My new gaming PC.Every year I become temporarily insane and decide to upgrade my PC.  Since the PC marketplace is timed like dogs, twelve months is like 8 years so by the time I’m ready to torture and frustrate myself again there are all sorts of shiny new gadgets out there to mesmerize me.  To add further confusion, this time I decided to upgrade TWO computers: both my gaming PC and home computer, putting the newer components in my gaming machine and hand-me-downs in my home workstation.  This meant two motherboard upgrades and a dazzling amount of software misconfiguration thanks to the modern day miracle that is Windoze XP.

First off, I research and order all my upgrades.  This comes to $342.60, not bad considering I’m building two PCs out of the deal.  Not even that obnoxious Dell kid could do better.  The money gets me a new Asus Socket 478 Intel 865PE motherboard, 1 Gb of Kingston (2 x 512Mb) 184-Pin DDR 400 SDRAM, a Thermaltake Tsunami Black Aluminum Mid Tower case, and a NEC Black DVD burner.  The case is for my new gaming PC, as is the RAM, motherboard, and burner.  My current DVD burner (an LG model, about a year old) will be transferred to my home PC, as will my gaming MB, an older Intel 865PERL Socket 478 board, 1 Gb of RAM (a mix of 512 Mb Kingston and a stick of Best Buy “blue-light” special), and an Intel P4 2.4C Northwood 800MHz FSB Socket 478 processor.

A year ago, I bought a Prescott Intel P4 3.4 Ghz (socket 478) CPU and have watched it grow dusty on the shelf ever since, thanks to a motherboard three tiny revs BEHIND the minimum necessary to run it: this sucker’s going in the new gaming PC on the ASUS, so I don’t need the buy a new processor, and I’ll postpone going 64 bit for the moment.  Thrilling isn’t it?

All in all, a straightforward move and all on the cheap.  Oh, and my gaming PC’s video card will stay right where it is (saving a bundle), a Sapphire Radeon X800PRO 256MB (AGP 8x), meaning I’m also NOT going PCI Express.  My new home PC will also get an old Radeon 9800 Pro, also on the shelf collecting dust bunnies.  They’re both Sapphire’s, whose motto may well be “just like ATI, only cheaper.”

Other stuff includes a Thermaltake Silent Purepower 480W power supply (gaming), a Thermalright XP-90 Multiple Heatpipes CPU heatsink (gaming) fitted with a Panasonic Panaflo 92mm fan (boring), and another miscellaneous 12v power supply I found literally sitting on a desk behind me (new home PC).  All my hard drives are going to stay with their corresponding PCs, so I’m set.

Also, I buy everything I need from I love  You should too.

Everything comes from the Fed Ex guy on schedule.  The tower is shipped separately and arrives a day before the other stuff, so I unpack it and check it out.  It’s looking pretty cool.  All the wiring is there and ready to go: the drive bays are all a screw-less railing system, which is excellent and means a lot less screwing around dropping screws all over the place as you try to fit in your DVD burner or hard drives.  The case is also done up with blue LED lights: two in the front and some in the back 120mm fan.  It’s is going to look pretty cool turned on.

fedexThis is the worst part of the process because you get to look but you really can’t do anything until you have all the pieces.  The problem then, after you have the pieces, is that you have everything you need and now it’s time to start breaking things and screwing up years of data.  Of course you could back everything up (wimpy wimpy wimpy), but where’s the adventure in that?  Be bold and press on!

Despite this self-induced taunt, I DO back up some minimal amount of stuff until I get bored and decide to switch over for a scotch, Counter-Strike, and bed.

The next day is Friday and by the time I’m home from work, everything has arrived in time for the weekend.  I anxiously pull out the motherboard and – I even shocked myself – actually read the Asus board’s manual.  After a couple of hours, and several accompanying scotch and sodas, I feel ready to begin.  Everything gets powered down, opened up, and – like a mad scientist displacing God from the role of creator – spread out all over every conceivable flat surface in the room for individual examination and probable breakage.

