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June 26, 1999: trying to find out where to lay the blame


Short version:

If you are technically competent around computers, don't buy a pre-fab computer.

Long Version:

Last year I decided to buy a new computer. I decided that it was preferable to just spend money on it to avoid spending time on it. So I decided to buy a prefab machine.

Now, there are many variations on a prefab machine. But I wanted to have the machine sent to me, since I don't have a car. Furthermore, since I don't have a credit card, I couldn't order it over the web. I hunted around on the web for a while looking for places that took snail mail orders with checks, but didn't find any.

In the end I turned to a catalog I happened to already be receiving. I looked through their computers found the one that seemed to be closest to what I want, and ordered it. It was, in fact, far less effort/time spent on my part than any computer I've ever owned.

The only machine I could find that met the basic specs I wanted to satisfy was a Hewlett Packard, so that was what I ended up with: a Hewlett Packard Pavilion computer.

And, yep, it worked right out of the box. I got it up and running pretty fast.

Most of the problems came when I tried to modify it. As you will see, most, but not all, of the problems are due to modifications.

Which is, I suppose, the central point. Prefab computers aren't really expected to be modified.

Problem #1: My Big Mistake

I had never owned a computer that provided AGP before, so while this was technically a mistake on my part for not reading the specifications clearly, it's also pretty obvious that it's not clear what steps I could have taken to avoid making this mistake.

The mistake is that the motherboard in my new machine has no AGP slot, so I can't use AGP graphics cards, which rather subverts the main purpose of the machine. The thing that fooled me here was that the motherboard includes an on-board graphics chip which does use the AGP capabilities of the CPU/chipset. There's simply no AGP slot. This was, in fact, clear from the specs--there was no AGP slot listed--but at the time, I didn't realize that was something I needed to be looking for.

Problems #2-3: Nonstandard Hardware

Both the keyboard and the mouse use some kind of plug I'm not familiar with, although maybe it's not nonstandard, just the second most common kind and I've never seen it before. It's not USB, at least I don't think so. They're just a different kind of plug than I've ever seen before.

Assuming it's not totally non-standard, I should be able to replace them (I really want a 3-button mouse and a more ergonomic keyboard), but if it's not totally non-standard, I still need to know what standard they are so I can replace them, which points out the other problem:

Problem #4: No Documentation for Hardware

Basically, HP thinks that you're just buying this whole thing as a unit. Why would you want documentation for an individual part? (So you can replace it if it goes bad.) Why does it matter what brand of modem or sound card you have? (So you can get new drivers off the net.)

I don't even know what kind of connector these things are to be able to buy alternative ones or adaptors or whatever.

Problem #5: Cheap Hardware

The machine came with an annoying winmodem. I haven't replaced it yet, but it's still annoying. If I run a DOS app that consumes too much CPU I lose my connection. Connecting and disconnecting locks up the machine for a couple of seconds (no mouse motion, even).

In general, a company like this is going to cut corners all over the place. The mainline items--the processor, the memory, the hard drive--are all basically reasonable, but everything else is just crap.

Problem #5: Nonstandard Hardware

With 4 PCI slots and 1 ISA slot, I needed to make use of the ISA slot. I went through three ISA soundcards before I found one that worked. (Also, an ISA ethernet card didn't work in the ISA slot either. For a while I thought maybe the slot was just broken. I don't know why none of them would work. Bad hardware design? Bad hardware? Software problem?)

While I was able to connect the CD player to the soundcard, the internal winmodem relied on the soundcard for audio playthrough, but used some nonstandard connector for it, so I've ended up unable to hear the dialup process. At least if they provided documentation for the parts there might be info on whether it's the standard cable with a nonstandard connector and I could put a new one on, but without any info, I'm not going to mess with it.

Problem #6: Nonstandard Software

The machine comes with an OEM version of Win98. For some bizarre reason, instead of including a standard Win98 CD, however, HP ships with a CD which will basically wipe your harddrive and install a pre-configured disk image of Win98. (I think you can have it skip wiping your harddrive but all bets are off as to whether it will work.)

That means that when you try to install a new driver and get asked "Please install your Win98 system disk", you don't have a windows install disk to put into the machine.

