Reinstalling Windows XP

Everything went fine until Windows discovered my hard drive. Instead of 620 Gb it was reporting 131069 Mb. As I’d later find out the original XP disk only supports drives that big.

A few nights ago the main hard drive on my main desktop machine started making loud knocking sounds. Uh oh. Not good. Dead! Luckily I had recentlly backed up my photos, the only things I really needed. This seemed like a good time to reinstall XP and get a fresh start.

Maybe you are organized. Not me. My PC is as sloppy as my office–and that’s pretty darned sloppy. Starting from scratch is a convenient way to throw out a lot of crap.

I went online and found a 620 Gb hard drive. I was really tempted to get a 1 Tb, but the 620 Gb was on sale for a good price and had excellent reviews on the Newegg site. I find Newegg’s buyer reviews believable because I’ve seen so many that knock the product!

the drive itself was under $80 with free 3-day shipping. I ordered Thursday afternoon. UPS delivered it Friday afternoon. Sweet.

This machine was hand built by me and over time had accumulated 5-hard drives. I opened the case and pulled them out. Then I pulled out my original XP CDROM for the install. I’d like a dollar for every time I’ve installed Windows.

This was about the time my mechanical reconfiguration noise woke Helaine. That’s not good.

Everything went fine until Windows discovered my hard drive. Instead of 620 Gb it was reporting 131069 Mb. As I’d later find out the original XP disk only supports drives that big. Back when XP came out no one had dreamed of throwing terrabytes of memory in a desktop machine.

I ended up at Paul Thurrott’s amazing SuperSite for Windows.where I was walked through the process of ‘slipsteaming’ Service Pack 2 into my original disk. Well, almost. The current version is Service Pack 3 and my CDROM burning software doesn’t actually support what needs to be done. A few ad libs and I was on my way.

At the moment Windows XP SP3 is installing with the full hard drive recognized. It’s going along very smoothly! I’m sure something will come up to slow me down.

In the meantime, I have discovered one hard drive is a lot quieter than five.

Upgrading My Samsung Blackjack To Windows Mobile 6

For months the rumor has been floating around that my phone, the Samsung SGH-I607 (more commonly known as the Blackjack), would be getting a new operating system. It began its life with Windows Mobile 5. It would be upgraded to Windows Mobile 6.

blackjack_upgrade_screen.jpgFor months the rumor has been floating around that my phone, the Samsung SGH-I607 (more commonly known as the Blackjack), would be getting a new operating system. It began its life with Windows Mobile 5. It would be upgraded to Windows Mobile 6.

I first heard this rumor about the time I got the phone, in the fall. There were dates announced and missed. Then Samsung came out with the Blackjack II.

Now there was a new rumor. With a new model, Samsung would stop any work on its older models.

Last night, while poking around, I found an article saying Samsung had actually released the update last week. I moved my focus to bulletin boards where the geekiest were already discussing their individual results (which like your mileage, can vary).

Two tidbits stood out. The Blackjack could still be used as a modem for connecting to the Internet (valuable if you’re sitting in an airline terminal or hotel with ‘pay only’ Internet access) and it now worked with Google’s GPS-less mapping system.

As much as I wanted to wait and let the smoke clear, I was drawn by a force more powerful than apprehension. The update had to go in and it had to go in now.

Putting a new operating system in your telephone is not a simple thing.

Samsung posted instructions on their website. There were lots of steps… steps that implied the phone really wasn’t designed for the untrained masses to perform this surgery. There was software to be loaded onto my PC (XP, not Vista – thank you), then pushed to the phone. Software switches would be thrown, then switched back.

For long periods of time, the cellphone sat with a barebones screen showing changing parameters in Comic Sans (to understand my feelings about Comic Sans, read this). I was beginning to worry I’d ‘bricked’ my phone.

The whole process took around 30 minutes. By the time I was done, the phone was actually working, infused with the geeky goodness of Windows Mobile 6.

