It ain't pretty being easy... (soopageek) wrote,
It ain't pretty being easy...

gettin' my geek on

Meet Frank.

The initial idea of building a simple "test" machine is one I've had for many years. Basically, something I could throw hardware on without having to crack-open the case, and risk the safety/integrity, of my primary desktop. This would be most useful in testing/diagnosing various hard disks and optical drives, but also for the occasional expansion card. Frank began when I found his chassis. A few years ago, I was dropping-off some recyclables at the local collection center and saw a computer chassis sitting inside the dumpster. Any shame I may have had as a younger man has all been lost since about the age of 35, so I hopped into the dumpster and fished the chassis out to examine it. The right side-panel and front bezel was missing, and it had been well stripped. All that remained inside was the motherboard, CPU sans heat-sink, a floppy disk drive and a ZIP drive. Then I noticed the chassis. Everything in it had slide-locks: the external bays, the internal bays, even the power supply! Upon further examination, even the expansion cards were held in place by a single flap which could be pulled back with your thumb then set back in place. In a nutshell, you could quickly insert and remove all hardware from the chassis without a screwdriver. As a bonus, the internal bays were facing sideways for easy access. This was the chassis for my test machine dream.

Another year or two went by, and I was at the recycling center again. This time I noticed a computer case, completely intact, sitting on the ground outside the dumpster. Naturally, I scooped it up and took it home. The people who had owned Frank's chassis were smart enough to strip it, but the people who owned what would eventually become Frank's guts weren't. At a minimum, this meant there was probably a usable hard drive inside. At best, there might be a fully functional computer with a minor hardware problem. I let the machine sit for a few days, as it had been raining all week. Once I was sure it had had a chance to dry-out sufficiently I plugged a monitor to it and flipped it on. I heard the system beep of a successful POST and I got some really bad video as I watched it boot into Windows XP, then crash & auto-reboot after about 30-60 seconds. My initial thought was that the onboard video had gone bad. The motherboard had only PCI and ISA slots and I didn't have any spare video cards that I could use to test my thought. I had a box full of old expansion cards somewhere, but as hard as I looked, I couldn't find them. One other minor issue I discovered was that the PS2 port for the keyboard was all chewed up and wouldn't seat a keyboard connector, but in this day and age of cheap USB keyboards that's no big deal. I put the machine away, but kept it in the back of my mind.

A few months ago, I was at my parent's house. Like me, my dad tends to come across the occasional computer/part that he thinks he might find a use for some day. Sitting in the floor of his office were two machines. I noticed that one of them had an expansion video card protruding from the rear of it. I also noticed that the little sticker on the front bezel said "Designed for Microsoft Windows 98" which meant it was pretty good odds that was a PCI video card sitting in there. Having never come across my missing box o' parts, I asked him about it and he just gave the whole thing to me.

I didn't have the time just then to begin testing, so I never bothered cracking the case when I got home. Out of curiosity, I fired up this new-to-me machine and was greeted with a Windows ME splash screen as it booted. I took a brief look through the system to discover it had a 600mhz processor and 256mb of RAM. I knew I would have no issues with scavenging this machine just to have the video card out of it.

Not even a week had gone by when I found that missing box o' parts, including among them 2-3 old PCI video cards.

A few weeks ago, I finally found the time to begin my project. Since I was completely unsure of the usefulness of the PCI cards in my box, I decided to start by pulling the video card from the machine acquired from my dad, since I knew that one worked. To my surpise, it was in fact an AGP card. I then began to sort through the PCI video cards in my collection, and after trying them in various slots on the board of the machine I found beside the dumpster, finally found one that worked. I had better video now, but the machine still did the same thing: crash-reboot after 30-60 seconds.

I pulled the card back out, scratched my head, and thought for a minute or two. Memory. Onboard video shares with system memory. Bad memory would cause the phenomena of system instability and bad video. So I yanked the two, 168-pin 128mb memory cards out. They weren't matching, meaning one likely came with the system and the other was a user upgrade. More telling, the one that was most likely the upgrade had a sticker on it that said VALU RAM. While there are always exceptions to the rule, when it come to computers, folks, you largely get what you pay for. I put the one back in and left the VALU RAM out. The machine fired up with clear, onboard video and didn't crash. Someone tossed a perfectly good computer over a $15 part.

I went back to the other computer I had gotten from my dad. Inside it were 3, 168-pin memory slots, containing a single 128mb and 2, 64mb cards. I put the larger of the 3 into the other machine with the single good 128mb card and fired it up again. Solid. Upon further inspection of the system I had a 1.3ghz CPU and a 30gb hard drive. Not a lot of muscle, but twice as much as the machine I got from my dad, and more than enough for what I was going to use it for. Now to get it all into the chassis that began this little odyssey.

