With computers it’s the little things that make you pull your hair out.

Just the other day I mentioned how I might have to switch back to using Windows XP as the Vista audio drivers were causing my system to crash after an hour or so of use. Turns out it wasn’t the audio drivers at all, but — as is often the case — my own actions that brought about the instability.

I’ve mentioned previously how Vista runs pretty well with 1GB of RAM, though that’s the absolute minimum I’d recommend having for Vista, and I’ve been running at that level for some time now. I am, as you already know, a gamer and it turns out that trying to be a gamer under Vista with only 1GB of RAM is often annoying. This is mainly due to the simple fact that Vista is just like every previous Windows release in that in uses up more resources than XP did so a game that ran great with 1GB of RAM ended up acting like a game running with only half that much memory. World of Warcraft is notorious for lag when you enter one of the capitol cities because that’s where the greatest concentration of players tends to be and that means loading a whole bunch of custom textures due to the variety of armors on the avatars. This generally happens on systems with only 512MB of RAM and the simplest solution is to bump up to 1GB at which point the problem pretty much goes away. Well running at 1GB on Vista makes WoW act like you’re running with only 512MB on Windows XP. The solution was obvious and simple: Time to bump up the RAM in this box to 2GB.

It’s always the simple solutions that end up being hideously complex in totally unexpected ways. RAM is dirt cheap these days. Or at least it is if your motherboard is capable of using DDR2 RAM. It should go without saying that mine isn’t one of those motherboards. Mine still uses the previous generation DDR RAM. 2GB of DDR2 RAM (that’s two 1GB sticks sold together) can be had for less than $40 these days whereas 2GB of DDR RAM goes for around $140 or so. Yes, that’s a $100 difference in price and we’re talking the “cheap” DDR RAM as the premium stuff is even more expensive. That is more than enough for a decent new motherboard that runs DDR2 except you’d also have to buy a new processor which pumps the price up a bit more. I already had two 512MB sticks to make the 1GB I had in my box so I thought I’d try to save a few bucks by buying two more 512MB sticks — which would be cheaper than buying two 1GB sticks — and put them in the remaining two slots.

This simple decision was the beginning of my folly, though I wouldn’t realize it for days to come.

When I got home and slapped the new sticks in my system I found that it no longer wanted to get past the POST sequence. I had bought a high end DFI motherboard when I built this system which means it’s somewhat fussy about what you put into it and it didn’t like having two sets of RAM sticks from different manufacturers in its slots (the initial RAM I bought was also high end stuff). I locked the machine up badly enough that I had to reset the CMOS to get it working again, which meant that a few settings in my BIOS needed to be reconfigured. Being that I don’t tend to mess with my BIOS once I get things working properly I’d long forgotten what settings I’d used and as I was poking around in the BIOS one of the things I did was to disable the SATA RAID controller so the system wouldn’t waste time checking for a RAID array during boot up. I could’ve sworn I’d done that previously and I had, but not on this motherboard. This was my fatal mistake though I wouldn’t realize it for quite some time. I took the two 512MB sticks I’d bought back to the store and exchanged them for two 1GB sticks which I slapped in my machine in place of the original 512MB sticks I had in there.

Everything seemed fine when I started up Vista and I didn’t receive the first sign that something was wrong until I started playing World of Warcraft and I got my first lockup. My system froze and the audio made a terrible clacking sound. This also happened while playing Call of Duty 4 and because of the racket that was being made I assumed that it was my audio drivers suddenly acting up, which confused me because they’d been working fine for quite awhile. Still I poked and prodded and downloaded the latest drivers and generally grew more frustrated. If not the audio then the only other thing that had changed recently was the RAM so I started poking around in the BIOS to see if I had misconfigured one of the RAM settings and, after several attempts at tuning the RAM didn’t work, I ended up yanking the new RAM and put the old RAM back. It didn’t help that I found a couple of forum posts that suggested my DFI Lanparty SLI-DR Expert didn’t like the Corsair Value Select RAM I’d bought.

