Weak Links

How to save money and impress your friends by miraculously raising their computers from the dead.


A few days ago I went out to run some errands. My computer had been left on. When I came back, it was off. Since my alarm clock that’s plugged into the same circuit wasn’t flashing, there had been no power outage. And the nearest thunderstorm was someplace east of Burma, thus lightning was ruled out.

Using a backup computer, the investigation began. As it had turned itself off and then back on randomly for about a week earlier, that was a crucial piece of evidence, but a piece of evidence who’s importance wouldn’t be revealed until 55 minutes into this 1hr compu-drama. I had suspected that the surge protector went crazy and was about to replace it when this major problem occurred. The fact that the monitor stayed on along with the external drive should have raised a red flag that the surge protector was still working. Hmmm, time to dig deeper.

Since the power light on the computer would turn on, along with the fan (at low speed), the computer wasn’t totally dead. But something was stopping it from booting. It seemed to be one of two things likely causing the problem. The first would be a bad motherboard (please no). The second would be a bad power supply (I did need a more powerful one anyway). Immediately selecting the least traumatic (read: expensive) of the culprits, I went to Altex to get a new one. Roughly $30 later, I had a new 400 watt supply giving me a 100 to 150 watt advantage over the old one. The nice thing is that the girl at the checkout counter told me she bought the same type of power supply when she built her own computer. Oh, I like this store!

However, since I am the occasional idiot, I didn’t notice that the power supply only had one SATA connector. Palm goes into face and back to the store I go where they suggest a peripheral to SATA adapter. Okay, sounds good. They also suggest checking the motherboard for bulged capacitors as it would indicate damage, and switching the RAM around to different slots. The best part about this suggestion is that the man helping me very nonchalantly reached into his pocket and pulled out several sticks of RAM. This would be akin to a butcher mentioning the cut of the day and pulling uncooked steaks out of his pocket. Oh, I really like this store!

Back in the batcave, the adapter snapped on without a hitch and the moment of truth came. Power switch push, annnnnd nothing. Actually negative nothing. Continue the investigation. What else could be causing it? The motherboard was most likely according to the evidence and the fact that a new power supply didn’t help. But if the power LED (shows the mobo is getting juice) on the board is lit and the capacitors show no damage, is it really that likely? Alright, I’ll move the RAM around to different slots, that should do it! With the grace of a shellgame con-man on 42nd and 8th, I switched the chips around to slots they had never been to before. Hit the power button and nothing. That’s when the clue I forgot about popped in.

When the computer would turn off randomly, and I suspected the surge protector, I had neglected the fact that I had to reset the date in the BIOS settings. The first time I hadn’t done that and it erased things like recent files and internet pages. This is because the computer date had went back to 2002 instead of 2011 so it was impossible to find things 9 years before they happened, even though they had only happened a week ago. There was also the little fact of my monitor and external hard drive remaining operational when the computer decided to shut down. Who was the leading candidate for this malady?

The culprit. Without this, your super-duper impressive, water-cooled, overclocked, dual hi def computer will be a silicon filled paperweight.

The CMOS battery. Yes, a $3.57 button battery, the type that goes into your watch, also goes on your motherboard so your computer can remember things like dates, times and what hard drives and dvd drives are attached to it. CMOS memory is only 64 bytes (minimum, can be higher) but it stores enough raw information about your computer that it makes your life very simple everytime you start up. That is until the battery that powers it decides to retire early.

A short walk to the store was all it took to get a CR2032 battery (I timed it with my mp3 player. It takes all of “Walking On The Moon” a quarter of “Fields Of Gold” to get to the store on foot). A quick 30 seconds of effort got the old battery out and the new battery in. Power button and drum roll…

Needless to say, I’m online and more importantly, everything is still there on my C: drive!

What can be learned from this escapade? First of all, backup your data far more than you think is required. A question to ask photographers, writers, designers and digital artists is how much would you sell your work for? How many different pieces do you have in your computer? If the hard drive becomes corrupted, how many dollars worth of work/sales/products would you have lost? What about if you’re a student and you lose all of the papers you wrote? What would be the value of those, especially if you’re forced to take a course over again due to that computer problem? The cost of extra hard drives, online storage or even data dvds is inexpensive compared to what you may lose. Computers are cheap, your files aren’t.

Secondly, anything made by humans can fail. This goes triple for computers since not only do they have so many delicate components, but they get their feelings hurt when you don’t use them for a few days. In reality modern computers are very reliable but the lack of knowledge about what could cause a random error usually results in you screaming at the screen, cursing in multiple languages while simultaneously calculating how much it’s going to cost to fix.

It doesn’t always have to be expensive. In fact many times it’s the weak links that cause bigger links to fail. Had I changed the battery first, the total cost would have been $4 with tax, rather than $39 with the power supply and adapter. But it’s still a lot less than sending it someplace and hoping that they find the problem while I bite my nails at home. I’ve done that before for something that was very simple to fix (could have fixed it in probably an hour for less than $50 but instead I freaked out and stood in an intersection yelling for help and paid nearly $1100. Yes, $1100. Told you I’m an occasional idiot). I’m by no means a computer genius, but a little investigation and research can save you money for a lot of problems. After all, the internet is still free and your time is well, your time.

When my parents told me its better to be smart than stupid, they forgot to mention it makes life a lot less expensive.


About Christopher Williams

Co-Founder of Whelan & Williams Industries Inc. Sole proprietor of Liftlazy. Photographer, musician, writer, pilot and all around good guy to know.
This entry was posted in How-To, Humor, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Weak Links

  1. Yes, I’m on my second external hard drive. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way, so I back my files up pretty often.

    • I was doing research on hard drives and saw a study in which Google had an average of 7% of their hard drives fail over the course of said study. Granted they probably push their hard drives harder than I would but still that’s 1 out of every 14 hard drives failing. That’s a lot of hair being pulled out/screaming/cussing!

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