Request for Technical Help

So, I feel a bit embarrassed about this, since I’m a computer guy in my day job and all. But my home machine is experiencing a very annoying problem that’s got me stumped, and I was hoping that the Internet, being the source of all human knowledge, can offer me some advice. I know I have some technically inclined readers who might be able to make suggestions.

I have a Dell Studio 540 desktop running Windows 7, and recently, it’s started randomly freezing. I don’t mean a blue screen of death. The screen freezes exactly as it is, the keyboard and mouse stop responding, and if music or video is playing at that instant, my speaker begins emitting the last half-second or so of sound in an endless loop. The only thing I can do is power-cycle it. The Windows 7 Reliability Monitor doesn’t have any log entries for the crashes afterward, so I’m assuming the freeze is so hard that even the operating system doesn’t have a chance to realize what’s happened.

There’s no pattern of any kind that I can discern in what causes this. It’s happened when I’m watching videos or surfing the web, but it’s also happened while I was asleep and the computer was idle. Sometimes it happens within a few minutes of booting up, sometimes it runs without a problem all day and then freezes.

I got this computer last year and used it for nine or ten months without any problems. This first started happening earlier this year. At the time I suspected a driver conflict, so I went into the Control Panel and found exactly one driver that was reporting a problem (the “Teredo Tunneling Pseudo-Interface”, which according to a cursory search is associated with IPv6). I disabled it, and the problem went away for several months, so I thought for sure I had solved it and spent some time feeling smug. Now, within the last few days, it’s started happening again, and that driver is still disabled.

The day after it started happening again, I did a system restore to the last restore point, about a week prior. That didn’t make a difference. I downloaded a system monitor utility, but I haven’t seen any spikes in CPU or hard driver temperature associated with the freezing. I’ve done a clean boot, disabling all non-Microsoft services, as described in this link, but that didn’t put a stop to it either. I’ve also considered that the computer may be infected with some sort of malware, but I use a firewall, I keep my patches up to date, I don’t see any unusual processes in the Task Manager or any other odd behavior besides the freezing, and just the other day, I ran full scans with four different malware detectors, including one designed to detect rootkits, and they all came up clean.

So, I’m pretty much out of ideas at this point. I have only one solid clue to go on, which is that I’ve never observed the freeze to happen when I’m running in safe mode. This makes me suspect that my first instinct was right and it really is a driver problem, but I don’t know how I can test that hypothesis. Anyone have any ideas? I have nothing to offer except my sincere gratitude and the knowledge that my blogging output is likely to improve if I don’t have to spend the time debugging this damn thing!

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Chet

    It is your IPv6 driver, it’s just that there are a bunch of them, plus a bunch of registry entries. I had this on a friend’s computer a few months ago and found a guide on the internet on how to completely eliminate the IPv6 stuff.

  • Bryan Elliott

    I used to have an Acer laptop that had a similar problem. Never solved it, but it happened in both Windows and Linux, so it was almost certainly hardware.

    Anyway, the quick fix was a “technical tap” – slamming the screen down to jog loose whatever had decided to short.

  • Bill Reid

    I believe Dells have a built in hardware diagnostic, which you should run. I forget the keypress required.

    If it’s not hardware, it sounds very suspicious of video drivers, which could have been changed in a Windows update.

  • Gary J. Bivin

    I’ve had exactly the same thing happen about 3 times in the last 2 days. I’m running Vista, and a day before this started, one of my 2 LCD screens quit working. I don’t know if there is any connection. I’ve run all of the antivirus checks that I have on it, with no results.

  • Dennis N

    Could be a memory issue, Dell usually has low quality memory sticks in their machines. Try booting Memtest (http://www.memtest86.com/) from a cd.

  • Andrew T.

