Well, if I tell you how the story starts, maybe the end will be predictable … I was given a truly wonderful camera at Christmas, a Pentax K20 which generates 14MB raw files. It was taking ages fro my ancient desktop to process them. So I thought I would switch to a dual-core Athlon processor and a bit more memory, along with a better graphics card. Shopping around online for these things, and trying to work out where the sweet spot was, where spending more money stopped getting much of a performance improvement, made a nice interstitial project. Then I remembered that there was something about Windows XP demanding a new licence if you rebuilt the computer around it, so I thought that I would just make sure there was enough memory to run it in an emulator, if need be. That turned out to be a nearly fatal mistake.
I ended up with a motherboard, a processor, and four Gb of memory from a company that used to be nice, cheap reliable Watford Electronics, and now calls itself Saverstore. It’s still cheap. But the order didn’t turn up for a week, and when I rang to chase it they explained, unblushingly, that the motherboard I had ordered was out of stock, whatever the site might say, and would I like an earlier version (for the same price). I wasn’t thinking straight, so I agreed, buit it didn’t matter because when it turned up, and I put it in, it was DOA. So I got something else, and slicker, from Maplins, and descended into a dark hell where nothing quite worked. It was like a maze, where you approach your goal and then find all the paths lead back to the outside, so that I would have everything working except sound, and after doing something to fix that would end up with a machine that didn’t boot at all. It was all complicated because I was saving my old drives, which use an IDE connector, which modern motherboards don’t have enough of, and so on. But the pattern of mysterious and quasi-random failures was absolutely mystifying, since everything so often almost worked. Finally, googling yet another error message led me to a man who thought he might have hardware problems. I tried the memtest program that comes with many linux installations. The screen turned a fetching shade of cyan, and then almost at once the lower half turned crimson as thousands of ewrror reports flickered by. It turns out that one of the two DIMMS I had bought was flaky. Remove it and all sorts of good things happened. Windows would boot, for one; instead of hanging at the same place every time. A 64 bit version of Ubuntu would load from the live CD. It would even play sound. And so on.
What else have I learned, apart from “always use memtest”? It is possible to swap out the motherboard and processor from under a running installation of Windows XP without reinstalling or repairing. This saves about two or three hours of frustration. The secret is an MS program called “sysprep”, on the installation CD, which can strip out all the installation’s knowledge about hardware. But it preserves all of the programs, the data, and the registry settings pertaining thereto. So when you reboot you get a mini-installation screen, which asks for the drivers for the new hardware; but when that process is finished you emerge to the same desktop with the same programs, short cuts, and everything.
It’s like being Keith Richard going into tax exile—you go to sleep in one country and wake up in another, but your flunkies have moved all the furnishings and even the ashtrays around you so you need never know what happened.