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This chapter is from the book

Troubleshooting Memory

Memory problems can be difficult to troubleshoot. For one thing, computer memory is still mysterious to people because it is a kind of "virtual" thing that can be hard to grasp. The other difficulty is that memory problems can be intermittent and often look like problems with other areas of the system, even software. This section shows simple troubleshooting steps you can perform if you suspect you are having a memory problem.

To troubleshoot memory, you first need some memory-diagnostics testing programs. You already have several and might not know it. Every motherboard BIOS has a memory diagnostic in the POST that runs when you first turn on the system. In most cases, you also receive a memory diagnostic on a utility disk that came with your system. Many commercial diagnostics programs are on the market, and almost all of them include memory tests.

When the POST runs, it not only tests memory, but also counts it. The count is compared to the amount counted the last time BIOS Setup was run; if it is different, an error message is issued. As the POST runs, it writes a pattern of data to all the memory locations in the system and reads that pattern back to verify that the memory works. If any failure is detected, you see or hear a message. Audio messages (beeping) are used for critical or "fatal" errors that occur in areas important for the system's operation. If the system can access enough memory to at least allow video to function, you see error messages instead of hearing beep codes.

See the disc accompanying this book for detailed listings of the BIOS beep and other error codes, which are specific to the type of BIOS you have. These BIOS codes are found in the Technical Reference section of the disc in printable PDF format for your convenience. For example, most Intel motherboards use the Phoenix BIOS. Several beep codes are used in that BIOS to indicate fatal memory errors.

If your system makes it through the POST with no memory error indications, there might not be a hardware memory problem, or the POST might not be able to detect the problem. Intermittent memory errors are often not detected during the POST, and other subtle hardware defects can be hard for the POST to catch. The POST is designed to run quickly, so the testing is not nearly as thorough as it could be. That is why you often have to boot from a standalone diagnostic disk and run a true hardware diagnostic to do more extensive memory testing. These types of tests can be run continuously and be left running for days if necessary to hunt down an elusive intermittent defect.

Fortunately several excellent memory test programs are available for free download. Here are some I recommend:

Not only are these free, but they are available in a bootable CD format, which means you don't have to install any software on the system you are testing. The bootable format is actually required in a way since Windows and other OSs prevent the direct access to memory and other hardware required for testing. These programs use algorithms that write different types of patterns to all of the memory in the system, testing every bit to ensure it reads and writes properly. They also turn off the processor cache in order to ensure direct testing of the modules and not the cache. Some, such as Windows Memory Diagnostic, will even indicate the module that is failing should an error be encountered. Note that a version of the Windows Memory Diagnostic is also included with Windows 7/Vista. It can be found as part of the Administrative tools, as well as on the bootable install DVDs under the Repair option.

One problem with software based memory diagnostics is that they do only pass/fail type testing; that is, all they can do is write patterns to memory and read them back. They can't determine how close the memory is to failing—only whether it worked. For the highest level of testing, the best thing to have is a dedicated memory test machine, usually called a module tester. These devices enable you to insert a module and test it thoroughly at a variety of speeds, voltages, and timings to let you know for certain whether the memory is good or bad. Versions of these testers are available to handle all types of memory modules. I have defective modules, for example, that work in some systems (slower ones) but not others. What I mean is that the same memory test program fails the module in one machine but passes it in another. In the module tester, it is always identified as bad right down to the individual bit, and it even tells me the actual speed of the device, not just its rating. Companies that offer memory module testers include Tanisys (www.tanisys.com), CST (www.simmtester.com), and Innoventions (www.memorytest.com). They can be expensive, but for a high volume system builder or repair shop, using one of these module testers can save time and money in the long run.

After your operating system is running, memory errors can still occur, typically identified by error messages you might receive. Here are the most common:

  • Parity errors—The parity-checking circuitry on the motherboard has detected a change in memory since the data was originally stored. (See the "How Parity Checking Works" section earlier in this chapter.)
  • General or global protection faults—A general-purpose error indicating that a program has been corrupted in memory, usually resulting in immediate termination of the application. This can also be caused by buggy or faulty programs.
  • Fatal exception errors—Error codes returned by a program when an illegal instruction has been encountered, invalid data or code has been accessed, or the privilege level of an operation is invalid.
  • Divide error—A general-purpose error indicating that a division by 0 was attempted or the result of an operation does not fit in the destination register.

If you are encountering these errors, they could be caused by defective or improperly configured memory, but they can also be caused by software bugs (especially drivers), bad power supplies, static discharges, close proximity radio transmitters, timing problems, and more.

If you suspect the problems are caused by memory, there are ways to test the memory to determine whether that is the problem. Most of this testing involves running one or more memory test programs.

Another problem with software based diagnostics is running memory tests with the system caches enabled. This effectively invalidates memory testing because most systems have what is called a write-back cache. This means that data written to main memory is first written to the cache. Because a memory test program first writes data and then immediately reads it back, the data is read back from the cache, not the main memory. It makes the memory test program run very quickly, but all you tested was the cache. The bottom line is that if you test memory with the cache enabled, you aren't really writing to the SIMM/DIMMs, but only to the cache. Before you run any memory test programs, be sure your processor/memory caches are disabled. Many older systems have options in the BIOS Setup to turn off the caches. Current software based memory test software such as the Windows Memory Diagnostic and Memtest86 automatically turn off the caches on newer systems.

The following steps enable you to effectively test and troubleshoot your system RAM. Figure 6.19 provides a boiled-down procedure to help you step through the process quickly.

Figure 6.19

Figure 6.19 Testing and troubleshooting memory.

First, let's cover the memory-testing and troubleshooting procedures.

  1. Power up the system and observe the POST. If the POST completes with no errors, basic memory functionality has been tested. If errors are encountered, go to the defect isolation procedures.
  2. Restart the system and then enter your BIOS (or CMOS) Setup. In most systems, this is done by pressing the Del or F2 key during the POST but before the boot process begins (see your system or motherboard documentation for details). Once in BIOS Setup, verify that the memory count is equal to the amount that has been installed. If the count does not match what has been installed, go to the defect isolation procedures.
  3. Find the BIOS Setup options for cache and then set all cache options to disabled. Figure 6.20 shows a typical Advanced BIOS Features menu with the cache options highlighted. Save the settings and reboot to a bootable floppy or optical disc containing the memory diagnostics program.
    Figure 6.20

    Figure 6.20 The CPU Internal (L1) and External (L2) caches must be disabled in the system BIOS Setup before you test system memory; otherwise, your test results will be inaccurate.

  4. Follow the instructions that came with your diagnostic program to have it test the system base and extended memory. Most programs have a mode that enables them to loop the test—that is, to run it continuously, which is great for finding intermittent problems. If the program encounters a memory error, proceed to the defect isolation procedures.
  5. If no errors are encountered in the POST or in the more comprehensive memory diagnostic, your memory has tested okay in hardware. Be sure at this point to reboot the system, enter the BIOS Setup, and reenable the cache. The system will run very slowly until the cache is turned back on.
  6. If you are having memory problems yet the memory still tests okay, you might have a problem undetectable by simple pass/fail testing, or your problems could be caused by software or one of many other defects or problems in your system. You might want to bring the memory to a module tester for a more accurate analysis. Some larger PC repair shops have such a tester. I would also check the software (especially drivers, which might need updating), power supply, and system environment for problems such as static, radio transmitters, and so forth.
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