It turns out, however, that all the files from the windows install are there on your hard drive; you just have to know where to look: c:\windows\options\cabs

The upshot being that, yes, they are wasting basically an entire CD full of hard drive space replicating most of the Windows system disk. Why? God only knows. . (I understand the purpose of using a pre-configured disk image--it saves an enormous amount of machine-build-time, because no human has to sit through all of the setup prompting for each machine. But why not still include a regular Win98 disk? Bizarre licensing restrictions from MS? Saves money because they don't have to pay MS for the manufacturing cost for those CDs?)

Problem #7: Limited Capabilities

The CD player that came with the machine is also a DVD player. This wasn't an important feature for me, but I figured it was a nice bonus. I don't have a TV, so a standalone DVD player wouldn't make any sense anyway.

It turns out, however, that the built-in DVD player only works using the built-in video card. So once I drop in a different video card (which is one of the reasons I was trying to free up PCI slots), the DVD player is useless.

Actually, I could use multi-monitor support to still run both video cards, e.g. using an external video switchbox, and then just use the built-in video chip just for DVD playback, but the drivers for that card don't support multi-monitor.

In fact, I upgraded those drivers at some point off the website for the chipset manufacturer, and ever since then, I've been plagued by a problem if I don't use a different video card--my machine hard hangs in a particularly odd way (the video goes black, but all input is actually dead, it's not merely the video card going into a power-saving mode or something as I originally thought).

Problem #8: Questionnable Design

In an attempt at imitating Macintoshes, apparently, HP designed this machine so that when you shut it down, it turns itself off automatically at the appropriate time. This is convenient, I admit--you don't have to sit and wait for the machine, you just click shut down, turn off the monitor, and walk away.

The problem, though, is that in a software environment as fragile as Windows, this leaves the user rather screwed when the machine crashes. There's no reset button. There's no hard-power-off button. The machine can crash so hard that it ignores the power-off button. When this occurs, you have to physically unplug the machine to turn it off.

This doesn't tend make you feel like the engineers who designed the machine knew what they were doing.

Problem #9: Nonstandard Hardware

I have put a lot of stuff into this machine. I have an old 6G hard drive which I added to the 8G hard drive that came with it. I have four PCI cards and one ISA card. I have a quickcam drawing power off the keyboard port (at least, I assume that's why it has to intercept the keyboard cable). I decided to add in a CD-R, and quickly discovered that the power supply didn't have enough juice for this.

How much did it have? Well, no documentation, and I couldn't read the text on it at the angle it was installed, so I pulled it out. 150W. A little on the cheap side, but ok, I can't really blame them, I do have a lot of physically mobile stuff in the machine. Power supplies are cheap, I'll run down to the store and get one.

Here I am at Microcenter. Power supplies, hmm. Hmm, these are all fifty dollars or more. I thought they were like twenty. Oh well, no big deal. But wait. How exactly does that "soft" power switch work? It can't use the regular connectors, can it? It's probably not a standard power supply at all!

I actually found one that didn't have the wires for hooking up to a switch and bought it. (Trip to the computer store is about 30-40 minutes each way, since I have to hoof it to/from the T; so I wasn't going to leave empty-handed if possible.)

Got it home and looked at the original. Unlike most power supplies I've seen, which have two separate connectors for the motherboard, this one had one "fat" double-row connector. But I had guessed right; so had the one I bought! All the wires were the same colors and everything.

Except there was also one other small cable running from the power supply to the motherboard, one green wire and two black wires. My new power supply didn't have that. No surprise, really, I'm sure the HP thing is some semi-standard standard that isn't carried in the computer superstore. Maybe I could even find one on the net if I knew what I was looking for.

Time Wasted

The important issue here isn't how much money I've spent on equipment to replace things or even on equipment that didn't work. The issue is how much time I've wasted on trying to fix problems that I would never have had if I hadn't bought a prefab computer. Remember, I only bought a prefab computer becauase I didn't want to spend lots of time hunting down all the parts I wanted and putting it together myself.

On the other hand, if I built a machine myself, maybe it wouldn't have sufficient cooling. The HP has a special fan situated directly over the CPU, a Pentium II-400. Not mounted on the chip; it's got a special tube leading to the external to blow air from outside the machine directly onto the CPU.

Still, all in all, the odds are in favor of me having spent less time if I had spent the time researching parts, buying them all separately, and putting the machine together myself.

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attribution dammit: Sugar Mice Marillion