back to article Secret docs reveal Dell knew PCs were faulty

Dell is in court accused of knowingly selling thousands of computers which it knew were likely to be faulty. Documents seen by Ashlee Vance at the New York Times show Dell staff were aware that problems with capacitors from Nichicon were likely to hit at least 11.8 million OptiPlex machines shipped to customers between May …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    Errr...Where did DELL buy these faulty boards?

    Honest BOBs pc warehouse? Sold as seen of course...

    Surely any legit company operating in an advanced market would have just passed the cost of replacements on to the supplier/manufacturer of the faulty hardware.

    1. Velv

      Buy the boards ?

      Errrr, I think you'll find Dell own the factory making the boards, or subcontract it to an assembler. Either way Dell is the "buck stops here" for the design and production of the boards.

      Even if they could blame "fault capacitors", you'd probably find the value in the contract was insignificant and there is little they could do given the THREE YEAR production run of faulty device - more like a design problem in underspecifying the component.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not the first time

    We had about 20 Optiplex about 7 years ago. Everyone had a problem with either the hard drive and they would start failing after a few months.

    Dell refused to supply even a few spares extra as it became clear to us that they were all going to fail at some point. So as each one failed we were expected to go through a half hour technical support call ("Please now reformat the drive and load on the recovery image"...) before an engineer would be booked in to replace the drives.

    We tried to avoid fitting spares at the beginning because if we replaced them then they would not exchange the drives under warranty but it was useless and we soon had to go ahead and replace all the drives ourselves.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I'm pretty sure this won't be limited to Dell - I had at least three computers and a DVD player in the first few years of the 2000s which all died from dodgy capacitors. If I recall correctly there was a firm selling capacitors which had dodgy electrolyte that went off after a few years.

  4. Rob Farnell

    I saw so many burst capacitors

    on Dell Optiplex's that I lost count on the number of replacements we had in the 3 year warranty. I remember talking to an ex-Dell Manager who off the record had been specifically told to mis-diagnose the component failure on the Optiplex.

    Some of these devices are still working quite happily since they got a reconditioned motherboard.

    You win some, you lose some.

    1. Matt 13


      much the same here... the number of perfectly 'good' 1.5yearold pc's that ended up in the bin due to the capacitors ooozing is scary... in the end some got new mobos, but the general response was 'outside of warranty'

      and I still ahve a tiny recon SX280 USFF chugging away on the desk :)

    2. Peter Gathercole Silver badge


      Unlike solid-state devices, most general purpose capacitors have a MTBF measured in '000s of hours (I've just looked at Maplin, and a so-called long-life electrolytic capacitor has a MTBF of 2000 hours).

      Now this may seem like a long time, but with modern devices having always-on power supplies (identified by no physical switches) that contain electrolytic capacitors, then we are actually only talking 83 days being either on or on standby before you would expect a failure from this type of device. It's amazing they last so long.

      When this type of capacitor was first invented, it was expected that any device would only be on for a few hours a day. But now we expect everything to come on at the touch of a remote control, everything is different.

      I have talked to a Sky box specialist repairer (when my 1st gen Thompson Sky HD box failed due to capacitors in the power supply) and he said that these boxes were not expected to last more than about two years before failing. They sell hundreds of capacitor kits to repair this very fault. This explains why the after-market Sky insurance services are so prevalent.

      The simple fact is that anything using cheap electrolytic capacitors must be expected to fail after a few years unless the manufacturer has made special efforts (such as using new technology solid-state capacitors). Unsurprisingly, this costs more money, and is unpopular for all but the most expensive devices.

      As a sideline, all of the devices I have repaired by replacing the capacitors in the last year or so have all, without fail, had the failed devices branded as CapXon, who appear to make a significant number of the capacitors in electronic devices coming from China! Good thing everything is so cheap that it can be replaced.

      1. ChrisC Silver badge

        Derating is your friend

        "we are actually only talking 83 days being either on or on standby before you would expect a failure from this type of device. It's amazing they last so long."

        The quoted lifetime is if the cap is being operated at its maximum voltage and temperature, which (assuming the designer wasn't a numpty) would be a very rare combination. Generally you'd use caps rated at twice the expected operating voltage, and implement passive or active cooling if there was any chance of the temperature getting near the rated maximum.

        Assuming a 2x voltage derating and a 40 deg.C temperature derating, you could expect the actual lifetime to be around 32 times higher, turning that 83 day lifetime into a shade over 7 years... So no, it's not really amazing they last that long, it's simply good design practices at work.

