Misadventures in (Re-)Building Computers

I’ve had an interesting few weeks.

On the 23rd of May, my venerable old desktop PC (Canidae) died a final death. When the end came it was abrupt; I was right in the middle of a Mass Effect multiplayer match when Canidae departed from this world! The screen went dark, the power light vanished and silence descended inside the room. My first thought was that I’d been kicked off again by EA’s notoriously-wobbly servers – but no, no such luck!

As these things tend to, Canidae had picked the worst possible time to expire. I’m currently job-hunting (that being the polite way of admitting to unemployment!) and also trying to get on with the corrections to my PhD thesis. Having my home computer expire on me at this juncture … yes. Not an ideal event, needless to say!

Further investigation eventually revealed that the culprit was a fried motherboard.

Various schemes were attempted to revive poor old Canidae; they pretty much all failed. I even resorted to buying a new PC, only to discover that it too had a string of critical hardware faults and was basically unusable. Unfortunately, I had thought these problems were software issues; I had also then thought, ‘Ah-ha! I have several physics degrees! This poorly computer, let me fix it!’

Yup, fatal over-confidence.

By the time I realised that the New Broken Box (hereafter; NBB) was indeed irreparably-broken, I had done an excellent job of voiding the warranty. I’d put a new OS on it and everything! It was all very diligent and self-motivated, but unfortunately what it meant was that I could no longer get a refund on the useless thing. And the New Broken Box remained as broken as ever[1]. Oops; £250 down the toilet, then!

I went back to Canidae’s corpse, and resolved to put a new motherboard in. When you phrase it like that, it sounds so simple, doesn’t it? It wasn’t simple; it turned out none of the existing hardware was compatible with the new motherboard.

Canidae dates from 2008; apparently back before the world’s economy collapsed, in that ancient antediluvian era computers used a different type of RAM chip. (I exaggerate slightly; I now know that the DDR2 -> DDR3 switch-over happened around 2010.) Canidae had DDR2; the new motherboard demanded DDR3. Apparently, doing +1 makes quite the difference.

I managed to cannibalise some components from the NBB; it had DDR3 RAM chips, so at least I didn’t have to buy them.

However, none of my collection of fans, heatsinks and processors could be fitted to the new motherboard. As in, they literally could not be physically-connected. I’d had no idea that Intel and AMD setups were so incredibly different. Canidae had Intel, the new motherboard demanded AMD. So back to Amazon/eBay/everywhere I went.

The new processor finally arrived on Friday the 7th of June. I’ve had no Mass Effect multiplayer for weeks now; the withdrawal symptoms are getting pretty severe. After a lot of false starts, I’ve managed to cobble together a machine that will at least boot, and can connect to the Internet (I’m typing this post on Canidae 2.0 right now). It’s a bizarre Frankenstein of a computer, made out of some new components and some cannibalised bits of two other machines. It has an ASRock N68C-GS FX motherboard, 2x 2.0 GB of DDR3 RAM, a 1-Terabyte hard drive from the NNB [2] and an AMD Athlon II X4 processor (3.0 Ghz). [3] The only actual bits of Old Canidae left are the casing, the power cable, the monitor (a HP w1907 19″, for the record) and also the DVD drive. Yes, I have indeed created a monster!

In my defence, I’ll note that I had no idea beforehand that a borked motherboard would effectively mean *building* myself a new computer.

There have been some casualties from this process, though. Apparently, putting in a new motherboard makes Windows have some sort of electronic fit, and it almost always has to be reinstalled from scratch. This was why I swapped in the NBB’s hard drive; I could clean-install Windows there without destroying the data on Old Canidae’s HD. (I hope the data is okay on the old HD; I don’t actually know that it is!)

Although Old Canidae’s HD is safe for the time being, I have to confess to having absolutely no idea what to do with it. Presumably there must be some way to get at what’s on it, but I don’t know how. (Amongst other things, the old HD has the most up-to-date Word document for The Misfits, for instance, as well as a lot of notes relating to job applications and almost all of my 3D renders. There are backups, but the most recent is from December last year. So not that useful.)

Also, there is still a bridge that needs to be crossed with regards to Canidae 2,0; that bridge is called graphics cards. Canidae 2.0’s motherboard actually has a built-in graphics card; unfortunately, it turns out that it’s a bit crap. The most recent game it can cope with is Halo 2. I tried using my old nVidia GeForce 9800 card, except that apparently that’s died a death too – when it’s installed in the PCIe slot, Canidae 2.0 completely refuses to start up! It doesn’t even get to the BIOS – push the power button and nothing happens!

Take the 9800 GT out, and then Canidae 2.0 will happily power up.

Somehow this doesn’t fill me with confidence for trying to acquire a new card. But, I want my Mass Effect back, damn it! So I guess I’m going to have to try.

Wish me luck…

[1] If you’re interested, the problem was that NBB had no networking capacity – the motherboard refused to recognise the existence of its LAN and wireless hardware. Every attempt to install the hardware drivers failed, including going through the BIOS.
[2] This, at least, was an improvement; Old Canidae’s HD was only 500 GB.
[3] Yes, you’re entirely right – I have basically no idea what I’m doing!


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