    If I were personally in this situation and had a problem with a Windows 7 system, I’d probably reflexively react to it by wiping the machine and replacing it with Windows 2000/XP or a Linux distribution. Might not solve the specific problem at hand, but it would solve most of my other frustrations. ;)

  • http://www.chronos-tachyon.net/ Chronos

    Although a buggy driver is not out of the question, it sounds very much like a hardware problem. My experience tells me that bad RAM, a bad motherboard, or a peripheral card glitching out the PCI/PCI-E bus are the most likely culprits (in rapidly decreasing order). A computer repair place, or a friend with spare parts lying around, could try swapping things out.

    Now that I think about it… it’s a long shot compared to RAM but: dirty power. If transient power spikes or sags are occurring, they could (a) damage the power supply, and (b) additionally cause the computer to glitch if the voltage spike/sag is propagated to the motherboard. This would be very likely if you run into problems with the computer spontaneously powering off or refusing to power on, indicating a damaged power supply. In the absence of those symptoms, it’s pretty unlikely.

  • bob

    My money is on the power supply. It’s only a wimpy 350 watt unit. It’s quite likely that it is defective or went bad during a power spike.

  • NiamKrawt

    Technically it could still be a “blue screen” even if you don’t see the blue screen of death. This could occur, for example, if the video card causes the PC to blue screen, but the OS cannot update the video output to display the blue screen b/c the video card/driver is what failed. If it is a BSOD, you might see an entry in the Event Viewer (not sure if it would be under System event log or another one) when you reboot after a failure.
    Not saying this is definitely the issue, I have seen similar issues due to memory, that is a simple thing to check and should be checked first like Dennis recommended. However I would use the updated version found at http://www.memtest.org/ . Also, the Ultimate Boot CD available at http://www.ultimatebootcd.com/ seems to have other diagnostic capabilities as well.
    Not sure where you live, but I have had trouble this time of year due to temperature issues. FanSpeed is a decent temperature monitor, it is available at http://www.download.com .
    Not sure if it is an IPv6 problem, if the Device Manager shows the Teredo Tunneling Pseudo-Interface with a yellow or red icon then it is not really in use anyway, definitely not in use when it is disabled. This might point to a bad network/wifi card, you might try using wi-fi only and disabling the ethernet card in the Device Manager (or vice-versa) and see if the problem goes away. If not, see if the problem goes away if you disable your wi-fi and ethernet devices and don’t use the net for a while.
    Good luck, I know these issues can be a pain to track down.

  • http://no2religion.blogspot.com No 2 Religion

    Have you used procmon to see if it a process?

    Have you checked the display driver?

    Have you upgraded the BIOS?

    Have updated other firmware?

    Have you checked the Dell forums for similar issues?

    Have you reseated removable cards/mem?

  • Alex Weaver

    I’ve had problems like this on a couple of occasions, and in at least one case I believe it was in fact a hardware problem. Damned if I can remember what, though – this may have been what triggered the replacement of my motherboard and integrated video card. I’d check to ensure that the memory modules aren’t loose, personally, and if I had spares try swapping them out and seeing if that makes a difference.

  • http://spacemandan.net Dan

    I’m sure it’s failing hardware. I had *exactly* this problem, and it turned out to be the network card. I was wondering how it could crash when it was idle, but it wasn’t really–it was polling my mail server every few minutes, and that’s when it would crash. If the hardware is off or using a limited driver during Safe Mode, that symptom would be explained too. Try memtest first, but don’t be surprised if nothing turns up. The only way to troubleshoot almost any other hardware issue is to swap out parts one at a time until the problem goes away. If you don’t have any old peripheral cards laying around to swap in temporarily, you will need to borrow or buy some. (Your only other option is to get it repaired [shudder] “professionally”.)

    Since we’re all skeptics here, I’ll mention that I have been building and fixing my own computers since 1994.

  • Josh

    +1 its a power supply issue. Thats usually the first place i look when an aging system with a stable software environment freezes randomly.

  • http://planetatheism.com Pedro Timóteo

    As others said, it’s almost certainly hardware. RAM is the most likely offender (try running Memtest86+ (http://www.memtest.org/) for a while), but the CPU (or its fan) is also a possibility.

