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The New PC

-- Upgrade Horror Part II

March 11, 2001

It has been a chilly but sunny day here in the coastal empire. I wish I could explain how dreary it has been in front of this computer the last couple days. At the risk of boring many (feel free to jog to the fridge during the next ten minutes of monolog) I'll just scratch the surface of what I've been going through with my first custom building of a computer. The story isn't for the faint of heart. For those with heart problems turn back now. For the squeamish be ready to avert your eyes. I've been to the brink of death and back, talked to Microsoft and heard news that would chill the coldest heart. I conversed with Comcast and was cast aside. I still don't have a clear perspective on what is going on. Surely computer manufacturers don't go through this. For those contemplating building your own for the first time, beware. While certainly many have tried with raving success, there are potential pitfalls aplenty. It makes me wonder though; many people do this and have a riot pushing their hardware to the limits. I would be happy with mere stability

While all the components in this machine physically installed in the case with ease, getting the machine to stay running has been a Herculean task. Since I started the project this Tuesday past I must have turned the machine off and on between forty and sixty times, hoping and praying each would be successful and error-free. A few times it has been. Most of the time it has not. I'll step through a sample of what I mean later but only a few sad souls out there can comprehend the deep, pit of the stomach, painful wrenching this toll takes on the human soul. The heart gets ripped out of the spirit after a while. But onward I go, like a lamb to the slaughter.

Back on Tuesday afternoon, when the motherboard arrived from California, a Gigabyte GA-7IXE4, complete with the latest BIOS (f7), I layed out my planning sheet and started assembling the computer. My elder brother Jim supplied a cutting edge processor, an AMD Athlon, Thunderbird (Socket A type), 900MHz, with heat sink and fan, and 128MB of PC133 RAM. I bought an Antec case just like his from Best Buy with a 300 watt power supply. The graphics, sound, and modem cards, and a Network Interface Card (NIC), 3 hard drives, a CD-ROM drive, and a Zip 100 drive I took from the 5 year old Packard Bell computer that has, until recently, been quite reliable and very easy to upgrade. Sadly, the last few months it has been plagued with so many random errors and some data loss I knew I must get a new machine. This project was to be an economical way to get a very good, up to date computer. And it was my first time attempting a project of this depth. Installing a hard drive or a new graphics card or modem or Zip drive in an existing computer was fairly easy. Putting all these disparate elements together in a new formation on a new motherboard is quite another thing. It should have been a piece of cake. It became almost a piece of toast.

After the components were bolted, slid, clamped, and plugged into their various openings I was ready. The only peripheral installed on the main board was the PCI graphics card. This should simplify things I thought. I hit the power button. A roar of the power supply fan and a processor fan whirr along with lights blinking should have greeted me, but there was nothing. Oh, the processor fan jiggled a fraction of a centimeter. I almost missed noticing that. I hit the power button again a few more times to no avail. Nothing moved. After sweating this one out pondering it for 15 minutes or so, not knowing if one of the components was dead and not having the heart to take it all apart again and start over, I took a break. It would be the first of many such times over the course of the next few days. After getting a drink (non-alcoholic!) and petting the cat, attempting to calm down some, I returned to the "operating room." It occurred to me, after I removed and reconnected most of the power and data cables, reseating the RAM stick (the picture here shows it in slot 3, I did find that error and put it in slot 1), that maybe the power cable from the button on the case to the MB was defective. Or maybe I had it on backwards. I reversed the connection on the board, hit the switch and the machine roared to life! I thanked God profusely and calmed down by many degrees. The first big hurdle was crossed. It worked. Now I had to install Windows 98 original edition on a clean hard drive, which I prepared by putting all the installation files alone on the drive. With system files on the disk it booted to the C:\ prompt. Installing Windows was an easy task completing in about 35 minutes. I only had the graphics card in the machine and I would add one card at a time to make driver installation easier. It was recommended scientific method. It didn't help; though at first I thought it did.

