This is a story, told in its full bloody glory, of how I got one son’s AMD 2000+ powered Windows XP pro computer working over the MLK holiday weekend. Let it be a warning to those intrepid souls who want to upgrade a computer but haven’t done it before and then want to load Windows XP. It is not for the timid.
It began at Christmas. I had sent my son Timothy a used AMD 2000+ CPU, a “new” MSI KT4V motherboard, a 512MB stick of generic PC2700 DDR RAM, an ATI All-in-Wonder Radeon, and a Pioneer DVR-104 to upgrade his PIII 700Mhz homebuilt running XP Pro. For two weeks after, he had tried to get the CPU to run at full speed and Windows XP to load. The computer only ran without problems at a front side bus (FSB) speed of 100 Mhz; the CPU’s full speed could only be had at 133. Once there, if Windows XP Pro would load without a stop error and a blue screen of death, it would hang after running about five minutes. The very first thing we did was check CPU temperature, but it was never exceeding 52 degrees Centigrade, a pretty normal temperature for that chip. So, we went into the computer’s bios and experimented with turning off various caches and playing with AGP timings but nothing had any effect. We loaded new video drivers and even tried to see if the machine would run right with a PCI video card. Still, there was no change.
Finally, after helping my son for several weeks, I suggested he send the machine to me where I could use spare parts and broadband resources (of which he had neither) to troubleshoot it. He agreed and shipped it to me UPS. It arrived in fine shape three days later, which turned out to be January 16th, Friday afternoon. It was also the same day that iLife 04 and Final Cut Express 2.0 arrived from the Apple store, so it was almost like Christmas.
Once I had loaded the Apple software onto our Macs, I pulled his PC out of its box and hooked it up to a monitor. The machine crashed on its first boot. Just to make sure we had covered all the ground we could, I went in and tried turning off various caches and played with the AGP settings (making sure fastwrite was off, AGP set to 2X and then 4X) and installed a different memory stick; but nothing made any difference. The machine would crash with stop errors (and not usually the same one) or lock up. After disconnecting all redundant hard drives, optical drives, and yanking out all PCI cards, I tried loading XP Pro again but got the same result. I tried loading a copy of XP Home but the machine crashed anyway. I decided it was time for a different approach, so I wiped the boot drive clean and then loaded up Windows 98. Or tried to. The version I have is an upgrade; and when it went to validate my copy of Windows 95, it could not find it on the Windows 95 installation CD. Screw that! I stopped the Windows 98 installation and installed Windows 95 instead using an PCI based STB PowerGraph 64 as my video card. (Remember STB? The company that guaranteed their cards for life? They meant “their life”, which didn’t turn out to be long. They were bought out by 3dfx who were bought out by Nvidia who will be bought out by…?).
Windows 95 seemed to run fine, so I ran the installation routine for Windows 98. It also installed and ran fine. I booted up on the Windows XP Pro CD and tried to start an installation, but it crashed at the “Setup is Starting Windows” point. When I rebooted, I turned off “internal cache” and got into Windows 98 and started an XP Pro installation using the “Upgrade” method. The installation routine ran normally but slow as molasses. At this point, I didn’t care. I just wanted to see if I could get XP Pro to run at the processor’s full speed. It did, but there was no way I could say the machine was fixed. It was running very slow...too slow...with the inetrnal cache off. Since I suspected the internal cache, I thought I'd try another motherboard. It was 2 a.m. when I hit that point. I went on to bed.
The next morning I hobbled over to HardDrive.com (http://www.harddrive.com). They have a store front less than a mile away, and I had seen an Asus motherboard on their website I wanted to try. It was an Asus A7V8X retailing for $67. A salesman gave me a board in a white box he said was complete and only in the white box because the original box got damaged. Heh. He kept emphasizing their 30 day “no questions asked” return policy but didn’t explain the “Asus 7N8X” hand-written on the box. I didn’t question it and took the board home.
Of course, when I was installing the board, I saw the “A7NX” tag and knew that's what it was. I jumped out on the Internet on my PowerMac and downloaded the correct drivers and a .pdf copy of the motherboard’s user manual. Wanting to try out the Nvidia chipset, I installed the board using the memory from my XP machine, plugged in an ATI All in Wonder Radeon, and began installing XP Pro. I had no problems at all until I went to enter user names. The machine rebooted with no warning. It started up in XP on its own but locked up almost immediately. I shut it down, removed the ATI card, and put back the STB. The system ran fine. I installed the Nvidia drivers I had retrieved from Asus, connected to the Internet using my home network, installed XP Service Pack 1 from a CD-R I had made of it long ago, and then connected to Windows Update and downloaded everything I could find. I then shut the system down, installed the original memory, and then cranked into XP and loaded Office XP and Windows Media Player 9 with no problems. I thought I was “home free”. So, I selected “Start”/“Turn off computer” and, instead of shutting down, the computer rebooted instead!
