The New PC Build Begins

A Youtube video claiming a 20 minute build had me thinking I’d overestimated the job.

Nope–20 minutes passed with me barely scratching the surface.

the build begins.jpgAs mentioned earlier my major birthday gift was a new computer. I wanted something beefy and speedy. That meant no store bought PC, but something assembled here at home–literally on the kitchen table!

There was no time this weekend so I started tonight. A Youtube video claiming a 20 minute build had me thinking I’d overestimated the job.

Nope–20 minutes passed with me barely scratching the surface.

There is no instruction manual on how to go about this. Sure, every individual component has some sort of manual, but none of these parts are specifically meant to mate and the order of assembly is my choice alone.

On top of that there will be cables from the power supply left unconnected. Will they be the right ones? Will I forget something? Hopefully not.

I began installing the power supply, front panel card reader and a disk drive. Then I began to populate the motherboard with the CPU, fan/heat sink and video card. Once that was done I installed the nine standoffs and screws to attach it to the case.

pny video card.jpgThis is my first time with the new generation of powerful video cards. My card is quite imposing! It’s probably as powerful on its own as my last fully assembled PC.

I’m breaking now because there are parts I need to scavenge from an older machine. Then comes the installation of the operating systems (Windows 7 and Ubuntu Linux) and drivers.

I might be done by tomorrow. Maybe not.

When finished the build will be fully documented in pictures and text.

Agent (Gunjan_143463): “Please do not worry at all.”

Why pull punches. The disk drive in Steffie’s laptop is nearly dead and will be replaced. CHKDSK ran for over 12 hours, correcting nearly 8,000 clusters and shedding 8 Gb in capacity. Even then, the laptop was ‘challenged.’

This morning, I went to Dell for tech support. This laptop is protected against everything for three years. The father of a college student is prudent.

I chose to chat with Dell because I am comfortable conveying technical info via the keyboard. And, I wanted Dell’s operator on my side. I was as nice as I could be.

All things considered, my chat request was probably taken in India. In the past I’ve asked where the call was being answered and the support tech was always forthcoming.

It is obvious from my conversation that there are differences between the English I speak and the English Gunjan speaks. When I was confused, I asked. He did the same. We never strayed too far from understanding each other.

The transcript of my chat is attached below.

Steffie will receive the new drive at school and install it herself. In a laptop, installing a hard drive isn’t much more difficult than plugging in a light. I have confidence she’ll be able to handle it (if she can find a Phillips head screwdriver).

Should a drive die this soon – only about a year and a half after purchase? Of course not, but stuff happens.

The bottom line is, within a few days, this will all be resolved and resolved to our satisfaction.

Continue reading “Agent (Gunjan_143463): “Please do not worry at all.””

More Laptop Update

There is more to CHKDSK than just CHKDSK!

CHKDSK has three levels of ‘stuff.’ Using a function hidden in the disk drive’s properties, there are two more levels. That’s what I’m using now and a whole lot of bad clusters have been discovered and replaced!

It is a s-l-o-w process. My guess is 6-8 hours to completion… but it’s just a guess.

Do these clusters mean the hard drive is slowing dying? Is this a small event which is now under control? I am currently clueless.

This video demonstrates the process I used to get where I am.


Quick PC Disk Error Check And Recovery

Computer Problems – Business As Usual

As a special welcome home, Helaine’s computer decided to suffer a near death experience today. It was one of those things that can happen to anyone.

She turned on the computer, but forgot to plug it in the wall. Having been away for nearly two weeks, and with an elderly battery, there wasn’t more than a minute or two of juice. It was just enough to allow it to die while booting!

When she plugged the laptop in and tried to boot again, it got to the first Windows ‘splash screen’, churned its disk drive for a while, briefly flashed a ‘Blue Screen of Death,’ and began the boot cycle all over again. Uh oh!

I was called in for my technical expertise. You like to think in a situation like this you can just boot to the ‘Safe Mode,’ restore the computer to an earlier time, and merrily resume computing.

If only it were that easy.

Attempting to get to the ‘Safe Mode’ produced exactly the same result. I told Helaine it was possible her emails and bookmarks, the things she really wanted, might be gone. she wasn’t thrilled.

I called for tech support – my friends Peter and Kevin. They had some suggestions and I plowed on.

With Windows XP you should be able to put the original Windows installation CD in the disk drive and watch it repair itself. Good idea, but it didn’t work.

Since the ‘splash screen’ came up, I assumed the drive wasn’t a total failure. Maybe there was a way to read this laptop drive in my desktop?

