You see, I just spent 18 hours of the last Saturday, literally every waking moment not devoted to food or personal hygiene, seated in front of a computer…
… not having ANY fun at all.
Because the darned thing was malfunctioning, and all leisure activities had to be put aside, with troubleshooting the sudden new priority.
At that point, I would have traded a good many things to get back to my simple regular non-stressful routine of dabbling around doing dailies in a “comfortable” game, in a comfortable chair.
The trouble began Friday night, when I logged in for my usual Teq and Wurm runs.
GW2 was freezing on me.
As in, a complete hang with mouse cursor frozen, inability to ctrl+alt+delete and the only way to get out of it was a hard reset.
This was, of course, not good for any semblance of normal blood pressure since rebooting would -obviously- mean I fall out of the correct megaserver map instance and have to try my luck spam taxing back in.
Before long, I stopped worrying about even getting into the correct map, because I was consistently triggering a freeze every time I opened Teamspeak alongside GW2 and switched into a channel with people talking.
This was fine yesterday, and the day before that, and the months before that!
I’d changed nothing with my computer between yesterday and today!
Utterly bamboozled, I decided that maybe I was straining the RAM on my computer by having multiple programs open at once and gave up Teamspeak as a lost cause for the night (which didn’t bode well for any future fun with TTS until I could figure out the issue) and just sat in Sparkfly Fen on a pug Teq map brooding on possible causes and solutions.
10 minutes in, the system froze again.
Hard reset, retreated from the crowded map, sat in Lion’s Arch to get some crafting and TPing done – some secondary productive activity anyway, though I really wanted to be killing Wurm – while trying to see if the problem still persisted.
I bought a mass of sigils from the TP for a little experiment, and the “Take All” triggered a freeze.
Hard reset again, log in, try not to do anything more strenuous than stick stuff, jigsaw-puzzle like, into the Mystic Forge.
30-45 minutes into this, freeze yet again.
YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME.
Completely unable to enjoy any aspect of the game in a normal fashion, I ended up giving GW2 up as a lost cause for what remained of the night (not very much) and started basic troubleshooting.
Maybe it was a memory issue? The Resource Monitor did seem to indicate that having both GW2 and TS running was exhausting the “Free” memory, but there was still a lot of blue-colored “Standby” memory remaining – I’d already switched to Win 7 64-bit to combat the problem…
…maybe I was running out of swapfile? I was admittedly a little low on the free HDD space, so I ended up on a mass transfer-data-to-external-hard-disk deletion spree.
Temperatures of the CPU and GPU were all normal, so that couldn’t be it either…
Then with a sinking feeling in my chest, I suspected I had a real problem when the mouse cursor froze up on the desktop with nothing more strenuous open than Windows Explorer and Firefox (plus regular startup programs.)
Maybe it wasn’t a GW2 specific issue after all.
There was more disk space free on both drives than had ever existed in the past month, the pagefile had plenty of room to play with…
I shut the computer off for the night because I was tired of hard resetting (and worried about how much strain it was putting on my ancient PC) and just overall tired and sleepy, and was rather hoping to wake up in the morning and find that it was all a bad dream and that everything would be back to normal in the morning.
I got on to GW2 just fine, gingerly stepping into LA, expecting a freeze any minute now.
It didn’t come, so I logged onto Mumble in preparation for WvW reset. As I switched into the guild’s channel, I heard our comm say someone invite Jeromai to a group…and then yep, the computer froze.
Cue hard reset. Cue all the attendant stress and obligation that comes from having social networks and connections and expectations online – though fortunately, this was pre-battle and not like, a dc in the middle of a raid or something where your not-being-functional could cause an immediate wipe of a mass of people counting on you.
Went through the slooow loading Windows, loading GW2 process and finally logged in, to explain why the party invite and I was just sitting there unresponsive (and probably greyed out and offline) and then backed out of any WvW reset parties to grimly face a morning’s worth of troubleshooting.
Little did I know.
