Computer Not Working, Computer Now Working, Now What?
March 15, 2021 12:59 PM   Subscribe

A few days ago my 7 years old PC conked out while struggling through a Windows update that had been dragging out over a couple days. Starting the PC would lead to a regular load screen, followed by a log in to the default account and then a blank screen with an unresponsive navbar at the bottom and no way to access files or programs. I put Linux Mint on a USB and after trial and error got that to work. Now that I can actually use the PC, how can I find out what the problem is and remediate it? More details and related questions within!

PC is off-the-shelf Acer Aspire ATC-105-EB13 purchased in Summer 2014. It had been somewhat chuggy with frequent fan whining even during relatively light use for a while. Due to the age of the machine I assume the problem is hardware. This is a low-mid level PC and honestly the specs for similar ones don't seem to have improved very much in the past seven years, it feels like it would be cheaper for me to replace defective components and do some upgrades rather than buy a new machine.

1) Is there a Linux diagnostic tool that can check the system for hardware errors and provide analysis comprehensible to a layperson? Say it needs a new CPU, where do I start looking for a compatible replacement, or maybe more accurately, how can I identify a compatible replacement? I can google things and can sometimes half-way articulate and understand concepts, but I am not very savvy.

2) It's only been a few days but I am liking Linux Mint a lot. Initially I was thinking about partitioning if/when the problem is solved so Windows would be available but we would use Linux Mint as our primary OS - the vast majority of our usage is web/browser-based and games on Steam. But I would be happy to just pitch Windows altogether; my spouse has a work laptop, LibreOffice would cover the occasional typing we do at home, and WINE would work for playing Windows-only games and other software, correct?

3) Say the problem is found, fixed, and I decide to do a clean install of Linux Mint. What is the best way to deal with files currently on the hard drive that I want to save or carry over to the new OS? I'm primarily thinking of photos (Suggestions for proper storage strategies are appreciated) and game files for Steam (Are those backed up to cloud or would I need to copy my Shadownrun folder from Windows to Linux Mint so I don't lose progress, for example?)

4) Random question: After making the USB bootable drive, I had a bugger of a time getting the PC to actually boot from it, despite changing Boot Priority in BIOS. After trying and failing and tweaking several things in BIOS to get it to boot from USB (To the point I was making myself nervous) I finally reverted it to the default BIOS and rebooted it, but that time out of literally 15 for apparent reason when Windows got to the login screen it said there was a boot failure and then gave me the option of booting from USB. What the hell was up with that?

Thanks for any help you can provide!
posted by Alvy Ampersand to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
For the gaming specific questions - a lot of games on Steam have really good support on Linux. It would probably be easiest to go to find each game on and/or and verify:

1) "Supported Systems" has Linux.
2) under the rating and in-game stats, look for the cloud icon (which reads "Steam Cloud" on hover). That indicates your save games should be saved in the cloud and pulled in to your Linux install.

If you have a game that doesn't use Steam Cloud, you can try manually copying the saves over, which PC Gaming Wiki should have the locations listed for. Note that the files aren't always cross platform compatible though, especially for older games. Good luck!
posted by hankscorpio83 at 1:27 PM on March 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

WINE would work for playing Windows-only games and other software, correct?

Definitely not 'any game' and some require specific settings (key word: winetricks)

I had a bugger of a time getting the PC to actually boot from it

You were lucky to have managed booting a Linux stick on an Acer at all.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:00 PM on March 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

I went from Win7 to Mint in 2015 and I've never looked back. It's a very capable OS for most people's needs. And there is a decent forum in case you have questions or want to chat to other users.

I don't know of any hardware diagnostics tool, but it's always worth starting the Software Manager and searching a bit.

I would simply copy all important files to a USB stick or external HD, check carefully that they're really copied, and keep that as a backup. After installation, you can copy them into Mint as well.

The bad news: You can't count on Windows software to work on WINE. Some will and some won't.
The good news: you can check that beforehand. Look for software (versions) that is rated at least gold. And I would install PlayOnLinux as a front end for WINE; it makes things a lot easier.

I can second that Acers can be a bugger to get to boot from a bootable medium. It's just the way they're made.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:19 PM on March 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Is there a Linux diagnostic tool that can check the system for hardware errors and provide analysis comprehensible to a layperson? Say it needs a new CPU, where do I start looking for a compatible replacement, or maybe more accurately, how can I identify a compatible replacement?

From your description, I don't think you're going to be able to rescue Windows from inside of Linux. There's cases where it's a simple but temporary file system error or registry edit that can be resolved in Linux, but this sounds worse than that. If Mint is running fine, it's probably that Windows is horribly corrupted but the hardware is fine and you just need to reinstall Windows. Which after 7 years wouldn't be a terrible idea anyway.

What is the best way to deal with files currently on the hard drive

If you care about your data, I'd consider replacing the drive with a new one, particularly if the existing drive is a hard drive rather than SSD - swapping in a new SSD will improve the performance of your entire system. 7 years is pushing my comfort level for a spinning disc drive if I care about what's on it. However, putting in a new drive doesn't mean it's safe to not make backups - the most common period for most drives to fail is in the first year.
posted by Candleman at 2:49 PM on March 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As to your first question, I haven't ever encountered a CPU, memory or mainboard error that would manifest as slowness or hanging under one OS, while running fine under others; in every case the problem was down to software. Also, the specs I found for your system sound decent enough. I can't find the exact model, but ones from the same series and year all have a 3GHz or better quad core processor and 8 or 10GB RAM; whatever it is that's bothering Windows, it's not lack of oomph.