They are normally incompatible, but sure enough, there was a cable for sale at CompUSA to allow them to talk. I’m trying to think if there are any good circumstances when you’d want this little device? No.

This was too easy. It’s a 25 minute drive to CompUSA and the cable was around $8… and they had it in stock&#185!

In order to use it, I had to remove the drive from Helaine’s laptop, physically open my desktop’s case, free up an IDE port (I unplugged the CD and DVD drives), hook everything up and fire up the PC.

I crossed my fingers and pressed the button.

My desktop booted very slowly, as if it knew it was entering uncharted waters. Finally it flashed a screen saying the “H” drive (that was where the laptop drive ended) needed to be checked.

I gave my permission and watched the errors fly. Four clusters were unreadable, an index file was wrong, some corrections were made and a small section of the disk was being marked as bad. It was bad, but it could have been much worse.

When Windows finally finished its booting, I tried to move all of Helaine’s files to my PC for safekeeping, but got an error message. What had looked promising a few seconds ago now looked bleak.

Kevin suggested I just take the semi-repaired drive out of my PC and put it back in the laptop. I did, booted, and watched the disk warning again – this time with a few different files.

Then a strange thing happened… the laptop finished its disk check, ran through its boot sequence and worked! Helaine was overjoyed.

You know, in the movies the geek never gets the girl. Maybe we should?

&#185 – Interestingly enough, there were two of the needed cables on a hook at CompUSA. The one in front had obviously been used and poorly repackaged. I passed on it for the other. The next purchaser gets to be their guinea pig.

Fixing My PC

It’s been nearly a week since my main computer died a horrible death. Upon close inspection, it was easy to see a diode had popped. Now, with a second motherboard on the kitchen table, it’s easy to do an a/b comparison.

That’s a pretty substantial diode that bought the farm (top left is the dead diode photo, next down is the diode on the new motherboard). The ceramic casing totally flew off, meaning the temperature got very hot in a very short period of time. Hopefully, whatever drove the diode to its demise was on the motherboard and not in some peripheral component which is still in the system.

I made a conscious decision to get the very same motherboard, and preserve the CPU, even though they are well below state of the art. My main concern was to get this PC up and running as soon as was possible and as close to its original configuration as I could.

I was surprised that, while this machine was down, I could do nearly everything I wanted to do on my Linux machine. One notable exception was the ability to spellcheck these blog entries. And, as soon as I’m done with this, I’m going back over the last few entries to see how poorly I’ve spelled.

This afternoon, as 2 turned to 3 and then 4, Helaine asked if I was worried about repairing the PC. She could see I was avoiding it. She was, as always, right. But, no matter what the outcome, it couldn’t be any deader than it was, so I began the surgery.

There’s not enough space upstairs in my office, so I carried the computer down to the kitchen table. I reached in the cupboard and pulled out two coffee cups. They would be used for screw storage, as I removed and then reinstalled motherboards. There’s nothing worse than not finding the screws you just removed – and still need.

As I removed the flat disk drive cables, I marked their assignment. Good move because there were four of them to go into four separate slots.

I cut some cable ties I had used to keep wires from flopping around inside the case. Steffie had graciously gone to Sears Hardware (a very sad store) to pick up some more, and had returned with a psychedelic assortment.

The fried motherboard itself was screwed into brass standoffs attached to the case. I removed the screws and pulled the board out. Other than the diode, I saw no obvious problems. There is the possibility I could have soldered another diode in place, saving the cost of the motherboard – but that just seemed too risky a proposition.

The new motherboard slid in perfectly. Most of the screw holes lined up… and the one that didn’t did after a little coercion.

I inserted the CPU from the first machine and fastened the Zalman heatsink. Then I attached all the cables. There were the 4 – hard drive cables, a floppy drive cable, power, fans, USB connectors and a half dozen small attachments for controls, like the panel lights, internal speaker and power switch.

When I pushed the power button, the computer sprang to life. It beeped – properly this time – and went though its boot process. I hit the “DEL” key to make some minor changes in the BIOS and then watched as Windows XP came up – silently.

In fact, there were a few problems on the first boot. They were simple, like audio cables in the wrong port plus backward USB and high drive light connectors. I fixed them all in an instant.

Then, I set about the process which brought the machine to its knees in the first place. I installed the cooling fan and a resistor to slow (and quiet) it down. The computer didn’t like the lower rate of spin, but I bypassed the protective circuitry and continued.

