The Joys of PC Ownership

It started with Guild Wars 2: Random crashes, seemingly unconnected. Then it spread to other games. After a few hours with Black Mesa, a crash to the desktop. Occasionally, the dreaded BSOD (Blue Screen of Death).

No amount of driver updates fixed the issue. On the GW 2 tech forums the problem seemed widespread. When an Arena Net employee would bother to respond to one of the many threads about the same issue, they always just said, "Check your RAM."

Yeah, right. In 20 years of fixing and building computers, not once had I ever had a problem with RAM.

So what could it be?

Yeah, it was the RAM. But the journey to get there was one of the worst PC experiences I've had in recent memory (get it, "memory").

I want to say up front, I don't blame Cyberpower. They're an assembler, and as such are required to use other companies' products. I don't even blame memory supplier Corsair, since - after all - there's bound to be an issue that crops up once in a while. Even though Cyberpower tested my PC before shipping it, the problem stick was so high up in the order (gigabytes 8-12 out of 16), the problem only manifested itself with highly RAM-intensive processes, like games.

And that's what was driving me crazy. All the problems looked like video card issues, or at the very least, video card driver issues. After all, I only ran into issues while playing games, and those problem cropped up more frequently with graphic-intensive games like Guild Wars 2. Why it didn't happen as often with Battlefield 3, I can't say. That should have been a clue, perhaps.

This is the insidious nature of RAM issues. They're sporadic. Normal PC functions like internet browsing, photo editing, word processing, etc, don't use that much RAM. It's pretty logical to assume that if you're playing a game and the computer crashes, the fault is either A) with that game, or B) with your video card.

Or, admittedly, PEBKAC.

Worse, the type of crash was random. Sometimes the game would crash, which would imply the code itself was at fault. Sometimes the computer would lock up, implying an infinite number of things. Sometimes I'd get the dreaded Blue Screen of Death, implying the computer was FUBAR.

At last - and feeling like a total failure - I emailed Cyberpower.

Cyberpower Customer Service

Their tech support team emailed me back the next day with a list of things to try. I'd acted on most of their recommendations already, but their mentioning that it might be a RAM issue made me cave. Fine, I thought. I'll test the damn RAM.

Yep, my bad. Should have started with that one.

I called them back after I'd tested the issue, and a real person picked up immediately. They asked me to "stress test" the system without the affected stick of RAM, and if there was no problem, they'd replace the broken stick. A few days later, with that done and the PC fine (minus the affected stick), I called them back. They gave me an RMA number, and upon receipt of the RAM they're sending me a replacement stick.

So let's see, they got back to me right away, they helped me diagnose the problem, and they're fixing it. Customer for life, right here.

Memtest86+

If you've been getting random crashes, other weird behavior, or if you just got a new PC and want to check if the RAM is kosher, download Memtest86.

On a PC expert scale of 1-10 (where 1 is installing new drivers and 10 is replacing your motherboard), I'd place Memtest86 around a 5. You need to download the program and either burn it to a CD, or (as I did), install it on a USB thumb drive. You'll need to figure out how to get your computer to boot from this new CD or thumb drive. As your computer starts up, some will check to see if there's something in the CD/USB that they should load before Windows, but others don't. In the latter case, you may need to get into your bios and tell it to boot to the CD or USB. With my bios, I needed to press F12 to bring up a boot order screen, then select USB.

Memtest runs automatically once the computer loads it. It looks like a DOS program, and does an escalating series of tests on all your RAM. A full sweep depends on how much RAM you have, but it might take upwards of an hour. Let it run, though, as the early, basic tests didn't reveal any issues with my RAM, but the more difficult tests showed all sorts of issues.

And if there are issues, Memtest doesn't make it easy to figure out which stick is bad. If you're watching the software run (and it is mildly hypnotic, like watching a hard drive defrag program), you can see what stick it's testing when the errors pop.

To be safe, ESC out of the program, power down your PC, and remove the stick of RAM you think might be bad. If necessary, move the other RAM over so they're all next to each other (the motherboard might not recognize all the sticks otherwise). Now run the test again. Trial and error may be necessary.

To keep track of what RAM was what, I put numbered Post-it notes on the top of the case, and left the sticks on the numbers where they were in my original installation. In other words, #3 stick always went back on the #3 Post-it, even after I tried it in the #2 slot.

Bottom Line

And for those snarkily reading this, thinking to themselves "well, a Genius Bar visit could have fixed the problem," I'll say two things: 1) Show me a Mac that can play Battlefield 3, Black Mesa, Planetside 2, and Guild Wars 2, at high framerates at 1080p that costs $1,000. And 2) The "Genius" at the Genius Bar would not have been able to diagnose the problem in the store. Therefore it would have been shipped out for service. Without the AppleCare service plan (a cost) they would have charged me. I fixed this problem for free.

Well, free other than my time and headaches. . .

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