Unexpected error during Windows install caused by incompatible RAM

See how a seemingly unrelated hardware problem in this case, the wrong RAM chips, can derail a Windows installation.

Having performed more Windows installs than I care to admit, installation errors are old hat. And in my experience, a hard drive issue, Windows hardware compatibility problem, licensing crisis, or a corrupt installation file is usually the culprit. But I recently encountered an installation error that illustrates how a seemingly unrelated hardware problem can derail a Windows installation. Here's what happened.

A simple installation gone bad
A friend of mine called me about a problem he was having with his laptop—isn't that always the way when you're in IT? He was trying to install Windows 2000 on a Compaq Armada M700 laptop that he had just purchased through an online auction. This machine was a 500-MHz Pentium III with 576 MB of RAM (64 MB onboard and two new 256-MB chips) and a brand new IBM/Hitachi Travelstar 12-GB hard drive (IBM Storage Technology merged with Hitachi Storage in 2003 to become Hitachi Global Storage Technologies). My friend had purchased the hard drive and RAM separately from the laptop—the hard drive he purchased from another online auction, and the memory he had purchased from a local computer shop.

When he inserted his Windows 2000 Professional CD into the CD-ROM drive, the Windows 2000 installation started and reached the screen that states "Setup is inspecting your computer's hardware configuration." Suddenly, the following error message would appear "An unexpected error (-1) occurred at line 1562 in D:\nt\private\ntos\boot\setup\arcdisp.c. Press any key to continue." Needless to say, pressing any key did nothing, and he promptly called me in for a quick look.

It's often the ones you never suspect
Upon seeing the error, my first thought was a hard drive issue. Perhaps the drive was partitioned or formatted incorrectly. Using a Windows 98 boot disk, I repartitioned the drive using Fdisk and reformatted using Format. But the error message reappeared. At this point I was stumped and began to search the Microsoft Knowledge Base. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to locate any information on this particular error message or any similar installation problems. The closest I came was finding mention of a potential problem with Windows 2000 Setup and LS-120 drives. Although this laptop had one, it wasn't being used for the installation.

Still suspecting the hard drive, I proceeded to Hitachi's hard drive support site. Although I was unable to find any information about this specific problem, I decided to download Hitachi's Drive Fitness Test (DFT)—this utility would both test the drive and allow me to erase the drive's boot sector. I performed both operations successfully and then repartitioned and reformatted the drive. But when I tried to install Windows 2000, the error message reappeared. At this point I was beginning to wonder if my friend hadn't purchased a bad laptop or a bad hard drive.

Not willing to give in, I turned to the Web. I entered the path listed in the error message "D:\nt\private\ntos\boot\setup\arcdisp.c" into my favorite search engine and was quickly rewarded with a link to an online discussion. The person who initiated this discussion was experiencing a very similar installation error with Windows XP. Responses to this discussion suggested two potential causes of my problem—a lingering FAT16 partition on the drive or a damaged RAM module or slot.

Now I was getting somewhere. Since I had already worked with the hard drive, I was fairly certain my problem wasn't related to a partitioning issue. I decided to concentrate on the laptop's two new 256-MB RAM chips. I tried removing the chips one at a time and installing Windows. The error message appeared both times. So I removed both chips—luckily the laptop has 64 MB of onboard memory—and what do you know? The installation worked perfectly. According to the discussion posting I located, Windows creates a RAM drive during installation and a faulty chip can cause an error. Microsoft Knowledge Base Article 316400 addresses this problem with Windows XP.

A happy ending—sort of
With the Windows 2000 installation problem solved, I turned my attention to the RAM chips. Faulty RAM chips aren't an uncommon occurrence, but I thought the odds were a bit high that two brand new chips from the same retailer would both be bad. So I did a little more research and discovered the chips my friend had purchased were incompatible with his laptop. I believe the chips were ECC, PC133 SDRAM, but it was hard to tell from just the chip.

I advised him to promptly return the chips to the local computer store where he purchased them and ask specifically for non-parity, PC100 SDRAM. Since the store's tech had recommended and installed incompatible RAM I assumed they would be happy to make the replacement. I was wrong. The tech told my friend that these chips were the only laptop RAM they carried and he would not replace them.

Furthermore, if my friend wanted to return the chips, the tech told my friend he would need to pay a 15 percent restocking fee. My friend was furious, but he had few options. He begrudgingly returned the chips, paid the restocking fee, and ordered new chips from a reputable online memory retailer. Case closed.


Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

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