Computer says ‘Meh’

Ok, so I’m not afraid to admit it, this has me confused.  Ever since boxing day, my computer seems to have developed an annoyingly-hard-to-pin-down fault (or, possibly, series of faults).

Sometimes, it boots perfectly.  Other times, it seems to get through the POST ok (well, there are no beep codes, which could mean either that the POST completes successfully or that it doesn’t start – the former is most likely), but the hard drive fails to power up.  On yet other occasions, I hear the hard drive power up, but either the video drivers don’t start or the graphics chip isn’t working, and the machine fails to boot.  Most frequently, the POST is completed successfully, the hard drive powers up, the video drivers/ graphic chip works fine, and the machine gets as far as the first few seconds of launching windows before hanging with no disc access.  There is no apparent pattern to when each error occurs, although hanging part-way into launching windows is by far the most frequent error.  When my computer does boot, there are no apparent problems (or, to be strictly accurate, no new problems).

Launching in safe mode with a boot log, it appears that the windows boot process hangs, when it does, after launching atisgkaf.sys.  I’ll be honest, up until the development of this problem, I had lived my life in total ignorance of atisgkaf.sys, and I was perfectly happy with that state of affairs.  I assume it’s a video driver of some sort, but I wouldn’t be at all confident of that – I’m basing my assumption on nothing more than knowing that my PC uses an ati chipset for video.

Googling the filename brings up mainly forum posts, mainly with people saying ‘Wah!  My computer won’t boot, it hangs on atisgkaf.sys’.  There seem to be a whole range of different contexts in which the problem has arisen – so many, in fact, that I’m fairly strongly inclined to think that they’re not describing a single problem, but a whole range of problems, all of which just happen to occur at a similar point in the boot process.  The people who have resolved their various issues seem to have followed Generic IT Solution #2: “Format & Reinstall Windows”.  (Generic IT Solution #1 is, of course, “Have You Tried Turning It Off And On Again?”…)  With my own intermittent fault I’ve noticed that, when my PC boots successfully, atisgkaf.sys is the last thing displayed before the most basic version of the GUI is launched (i.e., the point at which the mouse cursor appears), which means that my problem is very possibly not with the file specifically, but with something else that happens between the launch of that and starting the GUI.

In terms of working around my problems, sometimes triggering a soft reboot by pressing the reset key works like a charm.  Other times, pressing the reset key achieves nothing.  At yet other times, the reset key triggers a reboot, but the machine hangs at any of the stages mentioned above.  Powering the machine off and on sometimes results in a normal boot, and sometimes one that hangs at any of the stages mentioned above.  In both cases, there doesn’t seem to be any pattern as to when it will work and when it won’t.  Thus far, the option that seems to work most consistently is:

  1. powering the machine off;
  2. taking the cover off;
  3. prodding vaguely at the power and data connections to the hard drive;
  4. powering the machine on with the cover still off.  (Seriously, if I replace the cover before powering up, the ‘fix’ fails to work.)

All I have really been able to deduce from this is that (like its owner…) my computer apparently enjoys being stripped naked and prodded.  Certainly it doesn’t work consistently enough for me to be convinced that I’m doing anything that actually fixes the fault.

Something else I’ve noticed is that the problem is far more likely to occur if the computer’s been off for a time.  If I reboot after I’ve been using it for a while, or I shut it down for only a few minutes before restarting, it almost always boots straight through.  If it’s been off for a few hours, it won’t usually work until I’ve taken the side panel off and prodded it.  I’ll be honest, this is probably the thing that has me most confused.  It’s almost as though, like an old car, it’s more likely to start reliably if the engine is warm.  I presume it must be a coincidence.

