The Thing That Broke

 By Shamus Dec 18, 2012 133 comments

splash_computer_trash.jpg

It was the strangest thing. My computer would just lock up. Now, locking up isn’t an exotic problem by any stretch, but I’ve never had a machine lock up in this way. It begins with me alt-tabbing over to a window I haven’t used in a while, and the window just flat-out refuses to wake back up. Other than the one zonked window, everything seems fine, but the machine is actually in a death spiral now and there’s nothing I can do to save it. I can wait, or I can click on another window, or hit alt-Tab again. It doesn’t matter. In about ten seconds the mouse cursor will stop moving, and few seconds later the sound will begin stuttering and the machine will be borked.

Diagnosis

I can use the computer for hours without problems. I can even play games, which taxes basically every part of the machine. No problem. But if I walk away for twenty minutes it will be dead when I get back. Note that this is the inverse of how problems usually manifest. Usually the machine will fail when it’s being pushed, not when it’s idle.

Once the machine dies, it seems to recover incrementally. The first boot attempt will stall while the BIOS is still getting things going. Then I reboot again and I’ll get to the boot loader where I can pick which operating system to use. (Windows 7 or Ubuntu, the latter being installed mostly as a novelty.) If I boot into Win 7, then it will stall on the black logo screen. I’ll reboot again and I’ll get all the way to the blue logo screen, or perhaps get a brief glimpse of the desktop before it dies again. But after N attempts, it boots fine and the machine seems normal again. Once I successfully boot, the machine acts like nothing was wrong.

This problem leads to weeks of bafflement and confusion. It’s a problem with Win 7! My graphics card is overheating! The power supply is dying! The memory is going bad! I’ve seen a lot of sick machines in my day, but I’ve never seen one exhibit these symptoms in this pattern. I scan the hard drive, I test the memory, I re-install drivers. Everything seems fine. I’d blame Windows 7 (just because Ubuntu seems to work and I’m out of hardware to blame) but this doesn’t feel like a software problem.

There really is no upper limit on the number of random tests and guesses you can make, so usually I noodle around until I get bored with the problem and go back to ignoring it. At some point I begin to suspect the machine is simply haunted.

broken_monitor.jpg

The Cause Revealed

On Saturday morning I get up to find the machine won’t start at all. According to Win 7, files are “missing”. Booting into Ubuntu, I see a couple of hard drives are gone.

Ah! Now I get it.

Okay, this machine is a Frankenstein’s monster of new and old parts. When I got the machine, I stuck an old hard drive into it. The machine began with a 2TB SATA HD, but I dropped in an IDE drive from the previous machine. The IDE drive is naturally slower and smaller, but more space is always good and putting the drive into the machine was easier than trying to copy the 500GB of data it contained.

So, my machine has 3 drives:

HD1: The big fast drive that came with the machine
HD2: A modestly-sized IDE drive
HD3: DVD drive

However, BOTH hard drives are split into two different logical drives, purely for organizational purposes. When I installed Windows 7, I put it onto HD#2. It then proceeded to re-letter all the drives so that it would still appear on C:. So my drive list was something like:

C: First partition of HD #2. This was JUST Windows 7.
D: First partition of HD#1. This was where Ubuntu and the Win7 boot loader lived. This is where I kept all my projects. (Coding, comics, stuff for the website. Anything that might be called work with a straight face.)
E: Second partition of HD#1. My Games drive, which is basically “Steam”, plus a few other things.
F: Second partition of HD#2. My archives.
G: The DVD drive.

I forgot all about this, to the point where I couldn’t remember how many physical drives I had in the machine, or how they were divided up. I’d totally forgotten that Windows 7 had shuffled all the drive letters around like this.

You might think it’s sort of daft to forget how my machine is mapped out, but keep in mind I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ve rebuilt, bought, and re-purposed so many machines over the years that after a while it all starts to blur together.

Now that the thing has failed, I’ve gone over the symptoms in my head and this is what I’ve come up with: The drive was going to sleep, and then not waking up again. Drives spin down after some period of inactivity, and this one was spinning down and staying down. This explains the strange behavior where the problem only manifested when the machine was idle. While I was playing (say) Borderlands 2, the game was auto-saving every couple of minutes or so. This kept the drive awake. Then I’d walk away for N minutes, and the drive would quit. If I was reading a webpage, this problem might not manifest immediately. I might come back and continue reading, and the dead drive wouldn’t become a problem until I tried to access something that had been paged out of memory. At that point the OS itself would die, thus preventing me from seeing that a drive had vanished.

The drive that was disappearing was the one where Windows 7 lived, so the OS itself would die without even managing a “OH MY GOODNESS THE C: DRIVE IS GONE AND THE WORLD IS ENDING HEEEEELP!” popup to let me know what went wrong.

I didn’t suspect this was a hard drive problem because I’ve had HD problems in the past, and they never looked like this. Normally my HD problems take one of two forms:

  1. Gradually accumulating read/write errors. Bad sectors and data corruption alert you to the problem before the drive fails.
  2. Instant and total hardware death.

This intermittent drive availability and screwy boot-up problems (still not sure of the mechanics of how that worked) confused me and prevented me from seeing the root cause. All I could see was the triggers, and I couldn’t make sense of them.

broken_cards.jpg

The Aftermath

So it’s Saturday. My plan was to spend the day playing Far Cry 3. Now the machine is dead. Hm. What did I lose? Let’s go over the important stuff:

  1. My novel should be fine. I’m pretty sure it’s saved to Google drive. Also, I sent a copy to my wife the last time I worked on it.
  2. I lost my Windows 7 install. Big deal. Easily replaced. Installing the OS to its own drive is an excellent policy and one I probably should have adopted ages ago.
  3. I lost all of my save game data that end up saved in /Documents and Settings/Username/User’s Data Ghetto/, after which the files could be in any one of a thousand places because it’s chaos down in there. Some games are stored under /Application Data/Gamename. Others are in /Games/Gamename, or /Publisher/Gamename, or /Savegames/Gamename, or /GFWL/Gamename, or just /Gamename. I don’t bother backing that stuff up because it’s such an incomprehensible mess. It’s annoying to lose this stuff, but it’s not a huge deal and I’d rather lose my save games every couple of years than waste my life trying to make and restore proper backups in this sea of disorganized data. I’d rather alphabetize the Window’s registry. Some of this stuff might end up in the Steam cloud, and I’m not too worried about the rest.

