The dead desktop computer: From good, bad, and ugly back to dead


When last we left my dead desktop computer, it had returned to the world of the living with the assistance of the onboard video adapter. The screen was fuzzy because I was running my LCD monitor through the analog VGA cable. Performing an auto-adjust helped a little but it was still blurry. Still, it was within the realm of acceptability for casual low-volume use.

Well, the computer once again died, and before it finally kicked the bucket, the onboard video card started pumping out corrupted pixels. My suspicion that my motherboard ate video cards was correct. In fact, its appetite for video cards was so voracious, it ate itself.

Okay, so here are the options I've been able to come up with so far.

  1. Feed the computer video cards.
  2. Replace just the motherboard.
  3. Replace the entire computer.

The first option is out because the rate of consumption appears to be one video card per month, which is a rather expensive diet.

The second option is a possibility, but the computer was purchased pre-assembled from a name-brand manufacturer, so the odds of finding a motherboard that exactly fits into the original case are pretty slim. I'll probably have to move everything to a new case.

The third option is the lazy way out, and is in fact the solution employed by most non-technical users.

For now I'm going to investigate option two. I'll have to take the computer apart to get at the motherboard anyway, and then I can investigate what type of replacement I need to get. (In terms of socketry and stuff.) Though who knows how long it will be before I actually get around to fixing the computer.

Meanwhile, my laptop which was manufactured back in 2000 continues to chug along happily.

Comments (41)
  1. Nathan_works says:

    What’s the value of your time and effort ?

    For a long time, I always thought it was the principle and the money that mattered.

    Now I think, who cares if you save $50, I’d rather spend my Saturday afternoon on a pleasant bike ride around town than rushing from $Bobs_Computer_story and home and pouring over the internet for mobo specs. Though if that’s what you enjoy, more power to you.

    [I agree completely. Note however that setting up the new computer takes a long time. (Oh boy, a new SID. Let’s re-ACL this drive.) -Raymond]
  2. Thom says:

    As much as I enjoy your blog entries on the computer I’m going to plead with you to take the easy way out.  Sure it’s more expensive but it’s the best bet in the long run.  

    Besides, if you’re going to waste your time  tearing that thing down and searching for a replacement motherboard why not spend that time researching quality components and building your own rock solid machine from scratch.  Surely someone around you is always bragging about how rock solid their homebuilt is?

    If you want to tough it out though, just jump on Ebay and search.  You’ll probably find your motherboard, of even your whole computer, for little more than what it’d cost you in your time to tear yours down.

  3. mastmaker says:

    Unless your computer was from a manufacturer that is extreme control freak (think of fruit with a piece bitten off?) chances are that the motherboard confirms to micro-ATX or (for bigger boxes) ATX form factor and you can drop in a motherboard. But then, smaller worries start at this point? Major ones: Is the power supply (ATX) cable of standard type and sufficient length? Front panel connectors are standard type? fan connectors either 3-pin motherboard plug or 4-pin drive connector type?

    Best of luck!

  4. RyanC says:

    I would be more concerned that your powersupply, not your motherboard, is eating your components.  Wouldn’t hurt to throw a Volts/Ohms Meter on and make sure the power supply is still delivering power within spec. :) (If you’re going to keep it, that is)

    [I’d be afraid of electrocuting myself, and I wouldn’t know how to interpret the output anyway. -Raymond]
  5. MM says:

    > I would be more concerned that your powersupply, not your motherboard,

    Why not the monitor ? It could discharge dangerous electricity on its cable for some reason. The fact that the blowing piece is always the video card (even when it’s integrated!!) is suspicious.

  6. David Walker says:

    One of the Texas-based manufacturers of PCs had a non-standard pinout on the power supply plug that goes to the motherboard, on some of their computers.  It’s easy to get fooled by the standard physical size of the power supply itself, plus, the power supply connector to the montherboard is the standard shape and size.