I had backed up all my data, so my phone numbers would easily go back in. My ringtones, actually the ABC World News Tonight music, is now too large to be played. I’ll have to find a replacement. I also forgot to back up my customized home screen. I’ll have to rework that too.

There are a few unexpected improvements. Youtube now works on the phone! I can also now easily read Microsoft Windows documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoint files.

Already, people on the bulletin boards are complaining the upgrade doesn’t include Microsoft’s voice command software with the ability to do most functions handsfree. I expect someone will figure a way before long.

This upgrade is not for the faint of heart. There are many confusing steps spread between the PC and cellphone. Wild horses couldn’t have kept me from doing it.

Windows Vista – Not Again

I went to do something on my laptop with Windows Vista last night and got shot down. This is starting to upset me.

It was a simple thing. I have a Bluetooth headset. I wanted to be able to use it with Skype or the ‘dictation’ feature of the operating system. I bought a cheap Bluetooth USB dongle&#185 and plugged it in. With shipping we’re talking $13, so this wasn’t a major investment.

In Windows XP, it would have worked flawlessly. In Vista, the driver installation failed. And, there is no other Vista driver for my device without paying more than the dongle itself cost!

This follows on the heels of my discovery either Dell or Microsoft turned off the ability to record directly from a WAV file or internal computer line input. Best example would be recording audio from a TV show I was watching on my laptop.

Again, in XP, this was built in and robust. Now, it’s gone.

When I read other comments about either of these two problems all I see is frustration from others. I guess that’s the WOW factor Microsoft was talking about.

&#185 – Hey, I don’t name this stuff.

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.

Tech Support Times Three

I have three tech support stories to tell. Two are brief, the third is not. They all have relatively happy endings.

The first concerns a phone call I received yesterday from the company that provides much of the on-air weather equipment we use at work. We’d had a terrible problem, which they fixed. Now they wanted some log files.

The logs were needed because they fixed the problem, but weren’t sure how!

That sounds terrible, though it’s not as unusual as it seems. Points to them for asking me to send the files. These log will help them understand what they did for us, so they can do it for everyone.

The second story concerns my laptop. It is, in computer time, ancient. There’s a sticker on the front attesting to the fact that it was designed for Windows 98!

If you’re technically inclined, it’s a PII-300 with 128 mb of RAM for memory and 2 mb more for video.

If that was a meaningless blur, it’s got about the same horsepower as a tricycle.

A while ago, I upgraded it to a heavily customized version Windows XP. I carefully turned off as much as I could to preserve as much of this machine’s minimal power as was possible. It’s still a hog.

This has been a hacker machine for me. I’ve experimented with it by swapping hard drives in and out. Until today it had a tiny 8 gb drive.

With a weekend trip coming up, I wanted more storage, so I swapped in a 20 gb drive last night. Windows XP was on the drive, so I freshened some programs with newer versions and then went to reboot.

Before the power went off, Windows told me it had to install some updates… 57 updates!

Are they serious? Sure, this drive had been out of service for a while, but were there really that many updates (mostly security related) to XP? And this version had already been inoculated with SP2 and other fixes.

I took a shower while the laptop did its thing.

Tech support story three is a little more troubling. It started with phone calls from Matt Scott, one of our meteorologists at the TV station.

When he went to fire up his Dell desktop machine, it quickly crashed into a Blue Screen of Death or BSOD! The BSOD screen is cryptic, but it hinted at problems with the boot sector. That’s serious.

Before Matt got to me, he had spoken with Dell tech support. Their solution, after a few tests, was to send the drive to a forensic computer lab where, for $1,800, it could be resurrected!

He brought the PC in to work and Jeff Bailey, our webuy, began to work on it. I did some scouting around Google and found what typically causes this particular BSOD.

HINT: If you ever have a computer problem, write down exactly what’s on the screen and search for it on Google. You are not the first person with this problem. You can often find solutions just by looking. It’s very important to search for the exact words you see.

“Matt, do you have any disks that came with the PC,” I asked. My suspicion was, Dells don’t come with disks… and it hadn’t.

