Best left until later in the year?

In the middle of last year, my home computing experience was one of feeling displaced. A combination of a stupid accident and a power outage had rendered my main PC unusable. What followed was an enforced upgrade that use combination that was familiar to me: Gigabyte motherboard, AMD CPU and Crucial memory. However, assembling that lot and attaching components from the old system from the old system resulted in the sound of whirring fans but nothing appearing on-screen. Not having useful beeps to guide me meant that it was a case of undertaking educated guesswork until the motherboard was found to be at fault. In a situation like this, a deeper knowledge of electronics would have been handy and might have saved me money too. As for the motherboard, it is hard to say whether it was a faulty set from the outset or whether there was a mishap along the way, either due ineptitude with static or incompatibility with a power supply. What really tells the tale on the mainboard was the fact that all of the other components are working well in other circumstances, even that old power supply.

A few years back, I had another experience with a problematic motherboard, an Asus this time, that ate CPU’s and damaged a hard drive before I stabilised things. That was another upgrade attempted in the first half of the year. My first round of PC building was in the third quarter of 1998 and that went smoothly once I realised that a new case was needed. Similarly, another PC rebuild around the same time of year in 2005 was equally painless. Based on these experiences, I should not be blamed for waiting until later in the year before doing another rebuild, preferably a planned one rather than an emergency.

Of course, there may be another factor involved too. The hint was a non-working Sony DVD writer that was acquired early last year when it really was obvious that we were in the middle of a downturn. Could older unsold inventory be a contributor? Well, it fits in with seeing poor results twice, In addition, it would certainly tally with a problematical PC rebuild in 2002 following the end of the Dot Com bubble and after the deadly Al Qaeda attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. An IBM hard drive that was acquired may not have been the best example of the bunch and the same comment could apply to the Asus motherboard. The resulting construction may have been limping but it was working and I tolerated.

In contrast, last year’s episode had me launched into using a Toshiba laptop and a spare older PC for my needs with an external hard drive enclosure used to extract my data onto other external hard drives to keep me going. It felt a precarious arrangement but it was a useful experience in ways too. There was cause for making acquaintance with nearby PC component stores that I hadn’t visited before and I got to learning about things that otherwise wouldn’t have come my way. Using an external hard drive enclosure for accessing data on hard drives from a non-functioning PC is one of these. Discovering that it is possible to boot from external optical and hard disk drives came as a surprise too and will work so long as there is motherboard support for it. Another experience came from a crisis of confidence that had me acquiring a bare-bones system from Novatech and populating it with optical and hard disk drives. Then, I discovered that I have no need for power supplies rated more than 300 watts (around 200 W suffices). Turning my PC off more often became a habit friendly both to the planet and to household running costs too. Then, there’s the beneficial practice of shopping locally and it can suffice even if what PC magazines stick on their hot lists but shopping online for those pieces doesn’t guarantee success either. All of these were useful lessons and, while I’d rather not throw away good money after bad, it goes to show that even unsuccessful acquisitions had something to offer in the form of learning opportunities. Whether you consider that is worthwhile is up to you.

Still able to build PC systems

This weekend has been something of a success for me on the PC hardware front. Earlier this year, a series of mishaps rendering my former main home PC unusable; it was a power failure that finished it off for good. My remedy was a rebuild using my then usual recipe of a Gigabyte motherboard, AMD CPU and crucial memory. However, assembling the said pieces never returned the thing to life and I ended up in no man’s land for a while, dependent on and my backup machine and laptop. That wouldn’t have been so bad but for the need for accessing data from the old behemoth’s hard drives but an external drive housing set that in order. Nevertheless, there is something unfinished about work with machines having a series of external drives hanging off them. That appearance of disarray was set to rights by the arrival of a bare bones system from Novatech in July with any assembly work restricted to the kitchen table.There was a certain pleasure in seeing a system come to life after my developing a fear that I had lost all of my PC building prowess.

That restoration of order still left finding out why those components bought earlier in the year didn’t work together well enough to give me a screen display on start-up. Having electronics testing equipment and the knowledge of its correct use would make any troubleshooting far easier but I haven’t got these. There is a place near to me where I could go for this but you are left wondering what might be said to a PC build gone wrong. Of course, the last thing that you want to be doing is embarking on a series of purchases that do not fix the problem, especially in the current economic climate.

One thing to suspect when all doesn’t turn out as hoped is the motherboard and, for whatever reason, I always suspect it last. It now looks as if that needs to change after I discovered that it was the Gigabyte motherboard that was at fault. Whether it was faulty from the outset or it came a cropper with a rogue power supply or careless with static protection is something that I’ll never know. An Asus motherboard did go rogue on me in the past and it might be that it ruined CPU’s and even a hard drive before I laid it to rest. Its eventual replacement put a stop to a year of computing misfortune and kick-started my reliance on Gigabyte. That faith is under question now but the 2009 computing hardware mishap seems to be behind me and any PC rebuilds will be done on tables and motherboards will be suspected earlier when anything goes awry.

Returning to the present, my acquisition of an ASRock K10N78 and subsequent building activities has brought a new system using an AMD Phenom X4 CPU and 4 GB of memory into use. In fact, I writing these very words using the thing. It’s all in a new TrendSonic case too (placing an elderly behemoth into retirement) and with a SATA hard drive and DVD writer. The new motherboard has onboard audio and graphics so external cards are not needed unless you are an audiophile and/or a gamer; for the record, I am neither. Those additional facilities make for easier building and fault-finding should the undesirable happen.

The new box is running the release candidate of Ubuntu 9.10 and it seems to be working without a hitch too. Earlier builds of 9.10 broke in their VirtualBox VM so you should understand the level of concern that this aroused in my mind; the last thing that you want to be doing is reinstalling an operating system because its booting capability breaks every other day. Thankfully, the RC seems to have none of these rough edges so I can upgrade the Novatech box, still my main machine and likely to remain so for now, with peace of mind when the time comes.