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Dimension 8300 Part 2
Back in 2004 I bought a Dell Dimension 8300 personal computer. I needed one. My long-standing but somewhat flaky Compaq Presario 5004 was getting me through reasonably well, with only a few sudden hard lockups per day1 until a basement flood came and pretty much wrecked it. I actually did try to revive it, by plugging it into an extension cord on the driveway and not even hiding2 while I did so. The power supply just sizzled a little.

I never did find out if the motherboard was still good or not.

I still needed a new computer, so I ordered a Dell Dimension 8300 in what should have been a good configuration for the time: 1GB RAM, 160GB hard disk, Pentium 4 Prescott 3.4GHz CPU, nVidia graphics (nothing to write home about for the time, and even less today) and a Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS (as I have no use for the SoundMAX that Dell would undoubtedly use in a system without an audio expansion card). I spent about $1,800 on it when the dust had settled.

Some people like to say that branded computers suck. I don't agree wholeheartedly with that--a lot depends upon what you buy and how you plan to use it. I was in no frame of mind at the time to build my own computer anyway.

I ordered this in June of 2004 or so, and waited until October to get it. (Dell did give me the option to cancel my order because of this delay, but I stuck it out.) When it was finally delivered, I eagerly opened the box containing my new toy and set in to using it. What I found is that it was not as impressive as it should have been. And by “not as impressive as it should have been”, I really mean that it wasn't very good at all. The system felt sluggish in every regard when it came to disk I/O. Sometimes it would get so bound up that I'd just give up and restart it.

This little game went on for several years. At first I just put up with it, then I complained, followed by more complaining and still more complaining yet3. Somewhere along the line I bought an eMachines computer to replace another system lost during the great flood and even in its bargain basement configuration (PATA drives as compared to the Dim8300's SATA, slower memory, onboard video and a slower AMD Athlon CPU) it still soundly beat the pants off of the Dim8300.

The first thing I did to try and fix the problem was to become vindictive. I viciously ripped the Prescott 3.4GHz Pentium 4 out of the system and replaced it with a lowly 2.2GHz Celeron. And this did help—while it was obvious that the Celeron couldn't think as quickly as the Prescott had, the speed of the system actually picked up and the processor fan stopped sounding like a vacuum cleaner at all times4. This also confirmed that the Dimension 8300 motherboard and its A07 BIOS will in fact support a 400MHz FSB speed, something that contravenes the Dell published specifications.

So I bought a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 Northwood CPU with an 800MHz FSB speed and installed that. It definitely helped. Things still weren't what they should be.

At some point the nVidia video card started to show signs of “personality”. It became finicky about changing modes, and when it did, the video image frequently took some time to settle down. Oddly enough, it was the basic capabilities of the card—like the text mode—that succumbed to failure first. So I pulled the card out and found a bloated cap, right next to the heatsink. I'll spare you the whole video-card-designer-puts-capacitors-right-where-the-most-heat-output-is rant and tell you that this is exactly what did the card in. One bloated cap, right next to the heatsink was all it took.

I chucked the card in favor of an ATI Radeon X1300 AGP card. At the time, I was in a hurry and it was the 8X AGP compatible card that my area Best Buy had for sale. I figured it couldn't be too bad. Even though there is a capacitor sitting right in the output from the cooling fan and it draws so much power as to need a separate power connection, it's still alive and kicking.  And unlike the ATI Radeon 9800 Mac Edition to which I finally glued a Rather Large Fan out of sheer exasperation, the X1300's fan has proven reliable. Even so, I have overheated it to the point where the GPU shifts its speed down.

What the Radeon X1300 is, if anything, is slow. It's not slow to do whatever it is you're asking it to do per se, it's just slow to acknowledge the request at times. In my case, it'll freeze the system for a split second from time to time and then get on with whatever it should be doing. No drivers have fixed it, and while the card could be broken, I'd expect much more serious misbehavior if it was. It's tolerable—this usually only happens when switching video resolutions like you would if you were entering or leaving a computer game and once at startup when the card seems to be examining the monitors attached to it.

And where nVidia seems to continually update and improve the drivers for its GPUs for a long time after their release, ATI sunsets theirs pretty quickly. I'll consider it a lesson learned and stick with nVidia from now on. I really do miss the days when there was actually competition in the graphics market.

