Something is Amiss in the FamilyTreeHouse IT Department

When you own or use as many computers as I have, probability says that eventually you’ll have problems with one.  Usually I’m the one called in by a family member when their computer is acting up, and 99% of the time its a problem with ill-behaved software that’s corrupted the registry, or too many inadvertent malware downloads bogging the system down.  The best solution at those times is the computer version of a frontal lobotomy; buy a new hard drive, install a clean copy of the operating system on the new hard drive, and use the old hard drive as a data drive.  The good news under those circumstances is that the computer then performs as fast and nimbly as it did when it was new – sometimes better.  The bad news under those circumstances is that the machine effectively is a new machine, so all their software needs to be re-installed.

This time I was the one with the problem, and it wasn’t anything that a new hard drive and clean operating system would fix (though I did – and do – have the new hard drive standing by, with a new copy of the new Windows 7 operating system, but I was waiting until after the holidays to conduct the self-inflicted frontal lobotomy on this machine).

My main workstation, the 2-year-old PowerSpec E360 tower downstairs in my subterranean home office (with Intel Core 2 Quad Processors, enhanced with 4 GB of memory and 2 TB of disk space, a Hauppauge HVR-1600 NTSC/ATSC/FM tuner, and other nifty features) died. We got home from Maine Sunday the 6th and it was dead as a doornail. I usually leave my machines on 24×7 with the monitor shut off (I have the house server, a Linux box, and this workstation all tied together with a KVM to save desk space), but this weekend, for some reason, I decided to power down the Linux box and my workstation (leaving the house server up for the remaining inhabitant while we were away).

The symptoms were odd; I hit the power switch and it started booting up (fans spun up, hard drives spun up, monitor flashed through the bootstrap process), and got all the way to Windows Vista login when it abruptly died as if someone had pulled the plug.  I knew it wasn’t a power failure since the room lights were still on, and the workstation has its own UPS.  After thinking for a few seconds about what had just happened, I tried again and hit the power switch.  This time it booted up all the way, I logged in, and did my email and a few other mundane tasks (checked some web sites, paid some bills, etc.).  Then I decided to push the envelope and shut it down again, to see if the problems would re-occur.  It didn’t even get through the P.O.S.T. before it died.  After that, it’s been catatonic ever since; no fans spinning up, no disks spinning up, no life showing from the monitor.

I assumed the culprit was the power supply, since neither the cooling fans nor the hard disks would spin up, the only thing that happened was the little blue power light on the front lit up. Thank goodness for my MOZY backups!  I’ve been pulling files down from my online archive to use on my laptop as I need them. LESSON #1 – implement a disaster recovery plan – BACK UP YOUR DATA!!

When I pulled the side panel off the machine, disconnected all the power supply cables (two to the motherboard, one to each of three hard drives and a DVD writer, ones to each of the cooling fans), and plugged in my power supply tester, it tested as working perfectly – NOT what I had expected!  So either it wasn’t the power supply, or my power supply tester was giving me false positive readings. I decided to assume that the tester was working properly, which meant it was something else.  My toolbox of hardware diagnostic tools is fairly sparse, so I was facing a series of blind part-swapping exercises in a trial-and-error attempt to stumble upon the offending item.

I wussed out and took the machine to MicroCenter (where it came from) Monday night for repair; $70 for a full diagnostic on a bench with real test equipment. This time of year I don’t have the time or cash to to do the trial-and-error parts replacement firedrill until I find out what part was the culprit.  Turns out it wasn’t the power supply, it was the motherboard! A new one will cost $80 (pro-rated) with another $60 to install it (moving my 4 GB of memory, CPUs, and expansion boards over to the new motherboard as well).  Without sophisticated test equipment I would’ve spent three times that on replacement parts that didn’t need replacing before I stumbled upon the motherboard as the source of the problem.

Once it’s back (should take a week to get the replacement motherboard and a few hours to move the components over) and has been verified as healthy with a month or so of error-free operation, I’ll add the new hard drive and install 64-bit Windows 7 Professional on it.  I’ve got 32-bit Windows 7 Pro running on my 7-year-old IBM Thinkpad laptop and it’s great.  You can’t migrate Windows XP to Windows 7, you have to do a clean install, so I bit the bullet and bought a new 250 GB laptop hard drive to replace the 60 GB drive that came with the machine.  Then after the install I added another GB of memory to the GB already in it, and it’s a humming little laptop.

Still anxiously waiting for my workstation to come home from the hospital, though!

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