More Fun With PC Hardware

In my last entry, I wrote about how I’d built a new Home Theater PC (HTPC). Well, it’s been about a month since that event, and much has happened to me with respect to this project that you may find interesting–or at the very least informational.

I was trying to encode the high-definition video and audio content streams from National Treasure 2 into a WMV/WMA stream file. My next article will contain details on this process, but I will warn you in advance–encoding Blu-ray content to high-definition streams takes a while. It’s taken me an average of about 26 hours per title, so far. I’ve only got a few, so I haven’t been too worried about it. But it does bother me when something terminates the process after it’s 89 percent completed–several times in a row!

First we had a power outage. Okay. Restart and go away for another day. Then (again at 89 percent), Windows blue-screened and rebooted. Vista reported it as a USB problem. Hmmm… Okay, start it up again. Another blue-screen. This time it was a memory problem. Okay, now this was starting to get on my nerves. I was beginning to believe that Disney had managed some how to add code to their content streams that would crash my machine at 89 percent! Okay, not really, but if I were the superstitious type…

But this time the system wouldn’t even boot. Thirty-one days after the invoice date on my new HTPC, the Gigabyte motherboard went kaput. Guess how many days from the invoice date until NewEgg won’t provide a Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA) number for a defective motherboard? You got it–thirty days. NewEgg’s RMA service is completely automated, so if you need an RMA number, you simply go online, select the past invoice in your account with the defective hardware, and click on it for more instructions. But after thirty days, the line item on the invoice for a motherboard becomes grey’ed out, so you can’t select it.

Luckily, Gigabyte is a reputable company, and was more than willing to talk to me about my options. They really wanted to walk me through some diagnostics before shipping motherboards back and forth. This is a good thing for both the company and the customer. Often, what appears to be a defective motherboard is really a bad processor, or a defective memory stick.

Not in this case, however. I had already performed all of the diagnostics requested by the technician by the time I spoke with him on the phone. Mostly, this involved disconnecting all of the devices from the motherboard, except the CPU, which is required in this case, and of course, the power supply connections, and then hooking up a speaker and listening for diagnostic tones when you power up the system. In my case, there were no diagnostic tones under any circumstances–a bad sign all around.

As a side note here, most motherboard manufacturers that sell directly to the end-user have already “wised up” about diagnostics. Most of them have added circuitry to their systems that will run diagnostics without requiring the CPU to be installed. This really cuts down on “No Trouble Found” (NTF) returns. I suggested through email that Gigabyte do the same with their hardware, and was informed that my suggestion would be passed on to the appropriate product groups. Frankly, I’m pretty sure they’ve already considered the idea, and are even possibly incorporating it into their newer designs.

The last thing the technician wanted me to try was swapping out the CPU. I told him I wasn’t a professional system builder. That was all I needed to say. He understood and said, “Okay then, we’ll play the board swap game.” (Basically, I’m not in the habit of keeping spare $80 CPU’s laying around, just in case I need to test a motherboard.)

Making Lemonade

After the call ended I had a thought: I’ve already wished more than once that I had originally purchased a quad processor CPU and more RAM–4GB instead of the 2GB that I started with. Each core in the CPU can be used by the TMPGEnc 4.0 Xpress batch encoder to independently transcode a video stream. With 4 CPU’s instead of 2, I can transcode 4 movies at a time. And this was the perfect opportunity to get an upgrade. So back I went to my browser, and ordered an AMD Phenom X4 9750 processor–the most advanced low-wattage processor this motherboard would handle–and a 2 x 2GB memory kit.

I couldn’t get Crucial memory from the company I used (Directron–NewEgg didn’t carry that particular CPU), but this turned out to be a good thing anyway. (This will make more sense in a few paragraphs.) By the way, I’m almost as impressed with my Directron shopping experience as I have been with my NewEgg experience.

It’s a minimum 3 week turn-around on an RMA with Gigabyte, and I didn’t want to wait that long. So I also went back to NewEgg and bought a duplicate Gigabyte motherboard. Why? Well, I like this board–I just had back luck with one of them. Stuff like this happens with computer hardware, so you have to be ready for it. This doesn’t mean you have to pay for it. You just have to be prepared to use the RMA process as part of a do-it-yourself computer project.

Another reason I bought another motherboard is to maximize the value of the loss I’d already sustained upgrading to a better CPU. I’d just use the replacement motherboard, and the original dual core CPU to upgrade the family computer. After installing the new board, I could see that the original board was indeed defective, so I felt good about having sent the old one in for replacement.

My new CPU and memory sticks hadn’t arrived yet, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t get on with the task at hand–converting my DVD’s and Blu-ray discs to stream files that I could watch on my XBox!

