Pain in the Technology

Most of you that know me, know that I might have an infatuation with technology. This is true but as I get older, I’m getting wiser and starting to think that this whole technology thing is just plain annoying. Let me give you a few examples that I have suffered since my return from travelling. BTW while travelling I updated people’s technology, the most requested being universal remote controls to get rid of the stack of controls sitting on the table. If you’re interested, drop me a line and we will chat.

I had stashed my quad processor server at my friend’s Ian so that I could connect to it from around the world. Very handy and highly recommended. My server, called Quadro, has 4GB of RAM and has run Windows Vista Ultimate since it came out on Nov 30th. I’m a sucker for pain, I know, but I quite like Vista. Unlike XP, its actually nice to look at but I’m rambling off topic.

When I returned, I picked up Quadro and returned home with it. It has 1TB of RAID disk for pictures and music mostly as well as work and other mundane bits like that. Since I play with technology all the time, good backups are essential. No backups = trapeze artist with no net. Retrospect is my weapon of choice for backups. Its fast and always gets the job done. I backup to 2 external drives and mirror my CD collection and pictures to another drive because you can never have too many backups.

I pulled out my external drives to connect them to Quadro and discovered that 2 shared very similar power supplies with different wattages. Why can’t the manufacturers actually put the model # of the device that the power supply goes with? Seems logical to me. I decided to gamble thinking what harm can it do and plugged in the 1st 500GB drive. I quickly noticed that wonderful smell burning electronics and rapidly disconnected the drive. I tried the other power supply which added to the burning smell and still no drive. It did produce a sad blinking blue light. I’ve come to associate slowly blinking blue lights with badness in computers.

I plugged the other power supply into the 2nd drive and lo and behold, the same smell started again. 2 drives and 2 power supplies, what’s the chances that I manage to blow them up? 100%.

2 dead drives. I was a little annoyed to put it mildly. A flash of 2 AM inspiration hit me (Sharon had long gone to bed and wisely left me alone. I can be a bit testy when the technology fails me) that I had another enclosure and I could swap out the drive and get my data off the dead drives. I was convinced that I had burnt out the enclosure logic not the drives. To make a long story short, I killed the enclosure, its drive and another drive in the process. When I plugged the drives into the new enclosure, they generated enough heat to fry a small cat or burn the hell out of your finger if you put it on the hot bits.

Lets keep score here. 3 dead drives, 4 dead enclosures, 6 hours of my time = Jacques’ an idiot and doesn’t have any backup media. I told Sharon (via email) that I needed to go out and buy another drive. The only good thing about drives is they get bigger and cheaper by the day. For $259 I purchased a Seagate 750GB with a snazzy enclosure. Backups were off to the races.

I happily backed up my machine feeling secure in the knowledge that life was good again. I looked over the long list of Windows Updates that I had to apply and noticed that nVidia had several updates. nVidia makes extremely fast graphics cards. I have a monstrous card called a 7950 GX2 which is actually 2 video cards joined together in a single slot running a SLI configuration. SLI means scan line interlace. In laymen’s turn, each card takes a turn processing each line of the picture in a game. 2 cards = twice as fast in theory but it never works out that way.

Trying to get these cards to work under Vista when it first came out was pretty much impossible. nVidia’s drivers were the worst I have ever seen and failed and caused strange things to happen all the time. Strange things, whatever could you mean? Read on. I got so pissed off with the whole situation I want out and purchased an ATI graphics card and most of my problems went away. When nVidia came out with new drivers, I put my monster card back in the machine and life seemed good. I did notice that  available RAM went down from about 3.8G to 2.8G. That’s because the b****** card used up so many address lines that it reduces the amount of RAM. 32-bit windows can only address 4GB of RAM (2^32) and each card that you add uses at least one address line. Big cards use much more so you end with 2^29 or less RAM thanks to nVidia.

Roll forward to today. I also have an Asus motherboard with an nVidia chipset to go with the monstrous graphics card. The chipset is the thingy in the computer that lets the processor access memory, and disk and also makes the network work. Having the two from nVidia is supposed to make things work better. Intel and AMD also make chipsets. Buy Intel and save yourself a world of hurt and wasted time. I’ve had excellent stability with Intel chipsets.

