System Builder Marathon, Q1 2013: $1,600 Alternative PC

Ten Days, Ten Solutions?

And tomorrow we might not be together…

A little more than two days passed before my E1-stepping Core i5-3570K suffered a severe loss in memory stability. I spent the rest of the third day trying to figure out why the system was crashing all of the sudden.

It seamed that as soon as Windows finished its updates, the system was no longer stable. I reloaded everything on the Mushkin SSD twice before getting it stable with none of Microsoft's automatic updates. Day four rolled along and I started having trouble with the graphics cards. Uninstalling one of the two boards helped a little, and reloading the graphics driver once again appeared to fix all my stability problems. Until it didn’t.

I pulled the CPU and put it into a known-stable system, only to discover that there were no stable settings for it. Though I’ve never seen a bad CPU right out-of-the-box, this one appeared to be my first. So, I replaced it.

And then the USB 3.0 controller died. Could a bad motherboard have killed our precious processor? Bad boards happen. I had started this build with ASRock’s Z77 Extreme4, so I reached into my pile of Z77 Extreme4s and pulled out a replacement. That one worked fine for about one day, and then started throwing memory errors. The first motherboard was surely bad, but could the CPU’s damage have been caused by a bad setting?

ASRock defaults DDR3-2133 memory to 1.5665 V. Add in the 1% over-voltage we’ve been seeing nearly every board vendor sneak in over the past several product cycles, and we come up to around 1.68 V. I wasn't going to risk any more hardware to pull an exact reading. Instead, I switched to the low-voltage RAM from our previous build, along with its not-fried CPU.

Our memory errors went away, temporarily. But the second CPU was suffering more issues with its memory controller. It had been used with those potentially-problematic voltage settings, so the chances appeared good that its memory controller was just a little less damaged than its predecessor.

A fresh board, a fresh CPU, and fresh RAM later, and all was well. Well, for about one more day. Very minor stability issues started to occur on the third motherboard sample. Then another thought struck: could the CPU cooler be warping boards?

The motherboard was already lying on the bench, so I removed the CPU cooler, loosened its brackets, and then set the CPU cooler atop the CPU. Stability returned. Even though I followed all of the italicized must-dos on the previous page, the Z77 Extreme4 appeared to be flexing too far under the force of Noctua’s installation bracket.

With no Z77 Extreme4s left to continue this fiasco, I moved on to Gigabyte’s similarly-thick Z77X-UD4H. Though the board didn’t feel any stiffer, it also didn’t throw errors after taking on the load of Noctua’s installation kit.