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2009.11.28 The Upgrade Cascade

posted Nov 28, 2009, 11:11 AM by Troy Cheek   [ updated Nov 28, 2009, 1:06 PM ]
...which is a technological malady and not the latest dance craze...

Every so often, I find myself the victim of what I like to call the Upgrade Cascade.  This is when you buy a new product but discover that to get the best use out of it, you must update or outright replace another product.  This brings to light some other deficiency, which brings about another purchase.  Before you know it, you have all new equipment and a distinct feeling of being out of control.

I understand that women suffer this quite often.  At least, my girlfriends tend to do so.  A simple purchase of a pair of shoes on sale leads her to discover that the purse she intended to carry when wearing those shoes is "the wrong shade of white."  The new purse doesn't match any of her dresses.  The new dress doesn't go with any of her necklaces.  The new necklace only really works with one style of earrings, of which she has none.  The new earrings make her makeup look washed out, so she needs to go back to the store again.  She's allergic to the new blush, so she needs an appointment with her dermatologist and a new prescription.

This is all because she found a nice pair of shoes on sale.

Since I'm a man and pay no attention to what I wear (black and white go together and with anything else), my problems tend towards the technological.  Recently, my youngest brother, T3 (our sainted mother gave us all names starting with "T" so we'd be easier to remember or something like that) bought a notebook computer with Windows Vista Home Premium Bacon Ranch Edition installed.  The rest of the family liked the way that Vista worked (my fault for keeping them on Windows 2000 for all these years) and wanted it on the family computer.  Since Windows 7 had just came out, Vista was a little cheaper than it had been.  Also, Vista had matured (been patched and updated and generally "fixed") so I figured I couldn't go wrong

The Family PC had an old single-core 1.7GHz processor (CPU), 1GB of memory (RAM), about a 10GB IDE hard disk drive (HDD), and a 32MB video card (WTF) .  All I was really concerned about was the processor, as I'd heard that Vista really prefers dual-core.  However, I couldn't find a drop-in replacement for the CPU that would work with the existing motherboard.  The new motherboard came with a new CPU, new RAM, and onboard video.  I found a 40GB drive laying around, so at least I didn't have to buy a new one of those.

At least, I didn't think I needed to buy a new one of those.  After installing Vista and trying to use it, I realized that Vista does a lot more to the drive than 2000 did.  The old 40GB drive was rather slow and, more importantly, rather loud.  While I can overlook a certain amount of noise in the name of performance, this was louder than I liked and suffered somewhat in the performance category.  Another trip to the store had a new SATA II drive which buzzes along quite nicely.

Since I didn't want to take apart the existing Family PC before the new one was operational, I ended up using a different case.  This case was donated by one of my spare PCs.  The down side is that while checking this spare PC, I found that it was still fully functional and could be usable with 2000 or XP if only I bought it a new case and power supply.

Once the Family PC was replaced, my other brother, T2, mentioned that he was looking for a new PC...

In the end, I couldn't even remember what I'd spent on those Vista licenses.  Whatever amount that I'd spent on that was completely and utterly overwhelmed by the cost of the new hardware I'd bought to run them on.

If the story ended there, it might be considered funny.  Unfortunately for me, it continued on into "pitiful" territory.  You see, my favorite computer system, Uncle Troy's Computer, the main Cheek PC and DVR and media server and firewall and whatnot, was still running XP.  Everything else in the house was running Vista by then.  While it is true that I'd sworn off of "keeping up with the Joneses" years ago, I found it more difficult to resist the temptation to keep up with the rest of the Cheeks, especially since I was the one who had shoved them ahead of me.

Besides, I'd just experienced a network connectivity issue between XP and Vista.  Sure, it was solved by a simple reboot, but my XP installation was a bit long in the tooth by then (nearly two years old) and if I was going to reinstall the OS anyway, why not use this other Vista license I had just laying around?

My boot drive was an old IDE, so I bought a new SATA one.  However, the motherboard only had two SATA ports, both of which I was already using with a pair of 500 GB drives.  These constituted by DVR storage.  I'd always mean to RAID them or something, but I was kind of glad I hadn't.  Them being just a plain old pair of disks meant that I could buy a SATA card to fit into an unused PCI Express slot.  This card had four (4) SATA ports and supported all kinds of RAID options.  I hooked the DVR drives to the card and hooked the new boot drive to the motherboard.