    Which means that you can fry a motherboard if the power-supply came from that company.

  7. acd says:

    I also agree that you shouldn’t replace only the motherboard. You should really replace the power supply for one of proved and higher quality. There’s extremely high probability that the power supply is not up to the task and that it helps the components being burned.

    It’s not only about the average power, but about the peak power, the form of the power output and the power output under the load.

    Do you know how many different voltage and power levels one power supply should provide to the modern computer — three of four! If only one of those too weak it is enough for troubles.

  8. Ian says:

    > [I agree completely. Note however that setting up the new computer takes a long time. (Oh boy, a new SID. Let’s re-ACL this drive.) -Raymond]

    Have you seen NewSID? I haven’t used it myself, but it looks like you could use it to give the new computer the SID from the old one.

    <http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/sysinternals/bb897418.aspx&gt;

    When I’ve migrated data to a new computer (or just new major version of the OS) I’ve taken it as a welcome opportunity to get rid of all the cruft that has accumulated and archive stuff.

  9. szalap@hotmail.com says:

    Raymond, you’re adventurous–you won’t electrocute yourself on just a few volts DC; besides, you probably won’t even come close to  touching one.  Doing this kind of diagnostic is a great basic skill to know anyway.

    Set your multimeter to DC volts.  Assuming you can get the PS running without being attached to the motherboard, stick the black lead into a connector with a black wire, and then use the red lead to touch each connector.

    They should be near:

    Yellow: 12V

    Orange: 3.3V

    Red: 5V

    Blue: -12V

    To turn it on, use a paper clip and short a black connector to the green (power on) connector.

    Turn the power off after a few minutes; do not leave it on for too long.

  10. szalap@hotmail.com says:

    Oh, and by the way, the voltages could be correct but the PS still be bad, as "acd" above stated.

  11. Neil says:

    Maybe you would be better off using your laptop as a thin client for your desktop?

  12. Perez says:

    A weak psu often exhibits symptoms such as fan surging on boot or hard drive corruption.

  13. Ben says:

    I would personally choose option 3 from your list–it has the lowest risk of further problems both in both the short and the long terms. I’ve found that the precipitous drop in computer prices in the past 5-10 years has really changed the way I see the economics of situations like this: even though replacing a motherboard and PSU is (hopefully) a pretty trivial operation, especially with modern Plug-and-Play jumperless hardware, it often seems more prudent to mitigate against future trouble (and further wasted time) by replacing more than you absolutely need to. It seems lazy and wasteful at first sight, but the cost-benefit argument is definitely there. Another possibility you could consider would be to build a mostly new computer while salvaging parts from the old one where possible, although the derisory price of components doesn’t necessarily make this a worthwhile proposition either.

    As suggested by some commenters already, the PSU could be bad–but there’s no reliable way to test for this unless you have a load generator and an oscilloscope to hand. A cheap multimeter just won’t cut it here, particularly if the PSU isn’t connected to anything: all readings are invalid unless the PSU is operating under its normal load, not that most multimeters have been calibrated anyway. A better approach is just to replace it, rather than spending the time and effort to diagnose a fault with such a cheap component. If you choose to take this advice, then make sure to buy a brand known for quality.

  14. Perez says:

    Speaking of frying a motherboard, if you have one of the popular "eConomy" computers, that’s what almost always happens when the original power supply dies.  Replace it now.

  15. Napalm says:

    The first option reminds me of the old IBM Computer Monster advert. (This was the precursor to the Cookie Monster)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdAKgJDahzw

    Napalm

    PS. Sorry if YouTube linkage is against the rules.

  16. J says:

    There’s a good utility called CPU-Z (http://www.cpuid.com/) that will help you identify all sorts of stuff about your CPU and hardware.  I used it to confirm the socket type this weekend when a vendor’s web site said my PC had a socket AM2 motherboard, but their parts replacement web page for that model suggested a socket 939 processor.  It was AM2.

