I'm so fucking sick of the PC Hardware industry.

Since I started mucking with PCs a long time ago, I've been a fan of ordering parts and building my own systems. And when it came time to upgrade, I'd do it myself.

Screw that.

After having built roughly 15 computers in the past 15 years or so (some for me, some for friends/family), I give up. I don't have time for the inevitable bullshit that comes with realizing that something just isn't working right--both in the hardware itself and the associated software and drivers. It's really, really, really not worth it.

What prompted this, you wonder?

I've wasted an entire damned day doing what should have been a trivial upgrade. I recently sold my venerable ThinkPad 600E to a friend. And I found another to buy the guts of my P3-866 desktop machine at work (the one that I brought in, not the one Yahoo supplies--long story). Anyway, with the combined funds I planned to upgrade the guts of that desktop a bit.

The Story

A week or so ago, the new parts arrived: a Pentium 4 2.4GHz processor, 1GB of 400MHz RAM (2 512 DIMMs), and an Intel D865PERL motherboard.

Yesterday I went to work in the morning to help with a database server switch. After that was done, I headed over to my desk to perform the swap. I had brought in one of my two LCD monitors and planned to just leave it at work where it'll get more use. That was roughly 10:30am. Six hours later, I felt a lot like Mark Pilgrim trying to install Windows XP.

I removed the old motherboard, leaving the CPU, fan, and RAM installed. I figure I'll just ship it to Andy that way. I installed the new motherboard, RAM, and CPU. But when I powered it up, it didn't do much. The CPU fan came on and a few things lit up on the motherboard, but the hard disk didn't spin at all.

So far it was pretty much in line with my expectations. I've never (and I mean never) had a motherboard work on the first try. So I carefully reseated everything, looked for shorts, etc. No dice.

Figuring there might be some useful on-screen info, I decided to plug in the video card. But I couldn't. My old AGP card (a 3dfx Voodoo 3 3000) didn't fit. Okay, something was weird. The AGP connector looked as if it had been mounted backwards on the board. The little piece of plastic in the socket that's there to make sure you only plug the card in the right way appeared to be in the wrong place.

I double-checked the little picture of the motherboard. Yup, it says "AGP" there, so this is where the video card goes. Considering that all the other slots are PCI slots, there wasn't a lot choice in the matter.

At noon I decided to head home, taking all the pieces and parts with me. I have a few spare video cards in my collection and I figured something would fit.


All my other cards had the same problem. So I headed over to Intel's web site and looked more closely at the product specs. The pictures that Intel provides told me that the socket on my board was certainly not on backwards. Then I noticed that it had a "Universal 0.8/1.5 V AGP 3.0 connector (with integrated retention mechanism) supporting 4x and 8x AGP cards."

Hmm. I don't think AGP 4x even existed when I got my Voodoo several years back. And something told me that "universal" doesn't mean what I thought it should...


A visit to Fry's

I headed off to Fry's in search of a cheap video card that was fancy enough to work in the motherboard and which came from a vendor that had decent XFree86 support.

After a bit of browsing, I settled on an ATI Radeon 9200. It wasn't the absolute cheapest but at ~$120 it was much cheaper than most of the apparently high-end cards they had. And it had a DVI port for my LCD.

I returned home at 2pm (Lawrence Expressway was all carved up for repaving). Oh, I should note that a trip to Fry's and home is 2/3rd of a trip to Yahoo and home. Keep that in mind later.

Before I opened the box, I visited the XFree86 web site and checked the Driver Status to make sure that the ATI Radeon was on the list. If it wasn't, I'd take the card back without breaking the shrink wrap seal and find something that was on the list.

It was on the list! So I opened and installed the card. I connected the VGA cable (since I wasn't sure where the DVI cable for my LCD monitor was) and turned it on.

Same problem.

I spent the next 45-60 minutes trying everything I could think of doing. I moved memory around, reseated the CPU, re-checked connections, etc. Eventually I had the motherboard completely removed from the case and sitting on anti-static bags. I figured that would eliminate the chance of any electrical shorts between the case and the Baird.

Same problem.

I figured the board was fried. But I decided to browse the motherboard installation docs one more time to see if I could find anything I missed. I did.

Apparently, the Pentium 4 CPU is such a fucking pig that P4 boards require a second power connector (12V) on the board. Guess what? The power supply in my 3 year old case doesn't have one of those.


Not only was the case a pain in the ass to work inside (the P4 board was just long enough to get in the way of cabling the drives), the power supply was useless for the new board.

