My own computer really grinds my gears


I was feeling like this today… just work, bunghole!

As I may have intimated before, when I’m with my folks in Worthing I use a cobbled-together PC that I call “the Frankencomputer” (and please don’t point out that Frankenstein was the creator, I’m well aware of this).  Throughout its history it’s been troublesome for me, and this weekend and Monday have been the worst…

(I call my PC in London “the übercontraption”, if you must know!)

Until late 2011 I was using my mother’s old prebuilt eMachines PC as my Worthing computer, but it was so slow that I couldn’t even listen to Tony Blackburn via iPlayer without stuttering, unless I turned off the antivirus!  Thus, using spare parts (such as a casing I’d bought for my mother’s previous PC, the motherboard I’d upgraded from when my hard drive died in May, and an old copy of Windows XP), I began assembling the Frankencomputer in November.  The casing wasn’t exactly soundproof, however, and I had a good casing in London… and so I carried it home one arm-aching weekend (naturally the nearest Tube station was closed at that exact time).

To make matters worse, the PSU (one of several I had going spare, and one which had needed an extension for the 12V cable) wasn’t able to handle the increased number of cooling fans, and so the hard drive was damaged by power fluctuations.  All I’d wanted to do was play the original F.E.A.R. and its expansions over Christmas, but multiple attempts to download and validate the files through Steam took ages as the drive slowed everything to glacial speeds… and even when I’d finally finished, the ancient 7900GS graphics card turned out to be on the way out.  Gah!

Thus it was that the Frankencomputer was used for only simple tasks for about a year; I tried replacing the hard drive, but only succeeded on the second attempt (the first time I mistakenly bought an old IDE drive, the sort that takes a ribbon cable, and almost killed that one too).  I got a better PSU eventually, and when I bought my mother a compact all-in-one PC for Christmas in 2012, I took the decent graphics card (and memory) from her old PC and stuck it where it might be of some use at last (ooh, Matron!).  It was Easter 2013 (about the time I wrote this entry) when I finally reinstalled Steam, admittedly in the vain hope of being able to play Mumsy’s copy of Total War: Shogun 2 (a difficult prospect even on a decent PC).

However, broadly speaking, the Frankencomputer was finally working more or less fine — and received a boost when I got a DVI-to-HDMI cable so I could plug it into the big TV in my Worthing room, and not need my mother’s old VGA monitor (which joined many other devices and components in the electronics section at Worthing dump), though this of course meant I couldn’t watch TV at the same time.  During my self-imposed exile in September 2013 I was able to study, play games and surf the Interthingy to my heart’s content (but not write in this blog very much, I note), and similarly while keeping my grandmother company recently.

However, since Windows XP officially became obsolete this year, and no longer receives significant updates, it was high time I upgraded it to Windows 7.  I put a slightly better processor in it (more a way of refreshing my thermal paste-scraping skills before I did the same with my own PC in London), and brought home a slightly larger hard drive I had going spare; my intention was to get a copy of Windows 7 and set up an installation on a USB thumb drive including an Autounattend file, just to prove my superior PC skills.

It took me a while to get a copy of Windows 7 (since Computer Exchange’s stock of things I want to buy can go down as well as up, and I needed to sell some stuff to get the necessary credit), but this weekend I created an Autounattend file on my London PC, partly thanks to experimentation with installing it in a virtual machine (just let me big up VirtualBox here… okay, that’s big enough).  I had to use my mother’s PC to set up the USB thumb drive (which I’d foolishly left in Worthing) as a bootable object, and copy the installation files across from the Windows 7 DVD; then I had to use my mother’s PC again in order to recreate the Autounattend file from scratch, because the one I’d brought with me had somehow been corrupted!

I had many, many other issues with this installation, and here’s a litany (apologies for the techie language, but perhaps someone else out there will benefit from my comedy of errors):

  • You need to use both CreatePartition and ManagePartition — don’t just create a partition and not then set it to NTFS (or whatever) format, or you’ll get an error: “Windows could not prepare the partition selected for installation.”
  • Windows 7 needs a 100MB “System” partition, and the rest can be for Windows itself — but both need to be “Primary”, not “MSR” or “EFI” or anything!
  • If you set the main partition to “Extend” (i.e. fill up all remaining space on the hard drive) in CreatePartition, DON’T set it to “Extend” in ManagePartition as well, or the whole installation process will stop with a weird error (0x80300024, fact fans).

And then there’s more to get right in the PC’s BIOS:

  • If you’re using a SATA drive (and you should be, it’s not 1997 any more), for $DEITY’s sake, set it to AHCI mode before you start installing Windows 7, otherwise you’ll have a choice between reinstalling, doing some scary registry hacking via a bootable DVD (to ensure the right drivers get loaded), or living with a slower hard drive!
  • Make sure you’ve set the right boot device order — don’t keep selecting USB-FDD like I did, and then think the thumb drive had been set to no longer be a bootable object, possibly because you edited the Autounattend file under Windows XP… your PC might just ignore everything and go for the first hard drive it finds, ignoring your USB thumb drive entirely!
  • Just because your USB keyboard & mouse work in the BIOS screens and in Windows, there’s no guarantee they’ll work in the Windows boot screen (e.g. to select “Start in Safe Mode”) as well — make sure the BIOS is set to accept input from USB devices!

(Those last two might be quirks of this motherboard’s weird BIOS — the same BIOS that convinced me I’d lost my documents drive in May 2011 as well as my Windows drive, when in fact only the Windows drive had conked out!)

And even once installation is over, there’s still more problems to face:

  • By default, the Administrator account is unavailable to log into — indeed, you won’t even be able to type in the Administrator password when UAC deploys (it’ll tell you to do so, but won’t give you a box to type it into!); to unlock it, you need to restart in Safe Mode, log in as Administrator and run a command before it’ll be available in “normal” mode.  (Oh, all right: net user administrator /active:yes).
  • If you’ve got an older Wi-Fi network card, Windows Updates might misidentify it and install “updated” drivers that actually stop it from detecting any Wi-Fi networks — so make sure you’ve got the right drivers available!
  • Microsoft are paying attention now, so don’t try to install Office 2010 (or similar) on more than one desktop PC, though you might be allowed to install it on a laptop as well.

Honestly, the number of times I’ve had to watch the Windows 7 installation process today alone!  But it’s all finally done, and I’ve saved some useful files (such as nVidia drivers and Firefox) onto the USB thumb drive, in case I ever have to do it all again.  I know, if I’d been better prepared I could have set up a customised WIM image including all the software and drivers I wanted, or even made a fully-updated virtual machine and created an image from that, but I didn’t have time.

Anyway, the Frankencomputer works fine now — but alas, it’s late at night and I need to go back to London tomorrow, to psyche myself up for my first night shift on Thursday, so I have no chance to enjoy it…


One thought on “My own computer really grinds my gears

  1. Pingback: The PC of Theseus | Dave-ros Lives!

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