Christmas Computer Hell 2012

It could have been so good…

This was going to be a blog about how to build a modern personal computer. In the end it turns out how NOT to build a modern personal computer, complete with hair-pulling frustrations, angry Tweets, companies being awful then being amazingly good, expensive mistakes and a plethora of helpful friends offering excellent advice.

 

Mid-December, 2012

My main PC, the one that occupies about 50% of my attention at home (the other half goes towards my beautiful, intelligent, incredibly tolerant wife) fails one night. Completely refuses to Power-On Self-Test (POST) – that’s the bit at the after you press the power button with the black background and the white text that looks a bit technical and hardcore. Being in the middle of a highly important personal project I respond in an calm, composed manner. Unfortunately, the calm, composed response has resulted in massive structural failure of the front panel of the computer, including, critically, the power button.

So I order a new Coolermaster K280 from eBuyer to replace the inexplicably inoperative case… Ahem. I’ve been using eBuyer for years, in fact, since I was about 16. It pains me to think of the sheer amounts of cash I’ve exchanged for their many wares in the last decade and a bit… So I know their delivery dates are usually spot on, but as it was Christmas (and I planned to be pretty drunk busy most of that festive week anyhow) I chose my new case to be delivered on Thursday 27th December, giving them a little leeway.

In the meantime, I get hold of a laptop and install Ubuntu Linux on it, just to keep me online and tweeting like a firehose.

As for the case, well blow me down if the thing didn’t turn up at midday on Christmas Eve!

Christmas Eve, 2012

Got the day off work! Whoo!

Coolermaster K280

All the presents are sleeping under the tree. The wife is preparing for Christmas Day because both sets of parents are coming round and we’re eager to not to poison them the first ever time we do the food! And I’m trying to watch TV with a freshly-delivered, boxed, Coolermaster K280 case taunting me out the corner of my eye.

“Build me!” It beckons.

It doesn’t take long for me to have the old bits and pieces all set up in the new funky case. With everything plugged in, I hit the power switch and… nothing. Still doesn’t POST.

Hmm… OK, that makes sense. I mean, I’m just back to the same situation I was at a few days ago. Let’s troubleshoot it together:

  • Motherboard Could have a fault somewhere, most likely the BIOS (Basic Input-Output System) – would give these symptoms.
  • Processor (CPU) Could be knackered. One blown transistor could spell disaster. But the BIOS should at least show something shouldn’t it? CPU fan still spins. That’s a good sign, at least there’s power getting distributed throughout the motherboard.
  • Graphics Card Potentially… The fan still spins when you hit the power button – that’s a good sign too. Unlikely.
  • Power Supply Unit (PSU) Usually my first suspect, but the fans all spin when you power up, and even the hard drives spin up and beep. All a good sign. Plus the PSU is a good quality OCZ unit that has been flawless since buying it a few years ago.
  • Memory (RAM) Unlikely. The CPU fans don’t even spin without memory and dodgy memory wouldn’t stop the BIOS from loading.

It’s not looking good for the Motherboard.

Fortunately! A couple of years ago I accidentally bought a spare motherboard, the exact same one. A few deft spins of a screwdriver later and we have a successful motherboard transplant.

New case, new motherboard, old everything else.

I press the power button again…

No POST. Nothing. Not a bean.

Bollocks.

Clearly the Intel Q6600 quad-core chip at the heart of the machine had died. I was mortified. And distraught. And then I hear a voice from the direction of the Coolermaster case…

“Fill me with lovely computery bits! New ones! You do want a fast computer don’t you? And loads of RAM?!”

I’m no pushover, but a quick look at the bank balance shows things aren’t as disastrous as they could be. Maybe it would be nice to get a new “rig”. My existing machine was built back in early 2008 as a gift to myself for making some cash in the housing market and getting out two weeks before the entire financial universe imploded. I bought some stuff (quite a lot of stuff….) and requested delivery for the 27th. Meanwhile…

 

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

A massive box arrives at 9am. “Hello again,” I say to the same fellow who delivered the Coolermaster case just a few days earlier. “Yes,” says he, before taking a copy of my John Hancock on his device and exeunting, stage left.

