Monday, February 16, 2009


With my last PC upgrade in 2004, I didn't go any further than asking for the case in advance and then spray painting my own design onto it. It's far from being a professional looking design, given the tools I used, but that's pretty much where it all started.

I've had an interesting relationship with computers, being that I'm far from the most tech savvy around (there's a reason why I switched my major to arts), although I can now comfortably say I'm capable of building my own computer from scratch. Well, yes and no.

Since getting that old upgrade in 2004, quite a few things have happened to that computer's hardware setup. The motherboard decided to commit suicide about a year and a half in (possibly due to a power surge). The cause of this was unknown, so I took it to the shop to get it swapped out. Then in 2007, the CD-R drive stopped working, but being that the part was simple enough to replace, I just went to the local electronics store to get a DVD-RW. And then, due to some sort of hardware conflict, the computer just kept rebooting itself after I got to the Windows loadup screen.

Not knowing what to do, I went back to my original computer dealer and asked him to check it out. What he reported to me was that my video card wasn't seated properly, which he fixed. He then proceeded to upgrade my RAM, which would supposedly address some performance issues. So, I get the bad boy home, fire it up, and lo and behold, it still reboots itself when Windows loads up.

After trying a multitude of quick fixes, I just try something random and decide to uninstall Norton SystemWorks (no, it doesnt!), which I was contemplating doing anyway (that, and it didn't prevent me from getting a nasty piece of spyware), and suddenly I'm able to boot up my system.

Flash forward to 2009. The computer is getting kinda slow from years of internet build up, stuff that I never got around to deleting, and generally just being 4 years old. So, the missus and I decide that we're just going to clean out our hard drives and start rebuilding the file systems from scratch. Backing up everything (well, almost everything...), we clean off the slate, but I'm still not satisfied. Despite repeated attempts at cleaning out the computer case and fans with compressed air and vacuuming, it's still noisy as hell. Asking my friend who provided tech support, we collectively determine that the main source of noise in the computer is the power supply.

So, $100 or so later, I run home with a new power supply and promptly install it, which takes less than a few minutes. And, it doesn't take care of the problem. Understandable, as there are three sources of noise in the computer, namely the case fan, the CPU heatsink fan, and the fan on the graphics card. Going in order of cheapness and feasibility of things to replace, I go case fan (under $10), CPU HSF (under $50), and at a last resort, graphics card (the newer of which wouldn't be compatible with my motherboard).

With the newfound confidence that comes with being able to install a power supply really quickly, I proceed to take apart my computer and have my motherboard in my hands, where I am trying to figure out how the heck I remove the stock heatsink fan. Looking at the new heatsink fan, I follow the instructions, thinking that my motherboard utilizes an Intel LGA775 socket. Without a second thought, I proceed to remove the mounting bracket, popping out the anchoring pegs and squeezing together the pins with a pair of pliers, but one is particularly problematic to remove, so I start twisting a little more aggressively.

I then take a quick look at the motherboard wiring diagram that I'm viewing on my laptop. Much to my slight disappointment, it turns out that the motherboard utilizes Socket 478, which has a different set of instructions for mounting the heatsink fan. Much to my horror, I realize that the pliers left behind a noticeable gouge at the bottom of the motherboard, leaving one or two connections exposed and severed. Oops.

Disheartened, I already know the result of this, but put the computer together anyway. I don't even get as far as the BIOS screen.

Lesson learned #1: Double check beforehand to ensure that I'm following the correct set of instructions.
Lesson learned #2: Metal tools do not often mix well with sensitive electronics.

Feeling pretty stupid and a little bit crestfallen as a result, I try to justify it to myself by reminding myself how old the computer is, and that I was probably going to upgrade it anyway. But the fact remains that the upgrade must occur sooner than I was originally planning (it was going to coincide with the release of StarCraft II). Checking my finances as to what I can realistically afford, I go to the local NCIX to see what kind of package I can get for the money I can scrounge up from the ole change jar.

Of course, what I already suspect is confirmed - very little of the machine is salvagable, although I will be saving some money on the stuff that I can salvage (the case, the hard drive, the DVD-R drive, the power supply, the fans). But, I can't even salvage the DDR on my old system, as is has since been outmoded twice, although I can think where it can go when I'm done with it, provided that it's compatible. After waiting until I have sufficient cash flow, I head back and pick up my loot, and it's even dropped by a couple bucks. Gotta love how technology outpaces the inflation rate.

The entire installation and configuration process starts in the morning for preparation (getting packages opened, planning attack), and then quickly realizing that I'm also out of thermal paste (interface material between the CPU and the heatsink fan) and the new motherboard has rendered two PCI devices obsolete, which will leave behind two expansion slot holes.

