Computer Upgrade Fail

For the last few years I've had a desktop Windows PC sitting out the way that never really worked properly. That's ok, since I mostly used it for playing games and a Mac laptop's been pretty good for everything else. I have, from time to time, wanted something that booted up first time and didn't randomly crash.

A while ago, I tried swapping the motherboard and graphics card. That didn't work. More recently, I had a more serious attempt. Swapping everything else around, I think the only things staying constant were CPU and power supply. It still crashed. It was all getting a bit creaky with age, so I decided: Time to upgrade.

This time, it would all be good and working, and mystery brokenness and hassle would be behind me.

My choice is probably a bit silly, but all I want is a fairly low-end PC for playing oldish games, so I went for one of these funny AMD CPUs with a built-in GPU. I didn't even know they did such things a few weeks ago. I bought an AMD A10 7850K, and stuck it on a Gigabyte GA-F2A88X-D3H motherboard.

The only problem turned out to be that the motherboard only supports that CPU if you upgrade the BIOS. However, without a CPU that works on it, you can't upgrade the BIOS. So, I had to buy the cheapest, oldest compatible CPU in order to perform the BIOS upgrade.

All done? No. The BIOS can only be downloaded as a self-extracting archive. Which is nice, unless you don't have a Windows PC to extract the archive. Fortunately, Stuffit will do the job on a Mac.

All done? No. The BIOS can upgrade itself from a flash drive containing the BIOS except for the upgrade I needed. That requires you to run the upgrade from an executable. I ended up putting the BIOS, the upgrader and freedos on a USB stick. Getting it all bootable nicely and the rest of it, given I was using a Mac, was more pain than was really warranted.

All done? No. Once the machine was flashed with a BIOS that allowed me to use the CPU I bought, it was time to install the OS. I had a DVD image of the OS I wanted to install, but I have no DVD burner. USB stick will be fine, won't it?

At this stage I faffed a lot, with various different configurations, and learnt a fair amount about EFI. Finally, I read this post. It all finally became clear: Modern BIOSes don't boot vanilla ISO images from USB drives.

That's right, despite having all the code to boot CDs directly, and knowing about all different emulation schemes when booting from a USB drive, and having the resources to store a fancy graphics front-end, BIOSes don't actually bother to join the dots and do El Torito booting of USB drives. Any time you actually have a DVD image and boot it off USB, it's clever tricks in the image. Grrrr.

So, after some manual hack attempts, I used unetbootin (available for MacOS - phew) to convert the ISO into a USB-bootable form. Then I hacked it some more, as it wasn't quite working right. And... it finally chain booted through to the OS installer, which promptly fell over, being not quite able to find the disk as it expected.

At this point, I gave up. PhD in computer science or no, at some point you need to know when to cut your losses. This wasn't fun any more, and I just want a working PC. I've bought myself a DVD burner - they're dirt-cheap now - and am waiting for it to arrive. I'm sure there shall be further tales of woe, as it all fails to work for no adequately explained reason.

Posted 2014-04-08.