Saturday, January 22, 2011

Computer problems

I'd like to claim computer problems as the reason I haven't blogged for over two months, but I can't. And the prodigious rate of blogging that my friend Skiing Jim has kept up over the past few days makes me feel ashamed.

Back to computer problems though. I've been pushed back to blogging by a sense that if I blog about the computer problem that afflicted me over Christmas and the New Year, I might help some other poor soul from going through the same hell.

I do most of my computer work on a 4-year old Medion 8818 Windows Media PC bought from Aldi. I've been pleased with this purchase in the main, even though I don't use the TV function. The only significant problem I'd had until recently was the power supply breaking after the PC had just moved out of warranty.

And then, a couple of weeks before Christmas, the computer wouldn't display things. I assumed, based on past experience, that the monitor had died, and since I was very busy I adopted the easy solution and started using a laptop. Then as I started my two week Christmas break, with only a family Christmas to attend to (buy the turkey, cook the turkey, eat the turkey, ...) I had time to start addressing the computer problem. First off, it wasn't the monitor. The 24" IIyama was working just fine, the problem was the computer. I diagnosed the graphics card as the source of the problem. I went through the usual "wouldn't this be a great time to buy a new computer" and rapidly decided that £50 for a graphics cards seemed like a good deal compared to £2500 for a fully configured 27" - besides which, what would I do with the spare 24" monitor?

The Medion 8818 had come fitted with an NVidia GeForce 7650 card. This was (note the tense) an OEM only card and my favoured approach of replacing the old card with an identical new one wasn't possible. We were now in the strange period between Christmas and New Year where it is not feasible to buy electronics on-line. So, after a bit of research it was off to Mr Curry Dixons Digital Emporium and Washing Machine Shop to pick up the PNY NVidia GeForce GT 430 graphics card I'd ordered on-line. It was a couple of days before I disassembled the PC and replaced the graphics card. I powered on, the PC went through its boot sequence (hooray), the XP splash screen displayed (hooray) and then the screen went blank and the PC went inactive. After the extensive use of safe-mode, VGA mode, etc. it seemed that whenever the PC got to the stage where it had to fire up the NVidia drivers the display system stopped working. The good news was that the PC worked fine in VGA mode so I could finally update the podcasts on my iPod. I used the PC like this for a couple of days, even getting into the habit of only scrolling a page at a time - just like the old days.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed likely I had a software problem. I assumed that with the repeated powering-off while active, installing and removing drivers, etc., I'd messed up the operating system. Time to reinstall; something I didn't want to do, knowing that the next few weeks would be taken up re-installing all the infrequently used but necessary software that the machine had accumulated. It wasn't the easiest installation I've done. My backup disks didn't do what I expected and I had to install from the Windows OEM disks shipped with the PC. First, Media Centre Edition 200x, and then an upgrade installation of Media Centre Edition 200y. Then all the MS patches and SP3. And it didn't go smoothly. Windows XP MCE is not mainstream so you cannot slipstream the service packs and create a Windows XP MCE SP3.  MCE's deviation also showed up once or twice with Microsoft Update moaning about version problems. Eventually, I was back where I'd started. Well, actually not, I had a fresh installation of Windows without my applications, which worked fine in VGA mode, but it still fell over when the NVidia drivers were invoked.

This time I turned to the forums. This always pisses me off. I hate being lured in to a forum where someone has asked my very question, only to find that that I'm expected to hand over my firstborn in return for the answer. I found nothing very conclusive - the usual "It worked for me after I sacrificed a goat", "I never have that sort of problem with my Apple", "Could be a power supply problem", "Cheap Viagra here", etc., etc.. I choose the "power supply" option. The last time I had a problem with a graphics card it was caused by an inadequate power supply, and although I thought the new graphics card would draw the same sort of power as the original one, I'm no expert. By now both I and the delivery services were back at work so I placed my order for a Rolls-Royce power supply from Ebuyer. 

The unboxing experience was wonderful. Just like a high-end handbag, the power supply was wrapped in a linen bag; the cables from the supply were wonderfully engineered, lots of them and all with lots of connectors. It is worth paying that bit extra. Except, it didn't solve my problem. In fact, I hadn't been completely confident when approaching the installation, one of my colleagues had made dark mutterings about "motherboard incompatibilities". Trawling the forums again, I did find a few other people had had issues with NVidia cards in some early Via PCIe motherboards. I started looking at new motherboards, wondering about whether I would be able to salvage my PC's processor. 

And then I came to my senses - be methodical. I had another PC in the house with a PCIe graphics board. So, I took my old, dead card and my new NVidia card with me and paid a visit to the other PC. First, I tried out the dead card - it was dead. Then I tried the new NVidia card - it worked. So evidence now favoured a motherboard issue and it was back to the first PC with the Radeon card from the second PC. It worked.

I guess it's now more than a month since the graphics card died and I'm nearly back to having everything working. The second PC has survived its graphics card transplant without too much problem. It took not much more than an hour to get things like the dual monitor setup working properly and the latest drivers installed. The Medion is working; I've still got some software to install but otherwise its fine.

So, for the benefit of posterity: 

There is an incompatibility between the Via P4M890 based motherboard in the Medion 8818 Media PC which means that an NVidia GeForce GT 430 will not work. However, an ASUS EAH3650 (Radeon HD 3650 GPU) does work.


Richard Taylor said...

Yup. Been there and done that. What you are supposed to do, given the current fragile state of the world economy is to go out and buy a new computer thereby giving employment to people around the globe and encouraging a return to economic normality. However, I would have done exactly the same, except that I would have bought my parts at the local Fry's Electronics.

Jim Cownie said...

It's way easier to blog if all you're doing is describing your day (as I was in my skiingjim alias).
Now I'm back at work, I'm not blogging at all!

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