I removed the motherboard/CPU that had been left behind in Frank's chassis. In retrosepct, I can't remember if I ever tested it, since it was so long ago. I'm assuming I must have and it was dead, but I set it aside for further examination: it could be that just one or the other is bad. I took the power supply from the working machine and seated it into its place in the chassis with a simple flip of its slide lock. AWESOME. Next I placed the motherboard inside the chassis to see how it aligned with the rear panel and ran into my first snag. Common, universal ATX cases have a pop-out aluminum panel for the various ports, this case had them cut directly into the steel of the chassis and were particular to the board I had just removed. Most ATX port configurations are fairly universal, but there are minor differences that necessitate the aluminum pop-out found in most cases. Frank's chassis was probably some mass produced product by Gateway/Compaq/etc and not intended for use in other builds, which caused me some other minor headaches as I progressed. The game-controller port on the board I was trying to fit into this case was causing me a problem. I went at the steel on the chassis with wire cutters and needle-nose pliers for about 5 minutes before I realized that if I just removed the stand-off screws from the game-controller port that it would fit. *head smack*

With the motherboard and power supply in place I began to tackle the tedious business of connecting the case wiring to the electrical pins on the board, which is when I ran into headache 2.0. Since this was a mass-produced computer, the wiring was non-standard and was particular to this machine, most notably, the power and disk indicators were a single LED that switched colors depending on the source-pin in a single connector. In other words, the indicator was powered by a single connector at the board, where the pins were grouped together to achieve this. This new board had it's power and HDD power pins in different places, so it was impossible for the single connector to work. Also, the power and reset buttons were combined in this case, causing a similar problem. While this isn't a huge deal, I wanted Frank to have lights. I stripped out the wiring from both cases and put the wiring that originally came with this motherboard into the chassis. I managed to get the power button to sit into the plastic frame in the front of the chassis, but but the reset button just hangs inside the case. Since the lights were so vastly different, the best I could do was run them through one of the holes in the steel, giving Frank a pair of glowing antennas: one red, one green.

The 600mhz WinME machine I had gotten from my dad had ultimately made itself useful by providing me with another 128mb of RAM for Frank, but it yielded something else which I decided to use in Frank as well. It had a 14gb hard drive inside. A drive that small is virtually worthless today, but it'd be perfect for holding WinXP and a few diagnostic tools, and it'd allow me to find some other practical use for that 30gb hard drive. So I shoved that into the chassis and I fired up the machine. The Windows ME screen greeted me once again and began to try to find drivers for the new motherboard it had found itself on unexpectedly. It was at this point that I lifted my hands and eyes toward the heavens and yelled "It's alive!" and where Frank got his name.

As I mentioned earlier, the "found" machine had been sitting in the rain for who knows how long. I quickly discovered while trying to boot from a Windows XP disc that both of the optical drives (one a DVD/CD-RW combo and the other a 32x CD-R) were trash. They were recognized by the system but were suffering from mechanical problems: the tray was faulty on one, and the other wouldn't spin-up at all. The machine from my dad actually had a pretty sweet Phillips CD-RW in it, in addition to a basic DVD-ROM player. I requisitioned these for Frank and began installing XP. Frank was finally complete, but at what cost?

Oh, the humanity

I've already put Frank to good use. I have a friend with a problematic IDE hard drive. It had been sitting on my desk for a long time, but I had been afraid to stick it in my own machine for fear of a virus, or using disk tools I was unfamiliar with and damaging my own system. In the process I did exactly the latter which necessitated a reinstall on Frank, but that's no big deal, that's exactly why I have Frank! But it does mean I'll probably get wise and keep an image of Frank on my desktop that I can retrieve over the network should it happen in the future.

As for Frank's immediate future, I have a SATA controller card that I bought a few years ago when I began my migration from IDE drives that I'll install for sure. I don't really need the floppy or ZIP drives (I actually have an old external ZIP drive of Welf's that I can always use should the need ever arise), but I also don't really have anything to put in a 3.5" bay. I will probably fill one of them with a card reader at some point. Maybe I'll try a do-it-yourself cigarette lighter mod in the other one, since all of the pre-made ones online seem to be for 5.25" bays.

For those of you on Facebook, you may see this again in a Note. I did it here first because some things are just best presented in a place that allows more robost in-line photograph posting and HTML markup. Yes, I have been more active on Facebook of late. If you want to add me over there and haven't yet, feel free to do so.
Tags: computers, gear

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