Another visit to Fry's

I haded back out in search of a replacement power supply or a whole new case. After looking at the prices and selection, I opted for a new case--one with more room. I got a case for ~$79 and headed home. I arrived home at roughly 5pm to finish the job.

I removed all the crap from the old case and installed it in the much nicer new case. After everything was plugged in, it worked on the first try.


Next I proceeded to download the latest Knoppix release (that's what I use on non-servers now), burned a CD and began the process of migrating data off the old hard disks (an 8.4GB and a 20GB disk). It seems that 2003-09-05 had just come out, so I was using very fresh code. Anyway, I figured I might as well put my two spare 80GB disks to use, so I spent the next 1.5 hours moving data around and then installed the drives along with the DVD drive and CD burner.

Video Hassles

Then I booted Knoppix into the GUI mode to poke around and then run the hard disk installer. It came up in 1024x768 mode but I didn't worry. I can tweak the video after the fact. I've managed to make my home "desktop" machine speak 1600x1200 to the LCD using it's built-in less powerful ATI card before.

The install finished and I got everything set the way I wanted, so I set about making the video work right. For whatever reason, Knoppix hadn't figured out that I had an ATI card and was using the vesa driver.

I performed many Google searches and quickly noticed that nasty feeling forming the pit of my stomach. Getting the Radeon 9200 working with XFree86 is not a trivial proposition. At first, this information look promising, except that I'm not running RedHat. But the magic seemed to be telling XFree86 ChipId and using the "ati" or "radeon" driver in the config. (Note: I've always hated X configuration.)

No go. My monitor claims not to be getting a signal when I try that stuff.

More searching.

Found some Debian specific notes. But they require way more effort that I'd like to invest. At 11pm, incredibly pissed off at the PC hardware industry for requiring me to upgrade my power supply and video card, pissed off about having wasted an entire day on this ordeal, I decided to just take the machine to work and get it back on the network. I could always do a bit more searching and muck with the X stuff in the morning.

So I drove to Yahoo and home. Again.

The Next Day

When I got to work today, I experimented with X configs a bit more. All told, I figured I've tried 30-40 different configurations and I'm still using 1024x768 and the vesa driver. I can't get the "ati" or "radeon" drivers to do shit. And I don't even care anymore. I'll use a slow-ass VGA driver if it can drive my monitor at 1600x1200. Hell, I'd settle for 8 bit color at this point. I'm not gaming. Just using xterms and a browser.

So, here I sit with a blazingly fast CPU, lots of disk space, and a beautiful monitor wondering what the hell I should do with it all. Just give up and install Windows? Buy another video card and try to sell this one locally? Throw it all in the dumpster and become a park ranger in Montana?

Seriously, why is this shit so damned difficult?

A Resolution

I resolve to never do this again. From now on, I will "upgrade" by selling my old computer and using the cash to offset the purchase of a brand new, pre-assembled and tested computer. Just like I do with laptops. The only "upgrades" I will ever do myself will involve adding memory or disk space. That's it. Just like I do with laptops.

At this point I really wonder how much time and money I'd have saved by just calling Dell.


There are so many other things I had planned to get done yesterday.

Posted by jzawodn at September 08, 2003 01:33 PM

Reader Comments
# Noel D. Jackson said:

And that is why I love my Mac.

on September 8, 2003 01:37 PM
# jweissig@shaw.ca said:

I can really sympathize with you about your dislike for the hardware industry. I had much the same situation except my experience spanned several weeks. I too purchase the hardware components and perform the upgrade myself (thinking this will have me time and $$$) but then again I purchased a faulty CPU.

1. Now guess what you spend the entire day troubleshooting the issue and then you narrow it down. 2. You call your supplier (luckily they where local) and inform then of the situation and they give you the regular bullshit about did you try this did you try that. Well I guess we can look at it. 3. They ship it to their suppler for verification of the issue. 4. 4-6 weeks later you have a 70% change of getting a refund. There is a 30% chance you caused the problem.

I am sure I am not alone in this case!

on September 8, 2003 02:00 PM
# pat said:

Jeremy, I had to laugh in sympathy. My scanner has decided to take a vacation. A sudden vacation. Nobody in the tower recognizes the scanner, but the scanner (on vacation) doesn't seem to mind. This wouldn't be a problem if I didn't have something I needed scanned...by the scanner that was working perfectly last week!

Anyway, through a maze-like route, I found your blog and explanation of your problems. Suddenly, my AWOL scanner doesn't look so bad. Suddenly, I think I might be able to put up with another few hours of trying to persuade it that vacation and/or retirement isn't in its future.

