I treated my computer to two upgrades for Christmas, neither of which has exactly worked out how I’d hoped. What follows is an abridged account of nearly three weeks of personal computing misery. It all begins with those upgrades…
As RAM is almost criminally cheap now, I bought a 512 MB DIMM, and I thought I’d better buy a DVD re-writer seeing as my hard drive is 48 GB full. I ordered the memory and an LG GSA-4160 from dabs.com. I didn’t get an e-mail confirmation of my order, because it turns out that you have to opt-in to receive e-mail updates once your account is set up, which I didn’t find very helpful. Even then, it took a few days of checking my order status on the website to see that I wouldn’t be getting a DVD re-writer after all, because that particular model had become obsolete. They never sent me an e-mail to tell me.
I cancelled that part of the order and waited for the memory to arrive. Knowing how particular the Windows NT line has always been about RAM, I’d spent a bit more and bought branded Kingston memory. It arrived, I fitted it—I’m always surprised at how forceful you have to be to get it to lock into place—and all was well. I had a gigabyte of RAM!
The next time I used ActiveSync to synchronise my Pocket PC, the screen went black and the computer just seemed to die. It sounded as if the hard drive had powered down, although the system power was still on. There was no blue screen or any sort of crash dump and I had to do a hard reset. At this point I saw the error message that every Windows users dreads: the one where Windows cannot find your System registry hive or it’s corrupted.
I tried a Last Known Good boot, but that was No Damn Good. Has that ever helped anyone ever get their system back, because it never has for me? I booted into the Windows XP Recovery Console and manually copied the setup copy of the stricken file from the repair directory. Windows got a bit further into the boot process and then went into a chkdsk loop, continuously checking my D: partition, with no way to turn it off. At this point I started to sweat with the realisation that I didn’t have a recent disk image to hand, so the prospect of re-installing Windows and all my software was looming large. I cursed myself for being so lapse.
I tried to look on the bright side with the thought that I could start afresh with a nice shiny and clean Windows installation that would fair rip along because I would be much more disciplined, and wouldn’t install so much guff that meant that I had to scroll the Add/Remove Programs window about eight times to see it all. I could also use it as an opportunity to finally install Windows XP Service Pack 2.
So that’s what I did. I cleaned out my two partitions reserved for Windows and programs (there’s a third for data and a fourth for backups) and roughly 109 steps later, I had a system installed and configured to my taste:
- Set up the BIOS to boot from CD-ROM.
- Run Windows XP setup.
- Delete the existing C: partition.
- Create a new C: partition and slow format as NTFS.
- Change language and keyboard layout to English (United Kingdom).
- Enter name and organisation.
- Enter product key.
- Enter computer name and administrator password.
- Enter dialling area code.
- Change time zone to GMT.
- Have a first attempt at configuring networking.
- Turn off CD-ROM booting in the BIOS.
- Set up Internet connection.
- Activate Windows.
- Set up a user account for John.
- Turn on Num Lock.
- Close the Language Bar.
- Change the display resolution to 1280 x 1024 x 32-bit at 60 Hz.
- Start Windows Explorer.
- Turn on the status bar.
- Turn on the setting to display contents of system folders.
- Turn on the setting to display full path in title bar.
- Turn on the setting to show hidden files and folders.
- Turn off the setting to use simple file sharing.
- Configure home networking properly.
- Recreate previous file shares.
- Rename My Computer icon.
- Change the picture associated with the John user account.
- Create a password for the John user account.
- Set volume label for C: to “Windows”.
- Use Disk Administrator to re-arrange the drive letters so that they’re the same as they were before.
- Turn off Hibernation.
- Set paging file to fixed size so that it doesn’t fragment.
- Turn off system error reporting apart from critical errors.
- Turn on ClearType.
- Change the mouse pointer to the 3-D White scheme.
- Configure the Start menu.
- Edit the registry to remove the shared documents folders.
- Display the Quick Launch toolbar.
- Create a new taskbar toolbar for My Computer.
- Turn off the Search Assistant.
- Turn on the advanced searching option.
- Restore the SendTo menu shortcuts from backup.
- Start Event Viewer and increase the maximum log sizes.
- Import a previously saved registry export file to set up Task Manager.
- Import a previously saved registry export file to turn Num Lock on for the default user.
- Import a previously saved registry export file to set the default user’s mouse pointer to the 3-D white scheme.
- Move the My Documents folder to the data partition.
- Install Tweak UI and configure (speed up menus, turn off balloon tooltips, tab Command Prompt completion).
- Install the Open Command Window Here powertoy.
- Install the Alt-Tab Replacement powertoy.
- Install the Energy Blue theme from Windows XP Media Centre edition.
- Configure the Command Prompt colours, fonts and screen buffer size.
- Edit sysoc.inf and uninstall MSN Messenger and MSN Explorer.
- Install Norton AntiVirus and discover that I’ve got six months free extra subscription because it’s a new installation of Windows.
- Delete the Norton AntiVirus desktop shortcut.
- Connect to the Internet and run Windows Update.
- Download the latest Norton AntiVirus definitions and update LiveUpdate.
- Install Microsoft Office.
- Delete the Outlook icon from the desktop.
- Start Word and Excel and turn off Personalized Menus.
