Test System Woes Finally Solved, But Not Without a Final Fillip of Loathing and Despair

OK, so let me be clear about what has caused my latest learning adventures in Windows installation and optimization: I failed to let sleeping dogs lie, and decided it was time to upgrade my primary test system from Windows 7 Ultimate 32-bit to Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. I wasn’t using the system for media stuff anyway, so it seemed to make sense to pare back on that platform’s capabilities, especially when they weren’t being used.

My first inkling of trouble came as soon as I used my Win7 Pro x64 install UFD for the first time, built with the Microsoft Store’s excellent Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool. (Use this tool to grab an intall ISO, and it builds a bootable USB flash drive aka UFD or a bootable DVD that you run to install the OS of your choosing. I picked the UFD version because it’s simple to build, and works both as a repair disk and an install tool, and runs faster than its optical disk equivalent). As soon as the initial phase of install completed — Copying files, which took all of 10 seconds to complete — it went into the Expanding Files stage. Running 32-bit this zoomed through to completion in a couple of minutes; in 64-bit mode that same process would inevitably hang at some point between 46 and 62 percent complete (one time I got as far as 94 percent, but still no joy).

Win7 Install Processing

Windows 7 Install Processing phases

Some quick research on the problem showed me that a corrupt or questionable ISO might be at fault, so I built another UFD using the same Windows 7 tool linked in the previous paragraph, after re-visiting MSDN to download a fresh ISO. Multiple repeated attempts thereafter all died during the Expanding files process. Additional troubleshooting turned up numerous leads that wound up down blind alleys. I even went so far as to start the install on another system with a near-equivalent motherboard (an Asus P5K on another problem-free test machine instead of the P5EQ3 in the test machine I was working on). I ran the install up to the first reboot (to get past not only the Expanding files stage, but that also took me past the Installing features and Installing updates stages as well, and into the final Completing installation phase) with my system drive on the P5K box, then yanked that drive and dropped it into the P5EQ3 box, and completed the installation. Alas, while the installation did complete, it started crashing after two to five minutes of apparently normal operation during the application of the initial large raft of updates that usually follows just after a new Windows 7 installation gets up and running.

By this point, I’d tried installing Win 7 Pro x64 on that machine 30 or 40 times in countless variations and permutations. I decided that other recent problems with the BIOS on the P5EQ3 had to be related to this problem, so I ordered a mid-range and slightly newer but lower end replacement board from Newegg for $125 or so–namely, the P5E3 Professional. I took a three day break from my “problem child” while waiting for the board to show up via UPS Ground, then got back to work on the system after it arrived at my door. After tearing down the system and replacing the old mobo with the new, I fired up the install UFD with great anticipation, only to once again fall prey to exactly the same problem — Expanding files hung at 62 percent complete on my first try!

“OK” says I to myself, “it’s time for some formal troubleshooting.” I then proceeded to isolate and replace every major component of the system, to see where the problem was coming from. Depending on how much rebuilding was involved between system components, it took me anywhere from an hour to three hours between test runs to eliminate possible sources of the trouble. Here’s the order I followed in going through these motions, having unequivocally removed the mobo as the source of the difficulty:

  • Memory: a regular culprit when chasing down odd system behavior, I switched the Super Talent DDR3-1600 2 GB modules for some older, and well-tried and trusted Super Talent DDR3-1066 1 GB modules instead. No change.
  • Hard disk: I swapped the Seagate 7200.11 320 and 400 GB drives I’d been using for a WD VelociRaptor 300 GB and a Samsung Spinpoint 1 TB 7200 RPM drive. Still no alteration in the problem.
  • Graphics card: I ditched the Nvidia 8800 GT I’d had installed in the machine for the fanless Nvidia 9600 resident in my other P5K test machine. Nothing doing.
  • Cables: I switched out all the removable cables in the system for brand-new cables still in their sealed plastic bags from my box of motherboard spares. Same hang kept on showing up.
  • Power Supply: I ran the Newegg PSU calculator and observed it said I needed 612 Watts for my system as then configured. I was using an nice little Antec 400 Earthwatts PSU at the time, so I ran down to Fry’s and picked up an even nicer Thermaltake 650W 80-plus model for about $100. Again, install hung at Expanding files.
  • Case: reasoning that a short in the case might be responsible for my problem, I yanked all of the innards from the Antec Nine Hundred in which they were housed and rebuilt the system on an open bench case (framework, really) I often use when benchmarking components for Tom’s Hardware. Same problem all over again.