With the hard drives getting long in the tooth, I opted to replace both of them. When I bought my Dimension 8300, SATA hard drives were still a pretty new idea, and both of the drives in it were basically PATA drives with a SATA bridge IC on them. This didn't really matter—the onboard ICH5 is only capable of operating in ATA emulation mode anyway. With disk I/O being the seeming root of all the problems I was seeing, I upgraded to new hard drives (both of them native SATA drives) and chose a different brand. The originals were Western Digital hard drives and the replacements came from Seagate and Samsung.

This made no difference. Disk I/O was still sluggish.

Somewhere in this whole saga I bought a Dimension 8400 secondhand, the system that came out right after my 8300 had been delivered. It too had a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Prescott CPU, although this one was in LGA775 trim as opposed to the 8300's Socket 478 CPU. The Dim8400 also ran rings around the 8300 in every regard, and barely raised its cooling fan to above a whisper no matter what it was doing.

Maybe I should have bought a Dimension 8400 to start with? It certainly offered a lot of improvements over the 8300—LGA775 CPUs with 64-bit computing support, DDR2 memory, an Intel 925X Express chipset that could operate attached SATA disks in AHCI mode (allowing the computer and its operating system to make use of advanced SATA features, such as NCQ) and at least two PCI express slots.

On the one hand, I felt good about buying the Dimension 8300 because it was the more mature of the two machines and you should usually never buy version 1.0 of anything. On the other hand, with the improved specifications of the Dimension 8400, Dell had just put the slipper in a few more times5 for good measure.

While it's a double edged sword, the rapid obsolescence of computer equipment can be a good thing at times. In particular, it let me find and buy another Dimension 8300 computer system on eBay for a song. This system was advertised as being in working condition.

“Working” apparently means a lot of different things to people. I've got to be careful here, lest I segue into an eBay rant (which I'm still working on). To me, “working” means that something powers on and can reasonably be said to operate as expected.

If you ever buy a computer and have it shipped to you, it would be a very good idea to check the system out before you ever plug it in. The Shipping People love nothing more than to engage in contact sports with packages entrusted to them, so what enters the system as a pristine cardboard box containing a computer encased solidly in molded foam arrives as a shapeless carboard bag containing some plastic pieces, phenolic shards and bits of wire that might be a computer if you squinted at it in just the right way.

But I digress. I could hear something rattling around in the computer and went to check it out. Nothing was obviously amiss, so I swung the clamshell case apart and proceeded to shift the system around while I examined it.

I should mention that doing this does require some upper body strength, especially if you are a lazy-ass who behind is planted solidly into an easy chair when you do it. In particular, holding a 40 pound computer whose case is clamshelled apart and swinging it around rapidly above your head to see what falls out can lead to a sudden shifting of balance that could take you by surprise and send you crashing to the floor while the still opened computer flies into a nearby table lamp. Of course, while you are regaining your composure and figuring out what profanity is appropriate to use in this situation, the computer will continue on a flight path guided mainly by the value of objects in its path, choosing only to fly in a direction that assures only stuff with value will be in the way.

Fortunately, I did not lose control of the computer. Not that I was doing such a thing while seated in an easy chair to begin with, you understand.

Anyway.

What I did find was a discombustulated CPU fan hanging loose in the system, a missing CMOS battery, and a whole row of bloated capacitors running alongside the CPU. Although I heard something made of plastic rattling around in the case, I never did find it and perhaps it is now in the easy chair, safely ensconced in some place where it will remain until I've forgotten about this activity, at which point it will break out and no doubt prong me in the nether regions when I least expect it, thus necessitating the need to buy another table lamp. As found, the system did work. I fixed the capacitors later.

I am convinced that the Shipping People did not have anything to do with this fan becoming detached. The bloated capacitors suggest that the fan was out of place for some time prior to the computer ever being put up for sale. To give you an idea of the simply phenomenal (keep in mind that I am working with the normal standards of Shipping People as a baseline here) abuse it would take to dislodge the fan, it is actually mounted on some fat rubbery pegs that extend far past the holes drilled in the fan body. To pull the fan off of these pegs would surely take deliberate effort. Therefore I postulate that someone had reason to remove the fan. The only other way I can see it coming off is if you put the computer on a trebuchet and lined it from one end of a football field to the other. What you'd have after that would look less like a computer than what you'd have after the shipping people got through with it.