My experience and dozens and dozens of late hours trying to diagnose strange problems with this combination have shown me that nVidia makes shitty motherboard chipsets at best but being somebody who likes to live on the bleeding edge, I decided to install all the updates. I had backups right? How bad can it get?

There were 2 updates, one for the RAID controller which keeps all my data nice and safe and the other for the networking controller which lets me talk to the Internet and other computers. Both need to be rock solid as far as I’m concerned.

As soon as I installed the RAID drives, it required about 4 reboots to get them to stop installing drivers over each other and then it started reporting that my drive D was going bad. Never had a problem before with the Microsoft drivers. I downloaded the latest from the nVidia site and tried again. Same problem. Time wasted = 2 hours. I rolled back the drivers and left them with the Microsoft drivers and I could actually use my computer rather than watch it ask to reboot endlessly.

I then installed the networking controller updates which promptly caused Vista to install the new RAID drivers. For some reason, the problems reported earlier with the D drive were not occurring so I left it well enough alone. I could connect to the Internet. Bell had kindly sent me a new modem which had increased my connection speed by 100k per second after I had decreased my monthly package. Go figure. I went off to bed.

Next morning I wake up and start doing a bit of surfing. Out of the blue, the screen flickers, the computer freezes. I tried Ctrl-Alt-Delete nothing happens. I try the power button. Nothing. I try Remote Desktop (using another computer to connect). Nothing. I hit the reset button and Quadro springs back to life. Spring is a polite way of saying 10 minutes of pain and strain as Vista examines the disks then loads everything it can into memory, and struggles to lift off. Imagine an elephant trying to do a swan dive. That’s what Vista booting reminds me of. My hard disk light hasn’t gone off since I installed Vista. Oh look, my hard drive light is still on while I’m writing this.

I noticed that the networking icon in Vista said that I wasn’t connected to the Internet. Smart readers will remember that not one reboot ago, I was happily surfing the net. I look at the card and the drivers seem fine. Vista says the card is working fine. I check out its settings and discover that its not getting an address from my router. I decide its the piece-o-s***t Bell router. I directly connect my computer to the old router and check it out. Same thing, will not connect. I spend several fun hours thinking it was the Bell router. I did find an excellent site that lets you turn their crappy router into a full featured router with firewall and all the other bits and pieces you expect from a decent router and so I was pleased with the time spent but it didn’t fix the problem.

I roll back the drivers to the Microsoft drivers and reboot. No joy. I do a system restore to before I installed the networking driver. No joy. I rollback to before I installed any f******** nVidia crap drivers. Still doesn’t work. I’m puzzled and really, really pissed off. My machine is supposed to be back to the state it was in before I started this wonderful journey. I’m into it for about 5h at this point just in case you wanted a timeline.

Using another computer, I start Googling nVidia nForce networking controllers and start reading post after post left mostly by inexperienced newbies who think life with computers it dead simple and its just going to work. They discovered that there are dark deep problems lurking in the heart of every computer and those helpful call centre people at Dell and everywhere else are useless as tits on a bull. About every 50 posts, I get a response from somebody who has been up the same creek with an nVidia paddle but they generally have an explanation that rings true for me. At about midnight, I come across a post from a wizened gent who says the problem is that the networking controller is likely sharing an IRQ with the either the RAID controller or the motherboard chipset. Think of an IRQ as a special signalling flag. When the device needs to do something, it raises the IRQ (like an arm) and the computer responds. I think about it for a while and it seems possible. I can see the computer being confused if an IRQ raises itself and the driver assumes only 1 device is present. I check the hardware connections in the device manager but can’t find anything shared. I’m stumped.

I recall back from the times when I was having problems with the original nVidia drivers that I solved one set of problems by shifting cards around the case. The theory being that putting the cards in another slot would cause the IRQs to be reassigned by the motherboard and Vista. I also considered this solution to be up there with sacrificing goats but if it worked for Vietnam Air (which I flew), I should at least try it. I’m also thinking that I have another network card in the card drawer downstairs, I could just install it and my life would be good.