With the operating system installed I then launched the Gygabite CD and loaded the PCI Bridge drivers and the AGP and USB drivers as recommended. Then I completed installing the modem, sound card and NIC. Then I loaded the latest ATI video drivers. I'll skip much of the tedium that followed. The gist of this is that when I would get the machine running ok, something would happen in the course of updating or adding files and programs that would result in seeing this statement on screen: "Windows protection error. You must restart your computer. Press any key to continue." I would then have to restart the machine and would be forced into Safe Mode, which only loaded a minimal set of drivers and not even the CD-ROM driver. I would look through the Device Manager to see any obvious or elusive conflicts and problems. Sometimes I would find one, sometimes not. It would take a while to recognize what were problems. Sometimes I would just have to delete something like the graphics card and reboot to reinstall it. The ATI card, Xpert98, isn't really an old card to create problems but I now think this is the major source of conflict. Especially when I adjusted the screen resolution to a workable 1024 x 768. First, the latest drivers that are recommended to be installed require DirectX version 6 at least. Windows comes with version 5 as default. I wouldn't discover this until a day later while utilizing the Internet access I have at work, so a cycle of protection errors and reboots to Safe Mode continued a handful of times. The CD that came with the MB did have version 7, as I'd find out the next day. But Tuesday night ended with all the cards inside the machine, but in an unstable computer. And thankfully bedtime arrived.

Wednesday evening after work found me in the recurring position hunched over the desk in front of the monitor trying to figure out why I couldn't get a stable machine. After more and more reboots, visiting the Device Manager in Safe Mode, usually seeing no conflicts, even resorting to reinstalling Windows again after a few Blue Screens of Death (major crashing), reinstalling the video card and changing screen resolutions, it came to pass that the machine was running right. Halleluiah!! I even had Internet access. And that's another part of the puzzle I haven't even mentioned yet. The network interface card (NIC) would install OK, sometimes as the familiar NE2000 Compatible, like in the old machine, and sometimes as an SCM EZ Card 1660, which is the actual brand of the card. But I couldn't get Internet access no matter what. Until the end of the evening. After repeated tries to get on the Net hitting shortcut after shortcut, nothing worked; until pressing the "Windows Update" shortcut. I was on-line! Then I made another major mistake. I tried to actually use it to update Windows. So, after downloading the latest security update, the machine powered off and on automatically, like it is supposed to. What greeting me during boot up was a message I had never seen before and makes me shudder to ponder it even now. It said, "Write protect error reading drive C. Abort, Retry, Fail?" I didn't know exactly what that meant but I knew enough to surmise it had a connotation of fatality. Again the cold, clammy feeling accompanied a sickly sweat. How do I respond to that?

I knew I could call Microsoft and for $35 could get some type of technical support. More money spent! I had already surmised that the PCI graphics card was somehow causing driver conflicts when I raised my screen resolution, and I hated to do it but I ordered an AGP card, thinking that the newer card on a different bus (the AGP bus instead of the current PCI bus) would resolve that. I also took the great chance of buying a non-major brand video card, one built by the motherboard manufacturer, Gigabyte, their GA-622-32C. MWave Direct had one for $60, the least expensive, and it had TV out (so I thought) and 32MB of memory. It wouldn't arrive until Tuesday, 3/13/01. In the meantime the cycle of errors and reboots would continue. Anyway, I called the 800 number I have for Microsoft and found out that I could call on the warranty line for free--except for the cost of the toll call. After a very short wait on the phone, Jonathan talked to me about this "write protect error" thing. He had me reboot (of course) the machine with a Start Up disk, and after I found one that worked (the one I made recently from one of the fresh installs of the last couple days didn't work--it's a good thing I had an extra disk) he had me run Scandisk. A scan of the files on the hard drive showed no problems; and then a choice to do a surface scan was presented. After a slight hesitation Jonathan said to run it. And here is what was revealed as the problem. It took about 20 seconds to be told by Scandisk that there were two clusters on the drive that were damaged. Did I want to fix them? Sure, we said. After 3 seconds it responded that Windows couldn't fix them. That was all. The conjecture was for us to make. Actually for Jonathan to make since I was the idiot making the phone call. Bottom line, he said, the drive is toast. Dead. Gone. I had no response to that! I was stunned! This was an IBM Deskstar 8, bought in September of 1998! A quality hard drive! How could it be defective? I had only downloaded one program and rebooted the machine! This was not good news. But there was nothing more he could do for me. This was Friday night, 3/9/01 at 9:35 PM. I just lost my first hard drive. I really was fortunate though, in that I had nothing on this drive but Windows and Office 97 that I just put on it yesterday. All my data was on another IBM drive slaved to this one. I took some comfort in that at least. But I gave up for the night, thanking Jonathan for his time, and even getting some suggestions from him, the most sensible was to buy another drive and start from scratch again. I sure hesitated in trying to install Windows on the drive that contained the only copy of my data. I couldn't lose that! I went to bed thinking about spending more money that we didn't have. Maybe if I got a new drive and it worked it would cancel out the need for a new graphics card and I could refuse that or return it. I would sleep on it.

