When I built my first PC back in February, not only was I not fully aware of the current state of the GPU market (for those who also lack this awareness, here is a brief summary: it’s fucked), I had no idea how to evaluate GPU specifications in the first place. Every graphics card out there is named with a tangled mess of letters and numbers, none of which mean a single thing to anyone lacking a pre-existing base of extensive GPU knowledge. Because of my two-pronged ignorance, and because I had no pretensions toward building a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art anything, I ended up with a card that can’t really run newer, more demanding titles (such as DOOM Eternal), and I paid a pretty penny for it, too. In a sane world, I would’ve been able to pick up a GPU of this caliber for a couple of skin mags and a pack of candy cigarettes.
Since I was mostly playing older games that this GPU could run just fine, this wasn’t a huge problem, but once I became aware of its relative power level I started keeping my eyes out for an upgrade, and a couple of weeks ago I was able to find a new GPU that would have me set for the next few years, and would only cost me an arm and a leg instead of an arm and a leg and a kidney. So I pulled the trigger, and 8-10 business days later I had a brand new graphics card show up at my front door, and I installed it immediately.
Now that I have a baseline understanding of what I’m doing when it comes to PC building, switching out the GPU itself was pretty easy. The tiny screws that attach the GPU to the back of the case gave me problems – I have big fingers and terrible manual dexterity – but I got them in eventually. I also had a bit of trouble getting both of my monitors up and running, but that also sorted itself out in short order. What did not sort itself in anything resembling short order concerned my front headphone jack; for some reason, when I plugged my headphones in, Windows didn’t recognize them. Like, at all. I fucked around with the Sound settings and I looked up how to run the Device Manager, and both indicated that no headphones were plugged in when they very definitely were.
Something was amiss. My first thought was that perhaps I knocked the audio wires off the pins during the installation. But, since I had already shut down and cracked the case open a couple of times in the course of doing the installation, and since everything else on the front panel was working just fine, and since the headphones themselves were working just fine everywhere else I plugged them in, I decided to start investigating if the problem was software related. See, here’s the thing about PCs: while putting one together is not all that difficult, they’re still highly complicated machines that operate at the furthest reaches of my understanding. Anything that goes wrong with either the hardware or the software could be due to any number of finicky, obscure root issues. Once you know what the problem is, it’s usually not too tough to solve if you follow whatever directions you looked up on the internet. But therein lies the rub; knowing what the problem is in the first place requires accurate diagnosis, which can be outrageously difficult for me, a guy who barely knows what he’s doing.
Anyway, I got to work looking for a software-based solution. I searched what to do when Windows can’t detect headphones, and did a couple of quick fixes based on those results. Nothing happened. I then figured that, since I had just swapped out GPUs, and since my new GPU seemed to include its own sound card, I started to think maybe there was a problem with some driver or another. So I checked in Windows, and Windows said all my drivers were up to date. I ran some internet searches to see if other people had audio issues after installing this particular GPU. While these searches were fruitful insofar as they provided many results that might have spoken to my predicament, none of the results I found actually did describe the exact issue I was having.
At this point, I went back to being convinced this was a Windows issue and not a GPU issue. I hopped on the Windows support chat in order to talk to a person, and once I did, I was told to do a System Restore (wherein Windows restores itself to a previous version). A system restore is no small task; Windows has to back everything up, and it must also restart. I figured it would suck, but I did it anyway. It fixed nothing, and once Windows was booted back up, the Start menu stopped working, too. So I got back on with MS support, and after about half an hour of what I can only describe as “completely unproductive fucking about” – I knew I was in trouble when, after giving the support goon access to my computer, noticed they didn’t know the actual prompt to run the Device Manager – I bailed. Now, not only was my headphone jack not working, my Start menu was fucked.
Having a busted Start menu is bad; it implies that some sort of necessary program file or process (or whatever; those with greater Windows knowledge than me are almost certainly screaming several not very nice correctives at their screens this very moment) is corrupted or otherwise messed up. The first thing to do is force File Explorer to restart; File Explorer was still running just fine, so this accomplished nothing. My research indicated that the next thing to do is run Command Prompt as an admin and do a scan; this scan did detect corrupt files and fixed them automatically, but the Start menu was still busted.
At this point, I had spent hours trying to isolate the issue, with no success. To make matters worse, I had somehow manage to screw up Windows itself, and had no idea how to fix it. So, I did what any obsessive with limited knowledge and anxiety management issues would do in this situation; I backed up my documents and re-installed Windows. Re-installing Windows is the nuclear option. It takes forever, requires doing the initial Windows setup again, and, most importantly, wipes the hard drive. Anything not backed up is gone. Re-installing Windows means starting over entirely.
