January 9, 2009

Hoping the Long Computer Nightmare Is Over...

Hatched by Dafydd

As I think I've hinted, we've been having terrible computer problems since about mid-November. This is the worst I've ever personally experienced... but with brute determination -- perhaps better phrased as mulish stubbornness -- I was finally able to put everything back together, with only a few minor setbacks caused by listening to experts.

For those who are interested in these sorts of things --

-- It all began with a crash that prevented me from booting into Windows. It seemed that some boot file had gotten corrupted. Slumming on Sachi's Mac, I found a copy of it on Microsoft's website and replaced it; and for a day or two, it appeared to be working. But then another crash, and this time it was another boot file that wouldn't run.

(I'm not going to bother editing this; so if you find some stupid tyop, or if you some missing verb, feel free to comment on it and embarass me in front of my peers. Go ahead; I'm too relieved to care.)

More noodling around the web convinced me that part of the problem was my ancient motherboard, an Asus P4S8X from the Pre-Cambrian epoch. Replacing that file too, I got Windows up and running again; but this time, I was sure it would only be temporary. I decided that now might be a good time to upgrade the motherboard... so I bought a nice Gigabyte Ultra-Durable 3, which had gotten very good reviews by both professionals and consumers.

I naively assumed that Windows -- being an operating system -- would live on the Operating-System layer, not the hardware layer; therefore, it shouldn't care what hardware sat beneath it. After all, there is the network layer (a.k.a. communications layer) sitting there in between them!

Computer Architectural System Layers

Computer Architectural System Layers

Foolish me. In reality, Windows is so fragile, so badly designed, that changing the motherboard out from under the OS caused Windows to have a complete nervous breakdown, hysterically complaining that everything was changed and it didn't know what to do.

At this point, I decided to contact the real professionals, the geniuses at the Microsoft help desk... located, as they all are, in Bangalore, India. They informed me that Windows is integrated with the hardware (what a great design!) and could not be run on a new motherboard. They suggested I should simply buy another copy of Windows (the one I have was an upgrade from Windows ME, not a full-install version) and install it. This, they swore, would take care of the whole problem.

It took a while -- everybody is frantically flogging Windows Vista, not Windows XP -- but I finally found a full-install version of Windows for about $100. As instructed, I installed it in a different partition from the old Windows.

Surprise! While Windows did come up, it had no knowledge of any of my 126 applications. None of them. Thus, I would have to reinstall them all; naturally, I didn't have disks for each of them; while I have no illegal software here, I have certainly not kept tabs on each and every set of CDs (or in some cases, floppies) of every legacy program I have and use.

At this point, I belatedly remembered that I had used Norton Ghost to make disk images of every partition on my drives, just about three days before the crash; they were sitting on my terabyte Apricorn external USB hard drive. Aha, I thought, perhaps I can restore the system by just copying the disk images onto the partitions of my hard drive, replacing the new motherboard with the old one, and firing it up. There was only one catch: My Norton Ghost program was, of course, an application on the system of which Windows was unaware. In fact, I couldn't even run it by going to its directory and double-clicking the application file.

The only solution -- suggested by new help-deck experts from Bangalore, this time working for Symantec (which owns Norton Utilities) but sounding suspiciously like the previous experts allegedly working for Microsoft -- appeared to be to buy a new copy of Norton SystemWorks. Well, all right; my old copy was from 2005, perhaps it was time to upgrade. But I was beginning to notice that all "solutions" seemed to begin and end with buying more software from the experts' employers. Odd.

Skipping lightly over the fact that the new SystemWorks conflicted with ZoneAlarm, when I tried to restore the ghost image to the partitions, both the C: and D: drives had serious errors. The Norton experts assured me this was due to the hard disk itself, on which they say, being old, decrepit, decayed, and in a bad way generally.

I bunged out and bought a new drive; but the only drive I could find big enough to put all the partitions on one physical drive (to avoid buying two new ones, you see) was made for a SATA bus -- a different, more modern sort of connection to the motherboard than the old IDE 13,226,425-pin connectors we've all come to know and loathe. But again, I got the same errors.

I decided to heck with it; I would go with what I had. I rereplaced the motherboard with the original, hooked up the new drive (with the error-riddled, restored ghost images), booted, and --

Nothing. Nothing at all. It was as if there were no hard drive there whatsoever. Which was actually the case, as it turned out that the SATA connectors on the old motherboard were just there for show, I suppose, and didn't really work. Neither did the SATA card I installed. It seemed my only choice was to put the old drives back in; but when I did that, they failed.

At this point, all that mulishness set in; I decided I would put this bloody, blasted, tanstaafled system back together if it killed me. So there.