    Moreover, I was between games. I’d just finished Borderlands 2 and was about to begin Far Cry 3. I also lost my Minecraft worlds, but since I play on hardcore I’m used to throwing worlds away and starting new ones all the time.

  4. The projects drive is fine. Moreover, I do try to keep that thing backed up. In any case, anything really valuable is under source control and stored remotely.
  5. I lost my archives. Hm.

That last one is… kind of a relief. See, my archives were OLD. The contents of that directory go back more than a decade. Desktop wall papers, MP3 files, old game footage, the source files for Windows Movie Maker projects, and rare game mods and patches that used to be hard to find but are now trivial. (For example, the intro movie to System Shock. Back in the day it took AGES to find that sucker and even longer to download it. Now I can find it on YouTube faster than I can find it on my own hard drive.)

I don’t even know what else was in the archives. I know they were too big to reasonably back up to DVD’s. The thing is, I never used any of it. Ever. I saved stuff in there all the time, but I never went back for it. When I download a new desktop wallpaper, I don’t look in the archives. I searched the net and then dropped the new file into the archives. (A lot of the wallpapers were 1024×768, relics from the days when I used a 4:3 monitor.) I’ve been dragging those files around for years, simply because it was too much trouble to dig through them and see what was still relevant.

I guess I lost some of my MP3′s. Most of them were ripped from CD’s I own, and I can just rip them again. The rest I bought from eMusic. Eh. I probably should feel bad about losing music I bought, but… I haven’t listened to any of that stuff in over two years, and in fact I can’t even think of a single track that I’ll miss. I was mostly using emusic as a way to discover new music, and I have Pandora, Spottify, and Grooveshark for that now.

So, this hard drive failure didn’t really destroy anything valuable. It only managed to delete a bunch of files I didn’t need but didn’t have the guts to erase. The archives were actually kind of a burden. At hundreds of gigabytes, they were too big to back up in a meaningful way. They were just this giant glob of useless crap that I had to shuffle around and worry about from time to time.

Recovery

I didn’t lose any important data. However, I did lose a drive. I don’t want to put Windows 7 on the same drive as my games, and I don’t have enough room on the projects drive. If I want to fix this I’ll need to boot into Ubuntu and spend a few hours clearing space and moving files so that the ginormous Windows 7 can fit.

I’ve been really happy with Windows 7 so far. It really is a great OS. Aside from the way they deprecated / hid the quicklaunch bar, it’s basically everything I loved about XP and nothing I hated about Vista. But it is going to be a chore to get it rolling again.

For some reason, I decide to install Linux. My wife just jumped from Ubuntu to Mint, and my 11 year old son just moved from Vista to Linux Mint, and both of them are really happy with it. I’m going to give it a try. Installing Linux only takes a couple of minutes and if it doesn’t work out I can always re-install Win 7.

I’ll let you know how the Linux adventure is going later in the week.


A Hundred!2013There are 133 comments here. I really hope you like reading.


  1. Neko says:

    I wish you all the best in your linuxy journey, and hope that your hardware troubles are fixed. But remember: Just because you identified what seems to be the problem doesn’t mean the machine is not haunted.

    At my house, I have a theory that all the devices around me obey some sort of Law of Conservation of Brokeness. Seriously, I fix the router problem and my desktop will have power supply issues, fix that and my laptop won’t connect to the wifi anymore, and so on. I might have to start deliberately sacrificing technology in order to keep things running.

    • Halceon says:

      I can sell you my old broken laptop for cheap. Its mere presence should keep your other tech from misbehaving for at least 3 months, though.

      • Lazlo says:

        I had a friend who worked on an aircraft carrier. One plane on the carrier ended up being the repository for all parts that, while not actually broken, didn’t entirely always work right either. Rules required that it spend some time in the air each month, and the pilot who drew the short straw would take it out for the minimum required flight each month.

        For some reason, it was sitting out on the deck during a cold, windy, icy storm. He and some other crew watched it as it started to shift in the wind, and eventually slid across the icy surface and off into the Bering Sea.

        “What a shame” someone said half-heartedly, and then they all went back to work.

        • Adam says:

          At first I was all “That’s hilarious!”

          Then I was all “What a waste of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars!”

          But then I was like “Still hilarious!”

        • RTBones says:

          The aircraft in general is likely the ‘hangar queen’ of the squadron, if not the boat. Yes, she flew, but spent more time in the shop than out of it. Its the plane that, while there is nothing ‘specifically’ wrong – something definitely aint right with it, and nobody can figure out exactly what it is.

          If they were in a windy icy storm – there was probably very little they COULD have done to save her. Depending on the sea state, the deck could have been pitching – and even moderate chop, when its icy, is extremely dangerous. Bad as it sounds, they did the right thing based on your description.

          And Wedge is right – depending on what type of aircraft it was, its millions.

        • SKD says:

          Considering I spent a long five years stationed on a carrier I am going to call bull$%^& on that story. It is amusing, but a complete fabrication. All aircraft on any naval vessel are kept chained to the deck at all times except when they are being moved or prepped for launch. The chains come off right before they start to move them and go on as soon as they are parked and an unchained aircraft has at least one person in the cockpit. In rough seas they would have been double chained.

