How (not) to Build a Computer

This was supposed to be a relaxing Labor Day weekend for me. I was supposed to have some time off and be able to just relax and kick back and enjoy the free time.

Note that I said “supposed to”. It didn’t happen like that. What DID happen was something even I would not believe if I hadn’t actually seen it myself.

Obviously, I work on computers for a living. Naturally, I do a little “side work”, fixing up and/or installing computers for friends, family, small businesses, etc. Well, my wife’s employer called me up and said they had a computer that was acting up and could I please take a look at it?

I drove up to Scottsdale and took a look. Sure enough, the hard drive was failing. Lots of errors, plus it had a Windows CONFIGMG error, which I had seen only once before. The computer itself was an AMD Duron 800MHz with
128Mb RAM and a 12Gb hard drive. I began running Scandisk, which would recover data and mark all bad areas of the hard drive as non-writable, but the program (at 800Mhz, mind you) was running at a speed of like 1 data cluster per minute. At that rate, with 1.2 million clusters, I’d have been there all night!

So, I said I’d take it home, recover the data, get a new hard drive, and get it back to them by Sunday evening. I took it home, set it up in my office, began running Scandisk, and went to bed. The next morning, I found that it hadn’t finished running Scandisk. Apparently, Scandisk restarted more than 10 times in the night and had basically aborted! (Stupid Windows98…)

Ok, fine. I booted from a Win98 floppy disk to command prompt and ran Scandisk that way. Much faster – 149 clusters per second. Cool. At that rate, it should be done in a couple of hours.

After it completed, I got dressed and went to PC Club to pick up a hard drive that they had advertised (30Gb Maxtor for $65). Problem was that they were out and all they had was 40Gb Maxtors for $81. Seeing as the client was going to end up paying for it in the long run, I picked it up anyway.

I return home and open up the case for the first time. I note that the case has the eMachines logo on it – I’m thinking that this is an eMachines computer and that it’s going to be difficult to get everything in and out of it. (It turned out – I found out later – that this machine was not an eMachines computer; it was something an ex-employee of the restaurant had built AND sold to the restaurant for around $700. I’d say the restaurant got rooked…)

Now, remember, I had been working on this so far without opening the case. What I found can only be described as incompetence (and probably the reason why the computer was failing to begin with).

The first thing I noticed – the motherboard was bolted to the case with the foam padding still on the back. Yes, the foam padding that they use to SHIP THE MOTHERBOARD IN THE BOX.

Next, the CPU fan power wires were SPLICED to the case’s power supply. Normally a CPU fan has its own connector to connect to the motherboard, not the case’s power supply. The genius that put this together had taken one of the normal power connectors for a hard drive or CD-ROM and cut the wires, then spliced them to the CPU fan and used ELECTRICAL TAPE to make the connection. Whoops! since a CPU fan only uses 2 wires, he had to leave the other two alone – so they were just hanging out, EXPOSED. If they had touched ANYTHING (and it’s a miracle they hadn’t), the power supply could’ve shorted out (because it would’ve automatically grounded), or, worse, if the wires had touched each other, the power supply could’ve done something really nasty.

Oh, and the moment I moved the case to a 45 degree angle to see better, the CPU fan stopped working. Yipes!!

The hard drive was being held in place by a SINGLE screw in the 5.25″ bay (a hard drive belongs in the 3.5″ bay, like a floppy drive).

Other things I noticed – the motherboard had USB slots, but the person who put together this machine was making them use a USB-to-serial converter for their USB mouse! I don’t know if the guy just didn’t know how to enable USB
in the BIOS (or if he knew how to ACCESS the BIOS!!!) or if the USB part was just dead, but a USB-to-serial converter??? C’mon, PS/2 mice are cheap!

The video card was a 2Mb PCI video card. Why they were using that, I don’t know, because the motherboard has an AGP slot!!!

The SDRAM memory was one 128MB chip in Bank 0. Bank 1 was available, except that there were no clips to hold the memory in place! (Apparently they had broken off…) This means that the best that this motherboard could ever do was 512Mb (assuming it could handle a single 512Mb chip…)

The modem was a CNR modem – which needs a special slot. Ugh. I don’t even know if it was a 56k modem or what.

The client had also complained that he didn’t have any sound that worked – the motherboard had on-board sound, but heaven only knows if THAT was enabled or not…

Anyway, after doing a little research, I found that the Windows CONFIGMG error means that the OS can’t flush the L2 cache from the CPU on boot. In layman’s terms, that means that Windows couldn’t initialize the CPU’s extra
memory space. The recommendation was to upgrade the BIOS or disable the L2 cache.

