It's a good thing I got up early yesterday morning, because I lost nearly an hour of my day when my computer sullenly decided not to boot.
Actually — boot, nothing. The blasted thing wouldn't even POST.
Given that this machine is a custom-built job that cost me upwards of a thousand dollars, I was not looking forward to the idea of replacing it the week before flipping Christmas.
But I'm a patient sort, so I popped open the case and took a peek. This machine has a two-digit LED display on the motherboard that provides you with information about where in the boot process it is, should things go south for the winter. The code I was getting seemed to hint at a memory error — oh, joy! -- but swapping DIMMs and trying them in different slots yielded no luck.
After some more fruitless tinkering, I poked around on Les Googles and saw a suggesting in re another feature on this motherboard that I'd forgotten about: the backup BIOS. When in the course of human events your BIOS is trashed for whatever reason, you can slide a switch on the board and boot from a backup copy of the BIOS. This also provides you with a handy way to reflash the BIOS — you can flash one from the other, or even flash from a BIOS file on a USB stick. Miracles abounded with this machine, it seemed.
No, the machine didn't boot on BIOS #2. But it did get further into the boot process, and yielded up ... a boot code that did not exist in the manual. The hell, I thought, and returned to my Googling. What few hints I could derive about this error code seemed to revolve around PCI hardware, so now my prevailing theory was that the PCI bridge was fried, something that didn't reassure me one bit.
When all else fails, tear down and start over. I disconnected everything from the main board save for the memory and CPU — I even unplugged the USB devices — and tried again. Still no go. Wait, no, I hadn't removed everything. The video card was still plugged in; might as well yank that too.
"Hot damn!" said I, and did a jig.
A few more controlled experiments ruled out the culprit being a bad PCI slot. By all accounts, my one-year-old graphics card, a late-model mid-range Nvidia board, had suffered some kind of meltdown. Some time under the magnifying glass (okay: my phone camera's macro function) showed nothing out of place — no burned spots, no bulging capacitors, no nests of roaches behind the backplate. Evidently it had suffered some kind of slow-blow silent meltdown. I put a little more credence in this theory when I remembered how the system had, as of late, not always come back online after a cold restart — sometimes I had to do that trick where I disengaged the plug from the mains and held down the power button to clear the current from the machine before it would wake and greet the day.
All things considered, I'd rather lose a video card than most other pieces of the puzzle. The biggest reason is not ease of replacement or cost, but redundancy: the system has video built directly into the motherboard, and so I was able to fall back to that and not lose much of anything. I don't do a lot of gaming, but I am starting to do that much more work with GPU-accelerated applications, so the card probably needs to be replaced soon enough. (I might be able to get it repaired - the brand I chose has a three-year warranty.)
In a previous lifetime, I built my own system and ended up wrecking it through my own butterfingered incompetence. I fell back on buying an off-the-shelf model, but grew disgusted with the way the pricing options for such things weren't granular enough (at least, not from a major vendor I trusted). I ended up building my own machine once again, this time taking extra care not to screw it up. That machine's lasted me about four years now, and the only thing that's kept me from replacing it entirely so far is a) it runs fine and b) there haven't been enough truly seismic changes in the way PCs are constituted to justify it. If something had to fail, I'm just grateful it was the one part of the PC that would have aged out faster than almost anything else.
Still crummy about the timing, though.