Personal Computers

Computer Hell Basics
How a Windows 95 upgrade installation took 52 days

by Carter B. Horsley

If your IBM-clone computer is a more than a couple of years old, you are one of scores of millions who have been faced with the decision of upgrading your operating system to Windows 95.

That decision will be complicated by the fact that your system hardware will most likely need upgrading. The changeover is not painless.

The computer press has documented many of the problems that have arisen, but not all, and has generally given the impression that most of the problems are surmountable, minor and relatively inconsequential.

Most veteran PC users realize that they should probably buy a new computer every three or four years, but not everyone can afford that expense. Buying a new computer with Windows 95 already installed obviously eliminates the upgrade hassle. (Windows 97, of course, is expected to arrive in mid-1997 and for the past few months purchasers of new PC's have been supplied with a major upgrade to Windows 95 that includes FAT-32, support for file allocation tables for hard drives that greatly reduces wasted space because of smaller cluster sizes.)

I recently installed the upgrade version of Windows 95 on two different computers. On my system, the process took 52 days and cost about $2,400. On a friend's newer system, it took an hour and a half and cost about $100.

My experience was obviously agonizing, frustrating, infuriating and expensive. Was it worth it? Well, I'll get to that after I explain some of the major catastrophies that happened with my system that may reveal some important danger signals for other users. This discussion will involve some technical issues, but they are basic and users should be familiar with them.

My system was an Insight 486DX50 with 16 megs of RAM and a 520 megabyte Seagate hard drive. This was a state-of-the-art IBM-clone when purchased in 1991 and worked fine with Windows for Workgroups 3.11. The 486DX50 was the fastest chip available prior to the introduction of the Pentium. My system, however, predated the introduction of the PCI bus that enabled newer systems to have faster communications with the central processing chip. It also predated the widespread introduction of the Enhanced IDE (EIDE) ISA standard that permitted hard and floppy disk controllers to work faster and with more and larger hard drives. The PCI bus issue was not involved in any of my problems, but the absence of an EIDE system was.

Windows 95 is a much larger operating system than its predecessors and the software that takes advantage of its expanded capabilities is much larger, in terms of memory usage, as well. Prior to the introduction of the EIDE standard and equipment designed to comply with it, most PC computers could not handle hard drives larger than 528 megabytes, a size once thought to be enormous. As software became laden with more features and more user-friendliness, it also grew in size, demanding more storage space on a hard drive to store its program code and data. When the IBM personal computer was introduced in 1981, for example, one of the best word processing programs then, XYWrite, could fit on a 360k floppy disk. In comparison, Amipro 3.1 had grown to almost 15 megabytes and its Windows 95 version, known as Word Pro 96 is up in the 40 megabyte range, but despite some wonderful features, it performed badly on my system and I removed it and replaced it with Microsoft Word 7.0.

While there is no such thing as an average user, it has become apparent that most users will find 500 megabytes inadequate for an upgrade to Windows 95. Not only have programs become bloated in size to be more user friendly, but also multimedia razzle-dazzle gobbles up much more drive territory and once you've seen it you don't want to settle for less.

The EIDE standard quickly led to the introduction of much bigger hard drives, currently available widely and cheaply for under $400 for 1.6 gigabytes. Indeed, the latest generation drives start at 3.2 and go up to 4.3 gigabytes, reflecting the ever-increasing demand for more memory. Upgrading an older system to EIDE can be accomplished either in hardware or software. There are two hardware solutions. One method involves upgrading the system's BIOS (Basic Instruction Operating System) chip, which can involve replacing the chip physically with a newer one, or upgrading its memory if the chip is capable of such an upgrade, and most are not The other method involves installing a new EIDE floppy and hard disk controller card in one of the system's expansion slots, replacing the older IDE controller card. The software solution, provided as an alternative by the manufacturers of the new, larger hard drives, interposes an intermediate overlay between the systems BIOS and the operating system, such as DOS. Each method involves some important other considerations that need not be discussed here.

It is clear at this stage in software development that anything less than about a gigabyte of hard drive capacity is pretty much inadequate just as it is clear that despite a slow rate of switch over to Windows 95 by corporate users, Windows 95/97, or the even larger Windows NT 4.0, will be dominant and that upgrades are inevitable.

To accommodate Windows 95, therefore, I bought a 1.6-gigabyte Western Digital hard drive that had been highly praised in various press reports. I also wanted to buy a new, widely promoted SIIG EIDE controller card, but it was not available at 9 computer stores in Manhattan that I dashed to. I bought two other, less fully equipped EIDE controller cards and ordered the SIIG card through the mail. The two non SIIG cards did not meet my needs because they lacked needed ports. The SIIG card finally arrived, but the installation of the Western Digital hard drive did not go smoothly. Many error messages cropped out and two weeks of calling Western Digital's technical support as well as Microsoft's did not help. Among the many experiments suggested and tried were switching the controller card to other slots as well as pulling out all other cards for other peripherals. I then noticed that the SIIG card crackled when handled, not from static electricity from my body but from a slight crinkling of its plastic card. Upon examination, there were no discernible cracks on its surface, but clearly the card was defective. The experimentation with the other controller cards I had purchased and my original card as well as the SIIG card resulted in the trashing of my original card, the trashing of my CD-ROM drive, only a year old, and the trashing of my ATI Graphics Expression video card.