          As for being a repository for broken parts… that part may be true but it would not have been put into the air if there was any doubt about its ability to launch, fly and be captured.

    • noahpocalypse says:

      That law applies to everything my family does, except to cars and computers. On the bright side, we have two working cars, maybe a desktop working, like 4 laptops, and 2 iPads (one for free from my school). On the down side, we have two broken cars and a motorcycle, one of the working cars has no top (it’s a really old Jeep) so it’s not much good this time of year, probably 5 broken laptops, two of the laptops are ancient Netbooks running Windows 8 Starter Edition on 1GHz and 1 GB of RAM, and at least 8 borked desktop machines. To clarify, this is for a family of seven, two college-age, one high school, the other two elementary (one year, we had five kids attending five different schools, running the gamut from preschool through college).

      Not to mention the pile of parts that probably weighs as much as I do. (Literally. It’s in a pile. Motherboards, sound cards, graphics, networking, various power supplies, so many RAM sticks, and more power supplies for anything from a portable DVD player to a keyboard.) Obviously the dad is a hoarder programmer.

      Good times, good times.

  2. Primogenitor says:

    I would be interested in reading a web log of your experiences trying to get Steam working on Linux – as your coming from a technically competent but Linux inexperienced point-of-view, rather than the “Linux Pro” POV that many Linux Steam people have.

    • X2-Eliah says:

      Yeah, seconded. I’m also wondering how the whole gaming stuff – especially with games that are *not* linux-versioned indies – works for those not accustomed to Linux as such.

    • Groboclown says:

      So, I guess a comment like, “Oh, once I used the right Layman package in Gentoo, Steam ran fine,” isn’t what you’re looking for

    • Anorak says:

      I was running Linux in ARCH, natively. And it was glorious. Now, I love arch, and I use it for projects and for screwing around, and for learning. But it lives on my desktop. For my laptop I use xubuntu, because it’s so much easier to use and I use my laptop “casually”. I can’t use Arch casually yet. Hell, X doesn’t even start automatically (on purpose)

      I got invited to the Steam linux beta, but I’ve been abroad for work since I got invited :( Oh – and my “legacy” ATI card (Radeon 4850 HD) has such awful linux drivers that it won’t run TF2 anyway.)

  3. What is your current backup strategy?

    I tend to take a tiered approach, with the most critical things getting more serious attention:
    Primary location only:
    Games, ripped movies, saved games

    Primary and local external backup:
    Software, non-critical documents

    Primary, local backup, cloud backup:
    Critical and inprogress documents, work portfolio, music

    For primary storage, everything is on a separate hard drive than my OS. For local backup, I use an attached Seagate external hard drive. For cloud backup, I use a combination of Dropbox, Amazon Cloud Storage, and iTunes Match.

    • We do have a 500 gig internal but used externally hard drive that we back up to at least once a year (me more often because I use Linux and do a full dump of my home directory every 3 months, him every time things start to die and he gets nervous.) Not sure what Shamus does otherwise. I am in charge of family photos and music so I keep those backed up both on the drive and online (including his archives drive music so we do have that).

  4. Zagzag says:

    Well, this was certainly an interesting read. I’m glad you have things at least partially sorted.

  5. Markus says:

    Installing your OS to the older, slower drive was not probably that good idea to begin with since that’s the stuff you’ll be needing, loading, paging out, needing again, loading again… Those extra milliseconds do add up as everyone who’s ever upgraded to SSD can attest to.

    I can totally relate to your other points though, I think I have two 320 GB drives I originally built my current computer with (only other survivors are the PSU and case), a 1 TB drive for storage and a 160GB Intel SSD. First of the 320 GB drives used to be my OS drive, and now acts as a kinda backup from the point when I bought the SSD. The second 320 GB is my older photos and The Archive. 1 TB is newer photos, videos, Steam, ISO images of software I’ll never need again etc. The SSD houses Windows and my current timesink (of two years): World of Tanks.
    In the end the two oldest drives are completely superfluous.

  6. LegendaryTeeth says:

    Go buy a SSD on Boxing Day and use that for your OS install. It is amazing and you will not regret it.

    • Vagrant says:

      what is boxing day?

    • RTBones says:

      Boxing Day…LOL. Not a holiday widely celebrated in the US. Boxing Day is the day after Christmas. It was the day servants would get gifts from their employers. In the UK, its very much like the day after Thanksgiving from a shopping perspective.

      The SSD – drives that are big enough for just the OS have come down in price a lot. It *does* make a world of difference.

    • Tetracyclic says:

      I could not agree more. In 15 years of upgrading computers I don’t think any other single upgrade has made such a significant impact on my day-to-day computing. I got an Intel 550 240GB (£189.29 on Amazon UK, $244.99 on Amazon US) and found it well worth the cost. 120GB is $135.63 and should be more than enough for an OS.

      • ima420r says:

        I paid $100 for a 120 gig ssd about a year ago and I used it just for my OS with no regrets. I have a 2 terabyte drive for all other installs (games, utilities, etc) and 2x 2 terabyte drives on my home network for backups and media files to share amongst the media devices in the house (andorid tablet and phones, xboxes, ps3, ipad my daughter gets from school, etc).

  7. skeeto says:

    You keep all of your projects under source control but not your novel?

  8. Rosseloh says:

    For the future, if you’re planning on keeping a Linux partition around even on a primarily windows box:

    Download the “smartmontools” package, then if you think you might be having hard drive problems (which technically could be any time you have weird issues), run “sudo smartctl -l error /dev/sd{$}” where {$} is the drive in question (not perfectly sure how to match drives with devices apart from trial and error, but you can see all of them with “ls /dev/sd*”). This will show you how many errors the drive has taken note of in its lifetime; this number doesn’t always mean something, but if it’s over 400 or 500 you may have issues with the hard drive. There are also smartctl commands for running the long and short SMART tests on the drive.

