Midnight mystery: The case of the 'weird' laptop

IT digs deep to find out what's behind random pop-ups, blue screens of death, and temperature alerts plaguing user's laptop

It has to be a corollary to Murphy's Law: Behind the most mysterious tech problems are perfectly explainable causes -- but good luck figuring them out. I experienced this firsthand in 2010 at a nonprofit company where I did some consulting on the side.

Many employees at the nonprofit worked at both the office and their homes, depending on their tasks. Sometimes a problem had been occurring for several days before they got around to telling us about it.

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One day a user brought us her laptop. She said it was acting "weird" -- she was getting a lot of random pop-ups, blue screens, and frequent lockups. She said that programs had launched randomly for months, but since her laptop seemed to work otherwise, she had ignored them. It wasn't until the appearance of blue screens and lockups that she took the laptop in for attention.

We carried the unit into the IT shop and started in on the usual diagnostics. First, we booted it up and ran a thorough malware scan with multiple programs, all of which came up clean. However, the unit was not on for long before the dreaded BSOD showed up.

We then popped in the manufacturer's diagnostic CD and began the hardware tests. The results showed a code for bad memory and the hard drive was throwing SMART errors. The cooling fan had failed completely.

Her laptop was four years old and outside of any warranty. We had some new laptops we'd planned to distribute to those who needed upgrades, so we backed up her data and gave her a new machine. End of story.

Nope. Within a week, she brought the new laptop back to us, complaining of very similar problems. This had us stumped -- it was brand new.

We asked her to describe how she used her computer and what happened before and after the problems showed up. She said she always worked at home in the evenings. Before going to bed, she'd close all programs and put the unit into sleep mode. Everything at that point would be working fine.

But when she got up in the morning, the laptop would be turned on, with random programs showing up onscreen. Once, it was Internet Explorer; another time, it was the PowerPoint presentation she had been working on. The most common program she saw was the manufacturer's hotkey configuration window.

We asked more questions. Did she have kids at home? No. Was there anyone else in the house? Yes, but she had asked and they said they hadn't touched the computer.

Maybe there was a virus in the data we'd migrated from the old laptop. We took the new machine back into the shop and started running a full battery of malware tools looking for rootkits, worms, and every other form of hard-to-detect malware imaginable. Nothing!

We put in the manufacturer's diagnostic CD again and let it run the hardware diagnostics in a continuous loop overnight. Nada. We were back to square one.

For good measure, we installed all of the latest driver updates, the newest BIOS update, and a handy tool from the manufacturer that gave us the ability to view BIOS-level hardware event logging. By hook or by crook, we were going to get to the bottom of this.

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