A Linux Meltdown (With a Happy Ending)

Wednesday Apr 22nd 2009 by Carla Schroder
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When the going gets tough, the tough use the command line.

My monitor gave up the ghost in the middle of the workday, naturally when I had deadlines and a half-dozens things to do right now. It turned out to be a fried video card, and I took the long way to figure it out, but I was able to keep working until I had time to troubleshoot and fix it, thanks to Linux's easy remote networking.

I came back from a break to find it in a hard lockup. Well OK, this is inconvenient, but at least with Linux a hard crash usually doesn't have bad side effects like mangled system files, unlike a certain other inexplicably popular but frail operating system.

Ctrl+Alt+Delete didn't work, so I hit the power button. When it came back up it looked like this:

It is true that my vision isn't getting any better with age, but it's not that bad. So I says to myself oh dear, I have a problem. I couldn't take time out of work to deal with it, so I moved to another computer-- my house is loaded with computers, as it should be-- and used ssh to log into the broken computer:

$ ssh -Y xena

This accomplished two things. Since I was able to log in and cruise the filesystem, it told me that whatever was broken was probably limited to the video subsystem, and the -Y switch let me use the remote PC as a graphical terminal to the sick computer. So I had easy access to all of my documents and email the easy way.

Pretty Colors! But Unhealthy

My video card is an EVGA Nvidia GeForce 7600, and I have a nice 22" Viewsonic LCD monitor. I would have cried if the monitor had failed because it is only a couple of years old, and I love it. It is crisp and easy to read, it has nice colors, and it has real contrast, brightness, and color controls, instead of those incredibly moronic profile presets that newer monitors have, like "Text" and "Images" and so on. I hate those and they must die.

I did take the time to swap out the digital video cable and try the analog cable. That made no difference, and a few minutes later the display was even worse:

Troubleshooting

My troubleshooting was rather hasty and disorganized, though it did finally lead to a solution. What can I say, there are good days and there are twitterpated days. As so many readers of my blog suggested, the first thing I should have done was boot up a live Linux CD. That is a fast way to determine if the problem is hardware or software; if the live CD boots normally then the hardware is OK. It would have saved me some time.

But no, I had to take the long way. After work I spent some quality time with it. I connected the monitor to a different PC and it worked fine. OK, so it's not the monitor. I put it back and rebooted one more time hoping it would magically heal itself, when something I should have noticed right away got my attention: the boot screen was just as mangled as when Kubuntu came up. So duh, that means the video card is at fault because no drivers are loaded yet, and I already know the monitor is fine.

So I fetched my trusty rechargeable 14.4-volt Ryobi flashlight and prepared for surgery. That is my second-favorite flashlight in the whole world. It is bright and it stands up, and it is perfect for illuminating computer innards. I poked around, trying to look wise even though I had only the dogs for company, and I noticed the case fan was not spinning. Oops. The Nvidia card faces downwards, so I reached underneath to feel its fan with my finger. Oops again. Both fans use the same power connector, so apparently it was dead. Tried a different power lead, and they fired right up. (Individual power leads can fail, though in my experience it's rare.)

I gave it some time to cool and connected the monitor again. Nope, Nvidia is fried.

I pulled the Nvidia card out and found four fried capacitors on it. Check out these two:

The photo was taken with a Canon Rebel XTi and Canon's 100mm macro lens, and hastily edited in Digikam.

I've been hearing mysterious popping noises the past few weeks and they have been driving me nuts. Just one pop, pretty loud, every couple of weeks or so. In a room full of electronics I worry about something failing, or even catching on fire, but there were never fried smells or any other indicator that something was wrong. Well now we know what that was.

Shopping For a Replacement

Back in the late 90s and early 00s there were several good brands of video cards to choose from, and they all used different chipsets, and many of them had good FOSS drivers that were included in the X window system, including 3D drivers. What a concept, customer choice. Now the market for discrete video cards is narrowed down to Nvidia and ATI.

I hate shopping for video cards because I'm tired of not having good FOSS 3D drivers for Nvidia cards, and I do not blame hardworking FOSS devs but Nvidia. So much for the tactic of pandering to closed-source hardware vendors in the hopes that someday they will feel grateful for all the money we spend on them, and open their drivers-- it's worked real well for Nvidia. (That's sarcasm for anyone who missed it.) I think the only reason ATI is even making open source noises is from desperation, since their cards have a lot of problems and Nvidia is dominating the market.

So I ordered the cheapest ATI-based card from Newegg with decent customer reviews. We shall see how it performs.

Warnings

Always turn your computer off before moving it, because you can damage a hard drive by moving it when it's running. Give yourself lots of light; I know you youngsters have eyes like eagles and will live forever, but really, it is better to have good lighting. It will save time and prevent dumb accidents. Be paranoid about static and take precautions: place components on an anti-static mat, ground yourself frequently, or even better wear a grounding strap. Computer components are surprisingly resistant to dirty power and static discharges, but taking sensible precautions is cheap insurance.

Your computer should be able to boot without a video card installed, but you'll probably have to go into the BIOS and find a setting to tell it to boot even with a missing video card.

Moral

There are many ways to do the same thing, so don't be afraid to wade in and try to figure out a problem. Computers are cheap you and can have a fully-equipped Linux spare without breaking the bank. Keep a batch of Linux live CDs handy. Have SSH set up in advance for remote administration. Check out the comments in my blog for good links and good advice. Thanks to the gang at Linuxchix for their expert assistance! The end.

Article courtesy of Linux Planet.

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