I got my first clue by booting a 64-bit Ubuntu 8.04. It displays a Machine Check Exception error in pci_conf1_read, and then freezes. (clap for the 8.04 installer: it switches back from the splash screen to text, so no extra steps were needed to get this useful information. boo for 9.10 which doesn't manage to display anything useful before going south. It's slightly possible that this is actually a 32-bit vs 64-bit difference; if so, 9.10 may have my apologies).
I had eliminated most components (memory, hard drive, cdrom) by removing or swapping them out; the memory also passed memtest. So is it CPU? Motherboard? Power supply?
In these threads I discovered the boot flag 'nomce'; this flag allows me to boot both the 8.04 and 9.10 live CDs to desktop. So I kicked off the 9.10 install and crossed my fingers. It went OK, so I installed updates and went to bed.
Meanwhile, the two resolved threads from 2005 and 2006 were resolved by BIOS upgrades. My motherboard's BIOS was A78CM113 dated 2009-01-13, and there were two newer BIOSes. The newest is A78CM804.BST dated 2009-08-31 which will "Support Sempron 140 CPU (Beta)". Older is A78CM525.BST dated 2009-05-25 which will "Support Phenom II and Athlon II CPU". Possibly foolishly, I chose the newer update. I put the .BST file on a SD card and with the reader hooked to a front USB port I booted to the BIOS flasher. After flashing the BIOS, I booted the installed Ubuntu without "nomce" and it worked. Booting the Live CD without extra flags proved that the BIOS update had fixed the problem.
It's curious that "the same" BIOS bug would be in machines from 2005 to present, but that's sure how it looks at the moment.
Update, 2010-01-02: The subsequent systems I installed have had an even worse problem before BIOS update: they would not boot with CT2KIT12864AA667 memory installed. After hitting reset, a message is shown that the DRAM failed to train (I didn't note the exact error text). To get from this state to being able to flash was a bit of a puzzle, because after this message is displayed it dumps you into the BIOS setup. I found that by exiting BIOS setup without changing anything and then immediately hitting F12 would get me to the BIOS flashing menu. (I also mashed F12 before the notice was shown just for good measure) This saved me from trying other things like booting with only one piece of memory or booting with a compatible piece of memory (such as the 3AXT6400C5-4096K I had chosen for the first system). After flashing, all the systems I've built have memtested OK and all the ones I tested booted to the desktop as well.
Update, 2010-01-23: The systems have now been in service for a few weeks
and seem to be behaving.
Entry first conceived on 31 December 2009, 15:23 UTC, last modified on 15 January 2012, 3:46 UTC
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