How Intel ruined my Christmas vacation


— 4:00 PM on January 11, 2008

Okay, Intel didn't actually spoil my entire vacation, but it came awfully close. To understand why, you need to go back a couple of months: it's the middle of November, and I've just booked two plane tickets for me and my girlfriend to go visit my father in Scotland during the holidays. My father's PC is growing long in the tooth, so I work out a deal with him. He'll buy a set of new parts, and I'll assemble them into a working PC when I get there.

I'm usually opposed to building computers for friends and family, since that practically makes me their only avenue for technical support when something goes wrong. However, my dad is fairly tech-savvy and was staunchly opposed to the notion of buying a pre-built Dell or Mac. I therefore instructed him to buy a list of parts not unlike the Econobox from our latest system guide—only I went with a cheaper memory kit and swapped out the Gigabyte mobo and GeForce 8600 GT for an Intel BOXDG33TLM motherboard with integrated graphics. My dad's not much of a gamer, and I figured the BOXDG33TLM would be a more solid base for a reliable system than competing offerings I was as little accustomed to. After all, Intel should have better quality assurance resources than Taiwanese motherboard firms, shouldn't it?

On December 25, as dusk was giving way to a gloomy winter's night (around 4 PM), I dodged torn gift wrapping paper and pine needles to collect the various hardware boxes and set out to work. The installation was a breeze, thanks largely to the delightful Antec NSK4480 case and Intel's very sensibly designed stock processor cooler. All in all, I must have knocked out the entire system in an hour and a half, and it powered on flawlessly on the first try. Happy with my work, I loaded the Windows Vista Premium OEM disc into the machine's DVD drive, ran the installation, installed drivers from the Intel CD, and finally ran Windows Update. The system was working perfectly, and its new owner was thrilled.

The guts of the machine and their owner.

The next day, I took it upon myself to transfer data from my father's old Athlon XP 1700+ PC to the new one and to install necessary applications like anti-virus software, Firefox, Microsoft Office, Skype, and so on. I also carried over a few devices from the old system, including a pair of printers and a scanner. As I was working, Windows suddenly popped up a friendly dialog box informing me that Windows Explorer had stopped working and that it was being restarted. I've run into this alert a couple of times before on my own PC back home, so I wasn't particularly worried. However, the alert kept appearing with an alarming frequency, and the next morning I finally had to admit something was wrong.

At that point, the system had been running for just a couple of days and only had a minimal suite of applications installed, so I suspected a hardware problem. I spent several hours running Windows' built-in memory test and Prime95, but neither tool found any hardware flaws. I then suspected the anti-virus software, but uninstalling it changed nothing. While trying desperately to fix the problem, I noticed that Vista's security control panel was now displaying in black and white. Assuming Vista had crapped out somewhere during the installation, I resigned myself to do a full format and re-install.

I was much more cautious the second time around, choosing to install only the network interface driver before running Windows Update. I then proceeded to install, one by one, drivers straight from Intel's website. Defying all logic, Windows Explorer soon started crashing repeatedly just as it had done with the previous installation. Luckily, I had only installed a handful of drivers and I was able to backtrack using System Restore until I pinpointed the source of the problem: the latest 32-bit Vista driver for the Intel motherboard's integrated audio.

Yes, this driver is technically made by SigmaTel, but it's right here on Intel's website. A brand-new driver offered by Intel should not completely hose a brand-new Vista installation on a brand-new system with no exotic hardware and only software obtained from Microsoft and Intel installed. This isn't an isolated problem, either—looking around Internet forums reveals other users with similar issues, some of them with different Intel motherboards.

I really expected better from an Intel product, especially considering I've never run into an issue like this with boards from Abit, Asus, Gigabyte, or MSI. Some folks might blame Windows Vista for the mess, but come on. Both the motherboard and the driver came out months after Vista, and the largest semiconductor company in the world really ought to be able to do better. As for me, I spent several days of what could have been a relaxing week working around a problem that shouldn't have been there in the first place. My next motherboard will probably be a Taiwanese product from a company I've had better experiences with.

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