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April 13, 2007

My Somewhat Lame New Computer

As I have mentioned earlier, my desktop computer was older than my second-grade son. I had wanted to get a new computer for a while, but I figured I would wait until Vista shipped. That way, I could buy a computer pre-configured with Vista, where the manufacturer had done the work of making sure that the video card, network, etc. were all properly supported by Vista.

Then once Vista was available I debated for a while about whether to buy a machine locally, or order one online. Costco had some nice machines, but they tended to come with features I didn't want (like a TV tuner). Finally I decided to order from a company I'll call the Large Respected Computer Company. I logged onto lrcc.com and ordered up a nice powerful machine.

When it showed up I hooked everything together and turned it on. I set it up so the nice 19-inch monitor was showing a beautiful 1280 x 1024 background image, and prepared myself to install Office, copy files over, and all that.

Oh wait, something was requiring a reboot (the preinstalled security software needed an update). No problem, just reboot (the thing boots quickly also). Except when I rebooted, I had no video. It showed the loader splash screen when Windows was booting (which uses only VGA capabilities) but then went black. I knew the computer was working because I could make it generate Windows sounds (hitting the shift key 5 times in a row is one way to do this). But the video driver wasn't working. A little experimentation showed that it worked fine in Safe Mode, which uses VGA, so the problem was obviously the video driver.

The thing that really amazed me about this was that I was running the unmodified out-of-the-box setup of the computer. I hadn't installed anything or changed anything. So LRCC had sent me a computer that, as far as I could tell, just flat out didn't work. I mean, everybody who bought the same model with the same video card was presumably going to have the same problem. Getting this kind of problem worked out is why we shipped Vista to OEMs months before public availability, and it's why I had waited and bought a machine with Vista preinstalled. Yet, somehow I still had this POC that didn't work.

Now, when I contacted LRCC's support, they were extremely helpful, immediately realizing (from experience, I assume) which driver to download and getting me going in a reasonable amount of time.

But then, lo and behold, I plugged in a USB printer and it just didn't work (an error about USB printing support not installing properly). That one looked like Microsoft's fault: I'm not sure why it failed, or why it eventually worked when I unplugged the printer and plugged it back in, but for many people it would have been a second support call (this is an unintended consequence of our "secure by default" initiative; the reason we don't have things like USB printing enabled by default is to minimize the exploitability if a remote exploit is found in the code).

Then, the next day the computer froze and when I rebooted it said that a certain driver had been disabled due to instability. Once again, this was a driver that had shipped with the computer. WTF? So back to LRCC's support and once again they were very helpful, and in this case explained that the driver was supposed to auto-update during setup but for some reason it didn't always happen. OK, that might just be something flaky. And I'll even avoid blaming them for the fact that a Windows Update that was pushed last week broke the video driver AGAIN, which led to another call and downloading a slightly different version of the video driver, because that's probably a wierd interaction between the driver and Windows Update that couldn't have been tested ahead of time (and LRCC's support was once again extremely competent and helpful).

Still, as a supported of Wintel computers, the whole thing is just sort of depressing. Through some combination of behavior by Microsoft, LRCC, third-party hardware driver writers, Windows Update, and increased sunspot activity, the net result is that I laid out some serious money for a new computer and wound up with something that had 4 major issues in the first couple of weeks. And with me they are preaching to the choir! I can't imagine what the feeling would be if I had just been some random user.

Anyway, the computer seems to be mostly working now (although it did hang last night for no apparent reason), and it is pretty snappy and the screen looks great. And Vista, I have to say, really does look good from a design perspective. But as a shareholder, the whole thing was more than a bit worrisome.

Posted by AdamBa at April 13, 2007 07:57 PM

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dude, that's not just you. That's the over popularity of Windows in action. So many accessories, so many cruddy drivers written for each of them. bad interactions and weirdness ALWAYS happen on new computers.

