By Carter B. Horsley
There comes a time when most personal computer users decide to get a fresh start with a new computer, lured by the technological advances in processing speed, bigger and faster hard drives, faster CD-writers, DVD capabilities, and the like. There is no general rule-of-thumb about how often consumers take the plunge and get a new computer, but it's probably every three years or so. While some consumers will upgrade a component or two during the "life" of their computer, at some point they realize it probably makes more sense in terms of productivity and their needs to start over again with a new "state-of-the-art" computer. "State-of-the-art" usually changes every three months or so, although really significant changes, other than the "clock" speed of the central processing chip (cpu), may actually occur only every six months or so.
Experienced consumers are most likely aware of the potential nightmares of some component upgrades. For those who have ever tried to add a new drive, such as a hard drive, a CD-writer, or a tape-back-up unit, internally, the difficulty of attached the unit to a twisted cable in very cramped space is not soon forgotten. Similarly, for those consumers who have experienced "crashes" bad enough to require a reformatting of a hard drive the pain of upgrading a component can be excruciating and tech support calls can begin to match the cost of the component in some cases.
Not all users, of course, have the same needs. I, for example, am a fairly heavy user of my computer. I scan, I digitally retouch and manipulate artwork, I paint on the computer, I compose and record my own music compositions on the computer, I use a graphics tablet, I do spreadsheets, I do brochures, I run a website, etc., and I plan to make movies. The basic reasons for my decision to get a new computer was that I needed much bigger hard drives. Even though I had off-loaded much of my data onto CDs, I was nearly out of space on my 6-gig hard drive in my Dell 300 megahertz Pentium II computer, which had 192 megs of RAM.
After much agonizing study of what was available in early 2001, I decided to get a Sony VAIO Digital Studio desktop model that had a Pentium IV chip running at 1.5 gigahertz with two 80-gigabyte hard drives and 384 megabytes of very fast RAM. The unit also came with a DVD, a 12 speed CDR, three USB ports, and firewire as well as a lot of good audio-visual software. Sony was one of the few major companies whose computers ship with a built-in firewire port, and while such ports are available on expansion cards, many new computers do not ship with a lot of free expansion card slots and there some differences between firewire cards that might cause compatibility problems. Since I had a Sony camcorder, Sony was a logical choice, especially since its software was unmatched by other computer makers.
I was tempted to buy the computer on-line, but finally decided to get it at Datavision, a large computer store in midtown Manhattan. They had the brand-new model in stock, but it only had one 80-gigabyte hard drive in it, but they said they could install another in a couple of days, and I figured it was better to deal with a local store that was an authorized dealer with technical support on site if there were any problems rather than shipping the entire unit back to Sony and I had dealt with Datavision happily in the past.
In preparation for the new computer, I assiduously made data CDs on my computer and checked to see if I still could put my hands on the installation disks for all my programs as well as check to see if I might need new software downloads for the new computer's operating system, which would be Windows Millennium Edition. I had been running Windows 98 with most of the second edition patches.
One of the reasons I wanted to upgrade was to be able to print larger and better pictures and I planned to get a large-format printer. I had used Hewlett-Packard printers for a while before switching to Epsons. In 2000, Epson introduced two new large-format printers, the 1270 and the 2000P, the former originally with a street price of about $499, subsequently reduced to about $399, and the latter with a street price of about $899. Both were capable of printing on Super B paper, which measures 13 by 19 inches, as well as smaller sizes. Epson heralded the 2000P unit as being able to produce prints that under proper conditions, using special archival paper and inks, for a century or so, a very major breakthrough.
Fortunately, I decided to look up the printer on the Internet on Deja.com, which is now part of the great Google search engine to see what user comments they were and discovered to my dismay a great many messages that related to major problems with both printers. The 1270, it appears, suffered from an "orange shift" problem in which the color of the prints would change fairly quickly. The glossy paper Epson first produced for the 2000P, on the other hand, was reportedly not good at all and discontinued. Some of these problems were discussed in one article in Byte Magazine, but otherwise have not been reported in the general computer print media, which by and large has given the units very good reviews.
So devastating were the many bad posted notices on the Epsons that I reluctantly decided to get the fairly new Hewlett Packard 1200, which has lower resolution and is not archival quality. The printer, however, does make nice large prints and is quiet and reasonably fast. It cost about $499. I was really disappointed that the Epsons apparently are disasters and it is remarkable that Epson has not been able to correct its problems, which are likely to seriously erode its impressive market share. Sometimes the bad comments posted on the Usernet and/or found in Deja/Google should be treated with grains of salt, and written off as anecdotal problems that are isolated, but in this case it would appear that the problems are severe and worrisome. From its advertisements and specs, the Epsons are clearly the most desirable printers in their class, but in the case of the 1270 and 2000P the realty is that they do not deliver the great promises.
