Saturday, November 04, 2006

Houston...the Shuttle had a problem

Back in my October 29th post, I alluded to our home desktop system failing.

Bad. No boot. No post. Nada.

It's true.

I cried. I moped. Lavie considered running me out of the house.

My "baby" was dead. I felt like I lost a child. I know it is just a stupid pc, but it hurt in a personal way. Seriously!

Some background first.

Our very first (home) pc was a Gateway system we ordered at the Gateway Country store down by the Baybrook mall. That was back in the day when Gateway systems were one of the premier builders and were known for their rocking customer service....yes...a long time ago. I cleverly got a full-tower unit, had a smashing 10GB hard drive, and a blistering 350MHz Intel Processor. RAM? I think it was a ridiculously large 256KB. Windows 98 baby! It rocked!

Eventually time went on, and I eventually began a career in the IT industry. Sweet. One of the first things I did was to decide that Gateway was ready to be retired to the pasture...Bluebell style.

So after quite a bit of research I decided to build my own system this time. Eventually I decided on a small-form factor. Expansion would be limited, but if I was very choosy on the components, I could probably be quite happy. Size-wise it was about as big as, well, a toaster and 1/4 the size of my tower unit. Shuttle systems had burst on the scene with their systems and had been getting good reviews.

I ended up settling on the Shuttle SK41G system. It had a 4x AGP slot, used Socket A AMD processors (a better bang for the buck at the time), and supported USB 2.0. All in all a very nice system. And the small size would be a plus as it (then) would be located in the living room. I picked up a mid-range Radeon graphics card, Crucial memory sticks (2x256MB) and a AMD Athlon XP 2400+ processor. And grabbed a Seagate Barracuda 120GB HDD. I salvaged the CD-ROM and floppy drives from the Gateway and saved a few dollars.

So I ordered it up from NewEgg (the world's best on-line technology merchant!) along with a XP Home retail software upgrade. Something like four days later it was delivered and that weekend I build it.

It rocked! Installation was a breeze.

It lasted for about 4 weeks before dying. No boot. No post. Nada. (Sound familiar?)

I RMA'ed the unit back to NewEgg and they shipped a new barebones system. No hassles, no questions. Awesome service!

I rebuilt the new one and it was rolling.

Except sometimes it refused to power on. I could--by mashing the power button long enough--eventually get it to kick on, however.

So I came up with these really crazy "superstitious" behaviors. It seemed worse when plugged into the UPS, so I got a new UPS...that helped for a while. Then it didn't. So I stopped using the UPS. Then it seemed to happen when I was running the clothes dryer I always booted the pc before starting the dryer on wash-days. Then it seemed to happen worse when Lavie plugged the clothes iron into the same room the pc was now in. New rule. Then I swore it ALWAYS would balk at powering on if I turned on the desk lamp that was plugged into the surge-strip the pc was also plugged into. See what I mean? I was really thinking crazy-thoughts here.

Realistically the issue was one of two things...a bad on-off switch or a demon-possessed power-supply unit. But denial is a beautiful mistress.

So two weeks ago I came home from work (very-late) and went to power the Shuttle on and....nothing.

Depending on your personality type (and your spouse's), building your own pc can be a dangerous thing. This pc is very personal to me. Not only is it special for the time and energy I invested in building it, but it is almost an extension of my self-confidence as an IT professional. When it works, I feel pride and confidence. When it doesn't? Self-doubt creeps in. So when problems happen on our home pc, I take them personally. Thus my melancholy and sadness when it died.

And wouldn't you know, while I was in the middle of troubleshooting the failed system with its parts scattered about the floor and desk...a dear friend who I provide family-pc tech-support to called because his DSL connection wasn't working and needed my help. (Sigh)

Crisis Assessment...

Having watched Apollo 13 more than a few times, I knew that it was critical I keep a cool head. So I began to assess the situation.

Nahh. Honestly? I had a pity-party. There was no way I would be able to find parts... It was almost six years old! It uses a not-quite-standard power supply and system board. I'd just have to buy a new system. Darn! And with the way I was acting, no way Lavie would let me build a new one. Period.

The next morning dawned early. Now that my initial disappointment had run its course, I could wear my technician's hat again and not my parental one. What did I know?

1) Even though the system had been powered off all day, the PSU was hot to the touch. Not warm, hot. Fresh McDonald's coffee hot.

2) My system board still had lights, even though it wouldn't boot. (VERY GOOD SIGN!)

3) No fan running on the PSU.

So I unplugged EVERYTHING outside and in and reseated all the connectors. That met with a soft "Pop" when I lastly plugged the power plug back into the PSU. (Ummm. Not good?) Now where I had a very bright green system board LED light, I had a very dim and fading LED...I yanked the cord out and prayed quickly to the motherboard saints it hadn't been called home.

So, my wicked-smart tech sensor was telling me my PSU had probably failed.

I removed it from the case and went to work (where I collect my paycheck).

Research time....

In the magical world of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger seems to believe that the answer to every problem can be found in a book in the school's library. I generally relate, feeling that most any problem can be uncovered with some careful Google searches.