        1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

          Thanks for the clarification

          I'm intrigued. Is the 32 times actually a documented figure, or from experience. I just took the MTBF at face value.

          I still see far too many electronic devices with leaking capacitors. Maybe the designers *are* numpties, or just too cheap to build things properly.

          In an amazing co-incidence, an hour after my previous comment was posted, my father called me saying "My Dell computer has just stopped working." One 3300uF 6.3V later (and much swearing after failing to clear the solder from the through hole), it's running just fine again.

  5. frank ly

    Ahhhh, Dell

    A Dell telephone support engineer (who did help me get my old Inspiron working again) told me that computers (he didn't actually say 'Dell computers') were expected to last for two years. I said that was probably due to leaky/faulty electrolytic and tantalum capacitors. He said, "No, it's most components. We're always surprised when computers last longer than two years".

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      @ frank ly

      My RiscPC (circa '95) is doing okay. The AMD box I use for stashing stuff recorded off the telly before I DVD-R it says "Built for Windows 98" on the front. Oh, and my Beeb (issue 7), circa... um... '82? '83? is marching on. Okay, every so often the PSU caps fail, but that's just the big-ass input smoother, the PSU can run without, and it isn't exactly unexpected after 26-28 years of service...

      Two friggin' years. Hell no, they REALLY don't build 'em like they used to.

  6. Hedley Phillips

    They even screwed their own lawyers.

    "Even the law firm currently defending Dell got burned when the direct seller refused to fix 1,000 computers bought by the lawyers."

    I bet that made for an interesting conversation.

    1. Ian Michael Gumby

      There was no conversation ...

      The lawyers took in to account the cost of maintaining and replacing the computers and baked 2x that in to their bill rate as a 'reasonable' expense. :-)

      Seriously, this is one of the reasons why I build my own kit.

  7. M Gale

    Hang on, what?

    "Complaints from the University of Texas were fended off by Dell staff blaming the university for overloading the machines with difficult maths problems."

    A computer that falls over when you throw math at it?

    And I thought Jobs' excuses for the latest iToy were poor.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Gotta love them lawyers!

    Jump for joy, as those fearless champions of the consumer are on the case! Should they prove successful with their class action, you may well be receiving a whole $20-off voucher for your next Dell order(*), Meanwhile, as reward to the lawyers for their tireless efforts, a few tens of millions of legal costs and fees seems only fair and appropriate. Paid in cash, naturally.

    (*) original receipt plus warranty certificate for your 2003 machine will be required to qualify.

  9. Anonymous Coward

    Ashlee Vance?

    Don't I know that name from somewhere?

  10. Anonymous Coward

    burst cps

    ... not a new issue at all - right across the computer industry


    1. ChrisC Silver badge

      The point of the article... I see it at least, is to highlight that a rather large and well-known company wasn't just selling systems with these dodgy caps (as you say, there were a LOT of companies bitten by these electroleaky caps...), but that they were continuing to sell them even after they knew of the problem AND then did as little as possible to support their customers once their systems started falling over.

      In contrast, I remember some other manufacturers (Abit for one - I was considering sending my KT7 back to them for repair, but ended up using the failure as an excuse to upgrade to a KD7 and a faster CPU...) at the time were quite open about the problem and were prepared to repair/replace faulty parts for the cost of the return postage.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      A title is required, but i'm too lazy

      It wasnt just computers, it seems these capacitors were sneaking in everywere, cos they were cheap. TVs, DVD recorders, I even know a hobbyist that managed to buy some from <Major electronics suppier>, to fix the DC-DC converter in a speccy, and wasnt best pleased two months later when they failed and took half the memory with them.

      Of course, my abiding memory of those old Optiplex machines was how really hot they ran. I suspect those conditions never helped the capacitor's lifetimes either, excessive heat always makes Marginal components fail faster.

      It always surprised me that the Hard drives even lasted as long as they did. At work, IT support were always replacing them. I remember them taking one out and it was to hot to hold.

      No doubt we should have left off all those horrendous maths problems we were all doing.

  11. CGS

    too late

    I just deposited two Dell Optiplex sx280 clunkers into the community's recycling bin yesterday! Now they admit the machines were faulty.

  12. Terry Kiely

    The best of times :)

    At one time, when confronted with an Optiplex SFF that was failing, all you had to say to Dell tech support were the magic words 'it's making a burning smell' and they would instantly send you a whole new pc!!

    My record was a five year old one, replaced with a brand new basic optiplex tower and new 3 yr warranty! Wonder how long that 'feeling guilty' faze lasted.

    ooooo--just found an old SFF in the comms room! lets see if it still works?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      the making of a good BOFH me thinks ....

