1. Andrew's Corner...

Resurrecting an old AMD-FX computer...

It is now the closing stages of the year 2018 and going back through the receipts it looks like I built my work horse AMD FX computer system back in 2012. It has been a tremendously useful system over the ensuing years, it helped me finish a University Degree as well as complete a Diploma of Yoga Teaching. It has been the tool with which I have created and maintained this website as well as a tool that I have used to investigate the endlessly fascinating world of video transcoding, Linux kernel compiling and many, many other areas. And then one day recently it did not start up at all, fans whirred but no BIOS beep and nothing at all on the display...

I spent some time looking for the problem. I investigated the following potential causes:

In my mind this left only two potential problems: a motherboard or CPU failure and in a 6 year old system this was a potential death sentence. At the time of this failed AMD FX build (2018) AMD is on the rise with a great series of Ryzen CPUs as well as the incredible Threadripper series which is burning up the computer world. Time to upgrade and move on?

Stubbornness and cost...

There were a couple of factors the lead me to not sensibly strip this system out and build a new one:

  1. At the end of 2018 the price of RAM is still criminally high and companies are asking extortionate prices for high speed DDR4 RAM. I prefer not to pay these prices and I am quite prepared to wait until the market eventually swings back to sanity.
  2. At this same time reasonable quality graphics cards are being sold for similarly extortionate prices, that is if they are available at all. Somebody is making a lot of money and I prefer not to fund their lifestyles.
  3. More importantly I was stubbornly keen to see what could be done to resurrect this old system whose speed and capacity for work could probably see me out another few years. And I always like the challenge of tinkering with misbehaving machines!

And so I began the process that eventually saw my old system brought back to life, a system that now runs better now than it ever has...

Resurrection...

I am more than aware that it is unwise to sink too much money into a computer system that has 6 years of hard work under its belt. So the repair of this system really involved more hard work than monetary extravagance, although some cost was definitely involved. The work and expense I detail below as well as a few reflections on the good and bad hardware choices I made in 2012 when I was very new to building computers...

The case...

The existing case is a Lancool PC-K9. The choice of this mid tower case was a lucky one by me back in 2012, it is a handsome brushed aluminium and steel case with some early signs of features that are now common in good quality cases seen in 2018. Features such as a side window (albeit in perspex rather than glass), reasonable cable management systems, tool-less features for the most part, removeable drive cages, SSD mounting, front 3.0 USB connection etc. I retained this case and did some work on it:

Once the case was fully stripped and comprehensively cleaned I could see that my decision to keep the case at least was a good one, it is a nice, well thought out case from older computer times. Newer cases are a lot better but this one will do me fine.

Motherboard and CPU...

The February 2012 purchases were an Asus M4A77TD Motherboard and an AMD FX 8150 processor (one of the Bulldozer series). Now these were the two pieces of hardware that I held in great suspicion and I replaced both of these early in the planning stages as follows:

  1. CPU: I managed to pick up a new AMD FX 8370, the last sensible member of the FX series. Not so easy to get these chips new at the moment and soon it will only be slightly dubious "refurbished" chips. What does "refurbished" actually mean for a CPU? My suspicion is that it simply means that the old thermal paste has been cleaned away and if you are lucky the CPU might have been tested on a test bench! As it turns out this purchase was a little premature but more of this further on in this brief article...
    • Cooler: In my ignorance I used the stock AMD cooler with my original AMD CPU which is very much a noob error. So for this new CPU I purchased a Wraith Max Cooler. It did not cost so much, it works well, is fairly low profile compared to others and looks pretty good as well! Only near disaster was that the clearance between cooler and RAM was very, very close!
  2. Motherboard: It is not such an easy thing to get a new AM3+ motherboard any more but I did manage to pick up quite a decent one from the United Kingdom via Newegg. I am now the proud owner of a Gigabyte 970A-DS3P motherboard and going over the specs it looks to be a much better board than my original. There were two issues with the board which I have managed to overcome:
    1. USB 2 ports did not work out of the box. This annoyance has been solved by enabling IOMMU in the BIOS and adding:
      append "iommu=soft"
      to /etc/lilo.conf. My thanks to Paulo from the Slackware forums for the solution. And again I have learnt something new courtesy of a fellow Slackware user...
    2. Some oddness initially partitioning the HDD. Although fdisk claimed to be writing to the HDD it did not in fact write the partitions. After some though I simply changed the physical SATA order of both Blu-Ray Drive and HDD and for whatever reason partitioning suddenly worked. I will revisit this on a rainy weekend and see if there is a BIOS option I have missed which requires a certain sequence for the drives in the six SATA ports. Puzzling...