Posted by: jeremiah johnson at April 13, 2007 09:33 PM

It is expected Vista to have more problems with the drivers because of the DRM obfuscation requirements. This applies mainly for audio and video drivers.
The objective to stop hackers from tracing how drivers work makes it also hard for developers to trace bugs.

With the time and more efforts things would eventually stabilize.

Posted by: Ivan at April 14, 2007 08:02 AM

I agree it takes a while to shake things out on a new computer. But LRCC has had almost 6 months to figure out which hardware to sell with its Vista machines. They only offer 2 or 3 video cards bundled with this particular machine. So couldn't they have chosen ones that had Vista drivers that worked? This wasn't some flaky thing (as far as I can tell) -- the thing flat out just didn't work on the box as shipped from the factory.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at April 14, 2007 09:10 AM

Vista is less than a year out of release and would be considered a beta test from any other company. You early adopt Windows and this is what you get, always has been the case and always will be.

The features to protect users from themselves will be a PITA for the rest of eternity. There is already a proof of concept on taking control of the protected processes infrastructure* and that will enable people to write protected malware for years to come. I wouldn't be surprised if a future service pack disabled Paladium and the rest of the nonsense as a dangerous and unsupportable feature.

*how MS ever thought they could keep this safe I don't know, it's an act of insanity.

Posted by: Gareth Morgan at April 14, 2007 09:21 AM

I bought a new vista machine the other day, I used it for about 2.674 seconds and said "Wow... I paid for this ..." formatted the disk and installed Opensuse 10.2, I haven't had any problems with it since then,

Posted by: Karl at April 14, 2007 03:37 PM

I applaud your honest critique of your own experience, especially considering the fact that you are an employee of the aforementioned company.

I personally, am finished using Microsoft products when I have a choice.

Posted by: Dan at April 14, 2007 04:32 PM

Geeahhh, the computer has now started hanging about once a day. I'm suspicious of the antivirus/firewall that was preinstalled, but it's maddeningly difficult to diagnose a hang.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at April 15, 2007 04:48 PM

You're not alone.

But what I don't understand is: Why do you keep the machine? You bought it. You turned it on. It failed.
If it was a car or a refrigerator, you'd have the dealer pick up the piece of garbage in no time, wouldn't you?

We must start returning bad software. If it is pre-installed or bundled with some PC or mobile device, return the device and buy something else.

Otherwise, this is never going to get better.

I'm not sure what Microsoft did wrong here, but hardware manufacturers such as NVidia or AMD/ATI surely look like they are trying to make Vista adoption as hard as it can be.

Posted by: Henry Boehlert at April 15, 2007 11:08 PM

Dude. Just buy a Mac. Why would anyone subject themselves to Windows torture these days is beyond me. Unpack it, turn it on, and it just works.

Posted by: DMB at April 22, 2007 11:40 AM

didn't LRCC.com recently start offering XP again as an option ?

Posted by: Bob at April 22, 2007 08:07 PM


I too am experiencing those once-a-day machine freezes on vista. I noticed that freeze is usually followed by an unusually high disk activity. Any ideas what could be causing this?

For clues I looked into the resource monitor and narrowed down to these processes with high cpu + disk usage.

- The antivirus
- SearchIndexer
- perfmon
- dwm
- sidebar
- svchost (secsvc)
- svchost (LocalSystemNetworkRestricted)
- svchost (netsvcs)

Posted by: Anon at April 22, 2007 11:38 PM

I think I can see why people wait for the first service pack before they consider Microsoft OSes to be usable. I feel amply vindicated in not buying a Vista-ready computer - yet.

Of course, in my context, said computer has to manage Beryl/Compiz as well as Aqua, so any flaky video setup'd better get sorted out well before then.

(BTW, do you have something to get rid of all the comment spam? It's nauseating.)

Posted by: Wesley Parish at April 27, 2007 03:58 AM

Isn't it kinda sad that a blog run by an employee of the world's largest software company is nothing but a dumping ground for spam?

Posted by: Max at May 2, 2007 07:27 PM