Friends don’t let Friends install used RAM.
Authors note 11/20/2015
I got some feedback on this article telling me how bad it was, I should never write again, just a bunch of reactionary garbage, etc. You get the idea. You know what? They were kinda right. This whole process from start to finish- the moment I made the decision to put some used ram in my PC to the time I wrote this article and promoted it on HackerNews was a mistake, all the way down to the title of this post. Why do I say that?
I say that because the entire time I was low on sleep, low on energy, and completely over-stressed. I wasn’t thinking rationally. I’ve considered deleting this whole post and pretending it never happened, but it did happen, in all its frenetic reasoning, actions, and writing. So, consider this a tale of what not to do. If you aren’t interested in seeing the workings of a stressed out person making nothing but bad decisions, then don’t read further. If you’re interested in my summary of what went wrong, skip to the end. If none of that interests you, Ctrl+W is your friend.
It’s been a while since I’ve written because quite frankly, life has been a mess. Did you know that even in you don’t have a gall bladder, you can still get gall stones? Well, you can. My wife found this out the hard way. In the last 3 months, nearly a full month in the hospital to find this out. There’s more to the story than that, of course, but anyway. During this time of great stress and anguish… well, just read on.
Aside from my Day Job, I run my own computer repair business, and have worked on computers a Very Long Time. So I should have known better. A faithful customer had a motherboard failure in an oddball PC, and repair was too expensive to justify on a model that was known for motherboard failures. And no, it doesn’t take a standard ATX (or any other standard) motherboard. She gave me the machine to salvage for parts, as folks often do when a machine is completely (not mostly) dead.
And what might this machine have in it? Why look at this, two shiny 4GB DDR3 10600 chips. And what does my PC happen to have? Two open DDR3 slots. Could I really go to 16GB? Is this too good to be true?
Mistakes Were Made
Since I’m writing about it, you know what happened. Swayed by the possibility of having a whole 16GB of RAM in a computer that does just fine with 8GB, I just had to give it a shot.
But let’s back up a moment. Sketchy RAM hasn’t ever really presented a problem. Normally you’ll get a BSOD or two or it won’t even boot, or some other oddity. No big deal; you just pull the RAM out and go on with your day. What’s the worst that could happen?
I gleefully installed the memory into my computer, and I grinned widely (I have a big mouth. Heck, I have a big head) when I saw the magic number at POST: 16GB! WooHoo!
Now I’ll just go get on the interwebz, and… wait, why can’t I… why does it say my networking is not working? I’ll just make sure the adapter is enabled. Yeah, it’s enabled. I’ll check several other things. No good. I grabbed a USB to Ethernet adapter. No good. USB WiFi adapter. No good. I pulled the memory. No good. I tried sfc /scannow. No good. Ran wizards. No good. Now programs are freezing and Windows 10’s start menu isn’t working. I ran Windows 10’s in-place reset. It works for a few minutes and things get crazy again. Are you starting to see the pattern?
It gets worse
Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, it gets worse. My computer has 4 monitors. Two in the center (stacked) and one on each side. My side monitors, both attached to the same video card, stop working. Lights out. You’ve got to be kidding me.
“Okay” I think to myself “Let’s take a step back. You have this other hard drive with Windows 10 on it, let’s boot that and see what’s happens.” So I did. Things are hunky dory, for a few minutes. Then things start going downhill. The start menu stops working again. The side monitors stop working again. Mind you, I’ve already pulled the suspected bad ram and threw it across the room in disgust.
It’s okay. I can deal with this. So, what’s next? The spare hard disk has nothing important on it, so I grab a USB stick with Windows 10 on it and do a fresh install. It seems to work, but it’s a dog. And it’s still not working properly.
Back to Basics
Like I said, I’ve been working on computers a Very Long Time and it seems like I have seen just about every kind of failure you can imagine. This doesn’t feel like any of them. Okay, maybe the secondary video card died. I can deal with that. But why is it still being crazy?
I broke out the PartedMagic boot disk (the one I made before they started charging for it, thank you very much. Here’s a link to the free one) and fired up MemTest86+, which is on the same boot disk. I let it run overnight, and when I came back to the computer the next morning. It successfully completed 4 test cycles. RAM: Good. At least something is going right.
I fired up Windows and started testing it. The monitors quit working again. So, I pulled the video card. It’s still a dog, and it’s still acting funny. The start menu doesn’t work. Programs are freezing, or are horribly delayed. One program won’t even install. If this were a bad motherboard, I should be seeing more pronounced issues I’d think. And if it were bad RAM, the memory test should have shown it. There’s got to be something else.
Way back in the recesses of my mind (If this were a Mind Palace, this would be in a corner of the garage buried under several boxes, nibbled on by mice and have some dead spiders on it) is a nudge. Reset the BIOS it says. What? Why would I do that? That’s absurd. I’m your subconscious, just listen to me, moron. Fine! So I reset the BIOS using the jumper on the motherboard.
The thing started acting better, but it was still a dog. So I look at what’s taking up so much CPU. Anti-Malware service. I disabled Windows Defender. Still a dog. What’s taking up all the CPU? I dig deeper. Cores: 2. Wait, what!?