I had to (a) find a working IDE drive that was big enough, then (b) somehow partition it and get the Ghost disk images onto it, then (c) put it in the original motherboard, and finally (d) fix whatever errors were caused in the drives by all this nonsense. That meant removing the old board and putting the new one back in again, just long enough to run through the recovery-restoration procedure with the new SystemWorks. After doing this, I again replaced the new with the old, plugged in the new IDE drive, and turned everything on.

Nothing. I couldn't see a thing. Of course, one of the problems was that the old board wasn't quite installed correctly (it couldn't be), and the video card didn't sit low enough to be screwed tight. I tried poking at it, and for a brief moment, I saw some video. That meant that the current problem was a lack of a working video card.

I bought a replacement; I've always used nVidia GeForce cards... but this time I was misled by reviews to buy a Radeon whateveryoucallit instead. Surprise surprise! The card not only didn't work in my system -- it made such a mess misinstalling its drivers that it scragged the disk again!

Again I had to remove the old board for the new, restore the disk images for the fifth or sixth time, swap back to the old board, and plug in the drive again. (I did return the Radeon and get my money back, thank you very much for asking.)

Now I was stuck; a month and a half had passed, and I was still stealing time on Sachi's machine. We trundled out to Orlando, Florida, to see Brad (lurking at the threshold of his ancestral manse in the nearby Florida town of Brand New Arkham), leaving the computer disembowled all over the living room. Upon our return, I wearily returned to the seven-weeks war.

Shortly before leaving, I found a guy in Hong Kong offering (on eBay) the very last GeForce video card made to fit into an AGP slot -- which is what the old board had for its graphics port. By the time we returned to stormy SoCal, this GeForce 7600 had arrived. Alas, when I tried it out, it failed to work. He was rather nice, agreeing to exchange it for another... so long as I sent the first one back to HK.

In the meanwhile, I discovered that I could unscrew part of the mounting assembly on my old GeForce Ti 4200 and, by bending the metal mount into a pretzel, get it close enough that I could screw it tightly to the chassis. But it still wouldn't work... and neither would any other card, not even in the normal PCI card slots. Somehow, in the course of all this removal and replacement, sticking cards in an out of the slots, the board was damaged -- and dead.

This is starting to sound like that children's book Fortunately, by Remy Charlip: Fortunately, I was able to make the video card fit. Unfortunately, the board broke. Fortunately, I found some guy -- also on eBay -- selling the identical motherboard. Unfortunately, that was more days delay, first for the auction to close (though I was the only bidder) and then for the USPS to get it here by (ho ho) "next day" air.

The end is in sight. The board finally arrived; I put it together, and everything seemed to work well. Except, not being able to leave well enough alone, I decided that maybe everything would be really all right if I just flashed (upgraded) the BIOS, the little chip that tells the system how to interact with the outside world -- with disk drives, keyboards, mice, monitors, and so forth.

You're way ahead of me. I downloaded the latest BIOS program, ran the "E-Z" flash system -- and the flash failed. Not only did it fail, it left the board unable to recognize the existence of such a thing as a "keyboard!" At this point, I was looking for some cholera-infected water to drink. None was to be found, unfortunately.

Fortunately, I contacted Asus (the board maker), and they agreed to send me a new BIOS chip. Feeling sorry for me, they also agreed not to charge me the $20 they normally charge for such chips, because it was their fault; but their sorrow did allow them to charge me $25 instead -- for overnight delivery by FredEx.

Well, the chip arrived today. I managed to prise the old one out and install the new, and now everything looks fine. I installed my new external sound card (the old one died somewhere in the midst of all the monkeyshines), had to re-activate Windows (which grew suspicious at all the new hardware it was seeing around itself), and I think -- hope -- pray, if I were a believer, that is -- that I have finally fulfilled my vow.

And I didn't even have to be killed.

(Published raw without editing. Read at your own risk. Wash your hat and coat.)

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, January 9, 2009, at the time of 4:15 AM

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The following hissed in response by: kimsch

I have to ask... Would it have been cheaper to buy a new pc and use ghost to reinstall the software?

The above hissed in response by: kimsch [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2009 5:29 AM

The following hissed in response by: Da Coyote

Of course, since my wife and I have almost completed our "Microsoft-free" environment (with 4 Macs and a Linux machine) - and an XP machine there unplugged just in case we need to experience the Trabant of Operating systems, we are happy.

It nauseates me when I have to go to work and live in a Microsoft environment.

The above hissed in response by: Da Coyote [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2009 5:53 AM

The following hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr

Whew -- what an unpleasant experience. I'm glad you got through it, and I strongly hope your system remains stable.

