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Monday, September 1, 2008

How to Troubleshoot PC memory problem

Computer memory-related issues are not always obvious. If you're lucky, your Windows system will present you with an error code that clearly identifies a faulty computer memory module. In most cases, however, the symptoms of faulty computer memory are cryptic and hard to identify.
The following errors are the most common symptoms of faulty (or failing) computer memory modules:
Computer memory errors. These include system computer memory errors, or "blue screen" system crashes that reference memory read/write, parity, interrupt, address, page faults, general protection faults or mismatch errors. In some cases, the system may simply refuse to recognize the installed memory.
Computer memory boot failures. Because the BIOS checks the computer memory every time the system boots, memory failures often result in an unbootable system that may present with a blank screen and a system beep.
Data corruption. Since almost all of the data running on a computer passes through the system's computer memory, data corruption is one indicator of a failing computer memory module. Common symptoms include lost, missing or scrambled data; frequent crashes; spontaneous reboots; registry errors; missing system files; and other intermittent or bizarre behavior

How to troubleshoot computer memory problems

Effective troubleshooting of any computer memory problem boils down to using a methodical approach that rules out common issues as you progress. It's tempting to skip steps, but taking any shortcuts will just lengthen the troubleshooting process if your hunches are wrong. Following all these basic steps can help avoid a more serious computer memory problem.
Back up your system. If your system is bootable but unstable, back up your data as soon as possible. Computer memory problems can result in data corruption, and you don't want to risk losing your data while you're troubleshooting the issue.
Check your hardware and system configuration. If you have recently installed computer memory, make sure the new memory modules are compatible with your system board and that you installed them in the correct slots. Check part numbers and confirm your system components match your documentation. Then check your motherboard and BIOS documentation to see if you need to enable any special settings before upgrading memory.
Reinstall the computer memory modules. Remove the memory modules from the system board, examine them for damage, examine the system board for damage and reinsert them. While the modules are removed, use a soft cloth to clean the contacts of the module using a cleaner called "FluxOff" or a similar product. Use compressed air or a PC vacuum to remove dust from the memory socket. After reinserting the modules, make sure they are the same height to ensure correct placement.
Swap or replace the computer memory modules. Swapping the position of the memory modules on the system board, reinstalling identical computer memory modules or installing modules in another identical system can be useful in determining if the issue is a bad module or socket.
Update the system BIOS. Don't assume your BIOS is functioning properly if you're having issues related to system memory. Upgrading your system BIOS will refresh the system information, may resolve known compatibility issues or even provide more in-depth troubleshooting information.
Test the memory modules. There are a number of software and hardware-based memory testing tools available. Some of my favorite software-based programs are
Memtest86, GoldMemory and Microsoft's Windows Memory Diagnostic tool. Hardware-based testing solutions such as RAMCHECK, from Innovations Inc., are more comprehensive, but are also more expensive. Testing the modules will help you rule out if the source of your problems is really a faulty memory module or if there are other issues.
Check online support sites for known issues. If you are receiving error codes from the system BIOS, an application or the operating system, and you haven't already checked with an appropriate support center, you should check now. Operating system bugs and poorly written software can lead to computer memory leaks, page faults, and other errors. Major bugs and issues should be easy to locate on support Web sites or search engines by typing in the specific error codes. In many cases, patches are available from either the software vendor or Microsoft.
Run updated antivirus software. This is a long shot, but a few malicious programs masquerade as system memory errors or cause computer memory issues themselves. Running an updated antivirus sweep may identify these programs and resolve the issue.
Look for additional causes: If you've completed the previous troubleshooting steps, you have effectively ruled out faulty computer memory as the root cause of your system errors. Faulty motherboards, failing power supplies, deteriorating hard drives and environmental issues can cause similar symptoms and should be investigated as alternate sources for system crashes, data loss and instabilities.

How to prevent computer memory problems

An ounce of prevention is truly worth about 10 hours of troubleshooting time, so take don't forget to take the time to these steps -- doing so can help prevent computer memory problems.
Read the manual first. Before installing or upgrading system memory, take a minute and make sure you have the correct type of computer memory for your system and that there aren't any additional configuration steps required.
Buy computer memory only from reputable sources. Everybody likes a bargain, but buying cheap, no-brand modules from an auction site or at a computer show isn't worth the cost savings. I typically buy memory directly from a manufacturer such as
Crucial Technology or Kingston Technology Company Inc.
Don't mix and match computer memory modules. It's common sense to pair memory modules to identical computer memory modules, but you should also consider buying your modules from the same manufacturer. Don't pair modules from two different manufacturers where small engineering, design or manufacturing variances can cause compatibility issues.
Take care of spare computer memory modules. We often take computer hardware for granted, and I have yet to work in a corporate environment that didn't have a box or desk drawer filled with a loose assortment of memory modules from a variety of systems. If you plan to reuse system memory, make sure you place it in a protective antistatic sleeve and label it with the memory type and date. Always test older memory modules before installing them into a new system.
Control your system environment. Dust, humidity and extreme heat can limit the life of your system by literally cooking your system components or causing parts to warp and corrode. Power fluctuations and surges can also damage your systems.