As far as I can tell, the computer is working like a champ. The CPU is running a little warmer than before – about 141&#176 versus 123&#176. But, those numbers are still world’s away from the ‘redline’.

And, though not silent, the computer is much more quiet. The noisiest component is now the fan on the power supply. Hmmm – I wonder if I can replace that?

Blogger’s note: This is the 500th entry in my blog.

My Computer Chop Shop

I helped my friend Steve get his new PC set up. The job is (mostly) done. The computer is working fine. So, it came as no surprise when he told me he was going to throw away the old PC.

It’s outmoded and slow. He wasn’t even the first owner! Someone else had deemed it ‘surplus’ earlier.

I took the computer and threw it in my trunk. No way it would go directly to the scrap heap while there were parts to be plucked first.

With an older computer, I am like a vulture. I pick at it and dismantle it until there’s nothing left but the shell.

He has kept the original hard drive to make sure he can get at his old documents and photos. I pulled the memory sticks, CDRW and CD (I have 5 of those on a shelf now), a modem, network and AGP video card (old enough that I can’t find any documentation for it online). The audio and IDE disk drive cables go into a bin with many more I have saved over time. I even keep a plastic bag full of comuter case screws.

Hey, you never know.

I used to save the motherboards, but those are so inexpensive and new processors so much faster, that it doesn’t make sense. I left it and the 250 watt power supply in the case and moved them to the attic.

My attic has become a graveyard of computers with 4 or 5 cases, their sides off, any cables left inside dangling freely. At some point a small percentage of what I’ve scavenged will find its way back into a sick or dying or refurbished machine. Most will just sit in the attic until Helaine convinces me to throw them out.

Until then, it would just be too painful dispose of them. I suppose it’s a guy thing… a geeky guy thing.

Building a New PC – Almost

Why would anyone want three PCs at home? I’m not talking about the machines shared with my family. These are my computers. Granted, two of them are discards; computers deemed too slow by others.

I have done most of what I could to optimize these older machines. They’re loaded with memory and unnecessary processes are shut down. You still can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but you can get a lot closer than most people expect.

The laptop, a Pentium II 300 MHz model, is my road machine. It’s got a wireless card and is often downstairs in the family room (especially if I’m watching TV and playing poker). It is sometimes sluggish, but never enough to be a bother.

The second desktop is also a P-II 300. Well, it was until a few days ago.

I wondered if it would be possible to bring this machine into the 21st century without spending much cash. TigerDirect was having a sale where the net cost (after rebates) of a motherboard, fast processor chip with fan, and memory was only $99.99. I decided to give it a try.

It took about three days for UPS to deliver my package. Looking in the box, everything was there, in its original packaging. So far, so good.

Fearing the 256MB RAM stick that came with the kit wasn’t enough, I went to Staples and bought another 256MB. It was $30, after rebate, bringing me to $130.

What is missing in a deal like this is a great deal of documentation. There were no instructions with either the CPU chip (an AMD XP 2400) or the fan. There was a sticky label on the chip’s packaging saying, in essence, “you break it, too bad.”

Instructions don’t seem like a big deal, but mounting the fan isn’t totally intuitive and a thermal compound paste (included) has to be applied between the fan and chip.

My first step was unplugging the old motherboard, unscrewing and removing it from the case. No problem. It came out really easily.

Since the computer industry standardized motherboard sizes, my new ATX board should fit exactly where the old board sat. It did. A new plate fit between the case and motherboard, allowing the external plugs for video, audio, mouse and keyboard to be accessible. So far, so good.

Each individual peripheral, like a disk drive, has to be wired for both data and power. It sounds tougher than it is. There are distinctly sized plugs for each operation. It’s tough to go wrong, though it is possible if you’re not looking, to put some plugs in backwards.

The manual for the Soyo motherboard was well illustrated and easily led me to the right sockets on the board for all these cables. I did have to call AMD to try and figure out how to set an on-board jumper. I was on and off the phone in two minutes.

AMD, if you’re listening, I’m impressed.

It took a bit over an hour on the kitchen table before I was ready to plug it in. I lugged the case upstairs and plugged it into my KVM switch. KVM stands for keyboard, video, mouse. All it means is I can run two computers from one set of devices. Hitting the scroll lock key twice toggles my keyboard, mouse and monitor from one machine to the other. It’s pretty simple, saves space and lots of money.

The system started to power up, but the normal beep as it’s getting ready to go was replaced by a continuous tone for a few seconds and then… silence. The machine shut itself down.

Uh oh. I took a look at everything under the hood. Something had to be wrong. I didn’t see anything out of place. So, I went to Soyo’s website and searched out my problem.