Frankly, I'm afraid any operating system would have choked when someone swapped out the motherboard; contrary to that diagram, the OS sits directly on top of the hardware, and mediates all access to it; that's the full purpose of an OS, in the same way that protecting private property is the full purpose of the government ;-). I'm not sure what that diagram is trying to show -- if it's saying that the OS uses the network whenever it wants to send a command to the hardware it's dead wrong.

What Windows does wrong is that it doesn't make it possible to swap out the motherboard drivers when you need to swap out the motherboard. Oh, it's also screwy that you lose all your applications. Unfortunately, this is typical Windows. Mac applications are designed to be self-contained; Linux applications are usually well enough documented that an admin can move them without having to reinstall. Oh well, not much you can do there.

As a replacement for Ghost, you might consider downloading SystemRescueCd, which includes a very capable imaging tool (also useful for backup, although it's a good idea to keep a file-level backup), a partition resizing and management tool, and many other useful toys. It has a decent GUI too, but doesn't start out with it running (the GUI startup command is 'wizard'). There's a number of other nice choices, but that one's well maintained and built for the single purpose of system rescue.


The above hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2009 7:29 AM

The following hissed in response by: Karmi

Good job and great story! You certainly have more patience than me, and I have a lot.

Went to Vista two years ago (two computers + two 19" WS TFT-LCD's - for just over $900 after rebates...total). Gave away the Win ME (upgraded to XP) machine. Love Vista...

Started cleaning one about five months ago...get a lot of dust in my hut since I don't ever "dust," just vacuum it up when it gets too deep to walk in. Dust can be murder on fans and processors, so I was cleaning the computer out and damaged the AMD processor. Sent away for a new one...didn't work. Called support, and they said it sounded like a damaged mother board. Hey, I had never used a AMD processor before! Sent off for the cheapest mother board from Tiger Direct, but most of the pins didn't match up...fan pins matched (I had made sure of that) but not the others. Got it working, but the three fans sounded like I had an air-boat running instead of a computer. Tinkered with and upgraded the bios, but still noisy.

Had spent almost two-hundred gringo dollars on processor and MB...bought a new computer from Office Depot last month, for $229 after rebates. Gutted the old one for memory and RW/DVD/CD player, and am back to two good computers.

Mounted the old computer onto my jon boat (run it with a generator), and raced air-boats with it, until they stopped allowing me to enter the races. It was just to fast an noisy...

The above hissed in response by: Karmi [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2009 7:52 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


I have to ask... Would it have been cheaper to buy a new pc and use ghost to reinstall the software?

Wouldn't work for the same reason swapping the motherboard failed: The disk image would be of a Windows that expected to find the Asus P4S8X-X motherboard, and would instead find whatever motherboard was installed in the new computer.

I have read that there is a way to swap motherboards in Windows, and I plan to try after a week or two, when I've recovered physically and emotionally from this ordeal; but I'm first going to clone the hard disk, install the clone, and try this with the clone in place... so when it fails -- sorry, I mean IF if fails -- I can just swap back the original motherboard and original disk and all will be as it was before.

The instructions are found here; those of you who know more about computers than I (which is probably the lion's share of you, as I only know what I've been forced to learn over the years by fixing my own crashed systems) can pass judgment on its likelihood success...


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2009 2:51 PM

The following hissed in response by: Evilned

I feel your pain...And LAUGH!!

My present title is Applications administrator. What I am is a systems administrator.

As soon as I read that you had called MS Support I knew that you were doomed. Doomed. Doomed, Dafydd was Doomed.
(Sorry, I was channeling Sen. Byrd there for a moment)

First thing you should have done was BACK UP EVERYTHING as soon as you were able to boot the first time. Ghost just doesn't cut it. It's good for reloading a system, but with the new hardware...uh uh.

Sitting on my desk is a laptop that the office manager wants reloaded. I'm going to erase it and start from scratch. It will have a basic loadout of applications.

I have everything right here in my software library. I am...prepared.

I never buy an O/S upgrade. I always get a full new version. When I install it, I back up and load from scratch.

From the sounds of things, this system hasn't been formatted and reloaded since the last Ice Age. You should reimage at least once a year depending on what you do.

Now I will go and and stand over here and taunt you some more. :D

The above hissed in response by: Evilned [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2009 3:46 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


Well, if you have a contact at Microsoft who will sell me full-install versions of Windows for the same price as upgrades, and if you know of a good systems engineer willing to do all that backup and reinstall work for me for free, then I'll cheerfully do everything just as you say from now on!


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2009 4:49 PM

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