Solving the mystery of Mum’s unstartable PC

Belkin surge protection socket

Yesterday my brother Eddie and I drove down to Selkirk for a four hour, military-precise exercise to build a new bed for Mum and return her now up-to-date and working PC. At least that was the plan.

The bed was built in under an hour, a spot of lunch was taken before Eddie set to work clearing out some junk from the shed while I plugged in the PC and made sure it was working and connecting to the internet okay. Only it didn’t boot up, which was exactly the problem that it was experiencing before I whisked it away to the Saunders PC clinic just after Christmas.

The problem

I couldn’t understand it. Her PC had been playing up for about six months before I finally took it away to examine it. It was initially quite unpredictable: booting up fine some days, not others. On the days that it did boot up okay it would suddenly reboot in the middle of tasks, or would simply hang and have to be restarted, with a quiet prayer that it would even restart at all. Latterly it wouldn’t even boot into Windows, preferring instead to hang anywhere between the Power On Start-up Test (POST) screen and the Windows loading screen.

I suspected either a dodgy power supply or a dying CPU, and on Boxing Day 2006 loaded it into the back of our car and drove it back home with me. Only to have it sitting in our hallway for six weeks while I tried to find the space and energy to examine it. If there might be a lot of faffing about replacing components then I wanted the space and clarity of mind to do it.

The diagnosis

Last weekend I set it up on the dining room table, plugged it in, switched it on and … it booted straight away. So I took that opportunity to back-up all Mum’s data to DVD-R before risking another reboot. It rebooted fine. I updated Windows XP, and rebooted. In fact, I had it reboot about 20+ times during the weekend and each time it started fine. I couldn’t detect a single problem with it. Whew!

Actually, what I suspected was that it was simply allergic to being at Mum’s. Maybe it had a pet allergy, or something.

The good news

I phoned Mum and gave her the good news and said that I’d find an opportunity to nip down to Selkirk to deliver it. And that opportunity presented itself yesterday as Eddie was going down to Selkirk anyway and Jane had volunteered to help her sister paint a bedroom in Edinburgh. So we picked up Eddie in South Queensferry, dropped off Jane in south Edinburgh en route for the Scottish Borders.

The return

So with it safely returned to Selkirk, I unpacked it, plugged it in and switched it on. And waited. And waited. And waited. Hmmm… maybe it is allergic to being at Mum’s after all, because it would not boot up, preferring instead to hang on the Windows XP loading screen. Very odd.

I couldn’t understand it, I’d purposefully only plugged in the bits that I’d had in Anstruther: the PC box, the monitor, the keyboard, mouse and speakers. I knew that that worked, and had actually suspected a dodgy USB connector as having been the non-boot culprit.

The solution

And then I realised that the only component that I’d not had with me when I tested it at home was Mum’s surge-protection 4-gang power socket. I replaced it with the 4-way that I had with me and it booted. And rebooted. And rebooted yet again.

It turns out that it was the power-socket that was the problem all along. I went and told Mum.

Gareth: Mum, I’ve found out what the problem was with your PC.

Mum: Oh, that’s good. What was it?

Gareth: It was your surge-protector socket that the PC was plugged into.

Mum: Oh, well done. Do you think that had anything to do with the massive thunder and lightning storm we had last year? It blew a lot of my friends’ modems.

Gareth: Yes. [Thinks: And you only thought to tell me that now, why?]

The replacement

I’ve now ordered Mum a replacement Belkin 6-Socket SurgeMaster Tel/Fax/Modem/Cable or DSL Modem Protection cable (with built-in insurance up to £25,000 for any equipment damaged as a result of the surgemaster not doing its job properly).

In other news…

That Mum’s Orange dial-up account was no longer working — not having been dialed-into for over 90 days — is another matter, but to get her back online we used uk2.net’s account-free service. A useful number of keep in mind if you’re ever in the same situation, or your broadband goes down for a time. (Thanks to Mike for looking that up online while on the end of a mobile phone conversation with me.)

Broadband connection troubles

BT Voyager 2500V modem and router

It’s never straight forward, is it?! Less than a week after I thought my PC had bit the dust, my broadband connection is now less stable than a rickety old shack that houses horses.

Every … so often (somewhere between 1 minute and 3.5 hours, so far) the DSL connection will drop on my BT Voyager 2500V modem/router and then take 30 seconds or so re-establishing the connection. It’s really quite frustrating, especially while downloading files or transferring files across our home network.

Since I manually rebooted the box last night at 20:45 the broadband line status log reports that it has dropped and re-established the connection no fewer than 21 times!