- Configure Word and Excel to use correct documents directory on data partition.
- Install the Creative sound card drivers.
- Delete SoundBlaster shortcuts from the desktop.
- Install Ad-Aware and download the latest definitions file.
- Install WinZip and configure.
- Install Acrobat Reader.
- Install RapidRes and configure.
- Install Password Agent and configure.
- Install ConTEXT and configure.
- Edit the system path to include the ConTEXT directory.
- Install Mozilla Firefox and extensions.
- Install Mozilla Thunderbird.
- Restore the Thunderbird profile directory from backup.
- Install the Apache HTTP server.
- Install Photoshop Album and patch to change date formats to European.
- Delete the Photoshop Album shortcut from the desktop.
- Install CityDesk.
- Delete CityDesk shortcut from the desktop.
- Change Internet Explorer Web page font to Arial, for CityDesk article editor.
- Install the .NET 1.1 framework.
- Install HTMLMonthCreator.
- Install Visual SourceSafe and configure to use previous repository.
- Install A Real Validator.
- Install PageDefrag and various Sysinternals command-line tools.
- Install FeedDemon and re-activate online.
- Restore FeedDemon data from backup.
- Install MySQL Control Centre.
- Delete the MySQL Control Centre desktop shortcut.
- Install the Java 1.5 5.0 SDK.
- Edit the system path to include the directory containing the Java compiler and runtime.
- Create JAVA_HOME environment variable.
- Install Apache Ant.
- Edit the system path to include the Ant directory.
- Create ANT_HOME environment variable.
- Install Apache Tomcat.
- Install WinKey.
- Delete the WinKey desktop shortcut.
- Install ActiveSync.
- Delete the ActiveSync desktop shortcut.
- Install iTunes and reconnect to existing music library and authorise computer.
- Remove John user account from the Administrators group, so that it’s a limited account.
- Run chkdsk on Windows, Programs and Data partitions.
- Delete temporary files.
- Defragment Windows, Programs partition.
- Back up documents.
- Create disk images for Windows and Program partitions.
—This process is why I didn’t relish the prospect of re-installing Windows! My previous Windows XP installation—dating back to just after I got my present PC—had been going strong for thirty-four months. This new one felt a lot snappier and there were other benefits, such as my modem working better than it had ever managed before. The new features in Service Pack 2 seemed pretty decent, although I’m a bit baffled why when Windows boots it’s now just plain Microsoft Windows XP instead of Microsoft Windows XP Professional. The copyright year has gone too. I guess that’s to hide the fact that’s it’s ages since a new version of Windows came out. I’ve turned off Windows Firewall and replaced it with Agnitum Outpost Firewall Pro, which is about as industrial-strength as software firewalls get. Recommended for £39.99.
With some trepidation—but also with a a degree of confidence because I now had recent disk images—I re-synced my iPAQ and all was well. I could even finally use the Explorer shell namespace integration to browse the device from my PC, which had never worked previously. I left the room and came back a few minutes later to see that my monitor screen was an omninous shade of black. The computer was deader than a dead parrot.
Fortunately I was able to get Windows back up and running again in just under four minutes, thanks to my up-to-date disk image. I think we should all take a moment to give thanks for the inventors of disk imaging software…
Amen. It had to be the new RAM that was the problem. That was what had changed. It was just very strange that the computer only died when using ActiveSync. I’d even upgraded the version of ActiveSync during the 109 steps to Windows’ nirvana outlined above.
I booted into Memtest86 to give the RAM a thorough workout, but it was all clear. I used the /MAXMEM=512 switch in boot.ini to hide the new memory from Windows and this actually worked. Not a great solution though, having to boot into a memory constrained environment just to use ActiveSync. It stopped working after that anyway. Cue another restore from disk image.
Upon advice, I ran Memtest86 for much longer—seventy hours straight— to give the RAM an even more comprehensive going over. It still passed with flying colours. This morning I got down with the hardware again and switched the memory around, so that the new DIMM was in the first bank, rather than the last. It was no good. Another seizure.
The latest thing I’ve tried is to manually select a slower RAM timing in the BIOS, rather than leave it set to automatic. Unbelievably, I’ve successfully completed a synchronisation without a crash following this change and am even writing this in the same session. I’m being very careful about making sure this article is saved though. So that just might be the memory dealt with, but what about the DVD re-writer?
I ordered the new LG GSA-4163B online from Micro Direct. Theirs is the only e-commerce site I’ve ever used where you can order goods online without giving an e-mail address. Bizzarely, they let you create a shopping basket and check out without having to register with their site, which is a separate function.
Amtrak tried to deliver the parcel three times this week, each time at the same time when there was no-one home. I can’t get to their depot, it’s on some industrial estate that’s completely inaccessible to me. Besides, they only hold uncollected parcels at the depot for two working days. I called them yesterday to reschedule delivery for today, but as the mere recipient I’m not important enough to be able to do that—it has to be authorised by the sender.
Micro Direct are one of a large group of companies who seem to think that it’s sufficient to have a contact form on their website, without actually having to respond to the e-mails it sends them. The DVD re-writer is going back to them and they’re refunding my money. Once that happens, then I may try my luck for a third time at getting my hands on the latest LG DVD re-writer.
This year my PC is getting nothing for Christmas.