I went through the station looking for a Windows XP CD. Yes, what I was doing probably violates some stipulation in the end user licensing agreement – sue me.

By the time I returned with the disk, Bailey had the machine on its side. A panel had been removed from the case, exposing the innards to the world. As it turns out, that wasn’t necessary, though it makes Jeff and me look like &#252ber Geeks (as if knowing how to make a “&#252” on the screen isn’t enough).

Computer repair is modern day sorcery. You must follow a number of steps, none actually documented, before you begin to fix the trouble. We started by reconfiguring the BIOS to boot from a CD instead of the hard drive and loading XP’s recovery console.

Matt looked sheepish – fearful his pictures, video and documents were about to get trashed.

We lucked out. Matt’s problem was the same as most of the others I’d read about. It took a few hours, but slowly but surely, his computer fixed itself, rebuilding files and reconstructing the recalcitrant boot sector.

Why couldn’t the Dell tech fix this? No clue. They should be ashamed of themselves for the solution they recommended. That’s totally unacceptable.

Why doesn’t Windows XP do this on its own without demanding a disk most users don’t have? Again, no clue. Microsoft should be ashamed of that and for its often meaningless BSODs.

Bottom line – always have a geek at the ready… preferably two!

Microsoft – Activation And Bad Music On Hold

Once the main computer’s case was buttoned up, I booted and that’s when I got Microsoft’s message. Because of my changes this looks like a new computer. To them, it seems like this machine’s copy of Windows XP has been activated too many times.

I am currently upset. I am upset while listening to bad, guitar laden, non-descript instrumentals on the Microsoft Activation Hotline.

It is now five minutes since the first guitar was strummed.

Here’s the backstory. Now that my new computer is working, it’s time to really optimize it.

A warning message has flashed each time I booted. I was using the wrong cable on one of the disk drives. I would be slowed, not stopped. The DVD writer was old, but I had a faster one in my backup machine. Why not swap?

These are simple things to do. It’s almost like unplugging one TV and plugging in another.

I moved the computers from their place, wedged between my desk and file cabinet. You could call the mess of wires back there a rats’ nest, but that would be unfair to rats!

It’s amazing how many formerly used cables there were back there. It’s a job I should have done 10 years ago – and it hasn’t gotten prettier.

As I lifted cables and wires, there were dust bunnies the size of real bunnies.

Still on hold. I’m getting a gun to shoot a random guitarist. This is beyond painful.

Anyway, I cleaned, straightened and reinstalled. Helaine asked if I’d be throwing some of the old cables out?

Please! These are cables. Where I come from, you sacrifice to the cousin level before you ditch cables. There has to be a place in the attic for them to lie in state.

Once the main computer’s case was buttoned up, I booted and that’s when I got Microsoft’s message. Because of my changes this looks like a new computer. To them, it seems like this machine’s copy of Windows XP has been activated too many times.

They won’t let me reactivate over the Internet, that would be too simple. And, if I don’t do this, and then wait too long, my computer will be frozen like a Popsicle.

It would be one thing if this was a bootlegged copy of XP. This is legit. I am holding the packaging in my hand – see?

It’s approaching a half hour and that guy is still strumming. There hasn’t been one voice nor any hint I might have misdialed. Maybe instead of Microsoft I’ve gotten hold of the non-descript guitarist hotline? No way to know.

Even worse, it’s a short piece that keeps repeating… and repeating… and repeating.

If this were work, it would be on my speakerphone. Here at home it means phone firmly between chin and shoulder. I am tethered in place and can accomplish nothing.

A few minutes ago, a call came for Helaine. I answered it, but didn’t take more than 5 seconds, telling her Helaine would call back. Hey – you only get one shot. I don’t want to go to the back of the line.

I want to know if Bill Gates waits this long? Actually, at this moment, I just want Bill Gates!

Addenum – After around an hour, I was getting suspicious this might end up my life’s work. We have another phone, and I called on that line. It wasn’t more than a few minutes (after hearing the same guitar music) before I was speaking to a woman with an Indian accent.