  • Bill P

    Sounds like a hardware problem to me too. The first thing to do is to reseat the RAM (unclip, pull out the board(s), and push them back in). This doesn’t take much time and shouldn’t lead to further drama. If this fails to fix your problem, then at least you can say, “Well, it’s probably not the RAM causing it!”

  • Valhar2000

    I’ve never had quite the same problem you describe, but I’ve had similar ones, and they were always down to the power supply.

  • jane hay

    Lavasoft/Adaware did it to me – I looked at the CPU use screen and it was using megs and megs for something – who knows what. I uninstalled it and the problem went away. When I reinstalled it to check for malware, the same thing started happening a day or two later. I keep it uninstalled unless I want to check for something.

  • Peter

    May I suggest a Mac?
    You’ll never go back!

  • Parge

    Just throwing this out there: have you checked to see if your cpu cooling fan is still running? Also, you might check the gpu cooling fan if you have a graphics card. Overheating will do that. I know you haven’t monitored any spikes in cpu temp, but it’s worth a look.

  • M.

    I used to assemble, fix, and sell computers for a living. I have seen random freezing such as you describe due to:

    - weird drivers/services that were installed in the background by some random piece of hardware/software
    - bad power supplies
    - faulty CPUs (no temperature spikes, probably just bad contact somewhere)
    - faulty RAM (by far the most frequent problem)
    - faulty motherboards

    If you have the option, I would, in this order:

    - do a clean reinstall. If that doesn’t fix it,
    - switch out the RAM. If that doesn’t fix it,
    - switch out the power supply.

    The above are doable as long as you have access to another similar machine. If none of these fixes the problem, it’s the CPU or the motherboard, but figuring that out will be more difficult.

  • Tim

    I agree w the other person who also mentioned power supply. After nearly a year, if the environment of the PC hasn’t changed (moving it around, opening it up, etc) the fans can become sluggish, power to the components can become unstable and cause lock ups, random reboots, etc.

  • NIklaus Pfirsig

    It sounds like hardware to me. My guess is a marginal memory module and power supply. Sometimes you can remove the memory stick, polish the contacts with a pencil eraser and it helps. This may also be done on any expansion cards too.
    Another problem may be caused by powerline interference. A common cause of this can be from you airconditioner. The blower and compressor motors have large capacitors which can go bad with age, causing massive transient voltage drops when either motor starts. Most modern computer power supplies can operate in a range or about 95 to 240 volts, and a faulty starting cap on an air conditioner can drop the line voltage below 95 volts for a fraction of a second when starting, and it can also cause a voltage spike when the motor shuts off.
    Generally speaking, anything with an AC electric motor in your house or apartment may be causing this.

  • Michus

    I had a similar issue that was extremely difficult for me to diagnose. Nothing I tried in software helped, Memtest and so on provided no explanation. In the end I simply reseated my graphics card and that corrected the problem.

    If you’ve had your computer for over a year and everything’s been working fine it could simply be the case that something’s gone a little loose inside and is causing issues. That or the memory is going fritzy or has come loose as well.

    It’s probably NOT anything to do with the PSU as you still have power – you’re just frozen.

    Before doing anything drastic like a reformat, do the easy and simple stuff.

    - Reseat all cards (Gfx, Ram, all PCI, etc)
    - Run MEMtest for several hours
    - if it crashes again, check to see if the hard-drive light is on the front of your computer. If the light stays on (HDD activity) while the computer is frozen then the HDD is your problem and it’s either failing or has some bad sectors (maybe even on the page file) that is causing you issue. Run CHKDSK and do what you think is appropriate.

  • http://peyre.byethost8.com/ Leon Baradat

    This is a bit of a shotgun/beginner’s suggestion, but have you tried running sfc /scannow?

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    The very first thing to do is determine whether this is a hardware or software failure. Pick up a bootable Linux/GNU LiveCD from some distribution if you don’t already have one. (I’d recommend using Ubuntu or Fedora if you have no prior experience with the various distributions.) Run it for about the same time as twice the average mean to crash that you’ve seen. It’s best to test twice, once with the system idle and another when it’s active in order to stress the hardware.

