The Computer Blog

Friday, January 30, 2004

Why Shipping from UPS Stores Might Not Be a Good Idea

My son reported that UPS finally made it out to his house to perform the onsite inspection. While the gentlemen taking the pictures (and my son said he had to point out a dent on the top of the case to keep him honest) was not the adjuster, he said the adjuster would look at the pictures and send a report to the UPS Store I shipped it from. UPS considers the UPS Store I shipped it out as the shipper, not me. Has anyone had a UPS Store owner or employee explain that to them? Not me! I might have shipped it out from elsewhere had I known that. Of course, that might not be a bad thing since the local UPS Store owner might be a lot more reasonable than UPS itself appears to be.

The picture taker also started making noises, noises I expected them to make, that the PC was not “properly packed”. According to this guy, I was supposed to have “double-boxed” it and surrounded every inch of it with 2 inches of foam.

Now, that’s very interesting. I’ve received CPU’s this year via FedEx and UPS from a major computer company, and none of those CPU’s were double-boxed. They were surrounded by foam but not completely surrounded. So was the CPU I sent my son. It traveled to and from his place of residence in the original box the case had come in complete with molded foam inserts on the top and bottom. Those foam inserts were smashed to bits when my son got them. The PC case was dented, bent, and warped.

I’ll learn more in the next 7 to 10 days. While I am hoping that the local UPS Store will agree to reimburse me for the parts we’ve replaced (The package was insured for three times that value.), I am preparing a case for small claims court. I believe I can prove that the PC was packaged in a manner that would have protected it from anything but abuse. I also believe I can make a case for retrieving three times my losses under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices act. Not only will I file a claim in small claims court, but I will also begin discussing this with the Texas Attorney General’s Office. I’m not going to say about what, but I will share that you need to be very careful about shipping anything out of a UPS Store you packed; and you need to be sure to read the ENTIRE shipping form before you ship anything of value with them. The “Limitations on Liability” section is on the back of the form, not the front; and it traps you into signing away rights to damages by having you agree that a service was provided that may not be.

If the UPS Store here comes through for me, I might ship with them again. But, right now, based on what I’ve experienced so far with UPS corporate, I’m expecting to have to take this to court even though I'm only asking to be reimbursed for parts and the insurance was for three times that amount.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Shape Shifting!

You might think I'm writing about losing weight and firming up here; but since this is the Computer Blog, I'm writing about changing the appearance of my Mac's operating system. If you've read any of my earlier blogs, then you know that one of the few things I hate about Panther is the dull silver-grey menu bars that obliterated the white/grey stripes of Jaguar. I still use Jaguar via a Firewire boot drive on my Quicksilver Powermac and run it on my iBook and come back from it always amazed at how much happier I feel after using it compared to Panther. The more metallic, duller look of Panther almost overwhelms its better speed and feature set. Happier feelings were part of what brought me to the Mac. The changes to Panther's interface made me feel like I was sliding back into the same old, dark, depressive state I get into anytime I'm sitting at a Windows machine. I felt trapped between the bright fun of Jaguar and my desire for Panther's snappy, responsive feel.

Following intuiton, I did a search this morning for "Panther Jaguar interface" on Google and stumbled on a haxie at Unsanity.com named ShapeShifter as well as an OS X Jaguar Theme at ResExcellance.com made by MaarteenApple@Mad.Scientist.com. As we speak, I'm running ShapeShifter (which installs as a Preference Pane) with the Jaguar theme selected and loving it! My mind is still snapping to the fact that I'm running Panther and can let go of my negative feelings about it. This is going to be well worth the $20 it will cost to register Shape Shifter.

People always underestimate the importance of feelings about things and the emotional and mental attachments we make to them. It's often more important to well being and quality of life to let go of things that have negative connotations, no matter what the financial cost. Frankly, I had been thinking this morning of taking my Quicksilver back to Jaguar because of how I felt about Panther's color changes; but now I don't have to do that. I can have the best of both worlds, and I'm grateful to the folks out there who enabled it to happen.

More on the UPS Saga...

Timothy has done enough troubleshooting to determine that the UPS fiasco destroyed the PC's motherboard and case. Frankly, because the motherboard was severely flexed and the weight of the AMD fan is so great, I also consider the AMD processor suspect. So, working with Tim to get a case he likes, I've ordered replacement parts and hope they will ship out to him on Monday. I ordered another MSI board with a VIA 400 chipset so he can just stick the board in and run. Hopefully, we'll finally have the system up and running next week.

I have been less than impressed with UPS' handling of this whole thing. The customer service agents have been friendly enough, but there seems to be a continuous disconnect between corporate and the field office in Florida (Ft. Walton, I think) that is handling this case. They were supposed to call Timothy Friday and arrange to come out to inspect the damage, but they called him Friday to tell him they'd call him Monday to arrange the inspection.

