Sunday, November 14, 2010

Another Computer Tale Of Terror!

I can't remember the last time I posted anything of substance on the blog here. Basically my life is work, eat, sleep, and enjoy the alternate weeks I have with my daughter, and let's face it no one wants to read about that,, not a lot of material there for blogging. However, I do love computers and technology so here is another Computer Tale of Terror! Click on any picture below to open a larger version in a new window.

Front view of my Home Theater PC

For those who follow me on Facebook, you know for the past several weeks I've been having problems with my Home Theater PC (HTPC). It had been freezing up, hanging, and finally experiencing the dreaded Blue Screen Of Death. Running the event log on the system showed a non-descriptive atapi error, with the only info being that the system had detected an error on the controller. Running this through Microsoft's automated Event Log Online Help returned what it does for so many Windows errors. A generic statement to the effect of "Beats the hell out of me!" was the only thing the service provided.

The Cramped Confines of my HTPC

Once researching this further online I discovered there were so many reasons this could occur, and I won't bore you with them here. The main one of course would be a bad hard disk. Seeing as I had just replaced a bad hard disk with a brand new one, the odds for that were slim, but I did a thorough test of the hard disk, power supply, I added extra cooling in the form of the fan I usually use for extra cooling int he summer blowing right on the PC. That method helped alleviate the issue, but after a week or so it got worse and would often show the symptoms after a cold start.

I changed the drive cables and I put the drive on a different controller on the motherboard. I also removed the other SATA device, a DVD burner, just in case it was throwing the errors. No luck.

By a long process of elimination this appeared to be a bad SATA controller on the system motherboard. A two-fold sense of dread filled me. First is the cost, about $225 to replace the motherboard, and with money being tight after a year of unexpected expenses around my sons and some other areas, I really did not have the green for the replacement. Second, the inside of the HTPC case is so tight and cramped. Because the DVD drive and the power supply share the same bay, and because the many cables from the power supply go through a cutup in the wall between that part of the case and where the motherboard goes, it is virtually impossible to get the DVD and Power supply seated in their part of the case as the DVD drive goes in a cage that fits into rails on the case and you have to insert it at a 45 degree angle. If you could just drop that straight down, or drop the power supply straight down after the DVD drive is in it would be fine. But because the power supply cables go through that cutout you can't, because the cables are int he way. It was a nightmare last time getting them in, and I used enough force that could have conceivable damaged the DVD drive.

The cramped and cluttered cable hole by the Power Supply

So, what to do, what to do, what to do? I had often thought that instead of a hole to the left of the power supply for cables to go through, they should have just notched a cutout on top of that wall that the cables could lust be laid down on. With that thought in mind I figured I would get a dremel tool and modify the case to that effect!

Now I have to back up a bit.....this was Friday night. The weekend before I had come to the conclusion that I had to replace the motherboard, and because I really liked this board's features, and because Windows can be very unforgiving of motherboard changes without a reinstall, I wanted to get the same board.

SURPRISE! As it's over a year old it is not in production. I Googled the part number and fund three places that had it, two of which wanted about $80 more than I paid for the board 18 months ago. The third, and outfit called On The Fly Computer Guy, had it for about what I had paid for it. So, Saturday I ordered one, and paid via PayPal along with an extra $10 for airmail because I wanted it by Thursday since I had Veterans Day off.. When I had not gotten a conformation of my order pack from On The Fly Computer Guy by Tuesday I contacted them. They had not received the payment from PayPal so they canceled my order? Did they contact me and tell me this or contact me right after the order was placed to get payment info? No! I felt this was very poor customer service. So, I put the order in again and this time someone named Mike at On The Fly Computer Guy saw it go through, and he said he would send it out the next morning.

I was hopeful I might still see it by Friday since I had paid for airmail, but when I'd not seen a tracking number by Thursday I contacted Mike again, only to be told they did not have it in stock and it was a discontinued item. I told him that I knew it was discontinued, but why I wanted that particular number. He had provided three links (though they were sent as clear text) for three other boards on his site, but as their site only had the board model number and NO technical details I would have to Google the part number to get the particulars. I left Mike with the statement stating that it would have been nice to have better communications from them. I wonder what would have happened if I had not contacted him Thursday when he had said he was processing my order first thing Wednesday morning! DOUBLE SURPRISE! I just checked my bank account and PayPal and I have not yet received the credit back, so I just dropped Mike another email. I sense a very negative review for the place on Google shopping, perhaps with a copy to the folks at PayPal.

A Golden Memory!

Phew! This is a lot of typing! I took a break, had a light lunch, watched an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and I'm back. (Note I took a second break halfway through rescaling the pictures to use for this post and watched an episode of Food Wars).