Stage 1: Denial
The one indispensable thing you’ll need, when doing tricky hardware stuff like this, is a good, reliable set of computer tools.  Naturally, I don’t have one, so I make due with what I can scrounge out of my pantry cupboard, father’s day tool chest: a long Philips head screwdriver, a flashlight, and an overpriced Radio-Shack anti-static wrist wrap to at least delay destroying sensitive electronics like my processors.

moboI’m anxious, so I plug in the 3.4 Ghz P4 into the Asus along with the RAM, and begin fastening it to the Tsunami case.  This goes faster than expected, so I start moving over the other PCI boards from my old gaming machine.  This case (an ancient Gateway full-tower) has been with me through several upgrades already, which is why I bought the Tsunami in the first place.  It’s been “modded” (i.e., mutilated) by me over the years to accomodate changes in hardware configurations, by which I mean I’ve taken several durable pliers and tore the metal out of the way of screw holes that didn’t line up in order to make components like my power supply actually fit.  Aside from this, however, the case is in okay shape and it’s going to become the new home of my “new” home workstation.

So, Asus fastened down, my X800 in place, I hook up my hard drives and do a quick “test boot” to see if it’s at least going to boot.

I press the power.  I press it again.  Just for kicks, I press it three, four and five more times.  I take a long gulp of scotch.  I press it one more time.

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING happens.  No lights, no noise, nothing smoking, but no life at all.

Just about this time in a process like this – when you don’t really understand exactly what you’re doing, but you’re pretty sure you did it right and can’t understand why it’s not working – you start getting religious.  “This can’t be right.  Ok, just let me boot this one time, God,” you say to yourself or to God anyway, “just prove that I didn’t blow the processor, and I promise to not tell those Jehova’s Witnesses to do horrible acts of self-induced sexual gratification the next time they interrupt dinner.”

See, the truth is that nobody really knows what they’re REALLY doing when it comes to computers: in fact, watch out for those who claim otherwise because they're either liars or fools.  It has nothing to due with IQ or overall intellect, it’s just a factor of incredible complexity.  I’ve been raised in the computer age, I know the technologies, I work in the field, I’ve got years of advanced training, and a sizeable IQ.  So trust me when I say this: I don’t know EXACTLY what I’m doing, and neither does anyone else, even if they claim to.  Period.  For the most part, guys like me (I’m not unique) develop a sense of “technical intuition” about all things computer related: a heuristic grab bag of half-assed tests, trials, things to try two or three times, stuff you remember that worked once-upon-a-time, and a whole personal mixture of pseudo-philosophy that mixes one part optimism with two parts dogged perseverance that generally gets you out of all kinds of would-be computer disasters.  Intelligence is a component, but it’s really not much more than methodical trial and error.

People who don’t have this sense stand in awe of those that do.  Like an apeman banging on the monolith, they’ll often attribute a godlike quality to the beholder that they may not, in fact, possess.  Thank the Big Dude that these unenlightened souls could never in their tiny unenlightened lives actually prove this.

So, I check everything.  Everything looks okay.  I tighten some things and press the power again: still nothing.  This just simply can’t be happening: I mean, SOMETHING should happen, at least something should start sparking and/or billowing smoke!  If something would happen, at least then I’d know where to begin.  This is just crazy, it can’t be true!

By this time, hours have past along with half a bottle of scotch, so it’s time to quit.  It’s nearly midnight, and tomorrow’s another day.  Meanwhile, I get to sleep on the fact that if I can’t figure out what happened, my game PC is hosed and I’ll have to re-install everything from scratch.  But that’s okay, I wrote down all my passwords, right?

Well, of course I didn’t.  But I’m somewhat hopeful because, very often when nothing happens at all, ironically it’s not as bad as when something starts smoking.  Total failure is usually caused by something trying to prevent you from doing something really, really stupid.

Stage 2: Anger
“What kind of company makes motherboards that don’t boot up?  I installed it just like the book said to, and it just sits there, not giving me ANY information!!  What kind of moron would make such a complicated piece of engineering and give me NO FEEDBACK WHATSOEVER if I did something wrong, which is highly likely in the first place, since there are so many variables!”

“This thing is a piece of junk!  That’s it, I’ll just return it and make them give me another one!!  It’s ridiculous this standard of quality control!!”

These are the thoughts that shoot through my head as I mull over the issue during my otherwise fitful sleep.  

Then I have a dream.

I’m Ricardo Montalban on the bridge of the U.S.S. Reliant, in full Khan garb, and Tattoo walks up to me smiling and speaking incomprehensibly.  He’s jumping up and down, not speaking French – I know because I’m Ricardo, and, for some reason it makes sense to me that I do, in fact, know French – not speaking any intelligible language at all, in fact, just speaking in quick starts and stops, sputtering sentence fragments.  Just then, Kirk swings around and lets me have it with both photon torpedo tubes and everyone jumps around the bridge on cue to simulated explosions and smoke.   Junk flies everywhere: pieces of the control panels, screws, bits of steel, bread boards, lots of debris.

