More Hardware (and Software) capers.

John Saxon pushes the envelope.

Further to my article on a new motherboard and other upgrades (16 Bits Jan 97), you would have thought that I had learnt my lesson and settled down to my newly modified, (and working) system. But I guess I’m just a glutton for punishment. I had made another trip to the USA and brought back some more bits - gotta have the latest and greatest (for at least a couple of weeks). Before the hardware elite sneer too much, bear in mind that the bits were brought in early August, so specs have improved and prices decreased since then.

My Tyan Tomcat III motherboard was running a 75 MHz Pentium (over clocked to 100 MHz) just fine – but the lure of a faster CPU and some other stuff was too great. As usual the real hardware buffs should get some laughs from all of this.

So eventually I brought back…..

    1. 200MHz AMD K6 MMX CPU at US$217 plus a new good quality CPU fan.
    2. Video card. Cardax Tseng Labs ET6000 128 bit card at US$39 plus US$30 for another 2mb video RAM (total 4Mb RAM).
    3. Samsung 20X CDROM drive chosen for it’s front panel buttons and price of US$69.


My biggest worry was not the installation of the new CPU and fan, but in order for it to be properly recognised and used by the hardware, I would need to upgrade by "flashing" a new BIOS version. I learnt this from the Internet newsgroup that covers the Tyan motherboard. I was not convinced that the flashing process would be totally foolproof (necessary in my case), because if you mess up, you can be effectively minus one computer - one has to find someone who will sell you a new BIOS chip to get the beast to boot again. So I sought and received some good advice from the newsgroup (alt.comp.periphs.mainboard.tyan) and ended up with the following procedure.

    1. Obtained (via Email) the latest BIOS flash utility program and new BIOS binary data file from RCSystems ( who are Tyan experts and much more active in the news group than Tyan themselves.
    2. Deleted the drvspace.bin and dblspace.bin files from the root of c:\. They take up unnecessary space in RAM and I have no immediate plans to disk double.
    3. Set the CMOS back to default values
    4. Ran the flash utility software
    5. Shorted the on motherboard jumper for 10 seconds or so to ensure default values
    6. The system booted O.K!!!
    7. Reinstalled my system specific CMOS variables and the system refused to boot up! No video, no activity, apart from some POST beeps!
    8. Shorted the "default values" jumper again, and re-installed the same CMOS changes one at a time, booting each time to find the offender. Needless to say I eventually re-installed them all with no more boot up crashes then or since! Strange things these computers.

Then the CPU was changed and the new fan fitted (using heat sink compound of course – most important with these devices). The relevant CPU voltages were set using the motherboard jumpers (MMX computer’s use 2 CPU voltages), and then the system booted up normally! Woops…..Actually I forgot to change the clock jumpers from my overclocked 75Mhz CPU and the bios detected the 200Mhz CPU running at 233Mhz! Actually the system ran well at 233Mhz (the board only officially supports 75-200Mhz CPUs), but the on-board power regulators were running a little too hot for my peace of mind. So I set it back to 200Mhz and the hardware has been ultra-stable since – but the temptation is there for some future experiments.

Video Card:

There were some dramas after replacing the old ATI card. These were possibly caused by my failure to totally remove the old drivers (the ATI was pre-W95 era and the drivers had to be removed with a DOS program) – but I forgot about that. Ended up with lots of safe mode operations. Comment – Safe mode is supposed to help you resolve hardware and software conflicts, but because most drivers are not loaded in safe mode, I find that Device manager often says there are no problems – a bit of a catch-22 situation. As a result of all this I reloaded W95 several times using the default VGA drivers and finally got it sorted.

My other piece of pre-W95 hardware is a fabulous Ensoniq Soundscape sound card. The software for this has to be loaded in a complex sequence each time W95 is loaded. At one point I began to get an error message on W95 load of "missing snddrv.dll" or something similar, followed by "it is now safe to turn off your computer"! No opportunity to go to safe mode or anything – so back to another W95 re-load – are we having fun yet???!! But eventually it all got back to normal and so I decided to swap the CDROM drive – I really do try to do one thing at a time if possible.

CDROM Drive:

Magic! Plug and pray worked! Swapped the hardware, switched on, W95 detected the change, loaded the new drivers and I had 100% operation, data and audio. Sometimes one has to come up smelling of violets, but using the latest model hardware certainly helps.

The aftermath:

Random crashes!

I thought that was it….. But who said that life was meant to be easy for those trying for the ultimate upgrade on a budget? I had noticed the occasional program crash – usually something like "invalid page fault in KERNEL32.DLL" or other GPF errors. But then after a few days they got gradually worse. Sometimes I would leave 10 or more applications running, come back after an hour or so and the system would not exit the screen saver or power down state. CTRL-ALT-DEL would sometimes say that almost all the applications had failures or "execution errors". Sometimes even the task manager would not run. Additionally some programs like newly installed Word 97 would not run at all – putting the system into some sort of incoherent video mode that affected all programs – so W95 re-boot was needed. Pointcast Vrs 2 also stopped running with various faults at start-up. Reloading these applications did not help. Something had to be done.

My instinctive reaction was that the problems were caused by hardware – perhaps something like my weird mix of memory SIMMs. Tried tweaking everything I could think of, without success. Then one day I started looking at performance parameters and came across the advanced graphics settings (fig 1) – the new card had set the default to maximum acceleration.