Thanks for making me forget the scanner--even for a few minutes!

on September 8, 2003 02:12 PM
# Hemo said:

Been there.. done that. Too many times. But I've been there enough to have resolved most of the problems you encountered before I would have encountered them. Gads..the worst thing is the P4 extra power requirement. I've been AMD for a long time and hadn't had to deal with that one yet. I've read about in the specs for my newest power supply, but that's about it.

Working with PC hardware is definately not like it used to be. There are 'levels' of hardware compatibility now, and if all your hardware is on the same level, you are safer than not. The universal AGP thing renders (still viable) older AGP video cards useless in newer systems. Like we all need a $400 8X agp video card in a server...

I still don't understand why manufacturers are sticking on-board audio on server motherboards. Because they can?

on September 8, 2003 02:20 PM
# Dan Isaacs said:

You poor bastard. Pizza just gets harder and hard to make.

on September 8, 2003 02:24 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Amazingly, pizza is stil alive and kicking.

P-133, 96MB RAM, 4GB hard disk. Rock solid. It has an ATI Mach 64 in it, I think. Maybe I should start using that as my dekstop. I'd just have to browse with lynx, links, or w3m. And I could use Raggle as my aggregator. :-)

on September 8, 2003 02:32 PM
# jeremy hunsinger said:

I say the park ranger option sounds good, dervala seems to like living in a park http://www.dervala.net/

on September 8, 2003 02:33 PM
# Justin said:

Agreed BTW on the video card crap. I had to shell out $100 on a new video card to run my machine at a decent resolution with a decent # of colours, and then a new PSU too -- since the bloody video card uses some absurd quantity of power to drive it's ridiculous polygon engine. Which I almost never use, naturally. It's a *desktop* for *work*.

Mind you, Return to Castle Wolfenstein does look good now... but let's not even get into the half-hacked crap that passes for 3d drivers under Linux. (note: thanks, ATI, for dropping support for linux 3d drivers...)

on September 8, 2003 03:02 PM
# Alden Bates said:

This is why last time I wanted to upgrade my PC, I threw my hands in the air and just let the guys in the store put it together and worry about getting it to work. Hardware's gotten to the point where it's so complex (how many different types of RAM are there now??) I just don't want to have to keep track of what's compatible with what. :)

on September 8, 2003 03:05 PM
# pc said:

What can I say - RTFM (docs I mean).
Install Win. I mean it.

on September 8, 2003 03:07 PM
# matt said:

I remember reading an article recently in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (www.bozemandailychronicle.com), about how much technology today's forest rangers use. You would probably be stuck with the same issues as you have now. Only the trip to the local electronics store would be a lot longer.

on September 8, 2003 03:10 PM
# saberworks said:

If you think a dell computer with a windmodem and onboard EVERYTHING will work out of the box with linux or FreeBSD, you're in for a surprise. You could have saved a lot of time had you done some research in advance (like looking at the hardware compatibility list for LINUX instead of FreeBSD for your graphics card).

on September 8, 2003 03:24 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Uhm, I *did* check the list. Did you miss the part about XFree86 saying it worked?

on September 8, 2003 03:32 PM
# dws said:

I ducked a bullet by buying a single board mini-itx system, which the vendor guaranteed would power-on-self-test with RAM installed (add disk and CDRW, and shake). It's not the fastest thing in the world, and will only do 1024x768, but it was inexpensive and quiet, and runs RH8 just fine. Works great as a home fileserver, and 1024x768 is fine for email and light browsing.

on September 8, 2003 03:55 PM
# Harald said:

It used to be that a CPU upgrade required a new motherboard (and new memory), because the new CPU required a core voltage, or oscillator freq, or a new socket that wasn't available on the old motherboard. There was always something.

Then, a new _hard disk_ required a motherboard upgrade, because older BIOSes couldn't see large disks (first the 8Gb barrier, then the 32Gb barrier). Of course, it's impossible to find small disks these days, so an HD _failure_ might lead to a MB upgrade...

Anyway, motherboard upgrades in turn required case upgrades; usually because of a form-factor change, or because the old power supply didn't have enough juice, or...

In short, I'm not surprised that your upgrade required a new case. Tech is still changing so fast that there's no useful component level compatibility across generations (and gratuitous connector changes just make this worse :-). I'm just surprised that we've managed to maintain software compatability for as long as we have...