I bench tested the new board with the suspect AMD FX 8150 CPU in place and the board roared into life, straight to BIOS. So the diagnosis is fairly clear: the old motherboard had blown and the CPU itself is fine. Nothing to see on a physical inspection of the motherboard. So I now have a "refurbished" AMD chip to either add to the parts cupboard or to sell. And a motherboard frisbee I guess. This does not bother me so much as I now have a marginally faster and brand new CPU in my system, combined with a new motherboard. The system should be now set for quite some time!

And the rest...

Other parts that I have for this system were for the most part useful still or even more than useful! In this area I have restrained myself from spending any more money although there is some degree of portability with most of these parts.

Some extras...

All other peripherals such as mouse, speakers, keyboard, BlueTooth dongle, monitor, backup 4TB external USB drive are all in fine condition and easy enough to reuse. No great temptations there to upgrade or update although those RGB keyboards do look pretty cool!

But it is my plan that when I retire, in the near future, to spend some more time with computer building so I resolved to purchase a few fundamental tools with each build. Only two purchases this time for working on the AMD-FX system but each purchase a great investment:

  1. Williams WRS-1 Magnetic Ratcheting Screwdriver A truly wonderful ratcheting screwdriver that makes assembling a computer an absolute pleasure. A highly recommended purchase.
  2. Arctic Silver 5 Thermal Compound I saw the state of the thermal paste when I took the CPU cooler off the old AMD chip and it was a simple smearing of dried powder. 6 years old and doing nothing! So I have made a small investment in a quality thermal paste with the plan of replacing all stock paste and then regularly changing the paste.

For the next build I intend to purchase one of those nice magnetic bowls that will finally contain all of my loose screws in a single location!

Future Plans...

I am hoping that this current build will actually run, and run well for another couple of years. Certainly a plan of regular dust and grime removal should help with this, it is my suspicion that a dirty motherboard was a contributing factor to the old motherboard's death. I also have a few more build improvements in mind

  1. RAM: 2019 should see the end of the current truly extortionate prices for RAM, I see that is starting to happen now with DDR3 RAM dropping in price by 50% already in January 2019. When this process has progressed a little further I would like to max out the installed RAM to 32GB (4x 8GB) which will be very helpful when working with VMs. The current 16GB (4x 4GB) will be then used to bulk up an older build that I am working on.
  2. USB 3: Even though I have solved the issue of non-functioning USB ports on the motherboard I will probably still invest in an add-on PCI-E USB 3 card which look to be cheap and will give me a more respectable number of high speed USB 3 ports.
  3. Fans: This case now has a single 140mm fan at the back and two 120mm fans at the front. Cooling is ok but the front fans in particular seem to be a little weak so when the dust has settled I will replace all three fans with some nice Corsair fans that I have spotted on Newegg. Tricky to find non RGB / LED fans these days!

These additions should make this build a very usable one but even so this AMD FX build will be replaced after several more years use...

In conclusion...

It has been a huge amount of fun to strip this system down and then rebuild it to a better than previous working state. It is now running faster and very much cooler than it ever has with the potential to keep running nicely until RAM, GPU and even Threadripper prices have rationalised. I have a similar project in mind with an even older system which I built in 2011, an AMD Athlon X4 630 system, believe it or not, which represents the very first computer that I ever built. Lots of fun and even more dust to be found with that rebuild which I will also write up on this website.

Please feel free to contact me with any errors of fact that you have found on this page, any errors of opinion will probably remain uncorrected. In the meantime I am having a great time mucking around with computer hardware, what about you?