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Laramie Movie Scope:
My power supply odyssey

Diagnosing power supply problems

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 28, 2014 -- This is not a movie review. It is an article about fixing a computer. While researching this problem, I found very little help in online fix-it forums, so I am writing my own article in hopes of helping someone who has a similar problem to the one I had.

My computer, an old Sony Vaio VGC-RB50, started getting cranky a few months ago. It got as hard to start in cold weather as my old Ford Pickup. I'd push the start button, and nothing would happen. Other times, it would start right up. At first, I thought it might be the switch. I opened up the case, pulled the switch out where I could see it and used a screwdriver to short across the contacts. The computer started right up. So it was the switch, right? Wrong. The switch had nothing to do with the problem. The problem came back and shorting the switch didn't start it. This was one of several dead end theories I had.

I did some research online and came across “the hair dryer solution.” It sounds nuts, but it does work, after a fashion. What you do is heat up the back of the computer where the power supply is located, using a hair dryer. I couldn't find a hair dryer, so I used a small portable heater. The computer started up when it got hot enough.

There are two theories about why this works. One is that the condensers (capacitors which can store electrical energy) in the power supply get weak over time and won't hold a charge to start the computer when they are cold. The other is that there is a cold weld somewhere in the power system that won't connect properly unless it is warm. Personally, I think it is the capacitors (originally called condensers -- I use the two terms interchangeably). I have never heard of anyone repairing a bad power supply by fixing a cold weld, but there have been reports of bad batches of capacitors -- knock-offs made in China.

Eventually, by doing research and observing the computer, I discovered (with help from YouTube) that there is a green light in the back of the computer connected to the power supply. When it shines steadily, the computer will usually start. When it is blinking, the computer won't start. By applying heat to the back of the computer with a hair dryer, or similar heating device, the blinking green light will eventually change into steady green.

My practice for years with this computer is to turn off the power to the computer at night by switching off the power strip it is plugged into. That saves electricity. I found out that if I left the power on, even when the computer was turned off, the power supply was able to maintain its charge over night and start the computer the next day, even when it is cold. That means the computer is drawing power, even when it is off. With power supplied to the computer 24-7, I saw that the green light stayed on and steady all the time.

One night when it was exceptionally cold (about 30 below zero, and the temperature inside the house got to the low 40 degree range, the computer again refused to start unless it was heated up, even though the power was connected over night and the green light was steady. It appeared my power supply problem was getting worse. At times, the fans would come on but the operating system would not start unless the computer was heated. Time for a new power supply. I opened up the computer and wrote down the specifications of my power supply, the original 300 watt unit.

According to research on the internet, I decided my power supply was probably underpowered for my system, which runs two hard drives, a blu-ray burner and a dvd burner. I also wanted upgrade my video card to a model that requires more power. My thought was to make my computer into something like a home media center computer. I bought a SeaSonic S12II 620-watt power supply.

I looked around for instructions on how to put the new power supply in the computer. The new power supply didn't match my old one. It has a fan on the bottom instead of on the back and, unlike the original, it has a built-in power switch on the back. I procrastinated, not knowing if it would fit, or work. The computer forced my hand. It died. It refused to start, even when heated. Time to face the music.

I looked again for instructions on how to install a new power supply. I finally found a tutorial which did not assume I already knew where to attach all those friggin' cables. Most tutorials amounted to the following: take out the old power supply and install the new one. After all, if I knew where to attach all the cables, I wouldn't need a tutorial in the first place.

The key suggestion in one of the few helpful tutorials was to use masking tape and a felt tip pen to label each power cable that I disconnected when I removed the old power supply, so I knew which device it powered. I also put labels on a couple of places inside the computer so I would not forget where the new cables were supposed to connect to the motherboard.

I didn't bother labeling the various drives. Those were obvious, since I had previously replaced all the hard drives and disk drives in the computer myself. About the only original devices left inside this computer are the motherboard, ethernet card and processor. The original hard drive went bad almost immediately after I bought it. The same kind of hard drive failure had happened to me before when I bought a new Gateway computer in 1995. Just my luck. One thing about having defective hard drives -- if you fix them and replace them yourself, you learn a lot about computers.

So now I had the old, dead power supply out of the computer with labels on all the power cables indicating what devices they had been powered inside the computer. I put the new power supply into the computer chassis. This was very hard. It was a tight fit, and since it was built differently than the original, it didn't go in the same way. I had to take a chassis fan off to squeeze it in, but I finally got in in. I reattached the chassis fan. I started looking for cables from the new power supply that had connectors on the end that matched the labeled ones on my dead power supply. This was not easy, since I had mis-labeled something and the new cables were much harder to connect than the old ones were. The connectors fit very snug and tight, so it was a struggle.

One of the mother board connections didn't match the cable. The new cable terminated in eight plugs (two sets of four). The original cable only had four, which connected to a four prong socket on the mother board. But I had read up on this and knew that the eight-connector cable which terminates in two sets of four plugs should work on the mother board. You just pick either of the two four-plug connectors on the end of the cable and plug it in to the mother board and leave the other one loose, dangling like an uninvited guest. The reason for this awkward arrangement has something to do with motherboards that are even older than mine, or so I've read.

So now came the moment of truth. Would it work? It did, first try. The computer starts like a champ now, cold or hot. I can turn my power strip off an night. The capacitors in the new power supply hold a charge just fine. The computer no longer takes in electricity all night like a power vampire.

The computer runs a little hotter now. The fan in the new power supply is weak. It doesn't move much air. I'm going to need some better cooling fans by the time summer rolls around, but at least I've got lots of power to run big power-hungry fans now.

While I was at it, I also installed a new video card in the vacant PCI-e slot on my motherboard, a MSI N210-MD1G/D3 GeForce 210 1GB 64-Bit DDR3 card that can output both surround sound and high definition video. Once I got the card into the slot and connected the cable to the monitor, the installation went pretty well. The card fit tight. I had to push it about three different ways at once to get it to seat into the slot, and hold back a plastic spring blocking the slot at the same time. My old computer is now ready to upgrade from Win XP to Win 7, either 32-bit or 64-bit.

So what does all this mean? It means the hair-dryer method doesn't solve the problem. It is just a temporary fix. Leaving the computer hooked up to live power 24 hours a day doesn't solve anything either. It is just delays the inevitable replacement of the power supply. If your computer won't start without a hair dryer to warm it up, or it won't start without being plugged in all the time (A good test is to disconnect your computer from power for a few days or weeks while you are on vacation. That will really test your power supply's ability to hold a charge.), or if it starts up partially, the fans come on but the operating system won't start up, you probably have a bad power supply. Cleaning out the inside of your computer won't help, that is just OCD talking. Get a new power supply. They are not expensive, or hard to install, despite all my complaining.

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Copyright © 2014 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)