After they inspect, they apparently send the report and paperwork to the UPS store it shipped out of. UPS had indicated they wanted to pick up the machine and repair it, but my son and I were unanimous in our opposition to that plan. We want some say in what would be put back into the system, and a shop that doesn't know us is liable and likely to use the cheapest parts they can. We're going to repair the system oursleves and bill UPS for the parts. That's a generous settlement from my perspective. If I charged them for our labor (and a shop would), it would cost twice as much.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

After all that...(See "Bustin’ My Ax Again Fixing an XP Machine" below.)

UPS busted up the PC during shipment! It arrived with a 3" x 6" hole in the box. My son is reporting that the computer is not even getting into post. Diagnostic LED's show the CPU is damaged..which I suspect means the motherboard is damaged. The case was scuffed and flexed out of shape, a screw holding down the motherboard was loose in the case, and the motherboard is bent.

I've already filed a claim online. We'll see where this goes from here.

Very disappointing....

Bustin’ My Ax Again Fixing an XP Machine

This is a story, told in its full bloody glory, of how I got one son’s AMD 2000+ powered Windows XP pro computer working over the MLK holiday weekend. Let it be a warning to those intrepid souls who want to upgrade a computer but haven’t done it before and then want to load Windows XP. It is not for the timid.

It began at Christmas. I had sent my son Timothy a used AMD 2000+ CPU, a “new” MSI KT4V motherboard, a 512MB stick of generic PC2700 DDR RAM, an ATI All-in-Wonder Radeon, and a Pioneer DVR-104 to upgrade his PIII 700Mhz homebuilt running XP Pro. For two weeks after, he had tried to get the CPU to run at full speed and Windows XP to load. The computer only ran without problems at a front side bus (FSB) speed of 100 Mhz; the CPU’s full speed could only be had at 133. Once there, if Windows XP Pro would load without a stop error and a blue screen of death, it would hang after running about five minutes. The very first thing we did was check CPU temperature, but it was never exceeding 52 degrees Centigrade, a pretty normal temperature for that chip. So, we went into the computer’s bios and experimented with turning off various caches and playing with AGP timings but nothing had any effect. We loaded new video drivers and even tried to see if the machine would run right with a PCI video card. Still, there was no change.

Finally, after helping my son for several weeks, I suggested he send the machine to me where I could use spare parts and broadband resources (of which he had neither) to troubleshoot it. He agreed and shipped it to me UPS. It arrived in fine shape three days later, which turned out to be January 16th, Friday afternoon. It was also the same day that iLife 04 and Final Cut Express 2.0 arrived from the Apple store, so it was almost like Christmas.

Once I had loaded the Apple software onto our Macs, I pulled his PC out of its box and hooked it up to a monitor. The machine crashed on its first boot. Just to make sure we had covered all the ground we could, I went in and tried turning off various caches and played with the AGP settings (making sure fastwrite was off, AGP set to 2X and then 4X) and installed a different memory stick; but nothing made any difference. The machine would crash with stop errors (and not usually the same one) or lock up. After disconnecting all redundant hard drives, optical drives, and yanking out all PCI cards, I tried loading XP Pro again but got the same result. I tried loading a copy of XP Home but the machine crashed anyway. I decided it was time for a different approach, so I wiped the boot drive clean and then loaded up Windows 98. Or tried to. The version I have is an upgrade; and when it went to validate my copy of Windows 95, it could not find it on the Windows 95 installation CD. Screw that! I stopped the Windows 98 installation and installed Windows 95 instead using an PCI based STB PowerGraph 64 as my video card. (Remember STB? The company that guaranteed their cards for life? They meant “their life”, which didn’t turn out to be long. They were bought out by 3dfx who were bought out by Nvidia who will be bought out by…?).

Windows 95 seemed to run fine, so I ran the installation routine for Windows 98. It also installed and ran fine. I booted up on the Windows XP Pro CD and tried to start an installation, but it crashed at the “Setup is Starting Windows” point. When I rebooted, I turned off “internal cache” and got into Windows 98 and started an XP Pro installation using the “Upgrade” method. The installation routine ran normally but slow as molasses. At this point, I didn’t care. I just wanted to see if I could get XP Pro to run at the processor’s full speed. It did, but there was no way I could say the machine was fixed. It was running very slow...too slow...with the inetrnal cache off. Since I suspected the internal cache, I thought I'd try another motherboard. It was 2 a.m. when I hit that point. I went on to bed.