Sure enough, just sitting there in LA and switching into a Mumble channel where folks were talking produced fairly consistent freezing. It wasn’t -just- Teamspeak. It seemed to be all VOIP.
Goddamn it, was I doomed to a future in-game life with no contact with the VOIP-using player subset?
Hell, I didn’t even need to be running in GW2. Just sitting in Mumble could cause the freezes. (Silver lining, WvW reset goes for over three hours, so there’s lots of time to find channels where people are talking to stress test my system while troubleshooting…)
Googling up “computer freezes” in relation to VOIP presented a whole smorgasbord of possibilities:
- There was something apparently called DPC latency, which had an impact on whether computers could handle real-time data streams, and may be the cause of audio-drop outs and a couple seconds of freezing. (Except my freezing was a LOT worse than a couple seconds.)
- My RAM could be failing.
- My hard disk drives could failing.
- My power supply could be failing, and so on.
(None of the above were particularly incredible possibilities, since my computer IS 7+ years old by now, with all the hardware inside likely way past their warranties.
These were all not fun possibilities to consider. The RAM failing wouldn’t have been a matter of just going out to buy new ones to slot in.
It’s DDR2 RAM – who sells DDR2 RAM these days? My mobo is too old for DDR3 RAM. I’d have to switch the motherboard, which meant the CPU as well, which meant pretty much embarking on the whole new computer adventure at a time when my budget still can’t really deal with an SGD $2000 purchase. Besides, new computer would mean reinstalling Windows and all the programs, a day of intensive effort I never look forward to.
A hard disk failing would mean potential data loss, having to copy over stuff from the last not-terribly-recent backup, more reinstallation of stuff, and oh, cracking open the case to swap in a new one. Still not fun.
A new power supply would cost about double the price of a hard disk or two sticks of RAM, and still involve an opened case and lots and lots of rewiring and computer surgery.)
- Or it could be a virus.
- Or maybe… could it be some kind of driver or IRQ conflict?
Cudgeling the memory suddenly revealed that I -had- changed one thing between yesterday and the day before that.
I’d absent-mindedly plugged in my phone to transfer some photos, and this was apparently the first time I’d done so with my new-ish Windows 7 operating system, because it did its usual automatic “installing drivers” schtick.
They weren’t the ‘official’ drivers from some CD loaded with plenty of branded bloatware, just whatever Windows 7 had decided of its own accord was worthwhile to use. It had worked for the purposes of transferring pictures… but had Windows 7 been too clever and rearranged something it shouldn’t have?
- Or it could be the anti-virus itself getting too smart of its own good.
I’d been running Avast antivirus, with its multiple shields, and I couldn’t help but notice in the stats provided that its File System Shield seemed to be scanning a lot of files, at roughly the same time I was having all the freezing problems. Coincidence?
So many possible angles. No real clue of where to start.
Suffice to say, there was a lot of scanning.
That terrible boring activity of watching a progress bar creep slowly up percent by percent while listening to your hard disk spin away, hoping not to hear any funny sounds or see any errors pop up on screen.
There were a lot of freezes mid-scan attempts. It is not a fun thing to attempt to surf to Malwarebytes’ website and have the computer freeze on you. VIRUS? TROJAN? ROOTKIT? are all things that go through your mind.
The second attempt post umpteenth hard reset worked… so maybe not…
DPC latency checker or watching resource monitor was consistently triggering a freeze about a minute or two into watching the info display.
There were scans of the hard disks for functionality. Seemed ok.
There was writing MemTest to a CD to boot from so that the RAM could be checked. Seemed ok.
There was lunch sometime between scans and brooding, barely tasted.
If anything, it’d gotten worse.
I was only getting into normal mode Windows for about 2-3 minutes before the whole system would freeze, which isn’t much diagnostics time at all.
The one saving grace was that safe mode Windows (with networking even) seemed to work fine… and was even pretty stable.
No freezes there.
So it -probably- wasn’t a major hardware issue, was the afternoon’s conclusion.