  13. Inachu

    Poor dell

    WHen your hard drive fails they do not replace it with a new one but with a refurbished hard drive either from anotehr return or a repaired hard drive.

    I have learned anyway no matter what never get an OEM hard drive.

    Always better to get a retail hard drive as they last longer.

  14. SkateNY


    Dell has basically sucked for over a decade, and now their own records confirm this and will condemn them to history's grave yard.

    Shut the doors, and give the shareholders their money back.

  15. TWB

    Us too...

    We still have a load of these and it used to drive our engineers mad having to call Dell up tell them the actual problem and then having to go through the stupid script. A typical over the phone 'diagnosis' to get a warranty part was an hour. Now they are out of warranty our engineers replace the caps themselves - we're getting a 90% or thereabouts success rate.

  16. SkateNY

    Payback's a bitch

    By Jai Singh

    Staff Writer, CNET News

    ORLANDO, Florida--When it comes to the state of Apple Computer, everyone has an opinion.

    And at the Gartner Symposium and ITxpo97 here today, the CEO of competitor Dell Computer added his voice to the chorus when asked what could be done to fix the Mac maker. His solution was a drastic one.

    "What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders," Michael Dell said before a crowd of several thousand IT executives.

    1. Dive Fox

      Numbers and letters

      The "Mirror Drive Door" PowerMac G4 and the iMac G5 had the same Nichicon capacitor failures. It's the capacitors themselves, not a design flaw of the boards.

  17. Stuart Halliday

    Wait for it...

    Just wait a couple of years for all the gadgets and LCD HD TVs people are buying to start going faulty.

    These duff capacitors are just a side effect of all millions of fake components people are fitting into counterfeit goods.

    The next time you buy a cheap gadget on eBay or Amazon Associates or you see a laptop charger power supply on sale for £12 then you're just helping these criminals.

    We're going to see much more of this thing as the recession causes people to buy cheap goods.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Dell Canada happily came on site and replaced all of the Optiplex GX... motherboards at our office even though, if I recall correctly, some of them were already out of warranty.

    Maybe it's because I work for a law firm?

  19. Joe User

    Only 2003 - 2005?

    My company's OptiPlex GX270 mid-tower machines from that time frame are plagued by bad capacitors. I sent several of them to for repairs, and they work fine now. However, we also have some OptiPlex 745 machines from 2006 - 2007 that are developing bad caps. Dell may have fixed the worst of the problem, but it definitely hasn't cleared up.

    When you buy parts from the lowest bidder, you get what you pay for. Thanks for the crap-tastic machines, Dell....

  20. SleepGuy

    Another reason to research...

    Won't save you every time, but I was able to avoid the OptiPlex fiasco by researching forums and talking to other customers when picking a new model of PC for our company. I started using the Dimension line (now use Vostro's) and haven't had any model-specific issues, in fact, out of nearly 300 machines purchased through Dell in the last 5 years have only needed 1 motherboard replacement (it was a laptop) and some scattered hard disk failures.

    What's funny is the reason we were switching manufaturers at the time was the "faulty capacitor" issue....those things were EVERYWHERE in 2000-2005'ish! I still have a habit of looking at capacitors in every computer I open.

  21. RichyS


    Of course they knew they were faulty. They had Dell written on the front.

    You still get what you pay for in this world, and if you buy Dell, you buy shite.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Over engineer to get better relibability

    With PSU capacitors, they must be 105C, and it helps to use higher voltage rated ones for extra life, it doesn't cost much more, but can require careful lead forming if the lead spacing is wider; it worked for my Topfield DVR PSU.

  23. David McMahon

    RAID card

    Took a week for Dell to send me a RAID card, and that was for a server Cause of failure? Capacitor, joke is the pic of it on the website has the old cap but a better Jap-Cap is actully on the new RAID card

  24. brian_donohoe


    Seems to me that Dell are struggling to get any decent 3rd party parts. A week after my '12 month extended Nvidia' warranty expired the 3rd replacement started to fail. Now what do i do? Well this article has helped ( and i hope to get a large chunk of the £1000 i forked out back again. After all they have publicly admitted that the parts were faulty.

  25. KayKay

    not just Dell

    I'm writing this on a Dell server c 2003, no trouble so far. It's a replacement for a HP desktop which , around 6 years old, blew 8 caps in a few hours. I imagine they were not designed for being left running 30 days at a time.

    The trouble here is not the caps, it's Dell lying and lying low about them.

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