    I actually have a couple of really simple bash scripts that “automate” the smartctl commands, and give them a countdown timer, if you’re interested. We use them all the time at work, if our standard diagnostic software can’t see the drive for some reason.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      May I suggest an easier route?
      I have a bootable USB stick with the Parted Magic distro on it.

      All the tools* you need to make an in-depth analysis of hard drives, (compressed) backups of entire partitions, repair, restore or setup partitions and RAID compounds, scan for viruses … whatever. Only flash doesn’t work, but that’s acceptable:
      http://partedmagic.com

      Also, I am very very keen on knowing Shamus’ thoughts about Linux.

      *edit: most of them with a graphical user interface, so you don’t have to memorize commandline stuff — although that’s there, too, of course.

      • I have used partedmagic (thanks to a grub installer issue I ran into a while back.)

        So far I can say Shamus is as adverse to using Terminal as I am though unlike him I come by it naturally– I always hated using Dos and couldn’t remember the commands back when that was the only way you could do things. At least he is naturally good at dealing with terminal.

        • Neko says:

          Yeah, it’s always easier to find information on the commandline tools since text is so friendly to explanations (as opposed to making a handful of dialog screenshots which might be obsolete the next time the UI gets changed).

          For what it’s worth, the Gnome “Disks” utility has an easy way to browse S.M.A.R.T. hard disk information.

      • Rosseloh says:

        That includes smartctl, testdisk and a lot more. Good to know, thanks.

    • Mike says:

      To save you the trouble writing all these scripts, there’s a “smartd” monitoring daemon included in the very same package.

      Just drop somethink like this to /etc/smartd.conf and enable it, if necessary (not so for, notably, debian derivatives, like ubuntu):

      /dev/sda -d ata -a -W 0,0,55\
      -s (S/../../[246]/01|L/../(0[1-7]|1[1-7]|2[1-7])/7/05|O/../0[1-7]/1/05)\
      -M diminishing -m your@mail.for.reports.com

      -W there for temperature control (>55 celsius – report).
      -a for various anomalies.
      -s is a regexp for various tests’ (S-short, L-long) timestamps.

      There’s, of course, tons of other things you can configure it to do (e.g. run a script to issue desktop notification along with the mail).

      That said, modern linux desktop (well, at least fedora, since ubuntu goes mostly it’s own way) use udisks2 daemon, which should report (and actually kinda scream about) any of these anomalies through various desktop notification mechanisms.

  9. Knut says:

    I heard Valve will start the open beta for Steam on Linux this week. Just in time for you. As a participant in the colsed one, I can say it’s looking really solid so far.

  10. Vegedus says:

    “I don’t want to put Windows 7 on the same drive as my games”.

    Any particular reasoning for this? Does one endanger the other or something?

    • Zukhramm says:

      Well, it’s always hand to to be able to switch, reinstall, destroy ir di whatever with your OS without affecting your non-OS stuff.

      • Zak McKracken says:

        Is Windows able to use games that were installed with a different incarnation?
        Don’t many games install some libraries in the windows/System/ folder, along with a bunch of registry entries?
        I always thought it was inviting trouble to try and use a game that has just been copied over from another installation of Windows and not properly installed.

        • 4th Dimension says:

          He’s using Steam to install those games, so I guess, registry shouldnt be a problem.

        • Duffy says:

          Yes. I’ve moved my ‘Game’ drive across 3 PCs with 3 different versions of Windows. Steam get’s a little angry but starts running some tools that fixes it’s complaints. A few older games will complain due to a missing registry but it looks like most newer games don’t have any issues.

          • X2-Eliah says:

            Yeah, this. I literally had a forced system change not long ago (new comp arrived yesterday) – I had salvaged the steam/game hdd from the old one and just plugged it into the new system.. All it took was to launch steam once and it all worked (steam had some repair-processes going for a wee bit, and games when launched again do that “first time setup” thing, but other thna that – works!).

            It really is very handy.

            Origin games, however… nope. wouldn’t run. Origin is on the disk, the game isntalls are on the disk, origin doesn’t recognize/remember them, and the games don’t launch due to “no origin installed”. Apparently it has some larger dependencies on C:\something than steam has.

        • Deadfast says:

          The only things games install into system32 are VC++ Redistributables and DirectX. One possible problem could be the inability to patch the game due to missing registry entries telling it where the installation directory is.

    • X2-Eliah says:

      Could also be performance. If you are gaming off of hdd1 and using OS off of hdd2, then they do not contend over the read/write head’s location and presence. Then again, that doesn’t matter if it s just a logical division.

  11. Kevin says:

    Eureka! This just clued me in to the problem my mom was having with her computer. It’s the hard drive! I just helped her set up a new computer and threw the old HD into the new one to transfer any old files she wants to keep. I noticed the old drive was really loud and slow to access, so I figured it was on the way out. It didn’t click till now that it was probably the cause of the problems she was having before.

    Thanks for the post.

  12. Conlaen says:

    I can only add to what other people have said. Get an SSD for your OS drive.

    I still haven’t replaced mine either, but my girlfriend recently got herself a new PC and put an SSD in it and the difference between her PC and mine in how fast Windows 7 boots is remarkable.

  13. fawstoar says:

    Borderlands 2 saves should be stored in the Steam cloud as of a recent-ish update. The same probably goes for a few other relatively recent releases. In case you want to pick up where you left off.

    I have to agree Windows 7 is a great OS. I wish Microsoft had focused more on compatibility and optimization rather than adding more useless features to the interface in some places, as my (insane) OSX-affiliated (completely bonkers what in the world are you doing) friend cannot stand its cluttered UI and slow boot times, as well as the wild goose chases one must embark on to get many (er, most) PC games to work.