The next morning I hobbled over to HardDrive.com (http://www.harddrive.com). They have a store front less than a mile away, and I had seen an Asus motherboard on their website I wanted to try. It was an Asus A7V8X retailing for $67. A salesman gave me a board in a white box he said was complete and only in the white box because the original box got damaged. Heh. He kept emphasizing their 30 day “no questions asked” return policy but didn’t explain the “Asus 7N8X” hand-written on the box. I didn’t question it and took the board home.

Of course, when I was installing the board, I saw the “A7NX” tag and knew that's what it was. I jumped out on the Internet on my PowerMac and downloaded the correct drivers and a .pdf copy of the motherboard’s user manual. Wanting to try out the Nvidia chipset, I installed the board using the memory from my XP machine, plugged in an ATI All in Wonder Radeon, and began installing XP Pro. I had no problems at all until I went to enter user names. The machine rebooted with no warning. It started up in XP on its own but locked up almost immediately. I shut it down, removed the ATI card, and put back the STB. The system ran fine. I installed the Nvidia drivers I had retrieved from Asus, connected to the Internet using my home network, installed XP Service Pack 1 from a CD-R I had made of it long ago, and then connected to Windows Update and downloaded everything I could find. I then shut the system down, installed the original memory, and then cranked into XP and loaded Office XP and Windows Media Player 9 with no problems. I thought I was “home free”. So, I selected “Start”/“Turn off computer” and, instead of shutting down, the computer rebooted instead!

A trip to and search of the Microsoft Knowledge base and Internet newsgroups gave me what appeared to be the solution. During the very first phases of the installation, XP polls the bios to determine what power management profiles to load. The one in use today and that allows Windows XP to shut the machine down from the menu is called ACPI for the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface. The software routine associated with controlling the machine is called the Hardware Abstraction Layer; XP had apparently loaded on one of the available non-ACPI HAL’s. While the workaround was fairly minor (turn the machine off by pressing the power button instead of the Start menu), to hand the machine back to my son in such a state would exhibit no pride in workmanship. I wasn’t going to do that. Unfortunately, the only fix was to reinstall the operating system and tell it what ACPI to install by hitting the F5 key when it asked me if I wanted to install any third party SCSI or RAID drivers. Grumbling, I grabbed the XP Pro CD and did just that.

That time was the install from hell. In the middle of it all, a string of error messages in the form of grey windows with OK buttons and that shouted they “could not find the entry point” clobbered my screen. Restarting the machine, I made several attempts to get the upgrade going again from where it had failed; but, again, no joy! I finally gave up and tried to repeat the installation from scratch. I got it going and manually chose the ACPI configuration and reinstalled. But it made no difference. When I would tell the machine to shutdown, it would restart instead.

What now?

Trying ANOTHER motherboard seemed to be the only recourse I had. MicroCenter was selling a Shuttle AK38N for only $43. Though it was an hour’s drive away and research on the Net showed that the board often had a lot of problems running XP, I decided to give it a shot. (True insanity!) Several hours later, I was back home and installed the board using my known-good memory; life plunged downhill. There were lots of crashes and machine shutdowns with an accompanying “British Police Siren” as one other user called it, and no hint from Shuttle about what it meant. I could not get XP installed. I tried turning off “L2 Cache ECC Checking” hoping that maybe this memory check might be causing the machine to shutdown, but that had no impact. Once again, I went back onto the Net trying to see if someone had gotten the board to run. One user noted that he had experienced lots of crashes with this board until he had set the memory speed (frequency) manually, making sure it was matched with the CPU’s FSB. AMD CPU’s were sensitive to that, he said. Hmmmmm. I tried that, but it didn’t help me at all.


Now, I was at am impasse. I had tried two motherboards and had no luck. There were still two things I hadn’t looked at, i.e., whether I had a bad CPU or power supply. But I believed they were okay. Then, I had an inspiration. Neither Tim nor I had thought to try manually setting the DRAM frequency to 266 in the MSI board. The memory was DDR2700, so the board’s bios would set it to 333 instead of the 266 speed the AMD 2000+ CPU would run at. Could the fix be as simple as that?

I remounted the MSI board using my known-good memory, cranked the machine up, went into the bios and manually set the DRAM frequency to 266, rebooted while checking that the machine booted up with that setting, and booted using the XP Pro CD. The installation ran smooth as silk. I then loaded up MSI’s VIA chip drivers and Microsoft's XP SP 1 from CD, connected to the Net and ran Windows Update until I had everything they offered, and shut the system down using the Start menu. I removed my memory and installed my son’s, installed Office XP and all the other software he had sent along, then shutdown the machine again, and installed the last ATI driver and Multimedia Set that had been built to support the ATI AIW Radeon. At about 1 am, I called it a night, happy that I finally had the thing running!

Success at last!

