Boot drive: 8 GB Compact flash via PATA-to-CF adapter
Curious about your boot drive. I tried the same thing with a SATA to CF adapter using a Kingston 133X 16GB CF. It took ~3 hours to load XP SP2 on the card and I was never successful booting from it. Any suggestions or comments?
I've only used this PATA to CF
adapter. In fact I have and used at least a couple of these. But I've never had any trouble with them---I just insert the CF card, connect the PATA cable, and provide power via the floppy connector, and everything "just works".
However, they are fairly slow. All my home computers run some open source unix (Linux or OpenBSD), and particularly with things like NAS boxes and firewall/router boxes, I go with a fairly barebones/minimal install. But the three hour install of XP doesn't surprise me too much. If you can, check the DMA settings of your adapter, and also how the OS recognizes the "drive". Going from memory, some of the cheaper Syba PATA-to-CF adapters don't support any form of DMA; likewise, I think some CF cards don't have DMA support. If both the adapter and card don't support (U)DMA, you'll be forced to use PIO mode, which is dreadfully slow.
I don't have any ideas on the boot failure. Most BIOSes that I've used show at least some information about attached drives. Same goes for my CF "drives". So, can you see the CF drive in your BIOS setup screen? Or can you see the BIOS finding it during its POST process? It seems unlikely that Windows could find it in order to do the install, but your BIOS can't find it to boot from.
You might want to use a system rescue CD or Linux boot CD to use a tool to look at the partition table (e.g. fdisk). There is a "bootable" flag that can be set on a partition. I know I sometimes used to forget to set this on "manual" install Linux distros (like Gentoo), although it's automatic on "easy" install distros (like Ubuntu) and should certainly be automatic with Windows. But it's worth checking either way.
Finally, I did kill at least a CF card, and maybe the adapter once by accidentally shorting part of the adapter on the case. I don't know what happened, but there was a quick, brief, small flash, a little bit of a smoke, and the compact flash card was barely touchable (extremely hot). The card was definitely dead; I didn't want to risk killing another card with the adapter so I tossed it. I'm not sure whose fault that was, but now I always make sure the adapter rests on a non-conductive surface.