Are you cursing Windows for hardware problems?

Windows crashes are not necessarily Windows' fault

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Recently I read the blog entry of yet another defector to the Mac. He was complaining about the constant crashes and touting the Mac as "just works." As someone who just went through more crashes than a NASCAR race, I have a few thoughts on the matter as well.

I'm a hobbyist, which means my PC is a home brew, totally built by me. It's hard to quantify if I would have paid less buying a brand name PC with the same specs, especially since I have built it over time and not all at once.

Last summer, I made the jump from a Sandy Bridge processor to the new Haswell processor. It was a cheap process: all I needed was a new motherboard and fan. Even though Intel had changed the configuration of the Haswell generation, requiring new sockets on motherboards, old heat sinks still worked.

Everything was recycled: case, power supply hard drives, video card, DVD-R, and memory. Typical of a hobbyist, I had enough spare parts to replace what was removed from the old Sandy Bridge box to make it into a powerful backup machine. Unfortunately, an OS reinstall was required, to my chagrin.

(Veteran hobbyists probably know where this is going already.)

Within a few weeks I was plagued with blue screen crashes. This had not happened before. At first I thought it was due to a distributed computing program I run, called Einstein@Home, which searches through radio telescope data to find pulsars.

Removing that reduced the number of crashes, but I was still getting them. I feared a bad motherboard. Some fellow propellerheads on a hobbyist board suggested WhoCrashed, a nifty utility that reads your crash dump files. It showed all of my crashes were memory-related.

This prompted me to visit the web page of Gigabyte, maker of my motherboard, and look at the list of recommended memory for my motherboard. The memory I reused wasn't on the list. So I printed out the list, headed to Fry's Electronics, and looked for something in their inventory to match the recommended list.

You know all those stories I've written on memory prices going up? I got a first-hand lesson, as 16GB of Corsair memory ran me $179. A year ago that was less than $100.

It has been three months since the replacement, not one crash. Not a one.

Memory is extremely picky. We think all DRAM is created equal, like hard drives, but that's not the case. Different DRAMs have different read/write speeds and different voltages, and no one motherboard can accommodate them all.

So, if you have a computer that blue screens frequently, my first question is this: did you upgrade the memory over what came from the vendor? If it's from a vendor, are any components different from the factory configuration?

This isn't the only example of Microsoft being wrongly blamed. Remember that bad experience called Windows Vista? With Vista, something rather funny happened. Microsoft missed the ship date so many times that when it said Vista was coming in November 2006, Nvidia and many other third party developers said "suuuuuure." It was a twist on the boy who cried "wolf" too many times.

So when Microsoft actually kept that date, developers had to scramble. Vista introduced a whole new driver model and in many cases, the drivers weren't ready. The result was a lot of unfinished and unstable drivers on the market when Vista first hit, and Vista taking the blame.

As Gizmodo noted, Nvidia's poor drivers caused one-third of Vista crashes in 2007. And that was from the people who did send in crash reports. Many did not. ATI and Intel also held some major responsibility.

Macs "just work" because Apple controls the entire ecosystem. They carefully select their suppliers, keep that configuration and don't let you open the computer up to cause problems. Mac OS is then rigorously tuned to that one hardware configuration and Apple knows there will not be deviations, whereas Microsoft faces a huge number of potential configurations. That's the benefit of the walled garden that is Apple.

So before you curse Microsoft the next time your PC crashes, check your hardware first.

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