PC Haste, not the case, or new displays for old

By Mike Hodges, Vice-President, Tampa PC Users Group

Recall the old adage "Haste make waste". Well, if you are well prepared, you can indeed act quickly. Such was the case for me recently. Having attended the TPCUG monthly meetings for the best part of three years, I believe I have been well prepared to buy a new PC at any time and would feel comfortable that I was getting a good shake for my money. In the rapidly changing PC market, new models are constantly being introduced, and the price ranges appear to change daily. Yesterday’s good buy is only a good bargain today at a far lower price. The computer marketplace is forever rapidly changing. However, my frequent attendance at the TPCUG monthly presentations and exposure to the web sites of sense and good value, as recommended to me by the various other members, each with heaps of experimental experience to call on, had set me in good stead to act quickly if called on to do so.

Recently I was put to the test. My son, who has been slaving away at his studies at the University of Florida, called to say that his PC had finally refused to come on, and yes, of course, he had many papers due within the week. Apparently he used good back-up practices, so he did not fear data loss but urgently needed a PC to complete his self-created masterpieces. Let me first describe the PC he had been laboring with up to the point of failure. It was a Pionex ASD machine I had purchased from a now long defunct retail outlet called Computer Warehouse sometime back in 1992. A 486 machine with the then outstanding speed of a 33 MHz processor. The system was initially configured with 4 MB of memory, a 200 MB hard drive, a 2x CD-ROM and a 2400 baud modem. I believe I had upgraded the modem for $40 some years back, but this had been providing at best an intermittent connection. Also, as any aspiring writer knows, an HP 540 inkjet printer was needed, as most college professors prefer to grade hardcopy in the solitary confinement of their bathrooms and the like. Getting the PC to power up had become temperamental at best. This power problem was becoming so prevalent that my troubleshooting by phone had now reverted to a final single advisory. "If it comes up this time, keep it on all the time." Finally the machine became totally dormant, so it appeared that I would have to travel up to Gainesville in person to kick some life into the machine or replace the machine if it would not respond to my coaching anymore. Well, on arrival at my son’s apartment in Gainesville on my first available non-work day, which turned out to be within three days of the last time the machine showed signs of life, I found that no end of power cycling and switch and cable shaking would bring the machine back to life. Yes, I do have a Masters in Electrical Engineering pending, and I took along my Simpson meter.

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Having been a weekly reader of all the major discount computer store brochures found in the Sunday papers, I considered that for approximately $500 a replacement PC could be acquired. I inquired of my son as to which was the closest computer store to his apartment, as he and I both were in a hurry and found myself at the local Office Depot within a 3-minute drive. I quickly inspected all the many offerings on display and quickly found a Compaq Presario Model 2266 offered for $599. Yes, I did see a machine for $499 on display but decided that the increase in processor speed of the 300 MHz over the 200 MHz model was worth the extra $100. Within ten minutes I was back in my son’s apartment and had the new computer replete with a super duper keyboard and mouse connected up in no time with the old display monitor and HP printer. This rapid connectivity was really child’s play as all the connectors and cables are conveniently color-coded. This color-coding really helps to ensure that the left and right speakers are correctly located for instance and that the phone lines in and out to the phone are quickly identifiable. The fully connected system was powered on within minutes of my return to the apartment with the new PC, and this included time to unpack in a very confined college town apartment bedroom.

The system booted up and asked lots of questions in what I describe as DOS format via the ancient display monitor, an early nineties model Magnavox. I had acquired the Magnavox Super VGA display second hand some time after the original display had failed and burnt out most of the resistors in the drive circuitry. The Windows 98 screen appeared and then a problem occurred: the screen went blue, and a central static noise pattern stretched horizontally across the middle two inches of the screen. I rebooted once or twice and the same sequence prevailed. I located the convenient installation manual, which up until this moment I had ignored, and quickly found the tech help 800 number. I was connected to a real person after answering all the right questions that the central computer posed to me and was indeed connected within the 3.7 minutes predicted by the central computer. The technical service person from Compaq had not encountered my problem before and suggested that I reload the system from the back up CD provided with the purchased machine. The hard drive of the system software might have been corrupted. This seem plausible to me, so I followed the instructions and reloaded the system from the CD and went and ate lunch as the reload required 75 minutes even with the 24x CD ROM. Back from lunch and even after the reload the blue screen sequence was repeated yet again.

At this point I had a real stroke of luck. Being only a few minutes from the point of purchase, I returned to the store with the intent of swapping out the system for one that would work completely. I found the assistant manager and described the problem. Now this is where I really got lucky by encountering a truly savvy individual. He knew exactly the nature of the problem as he had experienced a similar problem with another model some six months earlier. The display was of an old type and some incompatibilities existed between the video driver and the old type display monitor. Sure enough, he was able to get beyond the blue screen impasse and knew how to optimize the display by adjusting the number of colors and other parameters, such as adapter type, to be found under the control panel display settings menu options. Unfortunately, the edge of the Windows motif could not be optimized on my ancient monitor to be a smooth non-jagged edge. I volunteered at this point to buy a new 14" monitor, which the store had on sale for $99. This new display immediately solved the problem, and the system responded automatically by means of the plug and play technology, just as it should.

The moral of this story is that if you are attempting to put new wine in old bottles, then you need luck on your side in the form of more computer system knowledge. I therefore highly recommend that if you plan to buy any computer in Gainesville you stop by at Office Depot and also continue attending our monthly meetings held on the second Wednesday of the month at MOSI to stay informed.

By the way, with the help of some talented technician colleagues from my office, the power supply in the 486 has now been replaced, and that machine with its old display monitor is up and running as slowly as it ever did. This recovery took about a week as the five-year-old power supplies, which can cost $30, are hard to find, but I was yet again lucky and found an old power supply going begging. I had disassembled the 486 and determined with my Simpson meter that the switch assembly was sound and that the power supply was clearly defunct on the night of the Communication SIG presented on the 7th of December by our very own William LaMartin. So I guess the trip to Gainesville took place on 5 December. You can set your calendar on account of the regularity of the TPCUG events. See you at our next regular monthly meeting held on the second Wednesday of the month at MOSI. u