After swearing on my parents that this copy of XP is only in one machine, I was allowed to activate it.

Now, who gives me back the hour I lost?

The New PC Comes Together

Quite honestly, motherboard installs are pretty simple. There are power cables and small jumpers for the reset and power switches and LEDs. The disk drives plug into two IDE ports. There is a specific place for everything.

I got the word from Helaine this afternoon. FedEx was here and they dropped off the package with my motherboard and memory.

Before I get into the build, let me say this about FedEx. Their tracking is both soothing and frustrating at the same time. After all, you know everything – which is often too much.

Why did my package from the Atlanta area detour through Indianapolis? If they picked it up on Friday and delivered it on Tuesday, how is that 2-day service? How did they get from East Granby, CT to North Haven, over 40 miles, in 23 minutes (or so claims their tracking data)?

Anyway, it’s here.

The box was nicely packed and well padded. That’s a positive for Monarch Computer.

The outside of the box had two interesting labels. The first instructed the driver to get a signature. Packages are normally left on our front step – even when we’re home! Not for this. Helaine’s signature was absolutely demanded.

More interesting was a label warning the recipient not to forward this package to a foreign country. I suspect Monarch and others have been burned by naive people who get scammed into transshipment schemes.

Since I bought a combo package, the memory and CPU were already mounted on the motherboard. So was a giant Zallman cooler.

I spent extra to get a gigantic cooler which is supposed to run very quietly. We’ll see. Meanwhile, sitting on the board, it looks like a small town’s water tower.

Installing memory and the CPU is simple. Installing the cooler often requires force, and in the past I’ve been scared of breaking something. I’m glad they handled it.

I was going to wait… oh hell, I can’t wait.

I unscrewed the old motherboard, disconnected its wires and re-installed the new board. The old one is larger. It really went in with little trouble.

If you’ve never done this, the following sentence will sound impressive. I did it all without looking at any instructions. It’s really not that big a deal.

Motherboard installs are pretty simple. There are power cables and small jumpers for the reset and power switches and the LEDs. The disk drives plug into two IDE ports. Power plugs are keyed, so they can’t go in backwards (as I’d surely do if left to my own devices). There is a specific place for everything.

It booted on the first try. My friend Peter wanted me to see if it would go all the way into the previously installed Windows. Not exactly. But I had been having trouble before.

I ran the Windows restore off the CD and it popped up pretty quickly. However, there are all sorts of drivers and utilities from hardware that’s no longer there. I decided to do a fresh install.

As we speak, the hard drive is formatting. Soon XP will be installing. I expect it to go smoothly.

After this initial install, I will add an extra few cards I bought – one for ingesting video and the other to allow more than the 4-IDE drives most PCs allow. I also went on EBay to buy a front panel hub for USB, Firewire and audio with a memory card reader.

At the moment, things are going really well. I’ll write some more after I start crying.

The Challenge of Computing

For the past few months I’ve been blogging, emailing, and computing in general on my backup machine. Somehow, my main computer had become unstable, rebooting at any or no occasion.

I’m not sure what made it go nuts. I only know it did. I suspect it wasn’t a virus or spyware. I’m very careful about that, but something was bugging it and it was relentless.

At one point I wondered if the problem wasn’t caused by the power supply? Considering all the crap I’ve got shoved in my computer case, it might have been overtaxed. A few weeks ago I ordered a new, quieter, more powerful power supply and a few extra sticks of memory.

This weekend I pulled the old supply and hooked up the new one. Though it looks complex with lots of wires and plugs connected to it, it’s really pretty straightforward.

I fired up the computer and – well, it was the same garbage. Right in the middle of nothing the computer would reboot. Maybe the original power supply was bad and a spike of electricity from its strained regulators had put bad data on my hard drives?

I decided to start from the very beginning.

My C:\ drive didn’t contain much other than installed programs. All my important data was squirreled elsewhere. I re-formatted the drive.

Next came my copy of Windows XP. In the drive it went and the install process was underway… until it stopped. Randomly, files weren’t being copied properly and Windows wasn’t shy about telling me.