There was a delay of several days at Datavision in getting my desktop, but I finally picked it up with the extra hard drive supposedly installed and began the lengthy process of installing all my programs and data from the old computer and attached by peripherals, which included the HP printer, a UMAX USB scanner, a Wacom Intuos Tablet, a Steinberg Midex 8 USB MIDI interface, and a Midiman Delta 66 24-bit audio card and interface.
There were a few glitches on program installations that required me to download software updates because of the different and new operating system. The Sony, like many other major desktops, shipped with Windows Millennium Edition with no options for Windows 98 Second Edition. (Windows 2000 is not an option for many consumers as a lot of software has not been updated to be compatible with it.)
One of the major and controversial features of Millennium Edition is "System Restore," which essentially takes a snapshot of your setup and program information (as opposed to data) and permits you to restore the computer to the last point at which it was functioning well, assuming that you had "marked" the System Restore program after each successful program installation. I had so many programs to install that I did not make such marks after each program and found that sometimes I was able to make a successful "mark" and sometimes not. In a couple of instances, I was able to restore the computer when I encountered some installation problems. I began to get a variety of error messages on start up and went through a lot of time-consuming restarts often with a variety of different crash error messages.
After having installed most of my data, and discovering I had forgotten data for a couple of programs that required me to re-setup my old computer and make more data CDs, I decided to look at Windows Explorer to see how much space I had already used up. One of the great advantages of having enormous hard drives was that I would be able to have all my important graphic and audio files on the computer for quick access and that I could also better organize my files in new subdirectories for easy reference. To my amazement, I discovered that the second hard drive appeared to be recognized in Control Panel/System/Device Manager, but that it was not assigned a drive letter. This was exasperating and disconcerting, to put it mildly as I had waited several extra days to have it installed and it was not clear whether it was in fact installed properly although I remember seeing a second drive when I opened the computer up to install the Delta audio card. (Opening the computer up, in fact, was very frustrating as the supplied manuals gave no indication how to do it and it took 45 minutes to figure it out, which, in fact, proved fairly easy once you knew which side of the computer to open up and where to press a latch.)
I called up Datavision and repacked the computer and took it to the store where its technical support people examined it and discovered that the second hard drive was there but was not being recognized by the computer. It took the technician about an hour to format the drive and assign it a drive letter, but the technician took time to explain that because the first hard drive had been partitioned in the factory into 20-gig and a 60-gig partitions, the sequence of drive letters would not be logical. The 20-gig partition on the first drive was the root drive and labeled "C" but by adding the second drive the 60-gig partition on the first drive changed from "D" to "E" while the second, 80-gig drive became drive "D." The DVD drive thus became "F" and the CDR-drive became "G," whereas when I had initially checked in Windows Explorer they were labeled "G" and "H," respectively. Confusing and a bit annoying, but apparently an unavoidable solution.
I was pleased with Datavision's courteous and prompt service and happy that the second drive was now recognized and took the computer back home to finish installations. Error messages and crashes continued. I installed a new version of Norton Utilities 2001 that supposedly worked with Millennium Edition and ran Norton Win Doctor to see if I had problems. It reported that I had a few and it repaired them. I installed some more programs, but on required restarts, the system crashed repeated and asked me to go into "safe" mode, which is a start-up procedure that does not load most drivers, which may cause conflicts or problems, and then it started "scan disk" to find problems, noted that there were problems in the boot sector and repaired them, only to give the same messages when it restarted. I discovered that I could switch to "normal" start-up and usually on the second try Windows would finally load.
I then decided to see if the attached peripherals were working and discovered that the computer would not open up the scanner. I went to the Internet website of UMAX and discovered that it does not provide drivers for Millennium Edition, a fact confirmed in a further Usernet/Deja/Google search. The UMAX USB scanner had worked perfectly well in Windows 98, but I realized I had to get a new USB scanner that would work with Millennium Edition. Back to Deja/Google to check on Hewlett Packard and Epson scanners. To my surprise, they were numerous postings indicating similar problems with Millennium Edition and those manufacturers, but a couple that indicated that a Visioneer scanner worked fine. I went down to CompUSA to buy one, but it did not have the model I needed, but I saw a Canoscan N1220U scanner that said on its box that it was compatible with Millennium Edition. I bought it for about $199 and was pleased that it had a nice lid mechanism and was very sleek and small. I uninstalled the UMAX programs and installed the Canon and it did not work.
