I hate computer hardware

I’ve forgotten how much I hate computer hardware.

Three weeks ago today I was working at my computer and heard a loud POP, loud enough that I remember ducking for cover. I wasn’t able to figure out where the sound had come from and after a bit I dismissed it and continued working.

The next morning I was working away and my computer spontaneously rebooted. Now that’s annoying. To make matters worse it continued to do so. There was nothing in the log files that might indicate what the problem was. I know that brown outs can often cause this and since we just moved into the new house I thought we might be having some minor electrical issues. Determined to get it resolved I head off to Best Buy and purchase a UPS ($130). Nope – UPS doesn’t fix the problem, the machine is still rebooting. After literally hours of frustration I determined that the problem was my dual-head AGP video card. The loud sound that I had heard the night before was one of the capacitors exploding. I removed the card and was reduced to using the on-board video with just one monitor while I awaited for a new video card to arrive.

Early in the next week (two weeks ago) the new video card arrives ($40). I pop it in and as soon as it boots up into graphics mode it reboots. Damn. I’m guessing that when the capacitor exploded it screwed something up on the motherboard such that no AGP card will work. Reverting back to one 1600×1200 monitor is totally out of the picture and a thought that was not even entertained (I did mock the thought for just a bit, but didn’t entertain it). As anyone who has ever used dual monitors before can attest (my mother being one of them) once you go dual-head you never go back.

Because my computer is a work computer and since it very clearly isn’t functioning correctly I submitted for a replacement. This is where I was concerned about things getting tricky. IBM has a policy that desktop systems are only replaced once every 3.5 years — and they’re trying to push it to 4 — to minimize expenses and prevent people from requesting a new one every year. My system at the time was 4 days less than 3 years old so it was almost to the 3.5 mark but note quite there. If your computer is nonfunctional they’ll fix or replace it regardless of how old it is, but I wasn’t certain that “I can’t use both of my monitors” counted as broken. Luckily the person who approves all desktop replacements for Tivoli use to be on my team several years ago and after I explained what was wrong he said to just order a new one and he would approve it. And so I did.

Now we wait another week and a half for processing and shipping and the machine arrives last Friday. In a box that looks like it would house a laptop and not a desktop. I open it up and there is indeed a desktop in the box, obviously designed by the creators of MicroMachines. This thing is microscopic. It does, however, already come with a video card that supports dual-monitors. Imagine my shock! So I sit down to plug in my keyboard and mice and – lo and behold, it has no PS/2 ports. Anyone who knows me will likely recall that I’m a stickler for my input devices. I am a passionate user of the Microsoft Natural keyboard (the original, not the Elite or the Media) and the Logitech TrackMan Marble trackball (the original, not the one with the scroll wheel). In fact, I’m so passionate about my input devices that I have a spare keyboard and two spare trackballs should some unforeseen event befall my existing ones. The spares are vital because they don’t make either one of these input devices any more.

I get online to see if Best Buy has a PS/2-to-USB adapters and yes, they do but it has such horrible reviews on Amazon that I’m not going near it. Another brand has rave reviews but is not available in any stores we have here in Denver so I’m forced to order it from Amazon ($30). It gets ordered and I plug in a spare USB keyboard and USB mouse to get by and cross my fingers that the ordered device works as designed.

Meanwhile I work at getting the new computer set up. The video card is being very persnickety and I fight with it all day Saturday. Eventually through enough research I figure out that the supplied ATI video card will not support a dual-monitor set up at full resolution. And really, this doesn’t overly upset me because I’ve come to absolutely hate the ATI card with a passion – their Linux support sucks so bad it could suck a monkey through a garden hose. Running two 1600×1200 monitors at 1024×768 resolution is unacceptable, end of discussion. You’re thinking “so you just used the new video card you just bought, right?” Alas if it were only that simple. There are two problems with the new computer that prevent me from using the already-purchased video card 1) the new machine uses PCI Express (PCIe) and the already-purchased card is AGP and 2) because the MicroMachine case is so small, the video card must be a low profile card and the already-purchased card is full-height. So Saturday afternoon I get online to order a replacement video card. Finding an nVidia PCIe low-profile video card is more challenging that you might think but I did find one on Amazon ($60). Fed up at this point I order it for 2-day shipping.

While I’m waiting I’m also trying to figure out why the new computer seems so slow – slow like molasses in December. On Sunday after several hours of research I determine it is because the new machine has SATA drives but the BIOS is set to present them as IDE drives giving me a non-blazing 3MB/s transfer speed. I’m not a speed fanatic, really, I’m not, but the computer was virtually unusable at that speed. You can’t just flip a switch in the BIOS, however, because 1) the initrd kernel image doesn’t have the AHCI module to support SATA and thus won’t recognize the drive and 2) the fstab file references /dev/hd* when the SATA drives are going to be presented to the kernel as /dev/sd* drives. All of this is determined by trial-and-error-and-research (rinse lather repeat) and involves many cycles of rebooting, adjusting BIOS settings, and editing configuration files. Finally I master the beast and my drive now transfers data at 61MB/s.

Monday and Tuesday I work entirely from my laptop as the new machine is unusable and yet I’ve already transferred everything to it from the old machine — there’s no point in going back to the old one. Today, Wednesday, both the PS/2-to-USB adapter and the video card show up. 10 minutes later the new machine is 100% operational with dual-screens supporting my full monitor resolution and working input devices.

Three weeks, $260 (out of my own pocket), and many frustrating hours later, I finally have a working computer again. This is why I hate computer hardware.