  17. Michael says:

    I would just buy a new computer.  They are so cheap these days that fixing a computer that is more than a year or two old is just not worth it.  

  18. MadQ1 says:

    You could use HWMonitor ( http://www.cpuid.com/hwmonitor.php ) to check the voltages, no multimeter or oscilloscope required. If HWMonitor doesn’t work, Motherboard Monitor (just google it) should do the trick.

    BTW, have you checked whether the wall outlet and the various power strips, etc. connected to it  are properly wired? You can get a cheap, simple tester at any hardware store. Just plug it in, if you get two orange lights, it’s good. If you get a red light, hire an electrician. Random failures always make me suspicious of something not being properly grounded. It wouldn’t be any fun if you buy all-new hardware only to be stuck with the same problem.

  19. JamesNT says:

    Raymond,

    I think I’m going to buy you a new Dell computer.  Since I love your blog, I may include the 24 inch flat screen monitor Dell has which is very nice (I have one myself).

    I assume I can send it to the main Microsoft address?

    JamesNT

  20. Peter says:

    New Motherboard? Feh, never again.  The new motherboard didn’t work with the old drives (new motherboard supported both old parallel ATA and new serial ATA, but didn’t quite boot correctly in that configuration).  And that meant a new drive. And an new OS.  Because when you change the motherboard, that’s what you have to do, that’s why.  Especially if the old OS was a 9x type OS.  And another new drive for the data.

    Bleah.  A simple couple of hour job turned into a week long and expensive nightmare.

    Never again.  Ever.

  21. tyler says:

    I say buy an entirely new machine.  It’s clear that your machine is either possessed, infested with gremlins, or a gelatinous cube simply masquerading as a computer.  You need a priest, a flamethrower, and a sledgehammer if you want to put this machine behind you.

  22. Roy says:

    I would take option 4, which is taking JamesNT’s offer :)

  23. Skywing says:

    I’ve personally be moving in the direction of putting all of my development environment and similar things (which are the parts that seem to take the longest to setup for a new system) onto a VM in a colo’d box that I RDP to.

    Advantages of this so far have been:

    • Good, reliable server hardware trumps consumer desktop/laptop hardware in my experience for not falling over and dying.
    • (More reliable) always on for not missing backlogs for the various communication services I use.

    • Easier to backup/restore things and move configurations to new hardware as necessary.

    Things such as games tend to stay local, but most of those don’t take too much configurating anyway.

  24. MikeT says:

    Could it be the monitor causing your problem?

  25. Hamilton Lovecraft says:

    I’m also putting my money on the monitor being the culprit here.

  26. the interrogator says:

    And what OS does the 8 year-old laptop run, if I may ask?

  27. Nawak says:

    I just noticed that in my comment that you linked in this post, I forgot a "not" in the last sentence ("If that does *not* fix…)

    I do that kind of mistakes in my e-mails too, both in my native language and in english, which is strange because, obviously, I re-read everything twice when I write in a foreign language.

    Anyway, I am beginning to think that your computer was built on an old indian cemetery and that you should put it away entirely before it starts getting even more aggressive!

  28. idinev says:

    To be perfectly safe, you’d best buy a brand new PC with a brand new monitor, and simply plug-in my HDDs [mobo drivers may be needed only, but you keep all your settings and data].

    If your monitor makes the images fuzzy via VGA, then something stinks in it. (even absolutely-unshielded VGA cables don’t make the image fuzzy – but wavy and a bit horizontally-smudged instead, when there is tremendous RF activity around).

    Though well, I myself would thoroughly investigate the mobo, PSU and monitor, as I have a bit of knowledge and experience; and am very curious.

  29. matthew says:

    A few years back my Dad’s office were selling 486s for £10.

    I was very excited to have it to replace my 286.

    So I got it home, plugged in my keyboard and mouse and switched it on.

    Broken.

    So it was taken back.

    Second 486.

    Same result.

    Third 486.

