Friday, April 17, 2009

A guide on how not to troubleshoot a computer problem

So I was getting this weird and infuriating feedback noise through my speakers of the computer I built a couple of months ago... whenever I'd turn the volume up I'd hear noise almost like you were hearing the processor work. It was high pitched and irregular/random... not the typical whine of your standard feedback. Strangely though, the noise would disappear under a heavy processor load... like opening a program... and it wasn't noticeable when when I played WoW or any other computer game, but it was pretty terrible whenever we watched a movie (fairly common, especially for Anna). It's somewhat embarrassing to recount the steps I went through to finally solve it(I hope), since I'm an engineer and it's sort of our job to be able to troubleshoot technical issues... but well... I've heard of people having this same or similar problem and not seen much in the way of solutions posted on teh intertubes, so it seems important to share... and if you can't laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? Anyway, this is one of the problems with building your own rig... nobody to turn to to solve something that doesn't work or is acting weird... gotta figure it out yourself.

So what did I do first? Well, the wiring going from my sub woofer/amp is unshielded... so maybe my downstairs neighbors got a new wireless router (or something) and it's getting thrown out my speakers. Possible. So I ordered some knock off Monster speaker wire for $25. This, of course, did absolutely nothing, and if I would have stopped to think for a second I would have realized that the sound was coming from all my speakers... which is strongly suggestive that the problem was before(or including) the sub woofer in the whole chain of connections. Now here, after just spending $25 bucks to no effect, you'd think I would have worked a little harder to narrow down where the problem was... but if you thought that, you'd be wrong. Instead of doing some honest-to-goodness troubleshooting, I just ordered more cables... because obviously money solves all problems. Next up, 3 new cables to go from the computer to the sub woofer for about $40 bucks after shipping. I think you can probably guess how effective that was... they are some damn pretty cables though.

Now this setback was large enough to get me off my lazy ass and finally crack open my computer case... only to discover that I could actually hear the noise coming off the motherboard itself... which is unusual to say the least. Faintly, of course, but the on board sound was apparently picking it up, amplifying it, and sending it on down my speakers. So here you'd probably figure it's something with the motherboard... maybe a bad capacitor or something... or perhaps a flaw in the on board sound itself. I could have sent the motherboard back for an RMA, or I could have plugged in my sound card from my old machine to see if getting the sound processing off the MoBo would at least keep the noise out of my speakers, even if the processor itself was strangely noisy... I still want another case fan before summer hits, so maybe that would mask it in white noise. I, of course, did neither of those things. Now, to be fair, an RMA was the absolute last option... while I have a backup computer, it would likely take weeks/months to send it out and get it back and there was no guarantee that they would find a problem (their tech support had never heard of such an issue)... so it's fair to exhaust every conceivable other avenue before going down that road. I really don't have any excuse, however, for why I didn't try the sound card before buying a really really fancy power strip. Well, O.K., I was able to get it for $100 with free shipping because of some apparent glitch in Amazon's posting of it... and it was at least conceivable that line noise from the ancient wiring in my apartment building was causing the issue, but it wasn't very likely. I'm not entirely certain, but I would think the computer's power supply would take care of a lot of the problems coming from the wall.

It does turn out that I don't even get 120V from my wall... more like 110-115... so I guess it's good I bought my fancy power strip.... er "power conditioner" I should say. But obviously, it didn't do anything about the noise... digital and analog filters be damned.

So how did I eventually solve the problem?

Updating my drivers.

I'm such an idiot.

Though in my defense, the drivers that fixed my issue came out after I had already started this nonsense... not that I thought updating drivers would fix it... since I don't really get why they would make my motherboard make funny noises... but well... it worked.

So let that be a lesson to you... before throwing $150+ down a hole to try and fix a problem, it might be worth updating your drivers first.