Mishaps and Minisforum Mayhem

Yesterday was not a happy day!

At the end of April (the 23rd, to be precise), I took delivery of the small form factor PC you see at the left. It’s a “Minisforum UM250” and comes with 16GB RAM, a 512GB M2-SSD hard drive and an AMD Ryzen 8-core processor. It is my first brush with an AMD Ryzen processor, which I’ve been keen to get my hands on for quite some time… so I was pretty excited. I was concerned at how noisy a small form factor PC might be: the thermals in such a small space are not great, and my intention was to use this as my main music-playing PC, so quietness is quite important. A review I read on Ars Technica suggested the sound levels were acceptable, so I bit, paid up, and took delivery the very next day.

Since it uses a quite old Ryzen processor (a Zen+, from about 2 years ago), it was relatively cheap: but the build quality is excellent and I have zero complaints on that score. Accessibility is fantastic, too: a simple press-down on two corners of the top lid makes it pop-up and easily removed thereafter. It was accordingly a doddle to install an extra 1TB SSD as a data drive. The PC ships with Windows 10 Pro, but it was simple enough to wipe that and install Arch, which worked flawlessly. One minor annoyance: the PC does not ship with any installation media, and no obvious way of getting any (though the Minisforum website eventually turned up a download page which seemed to have the OS and appropriate drivers: downloading 10GB of the stuff was not a walk in the park, though, and the lack of any physical installation media was frustrating).

I found the fan noise mostly acceptable: it was a whoosh rather than a whine, so although it was quite frequent in coming on and turning off, it wasn’t dreadful. I did try to tweak the fan settings in BIOS to make it ramp up and down less frequently, but that didn’t seem to help much. The PC also ships with a VESA mount, so you can hang it behind your large-screen TV (I use a 44″ one as a PC monitor!), but this turned out to be a bad idea: the back of a large LCD TV gets quite hot, so hanging the new PC next to that source of heat made the fans turn on seemingly for ever, and the noise became quite intrusive (it might be OK for a home theatre setup -you tend not to sit 3 feet away from the TV in those situations!) I ended up dismounting it, anyway.

And things were fine, and my old PC became a new server in the loft, and life seemed good. Until Arch crashed. Repeatedly. And corrupted the ext4 file system in its last crash whilst it was at it, to the point where I had to do a manual fsck and the lost+found folder started filling up with stuff, representing data that was being mangled in the process. So I wondered whether it was just Arch and me (I’m still fairly new to KDE+Arch installs), and so re-installed from scratch, this time using Manjaro. And things were fine, until it crashed about a day later. It repeated the crash about an hour later. A third ‘outage’ occurred shortly afterwards. This time, though, it didn’t actually crash, but instead just left the screen looking a blank, dull green. So you couldn’t see anything on the monitor, and music would continue playing that had been started before the graphical glitch… but the machine was still basically unusable. So, I rebooted forcefully with the aid of the power switch, and the thing came back up displaying a KDE desktop properly once more. Until it repeated the green-screen manoeuvre just minutes later. Naturally, I did some research: it might have been the HDMI cable wasn’t great. So I swapped cables. It didn’t help. Maybe the machine was overheating? So I reverted to standard fan speeds in the BIOS. That didn’t help either. Finally, I thought that maybe installing proper, proprietary AMD graphics drivers would help, and thus ventured into the KDE hardware configuration screen, where you can install new graphics (and other hardware) drivers with mere mouse-clicks.

On my first installation attempt, the PC green-screened once more half-way through, so I forced a reboot once more and tried again. The second time worked fine: the drivers installed correctly and no green-screens occurred during the installation. Naturally, I rebooted after the installation, to make sure the new drivers kicked in properly… and the PC merely booted to a command prompt in response. A bit of poking around with journalctl revealed that the PC was now unable to start an X server correctly. I removed the drivers I added: same result. I variously tweaked, twiddled and fiddled as best I could for several hours (most of yesterday, in fact)… and still I was firmly stuck at the command prompt after each reboot.

So at this point, 10 days after acquiring the PC, it had crashed about half-a-dozen times (which is about 5 times more than my old PC ever did, no matter what operating system it was running, in lord knows how many years of running it); it made quite a lot of fan noise; it couldn’t be discretely VESA-mounted behind the monitor, because that just made the thermals worse and the fan noise still noisier; I’d corrupted a file system (for about the first time in 20 years); and I’d managed to bork a graphics sub-system (which is also not something I’ve done in the past dozen years or so). I was, accordingly, a bit annoyed at the situation. Now, I realise that Manjaro is just Arch with knobs on, so maybe expecting the PC to behave better in the presence of the one rather than the other was a bit unrealistic. A better option might have been to try a completely not-Arch distro, such as Ubuntu or Fedora (both of which have brand new versions out, by the way). But I was frankly tired of fiddling.

I retrieved my old PC from the loft, and am happily using that again. The new Minisforum PC is just sitting on my desk, silent (because unplugged!), yet somehow almost taunting me with glee, “Well, that was a waste of £500, wasn’t it?!”

I am naturally disappointed and regretful: I can’t send the PC back, because it’s actually functioning. It just doesn’t function as quietly as I’d like, nor (apparently) with the operating system I’d like to use. So it’s something of a sunk cost, and has not been a pleasurable experience as my first taste of the Ryzen ecosystem. But, for now, it’s back to the 2012-vintage Xeon. At least that doesn’t crash, green-screen or lose files! I shall probably re-install Windows on the Minisforum micro PC, because I assume the driver situation is a sorted issue there; but I have no use for such a hardware/OS combo, and therefore no matter which way you look at it, I’ve wasted my money.

 

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