The card didn't work.  Well, it worked in that once the system finished booting, Windows saw both the drives and I was able to read and write files on them.  It worked perfectly well in that respect.  It didn't work before Windows loaded.  Due to some incompatibility with my motherboard or something, it just couldn't see the drives plugged into it before Windows loaded.  Since the way the RAID on the card worked was to set up the RAID prior to Windows loading so that Windows saw the RAID as just one disk instead of its components, this meant I coulnd't RAID the drives.  Not that I really wanted to, mind you, until I realized that I couldn't.

Also, there was the minor problem that the SATA card would halt the boot process for one minute (and by that I mean exactly 60 seconds) looking for drives which it would ultimately not find.  At that point, I was rebooting a lot as I was installing other software and device drivers and Windows updates and whatnot.  In the end, I replaced the two 500GB drives with a single newer, faster, 1TB drive.  The 1TB drive initially did not work, but I fixed it by replacing a slightly defective SATA cable.  After I copied everything over, I removed the SATA card and the old drives.

Sometime during this process was when I noticed that Vista seemed to be eating up an awful lot of memory.  I bought some more.  That's when I discovered an unpleasant truth about 32 bit operating systems:
  • 1GB of physical RAM = a little less than 1GB of Windows RAM
  • 2GB of physical RAM = a little less than 2GB of Windows RAM
  • 3GB of physical RAM = a little less than 3GB of Windows RAM
  • 4GB of physical RAM = a little less than 3GB of Windows RAM
I had installed 4GB and had use of 3GB.  Actually, once I removed the SATA card, I was up to about 3.25GB of RAM, which I understand is about the best I can hope for without switching to a 64 bit operating system.  I've held off on doing that because I understand that one of my TV tuner cards doesn't work with 64 bit Windows and 4GB of RAM.  If I have to replace that, I'm afraid it will set off yet another cascade.

Oh, at the same time I was ordering the 1TB SATA drive, I discovered that my existing motherboard, with a minor BIOS update, could support a quad core CPU instead of the dual core it was currently running.  Not the fastest, latest, greatest Phenom II X4, mind you, but the 2nd fastest, slightly older, much cheaper original Phenom X4.  I ordered one of those.  It even came with a free heat pipe heat sink cooler thing which looks hella cool.  Technically, this is not part of the cascade, but I'm blaming the purchase on the cascade so as to avoid responsibility for it.

The BIOS update sucked because after I downloaded the latest version of the BIOS, I couldn't find any way to flash it.  The included utility was a 16 bit application that just refused to run under Windows Vista 32, causing a crash in whatever little automatic translator program which was supposed to allow Vista to run 16 bit applications.  (This is another reason why I'm in no hurry to switch to 64 bit.)  I had to find a native 32 bit BIOS flash application.  Once I did this, it was the work of a few minutes to swap the dual core CPU for the quad core CPU.  The only problem was the heart attack I suffered when the old heat sink didn't just pop off of the old CPU like every other one I'd ever removed.  Instead, with just the slightest bit of effort, pulling the heat sink off brought the CPU with it.  Apparently, the CPU had welded itself to the heat sink or something.  I haven't gotten up the nerve to try to pry it off just yet.

Curiously enough, having ripped the CPU from the socket without lifting the little lever first doesn't seem to have damaged the socket in the least.  The new CPU fit in just fine and seemed quite snug once I put the lever back down.  The cooler went on without a hitch.  Aside from another minor heart attack when the computer froze during the first boot, the new quad core CPU has been running without a hitch.  Windows is noticeably snappier and video conversions are noticeably faster (and utilizing all four cores).

To top it all off, my two sticks of 2GB RAM are now running in unganged mode thanks to the new CPU.  I have no idea what unganged mode means, but apparently it's better than the regular old ganged mode.

I hearby declare this upgrade cascade to be completed.  Which is great, because I've got this problem at work.  It seems that the word processor software there saves files which aren't quite compatible with the software on my home computer...