What was intensely weird was that taking out all the startup programs and services using msconfig in safe-mode, and then starting up normal mode with that very selective startup of absolutely nothing worth mentioning… was still producing freezes.
There was a battery of virus scans in safe mode, all coming up negative.
Seeing those results, I uninstalled Avast to see if that would help the problem any. Still no go. Still plenty of freezing in normal mode.
In the evening, I took a break in safe-mode to make some backups of my recent data (like screenshots!)… just in case it really was a failing hard disk, I’d regret it if I had time to salvage stuff and didn’t, after all.
NO FREEZES IN SAFE-MODE. FOR THE HOURS IT TOOK TO TRANSFER GIGABYTES WORTH OF STUFF.
WHAT THE HELL WAS GOING ON.
During the enforced break, I discussed the whole perplexing issue with a friend, and we started leaning towards the possibility of a driver conflict and/or IRQ conflict.
It was weirdly suspicious, I told him, that the IRQs for safe mode and normal mode were differently assigned. My Creative X-Fi soundcard was sitting on IRQ 3 on safe mode, and IRQ 20 on normal. A bunch of various USB hubs on the mobo were seemingly chaotically arranged and sharing IRQs on normal, but looked a little more organized on safe mode. My graphics card had a negative IRQ on normal mode – was that usual? Sadly, I didn’t know, since you know, one never bothers to look at these things when the computer’s running smoothly. Did I really scramble something by plugging in my phone and letting Windows 7 have its way with things?
Annoyingly, there appeared to be no easy way to manually re-assign IRQs with Windows 7. The operating systems have gotten too smart to allow that kind of thing.
The conclusion reached was that it was time to crack open the case and try to isolate the problem from there.
Did I mention the dust in the case?
And that I’ve lately figured out that I have a dust allergy from a) developing a seriously runny nose and congested lungs from inhaling dust thrown up in the air and b) symptoms subsiding when I swallow an antihistamine pill?
If things were normal, I could have been just happily mining for iron and platinum ore instead, I thought mournfully, as I opened the screws and tried not to inhale.
Or static discharge anything into valuable components. (There’s one plus for living in a country with high humidity. Not many static shocks here, if you don’t spend your days rubbing across carpeted flooring.)
Swapped and reseated the RAM. Turned the main power back on. Booted up. Still freezes. No go.
Turned the main power off. Removed the soundcard. Booted up.
No freezing. Or at least… for five minutes and counting, which is about double the improvement already.
Googling up “Creative X-Fi” and “freezing” brought up an inordinate number of hits, especially in relation to Windows 7 and 8 and driver issues, and plenty of complaints about Creative being slow-ass sons-of-bitches who don’t update drivers quickly, or write competent ones to begin with, and that folks were having freezes that required hard resets to get out of in virtually every game you could name.
It was officially night, and one had finally narrowed down the possibilities to the probable culprit.
It made a certain kind of sense, it had been two voice programs triggering audio issues, after all, before things escalated to freezing any time it felt like it.
But but… it’d been acting fine for the months since I’d switched to Windows 7, and installed all the official drivers (last updated Feb 2014, for Windows 8) from the sad little page labeled with “End of Service Life.”
And I really really liked the sound my X-Fi produces. On-board sound just isn’t in the same league, by far.
Further study revealed that the motherboard had a second PCI slot. Friend suggested swapping in the soundcard into that one instead.
Yadda yadda long story short, booted up, well, hey, still no freeze… checking the IRQs showed it had reassigned itself to 19 instead of 20… maybe that helped?
Friend headed off, celebratorily triumphant, thinking we’d licked the problem.
I sat down to some well-deserved and much-delayed GW2 dailies… when the computer froze again.
SERIOUSLY. FUCK THIS.