And the graphics card thing (both physical and software) really sucks, man...

on September 8, 2003 03:58 PM
# Ryan said:

Some questions I have:
1. Is CONFIG_DRM=y in the kernel?
2. Is CONFIG_DRM_RADEON=m in the kernel?
3. upon boot... modprobe radeon
4. install ATI-drivers...
5. run fglrxconfig - installed someplace by the ati-drivers to setup your XF86Config-4 file.
5a. Make sure you know your monitor timings.
5b. Follow the install docs with the ati-drivers to setup the right symlinks to the GL shared libraries.
6. Tweak XF86Config to your liking, resolutions, etc
7. startx.

I just setup an ATI 9100 last Friday.

on September 8, 2003 04:16 PM
# Micah said:

My feelings on building yer own for *nix boxes, even those running X, never go cutting edge. Get the most common low-mid end CPU on the market, the most common low-mid end video card, with brandname RAM and disk (no OEM! auuugh!). Avoid SMP, avoid RAID, avoid SCSI, avoid $5 network cards, avoid anything weird. Even then it's a blessing to have things up and running.

Building anything slightly cutting edge at this point would send me running to pre-selected parts packages (with nothing recycled) or pre-made boxes (like Alienware) and eat the overhead.

Another peeve of mine is newer chips require so much cooling it sounds like you have a jet on standby for takeoff.

Or go Mac. OS X r00lz </fanboy>. Just never expect to upgrade anything except RAM or disk (or nothing if an iMac). Hmm, just what you said you'll only ever upgrade again ;)

on September 8, 2003 04:29 PM
# kasia said:

Hah, debugging issues is half the fun of owning a pc.

on September 8, 2003 07:01 PM
# Peter said:

Build my own PC???


on September 8, 2003 08:03 PM
# Srijith said:

Was in a similar situation, P3 to P4 upgrade. But did two sensible/easy-way out things.

1- Bought a mobo with built in sound and video card since I do not use the box for any gaming or multimedia processes and I can't afford a flatscreen.
2- Asked the hardware shop guy what exatly I need to upgrade from P3 to P4. The kind soul told me about the power unit incompatability problem.

So 1 shopping trip and 2 hours of work and I had a P4 box.

on September 8, 2003 10:02 PM
# Mark Moraes said:

I had a recent battle with a pro-savage ddr on a VIA mobo which reminded me of the 'avoid the bleeding edge, go with hardware that lots of people use' model: the xfree savage drivers just refused to work above 640x480, had to wait till VIA posted new binaries to their web site recently.

The big vendors have their own issues: you just cannot predict what cards they put in their machines; I've had my share of excitement with Dells. Generally with X. Sadly, I've had more luck with X running on cygwin than on Linux.

on September 8, 2003 10:58 PM
# Onno said:

I have to agree with Srijith here. If you can't be arsed to Google around to mix and match your hardware, fair enough, but it's always a good idea to ask the people you're buying from if it's going to work in your specific weird configuration. If only to slap it in their face later if it doesn't.

It's the upside and downside of pre-built systems (and Macs): put it on your desk and it just works. Start fiddling with the hardware though, and it all falls apart *real* fast.

on September 9, 2003 03:35 AM
# Onno said:

Oh, and I've never been able to boot a system straight after building it, either. Last time I let a friend put together all the parts for me, who happened to have put together computers for a living for a while. I didn't believe all his tales of success.

10 minutes after walking in the door my floor was littered with empty packaging and the whole thing was set up and plugged in. Booted straight up. Bastard.

on September 9, 2003 03:40 AM
# Courtney said:

*chuckle* My fiance (ooh, I can say that now!!) reviews videogames - used to do it for a living....and we always had multiple parts sitting around the house, and multiple computers, simply because there are all these stupid competing standards and games will work with one card/processor/board but not another, yaddi yaddi yaddi...at one point, he had two or three sound cards and videocards in one machine that he'd switch back and forth on using, just so he could review the darn games!!

Our last puter we had someone else custom build, and we use laptops for our 'everyday' computing....

on September 9, 2003 08:12 AM
# wbilancio said:

Hey research is a good thing. Before I buy any hardware to upgrade my boxes I make sure everything is going to work together before I purchase it.

OS wise I agree if it's on the list it should work.

Next time do research first.

on September 9, 2003 08:37 AM
# Chris said:

I'm sorry I have to say it...don't you wish you had gone windows this time? :-p Atleast you don't have to hack in driver support

Seriously though I've been through the upgrading hell your talking about but never quite that extremely. Normally I upgrade everything at once and double check that everything works. So its about three + weeks of research before I do any buying...except with Hard drives and moniters anymore.

