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A couple weeks ago, my computer went through one of its phases again. Once every year or so, my computer decides to brick up, constantly freeze, and whenever I try to access Chrome to debug my problems, it’d decide to display the dreaded waiting for cache error. Usually, a simple Windows 1 restore while keeping my files works fine, but this time, it didn’t.
For the past few months, as everyone knows, COVID-19 has forced schools online, so I’ve been attending classes over Zoom every day. Zoom has its own security issues, but it was the software with the lowest barrier to use, so I guess my program decided to use it. My internet had always been a little sketchy, so I’d occasionally lag out of class. However, for a month leading up to the big crash, I’d been having a couple recurring errors.
First, my entire video feed would freeze, along with the Zoom window. However, I’d be able to hear the audio still, and would remain ‘inside the meeting’. It was awkward to stay silent when I couldn’t unmute and answer a question, and apparently, my own video and audio feeds weren’t working.
Second, my Zoom would go silent, and my video feeds would all freeze. I would still be able to access applications other than Zoom for a couple seconds, but my entire computer soon froze, and I’d need to do a manual shutdown.
Third, Zoom would decide to freeze all other applications (maybe it was using too much CPU or RAM) and I’d be unable to access anything else. I’d also be unable to use any of the Zoom UI, and have to rely on keyboard shortcuts to unmute. Chat was unusable during this time as well. However, my own video and audio remained visible and audible to everyone else.
I have no clue why these issues happened, but I have an inkling as to why, knowing what other problems my computer was having.
Consider this blog post an attempt at a tutorial, and also an amusing story for you to laugh at.
Confusion and Backups
I initially thought these issues had something to do with my internet range, so I moved closer to the modem. There was no change, really.
Now, I was wholly confused, and somehow (thank heaven I saw this coming) decided it was a good idea to make backsup of my files. Now, stupidly, I didn’t use the Windows Backup tool, which would be a more efficient way of making a backup, I’m sure. Instead, I was manually copy-pasting 7z archives of my most important files, like homework and development work. This backup was made a week or so before the actual crash, so it was unfortunately a little out of date. Very annoying.
In the future, I think I’ll continue to make properly regular backups with either the Windows Backup tool or Bacula, another tool I’ve been investigating. Backups are something I’ve personally neglected often over my development journey, and that’s something that I have to change in the future.
The Big Crash
Let’s get into the story. Let me paint the scene, as my friends say. Imagine you’re just going about your average Friday - attending classes on Zoom, doing some homework. It’s maybe 1200, and you’ve just finished your first class. For some reason, your laptop’s decided to die, and it’s decided to have to go into a ‘Preparing System Repair’ loop. You take out your phone and listen into class with that instead. While juggling a sorry attempt at fried rice (online soup day was an experience and a half), you try to F11 BIOS reset. But that’s not working - apparently your BIOS can’t be found?
Panicking, you frantically Google whatever solutions, and for some reason, you’re able to get past the System Repair loop, and Windows is booting properly again. You can attend your second class, which goes relatively smoothly, tech-wise. You do your homework for the day, and because of the frequent issues, you decide to investigate how to fix the issues with Zoom. (At this point, there’s still no Chrome issues, and the disk is still fine.) A couple hours of coding and inevitable bugfixing later, you go offline for the day - but what’s this? A Windows Update? Usually, those are known to cause errors, and you really can’t afford to lose more time wasting away on sketchy tech support sites.
But on the flip side, maybe this is one of those good updates. An update that will fix the issues you’ve been having. Maybe even update your drivers and download more RAM so that Zoom can slurp up more of it. Fine, you think, and click the
Update and restart button. You turn off the lights, and let it do its thing for the rest of the night.
So that was a lie.
You wake up in the morning, and you’re able to do about half an hour’s worth of work. Check a couple emails - oh wait, Chrome’s frozen now. Alright, you think, this has happened so many times before. Time to force shutdown. There isn’t anything major wrong yet.
Oh wait, that’s right - every time you shut down now, you have to enter some sort of
Preparing Automatic Repair loop. That’s fine - it usually takes maybe a couple minutes to run. But this time - no. It doesn’t. You start and stop the loop, and eventually, give up in favour of eating lunch. Hopefully, by the time you’re back, it’ll be alright? Spoiler alert - it wasn’t.
After fiddling with a couple BIOS things and running a hard drive check (which passed - remember this for later) somehow (?) the entire system decided to boot fine. At this point, I was too grateful to make a proper backup, and was just finishing up some homework. Naively, I thought everything’d be fine afterward. Well, that’s, what, the third time I’ve been wrong, just in this section?
Reset and Restore
Generally, when issues happen after Windows Updates, I just run a System Restore, and everything works pretty well. I try to avoid doing this however, because it involves re-installing tonnes of my apps again, and it’s super annoying each time. The last time I’d had to run a System Restore was a year and a bit ago, and reinstalling all my apps, programming languages, command line tools, and reconfiguring my custom settings. But at this point, I was getting pretty desperate.
I restarted my computer for the umpteenth time, and after a bit more fiddling, I got into the Windows F11 menu. I know my way around this menu, so it was just a matter of clicking to the
Restore option. It was pretty painless, but at this point, would anything be painless? I was happy that I’d managed to figure everything out quite nicely, and proceeded to ignore my laptop to browse Reddit for a while.
Once I’d finished dinner, I came back upstairs, and what do you know? The restore’s finished. I didn’t get a success screen nor the usual ‘Welcome to Windows’, and instead, got back to the previous restore window. (Y’know, the blue one.) I figure it’s alright - it has to have finished to have brought me back here, yeah? Well, I restart my machine as I usually do, and bam. A black screen blankly declaring that
there was no operating system detected. And this wasn’t even the ugly HP BIOS interface, nor the colourful F9 menu. This was bad. At this point, I figure it’s just some issue with HP detecting Windows, especially with the error of having some weird BIOS issues earlier. I restart. And this is where it really gets bad.