I had taken the important precaution of making a full back-up on a Colorado Jumbo tape drive of my existing hard drive prior to attempting to install the new hard drive to which I intended to restore all my data and programs from the tape backup.

At one point, I had the new hard drive installed and accomplished a full restore of my data from the tape drive, only to discover myriad errors that led to more calls to Western Digital technical support. Western Digital eventually advised me to download a utility from its World Wide Web site that would scan my new drive for errors, since it could not determine what the problem was. The utility, however, is fully "destructive," that is, it destroys all data on the drive. It also takes 12 hours to run. After running it and attempting to reinstall and restore several times unsuccessfully, Western Digital suggested I mail the hard drive back or take it back to the store, Egghead, where I had purchased it. I took it back to Egghead, which exchanged it for another brand new Western Digital drive of the same size.

Meanwhile, I had to buy a new video card when it failed in the middle of a phone call to Microsoft technical support and I also bought a new Plug n Play multimedia kit from Creative Labs to replace my NEC CD-ROM drive. Repeated phone calls to Microsoft technical support on its priority pay system that was changed from $1.95 a minute to $35 a call and is an expensive long-distance call from New York to Washington State, resulted in about 20 rewritings of my autoexec.bat, config.sys, win.ini and system.ini files.

I eventually got the new hard drive to work using its Ontrack Disk Manager that interposes an operating system overlay on the system to permit use of hard drives larger than 528 megabytes. I then reinstalled my data from the tape drive, but had to also make addition restores from other tapes as some errors cropped out in individual programs. In addition, I started to make new full-backups because of significantly altered settings in crucial files. Rather than simply do full restores, that would have rewritten incorrect code to some vital programs, I reinstalled all programs individually and then restored only their data files.

At this point, the installation process was getting very confused and I made print-outs at each new attempt of my basic system files. The process was further complicated as each change tended to create new conflicts and incompatibilities and every component had to be rechecked and/or reinstalled. Parenthetically, each changed configuration involved, as readers know, a complete shutdown of the computer and disconnection of power cables, a time-consuming process.

Several times all the newly restored data was lost as the hard drive become inaccessible, forcing a re-initialization that obliterated all data.

Eventually, I got the drive working and my Windows for Workgroups 3.11 operating system and all my programs and data reinstalled. I made a fresh tape backup and held my breath as I installed Windows 95.

It installed without a glitch and the Windows 95 logo and then the start screen came on my NEC 5FG monitor. Great, except where was my cursor?

Another expensive call to Microsoft technical support taught me how to use the keyboard to navigate the screen, but unearthed another problem. The system now would not properly recognize my floppy drive, either wanting to format the program or data diskette that had been inserted or reporting that the drive was not accessible.

Operating a computer without a cursor or disk drive is not recommended.

Further calls to Microsoft only added immensely to my phone bill and they were at a total loss as to what the problem was. While implementing some of their instructions that involved restarting the computer after making more changes and renaming various important system files, the computer reported that the disk operating overlay's integrity had been corrupted, a new and quite disturbing message. The Microsoft technician, always courteous, had no solution for that development and expressed his sympathy. I asked if he had any idea what might be causing the problem since I was dealing with brand new hardware and had downloaded or bought all the latest software versions of my programs and had checked for viruses (especially since several Microsoft technicians kept suggesting it might be a boot sector virus, perhaps one of the dormant ones). The technician said no.

The integrity error simply meant I had to start from scratch, again. I began thinking that hardware must be the problem and the only thing not new was my Wacom ArtPad digitizing tablet and stylus and I had downloaded its most current driver, PC222.exe, from the company's Web site twice and thoroughly read and reread its documentation that refers specifically to Windows 95 and I had reinstalled it, like everything else, many times during this process. So enamoured of the precision and ease of the stylus in comparison with a mouse, I had given my Microsoft mouse away to a friend who was frustrated with her trackball pointer on her laptop.

I rechecked the Internet and the World Wide Web as well as computing forums on Prodigy, America On-Line and CompuServe to see if other users were having similar nightmares. Nothing of relevance showed up until I stumbled onto CompuServe's Pen Technology Forum in its computing section where I found a section on Wacom despite the fact that the general CompuServe searcher did not show up any mentions of Wacom.

The messages to and from Wacom's technical support, which is not available by phone, were harrowing. Everyone, it seemed, was experiencing catastrophes with Wacom's Windows 95 software and of a far worse nature than those encountered by Arcada Backup for Windows 95, an infamous software disaster despite heavy advertising promotion proclaiming its great merits.