    Also didn’t work

    It was only by the time we got to the fifth and last of their 486s that I realised that the mouse I was plugging into it was an Amstrad mouse I had acquired from somwhere, that though pin-compatible, was destroying the computers somehow.

    That was an expensive free mouse.

  30. Hobie-wan says:

    I would guess the mobo or power supply is the main problem. There might be bulging/leaking capacitors on the motherboard or inside the power supply.

    http://www.badcaps.net/

    Bad caps on the motherboard can cause blue screen  and all sorts of random issues. Bad caps in the power supply can send dirty power to the parts of the PC which can kill them in a quick pop, or the same sort of slow death.

  31. Fersis says:

    so youre notebook is from 2000?

    So , how do you play Crysis ?

    just kidding.

    Cheers

  32. Puckdropper says:

    If you’re still looking in to option 2, match the new motherboard to your CPU and drives and don’t bother trying to match it to the case.  If it’s a standard form factor, that’s great, you can save yourself $20.  If it’s a proprietary form factor, buy a new case.  Decent cases for home use can be found for somewhere around $20, sans power supply.

  33. Worf says:

    Normally option 3 is best, but if he goes for it, Raymond won’t get a chance to tell us of his trials and tribulations!

  34. Stephen Jones says:

    The problem with replacing the motherboard is that you probably have to replace the software, unless you’re lucky enough to get a motherboard that’s nearly equivalent.

    Presumably Raymond will be saved the hassle of buying a new copy of Windows because all he has on the old machine is a cloned image that won’t work with another motherboard. If not maybe somebody could mail him a pirate copy.

  35. Thom says:

    @JamesNT – If you write me I’ll provide you with Raymond’s address so you can ship the new computer and 24" monitor directly to him.  It’s a shame but Raymond has such an obsessive group of followers that he has to go through a mail drop in Kentucky.

  36. Charlene says:

    As to choice #2, if the motherboard is modern enough I would go with it.  But if you’re going to replace it with a more modern motherboard, just because the new motherboard will fit, doesn’t mean that the case is good enough for it.  

    You do have a 4th option.  Get a barebones generic computer with the motherboard of your choice and put in the old computer components that still work (and will work with the new motherboard).

    I also agree with Hobie-wan.  It could be the power supply or even the electrical circuit the computer is on.  One place I worked at had a lot of computers.  This was when every one was just beginning to get their own PCs on their desks.  We had on one circuit – at least 5 PCs, an IBM AIX box, Vax Workstation, and 2 DEC X-terminals (whatever they were called).  The IBM AIX box kept eating hard drives and we couldn’t figure it out until the circuit breaker started to shut off the circuit.  The electrician for the building came around and totaled up all the amperage of all the components…  Fortunately the PDP-11 was on its own circuit (which the VAX Workstation should have been but I was the only one using it, so it was my personal computer).

  37. Brian says:

    whenever I have a component that fries, I tend to replace all of them because you never really know exactly which component is bad.  I instituted this policy after spending much time and money discovering it was my sound card that was frying my video cards.

  38. Jojo says:

    @JamesNT: You can get the address from me as well. He lives in Florida.

  39. JamesNT says:

    I don’t think I have to worry about sending Raymond a new computer in spite of how much I am tempted to.  I can see the evil HR department at MS* seizing the machine and sending it back possibly without Raymond even knowing.  They would probably consider such a gift a bribe.

    *(I’m not picking on MS in particular – all HR departments are evil.)

    JamesNT

  40. Yuhong Bao says:

    "Meanwhile, my laptop which was manufactured back in 2000 continues to chug along happily."

    For me it was the opposite. My old desktop PC from 2001 still works now, but another old laptop PC from 2001 don’t work anymore.

  41. jza says:

    Why are you so eager to blame the power supply? If the problem was there then why would the damage be every time limited only to the video card? I’d take a look at the monitor. Maybe there is something broken in the video interface which eventually kills the inputting device.

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