    • 4th Dimension says:

      Windows 7 has slow boot time, and is not compatible?!!? What OS are you using. It definitely doesn’t sound like 7

      • McNutcase says:

        Slow boot times… maybe. If it’s on a slow drive. I honestly don’t know what OSX boot times are like.

        Compatability? Can be a BIG problem for older games. New stuff is slicker than a slug’s belly, but anything from around the turn of the century or older is going to have the potential for nightmares since recent versions of Windows, especially the now more common 64-bit releases, don’t have a lot of the hooks and hacks those games relied on.

        Of course, games that old for Macs are going to be completely hosed, thanks to OSX destroying a LOT of backwards compatability and the Intel switch taking care of the rest…

        • fawstoar says:

          True, I didn’t factor in HD speed. Windows is still extremely sluggish in comparison to newer OSX/Linux variants. As for compatibility, I’m mostly talking about old games. Solutions are almost always obscure and hard to find.

  14. Zak McKracken says:

    About savegames: Pretty much all software under Linux will save it’s user specific data (preferences, savegames, etc.) in the user directory (like /home/username/.gamename/), and since /home/username/ also contains most of your other personal data, as long as you don’t put it somewhere else on purpose, it will not be lost of the system partition or the one with all the software has a problem.

    Actually, I thought that windows was working in a similar way since XP already. Shouldn’t the savegemes be under /Documents and Settings/Username/ somewhere? At least with Linux, I’ve just copy my user directory over to a new machine, and pretty much everything works right away, including all my custom settings for the desktop environment, wallpapers… and so on.

    • Deadfast says:

      You’re correct, but the pertinent word is somewhere. Unless you’re also wrong and the game has saves in its installation directory.

    • Trithne says:

      In Windows they SHOULD BE /Users/[Username]/Saved Games/[Game name]. This is a Microsoft standard that if you’re developing a game for the windows platform, you really should adhere to. It’s not very commonly used, which is a right pain because it’s a very sensible place for it.

      Where they are is usually one of:
      /Users/[Username]/My Documents/My Games/[Game name] (The only acceptable alternative)
      /Users/[Username]/My Documents/[Game name] (Annoying as hell)
      /Users/[Username]/AppData/Roaming/[Game name] (Why?!)
      %Installdir% (Usually the case with old games, but newer games do this too because terrible programming. Since default install directories are still %ProgramFiles%, You Should Not Do This)

      Standardising save locations would be a godsend, but will never happen.

      • Lame Duck says:

        Yeah, my “My Documents” became such a save data clusterfuck that I eventually just abandoned it and moved all my documents/music/pictures etc. to a folder on my desktop called “My Actual Documents”.

      • X2-Eliah says:

        Random comment on this: I HATE that system, and would very much prefer if saves went into the game dir. I have an SSD for the OS drive, and I really do not want savefiles clogging it up and wearing out the read/write cycles. Especially in games like Skyrim, where the savefile size balloons (was even worse in the first Witcher – at one point I had some 3 gigs of just savefiles) and where I tend to quicksave/autosave/save a whole lot.. In skyrim it can be as often as every 5 minutes for a quicksave. I’d much rather send that to my hdd than my ssd, but noooooooo cannot change savefile directories. Bugger that.

        • Shamus says:

          Agreed. My Documents is such a mess and all kinds of programs spew stuff in there that isn’t cleaned up after uninstall. It would be better if programs each stuck to the directory I give them, and not go sprawling all over the machine. They put stuff in their own dirs, in My Documents, in the Windows directory*, and in the registry. It’s horrible.

          * True story bro: By default, if you use the built-in API calls to manage ini files and you don’t specify a directory, Windows will just dump the ini file into /Windows. Not in the current working directory, or where the EXE lives. No, the Windows directory. You have to go out of your way to prevent this. Grrr.

          • Deadfast says:

            Sure, you could keep on saving stuff into the installation directory as used to be the practice for a very long time. That would however require the game to be run with administrative privileges now that Windows has finally decided that should be a thing.

          • X2-Eliah says:

            Yeah.. Not just games, any program can do this. I’ve had a LOT of installers dump random ini files in the windows dir, and I have no clue what program they even correspond to. I half-think that even 3dsMax does this.

          • Rick C says:

            You can actually move My Documents so that it’s off your SSD. (How to do it varies a bit from version to version, but it’s easy to find by searching “move my documents windows whaterver”).

            ETA: I see someone beat me to it.

        • krellen says:

          Something you CAN do, however, is reassign My Documents to another drive.

          Here’s a handy reference someone else wrote on how to do that.

          • X2-Eliah says:

            Thanks, that actually solves my concerns.

          • Falcon02 says:

            Though at least for the new XCOM something like this seemed to break the saves for a lot of people. Some people had complaints about XCOM reporting corrupted saves, and all in all not allowing people to save or load their saved games. This seemed to be fixed by people restoring the default My Documents location.

            Though perhaps that issue was slightly different from what you’re proposing. But in the end it’s another example of bad/inflexible programing in the game’s management of saves.

        • Ranneko says:

          I disagree, user data like saves games should go into the user folder, so that if you have multiple users, you don’t run into problems where your saves and theirs get mixed up.

          They should have a good and consistent location system, but they shouldn’t be saving into their own directory. Heck, that kind of behaviour requires admin privileges these days, not something I want to hand over to every game I run.

          • X2-Eliah says:

            Or you could not install games into program files.

            Did all of you whining about admin priviliges missed the point where I explicitly said that the game is on one drive, and the OS is on another? I don’t think admin privs matter in this case anymore, and in this case, I really want the game to stick to the drive I assigned it, at least, and not reach in a completely different drive altogether. If the game is in D:/games/xyz, then at the very generousest, I want it to stay within D:/. I DO NOT want it to move from D:/… to C:/… anything.

