CEREAL: "Oh wow, we are fried."
January 7, 2007 11:18 PM   Subscribe

What is going on with my computer? Black flashes, weird picture artifacts, screen freezing. It's not the monitor (swapped that out already). Is it the video card? Weird pictures inside!


The computer is a mostly stock Dell Dimension 8300 from 2003 I think. This has all developed over the last 48 hours, getting steadily worse until now I can't even use the machine (I'm posting from a laptop). I didn't install anything new or change settings significantly before the problem started, although since then I've installed an external backup drive and saved all my stuff, and I've installed and run Ad-Aware and AVG antivirus (neither found anything significant). In addition to what you see here, the screen will hang and then go black for a good full second when I try to open or even maximize a program like Firefox or AIM and will have this weird "hiccup" where it momentarily goes from black screen to "true black" (like, the screen actually turns off). Sometimes it does this two or three times in a row, and then the picture will come back having changed to whatever I was trying to view. Other times, the screen will just be frozen and won't do the blackout thing and also won't load the new thing. Here's the extremely weird part, though: except for when the screen goes black, the mouse cursor never freezes and will always respond to me. State-change type elements like links or buttons on half-loaded web pages will pop up when I happen to mouse over them (see 4th screencap).

I didn't realize computers could break this way. It seems almost like a Hollywood portrayal of a broken computer to me than something that could actually happen. I'm thinking either video card or virus, can you guys vote up or down on those theories? Thanks in advance.
posted by radiosig to Computers & Internet (12 answers total)
Sounds like the video card is dead or dying. Do you have an old one you could swap it out with?

If you can get your hands on an old video card or another computer you can switch them out and see if the artifacts transfer.
posted by T.D. Strange at 11:39 PM on January 7, 2007

My first guess would be bad video RAM, or some other flakiness with your card (Dells of that vintage used mostly standalone ATI cards, IIRC, which is easier to troubleshoot than one that's built into the mainboard).

First thing to do would be to remove and reseat the card, and any removable memory modules on it, on the off chance that you've got some sort of bad connection -- but chances are good that you're going to be in the market for a new video card.

It doesn't "feel" like a virus or malware. These days, most of that stuff tries to stay as invisible as possible. Weird display pranks went out of style with the virus writers in the 90s.
posted by toxic at 11:47 PM on January 7, 2007

Best answer: I vote video card. I can't honestly tell you what's causing the problem exactly, but I have heard of similar things happening, and the finger always seems to get pointed at the video card. I have heard of it being associated with overheating (particularly in reference to overclocking, which isn't your case), but it could be just a part failure as well, I suppose.

Just to err on the side of caution, you might try opening up the case and seeing if the video card is particularly dusty; dust could impede airflow and cause chips to overheat and fail. A thorough dust-removal (canned air or electronics vacuum; household vacuum could zap things with static) followed by reseating the card in the slot if this machine doesn't have onboard video, would be my first attempt at a fix.

Next avenue would be to swap out the video card for one that's known-good; that might require finding a friend to loan you one, or buying one from a store (with the intention of returning it, if it doesn't fix the problem).

Assuming the machine doesn't have onboard video, the worst-case scenario here is replacement of the video card, which isn't terribly expensive or tough given the machine's vintage.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:56 PM on January 7, 2007

Can you set the machine to 256 colors? If you can't get that far into Windows, try booting into safe mode. (Press F8 immediately after BIOS).

Does this use shared memory between the video card and the system memory. Could be system memory is REALLY low. You could boot into the BIOS and see if you can up the amount of memory shared for video, if this is the case.
posted by stovenator at 11:58 PM on January 7, 2007

My 4 year old video card failed last week; in the process, it produced bizarre video errors like these. Turns out the onboard fan had gotten gummed up with dust and slowed to a crawl, and the card overheated. I freed up the fan with lithium grease but the damage was done; had to swap out the card.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:32 AM on January 8, 2007

If you recently upgraded the video driver using Microsoft Update, you need to roll it back.
posted by krisjohn at 12:55 AM on January 8, 2007

Best answer: And sorry to piggyback, but how would one "diagnose" a bad video card?

The same way you diagnose other questionable hardware or other modular machinery: You start by looking at the symptoms, and let that narrow your search to a smaller number of parts. You then take out a thought-to-be-bad part, replacing it with a known-good part, and see if it fixes the problem. Roll back and repeat as necessary.

You can also take your thought-to-be-bad card and put it in a known good system, and see if the symptom follows the card. This can, sometimes, have unfortunate consequences (as bad hardware can sometimes cause other parts to fail, though it's unlikely that a video card would do this).
posted by toxic at 1:24 AM on January 8, 2007

I also think it sounds and looks like a video card issue. Open up the case and run your computer like normal. After a few moments, put your hand near the card. My bad video card got Really Hot after just a few minutes.

Try and find out exactly what kind of card it is. ATI and nVidia have card specific programs that you can run to stresstest your card.
posted by Diskeater at 6:02 AM on January 8, 2007

Other then what everyone else has said "its the video card" you might be able to salvage this by turning down hardware accelaration under windows and by cleaning all the dust off the video card fan and your case.

Turn it down halfway and see if it helps. If it doesnt help then turn it off completely.

posted by damn dirty ape at 7:52 AM on January 8, 2007

You've got a blown chip on your video card. Time for a new one. Make sure you have adequate cooling in your PC, lest you fry your new card too.
posted by rxrfrx at 10:32 AM on January 8, 2007

Another possibility is that you caught spyware on piratebay. It could be a screen-capturing malware that is messing up the video driver. If this is the case, you could cold-boot from a cdrom to either windows setup or a knoppix cd to see if the problem persists.
posted by Osmanthus at 11:17 AM on January 8, 2007

Response by poster: I'm back in action! It was the video card. I'm currently running on a barebones card I took from a minisystem which has a shorter format -- I had to bend the little hooked end of the metal faceplace to put it in. But it's working, anyway. I can't find my old Dell documentation to even tell you what the old card was. I marked toxic's answer as 'best' because I'd decided to swap out some memory while I had the case open and that was a bad idea. One thing at a time! Thanks again, everybody.
posted by radiosig at 6:18 PM on January 10, 2007

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