    If nothing happens, your problem is software. Typically with a sudden, hard-locked crash like that you have an issue in kernel space (either the OS kernel code itself or a kernel mode driver). The reductionist debugging approach is to start killing off drivers left and right. There’s no real guarantee you’ll be able to find the issue that way, since there are some essential drivers you can neither remove nor disable.

    Windows is closed source and proprietary, so directly debugging the issue is infeasible. Other than reducing and isolating the code, the only thing you can do is enable any additional logging and debugging options and then scour the output thoroughly for information. I don’t know what features the NT kernel actually provides for that, other than the basic crash log with memory dump.

    If the problem really never occurs in safe mode, no matter how long you run the system, then it’s certainly not a hardware issue. Keep investigating.

    However, if you discover that it is the hardware, the next step is to start removing and replacing optional system components in an attempt to figure out which is the cause. It’s very helpful to have spare parts lying around for times like these.

  • Raka

    From the description, I would first guess a problem with either the audio chip-set or its driver. So, check the manufacturer for updated driver. Before starting I would also suggest running scandisk. But, you’ll probably have to isolate the problem. If you do work IT, you’ll know that the time used by guessing at solutions can grow to near infinite without giving you useful information in the process.

    Don’t forget to backup your data. This could get messy.

    Your primary goal is to be able to reproduce the problem consistently. I would suggest opening up task manager a movie and about 6 to 10 web sites in a browser until all the ram is in use. let it run like this for one half hour. If that is reproducible within the time frame, then use the msconfig diagnostic start-up option to attempt to isolate the problem to a driver or systray application.
    If not well… If one can not reproduce the problem, then one must use harsher methods. Reimage. To determine if the problem is hardware or software, reimage the computer back to factory defaults, and don’t reinstall your programs or drivers until your sure the problem isn’t coming back. If it does, it’s time to call the manufacture and read your warranty.

  • TFM

    Could be a spiritual problem. Have you considered writing a letter to all 50 governors inviting them to spend a day praying with you that the problem will solve itself?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Have you considered writing a letter to all 50 governors inviting them to spend a day praying with you that the problem will solve itself?

    Hah!

    That aside, my sincere thanks to everyone for all the suggestions. It’s much appreciated – this has given me several useful new avenues to investigate. For all that this has the appearance of a hardware issue, I’m still skeptical of that hypothesis, if only because the freezing doesn’t ever seem to happen in safe mode.

    Since the only real lead I’ve had to go on is that disabling the one troubled IPv6 driver resolved the problem for several months, I’m going to start off with Chet’s suggestion to completely disable the rest of them. If that doesn’t fix it, I’ll look into Memtest and the other utilities mentioned here. I don’t have any spare parts lying around, and I’m reluctant to buy one just on the off-chance that it will help, but if none of those suggestions does the trick, then I’ll have to conclude that the safe-mode thing is a red herring and the hardware really is at fault.

  • MrPeach

    This happens to my computer regularly (like once or twice a year).
    My solution is to go down to the local hardware store and buy some “duster in a can”.
    Spray the crap out of the MB, video card and PS.
    After this I usually get several months of hang free computing.

  • http://www.derek-sanders.net Derek

    It seems slightly unlikely, but you might consider running a graphics monitoring utility that logs your GPU temperatures.

    I’m not sure what type of card you have in there, but what your describing sounds rather similar to a GPU crash. I say unlikely because it doesn’t sound like you’re doing anything intensive, especially when your screensaver is running.

  • Colin

    Maybe a Bios virus loading through ACPI, try a reflash perhaps but if this is what it is theyb are VERY persistent.

  • http://www.cranialherbs.com Cadius

    I have a Dell that recently went through similar problems. The video card in my case was going bad; it would lock up 3+ times a day. My only evidence was running SpeedFan and watching the video card temp ratings climb. Once I convinced Dell support of that, they sent me a new card, problem solved.

    Have you cleaned out your chassis? If you get enough dust in the case to block air flow, it’ll overheat. Though you say the temps aren’t spiking, it is a possibility.

