Saturday, March 22, 2008

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

There must be something in the air. Shortly after The Urban Woo's computer went sideways, my own 4 year-old laptop decided to switch itself off terminally. After establishing that the power supply was fine, I worked out it was a motherboard replacement job and decided that it'd be cheaper and easier in the long run to get a fully-guaranteed refurb machine. So I did, and although the product description said the lid was pink, the pictures online did not convey how neon pink it truly was. However, I am secure enough in my masculinity to use a pink laptop in public - yea, even in Humanities 2 at the British Library - my eyes daring anyone to laugh, especially when it was comfortably less than £300.

It came installed with Windows Vista, about which I've heard various nightmare stories, but I decided to test it out for myself before believing them. The actual experience of using the new OS was relatively painless, but it was practically impossible to make the new machine join my existing wireless network and talk to the desktop machine in my office. As the ability to write on one machine and save the document on the other is a massive boon, both in terms of backing stuff up and working on the sofa while watching telly, I decided that I'd set up a dual-boot Vista/XP system, allowing me to carry on as I had before without dismissing Vista entirely. Dual-boots hold no fear for me, as I've run XP and Ubuntu on my desktop machine for a while now, and am fairly good with backups, so if anything went wrong, it was a question of going back to the start and using the recovery disc.

After reading various sets of instructions very carefully, I began the installation, partitioning the hard drive, etc. A few minutes into the installation, the machine rebooted, and hung on the Intel splash screen. I rebooted again. I tried it with the recovery disc I'd been instructed to make by the machine's manufacturers. Nothing happened. I turned to the desktop machine and searched for information on this make and model, finding that several attempting the same perfectly reasonable manoeuvre had been left with a machine that they couldn't restore to default settings, no matter how hard they tried.

At this point, I swallowed something hard and jagged, and rang PC World's 'TechGuys'. I knew this was a pointless exercise, because, while I'm not Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I have a certain amount of experience with computers, and usually find that I end up telling the helpdesk person what to do. No, not like that. Anyway, after telling me to turn it off and then on again (no, really), and then to try the same manoeuvre while holding in the F8 key, to no avail, they decided I needed the official recovery discs. I said I had one that I'd made on the machine when it worked. Ah no, I was informed, the official ones were better, somehow. However, as I'd tried to install a foreign OS, I would not be entitled to free recovery discs. I would have to ring an 0870 number and pay £55 for the official stuff. Very politely, I told TechGuy #1 that I had an allergy to premium rate phone lines, that I wasn't paying £55 for something that almost certainly wouldn't make a blind bit of difference, and that I would sail this ship alone, somehow. My suspicion that the 'official' recovery discs wouldn't be any better was confirmed when I loaded the home-brew recovery disc into my desktop machine and the boot process began without a hitch. It was the BIOS, the hard drive or the DVD drive.

The timing of the incident stank. There's a major project that I'm way behind with, but every time I tried to concentrate on that, the pink panther kept distracting me. There had to be a way through, past, round or over this problem without spending a relative fortune. Logic prevailed when I tried opening the BIOS on boot-up. It just hung after recognising the hard drive, so it was a recognition or driver issue, but as I had no way of getting past that point to reinstall drivers, I was stumped. A chink of light broke through on one of the support forums. A chap in the same position as me had reformatted the laptop hard drive in his desktop machine and installed XP from there before slotting it back into the laptop, with great success. Worth a punt, I thought, but, on opening the laptop, I saw that the hard drive was a SATA job, and I knew my desktop machine was IDE only. How about a USB/SATA interface? Fine, but all the ones I found at first were dangerously close in price to the dreaded recovery discs. As the whole point of recovery discs is to rescue your machine, no matter how fecked the hard drive is, I concluded that it was beyond reason to expect me to work around this issue, and I called the TechGuys again. TechGuy #2 went through the same script and tried to sell me 'official' recovery discs, but admitted defeat when I said that the disc I'd made worked in another machine. It sounded like a hardware problem, and an exchange was the best option. I rang customer services, who, slightly to my surprise, arranged to pick the machine up and give me a replacement. Peace of mind almost restored, I went back to work.

However, a nagging doubt remained. What if I could never install another OS on this machine? Wouldn't that be slightly limiting? In a fit of lateral thinking, I tried booting from the recovery disc with no hard drive present. I got past the splash screen to where I needed to be, but had no media in need of recovery. After another search on eBay, I found a SATA/IDE/OHMS/ATV/NTGB interface that practically allowed you to boil a kettle from a USB socket for under a tenner including post and packing. I ordered it, it arrived the next day, and enabled me to see that the laptop hard drive was functioning. I tried repartitioning and reformatting, but the laptop still couldn't see the drive, and was about to give up again when I discovered a crucial piece of information. SATA drives are hot-swappable - meaning that you can plug them into an already-running machine. So, I started the recovery disc with the hard drive out, and when the boot process was well underway inserted it. 25 minutes later, I had the machine back to how it was when it had arrived 4 days earlier. I rang PC World to tell them that they could cancel the courier. The pink panther was back. I now know that XP doesn't have any in-built support for SATA hard drives (hence the boot trouble), so I have to download some other McGuffin to make a successful installation possible. I don't have the stomach for that just yet, though. In the mean time, I'm learning to live with Vista's frankly shite networking, and have installed a dual boot of Ubuntu to show it who's boss.

The first person to say 'Buy a Mac' wins a free kick in the front bottom.