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I have a Dell Latitude D820 that I've owned for about 2.5 years. It is a Core 2 Duo T7200 2.0GHz, with 2 GB of RAM, an 80 GB hard drive and an NVidia Quadro 120M video card.

The computer was purchased in late November of 2006 with XP Pro, and included a free upgrade to Vista Business. (Vista was available on MSDN but not yet via retail, so the Vista Business upgrades weren't shipped until March of '07.) Since we had an MSDN subscription at the time, I installed Vista Ultimate on it pretty much as soon as I got it.

It ran happily until sometime in the spring of 2007 when Media Center (which I had never used except to watch DVDs) started throwing some kind of bizarre SQL (CE?) error. This error would pop up at random times just while using the computer. Furthermore, Media Center would no longer start. I never identified the cause of this error.

I had the Vista Business upgrade by this time, so I nuked the machine, installed XP and all the drivers, and then the Vista Business upgrade. Again, it ran happily for a few months and then started behaving badly once again. Vista Business doesn't have Media Center, so this exhibited completely unrelated symptoms. For no apparent reason and at fairly random times, the machine would suddenly appear to freeze up or run very slowly. For example, launching a new application window (any app) might take 30-45 seconds to paint fully. However, Task Manager showed very low CPU load, memory, etc. I tried all the normal stuff (chkdsk, defrag, etc.) and ran several diagnostic programs to try to identify any problems, but none found anything. It eventually reached the point that the computer was all but unusable, so I nuked it again and installed XP. This time I decided to stick with XP instead of going to Vista. However, within the past couple of months it has started to exhibit the same symptoms in XP that I used to see in Vista.

The computer is still under Dell warranty until December, but so far they aren't any help unless I can identify a specific problem.

A friend (partner in a now-dead business) has an identical machine that was purchased at the same time. His machine exhibits none of these symptoms, which leads me to believe it is a hardware issue, but I can't figure out how to identify it. Any ideas? Utilities? Seen something similar? At this point I can't even identify any pattern to the behavior, but would be willing to run a "stress test"-style app for as long as a couple days if I had any hope that it would find something.

EDIT July 17

I'm testing jerryjvl's answer regarding the video card, though I'm not sure it fully explains the symptoms yet. This morning I ran a video stress test. The test itself ran fine, but immediately afterward the PC started acting up again. I left ProcExp open and various system processes were consuming 50-60% of the CPU but with no apparent reason. For example, "services.exe" was eating about 40%, but the sum of its child processes wasn't higher than about 5%. I left it alone for several minutes to settle down, and then it was fine again. I used the "video card stability test" from firestone-group.com. Its output isn't very detailed, but it at least exercises the hardware pretty hard.

EDIT July 22

Thanks for your excellent suggestions. Here is an update on what I have tried so far.

  • Ran memtest86, SeaTools (Seagate), Hitachi drive fitness test, video card stability test (mentioned above). The video card test was the only one that seemed to produce any results, though it didn't occur during the actual test.
  • I defragged the drive (again...) with JkDefrag
  • I dropped the video card
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Are you running antivirus software? –  Sasha Chedygov Jul 17 '09 at 6:27
    
No, I quit running AV on it a while back. Of course, with all the problems with it I never keep anything valuable on it anyway - it's my "try stuff out and see how it works" PC... –  GalacticCowboy Jul 17 '09 at 11:28

8 Answers 8

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Call Dell and explain the problem to them, even if it's not specific. The worst that can happen is that they send a tech support guy over to see what they can do. While you're at it, write down whenever it happens, whats running, etc. so that you have some sort of more specific idea of the conditions of when and why it could happen.

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Sysinternals has some great tools that might help you understand what exactly your computer is doing when it's running so slowly. In particular I'm thinking of Process Explorer and Process Monitor.

I hate to say it, but it sounds like software more likely than hardware. Perhaps you are running out of RAM and starting to swap like crazy (but your Task Manager comment suggests otherwise), or perhaps there is some other process keeping your machine busy without your knowledge.