Once the re-install was complete, more hilarity ensued. Most importantly, my headphone jack still didn’t work. But, while my hard drive had been wiped clean, my SSD, which contained my Steam library, had not. Excited at the prospect of not need to re-download all of my games (compounding the stress of all of this was the fact that my connection speeds had been absolute shit for the past couple of weeks), I re-downloaded and re-installed Steam, only to discover that, in order to have preserved my library, I would’ve had to back up said library in Steam prior to running the re-install. Oh well. Re-formatting the SSD took all of four seconds, and since I’m not actively playing most of my library these days, I can do so piece by piece, and at my own leisure. Even so, this is a waste of time that other, more competent persons would’ve easily avoided.
At this point, I was broken. My efforts to find a solution had led me on a wild goose chase that became so dedicated to accomplishing nothing whatsoever that it approached an act of nihilistic performance art. I was scared to try anything else out of fear that I would somehow screw up Windows and be forced to re-install it, yet again. But, there was a silver lining. For all of the issues I was having with the front microphone jack, the headphones worked just fine when plugged into the rear speaker port. The only problem was the cord didn’t have much slack when plugged into the back. This was less than ideal, but it was workable, and I was more than willing to accept it as a makeshift solution.
After a day or so, I was chatting with a friend of mine who is an experienced PC builder and component knower. I had been talking to him throughout this process, but once I mentioned that the rear speaker port was working, he suggested that perhaps the problem was the connection between the headphone jack and the motherboard. I had already examined the motherboard a couple of additional times looking for a faulty connection, but couldn’t find one. But, since I was still looking for an actual fix for the front jack, I decided to crack the case open one more time.
I know I said earlier that building a PC isn’t all that tough, and while that’s mostly true, there are exceptions, most of which involve the manipulation of very tiny things. The very worst of these tiny things are the pins on the motherboard where you connect the case cables. These case cables power anything with a front panel on the case; USB ports, power buttons, and yes, the audio jacks. They are tiny cables that must be connected to tiny pins at precise locations on the motherboard. The labels for these pins are outrageously tiny, so much so that when I first built my computer, I couldn’t see them at all until my wife took a picture of them and zoomed it in. attaching these cables to their respective pins was the greatest ordeal of the whole build.
When I installed the new GPU, I had to take the audio and USB cables off of their pins (they attache at two separate points) in order to access the power supply, since the GPU needs to be plugged into the power supply directly. Since I moved these cables the bare minimum out of the way required in order to get a the power supply, I re-attached them exactly where I found them when I was done, and since they both fully connected and cinched down, I figured I must have re-connected them properly.
Now, a couple of days later, I had opened my case to check these connections one final time. They looked fine, but in the process of checking the cables, I disconnected the power button and reset cables! These are the worst of all the cables! There are five cables to attached to eight pins, and these eight pins are surrounded by other pins that my case does not use. Three cables were two pins wide, but two of them only attach to a specific pin. Since I didn’t remember where each connection was, and since the labels on the motherboard were nigh on imperceptible, I had to get a flashlight to have any chance of having any clue as to what I was doing.
So I got a flashlight and went to work. It was a bit tricky and took some doing, but after not all that long in the scheme of things I was down to a single, 1×2 cable to attach. This last cable was a real motherfucker; I noticed that, while I was able to get it connected to the motherboard, I was consistently connecting it one pin further over to the right that it was supposed to go, but I was finally able to correct the issue after some light cursing. But, had I not been using a flashlight to see exactly what I was doing, I would never, ever have noticed this connection was off by a single pin. It felt right, but it wasn’t.
Recognizing this, I immediately took a flashlight to the audio cable and connection. The audio connection is a single connection port that is two pins tall and five pins across. Again, when I installed the GPU it went back in fine, and I assumed that if I had re-connected it to the wrong pins, it wouldn’t have connected at all. It felt right. But, now that I had a flashlight, and now that I saw the error of assuming that a connection must be right if it feels right, I took the flashlight to the audio connection and immediately noticed that I had entirely missed the bottom row of pins. The audio connection had been connected a row of pins too high, this whole entire time. I connected the audio cables, this time making sure I did so correctly. I booted up and plugged in the headphones without issue.
At first, I feel like two million dollars for correctly identifying and fixing this issue, but as I began to process all of these events in total I started to feel more and more conflicted. Had I used a flashlight to verify the connection when I first installed the GPU two entire days ago, none of this would’ve happened. All of the hours of fruitless internet searches and command prompt scans and system restores and Windows re-installations and application re-downloads were not only a complete and total waste, they were an entirely preventable complete and total waste, ascribable solely to my own sloppy laziness.
I tell this story to highlight two teachable truths. The first of these truths applies only to me: I should never, ever underestimate my ability to assume that the solution to a problem must be complex, somehow. I’ve known about this often unfortunate tendency of mine for years now, but this was as good a reminder as any. The second truth, however, is universal. Always use a flashlight when attaching any cables to the motherboard pins, and always make sure the cables are connected to the correct pins! Just because you think the cables must be in right doesn’t mean they are in right. Use a flashlight, check, and double check to make sure it is right! You will save yourself hours upon hours of grief.
This was a hard lesson to learn, but I am grateful for it. Now to return to playing BioShock: Infinite, and not liking it all that much.