Feb 242009

I’m having one of those weird nights again. I have been working a lot lately because we are testing a new part, but I was able to get home early tonight, a little after 9PM. I went to bed before 11, and woke up believing that it was morning, but only two hours had passed. Anyhow, I decided that I’ll blog a little until I get sleepy.

I bought an Asus G1S notebook about a year ago from Best Buy. I have been very happy with it other than the notebook will not boot to the desktop on cold days.

All overclockers know that the key to achieving high frequencies is keeping the part cool. Consequently, producing aftermarket computer component thermal solutions has become a sizable industry unto itself.

Less well known is that many semiconductor devices have a distinct cold limit as well. In fact, some devices will not function unless they are hot. Semiconductor device manufacturer have to ensure that these “cold failures” do not occur within normal operating temperatures.

My Asus G1S will not boot to the desktop if the room temperature is lower than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The failure occurs when the GPU is initialized for desktop compositing engines like Vista’s Aero or Compiz in Linux. Particularly for Aero, as soon as video initialization is attempted, the notebook either freezes or spontaneously reboots (Compiz might limp along for a few seconds before locking up).

If the room temperature is only a degree or two cooler than 70, the notebook will eventually warm up enough to reach the desktop, but if the ambient temperature is much lower than 65 then the notebook will enter a perpetual reboot cycle, if it doesn’t lock up first.

This is especially annoying when resuming from S3 or waking from hibernation, since rebooting totally defeats the timesaving aspects of these measures and could potentially corrupt files.

So apparently NVIDIA had, at least for a little while, a hole in their screening process that allowed for cold failure test escapes. Since the failures begin to manifest just below room temperature, it looks like NVIDIA did not test under cold conditions using a refrigerated thermal head, which is an odd screening omission.

I don’t want to infer that this is a widespread, serious issue, because there does not appear to be many cases of this failure in the wild. I’m simply recounting my personal and apparently rare experience with the NVIDIA Geforce 8600 GT in my Asus G1S.

Although I first witnessed the failure soon after I purchased the notebook, I procrastinated until my warranty almost expired before returning the G1S for repair. Best Buy provides warranty service for Asus, so after I backed up all of my data and reinstalled Vista from scratch, Kathy took my notebook to them about two weeks ago. The “Geek Squad” sent me an email last week reporting that they are currently awaiting parts. The only viable repairs that come to mind are either mainboard replacement or a new notebook. We’ll see. I miss the G1S since I used the notebook daily.

In the meantime, Kathy bought me an early birthday present — my birthday is not until March 22, but who am I to complain? — components for an AMD Phenom II system as an upgrade for my two year old Dell Core2Duo E6600 desktop.

Yeah, it’s not like my old reviewing days when companies would literally send me more free computer hardware than I knew what to do with. But Kathy bought a great collection of components including a Cooler Master HAF, a really fantastic case for a geek like me. The Phenom II also has exceeded my expectations, providing stout performance while consuming little power.

It’s smoothly running 64-bit Ubuntu 8.10. I’ve installed VirtualBox and will run XP from it and Vista from an e-SATA drive that I will take back and forth to work where I have an identical test system.

Speaking of NVIDIA, the economic apocalypse overtaking the world now is going to rapidly bring down broad swaths of familiar companies. The computing industry is already hurting. I made a prediction earlier this year that a major player will be on the brink of collapse by 2010. It won’t be NVIDIA.

Three computer hardware vendors that will still have a pulse come next year are Intel, NVIDIA and VIA. These are times of great hardship for AMD, I am afraid. But that is a story for another sleepless night.