Mysterious memory controller problems

Yesterday, I decided to setup an old computer for my Mom to use, who, like 80% of Canadians, only really used the Internet for browsing and e-mail. The PC previously had Win98SE installed on it, but that just wasn’t going to fly, so I decided to give Ubuntu a try, and see what all the hype was about, and get some experience with an OS other than Windows. Ubuntu seemed to also be the perfect fit for what my Mom would want – basically just web-browsing and e-mail, and Ubuntu would easily be able to deliver that in a secure environment.

However, I ran into some difficulties during installation that turned out to be result of some faulty hardware, which eventually turned out to be likely a problem with the motherboard – and ended up costing me an afternoon of headaches.

The PC I was initially installing Ubuntu on was a Celeron-I 500 MHz, in an Asus P2L97 with 128 MB of RAM – a configuration roughly 6-7 years old. During installation, I kept getting “corrupt package” errors, so I initially thought that the CD I had burned was corrupt. I re-burned the Ubuntu 6.06 LTS “Dapper Drake” ISO, this time at a lower speed, but when installation came around, I ran into the same “corrupt package” errors.

Still not realizing what the problem was, I decided to try Xubuntu, a lightweight distro based on Ubuntu, thinking that somehow the meagre system specs of the PC were somehow involved in the errors. This didn’t help at all, and I still kept getting corruption errors. I finally decided to run the included MemTest, and it turned up a boatload of errors, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 50,000 on one of the tests.

After this, I was sure I’d found the problem – the memory had gone bad during all those years of operation. I switched out the memory, but the corruption problems still persisted. Now, at this point, I was scratching my head. I didn’t really feel like rebuilding the hardware around the system, but that was my only option at this point. I did some searching and found a Celeron-II @ 1 GHz in an Asus CUSL2-C motherboard with 512 MB of RAM.

After spending half-an-hour or so rebuilding the system (which, in retrospect, I should have done anyway), Ubuntu installed like a charm and I was very pleased. It turns out there was probably something wrong with the motherboard, its memory controller or maybe something wrong with that memory slot.

In conclusion…

Now, here is the part where I’d normally give some “words of wisdom” when it comes to diagnosing a hardware problem. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any advice that would apply to all situations, other than, don’t be lazy. While it’s true that running MemTest would have shown there was something wrong with the memory subsystem, rather than the problem being with a corrupted CD, the opposite situation could just as easily have been the case. Instead, I should have just rebuilt around the better hardware in the first place, and then all of this would have been avoided.

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