            • Pete says:

              And of course everyone’s preferred solution could easily be provided for with a single text field and perhaps a tick box for “use default”.

              But hey, users are stupid, right?

            • Deadfast says:

              Me and my “whining” didn’t miss anything. Fact is most people install games and applications using the Next-I Accept-Next-Next-OK method, thereby installing the game to Program Files. These are also the same people who benefit from the extra layer of protection the most.

              If you think games are bad you should try installing Visual Studio on a different drive. You tell everything to install on D: and then watch in awe as 1GB of some rogue data still wants on C:.

            • Ranneko says:

              I missed nothing. User data should go into the user folder unless it is explicitly decided to be placed elsewhere. Where the program is installed and running is irrelevant.

              Similarly, if I save my user folder, I should thus also save all my user data unless I have made an explicit choice elsewhere.

              • X2-Eliah says:

                When I tell the installer “I want game X to go in this here circle -> 0″, then that means I want *everything from X to go inside that circle*, and not “90% of X go here, 5% of X go there, 4% of X go there and 1% is somewhere on the cloud”.

                That’s why the installer asks where to install the game. I give it a target location, and I expect it to honor that instruction.

                If you want user-separation in saves, have it be gamedir/saves/username1/savefile.

    • Blastinburn says:

      There are programs out there that make managing save data easier such as Game Save Manager. There is an ever-growing database of save game locations which it has access to, so it knows where most save data is by default, and if it doesn’t then you can point it to the save data manually (and optionally contribute to the database). It can then create a symbolic link which will redirect any files put into that folder to another folder of your choosing automatically. (the actual folder is wherever you put it, windows just thinks the folder is in its original location) Game Save Manager even interfaces with dropbox and other cloud-syncing programs to put the save data in their directory, so you have automatic and free cloud saves for every game, not just steam cloud.

  15. Blitztiger says:

    Good call on going with Mint. It is basically Ubuntu without the weird UI decision they made and the leaning tower of cards it became (Unity on top of Compiz on top of GNOME 2). I’ve been running linux exclusively on my (non-Mac) laptops for a while, and used to use Ubuntu. Then after they went with the Unity stuff I switched to straight Debian, which I abandoned for Mint (Debian Edition) entirely so I can browse the internet in Firefox as I’ve grown accustomed to.

    When I read your description of your issues I immediately thought it was a hard drive issue, but I have a LONG history of dealing with really weird issues on computers. Technology dies around me. I once managed to kill the hard drive CABLE in a MacBook, though that took about 6 months for me to figure out mostly due to a lack of spares to try to fix it with. About a month after I got that fixed, the power button stopped working, which necessitated replacing the entire keyboard (which entailed about 50 incredibly tiny screws and completely disassembling the laptop). After that the processor permanently throttled down its clock speed regardless of temperature. Then it stopped turning on again. More or less threw in the towel there. Switched to my old Dell until I spilled an entire cup of iced tea into it. Now I’m on my dad’s old Dell. I’m just glad I’ve accumulated a stockpile of laptops and desktop parts of various levels of brokenness to fall back on as things fall apart around me…

    • Unity killed Ubuntu for me. Nearly slowed my computer to a halt with the latest changes. Could barely open websites. The computer I am on can barely run XP so Uniuty in the latest version of Ubuntu just took this thing down. Mint is fast and lovely.

      • Rick C says:

        “The computer I am on can barely run XP”

        Notwithstanding your next comment about running Mint fine, why not invest a little bit in an upgrade? If you’re on a laptop obviously that’s not an issue, but for an example, I just upgraded my CPU/Motherboard/RAM recently for about $200 from a 2.1 GHz Core 2 Duo to a 3.6GHz A8-5600K and it made a *huge* difference in just about everything.

        Using a slow computer is horrible, so much so that the last three places I have worked, I’ve performed stealth upgrades on.

      • Esteis says:

        Which version of Mint do you use, with regards to the window manager? As I understand it there’s Cinnamon (Gnome 3 configured sanely), MATE (Gnome 2 forked and kept up-to-date), and Xfce, and I’ve heard good good things about all three. Which one did you pick?

        • Shamus says:

          I’m using Cinnamon, she’s using MATE.

        • Feltenix says:

          Are you using 64bit or 32bit linux? As you are a gamer, you may find that it becomes necessary to build wine from the git repository. If you do need to and you run 64bit; setup a 32bit chroot it will save a ton of headaches and time. I don’t recommend you try using apt’s multiarch stuff as it isn’t quite there yet. I had to do that recently and the 32bit chroot was the fastest and safest way to do it.

      • Wedge says:

        It’s worse than that; even if you do have a computer that can run Unity, it’s still an incredibly clunky, hard to use interface. Fortunately I figured out I could still install the old Gnome shell in Ubuntu, so that’s what I use now.

      • Anorak says:

        I like Mint but found it to be too slow on my ancient laptop. Sticking with xubuntu, because I love xfce4.

      • Moridin says:

        Really? On my old computer that could barely use XP like yours, Mint USED to be fast and lovely. Then I upgraded from 7 to 11 and everything slowed to crawl. Luckily I’ve gotten a new computer since then, but I’ve been having driver problems with Linux and my graphics card.

    • silver Harloe says:

      So if we’re not talking desktop here, but a server in a room hundreds of miles away (and, no, I won’t be remoting X-windows, thankyouverymuch), so you’re 100% ssh-terminal based interface:
      any appreciable reason to favor flavors other than Ubuntu?

      • Zukhramm says:

        Any particular reasons to favor Ubuntu in the first place? Without worrying about drivers for graphics and wireless internet drivers and without using a desktop environment, did you not just lose the majority of the reason to use Ubuntu in the first place?