Well, almost….

The next morning I decided to check out DVD playback. Tim had said it wasn’t right, and I obviously wanted to make sure it was. I grabbed a copy of Shrek and played it. The music seemed a bit skewed and had a slight pulse to it, though the video seemed otherwise okay. That might mean a drive motor problem. But the real shock came when I tried to play a DVD-R containing a TV program. The damn thing ran at about twice the speed it was supposed to and the audio was severely clipped. I searched the web again for this problem and did find a few people who had experienced it but no solution.

Since I suspected the DVR-104’s motor drive, I headed out to find a replacement. My choice became to buy an on-sale Pioneer DVR-A05 at Micro Center or an equivalently priced Memorex 4X dual format burner at CompUSA. After speaking with my son on the phone about his preferences, I picked up the Pioneer because of its better compatibility and Micro Center’s better return policies. (I also returned the Shuttle motherboard while I was there. They gave me a full refund.)

Once back home, I installed the A05 drive and the smoothness of Shreks’ audio did improve but the chipmunk behavior of the DVD-R was still there. While I could find nothing definitive about that problem, swapping out video cards was something I could try. I had an ATI All in Wonder Radeon 9000 Pro I could use. Before I did that, however, I decided to install the drivers and the multimedia center (including the DVD player) it would use. I had nothing to lose. Lo and behold, though it wasn’t supposed to support the ATI AIW Radeon card, the setup worked like a champ with both the commercial DVD and my homemade DVD-R! I had installed a new video driver, DVD encoder, and DVD player; one of those had fixed the problem!

The computer is on its way back home as I write this. UPS is supposed to deliver it today. When it left here, the system was running fast and stable as a rock. Hopefully, it will do the same after it arrives at my son's home; and his Christmas present will finally be complete.

I took the Asus board back to HardDrive.com and they did give me a refund, too, though nowhere near as cheerfully as Micro Center had. I’ve got an old DVR-104 drive now I suspect isn’t much good, but am waiting for a chance to pop it into my PC and test it before making a decision about what to do with it. I’m waiting to hear back from my son. I feel good about what I did. It was both a hellish time and a lot of fun. I enjoy fixing PC’s for the most part; too bad you can’t make any decent money at it. If I had charged someone for all the time I had spent, it would have been more than the entire PC was worth. Who would want to pay that?

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Winners and Losers at Macworld Expo 2004

Winner-iLife ’04

Of all the product announcements made at the keynote address for this year’s Macworld Expo, the biggest winner was iLife ’04. While the changes in iPhoto 4 were minor, the ability to import iSight video and edit clips on the timeline in iMovie 4, iDVD 4’s new two hour video limit with better encoding, and the inclusion of Garage Band, a new consumer level audio tool (along the lines of Soundtrack), and all of it for only $49, make iLife ’04 the most valuable product introduction for the home user and small business consumer. Apple already has $79 of my money for a “family pack” version of this software. Both my wife, who’s a musician at heart, and myself are awaiting iLife ‘04’s arrival with baited breath.

That said, it’s not clear when it will ship. While the Apple Store showed a “deliver by January 16 date” for the “regular” version of the product, the “family pack” showed a shipping date of “7-10 business days”. With some reservation, I paid an extra $9 for 2 day delivery hoping to get the software at the same time it’s released.

Minor Winners-Final Cut Express 2 and Microsoft Office 2004

Both of these products provided incremental improvements over current versions but nothing I found compelling.

That said, I have plunked down $99 to upgrade my Final Cut Express to version 2, mainly to match it up with Final Cut Pro 4 loaded on my other PowerMac and to provide for better G5 compatibility when that day comes.

Office 2004 is another story. I’m not seeing anything that makes me want to plunk down the cash. However, we might wind up with a copy in this house if my wife, who is a university professor, decides to buy it after taking a look. I believe she might like the Notebook view and decide that at academic prices she'll buy the new version.

Loser-mini iPod

Whatever infected Britney Spears this weekend apparently also hit Steve Jobs. Apple may have wanted to go after the flash player market, but their pricing of the new mini-iPod guaranteed that it will stay a mini product. At its current $249 price point, buying this new too-limited iPod makes absolutely no sense, and there is a lot of forum traffic on the Net already that shows a majority of folks agree with me. If Apple really wants to make in-roads with this product, the highest price point that’s making any sense to anyone of us who have to fork over the cash is $199. Even at that, I consider the mini-iPod competitive and not “a steal”. At its current $249 price point, though, it’s simply a ball buster. I would fork over the extra $50 for the $299 15GB iPod instead.

Once I go over $200 on any computer related purchase, I consider it a different financial ball game. I’m betting that your average consumer and especially your average college student will, too.