Lesson learned #3: Make sure that all materials are in hand before proceeding with install to avoid running around town to obtain parts.

Luckily, both materials are readily available. Not working on the computer until the evening, the install takes well into the wee hours of the morning, partly because I want to take my time and do this properly (ie: not have a repeat of the pliers vs. motherboard incident), but mostly owing to the fact that this is the first time I'm doing hardware replacements on this level.

Because this stuff is really tiny and delicate, it's to maneuver my hands into the chasis to put things in like screws, leading to much trial and error, until I realize that the largest components are easily movable.

Lesson learned #4: It's much easier to navigate around the inside of a desktop PC when you take out the power supply.

After reading and re-reading the wiring digrams, I hope and pray that I have everything right and then I run into another stumbling block. The old motherboard had two ports for IDE devices, which were once occupied by the DVD-R drive and the hard drive. The new motherboard has ONE port for an IDE device. And of course, the DVD-R drive and hard drive don't have ports for SATA, of which the motherboard has, like, half a dozen.

Looking at my collection of IDE cables, my initial fears are calmed by the realization the IDE cable can actually hook up two devices to it. But unfortunately, the three plugs are the same shape and spread out along this ribbon-like cable, and they aren't spread out evenly, which means two plugs are really close together and the other one is really far apart. Looking at my current set up, my DVD-R drive and hard drive are 10 inches apart, but the hard drive is relatively close to the IDE plug, so I hook it up that way.

Thinking I have it all set up and ready to go, I proceed to spend the next 5 minutes reaching behind the computer to blindly plug in every single device. Like, every single one. Even the network cable, which unfortunately is a little bit shorter than I'd like. And then I boot it up, and then get error message about a bad boot disc. Okay, try it again. Same error message. So, maybe I should just reinstall Windows? I use the BIOS setup to boot from the DVD-R drive. Nothing happens. I then proceed to unplug everything and crack the system open again to see what went wrong.

Lesson learned #5: Do not hook everything up until you're sure the thing works properly.

Thinking it might have something to do with my jumper settings, I double check to make sure that the DVD-R is set to "slave" and the HD is set to "master," which it is. I then swap out the IDE cable, thinking that it is faulty. I then go back, try to hook in a few more devices (because really, I just love staying up past midnight), and then I get the same error message.

Not quite ready to give up and go to sleep, I unplug everything, and this time I decide to move my monitor, keyboard, and mouse to my work area. With my last IDE cable, namely the one that came with the motherboard, I take a closer look and realize that the plugs are actually colour coded and the end that goes into the motherboard matches. Of course, that presents an additional problem as to how to plug in two devices together, which I solve by simply moving the DVD-R drive to the lowest drive bay position.

Lesson learned #6: Just because the plug will physically fit, doesn't mean that it's supposed to go there.

With the new physical hardware properly installed, I then attempt to boot up my computer, and doesn't quite recognize the new hardware yet, because it reboots itself each time, but at least it acknowledges the hard drive, meaning it's at least hooked up properly. Safe mode doesn't quite cut it, so I decide to repair my Windows installation. And as I already am aware, I have to verify that I'm the legitimate owner of Windows, as they immediately assume that because the hardware changed, that I obviously pirated it.

With that out of the way, I crack open the case again, ensure that everything is hooked up properly (even lights that don't light up properly), and then finally hook everything up, confident that it'll work this time.

Lesson learned #7: Unless the drivers are properly installed, do not assume that plug and play is going to automatically save you.

Of course, nothing is working like it used to, since the software is expecting a 4-year old hardware set up. And, I have no internet, which means I can't download patches and drivers, but thankfully, I have the driver discs in front of me. Eventually, the internet starts working again, but I still can't hear anything, even though I supposedly installed drivers (choosing the "install all" option). I reboot several times, no results. So, I take a closer look at the install disc and then select the audio set up, and lo-and-behold, it works.

I look at the time and it's now 2AM and I don't have any current games installed on my system. I was contemplating holding out for a PS3, given that games for PS3 are guaranteed to run on PS3, whereas games for PC will require you to drop several times the dollar equivalent of a PS3 on your PC so the games will run, but being that my system is now capable of running current games, I go for it. Not wanting to put my system at the mercy of draconian DRM (Digital Rights Management) that will put a limit on the number of installs and make it harder to use, I log into the Steam network, where I purchase and download Left 4 Dead, which I know is on a 50% off sale, going for $24.99. I set it up for download overnight. Amazingly, this is the easiest part of the whole computer installation thing.

Lesson learned #8: Always leave time for computer games.

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