I didn't sleep for long. Besides having the cats wake me up by their roughhousing at 1 AM, I had a thought. What if the old Seagate hard drive (my third hard drive, the original one from the Packard Bell) could be used to install Windows and I wouldn't have to buy a new one. But this was the drive that seemed to have so many errors on it as I tried to work with it while it was in the Packard Bell machine. It was used as a clone of a fresh, bare installation for a while. But when it was there and I was having all my random errors I tried to work with it, and it seemed to have a lot of bad sectors on it. It might not be any good. But since I couldn't sleep I got up and decided to check it out and see what Scandisk would show. And here's where the news got even worse. No matter what I did it seemed that I could get no reading from any of the drives. Not the two IBM's nor the Seagate. I did keep getting "Write protect error reading (name the drive) Abort, Retry, Fail." I couldn't even read from the CD-ROM! That was really bizarre. What was going on!? I would get "Invalid drive specification." I couldn't read the directory of the CD in the drive! And even when I tried to edit the Config.sys file on the A: drive it wouldn't let me! It would say the disk was write protected. Well it wasn't! I tried the locking slider tab on the floppy both ways just to make sure! Was there some other major error with the MB or its chip set that failed to make things work? This was that straw that finally broke. I don't know what it means but the last error message I got before I gave up was "Fail on Int 24." I don't know what that means but it sounds very fatal. I went back to bed thinking that I just did not have what it takes to put a system together by myself. That's why there are Best Buy stores out there, for people like me who enjoy deluding themselves that they know something about computers. I tried to sleep counting money jumping into the black hole computer.

The next morning dawned, Saturday, March 10, 2001, and I felt that I should not get too depressed about the preceding events. Life goes on. There are other priorities. So what, you just spent money on things like hardware that wasn't going to work, and internet domains you weren't going to be able to use, and web hosting that would just sit there wasted. It's only money! I had planned on going to Best Buy to get a new hard drive, but now told Melissa why I wasn't. I suppose we could look at some of the pre-built computers. Naw! I would just take it easy today, try to recover from lack of sleep and stressful hours at the computer. But later on I just couldn't resist. I went to the operating room and turned on the machine with the boot disk in it. And you know what happened? I was able to boot into Safe Mode! What happened to "Write protect error writing drive C" I wondered? Where did "fail Int 24" or whatever go? I then went into the BIOS and found that the floppy was set to Read-Only! How did that get changed? I wasn't anywhere near there any of the times I roamed through the BIOS? I changed it back to Read-Write and it may even be that the hard drives were set that way too, it's all a blur to me right now, but it probably was. Random freak change? Stray electrons running amuck? But I now found I could read the drive. Both drives! And the CD-ROM! And you know what? The cycle of windows protection errors and reboots to safe mode started all over again. Awwright!!!! I just had to try again to make it work and so I immediately reinstalled Windows, this time leaving all the hardware inside finding that it really didn't make any difference for Windows; indeed it might have been better for it to find it all at once. It seemed to work OK; at least it was no worse than one piece at a time.

The cycle I've been struggling with goes like this. Press the On button; the machine boots; in mid-boot it reboots again (not supposed to!!!); read "Windows protection error, you must restart"; restart and read "Windows did not finish loading. Please select one of the following options. Go into Safe Mode; try to see if anything in the Device Manager is goofy. Mostly it's OK. Restart the machine; it starts OK. Change the screen resolution to better than the huge 640 x 400 size, shut down to finish the change; shut-down freezes. Hit the reset button; machine boots; Windows protection error; reboot into Safe Mode. In Device Manager remove the graphics device; reboot. It starts back up and find the device and installs the software for it. It finds one of two different versions. Sometimes one works, sometimes not. Shut down to finish the installation. Shut-down freezes. Hit the reset switch. Machine starts up; Windows protection error; restart the machine. Go into Safe Mode; find nothing wrong; reboot. "Windows protection error." Safe Mode; remove graphics card; reboot; Windows finds card and reinstalls software. Restart to finish software installation. "Windows protection error." That's how the cycle usually goes. Once in a while it will finish loading the graphics device and actually start fine. Then I'll load another piece of software and in the rebooting the cycle started all over again. So for now I'll run without a sound card, without the Flashpath adapter by which I can get pictures off our digital camera on the computer, without the Logitech mouse drivers. If I install something new and the computer needs to reboot to finish its installation it might get me back on the treadmill. I'm trying to avoid that. And I'm waiting until the AGP graphics card comes Tuesday hoping that will solve some of the problems. A computer isn't supposed to do this when you merely turn it off and back on!

