Mark’s PC Project part 2

(I have no idea if this is worth it, but I’ve been thinking maybe I should edit these two articles so that non-PC techie people can read them and know what I’m talking about. Ah, maybe later. You know, I had meant to take photos of the installation process, but I was too embroiled in it to remember… Sorry for the dearth of images.)

Refer to my previous article for the plans and theory of upgrading/getting a new PC. Basically, I wanted to get a nice little mini-PC to take to LAN parties, but also to minimize the amount of space our stuff takes up and hopefully to lessen the sound coming out of our PCs collectively.

Juicy parts--the Shuttle mini-system, 2 sticks of Corsair XMS PC2700 256MB RAM, Zalman 3100plus HS, Duron 1.3, Maxtor HD
Juicy parts–the Shuttle mini-system, 2 sticks of Corsair XMS PC2700 256MB RAM, Zalman 3100plus HS, Duron 1.3, Maxtor HD

The first step was to back up all the important stuff of ours to CD. I needed to export Outlook email and contacts to external files, zip up our Favorites folders, collect the rest of our unique data, and burn it all to a CD. (I actually ended up never using the CD since I never had to reformat any hard drives and I had the foresight to stick all of Robin’s old files on my old computer so that when it became her computer the files were already there. But the CD is handy to have around just in case.)

After I got a nice back-up, I ripped the two computers apart. I removed the Athlon and GeForce4 from my computer, set them aside nicely… I took out two of the case fans and taped a piece of cardboard covering the gaping hole in back that one of the fans left. I put in the GeForce2MX from Robin’s computer into mine and put the new Duron in and the new Zalman HS on. Put the case back on and everything boots up wonderfully!

Zalman 3100plus HS
Zalman fan-shaped heat-sink and fan

Restoring Robin’s files went like a knife through butter. uh… soft butter, not that stuff straight out of the freezer. She seems to be enjoying the quieter, Windows XP Pro, faster computer.

The new Shuttle was not so simple.

The putting together of the computer went without a hitch. First I unscrewed the heatpipe thingamabob and remove it. Then I popped in the Athlon, put a teensy bit of thermal grease on, and put the heatpipe back on. The grease that I used was the same one that came with the Zalman fan, but I noticed that a little packet of the stuff also came with the Shuttle system. I have no idea which one is actually more thermally conductive but figured they were probably close enough that it didn’t matter. I then popped in the RAM and the drives. The first build I did included the HD and DVD drive but no floppy. I figured I wouldn’t need one since the WinXP CD is bootable and launches directly into setting up the OS.

The Shuttle heat-pipe
The Shuttle heat-pipe

Well, it did go directly to the WinXP setup and I went through the process thinking alright this is going smoothly, having never booted from a WinXP CD before… But then for some reason, I kept getting a lot of read errors from the CD and eventually the setup process just sort of died. Okay that didn’t go so well… I remembered that the last time I installed WinXP it was by upgrading an existing Windows OS. But the only way I’ve ever installed a Windows OS in the past was to format the hard drive and boot with a floppy with CD drive support and then run the setup program from the CD.

I remembered from my cursory glance at the BIOS settings when I first turned on the Shuttle that it supported booting from a Zip drive and coincidentally I had one of those in Robin’s old PC. Okay cool, I thought, I’ll have a Zip drive instead of a floppy and then I can still use all my old Zip disks (though in hindsight, I probably would’ve decided to take out that Zip drive eventually since it wouldn’t get used and would just take up room and generate heat (tho very little I would think)).

I had to temporarily take the GeForce4 card out of my new computer and pop it into Robin’s old computer (since its GeForce2 was now in Robin’s new/my old computer–with me?). I then unplugged the new computer and used all those cables in Robin’s old computer, turned it on, and then created a bootable (Win98 DOS) Zip disk with the files needed to support a CD drive. Then I redid that process in reverse–unplug the cables, take out the GeForce4, take out the Zip drive, put the GeForce4 and Zip drive in the new computer, and plug in all the cables to the new computer. Then I booted from the newly formatted Zip disk.

Okay things got a little weird here. The BIOS assigned the Zip drive C, the hard drive D, and the DVD drive E. So I typed in fdisk and made sure that I had the right drive by looking at its size and then created a new partition and all that. Then I formatted D drive and all that was good. Then when I typed setup from the Windows Me CD (remember I’m going to install a Windows OS and then upgrade to XP) it had the default directory set to C:\\Windows. I thought, okay that isn’t right since my HD was D drive. So I changed it to D and then setup did its thing. Its thing was to install some files on C and some files on D and completely screw up the bootable Zip disk.

Shit. So now what? Better sleep on it. It was 2 am Thursday night. On Friday morning I woke up thinking screw the Zip drive!

I don’t want that to happen again and this freaking drive letter thing is weirding me out. So, I rip the floppy drive from Robin’s old rig and pop it in place of the Zip drive. So now I boot up with the floppy and all is right with the world. The hard drive has been assigned C, the floppy A, and the DVD drive D. Anything else would be heresy. I formatted the HD yet again, but this time instead of installing Windows Me, I figure I’d give Windows 2000 a shot. This went well! Then I upgraded to WinXP, but for some reason the setup hung. I thought maaaybe it hung because I didn’t install the motherboard drivers before trying to upgrade to XP. At the same time, though, I started to think there might be a hardware issue.