A trip to and search of the Microsoft Knowledge base and Internet newsgroups gave me what appeared to be the solution. During the very first phases of the installation, XP polls the bios to determine what power management profiles to load. The one in use today and that allows Windows XP to shut the machine down from the menu is called ACPI for the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface. The software routine associated with controlling the machine is called the Hardware Abstraction Layer; XP had apparently loaded on one of the available non-ACPI HAL’s. While the workaround was fairly minor (turn the machine off by pressing the power button instead of the Start menu), to hand the machine back to my son in such a state would exhibit no pride in workmanship. I wasn’t going to do that. Unfortunately, the only fix was to reinstall the operating system and tell it what ACPI to install by hitting the F5 key when it asked me if I wanted to install any third party SCSI or RAID drivers. Grumbling, I grabbed the XP Pro CD and did just that.
That time was the install from hell. In the middle of it all, a string of error messages in the form of grey windows with OK buttons and that shouted they “could not find the entry point” clobbered my screen. Restarting the machine, I made several attempts to get the upgrade going again from where it had failed; but, again, no joy! I finally gave up and tried to repeat the installation from scratch. I got it going and manually chose the ACPI configuration and reinstalled. But it made no difference. When I would tell the machine to shutdown, it would restart instead.
Trying ANOTHER motherboard seemed to be the only recourse I had. MicroCenter was selling a Shuttle AK38N for only $43. Though it was an hour’s drive away and research on the Net showed that the board often had a lot of problems running XP, I decided to give it a shot. (True insanity!) Several hours later, I was back home and installed the board using my known-good memory; life plunged downhill. There were lots of crashes and machine shutdowns with an accompanying “British Police Siren” as one other user called it, and no hint from Shuttle about what it meant. I could not get XP installed. I tried turning off “L2 Cache ECC Checking” hoping that maybe this memory check might be causing the machine to shutdown, but that had no impact. Once again, I went back onto the Net trying to see if someone had gotten the board to run. One user noted that he had experienced lots of crashes with this board until he had set the memory speed (frequency) manually, making sure it was matched with the CPU’s FSB. AMD CPU’s were sensitive to that, he said. Hmmmmm. I tried that, but it didn’t help me at all.
Now, I was at am impasse. I had tried two motherboards and had no luck. There were still two things I hadn’t looked at, i.e., whether I had a bad CPU or power supply. But I believed they were okay. Then, I had an inspiration. Neither Tim nor I had thought to try manually setting the DRAM frequency to 266 in the MSI board. The memory was DDR2700, so the board’s bios would set it to 333 instead of the 266 speed the AMD 2000+ CPU would run at. Could the fix be as simple as that?
I remounted the MSI board using my known-good memory, cranked the machine up, went into the bios and manually set the DRAM frequency to 266, rebooted while checking that the machine booted up with that setting, and booted using the XP Pro CD. The installation ran smooth as silk. I then loaded up MSI’s VIA chip drivers and Microsoft's XP SP 1 from CD, connected to the Net and ran Windows Update until I had everything they offered, and shut the system down using the Start menu. I removed my memory and installed my son’s, installed Office XP and all the other software he had sent along, then shutdown the machine again, and installed the last ATI driver and Multimedia Set that had been built to support the ATI AIW Radeon. At about 1 am, I called it a night, happy that I finally had the thing running!
Success at last!
The next morning I decided to check out DVD playback. Tim had said it wasn’t right, and I obviously wanted to make sure it was. I grabbed a copy of Shrek and played it. The music seemed a bit skewed and had a slight pulse to it, though the video seemed otherwise okay. That might mean a drive motor problem. But the real shock came when I tried to play a DVD-R containing a TV program. The damn thing ran at about twice the speed it was supposed to and the audio was severely clipped. I searched the web again for this problem and did find a few people who had experienced it but no solution.
Since I suspected the DVR-104’s motor drive, I headed out to find a replacement. My choice became to buy an on-sale Pioneer DVR-A05 at Micro Center or an equivalently priced Memorex 4X dual format burner at CompUSA. After speaking with my son on the phone about his preferences, I picked up the Pioneer because of its better compatibility and Micro Center’s better return policies. (I also returned the Shuttle motherboard while I was there. They gave me a full refund.)
Once back home, I installed the A05 drive and the smoothness of Shreks’ audio did improve but the chipmunk behavior of the DVD-R was still there. While I could find nothing definitive about that problem, swapping out video cards was something I could try. I had an ATI All in Wonder Radeon 9000 Pro I could use. Before I did that, however, I decided to install the drivers and the multimedia center (including the DVD player) it would use. I had nothing to lose. Lo and behold, though it wasn’t supposed to support the ATI AIW Radeon card, the setup worked like a champ with both the commercial DVD and my homemade DVD-R! I had installed a new video driver, DVD encoder, and DVD player; one of those had fixed the problem!
The computer is on its way back home as I write this. UPS is supposed to deliver it today. When it left here, the system was running fast and stable as a rock. Hopefully, it will do the same after it arrives at my son's home; and his Christmas present will finally be complete.
I took the Asus board back to HardDrive.com and they did give me a refund, too, though nowhere near as cheerfully as Micro Center had. I’ve got an old DVR-104 drive now I suspect isn’t much good, but am waiting for a chance to pop it into my PC and test it before making a decision about what to do with it. I’m waiting to hear back from my son. I feel good about what I did. It was both a hellish time and a lot of fun. I enjoy fixing PC’s for the most part; too bad you can’t make any decent money at it. If I had charged someone for all the time I had spent, it would have been more than the entire PC was worth. Who would want to pay that?