The message was something like, “Press Enter to try again, skip this file at your peril.” I pressed Enter… and Enter… and Enter. Sometimes on the second or third try a recalcitrant file would load, only to hit the another pothole a few seconds later.

Finally there was a file that wouldn’t copy, no matter what I did! Was it the CD drive, my hard drive, the Windows CD itself or something I hadn’t thought of yet? I kept trying, but never got any further.

Finally, tonight at work while reading through an old Usenet message, I found something that might be the culprit… though it sounded off the wall. Sometimes when mixing and matching memory chips, Windows balks. It just refuses to install.

That, in a nutshell, was what had happened to me.

I’m guessing – actually, it’s more like hoping, I’ll be able to stick the memory into the PC once Windows is loaded and running. It will run much faster with 1 Gb of RAM than it does with 512 Mb.

As I type this Windows is updating, installing all the security patches that have come out since XP hit the scene. I still have a few more drivers and utilities to throw on before it’s time to reinstall my programs.

What a royal pain!

In the long run, all of this anguish and angst will go away. The computer will run like a top. I will be happy.

It’s a machine I designed and built myself. Unless something goes wrong from time-to-time I feel I just haven’t pushed the envelope.

Fixing My Dad’s PC

Maybe the title of this entry isn’t quite right, because my father’s PC (actually, 21st century Harold has two PCs… and they’re networked) did work. It just didn’t work right.

My first hint of trouble was the fact that Windows SP2 couldn’t be installed. The second hint came when Steffie was here last month. She complained about pop-ups and not being able to reach certain sites.

Two things struck me when I looked at the PC. There were lots of pop-ups and weird tool bars were installed on Internet Explorer. None of this was good.

I started to work slowly, quizzing my dad on what he did or didn’t use. Ad-Aware showed a fair amount of spyware, but AVG gave him a clean bill of health on virii. Neither catch everything.

Then I began to uninstall things that didn’t look right or things he didn’t recognize.

He said the tool bars hadn’t been installed by him. That very well might be true. More likely they snuck in when he installed something else. His permission had been gotten in one of those click through licenses no one reads.

By late this evening, enough had been uninstalled that SP2 (which I brought on a CD from home) went in without a complaint. Then I continued to bring the computer up-to-date.

Finally, I looked at the start up section of ‘msconfig.’ Holy mackerel! What was this stuff? Weirdly named programs were starting themselves up every time he hit the power switch.

Now they’re gone.

I’ve rebooted a few times, and the system seems to come up cleanly. If any of those files were critical, we’ll soon know. In the meantime, XP and my father are playing nicely.

Windows XP Service Pack 2

Over the last year or two, the Windows operating system has started to resemble the South Bronx in the early 80s. Yes, it’s intrinsicly valuable, but it’s also become dangerous. The young and innocent must be protected from predators.

Over the weekend, Microsoft slowly rolled out a massive service pack for Windows XP – the latest version of its operating system. Since I have a bunch of machines to update at home, I downloaded the 225mb version and then passed it across my network to all the machines.

The size of the download will certainly keep people with dial-up accounts from getting the pack. It will probably intimidate many broadband users as well. That’s a massive file to download.

I’m taking few chances, so it was installed on my spare machine first. I figure there’s nothing mission critical on this machine so I can survive should the machine be unhappy with what I did.

Microsoft actually expects to see some troubles, though I have seen few specifics. Since it closes holes in certain ports with its new firewall, it’s sure to break programs that communicate in a non-standard way – even if they’re doing so for a perfectly legitimate purpose.

After the download, installation took about 25 minutes. It didn’t ask for my help, other than clicking off on the EULA.

As far as I can tell the installation was a success. I immediately noticed my wireless network, which needed me to manually start it on every reboot, was now finding its own way to operation. I’m not using Internet Explorer or Outlook Express on that machines, and I know that’s where a lot of the security enhancements were aimed.

