Holiday system upgrades and products that make you go Hmmmmm

Christmas is that one time of year when I go through a lot of upgrades on my old system to try to squeak a little more performance out of it. The core of this system is an old Asus A7A133 motherboard. Why hang onto such old technology? Well, in the old days I upgraded motherboards all the time. With Win9X it was a simple matter of uninstalling all the motherboard devices from the system manager, swapping the board and then loading whatever motherboard drivers it was looking for. After making the leap from Win98SE to WinXP, though, I have been aware that Microsoft’s reactivation would hit me if I tried to replace all the dozens of devices that make up the motherboard. So it’s easier to just hang onto that one piece and upgrade everything around it. While doing so, I always upgrade with an eye to being able to reuse the parts in another system should my system fail. This year I went through a lot of changes.

Earlier in the year I brought the RAM up to today’s standard of 1GB. This is unfortunately still has PC133 memory, but the system is still usable for most games. This made a huge difference since the system did not need to access the paging file so much.

My next upgrade in the fall was from an ATI 9500 Pro to an ATI X1600 Pro. This would now allow me to play more recent games like Age of Empires 3. I don’t play shooters on my PC because they tend to make me motion sick, with the exception of Halo 2 which I leave for my XBox and XBox 360. Believe it or not, those games put some good stress on a graphics card and the 9600 has some trouble with some of those games.

Next, I wanted more capacity. My 60Gb drive was often running out of room, so I decided to spring for a 500GB Seagate ST3500641A IDE drive that was on special without rebates. Unfortunately, there seems to be some bad interoperability between the A7A133’s ALi chipset and this drive because any large drive would drop into PIO mode. I even tried another 200GB drive and that would not go into any UDMA mode. I set the drive aside for a while to consider my options.

At the same time I was considering getting a new sound card because my old Audigy card was suffering from the Squeal of Death more and more often. The Audigy is nice in that if comes with an on-board IEEE 1394 FireWire port, so moving to another card would mean losing that port. This is a problem because I use that port for connecting my miniDV camcorder.

I found a nice solution in the Siig SC-UNS012 USB2.0+FireWire+SATA card which would give me the FireWire port I needed while allowing me to boot from the 500GB drive via SATA, and giving me extra USB 2 ports to boot. I already had an IOGear USB 2.0 add-on card to let me use my Belkin Tetrahub for fast USB 2.0 access, but that was full and I’ve been adding more and more USB products to the system over time. But the Seagate drive is IDE, so I made use of an Abit Serielle IDE-SATA adaptor I had laying around from another motherboard. Not the perfect solution, but it worked. $106 at less $20 for using Google Checkout was a pretty good bargain.

Things were going smoothly for me, so it was a matter of time before I hit a snag. I finally decided upon the sound card I would use when I found the Sound Blaster X-Fi on sale at for $80 less $20 with Google checkout. Sense a theme here? After ordering the card, yet before receiving it, I looked through the Creative site to grab drivers and check what people thought of the card. It was probably something I should have done before buying the card because there is an issue with the card where any sounds it generates is accompanied by what is being called Snap Crackle Pop – every sound. Well, after installing the card, I discovered that the problem lives up to its name. After way too much trouble-shooting and debugging, I decided this was not worth it. Out came the X-Fi and the Audigy went back in. I’d rather deal with the occasional system hang that the constant crackling for everything I did. The X-Fi is going back to the store.

My last problem turned out to be Symantec Antivirus 2006. After the move to the new hard drive, Norton decided I must have been on a different system and deactivated itself, even though I still had another 3 months on my subscription. I uninstalled it using their removal tool and reinstalled it. When I attempted reactivation it still thought I was on another system and refused to play. Symantec’s support site wanted me to mail in receipts and all sorts of proofs of purchase to show that this was really my copy. They actually wanted me to wait for mail transport of the message, and for some Authenticity Council to render judgment on my use of the product while my system was totally unprotected. Mail?!?!?! Is their product really that unnecessary or are they just too willing to risk my system in order to filter out pirates who are unwilling to use the postal system? I decided I had nothing to lose by contacting support directly. After waiting half an hour for Symantec’s on-line support chat, the overseas tech decided I would be better off calling the problem in. An hour later on their support line, I was finally reactivated. I really had no intension of mailing anything in, and had Symantec not helped me out that night, I would have gone to another vendor’s trial software for the duration of my subscription before deciding on a new vendor. Meanwhile, when Microsoft detected my system changes, it allowed me reactivate online within 10 seconds. Symantec has a lot to learn in how they treat their customers.

Next up this year? Well, I’m looking for a new LCD display since my old tube display isn’t as sharp as it used to be. My aging eyes would appreciate the sharpness. My son picked up a Haans-G while it was on special with rebates for $100 a few months back and he loves it, so I’ll be on the watch for a similar deal. And as for my old CPU? I’m checking EBay right now for an AMD Athlon Thoroughbred 2600+ that I can pop into the existing slot on my system. This will let me get almost 1GHz more and at least make it semi-modern. To get over the last hurdle of slow memory, I’ll have to finally bite the bullet and get a new system, most likely a Dell. Let’s see what this year brings.