I have a Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition, unlocked to 4 cores, and overclocked to 3.3ghz from 3.1. And it’s reporting only two cores. I looked closer yet and it’s reporting only 2.9GB out of 8GB memory! What the heck! I look further down, and there is the answer staring me in the face.
The Geek Card. Hand it Over.
I’ve removed the bad video card, I’ve reset the BIOS, and the computer is for all intents and purposes fixed, except for one thing:
I installed the 32 bit version of Windows 10.
Me. Professional computer fix-it guy who is supposed to know better, installed 32 bit Windows 10 on a computer that requires 64 bit. Then I remember: I used the same USB flash drive on my wife’s computer to upgrade hers to 10. It’s 32 bit.
Now that I’ve reset the BIOS, pulled the bad video card, all is at least running normal, if not slow. I whipped out my Linux boot disk again, and made a decision. I copied all my data from my primary disks to the 32 bit Windows 10 installation’s hard drive (It’s a 1TB disk) and then made a 64 bit Windows 10 USB installation drive using the Media Creation Tool. With all my data safe and sound on the 1TB disk, I formatted my primary disks (two 500GB disks in a RAID 1 mirror array) and installed Windows 10. 64 bit this time.
Windows seemed to work fine, although without drivers, slow. My Nvidia GT 740 driver had to be manually installed. Windows 10 failed the automatic install from Windows Updates. I was concerned it was a sign of things to come. Then, Zim Wiki wouldn’t install. I tried an older version, and it installed just fine. Thankfully these two minor quirks were isolated incidents, and I didn’t run into anything else that was weird.
So, with everything working, I put the secondary video card back in. Maybe that was just a red herring, you know? Driver installed, monitors work… for about a minute. Then they’re dark. Okay, looks like I’m down to two monitors now, or at least until I get another video card. I didn’t like that one anyway. It ran too hot. Passive cooling sucks.
My gut said Don’t install the mystery memory, Ryan! but I installed it anyway. I knew better, and I let a bit of greed and well-wishing and soothe-saying get the best of me (be nice to yourself. You deserve the upgrade!) At a time in my life where things are already pretty stressful (see opening paragraph) I managed to shoot myself in the foot. See, I don’t just use this computer to type out amazing [Ed: amazingly bad, see authors note at the top] blog posts such as this one. Nor do I use it just for watching cat videos and browsing SoylentNews and Hackaday. I earn a living with this computer. This happened to me the evening before work. If I didn’t have a backup laptop for work, I’d have been totally hosed.
To top it off, if I hadn’t touched my computer, that video card wouldn’t have bit the dust, having been left alone. Things would still be hunky dory. Sure, the computer really needed a reload. It was overdue. Windows 7 installed in 2011, upgraded to Windows 10? Yeah. I needed a reload. But I didn’t need it right now. I needed it when I buy myself a shiny new SSD, which I’m certainly not doing soon.
So to boil it down to a few things I’d like to pass on to anyone who meanders over to This Blog, here are the Lessons I Learned.
- Leave well enough alone
- Listen to your gut
- Don’t get greedy
- Optimism is no substitute for wisdom
And this Honorable Mention:
- Don’t make important decisions when you’re overtired
Being exhausted at the start certainly played a part in the lousy decision making process and in installing the wrong version of Windows. This all started on a Friday evening and didn’t conclude until the next Monday evening. I really didn’t have time and energy for that, and I could have saved myself a lot of trouble had I just left well enough alone. Oh, and there’s one more thing I nearly forgot to say:
Friends don’t let Friends install used RAM!*
But wait, that’s it? Bad RAM caused all this trouble? The crazy BIOS, the bad video card? Well, not quite. See, I don’t think the RAM was actually bad. Oh, it is now, now that I’ve literally thrown it across the room in frustration. What I do think happened is this:
Electrostatic Discharge. ESD for short. Little tiny thunderbolts of electricity sitting in your body, right now, waiting to be loosed on unsuspecting electronics. I always touch the case of a computer before I start touching its insides (in order to discharge the static electricity), but for whatever reason that was not enough. I think a slight ESD discharge did something with the BIOS. Either that, or the mismatched RAM speed caused the BIOS to get confused. I’m not a BIOS expert, so I don’t know for sure. I lean toward ESD because I’ve seen it before.
As for the bad video card, I’m fairly certain that I caused that a bit more directly. It’s a HD 5450 that has a giant heat sink on it and no fan. I am pretty sure I bumped the heat sink, and caused it to lose its firm contact with the chip, and that it is not dead, it’s merely overheating. This explains why it works for a few minutes and then doesn’t. I have yet to test this theory out.
I caused more problems for myself when I installed a 32 bit version of Windows on my spare hard drive rather than 64 bit.
But this article is less about the hardware issues. It’s about being overtired, overstressed, a lack of process, and bad decisions. It’s about putting wishful thinking in the drivers seat, with an angry overtired stressed out mother-in-law behind him yelling “No, go LEFT you idiot!” and getting everyone lost, and being ill equipped (due to said lack of energy and abundance of stress) to get un-lost.
So, the next time you think something is a good idea, sleep on it. I wish I had.
PS – One commenter at Hacker News said that this post was basically a long form version of this XKCD comic. Indeed, it is.
*This post has nothing to do with bad ram