Anyway, the real crux of the matter is that I can’t really work out what the problem is, and that makes it almost impossible to come up with a solution.  If my PC was consistently hanging when it was booting into windows, I’d assume my installation had become corrupted somehow, and I’d set about repairing or replacing it.  If I was consistently hearing the hard drive power up but nothing was being displayed on the screen, I’d assume the onboard graphics chip had blown, and I’d set about trying to find the ancient PCI graphics card I should still have in a cupboard somewhere, and seeing if I could coax that into working.  If the hard drive was consistently failing to power up, I’d assume the problem lay either with the power supply to the hard drive, or the hard drive itself, and I’d hope like hell it was the former, because, if it wasn’t, I’d have just lost an awful lot of pornography and TV invaluable personal data.  As it is, I feel like I’m groping round pretty much in the dark.

Some of the issues seem like hardware problems to me – the intermittent failure to power up the hard drive, and the intermittent graphics failure at boot.  Given that there seem to be two separate faults, and they’re both intermittent, my best guess would be that this was a power supply issue, or a problem with the motherboard’s power management.  But, if this is a hardware issue, I can’t really understand why the problems only ever crop up during the very early stages of the boot.  I would expect (possibly wrongly…) hardware problems this fundamental to manifest at other points in the boot process, or even while the machine was running, but, so far, they haven’t.

On the other hand, I don’t see how it can be a software issue, although there are some aspects – repeatedly hanging at the same point while launching windows – that seem like they might be the result of a corrupted driver or something similar.  There are really two major objections that I can see to the idea that this might be a software problem.  First of all, I don’t see that a software fault can be intermittent – either a file is corrupted (in which case, presumably, it would fail to do its job every time) or it’s intact (in which case I would have thought that it would work every time).  Secondly, some of the errors are occurring so early in the boot process – even before the BIOS is loaded, in the case of the failure to power-up the hard drive – that it’s hard to imagine that a software error or corruption can be at fault.  There’s a possibility, of course, that I have more than one fault, and it’s just a coincidence that they’ve cropped up at the same time.

Anyway, I shall keep puzzling away at this, well out of my depth as I undoubtedly am.  (Feel free to leave comments laughing at any particularly crashing misassumptions or mistakes I’ve made, btw…)  Also, if I should happen to abruptly disappear in the next little while, you’ll know why.  If I’m right, and this (or some of this) does suggest a developing hardware fault, then I might be away for a while, depending on how expensive the components I’ll need to replace are.  If it is a motherboard fault, then that will mean a new processor too – they don’t make motherboards slow enough to handle my processor anymore – and, probably, a new case, as the SFF system I have at the moment won’t take a standard-sized motherboard.  All of those things together might turn out to be rather expensive, and so might translate into a bit of a delay before I’ll be able to get back online.

Alternatively, of course, it may turn out to be nothing.

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11 Responses to Computer says ‘Meh’

  1. Kapitano says:

    Atisgkaf is indeed a video process, and comes with Windows – not installed with the video drivers. But it’s also a hiding place for several malwares, which by accident (ie. lousy coding) or design might cause a hang.

    If your information is on a different drive from the system, I’d just reinstall Windows. If not, you could try installing a second Windows copy, possibly onto a different drive, chosing the option to not format the disk first.

    Then boot from the second installation – the most recent installation will also be the default – and use that to back up your files, then install again over your corrupted Windows before deleting the second one.

    Failing that, seeing as you presumably have a second computer – one to post from – you could take the hard drive out of your first computer, put it in the second as a slave, back up all the data you want to DVDR, erase the corrupted system, replace the drive and…reinstall Windows.

    I’ve done both these several times, and they’re not as scary as they sound to most people.

    And in the future…

    * Try to install programs on a different drive from the system
    * Try to keep data on a different drive from both
    * Download TweakUI to change the location of My Documents.
    * Invest in a copy of Acronis True Image, or something similar, to take restorable system-and-software backups on (say) a monthly bass.

