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Desktop start up hang/3d apps crash/nvidia card could be problem

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Hello there,

I think this might be quite a test of the 'geeks to go' people it has to be said.

I should quickly preface this with a couple of points:
1. I am very software tech literate
2. I am a hardware dunce
3. This problem is very varied so please bare with me

Now here are my PC specs:

HP Compaq Presario sr5501p
AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core 4200+ w/Hyperthreading 2.2GHz
2 GB DDR2 Memory*
nVidia GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB DDR3 Superclocked **
Windows Vista Home Basic (SP2) 32-bit OS

* Not original memory, upgraded from 1GB (2x512) to 2x1GB
** Not original graphics card, was a nVidia GeForce Go 6150 SE with 128MB Dedicated memory, 319MB total available.

Okay. So I have had the system for about 18 months as stated above and have nothing really go wrong with it in all that time. When I first bought it I did have to upgrade the memory card to the one currently in there and bought some more RAM too. Since then it has done nothing but beat my wildest expectations in being a cheap rig, pumped up a bit to run some good 3D games/applications etc(didn't have much money at the time and did the trick nicely.)

However in the last 10 days or so it has been having some serious issues. It began with it hanging once during the load up of a game (which was loaded by accident, I doubled clicked something I didn't mean to) and then BSOD'd and crashed. I just attributed it to far too many programs running at once, I already had a game open, plus an image editor and many internet windows - usually not a problem but I just thought it might have been one app too far and it had had enough.

However upon trying to boot up the PC I got a peculiar 'red screen' grid overlaying my usual Compaq load up screen and then a series of dollar signs laid out in a sort of $$$ $$ $$$ $ $$$ $ pattern all down my screen - followed by the windows load up bar, followed by a black screen that hangs indefinitely or on some occassions BSODs and crashes.

Any combination of 'repair automatically' or 'fix errors' attempts doesn't work at all. It seems to think it might have fixed it (by noted it has either 'restored' or something similar) restarts and I get the same reddy screen, same $$$ and then the same windows load up followed by black screen of nothingness.

I suspected it may be my motherboard/CPU on the verge of collapse but this would seem rather unlikely - since I'm not experiencing any other instability and SpeedFan suggested the core temps were fine etc - so no motherboard/CPU overheating.

The big culprit I think is the graphics card. It is rather poweful from the CPU and gets extremely hot. RivaTuner had its temps running at around 65-72 idle. One thing that semi-confirms this for me is that the system can start up in Safe Mode, every time, with no problems (again making me think the CPU/Motherboard hardware is okay.)

Now that might seem like just a software issue, but at least as far as I know software doesn't just 'corrupt' over time like hardware can (with physical breakdowns, degradation etc.) I have tried uninstalling the drivers and reinstalling them, updating to the newest and using the oldest - none of this seems to make a difference. Also it should be noted that sometimes it does indeed, for no reason 'just start' into windows as it should, and no amount of intelligent guess-work or trial and error seems to yield logical results.

For example, I once booted into safe mode, uninstalled the drivers, installed the new ones, cleaned up the hardware with some canned air, rebooted and I kept getting the weird start up and black screen. I would sometimes then do very few changes and then it just starts, but any combination of physical (letting it cool down, canned air) or software fixes (drivers, restore points) seems to bring about random results. Also (this may seem random put here) but the BSOD which has been getting increasingly rarer seems to mentions something about the nVidia drivers.

Again this might point toward a hardware error but I'm just not sure. I have backed up everything (quite literally actually, besides the Windows folder) onto my spare Terrabit drive and so that is not an issue in case a formate/reinstall is necessary. I think the biggest likelihood is that it is indeed the graphics card - probably because there are different drivers loaded for Windows normal and safemode (the reason you can't watch videos, open JPEGs etc whilst in safemode) which would explain why it might seem like it is a mix of both software/hardware issues or look a little random. Safemode is so not demanding on the graphics card that even if it was running hot it could still stay well within acceptable temps I would guess. One final point of suspicion on this is that I tried playing Tomb Raider Underworld last night just to see what would happen and indeed approx 2-3 mins into playing on three attempts it hung on the screen and I had to do a hard reboot. I have had some experience with over-heating equipment it must be said, as I had a laptop that had to be permanently underclocked because, well lets face it, it was poorly made and simply burnt up everytime it was allowed to let loose - the hang I got playing Tomb Raider on this PC was very reminiscent of my old laptops problems.

I hope i'm not putting too much info down here but I want to be thorough (so as to speed up the process and make a more precise diagnosis likely) - but I should state that about 3-4 months ago I took the side of my PC and placed a cooling fan near it to try and bring the temps down so as to improve performance whilst playing to play that hideously demanded GTA IV. I never got it working properly (the game that is, just one step too far for this PC) but I did notice that things got a little 'odd' after putting the side back on. The occasional hang, the fan by the CPU got loader a bit, and just all around it felt less 'smooth' as it once had. Now I have gone in compressed aired it to death (hopefully not literally) and that info could just be misleading I guess but it might be relevant.

Anyway I am at a loss of what to do. I have issues getting into windows every so often (I am writing in safemode as we speak) and I can no longer run any of my 3D applications (Blender, various games etc.) The 'passive information' on the web (reading other peoples problems, posts etc) seems vast and unguided such as 'it could be the power cable' to 'your motherboard is melting' to 'it sounds like a driver error'. My 'worst case' would be if it was hardware, it just really isn't my thing and can be very expensive to replace. Also few of those posts suggested HOW you actually test things like the power cable, I know it may seem elementary to some but if you don't know, you don't know. Apparently nVidia have a good warranty on the card and so if it is that then I should be able to get it replaced, but I would like to know first before I spend hours on the phone to tech support procuring something I don't need or start reinstalling windows randomly. I guess I have done all I can here and really would like some help/advice/solutions before I start blindly doing more serious alterations which could be of no help and very frustrating. Generically cooling the PC down has also been a suggestion but I haven't a clue how/where to put fans, what fans I may need, how many I could have etc, or what do you do if you CPU/GPU fan is playing up and so on - so if a solution involves that please try and be specific (possibly in regards to my PCs model.)

Any help about what could be wrong or how to fix it based on the info provided would be excellent and most appreciated.

If there is any other info you need to know please tell me and i'll post it up.

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