Putting it back into place was not terribly difficult, although I did break one stretchy peg in the process of doing so. Oops.

What was more interesting was the missing CMOS battery. Why would anyone have removed that? I bought a replacement and put it back together.

There. It's better now. Let's see if it works. I pushed the machine closed, plugged in the power cord and it came on. After setting the time and date it seemed a lot happier, so I tried to shut it off. It would not turn off from the power button, so I pulled the plug. After plugging it back in, I came to find out that it would not turn back on. Why? I started to assume the worst—that the motherboard had failed or something—but then I played with the ribbon cable leading to the front panel, only to discover that where it plugged into the motherboard, the connector had been manhandled to the point where it was no longer holding the ribbon cable in contact with the metal teeth that serve to complete the electrical connections. I pressed the cable back down over the teeth and tried again.

Then the power button started to work properly.

To my way of thinking, this explained the missing CMOS battery. Without it, the system would not remember its last power state, and every time AC power was restored, it would turn on. While this is dumb, I'm impressed (in a Rube Goldberg sense) that someone thought of this as a “solution” to the problem of a busticated front panel cable. Of course, they could have done the same thing intelligently, by using the Dell setup utility and telling the system to always come back on after a loss of input power, but why do that when you can actually play around inside the computer and run a much bigger risk of Breaking Something Beyond Economical Repair?

Well. That was a bit more of a rant than I expected to type here. Armed with my newly delivered and “guaranteed working” computer, I set in to making some cross comparisons.

I had a strong suspicion that this system had, perhaps, been the recipient of some “organ donations” over the years, but when I went to look up the system configuration from the service tag, I got a “500 Server Error” response from the Dell web site. At first I thought their system really was broken, but it worked for my other systems AND it worked well enough for Dell's download service to provide only the downloads that were relevant to this system. As of this writing, it's still broken. That one service tag # throws it for a loop every time. Go figure. Anyone want to cue up a copy of the X-Files theme?

I aligned its configuration with my first Dimension 8300 by installing a SATA hard disk, updating the BIOS to revision A07, installing 2GB of RAM and finishing things up by installing a 3.2GHz Northwood Pentium 4 with an 800MHz FSB speed and hyper-threading support. My main system has a 2.8GHz Northwood, but it's close enough for this comparison. Both operate under Windows XP Professional at this time, although the problems with my first Dim8300 had been noted under Windows 2000 as well.

I ran a lot of programs, downloaded stuff and really pushed the new Dimension 8300 hard. Based on nothing more precise than "seat of the pants experience", it's clear that the new Dimension 8300 laps the one I bought new. The conclusion that I've come to is that something—most probably something on the motherboard—is just ever so slightly broken in my original Dimension 8300. It and the power supply are the only original pieces of hardware left (outside of the optical drives, which I'm sure are not the problem). This new system handily trounces it in every task I've tried so far.

I'm not sure yet what I'll do about this. Maybe I will replace the motherboard in my first Dimension 8300...or maybe I'll just build the dream system I'd like to have here and now in 2010?


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Copyright 2011 William R. Walsh. All Rights Reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce this material or to use any part of it in other creations, so long as the following terms are met: attribution to this page and its author must be supplied, no part of this page may be displayed along advertising content of any sort, no fee may be assessed to provide access to this information (except as reasonably necessary to cover connection time or printing supply expenses) and no part of this material may be used in creations that are illegal, dangerous or derogatory. Created, edited and posted 05/16/2011.

Footnotes:
1 Lack of money breeds tolerance, don't you know?
2 I'm a big chicken when it comes to diddling with electricity and plugging in devices of questionable condition. I did hide around the corner when testing a submerged APC UPS. This was probably a good thing as the UPS went off with a flash and a pretty good bang when I plugged it in. How I didn't pop a circuit breaker with such shenanigans remains a great mystery.
3 Lack of money, part deux.
4 This system, along with most of the others that I own, runs distributed.net around the clock.
5 This means roughly the same thing as “kicking a man when he's down”.