If it's running hot even with a light load, it may need having the CPU cooler, fan and case vents unclogged. It's not unusual for those to yield a spare cat, dog or just half the carpet after a few years of use. Also, there's a thermal paste between the actual CPU and the base of the cooler, with some varieties having a tendency to degrade over time. Cleaning the old goop off and putting fresh paste on will drop the CPU temperature quite a bit, though you may want to find a local computer hardware geek or geekette if you're not comfortable dealing with hardware at that level.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:59 PM on March 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If Linux is working fine, it’s probably not a hardware problem. (Both OSes are using the same hardware, of course.) Some computers, Chromebooks come to mind, do have special hardware that the OS uniquely depends on, but if that’s what is broken in yours, you won’t be able to just replace that part.

As for the files, you might be able to access the windows data directly from inside Mint. Check around the web for recovering files from Windows using Linux.

Finally Windows 10 has a feature that lets you reset/reinstall the OS while keeping your personal data. I believe they call it a “Refresh.”

So, if I were you, I’d try to access the files from Mint. If can, burn them to a cd or upload them to something like Google Drive. Then I’d try a refresh. Finally, I’d setup the dual boot.

If all goes well you’ll have a new backup and still have the original data in your drive.
posted by oddman at 3:06 PM on March 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Your problem isn't likely to be with the CPU (unless the fan is caked in dust and it is thermal throttling, anyway). It's either going to be a software issue or a failing hard drive.

You should be able to check the status of the disk using smartctl on the command line or possibly in the GUI on the disk's properties page if Mint is set up to show SMART output in the UI somewhere. If it shows a number other than zero for reallocated sector count or pending sector count, I'd be concerned given the symptoms you describe.

When a consumer hard disk has trouble reading it will often manifest itself as a very slow system because the drive will spend several seconds attempting to recover the data before moving on and it does this for each individual sector of data the OS requests. The fact that everything seems normal when you're booting off a USB device makes me think the hard disk is the most likely culprit here. It's possible the drive is basically sound and it just happened to develop a couple of bad sectors in a particularly annoying place and it could be fixed with an in place reinstallation of Windows (which would rewrite the bad parts on remapped sectors elsewhere on the disk; they always have extra space for this purpose), but it's not really worth taking the risk on a machine that isn't using RAID unless you're in a position where you really can't afford a new disk right now.
posted by wierdo at 3:20 PM on March 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Not an answer to your listed questions, but purely FYI: my 6 core AMD Windows 10 tower has had a lot of trouble with recent updates. I was able to get past it by going into BIOS and changing it to a 1 core machine (i.e., turning off 5 off the cores), which suggests Windows isn't monitoring CPU or temperature but is just going gang-busters. Of course I reverted back to 6 cores after the update. The fan speeds were my tip off. This may not be your problem but just in case I thought I'd share.
posted by forthright at 4:33 PM on March 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

As soon as possible, back up any data on the drive, if you haven't.
posted by theora55 at 6:53 AM on March 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all your responses, everyone!

The hard drive seems to be functioning and it and the files are accessible - Mint running off the USB recognizes it as a device - so I reckon my gameplan is following Stoneshop & oddman's leads: back up important files to Google Drive and maybe an external hard drive just for storage, get another new hard drive for the PC, open it up and clean (It probably is really bad in there, embarrassed I never thought of that), check out the heatsink and maybe up the RAM if I can find more cheap, put in new HD, and try the Refresh and figure out what I want to do with Linux Mint.

Follow-up question: Would it be dumb or unnecessarily complicated to keep the current hard drive in the PC running Refreshed Windows and also install the new hard drive for Linux, rather than partitioning and installing both on the new hard drive?

The Wiki for Multi-Booting/ One OS Per Storage Device seems to describe what I'm thinking. Like Candleman says, seven years is pushing it for a spinning drive, but I am so cheap it seems wasteful to replace 1TB of storage (I'm a drive it into the ground sort of person.)
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:18 PM on March 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Running the two OSes on separate drives makes things easier, for the most part. There are some complications around booting if you later remove the Linux drive, but modern Windows can fix the problem automatically. Annoyingly, it might also sometimes "fix" itself when it does major upgrades, too, but if you keep your USB stick around you can use it to boot Linux and fix any screwups that prevent you from booting Linux normally.
posted by wierdo at 12:41 PM on March 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: UnsolvedMysteriesUpdateCard.gif

So, I think I'm done! Posting this to provide links and reference that may be helpful to someone else down the road.

I realized I had some Google Store credit so I put it towards a 200GB Google Drive account, $4/mo. Don't really like it, it's sort of a fussy pain in the ass to navigate and it's much easier to organize files before uploading, but it will do for now. Uploading was taking forever and I sort of got impatient so I bought a Seagate One Touch 2TB External HDD, and slapped everything I hadn't backed up on-line to that.

I bought a Kingston 480GB A400 Internal SSD and opened up the box (Yes, dusty. Not as bad as when I smoked in-doors, but still, pretty gross.) After spending an embarrassingly long time trying to figure out why the SSD wasn't showing up in BIOS - I, um, forgot that it needed to be hooked up to power - I used a USB thumb drive to install Windows on it (Another road block was my ISP repeatedly crapping out when the Windows ISO was 4/5ths downloaded, so we had to use my in-law's computer to make the stick.) Once Windows was up and running I partitioned and installed Linux Mint in a dual boot set-up. Considering the HDD is on borrowed time the One OS/Storage device didn't seem prudent. My enthusiasm for Mint had waned, but installing Windows and all its intrusive cruft reminded me why I wanted to do it. After that I went to Windows and set up the HDD as storage.

Pretty much all I have left to do is figure out how to set the HDD as Mint's storage drive, but don't expect it to be difficult. I also need sort and complete backing up files on the External HDD to cloud which is going to be a damn chore but serves me right for not practising proper data hygiene in the first place.

Thank you all so much for your time, knowledge, and assistance!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:48 AM on April 8, 2021

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