While Windows 95 did not make its official retail debut until August 24, 1995, after allegedly having been beta-tested by about 400,000 users, software companies had had access to it for months in advance and some of them came out with upgrades for their software around the same time. Many companies, however, have still not released Windows 95 compatible software. In many cases, Windows 95 will run the existing software, which simply cannot take advantage of all of Windows 95's new features. Some products, on the other hand, simply will not operate under Windows 95 because it is such a major revision of the operating system.

What is surprising and disturbing about the Wacom situation is that the company is the leader in its field, has widely advertised its product and is even bundled and/or highly recommended by the leading graphics software companies. It quickly followed its first version of Windows 95 software for its tablets with a second one, PC222.EXE, in the fall of 1995 and it was a free download from its Web site and worked perfectly under Windows for Workgroups 3.11.

Incredibly, the replies on the CompuServe forum from the technical staff were outrageously snide, arrogant and incompetent. Several of the messages suggested that the user simply operate in only 256 colors, which is absurd since no one would buy the product unless they were working with 24-bit color palettes and 16.7 million colors in the graphics programs. Other Wacom messages suggested that it wasn't its problem but a video card problem, also blatantly untrue, absurd and insulting. Many of the Wacom messages were contradictory, telling people to rewrite Windows system files that in many cases would render the leading graphics programs inoperable. Finally, many people who followed the company's technical advice corrected their immediate specific problem only to discover that the fix unleashed several more critical disasters. Instead of posting a notice in that forum and on its Web site that there were significant bugs in its software and that it should not be used with Windows 95 until the bugs are fixed in a new release, the company stonewalled and pretended there was no problem. Obviously, such a snafu is not great for a company's reputation or pride, but such deceitful incompetence will not be rewarded with consumer loyalty! In the rush to look competitive, the company is self-destructing and in the meantime creating havoc for all of its consumers.

I then went out and bought a new Microsoft mouse, slowly went through the reinstallation of everything again and, presto, Windows 95 worked, with cursor and floppy drive. A few problems remained in terms of error messages and two programs not operating perfectly, but there were minor concerns.

The entire experience occupied me for 52 days and cost me about $2,400 for the new hard drive, ungraded software, new CD-ROM player and multi-media kit, three controller cards, new video card and new mouse plus the phone bills to technical support services.

For people, such as one friend, with a much newer system that had EIDE capability and a fairly large hard drive, the Windows 95 upgrade can go quite smoothly and quickly although they will spend a fair bit of money on upgrading their various software programs to take full advantage of Windows 95 as such upgrades become available.

I have been replacing components on my computers for 15 years so I was not exactly a novice on this installation and do not know still why I experienced so many important component failures. There were not all attributable to the Wacom tablet.

What morals, if any, can be learned from my experience?

Firstly, always have a fairly recent full back-up of one's hard drive, and preferably two, available.

Secondly, read all the computer press, or at least as much as possible, to keep alert to possible conflicts and problems.

Thirdly, don't rely solely on the computer press and search out information on specific products and problems on the Internet and on-line services before launching a major new addition or change to your computer system.

Fourthly, check for viruses regularly and with latest checkers.

Fifthly, always send in your registration cards and obtain newest revisions for all your software.

Sixthly, have a well-light and spacious area to keep your computer and all manuals and reference books.

Seventhly, don't panic and be patient, slow and methodical in coping with the problem, understanding that because there is so much that can go wrong it is necessary to embark on processes of elimination and then trial-and-error to root out the problems.

Eighthly, understand that your computer will eat your money up, but can be a marvelous tool. By being forced to buy new components, I not surprisingly got newer ones than what I was replacing and they were better.

I have only highlighted the major problems of my crisis in computer hell and not lingered on the other hells of voice mail and trying to get through to technical support. Those tirades will be addressed another time.

As to Windows 95, it was bound to look awfully good when it finally appeared on my screen just because of my trauma. It is better than I thought it would be, but certainly not perfect.

I have used Windows 95 for about a year and was happy until about a month ago when things started to go flooey with regular and unpredictable crashes and non-recognition of the floppy drive, sometimes, or even the CD. Worst of all, even Norton Utilities Speed Disk crashed a couple of times, a not encouraging sign. I think I somehow corrupted my Windows 95 Registry and despite attempts to copy by system and user data files from Norton Utilities "rescue disks" the problem was not completely resolved. The registry is much more hidden and far more complex than the old autoexec.bat and config.sys and win.ini files.

I am traumatic about my beloved computer. I know its end is approaching and certainly the motivation for buying a new 200 mghz Pentium with MMX technology, a128-megs of RAM, a 4.3-gig hard drive, a 16x CD, a 56k fax/modem, a DVD player, Universal Serial Port, Advanced Graphics Port, FAT-32 capabilities, a new Wacom tablet, and the like is strong. I've only used my computer for about 6 hours a day everyday for the past 6 years. Did I get my money's worth. Sure. Just got to start saving, again….

Home Page of The City Review