Linux is still THE PITA when it comes to drivers and supported hardware. Its a joke at times.

on September 9, 2003 09:08 AM
# gabe said:

Oy. That's rough.

I actually had a pleasant experience building my first PC in about 3 years recently. I've grown to rely on newegg.com for computer parts, etc. They kick ass, and if something breaks, send it back and get a new one.

I hopped on their picked, picked some parts( asus a7n8x deluxe mobo w/dual nics, audio, etc., athlon xp 2500 barton, 2x256mb corsair ram, wd 120gb HD, msi geforce4 ti 4200 video card and a nice antec case). When it all arrived I slapped it together and it took a few tries, but it eventually just *worked*.

My only gripes were that I could not fit the mobo in the case with the IO plate in place, and the GODDAMNED CASE LEADS. I *LOATHE* connecting all of those stupid little wires from the case to the mobo. Why have they not solved that problem by creating a standard connector that lines all the leads up properly for you? I gave up on that part. My power light works, and my front usb ports work, everything else? screw it. I quit while I was ahead.

Amazingly, RedHat 9 booted up, detected everything just fine, and I had no problems. It's funny, because Linux only likes one of the onboard NICs, and win2k only likes the other one. Go figure.

We'll see what happens when I upgrade this thing next year, or in 6 months, or whatever. PC hardware is too much of a moving target.

on September 9, 2003 10:00 AM
# Arcterex said:

Jeremy - while you were no doubt joking about using the old pizza system as a desktop, but think about how much faster, how much less crap you'd get as far as ads, popups, annoying flash crap... with a text based email client you'd only get email spam that rendered to text, no images.... man, that'd be heaven!

on September 9, 2003 11:40 AM
# Mark2 said:

Re: upgrading a Mac. I'm going to sound like a Mac zealot here for a bit, so bear with me.

Upgrading a Mac is as easy as upgrading a PC. You can upgrade the RAM, you can add disk space, you can get a new video card, you can add in whatever AGP/PCI cards you like (I've done all of the above). You can even get a new CPU for your machine on a daughterboard-- I know people who have upgraded their old G3 machines to brand-spanking-new G4-esque boxes.

This isn't meant to be yet another one of those "just get a Mac" posts, but honestly, Jeremy: just get a Mac next time. You'll pay a little extra up front, but let's face it, you will never ever have to go through one of these day-long ordeals ever again.

on September 9, 2003 01:55 PM
# Not_a_mac_fan said:

For those Mac fans out there --

you will never get the fun that PC people get when they put a PC together from scratch. Why? Because you don't even have the chance, you don't have the OPTION. Sure, you can do a small upgrade here and there, but you will never feel the satisfaction of putting a whole thing together.

on September 9, 2003 04:03 PM
# Noel D. Jackson said:

To the man who says Mac fans don't get the satisfaction of putting a machine together:

Did you read this article's title? It's all about being sick of doing just that. I, and most of the Mac users I know, are converts. Putting together a windows box gets old. What Jeremy said...

on September 9, 2003 05:13 PM
# Chris said:

Putting together a Windows box might get old...but so does waiting for a program to finish rendering on the slower Mac processor. There IS a difference in rendering speed...especially in Lightwave (a packge I use regularly). So yes, there might be some pain in putting together a box or two especially when you mix in the still maturing OS and poor driver support...but atleast we won't go through a pot of coffee waiting for the render to finish :)

After saying that...I still want a Mac!

on September 9, 2003 08:30 PM
# gabe said:

Macs... I am a Mac fan, and yes they can be upgraded. I've swapped enough CPUs, RAM and HDDs to know that. But you cannot upgrade them the same as a PC. You can't go to Fry's or some other computer shop, snag a new mobo and power supply and slap that in the case. And even the few parts you can upgrade, you can only upgrade them so far.

At some point you have to put that old beige G3, which you upgraded to a G4, to rest since its 66MHz bus is a tad .... lacking.

on September 10, 2003 07:42 AM
# Raj Shekhar said:

Do you have assemblers in your area ? (Assemblers as in people who assemble PCs from indivual parts) It is best to consult them before upgrading/buying a PC. If you are planning to install Linux, a further step would be to cross check with the hardware compatibility list.

Though have an experience of upgrading only 3 non-banded PCs, I have followed these steps religiously. My only bad experience has been to get a sound card which I could not configure in Linux

on September 11, 2003 12:28 AM
# anand said:

One day, all OSes will be as easy to install and use as BEOS was.

on September 11, 2003 01:43 AM
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