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How should I diagnose this hardware issue?

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Jammo the OrganizedFellow:
I've got a hardware problem that I do not how to diagnose nor solve.

Constant freezes. Doesn't matter what application is running.

I have a custom built PC. Parts purchased & assembled April 2008. I had it built by an experienced friend of a friend, who has built several gaming rigs, and is no longer available to assist me.
Here is my parts list (quick copy/paste from NewEgg Invoice Details):
1 x Thermaltake M9 VI1000BWS Black SECC Steel ATX Mid Tower Computer Case - Retail
1 x GIGABYTE GA-P35-DS3L LGA 775 Intel P35 ATX All Solid Capacitor Intel Motherboard - Retail
1 x Intel Core 2 Duo E6550 Conroe 2.33GHz LGA 775 65W Dual-Core Processor Model BX80557E6550 - Retail
1 x G.SKILL 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 1066 (PC2 8500) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory Model F2-8500CL5D-2GBPK - Retail
1 x Thermaltake Purepower RX W0144RU 600W ATX12V / EPS12V SLI Ready CrossFire Ready Modular Active PFC Power Supply - Retail
1 x XFX PVT88SFDF4 GeForce 8800 GS 384MB 192-bit GDDR3 PCI Express 2.0 x16 HDCP Ready SLI Supported Video Card - Retail
1 x SAMSUNG 20X DVD±R DVD Burner Black SATA Model SH-S203B - OEM
1 x Western Digital Caviar Blue WD1600AAJS 160GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s 3.5" Internal Hard Drive - OEM
1 x Microsoft Windows XP Professional With SP2C for System Builders - OEM
--- End quote ---

I'm assuming that this is a hardware issue because I've had this problem start when I had XP, over a year ago.
At the time, I thought it was a software issue, or some other non-hardware matter. So I took the opportunity to try Kubuntu (I've used Ubuntu off and on many times since Edgy Eft.)
Problem didn't occur for a while, then suddenly happened several times per day.
My wife thought it was a bad hard-drive. This was a few months ago, when Win7 was available for download, so I downloaded and burned it.
I formatted the hard-drive using Ubuntu Live CD, and replaced it with a similar one as before (from a local store).
The problem persists. If I can figure out how, I may run both hard-drives (RAID? right?) to double my storage.

Win7 has been awesome! :)
I'm really digging it. Last night, for the first time in MONTHS, it froze again. And yet again upon reboot, and again right before this post.
I opened the case earlier. Took two aerosol air cans, and expelled most of whatever dust I found. Including the fans, power supply, around CPU heatsink, and the little heatsink on the graphics card.
I also unplugged each and every plug that I could get my hands on, and one by one, unplugged and replugged them, to ensure everything was nice and properly fastened.

I am currently not working, short term disablity. So any solution that is either free, or low-cost would be most appreciated!

Carol Haynes:
Anything in the system logs that give a clue? Start > Run (or ALT + R) and type eventvwr.msc - look in Wndows applications and system logs for any relevant errors or warnings.

A few things to try for a hardware issue (but get a full image backup first as you may kill XP activation by radical hardware changes):

1) Run a good memory tester (Memtest86+ from a boot CD is pretty good) as the symptoms you describe could easily be a memory problem. Let the memory test run for at least a few hours (preferably over night)
2) Try running with only one stick of memory - if you still have a problem try the other stick, try different slots - if Memtest+ didn't flag errors it probably isn't a memory issue but the can be problems with 2 sticks causing issues and Memtest+ isn't 100% perfect because there are small pockets of memory it can't test.
3) Check temperatures are reasonable (after a crash look in the BIOS) - you could try Speedfan which will report temperatures while windows is running
4) Still not found the issue try unplugging all unnecessary hardware from the motherboard: remove 1 memory stick, DVD burner, graphics card if there are onboard graphics that you can use temporarily. Basically remove everything that you can remove and still have a bootable system. Then try running a system stress test (you could use something like SiSoft Sanrda see and see if the system still falls over. Again swap and move memory sticks. Once you have a stable system add devices back one at a time and test again.

If you are still having an issue it might be your windows installation. Since you have a full backup of your system wipe your hard disc and install an absolutely minimum version of Windows with minimal hardware and basic drivers wherever possible and stress test again and then add components one at a time and let windows install the drivers it wants where possible. If you get all your hardware back in and can't stress it to fall over and temperatures are OK it was probably your installation that had problems. Then you need to decide whether to struggle to troubleshoot random error problems or just start with a clean installation and extract your data from your backup.

Jammo the OrganizedFellow:
Thank you Carol.
You've been most helpful.

That's a pretty thorough set of steps, so I'll get back to you in a day or two, and report what I've found.

My wife says she was using it yesterday, when the dog (running round, playing with a ball) banged his head against the tower. The PC froze instantly.
She says that's when it first froze on her. Usually it's on ME. On her, once or twice. My bad luck!?

I notice it's more likely to happen when running Firefox. It's currently consuming 174,000K in the task manager right now.

Carol Haynes:
If it freezes when jogged it sounds like a component needs to be reseated. Remove and replace memory sticks and PCI/PCIe cards (graphics etc.) if you have your air duster handy give the slots a quick blow before putting the components back in. Remove plugs from the motherboard and components and reseat those two.

I wouldn't remove the CPU except as an absolute last resort - and make sure you have alcohol to clean surfaces and a tube of thermal paste to replace the CPU. If you aren't sure about this don't touch the CPU.

Stoic Joker:
Might not hurt to clean said components (just their contacts) with a pencil eraser when reseating them.


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