Ask the Doctor: Universal Serial Bust


I’m having a blue-screen problem on a T42p ThinkPad with 2GB of RAM running Windows XP Pro SP2. This is a corporate laptop issued to me as a mobile employee, so I have admin rights to it.

Every time I plug a USB device into either of the laptop’s two USB ports, it blue-screens. As long as the device is plugged in, the laptop loops through a boot process to a blue screen. Once I unplug the USB device, it behaves. Exceptions: If I put a USB power cable into the ports in the laptop for power only, there is no problem. I have a PCMCIA USB adapter too, and anything I plug into these USB ports works fine.

This PCMCIA USB adapter has a USB power cable, which I plug into the USB port in the laptop without incident. I have the PCMCIA USB adapter plugged into the PCMCIA slot, with a seven-port USB hub plugged into it running a printer, a wireless mouse, a keyboard, and a hard drive. I have a second hard drive’s data cable plugged into the USB hub, while its power cord is plugged into the laptop’s USB port, with no problem.

When I called the corporate help desk, they assumed I had a bad motherboard and sent me a replacement laptop. Same problem but worse. The new laptop, which was a 1GB machine, did not recover when the USB port was unplugged. I had to do disc recovery involving file and index cleanup to get it to behave. I went through this several times.

I used the same boot drive, which I had to transfer back and forth, on both laptops.

Fortunately, when I returned the hard drive to the old laptop, it worked the same as it had originally. I have returned the “new” replacement laptop since it did me no good, keeping the original laptop.

I’m to the point of reinstalling the OS, but I don’t have access to the corporate image without driving 90 miles, and at this point, I’m leery of just installing a different OS copy, with a different serial number.

—Joe Garza
All right, let’s try to isolate the issue. Since you blue-screen on two identical systems with the same hard drive and devices, this could be either a hardware or a software problem. First, unplug all your USB devices, including your PCMCIA adapter, and try plugging them in one at a time. Sounds like you’ve got a lot of devices going on; you might just be overloading your system, or you have a faulty device somewhere in the mix.

If your USB ports work while using a LiveCD, such as Knoppix, your issue is with Windows, not your hardware.
Still blue-screening? It could be a software issue. Try booting from a Linux Live CD (e.g., Knoppix or Ubuntu) and see if the USB ports work. If they do, it’s a Windows problem. If your company allows you to install XP’s Service Pack 3, do that. If not, reinstall your USB drivers using an XP install disc. If all else fails, you might need to go grab that corporate image. And if that doesn’t fix it, and you’re sure your plethora of USB devices isn’t overloading your machine, it might be time for a new machine.

SUBMIT YOUR QUESTION Are flames shooting out of the back of your rig? First, grab a fire extinguisher and douse the flames. Once the pyrotechnic display has fizzled, email the doctor at for advice on how to solve your technological woes.

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