From RIP-Off to basic Steam machine

  • 30 April 2017
  • charm

Computer sales and service are like any industry, there are honest players and crooks. Every once in a while someone brings in a non-functioning computer with a story about how they bought it off someone and have no warranty. This is one of those stories, one that we think ends happy.

We've been pretty busy lately - in a single day we took in 10 repairs. A couple we fixed on the spot, the rest had to be booked in for a longer look. So when one more repair came in it was tempting to refer the people to the shop down the street. Instead of instinctively passing the work off I listened to their story. The computer, an antiquated HP a610n, really wasn't worth our time fixing. Our lowest-spec build is a significantly more powerful Core 2 Duo. But as I listened to their story it occurred to me that a lot of the parts needed to upgrade this Athlon XP-based computer were parts we no longer use, but have on hand. We could use these parts without much cost to significantly upgrade the system.

The HP a610n might have been a decent system in it's time, PC Magazine gave it 4 out of 5 stars as a sub-$1000 computer. The system brought in had similar specifications to the base model from this PC Magazine 2004 review:

  • Athlon XP 3200+ (better than the review at 2.2GHz - single core)
  • 512MB DDR PC2700 RAM
  • 160GB PATA Hard Drive
  • onboard VIA S63 UniChrome graphics

The reason the computer was brought in to us was because it didn't even turn on. The computer had been purchased without even seeing it run. We didn't even have to turn the computer on or open it up to figure out what might be wrong. Aside from just being old, every fan (power supply, rear exhaust) was covered in dark brownish-red dust, an indication the previous owner had smoked in the same room the computer was in for a long time. Computers tend to suck in tar from cigarette smoke. Normally the fans in a computer attract some dust particles, but when they fans are covered in tar the particles tend to accumulate and not get shaken off as easily. This can be especially problematic when the tar and dust block the CPU fan. If the CPU fan gets too clogged the system can't exhaust enough heat and the CPU starts overheating.

I started by giving the computer an overall cleaning. Our special anti-static data vacuum has ends that suction and blow air. I used the suction end first to get as many large pieces of dirt out as I could. Suctioning first means less dirt circulating. The blower end tends to be much stronger and it ends up removing most of the dirt in most cases - except when a computer has a lot of tar on the fans. The blower tends to be good for getting into areas like the power supply, but it's not always great at pushing the dust out of the system without more disassembly. I needed to remove the entire front panel because I know from working with these models in the past that dust tends to collect behind the front panel and never gets cleaned out.

Dust-filled front cover

In this particular case both the CPU fan and the heatsink contained enough tar and nicotine that our data vacuum couldn't remove the majority of dust. I removed the fan from the heat sink and a layer of dust held together by tar was easily suctioned off. The fan however was a bit of a lost cause. I spent about 5 minutes with a toothbrush cleaning the dust off the fan but it still looked terrible. Rummaging through some of our recycling I found an identical fan that was in much better condition than the fan that came with the system. With the CPU fan and heat sink looking new and the system cleaned out I tried plugging in and turning on the system - no POST (Power On Self Test). I expected this behaviour since it was what brought the people into our shop in the first place. A quick test of the power supply confirmed that the PSU power fluctuated wildly. Power supplies are suppose to provide a PC with a constant stream of steady power, this one was like a Batman encounter with the Joker.

Mound of dirt on the heat sink

I'd like to say that I got a chance to replace the power supply right away, but at this point someone else came in with a similar power supply issue, this time with a system they'd brought from us several years ago. Because it was "one of our" systems I replaced that power supply first, then went back to this system. As it turns out this interruption was really a blessing in disguise because the power supply I spent time cleaning up for this HP actually didn't end up working in the HP (it was 24 pins without a detachable 4 pin connector, so it couldn't actually fit in the 20 pin HP).

With the new power supply in the system POSTed just fine. At this point I network booted to a Debian GNU Linux desktop and ran phoronix-test-suite to get the system specifications. I knew from the front that this computer wasn't going to be a great system, but with only 512MB of RAM it was really crippled. It left me thinking, "how could anyone sell this to someone else knowing just how useless it is today?" Yes, yes, I can hear some saying "why the heck even try to make it better, just tell them to get a new one." Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to buy a better system. A few upgrades might be able to put this system in the category where it might be able to play a few somewhat modern games.

Clean CPU fan and RAM

Sadly the a610n motherboard only has 2 slots for DDR RAM and maxes out at 2GB of RAM, but since the license on the side is Windows XP Home 2GB of RAM is more than enough. Again, a can hear a few of you groaning about Windows XP, but keep in mind the purpose of this machine is for a young man to play a couple of Steam games and do school work. Windows XP might be 16 years old, but for this purpose it works. But on with the story... thinking about the young man I found a couple of nice sticks of Corsair RAM with LED lights on the top. It's pretty rare for us to get DDR RAM this fancy and we've had these sticks for a long time - it seemed just right that they go in this system even if they weren't going to be seen through a plexi-glass window.

The next problem we ran into was that the hard drive was toast. It was again at this point that I kept thinking "who would sell something like this to someone..." But, it was a problem we could easily solve. The original drive was a 160GB PATA hard drive. Our refurbishing shop has only used SATA hard drives for all our builds for the past year so we have a small build-up of PATA drives. I was able to find a 300GB PATA drive that tested good. We could have thrown in a SATA hard drive, but we're actually extremely short on SATA drives and most of the drives we have are in the 80 - 160GB range. Since this young man wanted to play a few Steam games a larger drive seemed the logical way to go.

