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04 January 2007

Nerd Factor X



Fixing PCs Again

Last year I visited friends and family interstate and fixed their computers. This year, I did the same.

Read on for a tale of woe, delivered in PowerPoint style for no readily apparent reason.

The Problem

  • An ancient Celeron 1.16GHz PC
  • Glaciallly slow
  • Located in regional South Australia
  • Hard drive LED permanently on
  • The cause: 256MB of RAM

Plan A: RAM upgrade

  • Putting in another 512MB an easy performance hit
    • But RAM for this old SiS-chipset machine no longer available
  • What to do instead?

Plan B: CPU / Mobo / RAM upgrade

  • Purchased from Adelaide vendor:
    • AMD Sempron 3400+
    • Asus Motherboard
    • Kingston RAM
    • new PSU
  • Also supplied, at no extra charge:
    • Niggling feeling that it would all end in tears, miles from the vendor

Before upgrade: Backup

  • PC owner cheerfully declares that backups have never been performed
    • But is able to recite work-related story of paying $18,000 to recover a failed hard drive after backups were found to be faulty
  • Two laptops identified as potential temporary backup targets
    • Windows laptop
    • PowerBook
  • Guess which worked, and which didn’t?
  • Windows Networking, an oxymoron?

Fitting the hardware

  • Old motherboard, PSU and assorted cables removed easily
  • New hardware installed fairly easily, except for
    • Motherboard had a 24-pin power connector
    • Supplied PSU only a 20-pin connector
  • Quick phone call to vendor who advised just sticking it in anyway
  • Which worked, much to my surprise

Booting Bluescreening Windows

  • Booting existing installation of Windows:
    • Spontaneous reboot soon after loading kernel
    • Safe mode gave the same problem
  • Booting from the original XP Home CD:
    • BSOD, somewhere in the PCI driver
  • What to do?

A Solution?

  • After a short Google search:
    • BSOD from the original CD may be due to incompatibilities with PCI-express hardware
    • Fixed in SP2
    • Just need to slipstream SP2 onto the XP Home CD
  • Fortunately we had a second Windows machine handy with a CD burner
    • The laptop mentioned earlier

Slipstreaming, Attempt 1

  • Paul Thurott’s Guide looked promising
  • Two problems:
    • No CD burning software installed
    • Slow network connection
      • SP2 download took about 2 hours
  • CD burned after attempting to guess the right settings for CDBurnerXP based on Thurott’s guide for other software
    • Booted the new machine
    • But BSOD after loading Windows kernel
      • UNMOUNTABLE_BOOT_VOLUME or somesuch

Subtask: Postpone Automated Updates

  • During the 2 hour SP2 download, got repeatedly nagged:
    • “You need to reboot to complete the installation of these updates”
    • “System will automatically reboot in 5 mins”
    • Two buttons “Reboot Now”, “Reboot Later”
    • Missing third button “Can’t you see I’m busy doing something?”
  • Had to sit and watch the download to repeatedly press “Reboot Later” whenever it popped up
  • Not sure what updates these were anyway
    • Possibly related to the AV software (Symantec)

Slipstreaming, Attempt 2

  • Used Tacktech guide linked from CDBurnerXP site
  • Would not boot the new machine
  • Got NTLDR error after the “Press any key to boot from CD” prompt

Slipstreaming, Attempt 3

  • Used nLite to perform slipstreaming
    • Intended to use it to generate easy-to-burn ISO
  • More downloading (.NET framework)
  • Pleasant surprise: nLite can burn directly to CD
    • Not obvious from the website or the application itself
  • Third time, success
    • Booted Windows installer
    • Performed Repair installation
    • No data lost
    • No software needing reinstallation
  • Total time to produce working Windows CD: about 4 hours

Lessons Learned

  • If you can’t be backwards compatible (ie boot an original XP CD), at least make it easy to upgrade
  • Corollary: Slipstreaming and creating bootable CDs, should be part of the OS
  • Automatic updates are annoying
  • Automated reboots are unforgivable
  • After a hard day with hardware, Coopers helps ease the pain


Posted by
Michael Studman
2007-01-04 21:58:00 -0600

Another lesson I learnt over the holidays is: When fixing spyware on a friends computer, always scan for a root kit first. Otherwise you might have to make several return trips and give up a not insignificant number of hours of your life to eradicating some woeful little parasite.