Someone had described a similar outcome for another motherboard. It hinged on the safety circuitry not sensing the cooling fan on the computer chip. Sure enough, my fan was plugged into the wrong socket.

Though the fan was spinning, keeping things cool, the motherboard’s circuitry though it was just an extra fan, not the one necessary to keep the chip operating. I moved the plug and bingo, it booted.

I spent the next few hours going through a bunch of different operating systems, trying to decide what I wanted. I loaded Windows XP and two different flavors of Linux.

Since I was aiming to keep the cost down, I went with Linux. Specifically, it’s “Mandrake Linux 10 Community,” a close-to-production release. It’s free! I actually downloaded the installation disks the night before and burned them onto Cd’s. Unless you play games or run some very specific applications, Linux is fine. There are browsers, email programs, graphic design software, etc. Most of it them are free.

I find it a little more difficult to get answers to Linux questions, because I know fewer people who run it than Windows. But, I am constantly ‘mitchering’ with my machine, and that brings up situations most users wouldn’t get into.

I went to bed a happy man. My machine was humming along. This ugly duckling was now the fastest machine in the house. Life was good. And then, I woke up.

Hitting the power button brought nothing. No noise, no lights, nothing.

I had built this system in an old case with an older, weaker power supply. I can’t be sure, but my best estimation is the power supply was stressed with this new configuration. As it cooled, it broke down. A digital multimeter across the power pins showed no voltage anywhere.

My goal here was to keep costs down. Now, with the extra RAM, I was already $30 over my original cost. I could have spent $60 at CompUSA or Circuit City to get a new supply, but decided to log onto eBay and see what was available.

For $20, including shipping, I bought a 420 watt supply to replace the 230 watt model I’ve surely fried. It’s coming from California, so I’ll be without this machine for most of – maybe all – of the next week. My $100 machine is now $150.

Still, if the power supply is the problem, and if it boots up right away, this will be a great investment. For $150, a computer someone wanted to throw away, will be a screamer. And, I did it myself. It’s no big deal.

More High Tech Comes Home

I am a sucker for high tech. The common term is early adopter. I had a PC in 1978 and was on the Internet in the late 80s (though it wasn’t the graphical World Wide Web we know today). Now, I have a DVR.

DVR stands for Digital Video Recorder. A TIVO is a DVR. They’ve been around for a few years but, as far as I can see, they are poorly understood by most people.

Instead of recording video onto tape, DVR’s record video on a hard drive. The disadvantage is the lack of portability – being able to take a tape from your machine to someone else’s, since there’s no tape to take. The advantage is, since this is more a computer than mechanical device, you can integrate database manipulation into the package. That means a DVR can read a program schedule, allowing you to program thing in an easier fashion.

TIVO takes it one step further. If you show an interest in watching people play poker, for instance, TIVO will start recording poker shows – even without you asking!

Now that I think about it, there’s another disadvantage to DVD – the cost. For TIVO, you pay to buy the box and then pay again with a monthly subscription (or a lifetime fee paid when you buy the TIVO).

That’s what kept me away from a DVR, even though I’ve never heard anything but positive reviews. In fact, last week I spoke to a friend who said TIVO was the best purchase he had ever made. That’s quite an endorsement.

People in my business are petrified by the prospect of DVRs. It will make our programming schedules meaningless. More importantly, skipping commercials is simple, and commercials pay my salary and pay for all the programming on over-the-air TV and much of cable.

Recently, my cable company Comcast, started offering their own DVR for $9.95 a month additional. As it is, we’re already paying about as much a month for cable service as I paid rent for my first apartment! I decided to give it a try.

Comcast has an office near where I work, so I stopped by Thursday afternoon to pick one up. There were two customer service reps and eight subscribers waiting in line. No way I’d have that much time. I left.

Thursday evening, after the early news, I headed back to Comcast. The line was shorter. Before long I was leaving with a Scientific Atlanta 8000 Explorer… but not before someone in line recognized me and asked if I was there to pay because my cable service had been cut off. It’s a thrill a minute.

The DVR replaces my digital able box and it was pretty simple. I swapped the power cord, antenna cable, and the three wires that bring the audio (2 channels) and video to the TV set. Inside the box a disk drive began to spin. My DVD was booting up like the computer it is.

Within two or three minutes it was finished. On my TV screen the Scientific Atlanta logo was replaced by some ratty type inside a box telling me my unit hadn’t been authorized, I couldn’t watch anything, and I should call the toll free Comcast number.