So, since I was not willing to pony up another $80 on top of the base cost of my old motherboard I entered into research mode to find a suitable new motherboard. As the form factor for this is Micro-ATX, my choices were more limited (MicroATX is a smaller form factor designed to fix into things like Home Theater PCs. One thing I like about my HTPC is it looks like a stereo receiver, not a PC.

I found an excellent motherboard for about the same cost as the one I was replacing; an ASUS Rampage III Gene. It had all the features the board had and more, such as USB 3.0 and 6 GB SATA. It also has the advantage of being able to run my memory faster than the old board. I was going to order from (often my first choice for new technology purchases) but to get expedited shipping to have the board out early the next week (this was Thursday night remember) was more than the airmail fee the first place wanted. As I have Amazon Prime which gives me free two days shipping and overnight shipping for $3.99, I decided to check there though Amazon often charges a bit more than newegg. I was pleasantly surprised to find the board was in stock and a few dollars cheaper. The system said if I ordered within the NEXT MINUTE I could have overnight delivery! I blazed through checkout and mistyped my password and missed the overnight deadline! I was most ticked at myself! I would have to settle for Saturday delivery, now considered overnight because we were into Friday's delivery window. So, at least I could get the PC back up on Saturday, plus I figured I could do the tear down after work Friday.

ASUS Rampage III Gene

Note Friday afternoon at work I checked the tracking status and noted with delight that it was already out for delivery! I would be able to begin after work.

Friday evening I arrived home, and managed to coax a boot out of the dying system. I went into device manager and deleted all devices except the video card and hard disk. This would make Windows more accepting of the motherboard model swap. That done I removed the HTPC from the entertainment system cabinet where it usually resides and was just starting the tear down when my son Chris called, asking if I wanted him to come over and visit. Since I've not had the pleasure of his company for many weeks, I said sure, and I feverishly worked to at least get the majority of the tear down done. Chris arrived and we spent several hours watching TV (multiple episodes of Man Vs. Food, and an episode of Food Wars wile enjoying sandwiches from Jimmy Johns) and then he departed.

I finished the tear down and then HTPC case in hand I headed to the garage to make the case modification shown in the two pictures below. The sparks were literally flying as I used my handy Dremel tool to cut out the wall where supply cables go and turn it into a notch out. It took longer than I thought because once I started cutting and got through the first layer of metal, I discovered they had double-rolled it underneath to give the top edge more support. The stench of tortured hot metal filled the garage while I worked and I had to open both bay doors. I also went through 5 cheap grinding disks because of the angle I had to hold the tool in the cramped confines of the HTPC case's interior.

I then blew the case out, vacuumed the case out, and damp widened the case out several times to remove all the metal and grit particles from within the case's interior. Note the picture below shows the case before the mod on the left, and after the mod on the right. All the cut edges have been sanded to make sure they are smooth and can't cut into the cables that will go there.

Before and after the case wall modification

I then started the reassembly of the system, first installing the motherboard. the hard drive cage, and the CPU and memory. Then I installed the DVD drive and power supply which went together so easily thanks to my case modification. I installed the video card and then connected a monitor and very briefly powered the system to see if it would POST (Power On Self Test). It POSTed fine, so I then added the CPU fan and screwed everything into place.

Oh No! The system would turn on using the front panel power button! I had used the power switch on the motherboard (Yes, this motherboard has a power switch and a reset switch right on the motherboard) to test the system earlier.

I soon realized that there were two leads coming from the case marked Power Switch, one was not used in my current configuration, so I just had to swap them. Unfortunately to get at this jumper block on the motherboard I had to take the video card out. Once that was done and the correct Power On lead used, I finished the assembly, put the cover on, and pressed the power button on the case's front. The system booted right into windows, and several reboots got it through discovering the majority of the motherboard devices. Others would have to be loaded later once I had the system back on the internet.

New Mobo powered up with CPU FAN spinning

I reinstalled the HTPC back into the cabinet, and at 2 AM called it a day, feeding Tails who had been at my side for the majority of the time I was working, and then heading off to bed.

Saturday I reactivated windows which worked on-line without the dreaded phone call to Microsoft since I had only changed one component, and I loaded the missing drivers via downloads from ASUS. It was nice to be able to play games and have the system back!

Tails staring at me around 1:30 AM; nice!

I also noted via monitoring of the systems internals, that with the better cable placement I was able to do thanks to the case mod that the system is running cooler and quieter. I surmise the motherboard might have started degrading over the long hot summer. I feel confident now that even when warm weather returns that the system will run cooler! I'm also thinking that the hard drive that I replaced in October could have failed because of the degraded motherboard.

1 comment:

David Louis Harter said...


That is an excellent account! I certainly hope this brings an end to your HTPC woes! Hopefully, you can now enjoy it without issues!

- David