Only the problem didn’t go away. After yet more RAM timing tweaks in the BIOS I began to think that maybe it was the audio drivers after all so I decided to back everything up and restage to Windows XP. You can imagine my surprise when, after the initial OS install was done and I was in the middle of reinstalling WoW while copying data from the backup hard drive to its proper place on the main drive, my system once again locked up in the very same fashion as previously. Something it had never done previously. This was when I started yelling my what-the-fucks at my PC as I was beginning to wonder if I’d somehow done some damage to the PC when I had mixed the two RAM types earlier. Now one thing I didn’t mention is that during all this putzing around I was also taking time between crashes to scour the web looking for info on issues with this motherboard and Vista drivers and RAM timings, etc. and it was during one such session this evening that I happened upon a passing comment by some forum poster on DFI BIOS settings in which he mentioned he always left the SATA RAID enabled.

That’s when another detail that had been rattling around in the back of my head came to the forefront. Anne had been using the PC the past couple of days as well without experiencing a single lockup. The difference being that she wasn’t doing anything particularly disk intensive. She was browsing the web and checking email whereas I had been playing games and moving huge amounts of data around when the lockups occurred. I recalled that I had disabled the SATA RAID thinking it would improve performance. So I went into the BIOS and enabled it once more and proceeded to do a fresh install of Windows Vista.

The true test would come after the OS was loaded and I decided to go all out. First I put the new 2GB sticks back in the PC and then, after applying the initial Windows Update patches, I went ahead and launched a new install of World of Warcraft while simultaneously copying all 16GB of MP3 files back from the backup hard drive, playing some of said MP3 files in Media Player 11, while browsing the web and whistling Dixie just to put the icing on top. My system ran smooth as silk without so much as a hiccup whereas just installing WoW under XP had brought on a lockup. And it has continued to run just fine during the entire time I wrote this entry while completing the rest of the data restores to Anne’s account and installing the Burning Crusade expansion while listening to multiple plays of Green Christmas by the Barenaked Ladies.

It’s always the little changes that you’re absolutely certain you’ve done in the past that trip you up and make you yank out what little hair you still have on your head. So I’m back to running under Vista with a healthy 2GB of RAM to give it some elbow room. I already know that WoW runs great on Vista with 2GB from the small sessions I had between crashes earlier so I’m looking forward to experiencing it without the periodic lockups. The lesson to be learned here is that I should probably take notes on what my BIOS settings are before doing things that might cause me to have to reset them.

Yeah, like that’s going to happen. I’m just stupid that way.

8 thoughts on “With computers it’s the little things that make you pull your hair out.

  1. Boy have I been there! I’m kinda surprised MOBO manufacturers don’t allow people to back up settings to USB sticks or even hard drives. It would be awesome to be able to reload settings after a crash or whatever.

  2. Theholyfatman- that is soooooo this house too!  (Or the basement anyway, lol).  cheese

    When you choose Geeks for mates, you end up living in a computer parts graveyard. tongue rolleye

  3. When you choose Geeks for mates, you end up living in a computer parts graveyard.

    Not always so. I know plenty of households where that IS the case, but I need organization so much I just keep a closet locked up. If it needs a basement, maybe it’s time to trim the silicon hedges.

    Regarding the bugger-up, Les; I would have been hard pressed to catch on that the motherboard settings are what did it. However, my practice on those is to leave the settings exactly as they are, and change them once you know they’re stable in practice (which is probably advice you already know and just forgot). It applies as true with programming as it does with hardware profiling, though, and swearing by it has saved me a lot of lost time.

  4. This brings me back to the good lo’ days of my 440BX and a highly tweaked copy of Win98SE. Ah, yes. I remember those days – and how temperamental that damned thing was to something even so mundane as a few degress’ temperature change. A’course, I had the bitch overclocked like Speed Racer, but still…

    Anyways, I feel your pain, Les. Oh yes, I do.

  5. As it turns out I was only partially right about what the problem was as further use tonight has shown that the motherboard definitely doesn’t like the new 2GB of Corsair Value Select RAM. It’ll chug along just fine doing standard tasks (email, browsing, data transfers), but just a little bit of time in WoW was causing the system to lock up just like before. The misconfigured SATA setting only exacerbated the problem.

    So I’m back down to 1GB using the more uber RAM I had started with. I’ll be returning the 2GB to the store and hopefully buying some new more compatible RAM after Christmas.

  6. Les – I’d shop on Newegg, you can get matched DDR Ram on there for about $97 + shipping.

    Here’s a Power Search I performed on Newegg to get you some ideas of what is available:

    2GB DDR Ram (DDR 333 to DDR 550, 184 Pin, either straight 2GB or 2x1GB sticks)

    Some of it is single channel, some dual channel, some with heat spreaders, some without. Take your pick smile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.