When It Rains…

Okay, so now I’m back in business. I restarted the encoding process for National Treasure 2, and came back the next morning to find…would you believe it!? Windows had rebooted after about 89 percent! Honestly! What is going on here?!

Rather than go through this 24 hour process yet again with my fingers crossed, I decided to become a bit more proactive about my troubleshooting techniques. I booted up the Vista installation CD and selected the “Repair” option, which brought up a menu containing several diagnostic and repair options. One of them was a memory checker. I ran it and Vista immediately found problems with my Crucial 1GB memory sticks. Certain values, when written to certain locations in memory, were different when read back again. This is never a good sign for memory sticks. They only have one job–to remember perfectly every value written to them.

But, to be sure, I downloaded the ISO image for MemTest86+, a freeware memory testing program, and burned a bootable CD. I then booted up the MemTest86+ CD and ran the program over night. In the morning, it had found over 230 errors in my RAM. Okay, I have bad memory also. Weird, but not unheard of. So I headed back to my browser and went to NewEgg again, taking some comfort in the fact that their memory return policy was much better than their CPU or motherboard policies.

While it’s true that NewEgg will RMA defective memory sticks for up to one year, in my case, the product had been discontinued, so the memory kit line item was also grey’ed out on my invoice. So I went to Crucial’s web site. Ah, no wonder NewEgg didn’t sell the product anymore. Crucial had discontinued it. Am I jinxed, or what!? So I called NewEgg, and they said they would gladly take the memory back and replace it with a similar product. This is why I like doing business with this company. They appear to be truly interested in retaining their customers.

But I thought I’d do some research on these memory sticks, while I was at it. After a few Google searches, I found myself staring at the customer review page for the product on (none other than) NewEgg’s website! If I had read the reviews for this memory kit, I probably would have gone with a different brand in the first place.

The trouble is, according to previous customers, Crucial and a few other companies rate their memory products based on over-clocking practices, rather than on standard motherboard settings. 240-pin DDR2 memory sticks are supposed to operate correctly on 1.8 volts, but sometimes manufacturers test their products at 1.9, 2.0 and 2.1 volts, so they can increase the apparent marketing value of their products. But what about the poor sap that doesn’t know anything about over-clocking, or worse yet–doesn’t own a motherboard designed to configure these parameters?

Gigabyte is what you might call a “progressive” motherboard company. Their motherboards are designed with over-clockers in mind. That is, the BIOS can be configured to manage all sorts of low-level voltage and clock settings. And the manual goes into great detail on how and why you might wish to use these settings–all underwritten with a major disclaimer about damage due to “improperly” using them.

I bumped the memory voltage from 1.8 to 1.9 and reloaded the memory tests. After an hour, I began to get errors again. So I went back into the BIOS and bumped the memory voltage up to 2.1 volts–the highest setting allowed by the software. Another hour of testing showed that I was still getting errors. At this point, I had to assume that the memory was just plain defective.

Upon further thought, it occured to me that these bad memory sticks may very well have been responsible for damaging the original motherboard. So I reset the BIOS settings to normal, shut down the system and waited for my new CPU and memory to arrive. While I waited, I popped out the old memory sticks and sent them back to NewEgg under RMA.

During this whole process, I’ve learned a few lessons about building PC’s. For one thing, I’ve learned about the value of burn-in tests for new systems. Had I spent a couple of days up front running memory diagnostics like MemTest86+, I’d have found out about the memory problems early–perhaps in time to have saved the original motherboard (if the Crucial memory problems did in fact destroy the motherboard, as I suspect).

Really Back in Business!

The next day, my new parts arrived in the mail. I popped in the new 9750 CPU and 2 x 2GB memory sticks, booted up the MemTest86+ CD (I have learned my lesson), and tested the memory for several hours. No defects. Incidentally, this reminded me of the days when you had to do this with new hard drives. The difference with hard drives was that you could mark the bad sectors as “bad”, and end up with just a little less space on your new hard drive. (We’ve somehow gotten past this these days with IDE and SATA drives. I believe I read somewhere that they come pre-tested with all the potentially bad sectors already marked for you!)

Next I completely reinstalled Windows Vista, which wasn’t too hard since I’d stored all my previously encoded content on a secondary 1TB hard drive. The OS drive was only 250 GB, and contained only a few programs that I’d installed for the purpose of encoding my content. After reinstalling these programs, I fired up TMPGEnc 4.0 Xpress and began the long arduous process of encoding National Treasure 2 again. I started this last night, so it’s not yet finished. Nevertheless, I have every confidence that it will complete this time (but I’m still going to cross my fingers when it gets close to 89 percent…)

As soon as the replacement motherboard arrives from Gigabyte, and the replacement memory sticks come back from NewEgg, then I’ll get to work on the family computer. The kids won’t know what happened when they boot up Windows XP home and find themselves on the login screen before they have time to run to the kitchen for a snack!