in Hardware

new computer woes

So my trusty 6 year-old desktop, jupiter, died after a power outage a couple of weeks ago. I suspect the motherboard got fried, because trying to power on the system did nothing, although a monitor plugged into the back of the PSU could still power up.

I’d been thinking of getting a new computer for some time, because the Pentium III 800 MHz processor and 768 MB of PC133 RAM wasn’t really cutting it for running VMWare Workstation, so this failure pushed me into action. I decided to purchase a standard "template" system from Canada Computers with the following specifications:

  • ASUS P5LD2-VM motherboard
  • Pentium 4 3.2 GHz CPU
  • 512 MB of DDR400 PC3200 RAM
  • 250 GB Western Digital SATA hard disk
  • LG 16x dual-layer DVD writer

The P5LD2-VM has onboard sound, video (using an Intel 945G chipset) and Intel Gigabit Ethernet, so I decided to just use those.

To this system I added another 512 MB of RAM, a second 250GB SATA hard disk (for a software RAID-1 mirror), and an APC Back-UPS CS 500 uninterruptible power supply.

I picked up the system on Saturday, took it home and powered it up. Immediately I saw a problem: one of the SATA hard disks wasn’t being properly detected. After fiddling around with the connections on the motherboard, I was able to get both disks to show up, but only if I used SATA ports 1 and 3, rather than 1 and 2. Plugging any device into ports 3 and 4 caused them to not show up in the BIOS.

I resolved to take the system back to have Canada Computers’ technicians diagnose the issue (eventually they reset the BIOS and everything was fine) but in the meantime I could still install Fedora Core 5 on it. Or so I thought.

I started by installing the i386 version of Fedora, which succeeded, but then I realized that the Pentium 4 is an EM64T CPU, so I should install x86_64 Fedora. Trying to do so, however, caused the installer to lock up right before the first boot, and resulted in a corrupted system — for example, /etc/inittab would be missing. I observed other weird behaviour, like the fact that the primary software RAID partition, /dev/md2, would be in a rebuilding state immediately after the install, even though the installer said to reboot the system.

I subsequently tried to install the Fedora Unity Re-Spin of x86_64 Fedora Core 5, with similar results; at least I was able to get through the installer and onto first boot, but when starting up X the system would lock up hard. SUSE Linux 10.1, which I tried just to see if it would behave differently, had the same issues.

I came to the conclusion that the on-board Intel 945G video chipset is no good, at least with the 64-bit drivers in X. So I ran out to Canada Computers again and bought the cheapest PCI Express video card I could find: an ASUS Extreme AX300SE (basically an ATI Radeon X300SE). Then I tried to reinstall Fedora Core 5, and it worked perfectly! So I would advise everyone to stay away from the Intel 945G chipset for on-board video.

By the way, the UPS was broken too — I opened a support case with APC and they are planning courier me a replacement. I guess I just have bad luck with computer equipment.

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