It takes no time at all to rip out all the old kit, insert the new Gigabyte Z77-D3H motherboard, Intel K3550 i5 CPU, 16GB of Corsair DDR3 RAM (all the bank account would allow this month 🙁  – but I will top it up next month after January’s pay!) and a SATA3, 6GB/sec Sandisk 256GB SSD.  I’m like a pig in shit mud!!

The only thing left from my old system was my trusty OCZ power supply unit (PSU) so I was sure this was going to work, and in a few moments I would be playing Flight Simulator X in full-screen, high-resolution, like a boss.

I press the power button.

Nothing.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrgh OH MY GOD WHY AREN’T YOU WORKING YOU PIECE OF –

Then I notice I’ve not plugged the cable from the power button to the motherboard. Quickly resolved. I press the power button one last time. I cross everything.

Everything.

Nothing happens.

Absolutely nothing.

The revelation hits like a sledgehammer. OMG. My PSU is broken!

 

Friday, December 28th December, 2012

I’m the first one into the shop.

I grab a 600w PSU, pay then leave as fast as humanly possible. My journey home is as quick as the laws of Physics will allow. The laws of the Her Majesty’s realm are completely ignored… (Sorry, ma’am).

More spins of a screwdriver and the old OCZ power supply is transplanted. I press power.

Everything, again, is crossed.

EVERYTHING.

 

New Corsair PSU graces the new case.

 

The machine POSTs!

Huzzah!

It even gets as far as telling me that the new SSD has no operating system to boot from!

Voilá!

We have friends coming over tonight, so I’ll install Windows tomorrow. Unbeknownst to me that in 12 hours, of course, everything starts going wrong again. But at least we had a good night…

 

Saturday, 29th December, 2012

I fire up my lovely, uber-powerful machine again and love seeing the white text scrolling past on the POST. I press F12 to switch to “Boot Select”, which will let me tell the motherboard to try loading from the Kingston DataTraveller USB stick, instead of the internal SSD which, still, hasn’t got an operating system on it yet.

Frozen boot select screen. Hasn’t even completed rendering. :-/

But then the boot select screen freezes.

I hit reset and the same thing happens again.

This time I press Delete so I can get into the Gigabyte Z77-D3H’s snazzy “3D BIOS” system. But that freezes too. Again and again. I search online and find some people are having similar issues…

So by now I’m pretty peeved. But before I fill out the returns request to eBuyer I want to be absolutely sure that this isn’t just some silly, simple problem. Like, for example, checking your PSU hasn’t blown before you spend £450 on new components…… (Lesson learned.)

In honesty, I have a pretty bad returns rate for eBuyer. Probably more than around 50% of the stuff I buy I will return. Sometimes I will decide I didn’t want it after all, sometimes I just have massive amounts of bad luck with a “build” of  PC and everything’s dead on arrival. So this time I wanted to make sure it wasn’t my fault.

The first link above describes somebody overcoming the BIOS display problems by switching to a different monitor. So I tried my two Samsung 23″ widescreens (one digital, one analog) on the Z77-D3H’s built-in VGA (analog) and DVI (digital) video outputs. Same problem. Then I have to leave the PC in its inoperative state and go out to the pub (’tis the season….).

Meanwhile…

 

 

Sunday, 30th December, 2012

Next day I borrowed my wife’s 19″ analog LCD widescreen monitor….

 

Testing the Gigabyte GA-Z77-D3H on different monitors…

 

Same problem. Maybe the issue is with the onboard graphics chipset? I slot in my nVidia GeForce GTX 260 with dual DVI out and try all three monitors again (the analog ones through a DVI-to-VGA adapter). Still the BIOS freezes. Only one thing to do…

 

I fill out the “Returns Online” form on eBuyer and then wait.

 

Monday 31st December, 2012

I wake to find that my RMA has gone to “Management Referral”.

To keep busy while waiting, I put all my old hardware into the Coolermaster case again and (with the new PSU…. ahem) it all boots fine! I decide to finally take the plunge and upgrade to Windows 8. I want to learn about writing WinRT apps by writing some of my own!

