September 08, 2003

Next time I'll call Dell

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 01:33 PM