This might not have been first evidence of some larger issue with the hardware, but it was my first seed of suspicion. It might explain why the initial XP install had read errors. I didn’t know what it was, but at the time I thought the most likely culprit was heat. While not new, the processor I have in there is definitely hot. The GeForce4 didn’t help matters, either. So, I took out the video card and tried again just using the on-board video. If I had to live with just the on-board video, it might not have been so bad since it is a GeForce4 MX. It still hung up on installation.

All this time I’ve been checking the hardware monitor in the BIOS to get a general idea of how hot the system was. About 48 degrees C, which actually isn’t sooo bad, but I thought it still seemed the most likely culprit. So, at this point I had to remove the drive cage to get at the processor. I removed the heat-pipe and made sure the CPU was seated correctly. I wiped the thermal grease off and applied some of the grease that came with the Shuttle case rather than the stuff that came with the Zalman fan. I then put the heat-pipe back on making extra-sure that it was on correctly. The drives go back in (you can’t just connect the drives without locking the cage in for this case since the IDE, floppy, and power cables are so short to minimize clutter), and boot up and look at the hardware monitor. The temperatures dropped to below 30! Still, afternoon turned to evening while I was doing this (each install attempt takes quite a bit of time!), and I had also cracked open the window, so maybe the temperature difference was just reflecting the ambient temp difference. Ah well, so much for scientific method. At this point, I also noticed this smart fan technology where the fan would not spin up to maximum speed until a certain temperature was reached. I turned this feature off so that the fan is always on at maximum. Unfortunately, it made the computer much louder. About as loud as my previous computer, and my disatisfaction with its noise is part of the reason for this upgrade!

In any case, Win2k installation went without a hitch this time! Ooh ooh! So, thinking I was in the clear, I put the GeForce4 back in and tried booting up. Good. I installed the motherboard drivers. Good. Then I popped in the XP CD to upgrade. Good. Everything seemed to be going well! I went about setting up the network and copying my Favorites over, installing software, Office, and whatnot, getting Outlook set up, etc. Super keen!

Then I installed a game, Independence War 2, and copied my save games over and tried to play. It crashed to desktop. I tried again after remembering to set the properties of the application to run in Win98 compatibility mode. This time I get the blue screen with a memory dump. Ah crap. But maybe it’s just this one game. So I tried to install Dungeon Siege. The installation hung and I had to reboot.

Hmmm…. I started to think maybe it wasn’t heat after all and something was wrong with the memory or motherboard or hard drive or I don’t know what!!! I went to and got a system checking tool. Unfortunately, the one I got, though rated really high, only checked some of the system settings and only checked the first 8 MB of RAM. Still, no problems were detected, so I went back to thinking maybe it was a software issue.

Shuttle PSU
Maybe the PSU isn’t powerful enough for the Athlon AND GeForce4?

I found a bunch of forums for making IWar2 work in WinXP, so I followed all the advice I could find, but it still didn’t work. While I was looking for help with the game, however, I found a link for a comprehensive free memory checking utility.

So I downloaded that and tried it out and guess what? It ran several tests and found a whole slew of errors on the second DIMM! To double check, I pulled that stick out and ran the tests again with flying colors. Then to just make sure it was the RAM and not the slot on the motherboard, I put the bad one in and took the good one out. It passed the tests again! So, I thought, maybe it was the motherboard all this time! On a lark, I put the stick that was out back in and ran the tests again. At this point, the two sticks were swapped with each other from the original configuration. It passed the tests. Huh. Cue twilight zone music.

Mark’s Theory:
Here’s my theory. When the computer boots up it automatically checks memory timing by testing out the first stick. Even though the two sticks of RAM are the same model by the same compay, maybe one of them is actually a little bit slower than the other (in other words, less tolerant to heat). So when I originally set up the system, the faster RAM was in the first slot and the computer thought all the RAM was like it and set its timings aggressively. The second one couldn’t keep up and crashed the system or caused errors. When the slower one was in the first slot, as it is now, the computer set the timings less agressively and the faster stick can keep up just fine.

Here’s why I think my theory is spurious at best. From my experience with other motherboards and RAM and configurations, I had always thought the motherboard checks all the RAM before setting the timing since I’ve had computers in the past with completely different sticks of RAM in at the same time and I don’t recall memory errors. Also, I haven’t checked yet, but I believe you just set the timings in the BIOS, it doesn’t dynamically alter them. And finally, the Corsair XMS memory I got is made for overclocking; they shouldn’t have problems with aggressive settings!

Anyway, with the RAM set in their new places, I was able to install Dungeon Siege, Half-life, and some other games. Half-life crashed the first time I tried playing, and so I went and looked at the BIOS settings again and decided to turn down the AGP to 4x not 8x since I think I have a 4x card. Half-life worked. Things seemed good. I turned the smart fan feature in the BIOS back on. Ahh, nice and quiet again.

I played Fallout a bit on Sunday and things seemed to be going well, but Fallout doesn’t take many resources… George and I installed the graphical NetHack last night and surprisingly it hung, but a quick reboot, turning smart fan off just in case, and we were playing NH just fine.

So, now the computer is there. I am not sure about its hardware stability. Might be motherboard driver issues. Might be normal hiccups… The other computer, Robin’s new computer, is running like silk, by the way. I suppose I can live with a reboot every day or so… seems a bit odd though. And I’m not sure if the smart fan thing, in other words, heat is having an effect.

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