When I wake up, hours have passed.  I’m dehydrated and hung over.  One word sticks in my mind: short.  Tattoo, in fact, was a very short man.  He was a hound dog too, by most popular reports.  

Finally it hits me: short.  Screws.  I get out of bed and stagger downstairs.  A quick inventory of the plastic bag of pieces parts that came with the case reveals one clear fact: I didn’t use the brass standoffs when fastening the motherboard to the chassis.  In a scotch addled haze, fueled by hard rock on the radio and a desperate need to hurry up and get this project over with already, I screwed it right to the aluminum backboard.  The motherboard was shorting out.

I get some water and stagger back to bed to pass out.  I hope – really kind of desperately – that this is the last time I’ll have a dream starring Hervé Villechaize.

Stage 3: Bargaining
I start again after breakfast.  Unshowered and with coffee in hand, I head back down to the workroom to correct my mistake.  As I figured, I mucked up the motherboard fastening pretty well in my need for speed: no wonder it went so quickly.  I remove the Radeon card, remove the screws, screw in the brass standoffs to the back of the chassis, place the mobo on top of them, and fasten the screws to the standoffs, leaving a solid .5 in gap between the mobo and the back plane.  I replace the Radeon X800 Pro and ... snap.  Off goes a small plastic piece of the fastener clip to the card.  Past the point of no-return, I push on: the card eventually fits in snugly.

I get everything back to where it was, so I’m ready to boot it again.  I double check all the cable connections from the chassis to the mobo: power LEDs, restart switch, HD lights, fan connections, miscellaneous stuff like the extra USB ports, all look good.  I plug in the power cord, monitor, keyboard and mouse, reach down and press the power button.  I get a blue light.

I see the Asus startup screen and I head in to sniff around the BIOS settings.  Hard drives detected peachy, fans spinning wildly: the Tsunami case is aptly named with front and rear 120mm fans (quiet) and a 92mm side fan in the clear side of the case right around the CPU fan, giving me two 92mm fans over the CPU heat sink.  Inside the weather’s fine.
RAM is dual channeled properly, everything looks dandy.  I F10 save everything, brace myself and head back to boot up to deal with Windoze.

Stages 4 and 5: Depression and Acceptance
The internet is a wonderful thing.  Right now, because of the medium in which we publish this clarion call for stringent United Nations bandwidth taxes, there are probably hundreds of Certified Micro$oft Technicians laughing or holding their prodigious stomachs in unfettered glee.  They know what’s coming.

There’s a reason Windoze Certified Technicians get paid a premium over other PC techs in the marketplace. You have to pay people well to deal with Windoze for a living.  If I had to do it, I’m sure the suicide hotline would be #1 on my speed dial.

In short, Windoze is incomprehensible.  It’s literally a creature from a different species on a different planet in another galaxy.  It was originally designed by a C student named Bill Gates, who ripped off what he didn’t design from others, and it shows.  It crashes for no apparent reason, mathematicians routinely study it’s licensing structure for guidance in irrational number theory, and at over 30,000,000 lines of C++ code, no one developer in Macro$oft’s stadium full of software engineers really understands enough of the codebase to make any sense of it whatsoever.  At any given time there are about 2 million bugs in the NT, XP or 2000 operating systems, none of which are scheduled to be fixed because it’s not worth it.

It’s a complicated critter and, for some reason, it needs to be “fixed” whenever you install a bunch of new hardware.  I’d Google the actual procedure and include it here (you won’t find it easily on Macro$uck’s site), but I’m not going to bother because it’s not worth it.  It’s enough to say that it was a long and painful Saturday filled with more emotion than a Spielberg drama, but by the end of it, my new game PC was complete, and I didn’t have to restore anything from backup.

razerandpadThat evening, I boot up to blue lights galore and install my newly purchased copy of Call of Duty II to christen the 1 Ghz bump in processing speed.  Before you can spell “wehrmacht” I’m killing Nazis left and right, since we all know that if I don’t take out the squad immediately in front of us, the war as we know it would be over and Hitler would be serving Wiener schnitzel in the White House by lunch time.

An hour into gameplay, I realize that the pain and frustration was worth it.  No more jitter, no more skipping, much smoother physics and gameplay.   Before long, all the pain will be forgotten and I’ll do it all again when the next generation of games tempts me.

But at least I have a year without the hassle.

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