Into the Vault: The Immortal Common Machine, and Alpha

Welcome back to the Vault
Which actually makes no sense, it’s not even a vault.
It’s my basement.

My name is Matt Mutch.
I am a computer enthusiast.
I’d like to tell you a story…

I can tell you almost everything there is to know about Common, the HP Pavilion p6140f and its… brother, Alpha. I can tell you their specs. I can tell you how Common and Alpha came to be. The thing that I might not be able to fully explain is why they’re still here.

HP P6140f media readers
Media readers for days

Common was named for its station in life, where it has been a common-purpose resource at the small company of scientists I office-manage. Alpha was named for having been the first computer of the office.

Here’s where it gets complicated: Common was the first computer in the office. Alpha came later. Alpha was the first computer in the office.

I’ll get there.

Common has died thrice. Common is still with us.

HP P6140f
Doesn’t look like a zombie…

The first time Common died, it was unexpected. Out of the blue, the power supply failed. It isn’t incredibly common, but it does happen in computers and fortunately, the p6140f uses a completely standard ATX power supply and the faulty component was easily replaced. The office vote, at the time, had been to let Common die, so naturally I fixed it.

The second time Common died, there had been a power surge in the office, and in spite of the computers being connected to the finest lowest-cost surge protectors our budget could stomach, Common died. Troubleshooting the system yielded a strange result wherein peripherals such as the USB 3.0 controller card and PCIe Wifi card suffered reduced functionality or none at all. We weren’t sure if we needed Common any more, since many other workstations had cropped up by that time, but I can never leave well enough alone so it was off to eBay to find a replacement mainboard. Surprisingly, one was found that was similar enough to the original to be a drop in replacement, so I bought it and swapped it in.

And Common lived again.

HP P6140f rear
‘ere’s yer problem…

But, even as Common had its board replaced and its problems solved, something bothered me about Common’s original board, so instead of hitting the bin it came home with me to the Vault where it was tested further. And, since Common was back and functional with a fresh, new, used mainboard… the original mainboard suddenly was perfectly fine.

I tested it with a different CPU, RAM, and all of the accoutrements required for a functional system and… it was fine.
I supposed that I was glad that I hadn’t thrown it away, but I knew immediately I would never truly have the answer as to just what had happened to it. Such is the nature of troubleshooting computers most of the time.

Out of the ashes of Common, thus, was born Alpha.

Alpha waits. Common carried on.

HP mainboard Alpha
Silent, patient, it waits…

Until such time when we discovered Common to be off, and tried to turn it back on, and it did not. Again. It was a little surprising, since the power supply was then years younger than the system itself. Briefly troubleshooting, the power supply was swapped once more and then it worked again. Suspicions were high though since this is the sort of thing that should not keep happening. Even on the order of years, power supplies should not die that frequently. I began to wonder if there was something that had crept inside the system or been shaken loose that was causing a short circuit, but I sure couldn’t find anything. On top of the frequency of occurrence in general, this new power supply lasted maybe days before Common stopped booting again.

Okay. Okay. Let’s get real. What is going on?

While it didn’t take long to sort out, it remains baffling to this day.

Basic computer troubleshooting dictates unplugging everything connected to the computer and plugging in a bare minimum of things—for a desktop it would be power cable, monitor, and keyboard.

Boots fine.

Add in the mouse and the network cable.

Boots fine.

I put Common back into rotation and threw some easy tasks at it for a little while. Then after a few days it was dead again. Just what the hell does that mean? It didn’t seem possible.

Plugging anything into the add-in USB 3.0 controller card, which had been installed some months prior, prevented the computer from booting or rebooting.

I… I’ve never…

I tested it and that turned out to be exactly what was happening.

(This also means one discarded power supply was actually probably fine. Oops.)

The real trouble with computers is that rarely can one learn from experience. Never before has this happened, as far as I know, and it will probably never happen on another computer ever again.

P6140f Expansion slots
Card removed out of sheer disgust. Functionality be damned.

Common suffered a near death once more, but less dramatically. When it was used for experimentation with Linux—Ubuntu 17.04 or the like—it suffered a nearly immediate problem where it would corrupt its own bootloader on shutdown. I decided, at the time, that the latest Linux dabble was over nearly as quickly as it had started.

Ubuntu logo
You know what you did

Common is here, restored to ordinary Windows 10 functionality, awaiting a need. It’s been through more than most computers will survive over their lives. It’s thrown a couple of real curveballs. I wonder why I’ve tried so hard, but I quickly remember that I can never leave well enough alone and just let a troubled computer die, unless it’s truly, truly dead, which few ever are.

Perhaps one day we can examine the recent, brief experiment with the original white MacBook.

There’s also, to my mind, a certain charm to such a very generic computer as the p6140f is. Consumer grade Intel parts, no bells or whistles in particular, just a solid, old Core2 CPU, enough RAM, a dinky SSD, a couple of USB ports, there’s nothing super special about it.

But maybe that’s what’s special about it.

Got an old computer or a new computer you like or hate or are indifferent to and want to talk about it?
I’m @geekadematt on Twitter and this has been
Into the Vault – the Immortal Common Machine

Common is an HP Pavilion p6140f mini-tower based on a proprietary IPIBL motherboard using the Intel G33 Express chipset. It is populated with an Intel Core2Quad Q8200 cpu running four physical CPU cores at 2.33 GHz and works in conjunction with 8 GB of DDR2-800 MHz Ram in a 4×2 GB configuration – the max for the mainboard. Onboard video, audio, and fast ethernet mean that this system is basically complete on its own – the integrated memory card readers and the DVD+/-RW drive anre just convenient vestiges. The original 802.11n wifi is also a convenient extra. The power supply is a Corsair CX430 – an aftermarket upgrade. The other aftermarket upgrade is Common’s hard drive, having long since been moved from a 1 TB 5400 rpm “green” class drive to a 240 GB SSD.
Alpha is based around Common’s original IPIBL-LB motherboard which is identical to the replacement in Common with the added IEEE1394 Firewire A port as well as coaxial SPDIF audio output. Alpha is populated with a Pentium E2180 CPU and 4 GB of DDR2-800 MHz RAM in a 2x2GB configuration. Alpha is a complete system as well, including a 120 GB SSD and OS, but has never been called into service.

Matt Mutch

Image Acquisition Specialist and Computer Enthusiast. I like Sad Anime.

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