Suffice to say that I essentially skipped dinner, and went through many permutations of safe-mode and normal-mode, doing everything I could to first disable Creative X-Fi (which resulted in stability long enough to finish GW2 dailies, giving me at least some stress reduction in that department) and then wiping clean every trace of Creative drivers and programs and registry traces that may have been producing conflicts with each other and other drivers (Driver Sweeper was pretty useful) and then crossing my fingers and reinstalling cleanly the official ones again.
(I would have gone to the unofficial ones next if the official ones failed. I was pretty much operating on a whole “If this… then that” systematic list by that time.)
There were the odd occasional scares between reboots when Windows failed to detect the soundcard at all, then detected the soundcard and installed its own version of an appropriate driver (dated 2011, no idea where it found those) which ironically seemed to work, but of course I couldn’t leave well enough alone and had to try for the 2014 ones, then it couldn’t detect the soundcard again, and then only detected the soundcard partially (playback was missing, but the microphone inputs were there, what?) and so on and so forth.
Eventually, one install seemed to take.
When I screwed the cover back on and righted the case, the most godawful noise started buzzing out of the box. It sounded like a dying jet engine in severe distress. A whining spinning sort of propeller noise with plenty of death rattle in it.
DEAR GOD ALMIGHTY, IS THAT A HARD DISK DYING, OR IS IT ONLY THE FRONT FAN?
Both hard disks and the fan were in the same place, so it was rather difficult to isolate the sound. Whatever it was, it sounded like it was going to tear itself apart any second now.
There was much hasty shutting down, powering off, and un-righting of the computer case back to the horizontal. Reverse those things to boot back up, but nope, even with the case flat, that noise was still unhappily going at it.
Much listening. Much gingerly touching the hard disks with the power on and that godawful noise to check for vibrations, hoping not to zap myself.
It’s the fan, I told myself. It’s probably the fan. All that movement of the case maybe jostled a wire and got it rubbing against the fan blades… or a chunk of dust fell into it and now it’s misbalanced and complaining like a very pissed off mistreated centrifuge.
Well, there’s no way I can operate the computer with that noise.
I had to get at the fan. How am I going to get at the fan with two hard disks in the way? So the front panel came off, with much struggle, and way too much fucking dust.
I guess I forgot to clean that part of it, though I vacuum the rest of the insides once in a blue moon. (It’s a see-through Cooler Master case, one tends to go for the visible stuff and forget the rest.)
It’s the middle of the night, no one sells cans of compressed air at this hour and I didn’t want to drive out and interrupt the troubleshooting process any further anyway. So enter much lugging in of the modest-power vacuum cleaner and much careful hoovering away at the fan, without touching anything (fortunately, static is still not the major issue it is in temperate countries) and without sending the fan spinning too much, which might create unwanted dynamo effects and electricity generated in the wrong places.
Powered back on. Blissful comparative silence. It was the fan after all, and it was now thankfully behaving.
Undergo everything in reverse once again. Move vacuum out of room. Replace cover. Right computer. Boot up. Cross fingers. Load Windows. Still no freeze. So far so good.
I had supper at midnight and went to bed shortly after. Not a great recipe for avoiding acid reflux, I assure you.
The next morning was a case of gingerly tiptoeing around the system, testing out listening to voice programs alone and in conjunction with GW2, getting the startup programs re-enabled and testing if GW2 and VOIP would still work, and finally reinstalling a new antivirus program (gone over to Avira now, not sure if Avast really was being too smart for its own good, but the insistent ‘feature’ ads were getting to me regardless.)
I’m still getting a mild case of audio crackles and pops when someone speaks too loudly over VOIP, but I think I can live with that over freezes for now.
I’ll troubleshoot that ANOTHER time.
Really, sometimes it takes a crisis to appreciate what you had and took for granted.
I’ll happily play with my “boring” and comfortable GW2 that apparently lacks content in relation to other MMOs and attend a daily Teq and Wurm, being actually able to hear VOIP communication, and go from node to node harvesting stuff any day over Saturday’s 18 hour troubleshooting marathon. ANY DAY. ANY TIME.
IT COULD ALWAYS BE WORSE.