It was after midnight when I got the error screen and found out no one’s working at Comcast on the all night show. This is not to say I didn’t get passed around voice mail hell and actually did speak with a real person. What I found out after working my way through the menus was that he wasn’t in New Haven, and not being here there was nothing he could do.

The preceding paragraph would have been acceptable, except I did call back the next morning to fix the problem and did get it fixed… without human intervention! Why couldn’t that have been done the night before?

I don’t have too much experience yet, and I’m not totally won over, but it’s interesting. The Comcast DVR doesn’t have the intuitive ability to guess my viewing preferences like TIVO does. It is programmed by an online channel guide, which is very easy to operate.

Unlike VCRs, the DVR has multiple tuners and will record two shows and play back another, all at the same time. It gives any TV picture-in-picture capability. Since everything goes through the DVR, you’re always watching it and it’s always recording. That means you can pause live TV!

In order to control all of this, and the TV it’s connected to, the remote control has 53 buttons, including two that are multipurpose (channel and volume). It’s a handful, to say the least.

There are a few problems I’ve noticed so far. The channel guide for programming includes all sorts of channels I don’t get, making a long list even longer. I wanted to go through the list of current movies, but the addition of all these channels made it excruciating. On the other hand, at least five or six movie channels we do get weren’t on the list.

The clock on my unit is about 20 seconds slow. So, my recordings start 20 seconds late.

I haven’t notice it yet, but Helaine complained the tuner switched channels when a recording started. That’s fine for the machine, but Helaine didn’t want to watch the Simpsons.

Since the DVR replaces my old cable box I went to return it the next day. This time it was 10 in line for two reps. I’ll try again Monday.

Blogger’s note: As if it knew, as I was filing this entry, the DVR crashed. It was a quick blue screen full of text and then power off! A few seconds later I was able to revive it, though it took at least 30 seconds to start working.

The End of the Hobby Era In Computing?

The lead story on Extreme Tech is all about building a computer. Build It: A Speedy PC For $800

I’m certainly not adverse to building a computer. The PC this is being typed on was assembled right here on my office floor from parts I specified. It does everything I designed it to do (though it has incredibly noisy fans to remove its internal heat, and I wish I would have designed that out). And, as a bonus, it actually worked when I plugged it in!

The question is why build… and even if you want to, how much longer will that be possible?

My computer was built to edit video. To that end, I threw in the ATI All-In-Wonder 8500DV video card (on which the DV “Firewire” connection never did work) and a Soyo motherboard with built-in RAID (two disk drives act as one for the faster service necessary for video). The on-board audio conflicts with the video card, meaning I then had to go get another audio card.

It was a great learning experience, but today you can buy machines off the shelf that do the same thing. And, increases in processor speed cover a variety of sins. So a machine not totally optimized for video will still do fine because everything else is so much faster and the disk drives are so much larger.

As I was passing by Home Shopping Network earlier today, they were selling a Gateway PC (I am not a fan of any particular brand. All major computer manufactures are just putting together other people’s parts.) with 17″ monitor and printer for under $1200. The CPU on their machine is better than twice as fast as mine! If you’re interested, here are the specs.

It’s tough to build when a speedy machine, pre-assembled, sells for a price like that.

For hobbyists, like me, there will always be the allure of building the ‘perfect’ screaming machine. But, I suspect within the next few years that won’t be possible either.

I remember in high school, a friend of mine bough a Model “A” Ford and restored it to running condition by hand. What he couldn’t get, he modified. Now, there’s hardly anything on a car you can fix or modify on your own.

Computers are going in that same direction. There are a number of reasons, but the most significant seems to be intellectual property rights. My computer is capable of copying DVDs… even copy protected DVDs. I can do all sorts of other things that upsets other rights holders too!

Just as printer manufacturers have added chips to try and thwart aftermarket ink cartridge manufacturers, PCs will be ‘smarter’ (really more restrictive) in what they let you do. The quaint concept of ‘fair use’ will go out the window, because manufacturers now understand how easily their hard work is ripped off.

Will future versions of Windows be built so it only works with ‘trusted’ hardware and software that can be more closely controlled? My opinion is, yes. Sure, a computer could be run on Linux or some yet-to-be-designed operating system, but that would deprive you of much of what’s available today.

I’m not sure where the ‘sweet spot’ is, balancing the rights of those who produce with the rights of those who use. I suspect that PC’s wouldn’t be where they are today… capable of doing what they do… if the restrictions to come had existed earlier.

Continue reading “The End of the Hobby Era In Computing?”