My office computer is a powerful Dell tower, with an Nvidia video card and too much software.  I choose software carefully, but I use a lot of programs and there is an alarming number of icons down by the clock.  I am constantly installing new software, upgrading programs or installing security updates, and removing things that don’t pass muster.  It doesn’t surprise me when things get a little messy and I have to troubleshoot problems that develop.  Lately, though, it feels like everyone is in the same position and we’re all seeing strange conflicts and crashes and unresolvable problems.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 was running slowly.  That’s where the problems began. 

I started in the Adobe support forums, learning about tools in the program to optimize the database and reading about problems that other people had reported that were not quite the same but left open the possibility that the problem was in the program itself.  Since my photos and the Adobe catalog were on a network server, I turned on offline files to see if a locally stored copy would speed things up.  (Not really.) But programs were crashing and the system was freezing more often than I could explain just with problems in Photoshop Elements.

I started seeing symptoms that pointed to video problems so I focused for a while on the drivers for the video card. Nvidia updates its drivers every couple of months, although that’s usually only important for gamers or to solve specific problems.  I had the most recent drivers but I was a little suspicious of them because I started getting an odd horizontal line smeared across the screen every so often after I installed them.  They had cured a couple of other problems, though, and I have been running them for a couple of months without any problems.  It seemed odd that they would start to cause a fuss but I downgraded to the previous WHQL certified version just to be safe. Problems continued unabated and crashes came more frequently until finally I got two blue screens in an hour, with the display driver identified as the culprit each time.  Worse, there were odd sparkling artifacts on the Dell logo displayed by the bios when the system restarted, suggesting that the video card was overheating or failing.

Yuck.  Time to spend a few minutes looking at the offer for discounted video cards from Microsoft through its new Vista Ultimate website, carrying on the tradition of unsatisfying Vista Ultimate promotions.  After only a half hour or so, I felt confident that I had no idea what kind of connector my existing video card uses, or for that matter what the choices are or how to find out.  I also was pretty sure I had no clue how much power a new video card would demand, what kind of power connector was required to support a new video card, whether my Dell computer had a big enough power supply for a new video card, or why I cared.

Something didn’t feel right.  What might be causing grief with the video drivers? I turned off GForce, the program that creates incredible visual displays in Media Center, but it’s been running happily for a long time – it didn’t seem likely to be causing problems all of a sudden. I uninstalled the the CCCP audio and video codecs, which had been updated shortly before this all began.

But it wasn’t until I uninstalled the Google Toolbar from Internet Explorer that thing seemed to go back to normal.  I had been running the beta of a new version of the toolbar, which allows auto fill settings and bookmarks to be synced among multiple computers. Other people had reported problems with the new version, although nothing remotely like what I had been seeing.

I can’t be sure which change fixed the problems I was having.  My system has gone back to being silky smooth, fast, and happy.  It makes no sense whatsoever for the Google Toolbar to have any interaction with the display driver or to cause system crashes.  But I can’t escape the feeling that it was the removal of that toolbar that made my computer settle down. Something did, anyway.

When you call and describe the problem you’re having, forgive me if I sigh gently to myself, or possibly start weeping, before we launch into troubleshooting.

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