Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
  Hardware promises and technical difficulties
Its an exciting time down here in the old dungeon. New hardware is coming together in bits and pieces, and the end result should be wonderful. Should be, because at this moment, I'm recovering from anxiety attacks brought on by hardware misbehaving.

microATX AriaRS480M2

Never one to follow the path of least resistance, I opted for a microATX system, which in principle sounds really neat: its compact, its light, its quiet, and it won't take up much space. However, in practise, what it means is the case is almost too small to fit all the stuff I want to put in it, and it takes forever to cram all those parts in there the right way without breaking them. One finds oneself staring at this tiny RS480M2 motherboard, wondering which of the components will take the force of a small pry bar needed to move the board into position. Once secured, I then set about attaching things that needed to be attached.

The array of manuals in front of me was impressive (yes I read the manuals, there's just too many tiny little obscurely labelled wires, for me not to). Each step required cross correlating the motherboard manual with the case manual or the cpu manual or the powersupply manual or something. Turns out that while there's four slots on the motherboard, you can't use three of them (like I had planned). You can use one, or two, or four; just not three. So one of my GB DIMMS was going to be warming the bench.


The first of many heart failures came when I went to plug the power in. Seems there are a couple of different kinds of connectors on power supplies and motherboards. My power supply had the 20pin kind, and my motherboard had the 24pin kind. Luckily someone was looking out for me, and the manual for the motherboard pointed out that the 20pin connector would fit in the right 20 pins of the 24pin connector, and that it would in fact work OK and not smoke $1,500 worth of parts.

After a quick test to calm myself and demonstrate that, yes, everything was indeed working and nothing was bursting in flames yet, I continued on my merry way; attaching USB cables, audio cables, Firewire cables, reset button cables, hard drive cables, etc. Compared with the initial assembly nightmares, installing the ATI FireGL V5000 card was kind of anti-climactic. Another test, and still everything was working. Amazing.

The next speedbump was the small note that Win2k and before could not boot from a SATA drive. Of course I had a SATA drive. Of course I did not have any install media for winXP. So I got the hard drive and DVD-R into the case and squished everything together, but I wasn't going to be installing an OS immediately. So I hooked up the monitor to it, and let it bake overnight.

The next day I started calling around to everyone I knew, looking for an install disk. Work would give me a registration code, I just needed the media. Wasn't having much luck though. Peter had one at CCC, but he was at home for the next couple of days trying to catch up on his homework. At the USGS and Gore, everyone was using Dells or someother brand name computer that came with its own restore disk. Joel was down in Phoenix for the week wrestling with the forest service, and Dan has disappeared off the face of the planet and his voice mail was already full. I was dreading a trip to Staples, but I was running out of options. Finally I convinced my friend to upload his media across his cable modem at a paltry 300kb. Ten hours later it was online, and I pulled it down in 50 minutes.

cdr Now as old readers will remember, CDRs and I don't always get along. Once again, my new DVD-RW was out of commission (as it was currently tucked in the new case with the new machine), so either I had to pull everything apart again or I had to figure something else out. My laptop still had that CD-RW drive in it, and so I decided to dig up the new SW (that came with the DVD burner) and see if it would work in the laptop. Amazingly enough, it did; though asking it to record at 24X actually only got me about 10.8X. Still, 500MB goes quickly when you can pass the time watching movies on your Treo.

Called up work and got the key, entered it ... didn't work. Turns out the bulk licenses use a different media from the retail distribution. Arghh. Back to my friend Tim, who has ten keys as part of his developer pack from microsoft. He burnt me a new key and I was off and running. Droned through the install procedure for what seemed like forever, then it booted up and I was in. Time to load all kinds of drivers. Drivers for the motherboard, drivers for the ethernet, drivers for the firewire, drivers for the flash reader, drivers for the audio, drivers for the graphics.

