The Importance of “Opportunity Cost” in Troubleshooting

In trying to get one of my SSD-based test systems to work properly, I decided to upgrade from x86 Windows 7 Ultimate to x64 Windows Professional. And alas, I thereby willingly threw myself into the slough of despond. Even though I swapped out the SSD for a conventional HD, when I tried to run the Windows 7 64-bit installer, it would hang every time the program got to the “Expanding Windows Files” stage, usually somewhere between 52 and 62 percent of the way through that part of the process.

To put it bluntly, this drove me wild. I tried everything I could think of to get over this hurdle:

  1. I downloaded the x64 Win7 Professional ISO from MSDN again, and burned a new DVD, then tried several more times. No joy.
  2. I used the freshly-downloaded ISO and the Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool to create a bootable UFD, then tried several more times again. Still nothing satisfactory.
  3. I cloned the Windows 7 Professional x64 installation from my other test machine, which runs an Asus P5K instead of the Asus P5Q3 in the problem machine. Got up and running, but after booting up once on the problem machine, it wouldn’t boot again after that.
  4. I hooked up the system drive from the problem machine onto the Asus P5K machine and took Windows 7 install as far as the first reboot, then dropped the drive from that machine into the problem machine to complete the install. I actually got as far as changing the machine name and the license key to get legal, but then it started freezing on me every 2 minutes or so. I switched to Safe Mode with Networking which kept the machine going for 5-8 minutes at a clip, but couldn’t get through the driver upgrades to try to make the machine right. Another useless build.
  5. Tried items 1 and 2 again just to make sure things still weren’t working. No dice.

Reluctantly, I’ve come to the conclusion that the P5Q3 motherboard is toast (or at least “severely damaged”) and have ordered a P5E3 as a replacement. I see very few problem reports on this item online, and hope that means I’ll have better luck with the newer X48 model than I did with the P35 mobo it will supplant in that PC.

Now, for an interesting question: “What else have I learned from this exercise?” Most important lesson: put a hard and fast time limit on troubleshooting and fix-it time before you start chasing problem resolutions. I spent the better part of three days trying to get this install to work before I had to admit defeat and give up. If I had spent that time working instead of chasing my tail, I would have made enough money to buy a new middle-of-the-road i7 system with 6 GB of RAM and a nice graphics card. The machine I was trying to fix is arguably worth no more than $600-700 (P5Q3, QX9650 CPU, 4GB DDR3-1600 RAM, NVidia 8800GT graphics card, blah, blah, blah…see the table at the end of this posting for details). By setting a value on my time, and limiting the amount of time I should have been willing to spend on this system, I would have been able to make the call to buy another $125 mobo much more quickly. 

I’ll report on my experiences in reassembly next week when the parts show up from Newegg (where my Preferred Account balance just took a $600-plus jump thanks to the P5E3, plus a WD 300 GB Velociraptor, and 3 Samsung 1.5 TB SpinPoint SATA drives). But I’ve also learned that by setting a repair or rebuild cut-off at between one-half and the full value of the system involved, I can limit the damage that trying to fix something intractable or difficult can do to my bottom line. It’s a good thing I’ve got a solid consulting gig right now and can put on the afterburners this weekend to catch up on my down time. Otherwise, I’d be stuck with a very expensive system that’s still inoperable — at least, for the moment (and until the new parts arrive, and I can reassemble what will hopefully be a working system).

Item Details Item Details
Mobo Asus P5Q3 CPU Intel QX9650
Graphics card NVidia 8800GT Power Supply Seasonic SS-600ET
RAM SuperTalent 2x2GB DDR3-1600 Case Antec P900
HD 1 (System) Seagate 7200.10 320GB HD 2 (Data) Spinpoint F11 HD103UJ 1TB

The only thing I plan to change is the motherboard. Hopefully that will do the trick. Stay tuned for further details, and let me know if anybody wants to see some photos of the system, before and/or after the replacement. I’ll report back on the rebuild and its outcome late next week or over next weekend. As Roseanne Roseannadanna said: “It’s always something!”

I also cashed in one of my 4 MSDN subscription support incidents with Microsoft to see what they had to say about this situation. I was both gladdened and galled to learn that I had covered my bases pretty well, and that they had little or nothing to suggest to me by way of fixing items that I hadn’t already thought of and done myself. “Run the RAM diagnostics, check your BIOS settings, and burn new media” pretty much sum up what they told me, though I did ask them to retire the incident before we really got down and dirty with the details. Nevertheless, I was pretty happy with the level of support and interaction involved, both for the initial incident start-up process and for the three follow-up calls they initiated with me after the incident got its own ticket number assigned. It’s fair to say that even at $150-plus per incident on a fee basis, MS does a good job of handling the process and pursuing solutions once you get enmeshed in their formal problem resolution machinery.

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