        • silver Harloe says:

          I really like aptitude more than rpm? I am probably asking a dumb question based on lack of knowledge of the different flavors and their qualities. I generally build systems based on drop-downs at Rackspace, and everything in Ubuntu seems to be better organized than in my previous experience, using old Red Hat versions. (In fairness, there is also a difference of years: I last used RHELx in 2007 or 8)

          Actually, my question is probably dumb because the answer is probably: “the best system is the one you’re most used to”

  16. Factoid says:

    I’m in IT. When something weird and undefinable is happening to a computer it is almost always one of two things: power supply or hard drive.

    At first reading your post I was thinking “must be the power supply if it’s happening when he walks away”. I’ve seen power supplies that operate just fine when they’re working hard, but crap out at idle voltage, and vice versa.

    But then you said you’d checked it, so next on my list was definitely hard drive.

    If you’re interested at all, there’s probably some tools I could recommend that might be able to recover your data. The old freezer trick might get it spinning long enough to get up to speed and back up your savegames or whatever else you were interested in saving.

  17. Vagrant says:

    I love linux mint and am pleasantly surprised to see you using it. I hope it does everything you need it to.

  18. Volfram says:

    This post interested me, because I’d been having almost EXACTLY these problems with my work laptop. I’d be doing something, usually a build, then I’d go to my browser or the build window, and suddenly get a cascading lock-up that would end in a hard reboot. Never had the problems on restart that you were having, though, and my work laptop only had one physical drive.

    Then I got to the diagnosis, where you explained that stuff was getting paged out onto the dead hard drive, and I remembered.

    My work laptop had an SSD. Java builds using Maven are both CPU and memory-intensive(the software we worked on was…huge…), I bet what happened was the paging sectors on my SSD got worn out, so when the build tried to access the pagefile, it would go into a spiral of nowhere, with the cascading lockups.

    Good and bad news: I don’t have to worry about that anymore. It’ll be good to remember in the future, now.

    Hope IT ran a physical check on the SSD when they re-imaged my machine. It would suck for whoever gets it next to have those mystery problems.

  19. Basekid says:

    This could be a good moment to buy a small(ish) SSD and dedicate it to Windows 7 + commonly used programs (not games).

  20. RariowunIrskand says:

    Well, my computer has been displaying about as much computing power as a microwave for a couple months, so I’m planning to just completely wipe everything and start from zero over the Christmas Holidays. Somehow knowing that a guy on the internet that I do not personally know (and probably never will) has been doing the same thing makes me feel better. Thanks.

  21. Raygereio says:

    Reading Shames talk about his archives made me realise something terrible about myself. I too have archives that go back for ever a decade and they’re massive. Saved pictures, clips, music. Mostly old and abandoned projects.
    Every know and then I decide to clean out those 5 TB worth of hard drive space and see what’s worth keeping, but then quickly give up because there’s so much. But I can’t just delete the whole thing becaue there might be something worth keeping in there!

    I’m a data hoarder. O_O

  22. Ben says:

    Good luck with the switch, Shamus, and lots of fun!

    One question, though: have you given any thoughts to programming on Linux? I recall a post of yours, a while back, where you were searching for a cross-platform toolkit… a search which did not go too well, if I recall correctly.

    If you do get around to programming, please let us know how it went!

  23. Anorak says:

    That last one is… kind of a relief. See, my archives were OLD. The contents of that directory go back more than a decade. Desktop wall papers, MP3 files, old game footage, the source files for Windows Movie Maker projects, and rare game mods and patches that used to be hard to find but are now trivial. (For example, the intro movie to System Shock. Back in the day it took AGES to find that sucker and even longer to download it. Now I can find it on YouTube faster than I can find it on my own hard drive.)

    This is relevant to me. Back before I had broadband, I would hoard data. Mods, patches, cracks, mp3s, ISOs for various things, a folder called “AOL IS SHIT” that contains nothing but a screenshot of the AOL launcher connecting at 18kbps, and some school work. The majority of the “important” things were useful tools – Winrar, Daemon tools, Dosbox, and game patches. These things were an absolute nightmare to download over dialup.

    Nowadays, it is trivial to find and download them. At some point I should retire “Temp4″ as my archive is called. I’ll be sort of sad to see it go. It’s outlived a lot of machines, and drive hopped multiple times.

  24. X2-Eliah says:

    Come to think of it.. the function that sets hard drives to sleep mode after x minutes, that’s one of the first things I tend to disable on my computers.. well, laptops mostly. Originally it was due to the issues that Vista had with sleep modes etc, plus I’ve heard that having the hdds rotating constantly is less tiresome for their spinners than having to start-stop many times. Don’t know how true that is… Cannot really verify the efficiency of that method either – I had two identical drives in a previous system, identical down to the spec and production-line, after a year or so, the system drive started badding up a lot and ultimately failed, the other one – that I use for most massive data stuffs – still works perfectly to this day…

    HDDs are weird.
    Speaking of SSDs, I can’t wait for the next-gen ssds with self-baking on the memory modules. Practically infinite writecycles, yay.

    • Kdansky says:

      Even at a few thousand cycles, you will never run out of them (if you have TRIM activated, which comes down to “use at least Win7″), especially if you have enough RAM to ignore the page-file. I spent $100 or so to have 32GB of memory, and deactivated the page-file completely. My SSD will run out of write-cycles in a decade or so. I’m certain I will replace it many years earlier.

      I’m way more concerned about it failing, but since it’s only 120 GB, I can keep a full-backup around.

  25. Asimech says:

    About the solid state drives: I’ve heard mixed information on their average lifetime. Some say it’s the same as it is with normal HDDs, some say it’s roughly two years. Can’t remember if anyone bothered to give details on how they use them, what models they have used etc.

    (One source for the “two years or so” was the Coding Horror blog, for those curious.)

