This last week has not been kind to the Great Beast of Malvern. Serenity is restored now, but there was drama and (at the last) some rather explosive humor.
For some time the Beast had been having occasional random flakeouts apparently related to the graphics card. My monitors would go black – machine still running but no video. Some consultation with my Beastly brains trust (Wendell Wilson, Phil Salkie, and John D. Bell) turned up a suitable replacement, a Radeon R360 R7 that was interesting because it can drive three displays (I presently drive two and aim to upgrade).
Last Friday I tried to upgrade to the new card. To say it went badly would be to wallow in understatement. While I was first physically plugging it in, I lost one of the big knurled screws that the Beast’s case uses for securing both cards and case, down behind the power supply. Couldn’t get it to come out of there.
Then I realized that the card needed a PCI-Express power tap and oh shit the card vendor hadn’t provided one.
Much frantic running around to local computer stores ensued, because I did not yet know that Wendell had thoughtfully tucked several spares of the right kind of cable behind the disk drive bays when he built the Beast. Which turns out to matter because though the PCI-E end is standardized, the power supply end is not and they have vendor-idiosyncratic plugs.
Eventually I gave up and tried to put the old card back in. And that’s when the real fun began. I broke the retaining toggle on the graphics card’s slot while trying to haggle the new card out. When I tried to boot the machine with the old card plugged back in, my external UPS squealed – and then nothing. No on-board lights, no post beep, no sign of life at all. I knew what that meant; evidently either the internal PSU or the mobo was roached.
Exhausted, pissed off, and flagellating myself for my apparent utter incompetence, I went to bed. Next morning I called Phil and said “I have a hardware emergency.” Phil, bless him, was over here within a couple of hours with a toolkit and a spare Corsair PSU.
I explained the whole wretched sequence of events including the lost case screw and the snapped retaining clip and the external UPS squealing and the machine going dead, and Phil said “First thing we’ll do is get that case screw out of there.” He then picked up the Beast’s case and began shaking it around at various angles.
And because Phil’s hardware-fu is vastly greater than mine, we heard rattling and saw a screw drop into view in short order. But it was the wrong screw! Not the big knurled job I’d dropped earlier but a smaller one.
“Aha!” says Phil. “That’s a board-mount screw.” Sure enough we quickly found that the southeast corner of the mobo had a bare hole where its securing screw ought to be. I figured out what must have happened almost as soon as Phil did; we gazed at each other with a wild surmise. That screw had either worked itself loose or already been loose due to an assembly error, and it had fallen down behind the motherboard.
Where it had bothered nobody, until sometime during my attempt to change cards I inadvertently jostled it into a new position and that little piece of conductive metal shorted out my fscking motherboard. The big knurled screw (which he shook out a few seconds later) couldn’t have done it – that thing was too large to fit where it could do damage.
Phil being Phil, he had my NZXT PSU out of the case and apart almost as fast as he could mutter “I’m going to void your warranty.” Sure enough, the fuse was blown.
This was good on one level, because it meant the mobo probably wasn’t. And indeed when we dropped in Phil’s Corsair the Beast (and the new card, and its monitors!) powered up just fine. And that was a relief, because the ASUS X99 motherboard is hellaciously more expensive than the PSU.
Almost as much of a relief was the realization that I hadn’t been irredeemably cackhanded and fatally damaged the Beast through sheer fucking incompetence. Hadn’t been for that little screw, all might have gone smoothly.
I also got an informative lecture on why the innards of the PSU looked kinda dodgy. Hotglue in excessive use, components really crowded in, flywiring (that’s when you have wires unsupported in space except by their ends, looping or arcing around components, rather than being properly snugged down).
But Phil was also puzzled. “Why didn’t this thing crowbar?” he wondered. The fuse, you see, is a second-order backup. When a short draws too much power, the PSU is supposed to shut itself down before there’s been time for the fuse to blow.
Phil took it home to replace the fuse with a circuit breaker, leaving the Corsair in the Beast. Which is functioning normally and allowing me to write this blog post, none the worse for wear except for the broken retaining clip.
He texted me this morning. Here’s how it went, effectively verbatim. I feel this truly deserves to be preserved for posterity:
Phil: So, I did a very nice repair job, installing the circuit breaker in the power supply. Then, as I was about to connect it up to my machine, I thought “you know, it really _should_ have crowbarred – not blown a fuse.” So, I powered it up sitting on the floor instead, saying to Ariel “either it’ll work, or it’ll catch fire.”
Phil: So, you may as well hang on to the Corsair power supply – I’ve already picked up a replacement to go in my machine.
Me: Are you telling me it caught fire?
Phil: No, no, no, no, no! Well, a little bit, yes. Just some sparks, and a small amount of smoke – no actual _flames_ as such, not on the outside of the box, at least. Hardly a moment’s trouble, really, once it cooled down enough to toss it in the bin…
Me: The magic smoke got out.
Phil: You might well say that, yes. In fact, all the smoke got out – the magic, the mystic, the mundane, all gone up in, well, smoke, as it were.
Me: “No actual _flames_ as such, not on the outside” Cathy was highly amused. I suspect she was visualizing you behind a blast shield, a la Jamie Hyneman.
Phil: I was trying more for Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch. In retrospect, a blast shield may have been warranted, had I only thought to use one…
Me: What about all those extra cables in the Beast? Are they obsolete now?
Phil: Yes, yes they are. At some convenient point I’ll tidy up all the cabling and make sure you have proper spares for the next time we dare disturb the Beast…
No, I did not make any of this up. Yes, Phil is really like that. And thus endeth the tale of the Trials of the Beast.