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I used Process Explorer on it, and when it's running slowly like this ProcExp shows system idle process is at about 96%, and ProcExp is the next highest process... RAM is around 40% usage. –  GalacticCowboy Jul 17 '09 at 11:33

I'd start with a memory test: http://www.memtest86.com/ and altho I do not know a specific app, I would suggest trying to find something similar that can check a whole harddisk.

If neither find a problem, maybe run a 3D benchmark used to test GPU overclocks; that will really stress the system and may make the problem visible.

If any of these show the problem, then let Dell know about which app you used and what failure you found, then at least they have a reproducable hardware problem.

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Yeah, I wondered about the video card. I ran one a while back that was supposed to test VRAM, but I don't know how hard it pushed the rest of the card. –  GalacticCowboy Jul 17 '09 at 11:32

My suggestions, in order:

  1. Format it down to XP and see how the performance is.
  2. Download an Ubuntu ISO, boot off of it, see how the performance is.
  3. If performance still not improved, make Dell diagnose and fix it.
  4. Burn the Vista CD's in the microwave. Pretty lights.
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2  
I get the feeling you dislike Vista. –  Brad Gilbert Jul 17 '09 at 2:41
1  
Haven't had one machine run as well on Vista as it did on XP. Windows 7 seems a bit better, but still slow by comparison. –  Jack M. Jul 17 '09 at 3:02
    
Each successive generation I've experienced - on the same hardware - runs slower and slower, although 7 reverses this trend ever-so-slightly. +1 for the idea in the answer, and +1 to Jack M.'s comment about speed. My experience, 2000 beats XP beats Vista, so IMHO, it's pretty much confirmed - the Windows 'experience' just requires more and more hardware to run it. –  Avery Payne Jul 17 '09 at 6:18
    
It's like -'My car is running slow', -'Buy a new car'. Not really a resolution in this context. –  inazaruk Jul 17 '09 at 6:36
    
@Avery - I don't know, I'm not really surprised that progressive versions require more hardware. The opposite expectation (to borrow inazaruk's concept) is like wanting to buy progressively larger cars, yet still get the same gas mileage. –  GalacticCowboy Jul 17 '09 at 11:37

If you've reformatted the software several times, with several operating systems, that pretty much rules out any software related issue.

In that case, I would:

a) Run memtest86. Have it run for a fair while. b) Run a disk checking utility.

If you still haven't found the culprit:

c) Try alternate RAM sticks if you can do so without it being obvious (like breaking a label or whatever). d) Try an alternate hard drive - again, if you can get away with it.

Failing that, it's a problem with the board / processor - most likely the motherboard. Call Dell, tell them you have run these checks (don't tell them about alternate hard drive / memory though, since they may use that against you as a reason not to send a tech out) and insist that you either want a replacement machine, or a technician sent out.

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Thanks. I replaced the RAM a while back thinking that might be it, but it hasn't made any difference. I might try the HD suggestion - I've got one around here somewhere that I was using to test Windows 7 on another computer. –  GalacticCowboy Jul 17 '09 at 11:41

If it were my computer I'd:

  • Backup my important data to a USB hard drive.
  • Reformat the computer's hard drive.
  • Perform a clean install of Vista.
share|improve this answer
    
Pretty sure he tried that. –  Sasha Chedygov Jul 17 '09 at 6:28

Not cheap, but I would recommend SpinRite to recondition and check your drives on a frequent basis. It has saved my butt and my data. I recommend it just in case your data is growing into some bad errors of the hard drive over time. This program does a deeper level of checking then just the normal "chkdsk" and scandisk tool.

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It was stated that software can be ruled out as it happens on multiple OS installs. However, it might be your user behavior. This sounds like a virus, and if you have the same browsing habit from install to install, it could be that you're picking up a virus and it begins to affect your system performance after a while.

Also, do you install some kind of software that messes up some registry setting? It might be something you only use infrequently, and you get the problems when you go to use it on the new system (maybe once a year?) and find it's not installed and then install it. It also might take a while before it affects your performance. I would keep track of the applications and utilities you have installed, and when the problems begin to happen.

share|improve this answer
    
I was running AV (Microsoft OneCare) until well after the performance problems started, so I'm reasonably sure it's not a virus. –  GalacticCowboy Jul 17 '09 at 15:13

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