There are two things which trouble me. First, this service pack doesn’t address problems for people running Windows 98, a perfectly fine and usable operating system. We have two machines at home (Steffie’s desktop and my laptop) which are running Windows 98. Neither machine has the firepower to switch to XP. They will continue to be susceptible to all the same attacks that brought this service pack on in the first place.

My second problem concerns whether Microsoft will allow this patch to be used on systems with bootleg copies of XP. It would seem obvious that they shouldn’t support those who steal from them, except for the fact that many of the ills this service pack stops are passed along to legitimate users. So, no inoculation for them means they may make my computers sick in the long run.

It is certainly a quandary for Microsoft. I don’t know what I’d do if it were me. However, if viruses and spam from zombie machines continues because of Microsoft’s policies, I’ll be ticked.

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.

Silence of the Ram(s)

I love my little auxiliary computer. It’s the one that runs Mandrake Linux and sits next to my main (though less powerful) Windows XP machine.

It started life as a Pentium II 300, but thanks to a ridiculous mail order sale, it is now an Athlon XP 2400+. Of course changing the motherboard demanded a new power supply… and it really needed more memory… and there was this CDRW that was only $10 after rebate. You get the idea.

I’ve got Mandrake running nicely… well, nearly nicely. I might reinstall it, again. Anyway, I’ve got it running. And I do use the machine. But there is a continuing, nagging problem. When I turn it on, it’s like standing next to a 747 as the engines get run up!

I know what the problem is. Buying the motherboard, CPU and fan on a ‘deal’ meant the components were low end. For the internal CPU cooling fan, that meant very noisy.

I had heard about Zalman cooling solutions and how they were often nearly silent. I decided to try one. I think it’s interesting that Zalman sounds like an Eastern European name – since it’s a Korean company.

I read a lot and settled on the CNPS3100-Plus. It is a two stage cooler, with a pure copper heatsink shaped like a flower, and a fan. The fan, which isn’t mounted directly atop the heatsink as most are, comes with a “noiseless fan connector.” That’s a clever way of saying a cable with resistor to drop the fan’s voltage and speed.

I went to Google’s price comparison search engine and found the best deal. “Froogle” is a good idea, but is often confused when many items are listed together. It took me a while to find the right item and price. I ordered two. One for the auxiliary and one for the main computer.

For the past week, these two hermetically sealed “Quiet CPU Cooler” kits have sat in my office. Tonight, I finally installed the first.

I removed the original heatsink, a fan attached to a honeycomb of copper. Because it was held by tension, I used a screwdriver to stretch it a little more and pull it off the CPU socket’s pins. The kit came with a tube of thermal grease, which I spread over the area where the CPU and heatsink would touch. Then I replaced the original fan and heatsink with the copper flower. I hung the new fan from the screws that hold PCI cards on the motherboard.

When I fired the computer up the first time, it swung right into action. But, when I went to close the case and try again, the computer let out with a steady tone and shut itself down.

Modern motherboards monitor the fan that cools the CPU. Maybe this one was judging the slower fan as not sufficient? I readjusted the BIOS settings so it wouldn’t monitor the fan anymore. The computer booted right up.

Amazingly, most of the racket the PC had been producing was no longer there! There was still noise from the power supply fan and the new CPU fan – but it was worlds away from the racket I had heard before. I was able to heard the chatter of the disk drives as they accessed data. Earlier, that noise was masked.

Later tonight, or maybe tomorrow, I’ll install the second cooler on my main computer. So far, I’m very impressed by what I haven’t heard.

Tough Choice for Microsoft

I’m sitting at one of my Microsoft powered computers at the moment. Since I built this puppy from individual components, I actually have a full CD version of Windows XP Home – something that seldom comes with computers anymore.

It used to be, prior to Windows XP, that Microsoft’s operating systems were easy to steal. There must be millions of Windows 98 machines running on an operating system that was borrowed from a friend.

Starting with XP, Microsoft made this much more difficult. Now computers need to be activated before the operating system will become permanently enabled. Windows XP versions that come with specific hardware often will not run on other hardware. And, Microsoft has found many of the bogus serial numbers used to activate XP and now deactivates those systems if they try and use Windows Update. Still, if what I’ve read is correct, much of Asia and the Third World’s computers are run on bootlegged copies of Windows XP.