I called Canon technical support, which was not a 800-type number, and after getting switched to a few different people, was told to check for zero-byte files in the windows "inf" directory and to delete them. That took a while and I finally discovered 32,499 such files in the directory and their deletion took close to an hour. I restarted and it still did not work. I called Canon again and after a very long time with several technicians, I was told to delete the files from the recycle bin, which I had not done. That also took close to an hour and when I discovered that that still did not fix the problem it was too late to call back tech support that night. The next night, I called again when I got home and the technician asked how I had connected the USB cable to the computer. I told him that I had plugged it into one of the four USB ports on my brand new 19" Sony monitor that featured a USB hub. He told me to unplug it and plug it directly into the computer's USB port, explaining that it required a "powered" port and that some hubs could not provide enough "juice" for several ports. Sure enough, that seemed to cure that problem. I soon discovered that the MIDI USB interface also required a direct, powered connection. Interestingly, the Device Manager had indicated that both such USB devices had been operating correctly even though they were not. Nothing in the Sony monitor's literature addressed this problem. Apparently, the monitor's USB ports should only be used with low-power USB periphereals such as mice or keyboards. The solution to this was to buy an external, powered USB four-port hub, for another $80 or so.
This was progress, albeit painful. I did not experience as many system crashes as before. I noticed, however, that Photoshop 6.0 would only scan in about five or six pictures and then crash.
The crashes persisted. I tried to run Norton Utilities Speed Disk program, which not only defragments the hard drive but also optimizes the hard drive for better performance and it would start and then not do anything and after almost two hours would give me an error message about illegal long file names in the "Temp" folder. I went to Windows Explorer to see if I could find what it was referring to, but the search was futile. I then tried Windows' own defragmenter and it would start and then do nothing for a long time and then give me an error message that was not very helpful.
The crashes continued. I called Datavision and repacked the computer and went down to their Technical Support section and began to explain the problems. I was now agitated and very frustrated. A different technician immediately set up the computer, turned it on, and it came up right away with no error messages. I was dumbfounded and asked him to please check it out thoroughly. He spent over an hour in front of me trying out everything several times. He was very patient, thorough and kind. He found no problems. Grateful, but petrified, I took the repacked computer back home again. The technician and I agreed that the problem might be with one of the periphereal units and when I got home I began to thoroughly read the manuals and disconnected the Wacom tablet and the MIDI interface.
Now I belatedly went to Deja/Google to check up on Norton Utilities 2001 Speed Disk and to my horror discovered quite a few postings that indicated it caused a lot of problems, would hang up, and finally find a posting that referred me to a page on the website of Symantec, the distributor of Norton Utilties, that indicated that it might well be the cause of the zero-byte files in the "Inf" windows directory. I checked that directory again and found no such files but decided to uninstall Norton Utilities and see what would happen. I then ran Windows' defragmenter program and it worked, although it took a good two hours to defrag the 9 gigs or so on the "C" drive. The posting on the Symantec website admitted it was aware of the problem and was in discussion with Microsoft about it and would post a patch when the problem was solved. I had been using Norton Utilities for many years and many operating systems and while I had not liked the fact that it occupied a lot of space on my old, much smaller hard drives, I found that Win Doctor was very good and Speed Disk was much faster than Window's defragmenter. On Windows 98, however, Norton Utilities Crashguard program tended to be a nuisance and apparently was enough of a problem that it was not included in the Norton Utilities 2001 program. What is astounding is that Norton would come up with a "2001" program that states it is for Millennium Edition and be such a major disaster. How this program can still be sold is remarkable, and scary.
At this point, I decided I had better check Deja/Google about Millennium Edition. There were a lot of postings, but the one that stood out was a group of articles at winmag.com in early March in which the magazine, which incidentally is no longer available in a print edition and only on the web, said it does not recommend Millennium Edition as an operating system. Inasmuch as most new personal computers are sold with it installed, the problem is not minor. The articles at winmag.com offer some suggestions to improve the efficiency of Millennium Edition, but they are not for the faint-hearted.
Epson, Hewlett Packard, UMAX, Norton and Microsoft are giants of the personal computer industry. What is going on?
Most sophisticated computer users know not to rush out and buy something new until most of the reviews are in and major bugs are discovered and resolved. While the Sony computer and monitor and the Canon scanner were only recently introduced, the Epson printers and Millennium Edition had been out for many months.
As someone who has been an avid reader of many computer print magazines for many years, I find it astounding that these problems have not been written about and am also surprised that the technical support services of these major companies are not more open, or knowledgeable.
Lastly, when I went to save this document as an html file in Microsoft Word 2000 so I could call it up in Adobe Page Mill 3.0 for formatting for my website, I discovered that Microsoft Word 2000 does not offer a html document file type only something called "web page" which inserts a great deal of unnecessary information into the file, unlike Word 7.0 and is a terrible nuisance.
I have made it a general policy to wherever possible use only the "industry standard" hardware and software to minimize potential problems. That policy obviously needs revision. All of the above problems are inexcusable and outrageous. Warn your friends. Good luck.