    I’m mentioning this because it seems like there are a lot of “I just got an SSD and it’s working great” and I’ve ran into my fair share of tech that was recommended to me with long-term cost related warnings omitted. (Presumably because the recommenders had better income than me, in this case because few pay attention to durability. )

  26. Mersadeon says:

    Think it is a sea of disorganized files in the savegame folders? Try having a german PC. It’s double the amount of different naming conventions, since half of it is now “Spiele”, “Games”, “Savegames”, “Gespeicherte Spiele”, “Spielstände” in all the different -game-savegame-developer-publisher- configurations you can normally have.
    I can’t imagine having a three-language-gaming-pc without going absolutely insane.

  27. baseless research says:

    Since this is a hardware malfunction topic, might I co-opt it for my own purposes? It’s not in the same ballpark, it’s not even in the same town, but still it’s bugging me.

    Every now and then (somewhere between after 10 minutes and 2 hours) my mouse will stop working. It’ll be frozen. Then after 2/3 seconds, it’ll continue as if nothing happened (note that whatever motions I made with it while it was ‘locked’ did not buffer, as far as the mouse is concerned that simply never happened). Occasionally the mouse will die, as in not recover at all. Then I have to unplug the USB and re-insert it into the tower. And the mouse will function as before.

    Is this a hardware problem, or is there something wrong with my driver?

    It’s a very cheap mouse, a logitech rx1000. There was no cd with the purchase.

    • If it’s just the mouse that stops moving for 2/3 seconds and nothing else (the keyboard still lets you do things, windows responds fine, etc) then its most probably the mouse. If you try a different mouse and get the same results, then my best guess would be the usb controller is failing.

      If everything is freezing for X seconds then that’s the sign that a hard drive is about to die (though not necessarily the drive the OS is on).

      • Radagast says:

        There are other options… I had a similar problem (all of windows freezing) that turned out to be a crappy DVD burner. It would randomly freeze the computer for a split second, whether or not you were using it.

    • Aristabulus says:

      The first two things that jump to mind are:

      1) Have you examined/cleaned the contacts on the end of the cord and the USB port where the cord is usually connected?

      2) Does the mouse cord have any obvious kinks or bends in it? The wire within is rather thin, and will succumb to abuse faster than you might think.

      Either of these could produce an intermittent signal between the mouse and the computer.

      All that said, meeses can be cheap; if it’s being fussy, replace it. ^_____^ I recently picked up an OEM-boxed plain 3 button /w wheel Microsoft mouse for about US$8 @ Micro Center. YMMV.

    • Kdansky says:

      I’d go with USB controller. Try a different USB port, and *never* plug a mouse into a hub if you don’t like jittery behaviour.

  28. thebigJ_A says:

    Why would you put your OS on the slower drive??

  29. Radagast says:

    Actually, I had a drive die in exactly the same way. It was a Western Digital Green drive. Apparently not meant to be your primary drive… It was a big annoying pain for about a week, but it didn’t survive as long as yours did so I figured it out sooner than you – but still the hard way.

    Now I have a 80 GB Vertex 2 SSD exclusively dedicated to Windows. I have all data including the users folder on a separate drive. I also have a Vertex 3 SSD that has nothing except games on it, as they really need the speed…

  30. With Windows 7 (and Vista too I think, not entirely sure thought) you can not only change where “My Documents” is stored but can actually change where the “User\Shamus\” folder is stored.

    That way C: drive can be used for OS and application install and pagefile and hybernation memory dump, install files, update files, temp files/directories etc.

    This way if C: should ever die again you can at least crawl through your My documents or appdata (both of which is under your user folder unless redirected) and save/copy out the few really important things.

    A lot of good software saves a small settings file (or folder) under the appdata, in the roaming subfolder. Usually you can simply copy this one.

    The ideal software should only mess with three locations in a system during install (and uninstall).
    The “Uninstall Program” entry in the registry (which you can find in your control Panel for easy uninstall).
    The installation folder (which may or may not be under “Program Files” alternative is the appdata local folder for non admin installs.
    After running the program the roaming subfolder will hold the program settings.
    Any special file extension stuff etc. should be done by the program at first run (or through the program options window), no need for admin access, per user is the correct way, should even roam with the user profile.
    All dll’s are kept in the program folder, nothing is installed on the system. (not even VC dll stuff)

    Software like this are the kind where you can simply copy the program folder from one machine to another, and the program will work without errors. This kind of software is what users will stick to for decades and be fiercely loyal to.

    PS! A USB 3 external HD drive (usually 2.5″, or a 3.5″ box that can take a 3.5″ drive or comes with one) is great for the important backups, divie it up in a few partitions, then hook it up to the pc and copy over the important files and then lug it to the next machine.
    If you got a server or a NAS or router with support for a USB disk and can act as a fileserver then you avoid lugging it around.

    Now why is this so special? In case of a house emergency you can just grab the disk and go, carrying your most important data with you.
    Music or movies can be recovered, or replaced easily (certain sites out there may enable you to do so), but the story concepts and code snippets you’ve created over the last few decades can not be, and those are the ones that matter (along wit the cute pics of your kids that they will hate you for still having when they become “cool” teenagers).

  31. utzel says:

    For all the savegames sprinkled around your hard drives you can use http://www.gamesave-manager.com/

    I just recently tried it and it seems to work fine, it even found saves from games I forgot I had ever installed. Only did a backup and no restore yet.

  32. Kdansky says:

    Should have posted here. I would have suspected the disk after your introductory paragraph.

  33. AyeGill says:

    While I’m sure you’ll love linux for certain things (package managers, *cough*), I really don’t think gaming is there yet. Sure, it’s starting to emerge, with Steam for Linux and the like, but it’s not anywhere near complete enough, and there’s performance to consider as well. While compatibility layers, Wine being the only one worth noting, exist, they’re not even close to workable.

    So I’d recommend keeping a Windows partition, at least.

  34. whoah this blog is excellent i love studying your articles.
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