It all starts fine, but the theme of this holiday is “computer nightmares”, so the serenity doesn’t last. Windows 8 suddenly starts crashing wildly.

KABOOOM!

 

And over the course of the next hour or so I get all kinds of scary sounding “blue screens of death” (BSODs):

 

 

By the afternoon I am depressed, suicidal (well, pretty drunk fed up anyway), and sick of waiting for eBuyer. I want to welcome in the New Year knowing that something is happening, instead of being in limbo. I ring eBuyer up at 1:55pm and hold. And hold. And hold. Until 2:03pm. (OK, maybe not that long). Then the automatic voice on the line says “you can continue to hold, but if you would rather we called you back, leave a message with your contact details.” I leave them my details and hang up. But then I have a change of heart at 2:30pm. I’d rather hold and get this sorted!

“Sorry, our offices are now closed for the New Year holidays. Please ring us back later.”

WHAT. THE. F—….?!!!!!!!! They could have told me they were closing at 2pm while I was waiting!!!

 

 

But then the fantastic eBuyer customer service machine rocks into action. (Yes, I’m aware this blog is sounding a lot like a giant advert for eBuyer – and if they want to pay me for it, I won’t stop them – but it literally is just my experiences, nothing more – and I believe in credit where credit’s due, but also dissing companies when they are crap!).

 

 

And by 3pm, the RMA was accepted and I was able to print off the returns label and whack it on the box ready to go back by courier:

 

 

While that was going on, I found that the 5-year-old hardware was running extremely hot! The Intel Core Duo Q6600 that I’d once written off as being dead – and had wrongly fingered as being the culprit of this three-week-long hell – was operating at 82 degrees Celsius! Although I still have no idea why it was overheating, in order to get it to work reliably I’ve had to underclock each core to 1.6GHz, quite a drop from the 2.4GHz each one should be able to manage even with the standard Intel fan and heatsink (collectively, the “cooler”).

And just for good measure, as this was an upgrade from Windows 7, I decided to run the Windows 8 “Refresh” option.  I skim-read the warning notification because the first few lines reassured me that everything of mine was going to be kept, it was just going to replace the underlying operating system files to new, fresh copies.

 

 

Of course, most importantly, I skim-read number 4. So while watching this and eagerly awaiting a working Windows 8 PC:

 

“Destroying your data. Thanks for flying Windows 8!!”

 

… Windows 8 was busy removing everything I’ve installed since building the PC 5 years ago:

 

Just look at that scrollbar!! There are a lot of apps that have been wiped from my digital world…. :'(

 

However, then the first positive thing of the entire Christmas holidays happened:

 

 

 

2013:

So I welcomed in the new year with a completely blank Windows 8 install, which was actually a little liberating… And I’m slowly getting back to where I was before – but much less cluttered, and with only the apps I want installed, not some 4 year old version of WinZip for example…

The motherboard has gone back to eBuyer and they’ve refunded me for it. However, they never confirmed if it WAS actually faulty or not. If it was faulty, I’ll get the same one again (it’s the one I really wanted anyhow). But if it’s not faulty, there’s something else in the system that is conflicting with it, and I’ll have to get a different type to try.

Either way, I now have two working systems, one built from 5 year old parts, one brand new. Well, as long as I invest in another case and PSU… So the gorgeous, intelligent, infinitely tolerant wife is getting an upgrade from her 1998 Packard Bell too!

That is, as soon as I get the motherboard – all the new bits and pieces are still just sitting in boxes in my office not doing anything. Not being attached to anything (like eachother).

In the meantime, as I wait for eBuyer’s response to my question of the motherboard being broken or not, I’ve decided to stick to software. Hardware is just too scary for my liking. Look out for my Guide to Becoming a Programmer in the next few weeks as I stick to what I know about and shun the scary stuff I don’t.

 

In Conclusion: Computers Suck

Lessons of the story: don’t listen to your computer case. Or at the very least, don’t punch the bloody thing when it all goes wrong.

Always read warning messages!!! Even if Microsoft really shouldn’t call something so destructive a “refresh”.

And always trust your gut that it’s usually the PSU that fails first…

 

Happy New Year, readers…

 

 

 

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