  2. I hope you get your computer problem resolved tout suite, but I have to admit that I laughed at “All I have really been able to deduce from this is that (like its owner…) my computer apparently enjoys being stripped naked and prodded. “

  3. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    KapitanoIf your information is on a different drive from the system

    My data is on a different logical drive, but the same physical drive (well, i have two physical drives in the machine, but the secondary one is fairly small, so the bulk of the data is on the same one). I’m ok if i have to reinstall windows, but not if there’s a hardware problem with the physical drive. But i am reasonably confident that there isn’t.

    as you presumably have a second computer

    I don’t have a second computer. I posted the post (and this comment) from the one that has the sequence of intermittent faults. Thus far, i’ve always ultimately got it to boot, though sometimes (including just now) only after i’ve given it a bit of a prodding. This is one of the things that has me confused – the intermittency of the fault(s). In particular, i have difficulty understanding how atisgkaf.sys can be corrupted/ replaced with malware/ whatever if the computer can sometimes launch the file and boot through to completion. Though my inability to understand is very possibly (probably?) a function of my ignorance. :o)

    I’ve done both these several times, and they’re not as scary as they sound to most people.

    I’ve done the installing a second version of windows thing once, when i was briefly trying Windows ME in parallel with Windows 98. Swapping hard drives in and out of different machines is something i’ve done a lot of, both for myself, and for other people. Does this mean i don’t count as ‘most people’? I’ve always hoped it made me slightly geeky… ;o)

    * Try to install programs on a different drive from the system

    That’s the first time i’ve come across this piece of advice. What’s the advantage? Is it that it decreases the likelihood of malware corrupting the system? Presumably the software would still have to be reinstalled with each fresh install of windows. Unless i was sensible like you and used portable versions of apps, that is… :o)

    * Invest in a copy of Acronis True Image, or something similar, to take restorable system-and-software backups on (say) a monthly bass

    This is a very good piece of advice, and something i know i should do, because it would make the hassle of a windows reinstall so much less of a hassle. The trouble is i’m just too damn lazy… But when i next have a working DVD burner (i probably haven’t mentioned that the one i have is ok for reading discs, but can’t burn them anymore) i am determined to turn over a new leaf.

    Hmmm, that was an incredibly long and boring reply that could basically been summarised in 6 words – thanks for the excellent advice, Kapitano – wasn’t it? Sorry. :o)

    saveyoursanityI hope you get your computer problem resolved tout suite

    Thanks. :o)

    I laughed at “All I have really been able to deduce from this is that (like its owner…) my computer apparently enjoys being stripped naked and prodded. “

    I’m glad!

  4. Kapitano says:

    My data is on a different logical drive, but the same physical drive

    Ah yes, sorry. A lot of people have difficulty with the difference between logical and physical drives, and have only one physical drive anyway. So I’ve got into the habit of simplifying things for them, and only talk about “drives” if it doesn’t make a practical difference.

    This is one of the things that has me confused – the intermittency of the fault(s).

    Indeed. Me too. But it’s just occured to me that the problem might be an intermittant hardware fault on your video card – one that doesn’t prevent display, but does make it fail to respond when being accessed by this particular .SYS file.

    I’d say try reinstalling Windows just to make sure it isn’t a hardware fault like that.

    BTW, I once had a system which crashed on boot because of an out of date mouse driver (!). And another that only booted if you kept ejecting the CD drive.

    I’ve done the installing a second version of windows thing once

    Completely off topic, but I’ve got:
    (1) a second, un-stripped-down installation of XP that I use for the 2 or 3 occasional tasks that need it, and
    (2) a virtual PC running XP, for trying out possibly-dangerous software, and making portable verious of the ones I decide to keep.

    * Try to install programs on a different drive from the system

    That’s the first time i’ve come across this piece of advice. What’s the advantage?

    It doesn’t make Windows any safer, but it does reduce fragmentation a lot. And even more so if you use a pagefile.

    And yes, you’d still have to re/de-install in the usual way. Speaking of which, I recommend Revo – it’s free, portable, and uninstalls programs much more cleanly and completely than Window’s own uninstaller.

  5. It could be worth getting a copy of a bootable copy of linux on a pen drive or CD and trying to boot into that a few times. This will give you the chance to back some stuff up too.