There lies the problem.

I never would have thought of this myself and have to thank Slashdot for pointing it out.

With all the security flaws and weaknesses of Windows XP, should Microsoft continue to deny software upgrades to illegally obtained and installed versions of their software? Surely, if Microsoft allows anyone to keep XP up-to-date, there will be less incentive to buy the disk. On the other hand, by denying these patches, is Microsoft creating an environment where more and more bad code will infect the Internet… which affects legal owners like me!

I’m not sure what advice I’d give to Microsoft. Are they liable for the unpatched versions of their original code? Do they have any obligation to me, a paying customer, when it comes to bootleg copies of their software?

This won’t be the last we’ll hear of this. It’s a very provocative question to ask in an industry that’s anything but simple.

Building a New PC – Almost

Why would anyone want three PCs at home? I’m not talking about the machines shared with my family. These are my computers. Granted, two of them are discards; computers deemed too slow by others.

I have done most of what I could to optimize these older machines. They’re loaded with memory and unnecessary processes are shut down. You still can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but you can get a lot closer than most people expect.

The laptop, a Pentium II 300 MHz model, is my road machine. It’s got a wireless card and is often downstairs in the family room (especially if I’m watching TV and playing poker). It is sometimes sluggish, but never enough to be a bother.

The second desktop is also a P-II 300. Well, it was until a few days ago.

I wondered if it would be possible to bring this machine into the 21st century without spending much cash. TigerDirect was having a sale where the net cost (after rebates) of a motherboard, fast processor chip with fan, and memory was only $99.99. I decided to give it a try.

It took about three days for UPS to deliver my package. Looking in the box, everything was there, in its original packaging. So far, so good.

Fearing the 256MB RAM stick that came with the kit wasn’t enough, I went to Staples and bought another 256MB. It was $30, after rebate, bringing me to $130.

What is missing in a deal like this is a great deal of documentation. There were no instructions with either the CPU chip (an AMD XP 2400) or the fan. There was a sticky label on the chip’s packaging saying, in essence, “you break it, too bad.”

Instructions don’t seem like a big deal, but mounting the fan isn’t totally intuitive and a thermal compound paste (included) has to be applied between the fan and chip.

My first step was unplugging the old motherboard, unscrewing and removing it from the case. No problem. It came out really easily.

Since the computer industry standardized motherboard sizes, my new ATX board should fit exactly where the old board sat. It did. A new plate fit between the case and motherboard, allowing the external plugs for video, audio, mouse and keyboard to be accessible. So far, so good.

Each individual peripheral, like a disk drive, has to be wired for both data and power. It sounds tougher than it is. There are distinctly sized plugs for each operation. It’s tough to go wrong, though it is possible if you’re not looking, to put some plugs in backwards.

The manual for the Soyo motherboard was well illustrated and easily led me to the right sockets on the board for all these cables. I did have to call AMD to try and figure out how to set an on-board jumper. I was on and off the phone in two minutes.

AMD, if you’re listening, I’m impressed.

It took a bit over an hour on the kitchen table before I was ready to plug it in. I lugged the case upstairs and plugged it into my KVM switch. KVM stands for keyboard, video, mouse. All it means is I can run two computers from one set of devices. Hitting the scroll lock key twice toggles my keyboard, mouse and monitor from one machine to the other. It’s pretty simple, saves space and lots of money.

The system started to power up, but the normal beep as it’s getting ready to go was replaced by a continuous tone for a few seconds and then… silence. The machine shut itself down.

Uh oh. I took a look at everything under the hood. Something had to be wrong. I didn’t see anything out of place. So, I went to Soyo’s website and searched out my problem.

Someone had described a similar outcome for another motherboard. It hinged on the safety circuitry not sensing the cooling fan on the computer chip. Sure enough, my fan was plugged into the wrong socket.