Of course, the BIOS is at its latest level, so I tried disabling the cache. Immediately, the computer stopped giving CONFIGMG errors, BUT… it also took two minutes (!!) to boot, and when I ran any programs (like Excel), they took
forever to load.

Solution: new motherboard/CPU. Needed a new motherboard anyway, since it was uncertain what had melted from the foam padding onto the motherboard, and it was obvious that Windows was having a tough time with the CPU to begin with. Plus, I needed to get a PS/2 mouse for this client – I couldn’t, in good conscience, make them use a USB port for a mouse when they had a PS/2 port available.

So I take out the hard drive and put it and the new hard drive in my lab PC. Fire up Norton Ghost and copy the entire disk from the old drive to the new. That’ll take a couple of hours (copying 12Gb isn’t exactly a fast process…)
By now it’s 8pm. Nothing’s open except Comp USA and I ain’t buying anything there… so it’ll have to wait until Monday.

Monday afternoon, it’s back to PC Club to purchase an AMD motherboard/CPU combo – one of PC Club’s strongest selling points – an AMD Duron 1.3GHz and an MSI motherboard with on-board sound, on-board 16Mb AGP video, and on-board 10/100 ethernet LAN. (Bonus, now if
they ever get DSL or cable internet, they have the network card part already in the computer!) No CNR slot, so I would be swapping a PCI modem for the CNR one. Oh well, I have three or four laying around collecting dust, so I might as well put it to good use. (Besides, I ended up keeping the CNR one so I think it’s a fair trade.)

Back home, trying to get the parts placed into the case – first thing I did was cut down the exposed wires and crimp them off so that nothing was at risk. Then I tried to remove the motherboard itself, except that the screws were
stripped! I had to actually take a flat-head screwdriver and a hammer and MAKE my own screw-catch so I could remove the dang screws!

Meanwhile, the Ghost process is complete so I can now install the new hard drive in the computer.

So, I was able to remove everything that I needed to and install the new motherboard and CPU. I put in the new memory, then installed the new hard drive in the 3.5″ bay. I tried to hook up the power, but the power connectors
aren’t long enough to stretch between the current location of the CD-ROM (top 5.25″ slot) and the 3.5″ bay where the hard drive is. Solution – move the CD-ROM to the bottom 5.25″ slot.

Sounds easy, but after a minute of pushing and prodding and jamming, that CD-ROM ain’t moving but halfway into the bottom 5.25″ slot. I take a really close look at the bay and notice that the bay is bowed exactly where the old
hard drive USED to be. Strange…

I open the OTHER side of the case (previously I had only opened the side where I could access most of the components) and find a piece of metal folded in half, about 3 inches long, wedged between the case and the 5.25″ bay. (I still have the metal piece as proof of this entire episode…) When I remove the metal, the CD-ROM fits! Concept!

Once this is done, everything else gets installed no problem – the last piece is the PCI modem, which installs in a jiffy.

I turn on the computer and the thing boots in less than 5 seconds. Then Windows discovers it has new hardware and I have to run through the entire “New Hardware Found” process for another half hour.

When all is said and done, the computer is functioning perfectly. Amazing what happens when things are done right!

I pack it all up and take it back to the client. I explain to him what I had to do, along with the fact that all the new hardware (motherboard/CPU/hard drive/mouse) is all warrantied by the manufacturer for one year. (I just
realized that the HD has a three-year warranty… oops)

I put everything back in the client’s office and boot the computer. Viola! He’s impressed with how fast the thing is now and asks what I should do with this disk he has – it’s a Windows 98 Startup disk. Apparently, the guy who
used to fix their computer was the guy who BUILT their computer – a former waiter for the restaurant who was fired last week – and told them a month or so ago that they needed to use this startup disk to boot if they ever needed
to shut the computer down. Yipes!!!! I told the guy to mark the “boot disk” as a “backup/recovery” disk, in case the machine died.

He thanked me and walked me out. I handed him an invoice for my time and labor, along with copies of the receipts for the hardware. All in all, the price for the parts came to $250. I know I’ll be paid for my time and labor (and reimbursed for the parts) – I’m hoping to score some gift certificates to the restaurant too, because they really do have good food. ^_-

What I got out of this hardware-wise: a CNR modem, an AMD Duron 800MHz CPU (needs a new fan though… hehe!), a 2MB PCI video card, and a USB mouse. The motherboard is trash. Oh, and a 12Gb hard drive, about a 1/4 of which is bad sectors. Prolly useful as just an extra “D:” drive on a computer for not-important data.

Labor Day weekend. That’s exactly what I did – labored. Whatever.