Critical Equipment in Critical Condition

March 4, 2016

One of the obvious prerequisites that exists if you want to create computer games is to have a computer. The kind of computer you need is influenced by the kind of game you want to make (and, of course, by whatever else you want to do with that computer). As a long time computer programmer, I’ve accumulated a number of different computers over the years and have a hefty box of old computer parts that for some reason I can’t bring myself to recycle. Amidst all that gear there’s only one computer that I consider critical to making my computer games, my old ASUS R1 Notebook PC. So imagine my dismay when said computer started becoming progressively more unstable (go on, imagine it).

[The R1 can change between laptop and slate configurations.]
The R1 can change between laptop and slate configurations.

The R1 is one of those laptops that allows you to swivel its screen around and fold it down over the keyboard. This turns it into a drawing slate for which there’s a hard tipped pen that can be used to draw right on the screen. And drawing is the primary use to which I put the R1. Almost all of the graphics – the backgrounds, the character animations, the interface elements – used in all of the Sleuthhounds computer games were created on the R1. Since 2008, when I first got the R1, all of the comics I’ve made for sister site have been illustrated using the R1.

Over the past year, the R1 has been slowly becoming more unstable. I’ll be merrily working away, drawing the newest comic strip or creating game graphics, and the computer will just freeze. But it doesn’t just freeze, it gets these weird, thin, coloured lines running down its display. Occasionally they blink. Most of the time when this happens a simple reboot is enough to get the computer back in working order. Sometimes it would decide it needed to scan the hard drive before starting fully, but that’s been about it.

Then there came a dark day back in mid-January where rebooting didn’t help. Oh, the computer would restart and run through its POST and then start to load up Windows. At that point it would just freeze again. And it didn’t happen just once, it happened multiple times. I was just about to concede that the R1’s number was up when finally, mercifully it managed to start up.

At that point I started thinking about getting a replacement computer to use as a drawing slate. I also thought about copying all of the important data off the R1 to my desktop computer, which I run weekly data backups on. Yep, I thought about all that, but that’s as far as it went. The R1 was working again and the urgency of the problem abated with each passing day.

Then yesterday, the unstableness reared its ugly head again. This time it was a little different. The computer froze and displayed those weird lines like it usually did, but then a couple seconds later it just completely shut itself off. That was new.

I tried restarting the computer almost a dozen times. The first half dozen or so didn’t even reach the POST (where the computer first beeps when it starts). It just sat there. After a dozen tries it finally started and reached the Windows desktop only to freeze again a few seconds later.

At that point I had grown quite alarmed. There’s a bunch of game graphics and comic strips on the R1 that I haven’t transferred to my desktop yet. I wanted to make sure I got all of that data off and to a safe place, just in case. I was worried about two possible problems though. First, restarting the computer over and over has to be stressing on the hardware including the hard drive. I didn’t want to risk a potential hard drive failure from more restarts of the computer. Second, assuming I could get the computer up and running, I didn’t know how long it would run for before freezing again. Specifically I didn’t know if it would run long enough for me to copy all the critical data off of it.

Rather than risk my data over the instabilities in the R1, I decided that it would be best to pull the hard drive, connect it to my desktop, and get all the critical data off before doing anything else. Digging out, the manual for the R1 and blowing the dust off it (remember I’ve had this computer since 2008) I tracked down where the hard drive was located on the R1.

Unfortunately, the manual didn’t indicate how to get the hard drive out. It just had the useful instructions of, “The hard disk drive is secured in a compartment. Hard disk drive upgrades are to be done by authorized service centers or dealers only.” Well, I’m not afraid of a screwdriver so forget that noise.

Before I started monkeying with the hard drive I wanted to make sure the computer was electricity free, just to be safe. I unplugged the power pack and removed the battery (the procedure for which was described in the manual). I also grounded myself to make sure I wouldn’t kick up any static electricity charges. You know, the usual precautions.

[The hard drive cover.]
The hard drive cover.

The hard drive is located behind a small plastic cover on the side of the R1. It took a little more pressure than I would have cared for, but the cover popped off without requiring any tools.

[The hard drive in its compartment.]
The hard drive in its compartment.

Behind the cover was the compartment the manual mentioned containing the hard drive. Only the very end of the hard drive was protruding. This was a piece I definitely didn’t want to apply too much pressure to. Tugging at the hard drive didn’t do anything, but then the manual did indicate the drive was secured in place.

Studying the back of the R1 showed that there were a lot of Phillips screws liberally scattered all over the place. I figured most of those screws were just to hold the case shut and hoped that I wouldn’t have to remove them all in order to get the hard drive out.

[The screws securing the hard drive.]
The screws securing the hard drive.

Fortunately, there were two screws that were in line with the hard drive compartment that looked a bit different from the majority of other screws on the computer. I removed those two screws and then tugged on the hard drive again. Success! The hard drive slid easily out of its compartment.

[The 2.5" SATA drive of the R1.]
The 2.5” SATA drive of the R1.

The R1’s hard drive is a 160 GB, 2.5” SATA drive. Pretty standard for laptops of its time. Only trouble was I didn’t have anything that would accommodate a 2.5” SATA device in any of my other computer bits. A quick run out to the local computer parts store Memory Express and I picked up Vantec’s NexStar TX SATA to USB 2 adapter. They also had a USB 3 version, but it cost over twice as much. I figured the extra speed wasn’t worth the extra coin.

[The drive secures to a connector and then tucks inside the NexStar's case for a bit of extra protection.]
The drive secures to a connector and then tucks inside the NexStar's case for a bit of extra protection.

The adapter has a simple connector that securely holds the hard drive. From there it was just a matter of plugging one end of the provided USB cable into the connector and the other two ends into my desktop. Yep, you read right. Two ends. The adapter doesn’t mention it on the box, but it needs to occupy two USB ports on the computer in order to have enough power to drive the hard drive. Fortunately, my desktop has USB ports to spare so it wasn’t an issue.

Once I plugged the drive in, Windows immediately recognized both partitions that it had. It also wanted to do a scan disk as it knew the drive hadn’t properly powered down from its last use in the R1. To be safe, I had it do its scan disk, which fortunately yielded no problems.

As I write this, the data is merrily transferring from the R1’s hard drive over to my desktop. There’s about a hundred gigs of data to copy so it’s going to take a few hours to move everything over. I’m not in a hurry though so it can take as much time as it needs. There’s always the possibility that the problem with the R1 was hard drive related and that the drive may seize up while copying. However, I suspect that’s unlikely. The unstable symptoms of the R1 aren’t ones typically associated with a defective hard drive. They seem more like the type of failure I’d expect to see from a faulty video chip or possibly from an incompatibility between the video chip and the CPU or motherboard.

So, what am I going to do about the R1 itself? Try to coax it into working a little longer? Seriously look into getting a replacement? I haven’t decided yet. For right now, I’m just enjoying the relief from ensuring the integrity of my game and comic data.