I soon learned this:

1) There are a large number of early Shuttle system owners who are running into problems with their Shuttle SFF systems not booting and not powering on. Dead Shuttle systems. Shuttle users who have found that they are having to repeatedly mash, press and hold the power button on to get it to boot. Lots of forum posts. So if you are visiting after running into this problem on your are not alone!

2) In many cases, these failures were caused by bad capacitors supplied to the tech industry (see Capacitor plague-Wikipedia, or

3) The capacitors on my Shuttle system board all looked nice and pretty.

4) I (carefully--as they can still carry a charge) opened up the PSU and....surprise, surprise, found three fully top-blown capacitors with gunk spilling out the top. Also there were an additional three capacitors that had bulging tops, but had not "blown out" yet.

So, despite not being an electrical engineer after spending many years as a youth working on Radio Shack 500-in-1 electronics kits, I felt pretty certain I understood the true issue now with that constant mashing the power button to get it to boot. It seems that as the capacitors continued to slowly fail, powering on demanded a longer start current be apply to overcome the failing capacitors. Once it happened, the Shuttle would finally kick on.

Whew. So my system wasn't demon possessed...just capacitor plagued.

Now what?

I discussed the issue at work with my crack team of fellow IT shop experts and got some great tips: 1) get a new PSU or, 2) get a new case and PSU.

Still thinking finding a non-standard PSU for this system would be an issue, I investigated looking into a new case (Option 2). This would likely boost the air-flow and I would be able to secure a standard ATX PSU inside.

So, more research. The Shuttle main boards use what is known as a flex-ATX system board design. Simplifying a bit, system boards commonly come in AXT, micro-ATX and flex-ATX sizes (bigger to smaller). Turns out a flex-ATX system board will use the same mounting points as a micro-ATX board in most all cases. Sweet!

So I started doing research, but kept noticing a problem where the holes were lining up on the Shuttle flex-ATX board and the micro-ATX cases. What gives?

Eventually I found the site form that had a PDF document showing the actual industry specs on case mount points for the different systems.

Turns out that Shuttle has orientated it's board outputs on the long/narrow end of their flex-ATX board and not the short/wide side as most industry standards have for the flex-ATX boards.

So...if I got a new case, I would have to be very careful and do some serious mods to get the board mounted. Not a great option.

Back to Option One.

I found lots of good links like this one on XoxideForums on picking out a quality PSU. But the problem was that a standard ATX PSU just doesn't fit in a Shuttle case.

That left me with the real possibility of getting my system up and running again, but looking like a Franken-computer. No thanks just yet. Though this poor bloke took a number of great pictures of the Shuttle SK41G power issue that mirror my experience perfectly (text in Japanese)!

More searching...

Finally I came across the Web retailer Power-On. Imagine my delight when I found they offered a full range of non-standard replacement PSU's including those for Shuttle flex-ATX PSU-using systems like mine! And they are based in good old Missouri, USA!

I reviewed the choices and found I had an option for either the replacement 200 watt unit like I had, or I could go with a 250 watt unit....Hmmmm.

I instantly decided on the 250 watt unit so I could have the extra headroom on power.

I placed my order last Saturday, choose standard UPS shipping and it arrived Thursday. Wow! That was fast!

The Rebuild: we can make it better, stronger, faster....

Only I now had two new issues that I hadn't planned on.

When I got it I realized I failed to check one thing! The PSU dimensions! See, the 250W unit was about an inch and a half longer than the 200W unit. Ooops! And secondly, the PSU air-intake slots for the 250W unit are right against the solid case side, not like the 200W unit. Doh!

I was fortunate, however. Shuttle wisely left enough clearance on the side where the PSU mounts to handle the extra length with room to spare. I did have to bend the original top chassis mounting bracket out of the way. Once that was done, I unscrewed two mounting screws (shared with the PSU fan) and mounted the PSU. The 250W model has a really beefy fan and uses long, heavy screws to secure it, so those two screws along with a third from the case securely held the beefier PSU just fine, even without use of the original mounting bracket. If you choose to stick with the 200W unit, just remove the 2nd mounting bracket off the old PSU and attach to the replacement and you will have a perfect, standard re-fit.

As for air-flow to the PSU, some more work with careful layout on the aluminum case and some drill work to add in a series of new 1/4 holes and critical cool-air flow into the PSU has been restored. I strongly don't recommend mounting the 250W unit in there without the addition of the breather holes. You don't want your new PSU to overheat!

Once everything was plugged in, attached and rechecked, I fired it up.

Success! It booted immediately and is running awesome!

"Houston, were coming home!"

I'm so happy.

Our precious little Shuttle SK41G is running with new life again.

And I've found a new friend in Power-On. They rock.

And if any of my IT team-members stumble across this page and discover my secret identity...well...shhhhh! I appreciate you guys and your advice!


1 comment:

Jake said...

Thank you! I had the same problem, and I thought I was going completely nuts! I'm going to order a new PSU right now!