FYI: DIY–FIY (Do-It-Yourself, Fix-It-Yourself)

This tale is for people who are thinking about building their own PC.   I’ve built my last three PCs, so this is the story of the first one I’ve had to fix.

My HTPC is crashing intermittently.  As anyone who fixes electronic doodads knows, intermittent problems are the most annoying.

I use my Home Theater PC to record TV shows from over the air broadcasts because I gave up cable TV a couple years ago.  Basically, a HTPC is a computer customized with a TV tuner card that acts like a DVR, but runs under Windows 7, so it can serve many useful functions while connected to a high definition TV.  Think of it as a desktop with a 56” screen.

If I was a Comcast or U-verse subscriber and my DVR went wonky, I’d just have them replace it.  As it is, I’m the repairman.  And since I also built the computer myself from component parts, there’s no warranty but me.  That’s the thing about a Do-It-Yourselfer, you have to be a Fix-It-Yourselfer.

The first time the HTPC crashed I thought the power supply had just gone out, so I replaced it.  $39.95 plus shipping.  Even with a new power supply I discovered my machine was just as dead.  That indicated one of the essential components was keeping the machine from booting up.  I reseated the memory, pulled the TV tuner, audio card and video card and the machine started working again.  I added back the TV tuner and video card and it still worked.  The sound card was a recent purchase so I thought maybe it had flaked out.  I reconnected everything back to the TV and it worked for a day.

Next I pulled the add-on video card and it worked for two weeks.

I let it sit a week turned off.  I didn’t feel like messing with it.  But going a week without a DVR is annoying.  But it’s also instructional.  I can go a week without recording TV, without watching the 5:30 NBC Nightly News delayed to 7:12pm (or 9:32pm, or 8:05pm) while eating dinner.  If I miss the news the world seems to go on just as fine, or poorly, without my conscious observation.

Today I pulled the HTPC from my entertainment center and reorganized my remaining components.  I brought the HTPC and antenna back to my man cave.  It’s now running again without me doing anything other than switching from HDMI cable to TV, to DVI cable to computer monitor.  But I don’t trust it.  However, I’m going to keep it back in my room until I can figure out what’s the actual problem.  And while I do that, I’ll see what life is like without a DVR in the den.

A home built computer is merely a computer assembled from component parts:

  1. CPU
  2. heat sink
  3. motherboard
  4. memory
  5. power supply
  6. hard drive
  7. TV tuner
  8. optical drive
  9. add-on video card

The first seven are required, the last two optional because I have on-board video.  The computer crashes by freezing up, with the power light still on, but with a screen dark, and the TV saying no video signal.  Those are my clues.  Some possible failure points:

  • CPU glitch
  • heat sink is failing and computer overheats
  • something is flaking out on mother board
  • memory failure
  • TV tuner failure

Now the normal electronic detective work requires swapping each of those components with a known working replacement and test until I found the part that’s failing.  That however, would require having working extras of each, and I don’t.  I have two other computers, but not with matching parts.

Because a HTPC is powered on 24×7, I have wondered if power fluctuation could be causing the problem, but my system has been running for two years without failure, so that sounds iffy.  Since I’ve moved my machine to another room, I’ve changed a couple of factors.  I’m using a different power outlet, and I’m not using the HDMI port.  I now have to wait until it fails again.  When or if it does, I’ll move the TV tuner card to my regular desktop.  If TV tuner card fails in the other machine, then I need to buy a new TV tuner card.  If it doesn’t, I’ve got to come up with the next theory.  It could take weeks to track down this problem.

However, the next stage might get expensive.  At work I have a pretty good intuition for efficiently solving computer crashes, but 95% of the time, the snafus are obvious, or within a few guesses.  To solve problems in a timely manner requires guessing the right choice quickly.  My problem with the HTPC has been the exception.  With an intermittent failure, detecting the problem can take a very long time.  And I’m not even sure there’s not more than one problem.  Pulling the add-on video card might have solved the original problem and I’m now seeing another problem.  Or it could have been a minor glitch in one system causing a bigger glitch in a second.

For many people, this kind of fix-it-yourself sleuthing is aggravating.  I’m calm about it because I’ve learned to be calm with this kind of work.  I’ve got my HTPC in my room, and I’ve been playing back recorded shows, recording shows with the DVR and everything has been working fine.  I just have to wait for another crash to tell me something.  By the way, watching TV close up is very enjoyable.  I see a lot more details.  I’ve got the HTPC monitor next to my desktop monitor so I’m just an arm’s length in front of the screen.

Dealing with the problem is teaching me something else.  I’m wondering if I need so many computers in my life.  I’ve got over 200 shows recorded on my DVR, mostly PBS documentaries.  I record far more than I watch – maybe that’s telling me something:  Do I watch enough TV to need a DVR?  When I gave up cable I missed the onscreen guide and the DVR.  I just hate missing something I want to see.  If I have a DVR recorder, I record everything I want to see, but probably only watch as much as I would if I didn’t have a DVR.  We think we’re addicted to convenience and our gadgets, but are we?

In terms of actually watching TV I actually enjoy streaming Netflix the most.  I love having a compelling series like Breaking Bad or Survivors (1975) to look forward to watching each evening after I’m too tired to do anything else.  I use live TV for news and PBS documentaries.  If I had other sources for those shows I wouldn’t need a DVR.  (I also use the HTPC to play streaming music on my big stereo in the den – but that’s another story.)

I could solve my current problem by just putting my TV tuner into my desktop computer.  But I won’t make that decision until after I fix the HTPC.  I don’t want to give up solving this puzzle.

JWH – 6/3/12

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