Saturday, August 15, 2009

scary computer incident

I've been watching a lot more DVDs on my desktop computer than on my TV, for the last year or so. A few times, I've left a DVD in the machine, and after booting up I find that the drive is not recognized. I can't even eject the DVD. I have to restart the machine and cross my fingers. So far, that has worked. But it has made me more careful about removing DVDs before shutting down the computer.

Thursday night, as the computer was shutting down, I realized I had forgotten to remove a DVD. I hit the eject button before the machine finished shutting down, and managed to get the DVD out in time.

Next morning, I turned on my PC, only to be greeted with a horrible high-pitched whining noise. At first I thought the sound was coming from outside. Then I realized it was coming from inside, and in fact was coming from the computer. The boot process had stopped progressing with the monitor displaying "" up at the top (probably not the kind of thing that Dell wants engraved in my mind).

I tried rebooting several times and had no joy. I did some surfing on my laptop to look for the cause. Amazingly, I could find no answers to the few existing questions about a Dell XPS 400 failing to boot with a nasty high-pitched whine. I found the Dell support page describing beep codes and diagnostic lights. None of the "1 2 3 4" lights were on in my case, so that was useless. In addition, I was clearly not getting a beep code. I suppose it's possible that the weird high-pitched whine was a manic non-stop beeping, but there's no error code for that.

I found a discussion that said to hit F12 when the computer starts up, to run diagnostic tests, but no description of what use that might be. Anyway, I tried it.

After hitting F12, you get a menu of options. I tried the hard drive diagnostics, and got this output:
Hard Drive Diagnostics running, please wait...
Drive 0: WDC WD1600JS-75NCB3 - Pass
Drive 1: No device
Drive 2: WDC WD1600JS-75NCB3 - Pass
Drive 3: No device
Drive 4: HL-DT-STDVD-ROM CDR8164B - Diagnostics not supported
Drive 5: PHILIPS DVD+/-RW DVD8801 - Diagnostics not supported
That was hopeful; the hard drives (the ones passing) looked OK, at least.

I tried another diagnostic and noticed the following boot sequence description:
Boot Sequence
1. Onboard or USB Floppy Drive
2. Onboard SATA Hard Drive (not present)
3. Onboard IDE Hard Drive (not present)
4. Intel ARRAY
5. Onboard or USB CD-ROM Drive
Hm, OK.

One of the other options from the "diagnostics" screen read "Intel ARRAY". I decided to try that. Surprise! Choosing "Intel ARRAY" from the diagnostics list caused the machine to boot in a healthy fashion. Apparently that option is actually not a diagnostic test.

Leaving the computer on, I immediately rushed off to Staples to pick up some CD-ROMs to do a thorough back up of all my files, since I've become really negligent about backing things up over the last year (you'd think I would learn, but no). At least I remembered to back up my Desktop items and my Firefox profile this time.

I suppose it's possible that the machine was trying to boot from the empty DVD slot, but the failure seems completely insane to me. It makes me worried that something more severe is going on with my computer, and that perhaps the end is near.

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