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You know it’s been one of those weeks when I ask that question as the title of my editorial. It all started a little over a week ago, when I began having weird little display problems in Windows Vista. Then a few days later, I was in the middle of writing an article with deadlines looming, and suddenly all three monitors went black. That’s never a good sign, and things like that always seem to happen when I’m snowed under with work.

I rebooted, and was able to boot back into the operating system – but found that I had lost both of my secondary displays. What in the world was going on? When I went to Display Properties | Settings, four monitors showed up there (two for each video card) but three were grayed out and marked inactive. Attempting to extend the desktop to any of them had no effect whatsoever.

Those who know me know that I live and die by multiple monitors. It’s difficult for me to do the work I do (research and writing, often involving testing software in a VM while writing step-by-step procedures) efficiently with a single screen. So for me, this is a major problem. The weird thing is that although I had a bit of trouble getting the multiple monitor setup to work initially in Vista, it had been working fine for about seven months. What had changed?

My first thought was that perhaps some update had conflicted with the UltraMon software that I use for multiple monitor management, so I tried closing that program, then uninstalling it and restarting. No change. Next suspect was a “drive by” driver update, so I did a rollback of the nVidia drivers. No change, so I undid the rollback. I had work to do, so I tried working with the single monitor for a while, but I was getting more and more video problems, including short freezeups and flickers. Then I got an error message saying “Display driver nvlddmkm stopped responding but has successfully recovered.”

Well, successful recovery sounded good, but I started getting this same message intermittently, more and more frequently, until it was coming every 30 seconds or so. The screen was frozen in between, so the computer quickly became completely unusable. But at least I had a good idea now that the nVidia drivers were the problem.

I started researching this error message on the web and found that I was, at least, not alone in my problems. One forum, in fact, had about eleven pages of discussion describing the same thing.

Unfortunately, there was no definitive solution, although several people offered advice that they said had worked for them.

I tried just about everything: Last Known Good, System Restore, uninstalling and reinstalling various versions of the drivers, deleting all nVidia files on the computer (warning: DON’T delete nvstor.exe – that rendered my computer unbootable and I had to do a full PC image restore to get it back). Some folks said disabling various software programs, from Windows Defender to Dreamscene, fixed it for them. I tried all that, but still no joy.

I was doing all this in Safe Mode, which ran just fine throughout the whole ordeal. That was another strong indication that it was indeed a driver that was the culprit. I made recommended adjustments to the BIOS configuration and I did a flash update of the BIOS. I tried unplugging the monitor from the older of the two cards (GeForce 5200) and trying it with the two monitors plugged into the newer one (GeForce 7900). That actually got me into Vista with normal bootup again – until I enabled the second monitor. Then I started to get the “nvlddmkm” error message again. And now when I rebooted and tried to start Windows normally, I couldn’t even boot into it. I either got a continuous black screen instead of the Windows logo, or I got a blue screen of death, STOP error 0x00000124.

At least that was something different. I did a web search on that error and found lots of discussions relating it to – who would have guessed? – nVidia drivers. Grrr. I was beginning to feel rather unkindly toward nVidia, whose own web site hadn’t offered any help at all with the problem (although its discussion forums indicated lots of people were having it).

At this point, I tried installing a whole new installation of Vista on a separate partition. Finished installing, booted into it and got (surprise … not) the cursed nvlddmkm error message. By now I was close to pulling my hair out and/or throwing the computer into the swimming pool. But I have a stubborn streak that I inherited from my dad; I don’t give up easily.

My husband was suggesting that it was a memory problem, but I ran memory diagnostics and they found no problem there. And I was just sure it was the nVidia drivers. To prove it, I went back to Safe Mode (by the way, the only effect I noticed from the BIOS flash was that now I could use a higher resolution in Safe Mode, which at least made it a little more pleasant to work with) and removed all the nVidia drivers completely. Sure enough, I could then boot into Vista normally without the blue screen or black screen. However, when Vista started, Windows automatically searched for and installed drivers, but they don’t become active until you restart. I worked for a couple of hours with no problems (but of course, with only one monitor). Then I rebooted, and got the blue screen again because the drivers had been reinstalled.

This time, I booted to Safe Mode and just disabled the drivers instead of uninstalling them. That “stuck” – Windows didn’t try to reenable them and the system was stable with no nVidia drivers. The system was also limited to a single monitor, and that still sucked. I considered my options.

I thought maybe this was the excuse I needed to buy a 30 inch monitor, if I was going to be stuck with just one. Dell has theirs now for a pretty incredible $1499.

I remember just a year ago, the 24 inch was more than that. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, though. I didn’t want to spend that much money to fix this problem.

I looked into the Matrox TripleHead2Go, an external device for setting up three monitors on one video card. That cost around $250, but I had no guarantee that it would solve my problem, since I might still need the nVidia drivers installed for it to work, and my machine suddenly but adamantly does not want anything to do with those drivers anymore.

The good thing about both of those solutions was that they didn’t require opening the case. Although once upon a time I enjoyed swapping out hardware, those days are long past. The Dell XPS is a monster – heavy as heck – and it lives under my desk. Ever since my back injury, I’ve been loath to try to pick it up. But I finally decided the best solution was to bite the bullet on this one and get rid of those GeForce cards. I had used ATI with no problems for many years until I got this computer. Dell didn’t give me that choice; I had to get it with the GeForce.

The reason I bought the XPS in the first place was because I wanted a system with two PCI-E x16 slots so I could install a second video card. Vista requires that all your video cards use the same WDDM driver, so I had to get a second GeForce to go with the one that came in the Dell. Now I was fed up with nVidia. I was ready to go home to ATI.

So I sent Tom to Fry’s to pick up a Diamond Radeon 1550 with 512MB of RAM. It cost $149, fifty bucks more than I could get it for online, but I was tired of dealing with this and didn’t want to wait. I needed at least two monitors, and I needed them NOW. I sweet talked him into lifting my behemoth Dell onto the table for me, took out the offending GeForce cards and inserted my new ATI, crossing my fingers for luck. Put it back together, hooked up all the cables, booted up and … (c’mon the suspense is killing you, right?) booted right into Vista.

In fact, Vista booted much faster than it ever had with the nVidia cards. No blue screens. No black screens. No nvlddmkm error! I went to Display settings; there was my second monitor, and I extended the desktop to it. Still no problems. And not only that, but the colors were better and everything was snappier. Hallelujah!

I know lots of people swear by nVidia cards and if they work for you, that’s great. They worked for me too, for over half a year. I still don’t know what made them suddenly turn against me, and I don’t know for sure that the ATI card won’t go bad for no apparent reason six months from now. But for the moment, I’m happy again, and I’ve ordered a second Radeon 1550 from NewEgg so I can get back to triple monitors.

ATI saved my sanity this time. How about you? Has your computer done something recently to drive you crazy? Any ideas about how they know when you have the most work that needs to be done and choose that time to go haywire? Have you ever gotten so frustrated with your computer that you just dumped it in the trash and went out and bought a new one? Do you find that you hate dealing with hardware issues more as you get older? Do you have a clue as to what caused my nVidia drivers to become toxic?

Deb Shinder

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