One step down resulted in the comment "use this setting for problems with the mouse pointer", one step lower and the window shown in fig 2 appeared. Now that looked promising. Set the acceleration there – and bingo! No more random problems. I checked the card manufacturer’s web site for updated drivers, but the drivers were the same as I received with the card – however I eventually thought that a check of the video chip manufacturer’s site might be worthwhile. So off to and bingo! There was an updated driver which was stated to "fix the Word-97 problem" – which it did. What’s more I was then able to return to full video hardware acceleration and back to a rock solid system.

Disappearing Applications!

This problem was definitely digital – my finger trouble of course. But I believe there were extenuating circumstances – the really convoluted logic used by W95 designers. Some applications kept disappearing. The most obvious were dial up networking, and the volume control. With hindsight I would have probably noticed that other applications such as paint, calculator and other applications were also literally disappearing – not even the original directories were left and this appeared to be reasonably random! I noticed the networking and volume control particularly as I was using those most. I re-installed so many times that I must be one of the few group members who can re-configure dial up networking without reference to Mike Gellard’s great instructions (Sixteen bits June 96) – I can even remember! So what the heck was going on?

Don’t laugh too hard, but it turned out to be my not believing what I read about the windows setup section of add/remove programs section of the control panel (fig 3).

I was so keen to ADD programs, in this case the Dial up networking component of Communications (fig 4), that I just ticked that box and none of the other components. Little did I know that I was then REMOVING all the other components, including paintbrush and other accessories (fig 5) including volume control! It appears that (and I still haven’t got it totally worked out) you must tick every component of every section to RETAIN the wanted components.

Each time one component was installed, one or more others was removed! But as the repeated installs were not concurrent the removes were not obvious. What a ridiculous system! Why on earth didn’t they just have two sets of tick boxes – one for adding and another for removing, items installed previously but not ticked to remain the same? I will have to send this one in to (Windows 95 annoyances) a great set of pages incidentally. I can’t believe that I’m the only one who misunderstood this incredible system.

Bits and Pieces.

Serial Ports & PS/2 mouse.

I have 3 serial devices on my system. The configuration till recently was a serial optical mouse on Com1, modem on Com4, and the cradle for my PalmPilot organiser HotSync on Com2. Because of IRQ sharing (Com 2 and 4 share IRQ3) I could not have the Pilot function at all times due to the clash with the Modem. Not a huge deal, but I decided to see if I could use the built in PS/2 port on the motherboard to free up Com1. After buying a PS/2 connector for US$5 from RCSystems I also managed to pick up a genuine MS PS/2 mouse for Aus$19 from the local computer markets. As usual all was O.K with the hardware installation, but attempts to reconfigure the Com ports under W95 resulted in yet another reload of the operating system! I found it hard to realise that W95 will not let you install driver software without "thinking" that you have the right hardware installed. Once more (after the event) I should have realised that the easiest way to do this type of thing is to remove all the old relevant drivers and re-boot (usually several times) and let W95 recognise the new hardware configuration and install the relevant drivers.

HP DeskJet Printer.

The last hardware item was that my HP DeskJet 540 printer started refusing to pick up paper from the supply tray. I received lots of good advice at a Coffee and Chat meeting about cleaning the rollers and "blowing" paper chaff out of it’s innards, but it was very clean and nothing seemed to fix it. So I resolved to take it apart. Now I should mention "up-front" that HP do not want you to take these printers apart! There are no high voltages inside, but there are all sorts of warnings on the case about "no user serviceable components inside" – but I’ve never let that sort of thing put me off. Getting it apart was – interesting. It has two tamper torque screws providing the first line of defense. Tamper torque’s are like Alan screws but can’t be worked by Allen keys as they have a "pip" in the bottom, or a sloping bottom profile. But all good vandals have a set of Tamper torque drivers.

Then there were 8 or 10 plastic clips which all had to be released simultaneously. And finally a fine plastic ribbon connector joining the power and resume buttons to the printed circuit board. I could not work out how the connector on the PCB released and only a slight wriggle ended with the whole connector coming off the board. At that point I had visions of consigning the printer to the Mugga lane tip as the connector is only about 8mm by 3mm by 3mm deep with 6 surface mount solder connections. However a very fine soldering iron tip, and a very large magnifying glass got me breathing again and I hastily reassembled it! The strange thing is that it now picks up the paper! And I didn’t actually do anything other that look at the mechanism without any further disassembly. Must have given it a fright.

Tidying up

Some minor software things still need tidying up. At time of writing Eudora says, "Could not install Eudora MAPI system because MAPI.DLL or MAPI32.DLL could not be renamed". Huh? Both files appear to be O.K in my Windows\System directory and are apparently write enabled.

Another baffling problem. I could auto (and manually) play Data and Audio CDs, but Windows CDPLAYER refused to believe that an Audio CD was in the drive. The player stated that there is no CD in the drive (or that the CD is a data CD), and all the play controls were greyed out. Explorer however lists all the tracks at the same time that CDPLAYER comes out with the error message! But you cannot play the tracks from Explorer. I got by using "FlexiCD" - a small program that comes with Power Toys (a good set of W95 mini-apps available from Flexicd could not list the tracks either, but the play command (single click on the FlexiCD tray icon) didn’t care about that. The problem was finally solved by one of the respondents to a posting I made to a W95 newsgroup, who pointed me to which is one of a good series of pages which describe W95 error messages causes and fixes. In this case the solution was to remove and re-install the MS MCI driver – not an obvious one – but it worked.

So here endeth another saga. I suppose I should settle down and just enjoy my system – even use it for useful stuff – but there’s always the lure of the unknown and more to learn and problems to overcome – is that why personal computing is often described as a hobby?

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