Java Runtime Environment Display Issues on NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200

June 2, 2011

The Java Runtime Environment (often called JRE, J2RE, Java Standard Edition, or JSE) is a set of software which allows your Windows system to run Java programs alongside your regular applications or within your web browser. Java is a programming language and software platform. Java applications run inside of a virtual machine which translates the portable Java code to native code on the host operating system. More information is available here.

On Windows, you usually use the Oracle (previously Sun Microsystems) version of the Java runtime (downloads available here), older versions available here. Note that there is a Microsoft Java VM (also called the MSJVM, or Microsoft VM), but because of a lawsuit from Sun, Microsoft is no longer allowed to distribute it. It can be downloaded from here and will still install into modern Windows versions, but it is quite old and unmaintained. There is also an IBM JVM (also known as J9), however IBM requires that you license it, so it is really only used internally or made available for IBM branded systems.

I’m currently running the current release of the JRE: Java 6 Standard Edition Version 6 Update 25 (build 1.6.0_25-b06). The issue I’m experiencing has appeared in many older releases which I was running under 32-bit Windows 7.

Basically what happens is that Java applications fail to display some contents of windows or controls. The objects which fail to be drawn correctly are different across various Java applications (ie. one might fail to draw the contents of a text box, another may fail to draw in a button caption, a third may not have any problems at all). However, for each application the same thing will always fail to be drawn no matter how many times you run it again (ie. the first application will fail to draw text box content, and this will happen every time the application is run). The buggy control will function normally even though you cannot see it’s contents (ie typed text will still be in the edit field, blank buttons can still be clicked). In a few cases the window is not functional at all (parts of the Java control panel even do this sometimes).

At first I thought my system was running out of handles, but Task Manager was able to load correctly with all of it’s window contents. Under Task Manager I was able to confirm that the Java process wasn’t using any resources excessively or doing anything else out of the ordinary. When I started troubleshooting the issue, I tried many different JRE versions, web browsers, and even a completely different installations of Windows 7. I also tried changing various settings under the Java control panel with no success. There were also not many other users who were reporting the same problem on the net, so it’s most likely not an issue caused directly by the Java Runtime.

I found that it would usually draw the missing content if I would minimize the window to the taskbar and then restore it (by clicking it’s icon in the taskbar). It also works sometimes if you drag the window onto another screen. As soon as the control refreshes or updates itself, the content will disappear again. You can keep minimizing and restoring the window over and over again in so you can view and interact with the missing contents…this can quickly become very annoying though!

Because the graphical content of the window is visible when it’s restored, it appears to be a problem with the display driver and some hardware accelerated graphics routines which Java uses. I tried lowering the graphics acceleration slider under the advanced display properties, but it didn’t have any effect (even at the lowest level).

I have an NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 and am running the most current Windows 7 compatible driver release provided by NVIDIA (from their support/download page) for that adapter: version 9.6.8.5 (09/10/2006). The NVIDIA drivers and tools don’t provide many options which you can customize, I changed a few of the 3D options but none of them had any effect on the problematic Java applications.

The driver is old and will never be updated to fix this bug. From the sounds of their release notes, this version fixes many more significant problems in other programs, so downgrading to older versions of the drivers is probably a really bad idea. Java has used hardware accelerated drawing for a long time now, and you’d have to downgrade to a much older version which probably leaves you open to some nasty exploits. In the end it’s probably going to be easier to just replace the video adapter! The GeForce FX 5200 is old and was never a great video card anyway (I just use it because it was the cheapest AGP card I was capable of running Aero).

So for now the best solution is to use the minimize/restore trick for the Java applications that have problems, or replace the video card. If I have any more ideas or discover anything else, I’ll post it here!

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Solution for Compaq Presario 2100 Laptop Random System Lock-ups With a PCMCIA Wireless Adapter

April 28, 2011

Over the past few months a strange problem had surfaced on my Compaq Presario 2100 laptop where it would lock up completely while it was in use. If any sound was playing it would skip endlessly, the mouse and keyboard would not respond, the hard drive led would remain lit. The system would freeze completely and not respond until it was powered off and on again (by holding the power button down for 4 seconds). The problem became more frequent over time and was completely random, making it extremely frustrating to use.