Though the fan was spinning, keeping things cool, the motherboard’s circuitry though it was just an extra fan, not the one necessary to keep the chip operating. I moved the plug and bingo, it booted.

I spent the next few hours going through a bunch of different operating systems, trying to decide what I wanted. I loaded Windows XP and two different flavors of Linux.

Since I was aiming to keep the cost down, I went with Linux. Specifically, it’s “Mandrake Linux 10 Community,” a close-to-production release. It’s free! I actually downloaded the installation disks the night before and burned them onto Cd’s. Unless you play games or run some very specific applications, Linux is fine. There are browsers, email programs, graphic design software, etc. Most of it them are free.

I find it a little more difficult to get answers to Linux questions, because I know fewer people who run it than Windows. But, I am constantly ‘mitchering’ with my machine, and that brings up situations most users wouldn’t get into.

I went to bed a happy man. My machine was humming along. This ugly duckling was now the fastest machine in the house. Life was good. And then, I woke up.

Hitting the power button brought nothing. No noise, no lights, nothing.

I had built this system in an old case with an older, weaker power supply. I can’t be sure, but my best estimation is the power supply was stressed with this new configuration. As it cooled, it broke down. A digital multimeter across the power pins showed no voltage anywhere.

My goal here was to keep costs down. Now, with the extra RAM, I was already $30 over my original cost. I could have spent $60 at CompUSA or Circuit City to get a new supply, but decided to log onto eBay and see what was available.

For $20, including shipping, I bought a 420 watt supply to replace the 230 watt model I’ve surely fried. It’s coming from California, so I’ll be without this machine for most of – maybe all – of the next week. My $100 machine is now $150.

Still, if the power supply is the problem, and if it boots up right away, this will be a great investment. For $150, a computer someone wanted to throw away, will be a screamer. And, I did it myself. It’s no big deal.

Modernizing My PC

I have two desktop PC’s in this room. The first – the one I’m typing on now – is a box I built myself after spending weeks pouring through every computer publication and website known to man. The other is an older, slower machine they were throwing away at work. It has hosted at least 10 different flavors of Windows and Linux and is constantly in a state a flux.

The CPU – the brains behind the computer – is an Intel Pentium II-300. By today’s standards, it’s old and slow. Here’s the dirty little secret – if all you’re doing is word processing and web browsing, it’s perfect.

Shh, don’t tell.

It is my auxiliary machine and I do use it a lot, sometimes for photos and video, so it would be nice if it were a little faster. Last night I found what I hope will be the solution to this problem.

Tiger Direct is advertising a motherboard/memory/CPU/cooling fan combo for $99.99. That’s an unbelievable deal and will give me a spare machine that’s faster than anything else here.

If you’re not a computer geek, a motherboard is the circuitry that ties together the computer chip (CPU) and everything else. Different motherboards have different functionality. This is pretty much a Swiss Army Knife, with video, audio, network connections and a host of other features right on the board. Previously, these demanded separate cards.

Usually, video on the motherboard isn’t my favorite way to go. It’s is often slower and less well thought out than stand alone video card which plug into a slot on the board. Since I’m not a game player, and video speed isn’t paramount, it’s a very small trade off.

This motherboard uses an AMD Athlon XP 2400+ CPU. When most people think of computer chips, they think Intel. This AMD is a virtual work alike. Other than cost (AMD is cheaper) I can’t see any difference – and I’ve been using AMD chips for years.

The plan is to remove the motherboard from the auxiliary machine and replace it with this one. The case, power supply and disk drives will remain the same. Everything should just plug in.

It really is very close to getting a brand new machine for $99.99. Of course that $99.99 is after rebates, but I’ll be diligent.

Earlier today, having already decided this would be a fun/good thing to do, I went to a local computer show in an elementary school gym. I couldn’t have matched this deal for less than twice the price.

This is a project I’m looking forward to. Ripping a computer apart and rebuilding it is something you don’t get to do every day. Hopefully, when it gets booted for the first time it will understand my angst and go right to work. Otherwise, I will be forced to threaten it with water. PC’s are scared of water.