    Also, try going to Dell’s support site and update your BIOS, any firmware updates, and all hardware drivers to the latest they have available. (While you’re at it, run a full Microsoft update, too…). Reinstall any drivers that aren’t updated, just in case the underlying files are corrupt or lost.

    Dell’s boot options flash by quickly, I believe its F11 to get to the diagnostic boot menu. It has a hardware test tool. Use it. It’ll test RAM, CPU, Video, etc. under heavy load. It’s not a quick check, but it is thorough. If it finds anything it will give a code that Dell support techs can use to bypass all the “have you tried this yet? Have you reinstalled Windows yet?” stuff.

    By Default Win 7 enables IPv6 and wants to use it as the default network driver. Since VERY few networks actually want or need IP6, it’s generally safe to disable.

    Reinstalling Windows should be your last resort, but it’s an option. Sometimes Win files get corrupted to the point that they cause failures.

    Running a Linux boot CD (there are quite a few liveCD/LiveDVD’s out there) and actually let it run for a day or two will also help isolate it between a Win/software issue and a hardware. If you get a so-called “ultimate boot disk,” you can also do a more thorough virus scan (since it won’t actually be USING any of the files you want to scan and won’t be subject to any deep-buried root kit issues), plus those can typically get to your Windows files in case you absolutely must open/edit your documents or images during this test cycle.

    Good luck.

  • Ric

    Sounds like a hardware problem to me, perhaps a bad hard drive.

  • Lagerbaer

    I had the exact same thing, and it was the CPU temperature. The heat-conducting paste between CPU and fan was not applied properly and I had to re-do it. That did the job.

  • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

    It might be overheating. Make sure your fans all work, run a hardware monitor to read the fan and temperature status, and get the SMART software to read the status of your hard drives. Some drives, especially Seagates, tend to generate a lot of heat, and if it’s not handled properly by your enclosure, could result in a hard drive overheat and shutdown.

  • Chet

    The people advising hardware solutions don’t seem to be reading the problem. He’s not getting spontaneous shutdowns, he’s getting hard lock ups. Almost always driver related (and Win 7 ipv6 drivers have a known issue.)

  • Robin

    Follow these steps:

    1. Format your hard disk
    2. Install Linux
    3. Pat yourself on the back, today you are a real man
  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Tentative update: Following Chet’s advice, I downloaded a Microsoft hotfix that’s supposed to completely disable the IPv6 stack. So far, I haven’t had any freezes since doing that.

  • Alex Weaver

    Follow these steps:
    Format your hard disk
    Install Linux
    Pat yourself on the back, today you are a real man

    Seems like good advice on the surface, but since I have to use Solidworks for my job, my situation is a bit too complex to allow that. Adam may have similar constraints. :P

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    That’s a big part of it, Alex. There’s a lot of commercial software which is not available for Linux (or any *nix, honestly). Much of it has very specialized functions which will probably not be reproduced as an open source solution any time soon because of the niche demand.

    I’ve heard a lot of people claim they use Windows just for games, even. It’s quite true that most commercial games are made exclusively for proprietary systems. That’s not sufficient to use Windows exclusively, of course. You can easily install multiple operating systems on the same machine once you have a little knowledge of partitioning (or virtualization).

    My opinion is that it’s actually mostly laziness and disinterest that prevents people from changing operating systems. They don’t want to re-learn processes that have been engrained from many years ago.

    Others don’t even believe it when you tell them not one but multiple free, general purpose computer platforms actually exist. Strange looks of bewilderment abound.

  • spookster

    Ebon, what was that software you downloaded that disables the IPv6 stack? I am having the same problem here. Thanks in advance.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    This page has the software I used.

  • spookster

    Thank you a lot!! The problem has been bugging me quite a while now, and I couldn’t find help anywhere! Thanks again.

  • GwenH

    Did you check Scheduled Tasks to see if anything is set to run once every hour? Could also be an indexing program. Or an evil spirit.

  • Brian Iverson

    When nothing makes sense – it’s your mother…board.


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