At 1AM, I take a screwdriver to Quadro and spill its guts onto my drafting table. Pulling out cards is complicated because of all the wires. There are 4 hard drives, 2 DVDs, 1 eSata connector, 1 SLI power cable and 1 Creative Audigy sound card not to mention 4 fans to keep things cool. The inside of Quadro is something that a squirrel would be glad to call home and should only be opened by qualified computer geeks.

I carefully start undoing wires and decide to move the sound car to another slot. I remove it from its seating and try and reslot it closer to the monstrous video card. The video card is about 2″ thick and bristles with fans and radiators. I’m concerned about heat buildup which has been a problem with this case in the past hence the fans. Of course the card won’t fit because its slightly bent. Nothing that a good pair of pliers won’t solve however and a few skinned knuckles. Lots of sharp edges in these cases, don’t let your children in please.

I put everything back together and stuff the guts back in and reconnect all the external connections. 6 USB connections, 1 eSata connection, 2 speaker connections, 1 microphone, 1 video card, 1 power cable, 1 networking cable and a cable in a pear tree. No wonder my desk looks like a snake infested rat hole on a good day. I boot the machine up and hold my breath and try not to fall asleep since its 2AM and I’ve been at this all day (I’m skipping the boring steps).

The machine boots and I wait with baited breath to see what the networking icon will say. Will it say connected to the Internet or not? 4 minutes later, the little globe appears and I’m connected back to the Internet. I curse nVidia like a trooper and head off the bed.

Next morning, I decline an offer to go work in the UAE after talking to my accountant Gordon. Gordon is excellent at raining on parades so if you need somebody like that let me know.

I start using my computer and life is good. Its humming along nicely and I start processing the 6,000 pictures I took on the trip in Adobe Lightroom. Generally a good product but also has it fair share of problems. I notice that Lightroom is eating up all the memory on the computer, then hanging and eventually the machine crashes. This slow and painful death takes about an hour. I’m annoyed again.

I reboot and look for signs something is wrong. I spend hours rebuilding my catalogue of images and  it doesn’t make any difference. I do notice that my mouse goes crazy every once in a while and displays a magnifier on the screen for no apparent reason or goes into Flip 3D mode. I try and change the batteries (don’t get me started on my battery problems) but it doesn’t really seem to fix the problem. It only happens about once every hour so I put it off to clumsy fingers.

I’m working along in the middle of an email, my machine starts to go through the Shutdown sequence. Nothing I can do at this point other than watch it (cleanly) shutdown and then go through the reboot process. I wait for it to boot up again and dive into the Event logs looking for a problem. I figure that Windows must have had a failure and it shutdown the machine to prevent file damage or some such wonderful justification. The Event logs are no help other than telling me about 50 other types of issues I need to deal. I decide that ignorance is bliss and go back to my email.

About 3h later, the same thing happens again and this time I know I wasn’t doing anything, I was just moving the mouse. I get on my laptop and start checking around. In some early posts about nVidia drivers and motherboards, people were saying that moving the mouse would cause their machine to shutdown. Sounds horribly familiar and exactly like my problem.

That does it. I decide that I’ve had enough with nVidia and their crap. I shutdown the machine. I go downstairs to my packed office and rummage through my PC card drawer trying to find the ATI card. I finally find it and walk back into my office. I gut Quadro again and with little finesse pull the nVidia graphics card out of it and put in the ATI card.

I reboot into safe mode and run a program called DriverClean.NET that removes any trace of drivers. It has settings for nVidia and ATI. With a large smile on my face, I put in nVidia everything and sit back and wait. Its done removing the drivers and the feeling of euphoria is spreading down to my toes. I reboot and install the ATI drivers. 1st thing I notice is that my memory is back to 3.8GB. Perhaps Lightroom will stop crashing. I can’t see any difference in speed. In fact the text on the screen looks clearer.

I use the system for several days and life is now good. Technology is hell.

nVidia is banned but.. the 8800 GT is supposed to be a smoking hot video card. Somebody slap me please.

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