And earlier this Saturday evening, in the midst of all this, I couldn't get back on the Internet--no connection worked. Even after calling AtHome again for tech support. The last time I tried that, two nights ago, the guy had me remove the NIC from the Device Manager only to find that I didn't have the right drivers to reinstall it. So he thought. He wanted me to get out the disk that was left with me by the AtHome tech on the initial installation back in August. I was never given a floppy containing the drivers. He'd have AtHome call me to schedule someone to come out in a day or so to install it. They never did; they didn't even call me to schedule. What they did back in August was just to use the drivers that came with Windows 98 to install it. And that has always worked for me even when I reinstalled Windows myself. And I didn't have problems reconnecting then. But now, thanks to the AtHome tech help, I had a device, the NIC, that I had to reinstall, and you know what happened? The cycle started all over again with that installation! Like I said earlier, this stuff can eventually rip your heart out! I'm just about convinced to do away with all computers forever!

So here I sit, having just a short while ago reinstalled the NIC card again, and finding out I do have Internet connection back! This time the reinstallation of the NIC worked! And I should say that when it is running as it is now it runs fabulously, very fast! The case is quiet. But I am documenting this project so that the real technical people out there can examine this and maybe gain some insight on these particulars of putting this new machine together.

March 12, 2001 3:16 PM

Update: Things looked good last night after I finally got the machine to run so I made the mistake of turning the computer off when I went to bed at 2:30 AM. Mistake because even though the machine had rebooted correctly when I installed WinZip (it requires a reboot to register some settings regarding the Context Menu's Right-click function) I thought it would come back on the next morning correctly. Indeed I had high hopes when I selected Shut down and it correctly shut itself down instead of freezing as it usually did. But, sadly, when I turned it on this morning I was greeting with the sarcasm of "Windows protection error. You must restart your computer." Thus the dice game of rebooting, Safe Mode, reboot was again enjoined. Much prayer was brought to bear, a laying on of hands, and pleading that after one of the eight or nine times I cycled through this it would work as designed. And finally it did. I felt exhausted but grateful to a God who indeed is there. I will leave the machine on until the new AGP card gets here.

March 14, 2001

I have the AGP card in hand. A Gigabyte GA-622-32C with the nVidia RIVA TNT2 M64 chip. It came to the house yesterday but no one was home to sign for it. What I'll do is leave the screen resolution at 1024 x 768, color depth at 16 bit, and refresh rate at 72Hz and restart the machine and change the BIOS IRQ settings to reflect the 2 ISA cards I have installed. Then I'll see if it reboots with or without the Windows protection error. If I don't get the error I would assume that the IRQ setting was the problem all along. If I do get the error I'll change out the video card and see if the AGP card makes any difference.

I did my experiment and changed IRQs 4 and 9 (my modem and NIC) to ISA/EISA and shut the machine off. I came back in about 5 minutes and turned it on and it booted fine! The display came back with the same configuration as it was, 16 bit color, 72Hz refresh, 1024 x 786. I then wondered about returning the AGP card and save the $72.

But one more hurdle awaited. I installed the Gigabyte utility manager to check on things like CPU temp (it's 42 ° right now) and then I did a restart. Guess what? Windows protection error! So it wasn't the IRQ's.

I pulled out the ATI card (Xpert98, an 8MB memory, PCI card, ATI 3D RagePro, chip type: Mach 64:RagePro, Driver Version 4.11.2560), put in the new card (I thought this thing had TV out!?!?) and started it up, changing to boot to AGP, installed the drivers and it works great! I've installed a few things, shutting down and restarting and it works great! Shut it down again, installed a couple more things and it still runs great! Gigabyte should advise that there could be this problem for the sake of people who might buy this board and run into this problem. In spite of the fact that some users may run this combination well, it obviously can be problematic.

March 19, 2001

It is now Friday, and while I did see one more "Windows protection error," ironically right after I downloaded and installed the latest Windows Security Updates, I have not seen it since. And I even upgraded to the current version of IE 5.5 with the tools that come with it. Still no problems. I installed the sound card and no problems. Tomorrow I'll connect the Zip drive and install Office 97. I will wait for a while before I put the Promise 33 PCI controller card in for the Seagate drive. That can wait for any old time. Right now I just want to enjoy a nicely running, fast, almost cutting edge (yeah, right!) computer. At last.

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