Another Sick PC

One of the folks from work asked me if I’d take a look at his PC, which I did this weekend. I was worried enough to make sure there were no other active machines on my network as it booted up. Good move.

No sooner did I turn it on, than pop-ups for adult web sites began to appear. I attempted to open some utilities, but the computer hardly acknowledged my clicks. It was slower than sluggish.

A quick check revealed there was a lot I didn’t recognize in the start-up folder and task manager. Not a good sign.

Usually I go after these thing methodically. I wonder if it’s even worth it in this case? There’s nothing of real value on here – a few kids games which can be reinstalled.

There were few, if any, updates performed. It’s still Windows XP SP1! On the Internet, this box didn’t stand a chance. It was probably infected within minutes as it sat and idled.

It’s a Compaq, which I think has a restore partition on the hard drive. If that’s right, I can just spin it back to day one.

Oh, Compaq… you should be ashamed of yourself, letting this XP PC ship with only 128 mb. Sure, it will work, but just barely. I’ll try and pick up another 512 mb to get thing a little snappier.

It’s good to be the geek, but it’s depressing to see what can happen to nice people who did no wrong.

I’m Going to Say Something Nice About Microsoft

My friend Farrell grew up in New Orleans. His mom, a widow, still lives there. Over the past few years she has begun to enjoy using a computer, and to celebrate that, Farrell got her a very nice Compaq laptop.

Of course, as is the case with so many computer users, when things began to spiral out-of-control and she had nowhere to turn. Being in Connecticut, I couldn’t drive over to help.

I had spoken to her over the phone, but it was difficult. She didn’t know where everything was and had a lack of confidence in her own ability to follow my instructions. There had to be a better way.

This afternoon I called her on the phone. Using Microsoft’s Remote Assistance, which is built in to XP, I was able to control her computer from my computer. It was my keyboard which sent the commands to her machine and my mouse which moved the cursor.

The experience wasn’t without problems. We disconnected twice, taking her back to a login screen. But, by and large it worked just fine.

I was able to install the Google toolbar, remove some icons from her desktop, resize her screen to the proper 1024×768 (from the 800×600 it had been set at), add a quick launch toolbar and desktop links to some newspapers she reads.

There is no possible way this could have been done without Remote Assistance. Because of its direct connect nature, it would not have worked had she been behind a firewall or router, as I am. One router is fine. Two is one too many!

There is another benefit as well. As I moved and manipulated things, I could show her what she would have to do when I was gone. Very valuable.

Microsoft hit a home run with this feature, though it’s probably underused.

Two Computer Related Problems

Things are supposed to go smoothly, but they never do. I’ve just suffered through two computer related problems – one taking a full ten hours of time without a solution.

First things first. I notice earlier today that I had only received a few emails all day. Normally, I get 100-200 emails a day, the vast majority of which are spam.

I went to my webhost’s site (not Comcast, my ISP, but who runs the server you’re getting on and also my mail server) and used their tech support chat. It didn’t take more than a few minutes for Fred to tell me something had hung and all mail sent to me (or at least the vast majority of it) had be sent packing.

As best I can tell this had been going on for 24-36 hours. Oh well. There’s really nothing I can do. I’m not sure about he actual bounce message returned, so some might be re-queued and re-sent.

The second problem was much more time consuming and sinister. My friend John has an old Compaq Armada laptop and a pristine copy of Windows 98 from a desktop machine that’s no longer in service. All I had to do was load it up and he’d take it back. This is something I’m glad to do for a friend.

The Armada 1590 is a Pentium 166 laptop that was loaded with Windows 95 and originally came with 16 MB of RAM. Today, that’s a ridiculously small amount of memory. Windows 98 might have run, but it would have run ponderously slow.

I reformatted the hard drive, checked for and installed a BIOS update and then set out to load Windows 98. This is a task I’ve done dozens of times… and never with a problem.

Windows loaded fine, but as soon as I got to the first screen after the installation and the computer began to play it’s little “I’m Ready” music, it locked up tight as could be. It would neither respond to keystrokes or the mouse/touchpad. Rebooting brought me back to the same problem.

I went on Google’s Usenet site which often has great tech support ideas, only to read a series of unhappy Armada owners who tried and never quite got Windows 98 to work.

I reformatted and tried again from scratch. Each time you do that, figure an hour or so until you’re at the first workable screen. I loaded Windows 98 totally at least four times.

After a while, and after staring at those cryptic Microsoft error messages (never had so many words and numbers given so little insight into what’s going wrong), I decided the problem might be with the audio driver on the Windows 98 disk. For some reason it didn’t seem to get along with the hardware which was, after all, designed long before Windows 98. I turned off the audio hardware from the control panel and booted again.

Success – but not for long.

Even a freshly loaded Windows 98 (or XP for that matter) PC needs loads of updates, patches and fixes. The more I downloaded and fixed, the more unstable the laptop became. BSODs (“Blue Screen of Death”) came fast and furiously.

Finally, I got to load DirectX 9. I have no idea what DirectX does, other than to say loading this update into the laptop brought it to its knees! Not only did the laptop crash but the Registry (which tells the computer where and what all the programs on it’s drive are) was now corrupted. Windows 98 was more than glad to restore a prior version of the Registry, which of course brought me back to square one.

I played this game twice.

Finally I called John on the phone and said, “No mas.” OK, actually it was Roberto Duran who said that, and neither John nor I speak Spanish, but you get the point.

Can this laptop be made to play nicely with Windows 98? Maybe. But, is it worth it? Probably not – I’m not really sure – oh who knows. I’m just so frustrated at this point.

The few fleeting moments I did have it running, it seemed reasonably nimble with web browsing. And, in that there’s some Internet wisdom that needs to be shared. This computer is only a Pentium I at 166 MHz. Lots of people throw machines of that speed out as too slow. With enough RAM – and John had boosted the 16 to 82 MB – even a slower Pentium is plenty fast for working the web.

Would I play games with it or edit video or run Photoshop or other high end multimedia programs? Hell no. But, most of what everyone does on the web demands much less horsepower. The laptop I use most is a Pentium II 300 MHz and it kills.

As for John’s laptop, before I attempt any more software loading, I am going to bring it near the sink with the water running full blast and explain what we do to computers that don’t cooperate. That trick always works.