Thursday, March 03, 2011

My baby almost died

Don't worry, it's ok now, my years old computer that I can't get myself to replace. The experience has been very educational and I want to share it with you. Here is what happened: the computer that I keep always on started making strange clanking sounds; they came from the HDD. I got a little concerned, but I didn't have the time to address the problem right then. The computer seemed to work fine so I continued (btw, don't you do that in the same situation :) ) to work on it. Finally the computer reset itself and it wouldn't boot. Or, better said, it would boot for a second and restart. I checked the hard drive cables, I removed and cleaned the processor cooler, I vacuumed the power source. Nothing worked. I took the IDE drive from an older Duron computer and tried to boot with that one. It didn't work either, but then again, I had no guarantee that the old drive was functional.

I was really upset. I had an exam to take, all my data was lost, I had a full schedule for days and, being the end of the month, not enough cash to buy a computer right away. And I needed bank loan formalities like I needed an anal probe. But, I thought, maybe I can take the hard drive at work and copy the data, or at least part of it. And it worked. In fact, the drive worked so well at work that I began to doubt that the HDD had any problems. What could it be? I did have a feeling that it might be from the processor cooler that I had removed to clean. After years of use, the thermoconducting gel that transferred heat from the CPU to the metal radiator was only a dusty crust. I decided to buy a cooler or at least some gel.

Of course, any computer shop that was near my work did not have coolers for my old Athlon processor, so I bought gel and then (to be sure) also a cooler for a more recent processor type. I went home, saw that the radiator was way too large for the processor so I removed the fan from the new cooler and placed it (using ingeniously twisted wires) on the old radiator, then applied it with new gel on the processor. And the computer began to work with no drives attached to it. However, attaching the drive would make it reset itself again.

The culprit was, I assumed, either the motherboard (oh no!) or the power source. I removed the old power source from the Duron computer and replaced it on the Athlon computer. And it worked! With wires and thermoconducting gel I brought my baby back to life. I was better than MacGyver! However, the new source would make a really high pitch sound when I turned the computer off and a loud fan noise when I turned it on. I had no intention of buying a new power source for an old computer, I just wanted to make it work.

So I went to my office and borrowed three power sources that had been replaced with newer models. Went back home... none of them worked. As computer parts go, the power source is both the most solicited and the less standard item. There are unlimited ways a power source can fail and the effects on the computer are always surprising. All three displayed some (different) sort of partial functionality. I was considering opening them up and making a Frankensteinian source from them. I know nothing of electronics, but how hard can it be (vision: me burned to a crisp by an electrical fire after having my heart stop due to electric shock). However, I did remember that the source in the Athlon computer was not the original source. I had replaced it with a newer model a while ago and I had kept the old one. I rummaged through my stuff and found the old power source. It worked, it had a somewhat loud fan, but not that loud and it didn't make any electrical high pitched noises. Saved!

I was congratulating myself on repairing the computer using only the things in my house (all but the new cooler) when I remembered that I had an old 500Gb external drive that wouldn't work unless you applied power from the computer power source to the internal drive in the box. And so I did that (using wires again, because the adapter from the old power port to the new got lost somewhere) and backed up all the data from the drive that I thought died. Now I have a backup!

And if I am here, why not borrow a voltmeter and try to figure out how to wire up this external drive so I can use it without all the wires sticking out of it? So the story continues, as this is what I intend to do. I am a guy, tinkering is in my DNA, and it is so satisfying. Also, it helps seeing the uncomprehending look on my wife's face and the horror in her eyes when she sees more wires. It's fun! :)