At this point, there was one and only one component of my system I hadn’t swapped out, mostly because I didn’t have a spare quad core 775 LGA CPU laying around. So, after researching my options and talking with my good buddy and fellow Tom’s Hardware contributor Tom Soderstrom, I ordered a newer Q9400 processor from Tiger Direct which offered the best deal ($184, free shipping, 5% back on Bing) at the time I placed my order. Another three day break from troubleshooting occurred, and I managed to get some other work done, while once again waiting for the UPS guy to ring my doorbell and drop off my latest prize.

It was with fear and trembling that I unpacked the Q9400 from its retail packaging to rip out the QX9650 and replace it with this newest acquisition under the Zalman CNPS9500 I use as the cooler for this build. Fortunately for me, a long-barreled magnetic screwdriver let me gain access to the cooler’s hold-down screws, and the new drop-in package made the CPU swap both quick and easy. Within 40 minutes of receiving the new CPU I was running the Win 7 Pro x64 install UFD (the biggest time component turned out to be cleaning the Arctic Silver thermal paste I got on my fingers while removing the old QX9650), and watching the percentages climb during the Expanding files stage with fingers crossed and hopes high. As the number hit 100% and the install program switched over to the next phase of the process (Installing features) I heaved a huge sigh of relief and readied my license key for the next step of this seemingly interminable adventure in troubleshooting. “I’ve got it fixed” I announced to my wife, Dina, when I ran into the kitchen to tell her my troubles were behind me.

But alas, success was not to be mine until some additional troubleshooting exercises were completed. No sooner did the install complete, and the post-install Windows Updates begin to be applied than the machine started crashing at the most inopportune moments during the update process, which invariably required me to reinstall the OS from scratch. Once or twice I got past that phase, only to find the machine crashing on me as I installed various tools and utilities to complete the system image I wanted to use. Only after breaking for the evening, and literally sleeping on the problem did the solution finally occur to me.

The P5E3 Pro motherboard has a facility called A.I. Tweaker that is set to “Auto” by default, which means the motherboard itself tweaks CPU multipliers and FSB speed to maximize system performance without requiring human intervention. This is all well and good when things work after the tweaks are applied, but it was only as I began to observe a pattern of general instability and said to myself “This is just what happens when you overtweak the CPU multiplier or the FSB speed and the system starts falling over.” Sure enough, when I investigated the BIOS settings, I discovered that because the memory I installed in the system was DDR3-1600 (I’d gone back to the Super Talent 2 GB modules) the AI Tweaker had cranked the FSB speed up to 400 MHz (which results in a 1600 clock rate for quad-rate DDR3 memory). Alas, this was too much for the Q9400 to take, after its clock rate was raised from its rated 2.66 GHz setting to 2.93 GHz. As soon as I turned the FSB speed down manually to 200 (which had the FSB running at a downright leisurely 800 MHz, or half the rated speed for the memory, and the CPU down around 1.6 GHz) the install and post-install activities all worked without a hitch.

A little tinkering with FSB settings showed me I could crank the base rate up to 300 MHz (DDR3-1200) but no higher while maintaining stable operation. This now has the Q9400 running cool and collected at 2.4 GHz, slightly under its 2.66 rating. But everything is working at 64bits like it should be, and I’m now a pretty happy guy. In following up on why the QX9650 gave me such fits, I learned the unit was an engineering sample that Intel had sent me in late 2007 when the chip was brand-spanking new and before production models were available. It just so happens that these early units had “issues” executing 64-bit code and that’s what had been causing the expand files operations to fail during 64-bit installation. That problem was fixed for production mode CPUs, so only a very few users here and there reported this issue on the Internet. It never even occurred to me that a high-end CPU like the QX9650 might fall prey to such a problem, which of course is why I couldn’t figure things out until I adopted the rigors and slow, stately progress of the “full scientific method” in troubleshooting my ailing, failing system. Live and learn!

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2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] One of my favorite quotes from the 19th century master sleuth himself goes like this: “It is an old axiom of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, pg. 315). Would that I had recalled his words earlier when working my way through a recent troubleshooting adventure (read all about it in my latest ViztaView blog entitled “Test System Woes Finally Solved, But Not Without a Final Fillup of Loathing and Despair“). […]

  2. […] One of my favorite quotes from the 19th century master sleuth himself goes like this: “It is an old axiom of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, pg. 315). Would that I had recalled his words earlier when working my way through a recent troubleshooting adventure (read all about it in my latest ViztaView blog entitled “Test System Woes Finally Solved, But Not Without a Final Fillup of Loathing and Despair“). […]

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