help this somewhat. Excess heat on the system will accelerate drying out of the electrolyte and thus conversion of the liquid to a gas. As most people are aware, gaseous materials take up much, much more space than liquid. For instance:

1 cubic foot of water (or any other liquid, for that matter), in liquid form, contains 7.48 gallons of that material.

If you heat up the water to the point that it turns into steam (212 degree F, saturated), 1 lb of water now occupies 27 cu. ft. of volume!

That means that your original 1 cubic foot of water now occupies:

7.48 Gallons * 8.34 lb/gallon *27 cu. ft./lb = 1,684 cu. ft.

Why is this important? It explains the failure mode for the capacitors. Granted, each capacitor holds a very small amount of electrolyte, but as you can see when the electrolyte evaporates in the sealed system, the volume expands drastically, causing a failure(bulge or pop).

The favorite theory running around the internet is that one company stole the recipe for the electrolyte, which was then used to mass produce electrolyte for capacitors sold to many manufacturers’ of motherboards. The 'thief' got the recipe wrong, resulting in premature conversion of the liquid to a gas, and thus a failure.

Almost all of the failed capacitors have been traced to Taiwan, and Taiwan produces in excess of 20 billion capacitors annually, and the problem has been linked to boards produced all the way back in 1998! That means the potential exposure is high, although the actual incident rate is still fairly low. It has been noted in boards manufactured in 2001, although the problem may have existed well beyond that. The capacitors need to be brought into circulation and then run for a while before failing, so no one knows how many more may fail.

What boards have been identified as potentially ‘problem boards?

The following companies have been linked to the problems in my research of the internet:

Abit
ECS
Gateway
Gigabyte
HP
Intel
MSI
Shuttle
VIA


There may be more, and probably are. This is just what I have found in forums devoted to computer troubleshooting/optimizing. I am surprised that a Dell has not been mentioned, as Dell would be one that would probably mass-purchase several boards, similar to a Gateway. Please note, this does not meant that if you have a Dell you are not going to have capacitor failure; it simply means that I have not noticed any person posting with a capacitor problem related to a Dell!


What to look for

Now that you understand some of the problems that the faulty capacitors may cause, you may be wondering if there is anything you can do to verify that your board has a problem. There is!

If you are not afraid to open your computer box, go ahead and open it up. You will take the left side panel off if the computer is facing you. Once you have the panel off, you will notice directly across from you, connected to the other panel, a large circuit board with several attachments. This is your motherboard. Look on the motherboard for the capacitors, which look like miniature batteries, or pop cans. They may be of varying heights and diameters, but in general are 1 inch in height and 1/4” to ” in diameter. Do any of these capacitors have visible leakage? If this has occurred, it will look similar to what a leaky battery looks like, with rusty corrosion along the body of the capacitor. You will also notice a browning of the board and capacitor, and it may look like a liquid has run down the motherboard.

Another sure-fire way to tell is if the capacitor has bulged. In general the capacitors will fail at either the top or bottom seal. If the top seal has bulged, it is pretty self-explanatory what you would see. Imagine a pop can left in the freezer. If the bottom seal has bulged, the capacitor will no longer be sitting flush with the board and will be pushed away and cocked at an angle. Finally, the weak point may be in the side, resulting in a bulge out the side of the capacitor. I have not seen this type of failure myself, but I have read that it is possible. Basically, if the capacitor does not resemble a pop can, it has probably failed and bulged.

If you are having issues and with your PC and you do not see any of the above, you are in luck, sort of. Your capacitors have not failed! However, this probably means that you have bigger problems, either with the OS or hardware compatibility.

What can I do if the capacitors are bad?

You have three choices, assuming that your system is out of warranty:

1. Find and solder on a replacement capacitor. I would not recommend this, as someone who does not know what they are doing or have the proper tools will probably create more problems than they cure trying this approach.

2. Send the board in for capacitor replacement. If you have a pre-built system, this may be the way to go, particularly if your system is still under warranty. Tell the customer service rep right away you have bulged capacitors and you will forego a lot of troubleshooting by you and the tech. They know this is a problem and will send a replacement and a tech to changeout the board. If you bought the board and do not want to RMA it, you can also send this into several specialty service folks easily found on the web to have them replace the capacitors. I have not done this myself, so I don’t know how fast the turnaround time is, but it is also an option…

3. Replace the motherboard. If this was your own purchase and you have the original box, ask the manufacturer for an Return Merchandise Authorization form. Send in the old board, and they will more than likely send out a replacement, and all you have to pay is shipping. Most do not do cross-shipment, so you will be without a PC for a while! Maybe you should take this opportunity to upgrade to a newer chipset, anyway!

My experiences

I build computers for a hobby and fix computers for friends and family. In my extended friends and family, I have had three boards with failed capacitors in the past 6 months. One was a Gigabyte board with bulged tops, one was a Gateway with bulged bottoms, and finally one was an Abit with leaky traces down the motherboard. This is a fairly small sampling, and indicative of a larger problem. The Gateway was replaced under warranty, while the other two were RMA’d and replaced with upgrades.

Conclusion

If you are having troubles such as those listed above, check the capacitors. There is really nothing you can do if you have the bulged capacitors other than change out the board, but at least you won’t erase all of your data and reload a clean copy of Windows only to find out that your problem was not with the OS.

If you have a board produced since 1998 by one of the listed manufacturers, do not fret. It is not guaranteed that you will have a problem, and you should not change the board for the possibility of having an issue later on. After reading this you will at least know what to look for if the problem does arise, though.

I hope that this reaches at least one person and helps them prior to dumping their whole OS!

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