Whenever I booted, it would just be a black screen. No
Preparing Automatic Repair, no HP logo, no spinning circles, no nothing. Just a black screen. You ask - are you sure your monitor’s just not dead? I know it’s not dead - it’s lit up. What is this? Time to spend ages Googling again, this time with the help of
A, a tech guy that my parents know. They direct me to the HP support website, but it’s for Windows 7/8/XP, so I find the equivalent for Windows 10. Apparently, my BIOS needs refreshing. Alright, I use my parents’ laptop to download it to an external USB.
I enter the F9 boot menu, and try to boot into it. Fine, that works alright. Now, I try to boot back from my main drive - oh, oops. Looks like there’s no hard drive detected. This is fun. And the lights for the hard drive aren’t even turning on. Probably should have noticed that earlier, but those LEDs are so smol-
Now, remember how I’d run the hard disk check? I thought the success meant that everything was alright on my drive, and it was another problem. Hmm - looks like that was a big lie. At this point, it’s maybe 2000, and I’m panicking.
A tells me I should go find another hard drive and download Windows from that. I’d read about this before in the countless manual pages I’d crawled, and at this point, I was resigned to losing all my data.
So here I was, in the middle of a global pandemic, where I can’t take my laptop to any fixer-upper shops or even stop by Best Buy for some spare parts. Everything was still closed. I don’t just have hard drives laying around, and I had school in two days. Not enough time to get a new laptop, or even start researching one.
Thank the Lord for Memory Express, and in part, BC’s relatively good ways of dealing with the pandemic. Memory Express - a popularish though dated computer parts store - was still open for curbside pickup. I spend some time cracking open my laptop2 and finally find my hard drive. I try to figure out how to measure it, and then realize that only 2.5" HDDs are used in laptops. (I promise, I’m very intelligient and know lots about computers.) While we’re ordering (the exact same model of HDD - in hindsight, it would have been a good time to switch to a SSD), I might as well pick up an additional RAM stick, so hopefully I’ll be back tomorrow with a shiny new 1TB HDD and 16GB of RAM instead of 8.
It’s around 2300 - way past my bedtime - and I’m halfway insane. I do love having my computer break down in the middle of a pandemic when I probably should be doing work hhhhh! (Side note: thank heavens it was Victoria Day as well. Without that, I would have had no time to do my homework.)
The next morning, I can’t really do anything with technology, which was a nice break. I spend some time scrolling Reddit, but mostly read and research the steps I’ll need to take once the parts arrive.
My Own CPEN Club
Alright. It’s 1300, I should be leading the Pythoners at Coding Club, but the world has decided I’m not worthy. The parts are back from Memory Express, I’ve watched too many tech YouTubers reinstall Windows, and I’m itching to get Watson3 back up and running. I have homework to speedrun, after all.
Slotting the HDD in isn’t very difficult - a couple screws. Look for the holder, and loosen the one screw (at least on HP chasses) that’s holding the holder in. Then, you can slide the HDD out, and replace it with a fresh one. Make sure you keep track of your screws, by the way. If you forget even one screw, I don’t think your laptop will manage to hold itself together (unless you use Flex Glue, but maybe not the best idea). RAM is similarly easy to install, just slotting it in. Fun fact, there’s a little slot that helps you align it. The things you learn as you scrutinize small traces on a tiny green card that has the power to speed up your laptop.
Alright, installation time. I grab my media installation key, and it’s gaming week. Excited, I F9 into the boot menu (the only screen, by the way, that I can still access, besides F11), and boot into the Windows USB. All is well for once. A couple skims later, I finally get into the installation menu. But one last obstacle - there’s no hard drive detected. At this point, I’m not even surprised.
A briefly and reattempting to install the HDD, I realize I haven’t clicked it in properly, and the HDD is at a weird angle. I fix it, and once I boot back into the USB - all is finally well. I’m serious this time - nothing else glitched. It took some time to reinstall my old programs and unarchive and copy over all my files, but that’s probably the end of the difficult, big-brain bit. The only thing I had to do now?4 Redo my homework. Oops.
I’m really lucky that I had a long weekend, Memory Express, and a bunch of technical resources on my side. Without those, Watson would definitely be dead. Right now, the extra RAM is a welcome boost, and everything’s going well. Backups are being made, and Zoom hasn’t crashed once. I suspect it has something to do with corrupted hard disks. Apparently HPs have this issue - but that’s alright.
Through this process, I learned a lot about BIOS and what buttons to mash in an attempt to restore my laptop. It wasn’t too bad, in hindsight. Now, I have a shiny, 2k word-long post to constantly remind me that my hard disk is bad!
Also, this post turned out- interesting. It’s quite long, so congrats if you even make it here. It jumps between second and first person a bunch, and hey, it’s more meme material. Fun!
No Currently section today - just been working on Khan Academy. If you’re interested, the repo of my spaghetti implementations is available on GitHub. Hopefully I’ll be back with proper projects soon!
Yes. I use Windows, I think everyone knows by now. Probably will be switching to Linux later in the summer, but no need to
Archbtwme. I’ve heard it already. ↩︎
Why did HP think it was a good idea to hide screws under the gummy feet? Or make the keyboard extra-difficult to remove from the chassis? Now, I have dents in the edging from my attempts to crack open the case. ↩︎
I think I neglected to mention this, but my laptop is also sometimes referred to as Watson. I was very quirky when I decided to name my laptop, alright? ↩︎
Besides stopping Windows from spying on me a little too much. ↩︎
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