Now, out of all the variables one has to choose from when building a PC from scratch, there were only three that I had specific requirements for: it had to be small (microATX), it had to be quiet (more or less), and it had to be able to drive the Apple Cinema 30. See the 2560x1600 dictates that the graphics card has to have a dual-link DVI interface, and that pretty much dictates that you have to have a PCI-Express card (unless you want the ATI X3-256 relic), so pretty much my choices were an ATI FireGL V5000 or a V7100. So I had a v5000 sitting in that pci-x slot (due to budget constraints), and I was in a hurry to get its drivers going so I could bask in the full glory of my hires display. The installer was kind of curious, because it offered the choice of installing the drivers off the CD, or installing from the internet. For some reason I chose the CD (thinking it was faster), and boy was that mistake. I got to experience a few minutes of joyous super resolution, and then after the next reboot I was in disaster land.

It started out ok: I got the BIOS screen, then the booting display, then my display shut off and the power light blinked three times. What does that mean? I did a quick google search, and the first entry there gave me another heart attack:

My experience was very similar. The upper half of my screen was very dim and the power light was flashing 3 blinks. I checked on Apple's web site, and it says that 3 blinks is the code for "backlight problems/failure". Indeed, my backlight had failed and sending it in for warranty service was the only solution. Even worse was the fact that my display was only 2 and a half months old.
Arghh! My screen is broken already?

Just to be sure, I went out to the garage to get a spare monitor to hook up. Now there was already another monitor about fifteen feet away from this computer, but the problem is, its been there for a while; and thus is non-mobile due to the large quantity of stuff that has collected around it, in front of it, and on top of it. Going outside, and trudging through the mud, was a far easier task, then extricating the other monitor from where it had been buried. After pluging the other monitor in, it also wouldn't come up, so perhaps it wasn't the display. I rebooted and the computer decided to display on the new monitor at 1024x768, I started fiddling around with settings, occasionally getting the Apple display to work at resolutions of 1280x800 or lower, but I wasn't having any luck getting back to hires. I finally found a note on the apple care sight all about power light flashes. Turns out there's different ones. There's short-short-short, short-long-short, and short-short-long. Short-short-long is very bad; but short-short-short is just the monitor complaining about an invalid signal or unsupported frequency. So my monitor was ok, turning the suspicion onto the display card.

After fiddling with connectors & settings for a while, I decided to update the drivers from the ATI site. Turned out the CD was rather out of date. Replaced version 6.something with a much better 8.something. Rebooted again, swapped the DVI positions, and magically it worked. I wish ATI would do a better job QC'ing their drivers at hires. This isn't the first time their drivers have trashed my display. When upgrading my drivers on an older Radeon card, I had switched to 1920x1080 only to have the graphics card completely freak out and start displaying random blocks of colors everywhere as soon as I rebooted. It was only because I was able to walk through switching the video settings completely in the dark with just the keyboard (by tracing my steps on another computer) that I was able to switch the resolution back and then regress the drivers back to a previous version and have a usable setup once again.

Thanks to multiple panic attacks, I had managed to pull one of my floating ribs out of joint (which occasionally happens when I get over anxious), but hoping that the worst was over, I decided to soldier on. Too bad the worst wasn't over.

While downloading random programs necessary for operation: acrobat, netscape, gvim, mysql, cygwin, terraterm, cute-ftp, quicktime, bittornado, bzflag, etc. I also hooked up my 300GB storage drive in its USB case to move some things around. Just to freak me out again: the drive didn't show up. It felt like the harddrive was spinning, but the activity light on the case was stuck on, and the system wasn't recognizing anything. Frighteningly enough, this 300GB drive contains a fair amount of important stuff, and isn't really backed up. It was starting to look like it might never be. I took a moment to collect my thoughts, and after I started breathing again, I pulled the drive out of that case and stuck it in another USB case I had that wasn't quite in as good as shape (at least cosmetically). Thankfully the drive showed right up, and worked just fine despite the duct tape holding the case together; so I was able to install some more stuff from it and set it up as a secondary drive for this system.

Having cheated death three times in a row in one day, I decided to pack it in, and leave other battles (like my boot drive showing up as letter F:) for another day.

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