    If your computer is working in linux then it is presumably a windows issue.

    xx

  6. gun street girl says:

    saveyoursanity, on January 3rd, 2010 at 12:08 pm Said:

    I hope you get your computer problem resolved tout suite, but I have to admit that I laughed at “All I have really been able to deduce from this is that (like its owner…) my computer apparently enjoys being stripped naked and prodded. “

    LOL…this made me laugh too. I’m reading this on the very early train from Leeds to London and it was my first laugh of the day.

  7. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the extra comments. Also sorry to those of you signed up to the RSS feed for comments – two spam messages seem to have made it through over the last couple of days.

    Kapitanoit’s just occured to me that the problem might be an intermittant hardware fault on your video card – one that doesn’t prevent display, but does make it fail to respond when being accessed by this particular .SYS file.

    That’s a worryingly plausible explanation. It would also explain why the graphics sometimes fail altogether. The very occasional problem with the hard drive failing to power up could be ‘just one of those things’, and only seeming like a problem because i’m rebooting such a lot at the moment.

    (2) a virtual PC running XP, for trying out possibly-dangerous software

    That’s a really good idea. It would have saved me a lot of hassle just a short while ago… ;o)

    It doesn’t make Windows any safer, but it does reduce fragmentation a lot

    Ah, i see. I used to stress out about fragmentation, but these days i’ve decided life’s too short. Plus, windows has usually collapsed in a quivering heap for other reasons long before fragmentation becomes a serious issue…

    Thanks for the tip about the unistaller. :o)

    intothesystem – well, i’ve been meaning to give Linux another go for a while now, and going with a version that boots off CD would obviously make sense. As i have my data on a different drive to my windows installation, though, i don’t have to back stuff up before reinstalling.

    Actually, i’m slightly surprised to hear that Linux would be able to see inside a Windows (NTFS) drive in order to back up. When i last looked into Linux (which was ages ago, to be fair), that was a real problem with running a dual-boot system – that you’d inevitably find that the data you wanted was on a drive formatted for the other OS. But, like i say, that was a while ago, so things have probably moved on. :o)

    gun street girlthis made me laugh too. I’m reading this on the very early train from Leeds to London and it was my first laugh of the day.

    I’m pleased you enjoyed it! I imagine laughs can be fairly thin on the ground on the early train from Leeds to London, so i’m glad to have been of service. :o)

  8. Heather says:

    De-lurking here…
    Another oddball possible explanation coming from personal experience. It sounds like the system is probably at least a couple of years old from your comment about the processor. I had a motherboard battery start to fail on me causing weird, intermittent problems like this. In particular, your comment about it being fine if the system had just recently been on rang bells to me. It took forever to figure out what it was in my system. In the end, it was mom who called it for what it was. Don’t moms always have a solution? Helps that she spent her career in IT though :) I don’t remember what I did to confirm it was the battery, I suspect it was simply to replace it.

  9. The file system thing can be a pain. Linux does prefer Fat 32, but it is possible to get NTFS up and running in ubuntu.

    Hope you get it sorted!

    Heather’s suggestion of CMOS battery may also be worth ruling out.

  10. Although you should be able to work out if it’s CMOS by checking the time on your computer when it boots. If it’s right then it should be okay.

  11. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the extra comments.

    HeatherDe-lurking here…

    Nice to meet you. :o)

    I had a motherboard battery start to fail on me causing weird, intermittent problems like this. In particular, your comment about it being fine if the system had just recently been on rang bells to me.

    I hadn’t considered that, mainly because i’ve never had a CMOS battery fail on me before. As per intothesystem’s comment, though, my system clock does seem to be fine. Anyway, i shall add it to my list of possibilities to consider (and it wouldn’t have occurred to me in a month of Sundays if you hadn’t suggested it, so thank you), although it is currently looking slightly like the faults may have resolved themselves…

    intothesystem – sorry about the problems you had with your comments. I’ve de-spammed the first one (have no idea why it got marked as spam, btw), and deleted the third one that was replacing it – hope that was ok.

    Linux does prefer Fat 32, but it is possible to get NTFS up and running in ubuntu.

    Ah, i was right: things have moved on. :o)

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