I contacted British Telecom about this on Sunday at 16:40 and heard back from them at 17:54 with a long and detailed e-mail offering a number of suggestions:

  1. Switch off and unplug everything, wait 10 seconds, plug it all in again and switch on. (Ahhh, the old favourite tech support solution: switch it off and switch it back on again!)
  2. Move the modem/router away from any equipment with potential Electromagnetic Interference (EMI).
  3. Check the micro-filter and firewall settings.
  4. Plug the modem/router into the test socket on the BT master phone socket in the house.

Sadly, none of this fixed the problem. I tried it with both my PC and laptop: same problems experienced on both, which made me think that it’s an issue with the phone line and/or the modem. It’s the connection between the ISP and modem that is dropping not the connection between the modem and the PC.

Initially I thought that the router was rebooting itself, but now I’m thinking that it is simply that the modem is simply dropping the DSL connection and then picking it up again. But why?!

BT e-mailed me this morning to inform me that they will be phoning me this evening to talk this issue through. Hopefully we can get to the bottom of it and re-establish our once perfect connection.

It’s alive!

Laptop with PC on a desk.
My PC is back up and running — it’s the double-monitor wonder to the right of the laptop.

It would appear that my PC had completely burned out the CPU as after an evening of educated tinkering beneath my desk — and no, that’s not a euphemism — my PC is alive once more.

Eager to tell someone I fired up Windows Live Messenger and chatted with my good friend Simon.

Gareth: Hey! Great news! My PC is alive again.

Simon: It’s alive. It’s aliiivvveeee! Very good news. Not as good as the news that Jesus died for your sins, but a close second.

A fair point, I suppose, all things considered.

So now my PC is back up and running, which is great news. But I’m still feeling a little cautious around it, wondering if it will fail on me again.

I imagine that it’s a bit like when you’ve been invited to an important and prestigious ball by your girlfriend, and you spend ages getting ready, and it’s quite a big deal and you arrive and everything is going well and you’re meeting loads of great people and the food is good and you’ve having a great time — in fact you are literally ‘having a ball’ — but then you get separated from your girlfriend but it doesn’t matter because you trust her and she trusts you and you get involved watching some entertainment, but then the entertainment ends and you go looking for your girlfriend and you discover her in a darkened room with another boy. And they are kissing. And then the next morning in the light of day you’re not quite sure if you do trust her any more, even though nothing has actually changed. Apart from the kissing another boy bit. I imagine that it might be a bit like that. I guess.

Only time will tell. That and good ventilation.

Installing broadband … it’s child’s play!

BT Broadband
BT Broadband Self-Install box, similar to the one that Peter and Dorothy received.

The trouble with BT Broadband Self-Install kits in this family is that what it really means is “Gareth-Install”. Feeling a little brighter this morning I drove down to Jane’s parents and sat behind her Dad’s desk and installed their 2Mb broadband package for them. But … not without a couple of hitches first!

One of the great things about computers these days is that alot of the instructions that come with them are so user-friendly. The BT broadband installation is not exception. Pop the CDROM in the drive, turn on the sound and sit back while a seductive female voice lures you into a false sense of hope as she talks you through plugging in ADSL microfilters, powering on the BT Voyager 2091 modem/router/wireless access point, plugging in the ethernet cable, and finally once the software has installed connecting the ADSL cable to make that all-important connection from the Big Blue Everything to your expectant computer.

It all went well. Congratulations! You are now connected, it said. “Now … before you do anything rash,” it advised, “switch off and let me reboot the computer.”
“Sure,” I almost purred back at her, clicked the Reboot button and … And when it restarted: nothing! The Big Blue Nothing.

There is something satisfying, and yet at the same time inherently annoying with Windows about knowing that 9 times out of 10 whenever I reboot the computer and about every peripheral situated within a 20m radius of it it’s likely that the problem will have fixed itself when it wakes again from the dead. That’s what fixed it: I powered down the PC, powered down the Voyager 2091 — the name alone made me feel like I was doing some important mission for Space Cadets — and then powered them back up in reverse order.

Would you believe it: it worked! Oh, and for some reason I didn’t have to use the Connect to BT Yahoo! Broadband logon button, as the instructions had promised. It just connected. I’m not complaining, the simpler is it for Jane’s folks the better.

I got WiFi setup, with a bit of WEP encryption, setup email and opened a new MSN Messenger account for Jane’s folks and then cleared off home for a rest.

Whew! Just as the picture on the box suggested: child’s play. (?!!)