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Technical difficulties

I run my main computer slightly on the edge.  I don’t overclock it, but I do have some of the latest hardware inside, and the latest drivers.  I build (assemble the bits, install and configure the OS) it myself not because I consider myself particularly brilliant, but because it sort of makes me feel good. 

I am pretty technically proficient.  However, I build one (1) completely unique computer per year more or less: you don’t learn all the ins and outs of a build when you only create one of them.  And as a result of the “one of a kind” nature of my configuration, I am periodically caught by a problem.  That’s what this post is about.

My computer failed to start two days ago when I came down stairs in the morning.  It blue-screened when I took it out of standby.  This has happened before, but I’ve more or less ignored the problem since it only occurs periodically (once a week or so) and never resulted in anything more than a requirement to reboot.  However, when I rebooted this time the computer failed to start.  The system32\config\System file, which is part of the registry database, was corrupt. 

There is a lovely set of instructions on the Microsoft site [1] that help recover from such a failure.  When I completed those instructions and rebooted, the system began a lengthy checkdisk cycle.  When it was done, it sort of booted…but it came up like with a ton of errors.  The mouse was dead, the keyboard was sporadic, the video driver wasn’t loading properly (so the system was running at VGA resolution).  Most frustrating of all: System Restore wouldn’t work- basically, it failed silently, without an error dialog or anything of the sort.   Likewise with Help and Support, and when I tried to check the event log, I discovered that Windows no longer knew how to launch the Event Viewer: it was asking me how to run an msc file. 

At this point, I concluded that the failure must have involved the corruption of a lot more than just the System portion of my registry.  I resigned myself to the nearly-certain outcome: a full system re-install.  I started by attempting to make a back up of most of my configuration and data files.  It is amazing how hard this is to do when you can’t get a mouse working…but I managed.  Then I rebooted with my Windows XP install CD, and opted to perform a “recovery” installation.  This basically re-installs all of the Windows System files, but from what I can determine attempts to keep the registry files intact.  During the re-install, I updated my video and ATI SATA RAID array drivers.

If you happen to have the same or a similar system to mine (Asus M2R32-MVP motherboard with ATI Crossfire 3200 chipset), you might appreciate knowing how I got my updated ATI RAID drivers.  The most recent ones Asus has are dated May of 2006.  They are included with the installation CD that came with the Motherboard: they have no updates for these drivers on their website, just a new version of the JMicron drivers, which are for the external SATA drive controller.  I went to ATI directly, and downloaded the latest Southbridge drivers [2]– Southbridge is the name of the chipset that includes the ATI controller.  When you unpack (don’t install) these drivers, you’ll find a number of subdirectories.  In my case, the full path to the directory containing the drivers of interest was: C:\ATI\SUPPORT\6-12_xp64_sb_38463\RAID.  These drivers are dated October of 2006.  Copy everything in the “\RAID\*” directory on to a floppy.  You can then use that floppy when you press F6 during your Windows XP installation, or later as a driver installation disk after you’ve installed the OS.  Of course, these “instructions” are more like hints- the exact versions and such when you go and look will probably differ.  Also, perhaps by that time Asus will have provided updated drivers themselves on their website.

End result: after re-patching the OS, my machine was more or less back in business.  I had to re-install a couple of low-level system utilities: Diskeeper (disk defrag utility), Avast (anti-virus), and my SoundMAX audio drivers.  These three generated errors on OS startup and failed to run for various reasons until I re-installed.  Other than that, everything else I’ve tried seems to be working.   Outlook Express needed to be re-configured, in particular it created a new set of inboxes: however, it didn’t over-write my existing ones, and I was able to recover them with a file copy.  I’m sure I’ll discover other things that similarly need re-installation to work properly. 

Most importantly, of course, is the fact that my main games/metaverses (EQ2 and Second Life) still work and didn’t need re-installation. EQ2, in particuar, is not much fun to re-install.  So, it definitely could have been worse.  The frustrating fact, though, is that I’m probably only a couple of months away from wiping my system out completely to install Vista.  Why couldn’t this problem have waited a couple of months?

Probably my computer wanted a Christmas break as well… 😉