Troubleshooting:

My Compaq Presario 2100 was running Windows Vista (using the driver setup from my earlier blog post) and had initially attributed it to a possible driver issue with my hacked Vista setup. I tried many different configurations (different versions of the drivers, various BIOS and driver settings, different PCMCIA wireless cards and drivers) in an attempt to locate the incompatible driver(s). Eventually I performed a clean install of Windows XP, and was dismayed when it started locking up (before I had even finished installing the drivers and system updates). This confirmed that the problem must be related to the physical hardware.

I cleaned the vents and internal fans with compressed air and confirmed that there was no problem with excessive heat inside the laptop. I ran a full chkdsk (with the option to test and locate bad sectors) which found no problems with the file system and didn’t lock up during testing, which indicates to me that the hard disk is good. I swapped out the two sticks of DDR SDRAM and it didn’t seem to affect the issue at all. This was extremely frustrating because I knew the system had worked fine before, yet after so much troubleshooting I was unable to find any reasonable cause or solution for the laptop locking up constantly.

The Cause:

There are numerous reports from people having problems with the Presario’s PCMCIA/CardBus under both Windows and Linux. After reading through many manuals, technical documents, FAQ’s, forums and various other bits of information related to the Compaq Presario 2100, I found that some Compaq Presario laptops have poorly implemented PCMCIA/CardBus chipsets or non-standard sockets that do not supply enough power to the cards. Some are so bad you simply cannot use any PCMCIA cards at all.

This is no surprise… Compaq used cheap hardware components and many of their systems were poorly designed. The USB on the Presario 2100 is also underpowered, when you plug devices into both USB ports it can cause the system to stop responding (until one device is unplugged) or the USB devices may behave erratically. The onboard MacPhyter ethernet controller also has problems with being flakey and having poor network performance.

The Solution:

Avoid using any PCMCIA cards in the laptop.

I stopped using my PCMCIA wireless adapter and the laptop has not frozen a single time since.

I haven’t tested a wide range of cards but I did try three or four different PCMCIA wireless adapters and all of them caused the laptop to lock up (some more often than others). I will try a few other cards in the near future and see if they still cause problems, but I suspect all of them will cause the laptop to lockup.

Other Solutions for Connecting to Wireless:

If you use a PCMCIA wireless adapter then there are a few solutions for wireless networking on the Presario 2100 which do not use the PCMCIA slot.

A USB wireless adapter or tethered mobile device (like a cell phone) will work fine, however performance may not be the best. The Presario 2100 doesn’t have USB 2.0 so the transfer speed of the USB ports is fairly slow. There are also problems with the power to the ports (as mentioned above), which may cause issues if another USB device is plugged in or the wireless adapter draws too much power.

The Presario 2100 has a mini-PCI slot on the bottom of it’s motherboard which you can access via a removable metal panel on the bottom of the laptop. The panel is unmarked (no icon beside it or on it) and positioned to the right. You have to remove two small black phillips screws and the panel should open up revealing a single card slot.

The mini-PCI slot is standard and can use any kind of mini-PCI wireless card you put into it, even models from other laptops. You may have issues with some Intel wireless adapters which rely on an Intel chipset for some functions (and will not work properly on an ATI chipset like mine has). Broadcom wireless cards are very popular and should work without any problems. The mini-PCI slot is fast and will not have any issues with performance like you would have using USB.

I used a Broadcom BCM4x card which I pulled from an old Acer TravelMate in my Presario 2100 and it worked flawlessly. The only problem I had with this method was that my Presario 2100 had no wireless antennas inside the chassis at all (many other laptops have the antenna wires inside the display or base with open connectors by the mini-PCI slot which you can connect to the card when it is installed). The Presario 2100 has nothing. Without antennas the internal wireless card will not be able to pick up wireless signals properly and is almost useless. I had to salvage two antennas from a broken Dell Latitude and manually install them into the Presario 2100 chassis.