The last problem with this system was the onboard UniChrome graphics - they just wouldn't do for most Steam games. Luckily we had a 512MB (AGP) ATI Radeon 1950 Professional card that fit perfectly in the system. With the card I let the system sit awhile in our Debian live environment. I listened and looked for any issues. This extra step took about 15 minutes during which I was busy working on another issue. The only issue that arose was the need for a bit of cable management so no wires could interfere with the video card or CPU fans. I chose some green cable ties to match the green on the black and green Corsair RAM.

The ATI Radeon X1950 Pro AGP video card we installed

This card was kind of the icing on the cake. For such an old system it was nice to find something that would work so well for its purpose. Yes, it would have been nice to install a 512MB Nvidia-based AGP card to keep the "green theme" up, but this was the best AGP card we had in our arsenal and once we had Windows XP installed we were happy with it's performance.

Installing Windows XP was the next step. We were lucky enough to have several original Windows XP Home CDs lying around the shop thanks to all our donors. After about 45 minutes Windows XP was installed. As you might expect we didn't have an a610n driver disc lying around. While I'm not a fan of driver programs, most are a scam to install malware, I used Snappy Driver installer to grab most of the missing base Windows drivers.

With Windows loaded it was time to install Steam. I was surprised to find that Steam was still supported for Windows XP, even more surprised at the number of games supported by the platform. But before installing Steam I upgraded the system to "service pack 3." Long ago we downloaded the Windows XP SP3 install file and have kept it on a network share for situations like this. I remember SP3 taking a long time, but it didn't seem to in this instance, it was installed in just a few minutes. With SP3 ans Steam loaded I remembered that the other purpose for this machine was to do school work. Luckily we've also had a few donations of retail editions of Office software. In this case I was able to track down a full case, CD and COA plus all the licensing for a 2007 version of Microsoft Word. 2010 would have been nicer, but we could install LibreOffice to take care of that discrepancy.

I considered upgrading the Athlon XP 3200+ CPU, but what we could have gone to wouldn't have been much better and would have rendered the license on the side of the HP invalid. As it was we were able to successfully phone activate the COA with all the upgrades in place. There was also the issue that we actually no longer keep any Socket A (Athlon) CPUs. The oldest CPU we still keep around are Socket 939 Athlon 64 X2 CPUs. As it stands the computer now is speced at:

  • Athlon 64 3200+ CPU
  • 2GB Corsair RAM (the maximum the motherboard will take)
  • 300GB Hard Drive
  • ATI Radeon X1950 Pro AGP video card
  • Windows XP Home edition (as per the COA on the side - activated)
  • Microsoft Word 2007 (activated as per license in the box)
  • Steam (loaded and ready for this account)

This isn't really much of a gaming system, but all the upgrades cost less than it would for them to buy a system from us built for Steam gaming. We rarely build systems with gaming in mind, most of the people we see need systems to watch Youtube, go on Facebook and create documents. This build was a little different for us since it involved technology that's even older than what we normally refurbish, but sometimes it's not about building the latest and greatest, but building something that will bring someone joy. I'll post an update how the reveal and subsequent gaming goes.

A clean CPU fan and heat sink

The mound of dirt that was on top of the heat sink is now gone. There's still a bit of cleaning to do externally. Although the case appears to be in pretty good shape from the front, the rear of the case reflects the kind of dirt in the first picture of the front of the case. When there's a lot of dirt it tends to get stuck in crevices like the USB ports, the I/O shield, and the expansion slot covers. Sometimes it can be removed with a toothbrush, sometimes we'll use a zip tie (a zip tie is helpful for removing dirt from between the expansion slot covers).

The HP a610n case and Microsoft Word 2007

You might ask, "why not Linux?" It's a fair question, and one I seriously considered because some of the games the youngster wanted to play actually had support under Steam for Linux, but because some of them didn't I decided to install what was on the COA (Certificate of Authenticity). I realize this isn't anyone's kind of dream Steam machine, but it's a long stretch from what it was. All told if we were to charge our regular rate, the cost for these upgrades would be something like this:

Used/Tested Power Supply - $10
2 x 1GB RAM @ $10/ea - $20
512MB Video Card - $10
320GB HDD - $15
Labour - $25 + HST = $28.25
Grand total = $83.25

Their actual bill - $10 total. When they're ready to step up to something better, hopefully they'll think of us.

If you've been following this story since I first posted about it I'm happy to report that despite the fact that the game the young man wanted to play said it had a minimum requirement of 2.5GB, the game ran on only 2GB of RAM. I believe the 512MB video card made up a bit for the lack of extra RAM. I'm also happy to report that as he started playing the game he said "mom, it plays pretty fast." Mom was pleased because the bill was so low, and impressed when we took the side off to reveal the internals. As is our usual practice we offered them all their old parts back, but I think they were too excited over the price and they just wanted to leave before we changed our mind (we wouldn't have, but sometimes when you get a good deal it's pretty unbelievable).

Since first posting I've changed the top photograph to a heavily edited photo of the game Terraria. I had to blur the image out to protect the reflection of the person playing. I had my doubts as to whether it would work, but I'm happy everything worked out very well in the end.


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