Thursday, March 16, 2006

I Hate Hardware Redux

After my last experience, you'd think I'd have learned. But nope, when my girlfriend needed a new desktop system, I enthusiastically offered to build one for her. Hey, this time it's desktop hardware, and I know desktop hardware, right? I built my last machine myself, and I've replaced a couple motherboards and done various other work on computers since then.

Well, it seems there were a few changes since my last computer. First of all, there's the whole business of heatsinks. I don't remember spending any time on the heatsink last time around. I suppose this is because it was pre-attached to the chip or because the assembly process was "place the heatsink on top of the CPU", but I don't remember which. For the Athlon 64s, the heatsinks are so ginormous that you couldn't place the CPU into its slot if it was attached to the heatsink. So there's no option but for them to ship the two separately and have the user assemble them.

Problems? Well, consider the documentation. The store sold us a supposedly complete CPU box packaged by AMD which, when I opened it, contained a stern warning not to attach the heatsink without first applying a thermal material. Contradicting this, though, was the fact that there was something that looked suspiciously like thermal material already on the heatsink, and after quite a bit of research I decided that the warning was for people who want to overclock their systems or replace the stock thermal compound. Nowhere in the documentation does it say whether the heatsink comes pre-treated with thermal compound, though, and since I have no desire to let the magic smoke out, I wasted a lot of time checking up on this.

A second problem with the documentation is that it suffers from severe Lowest Common Denominator syndrome: the installation instructions are entirely word-free. For simple purposes this might suffice, but it took me a lot of squinting and several incorrect tries to figure out WTF the diagrams were telling me to do; in fact, I didn't really figure out what to do until I found an annotated version online with actual words. AMD, there's a reason we quit using cave paintings and invented written language. Please use the stuff, it'll make the rest of us much happier.

On to the practical problems: it's apparently necessary to attach the heatsink so tightly that you need a latching mechanism the size of Wyoming to hold it onto the motherboard, and actually activating it seems to take several metric tons of force. OK, I exaggerate, but just this step (attaching the heatsink assembly to the CPU) took me at least an hour of prying at the latch mechanism to lock it down. In fact, I didn't finish until I finally gave up using my fingers and used a screwdriver to apply a good portion of my weight. Predictably, of course, the screwdriver slipped as I secured the latch, bouncing off the motherboard. More on that in a moment.

The motherboard (an Abit K8N) had better documentation than the CPU, but not by much (this is apparently a pattern with computer components that most consumers never mess with). I had to make educated guesses about the orientation of several connectors, especially some of the case connectors, and it took me at least a dozen reads to understand what I was doing wrong with the power cable.

Once I got all my initial stupidity worked out, I flipped the switch and watched some of the fans turn on and the hard drive spin up...and that was it. Nothing. Nada. No beeps. No POST. Not even a blank video signal (although the video card's fan runs just fine).

So, my best guess is that I killed the motherboard dead with my screwdriver, which means I get to go buy a replacement and install it. And, of course, disassemble all the stuff I carefully assembled already. Including the CPU assembly. And the thermal material on that probably won't be good any more, so I'll have to replace it with what's left over from when I rebuilt my laptop. And there's always the possibility that it's actually the CPU that's dead (although I can't imagine why)...in which case I could waste a lot of time and effort replacing the motherboard needlessly. Blah.

I begin to think that it might be worthwhile to pay the store to install the critical components for me, or even just buy from a real PC vendor. At least then I'd avoid wasting my time and (presumably) get my money back if they screwed up.

4 Comments:

At 11:49 PM, Anonymous Philipp Kern said...

Oh well, I had the same problems some years ago with my Athlon 2100+ out-of-the-box (or how it was called). My screwdriver also slipped and hit the mainboard, but luckily enough I didn't yet notice any drawback in years. It seems that I just didn't hit a connection, but rather dead space.

Even though I used quite a lot of force the CPU wasn't destroyed. I still can't imagine how they could still deliver this type of fan. Get yourself another one with a kind of screw to fasten the fan on top of the CPU.

 
At 1:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said: "On to the practical problems: it's apparently necessary to attach the heatsink so tightly that you need a latching mechanism the size of Wyoming to hold it onto the motherboard, and actually activating it seems to take several metric tons of force. OK, I exaggerate, but just this step (attaching the heatsink assembly to the CPU) took me at least an hour of prying at the latch mechanism to lock it down."

Are you sure you've got the latch & heatsink the right way round? You're *sure* it shouldn't be rotated by 180 degrees?

The last time I fitted an Athlon, I went the whole nine yards: downloaded the AMD datasheet on how to fit the heatsink, worked out which way round would result in the least force on the chip, etc, etc.

*EVEN*THEN* I managed to get it wrong. After we'd turned the box on and got some /nasty/ noises, I figured out that, just maybe, the amount of force I'd had to put on the clip (with a screwdriver!) indicated that I'd possibly got something wrong.

I rotated the HS round, and it fitted /so/ much better (obviously!) and didn't sound like an asthmatic yak when turned on.

Just my two-penneth-worth,
Jonathan

 
At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Ben Hutchings said...

Same problem again with an Athlon XP 2000+ some years ago. Did absolutely nothing when I switched it on. Reseating the cooler and CPU (i.e. taking them out and putting them back together) fixed it.

Also are you sure you plugged the fan into the right connector? The mobo may be checking the CPU fan speed before letting the CPU start.

 
At 7:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was rolling on the floor laughing when I read your post as I had *exactly* the same problems and thoughts as you just two days ago. An amd64 in a box with fan by AMD. As you I tripped over the warning to first apply the thermal material which was already in place and was massively asthonished about the force needed to attach the cooling bloc.

As opposed to one of the comments there is imho no difference whether or not you turn it 180° around as it is symetrical. And like yours mine didn't start up. No POST, no beep, no monitor, no nothing except the fans. I called the vendor's hotline and the technician asked me if I had attached the 12V supply too, which is another 4-pin plug. Needless to say that I had missed that out.

Apart from that my first PSU was a ATX 2.x and how the fsck should I now that that is not compatible with 2.03! Seems I'm too much into software.

By the way: I didn't manage to put the little lever into its supposed positing as I was afraid to break something. However the CPU temperature is just fine and the cooling bloc seems to be very tightly attached thus I don't care.

Marc

 

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