Why do motherboards die?

by Andy Turner
Coastal Computers & Design

In this, the third article in the ‘why do components die?’ series (Why has my power supply died? and Why do hard drives die? are the other ones), I’ll look at the most important (and usually most expensive) computer part in any system – the ‘brawn & brains’ of a PC if you like.

The motherboard is visible from the back of any modern computer – all the sockets where you plug the keyboard, mouse, monitor and speakers into are mounted on one edge of this large printed circuit board. It is where all the I/O (input/output) devices connect to which also includes the hard drive, DVD writer as well as the previously mentioned peripherals. It also has the socket for the brains – the processor – and the memory store – the RAM modules. Motherboards are incredibly complex pieces of kit and are – or should be – one of the most reliable components. After all, there are no moving parts (unless you count the cooling fan on the processor) and if it is well designed with quality components that don’t get too hot, expected lifespan should be well over 10 years – well, unless it becomes obsolete before then anyway!

However, a critical component which is used in great numbers (around 40-60 on most boards) is the humble capacitor. Used in almost every electronic device to smooth voltage fluctuations and remove interference, they too, should have a long service life. Unfortunately though, faulty capacitors were noticed as a problem with some motherboards around 1999, and the problem seemed to peak in the early to mid 2000’s. Interestingly, in some cases, the root cause of the failing capacitors was industrial espionage gone wrong. Several Taiwanese electrolyte manufacturers (the gell inside most capacitors) began using a stolen formula that was incomplete, and lacked essential ingredients (an anti-corrosion ingredient) needed to produce a stable capacitor.

faulty motherboard capacitorsWhat are the symptoms – apart from complete failure – of a motherboard with faulty capacitors? If your computer simply shuts off and starts to boot again, or you may be running along when all of sudden the screen freezes, no mouse movements, nothing. Also, 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. Another sure-fire symptom is after resetting the system (say after a freeze) the system will not re-post and you have to completely power down then power back up for it to start normally, ie: the reset button doesn’t restart it as normal. My advice is to get it checked as soon as you can or if you are comfortable opening the case (with the power off of course) see if any of the capacitors look like the ones on this photo of a failed motherboard I came across recently. These ones have the familiar ‘rusty ooze’ leaking out the top – but another symptom is a noticeable bulge on the top (the metal tops should be flat) or some that are leaning at an odd angle because they have bulged at the bottom.

Unfortunately, unless your system is fairly recent (and may be under warranty anyway) replacing just the board isn’t often an option as the model or type you have probably is no longer available. Advancing technology means that newer processors and RAM types require different motherboards, so in many cases the minimum required to get your computer moving again would be new motherboard, RAM and possibly video card. I also always recommend replacing the power supply at the same time as you never know for sure that this important component hasn’t preempted the failure.

This article at Wikipedia has more photos of failed caps and a wealth of information.

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