Me, Chris and the Craputer

Chris P. is a reasonably knowledgeable technocrat, a die-hard DOS junkie and, as an electrical engineering student, well-skilled in putting electronic devices together without causing smoke (well....usually). Although I didn't get my hands on a real, honest-to-goodness PC until early 1997, I've become a walking encyclopedia of DOS, Windows, Linux and several programming languages, been A+ Certified (later finding out you're supposed to read a book and/or take a course first), taken up webmastering (not modesty, as you can probably tell)... let's just say that Chris and I were fairly confident that we could handle even the worst hassles a craputer could dish out.

Boy, were we wrong.

Chris's prior machine, a formidable-looking '486DX cobbled together from $40 of used parts, was great for word-processing and Wolfenstein but scoffed at the idea of running Mathcad, Multisim and several of the other modern, CPU and memory-hungry engineering programs (*cough* Ultima 7 *cough*) required in the pursuit of an EE degree. No self-respecting engineer should have to close a game to run a circuit simulation, so it was decided the time had come for a new machine. The first thing to do when buying a computer is to ask those around you for advice. My advice, with an exaggerated loving caress to the Athlon box humming beside my feet, was "Buy the parts online and put it together." My roommate's advice, with an exaggerated caress of the shoulder-height overclocked Celeron box and its 5 fans roaring away beside his feet, was "Buy the parts online and put it together." Actually, the question was what brand of computer should they buy, and the answer was what, they have brands? No matter who was asked, the advice was roughly the same, with chipset recommendations flying, case designs popping up everywhere(1), and the concept of computer brands being anathema on the order of having loud, kinky sex during a funeral service. Unfortunately, his parents were paying for the machine, and taking the whole parenting thing seriously--and as such, were not going to trust$1400 worth of copper and silicon to a couple snot-nosed college students <g>. So, after carefully ignoring any advice thrown their way, they bought a Compaq (hereafter: the Craputer) ... and after about 2 months of Chris being thoroughly pissed off at it, the fun began.

Objective
To be a usable system for Chris, this system must have capabilities as follows:

• MUST have full MS-DOS support and a working DOS commandline
• MUST be able to play legacy DOS games including Syndicate, Ultimas and (especially) Wolfenstein 3D without crashes or the severe audio skips encountered trying to play on the Craputer under Windows ME
• MUST be able to run engineering software as necessary
• MUST be able to run any David Bowie screen saver with any David Bowie background graphic, while playing any David Bowie CD or MP3 without lock-ups, slowdown or out-of-memory errors (a problem on his previous system)
• MUST allow full, unmitigated access to critical system settings and files, with no meddling windows-isms (are you sure you want to delete that? Are you sure you're sure?), auto-update modules or help daemons meddling with the system settings or otherwise getting in the way

Initial observations
Upon booting, the Craputer would continue to grind away for nearly a minute after the Windows desktop appeared. During this time the Windows Task tray (that place next to the clock where little program icons appear) slowly filled to occupy almost half the screen. Although equipped with 128MB of memory, Windows' swap file was already beginning to fill as free memory ran out--System Monitor, the tiny utility telling us how much free memory remained, was the only program voluntarily run by the user at this point. Pressing Ctrl-Alt-Delete revealed a task list so full of cryptically-named background processes that we had to scroll to see all of them.

The Craputer came with no Windows installation disc, nor software or driver discs of any kind. This meant no drivers or software for the Internet Keyboard, internal Winmodem, DVD Player, etc., and no discs for some legally-licensed software including a DVD player app and MS Office 2000. Only a set of Compaq Recovery Discs, prominently stating that they would restore the system to its factory-shipped state. In other words, re-load all the Compaq crap we were trying very hard to get rid of.

The system's BIOS setup and start-up messages were inaccessible, thanks to a fullscreen Compaq logo that displayed in their place. None of the standard BIOS-setup keys (DEL, shift, ctrl, F1, ESC...) worked, and no further information was forthcoming in the user's manual.

Internet Explorer came pre-installed on the Craputer--unfortunately, it didn't work. The attempt brought up a modified version of MSIE that WILL NOT WORK until after you sign up for 'their' Internet provider. Specifically, trying to open IE will bring up a screen to the effect of "Click here to sign up for our Partner's internet service" , and the blasted thing won't take "I already have an Internet provider! (Dorm network)" for an answer. I couldn't figure out how to un-cripple the browser after 20 minutes of trying, so finally I went back to my room and burned him a copy of the Netscape 4.7 installer.

The POWER button located on the front of the Craputer would turn the computer on, but not off. The RESET button, a necessity on any Windows-based system, was not present at all. These shortcomings were discovered quickly as the Craputer's "sleep" function and standard Windows shutdown procedure caused the computer to lock up with a black screen. Since the power can't be cycled with the malfunctioning POWER button, the only alternative is to reach behind the unit and pull out the power cord--and sit through the pedantic "Because Windows was not properly shut down..." error message on the next boot.

Update: It was later learned that ACPI-compliant powersupplies have a built-in contingency plan for Windows-befouled machines that won't shut off. Holding down the power switch for 4 seconds will cut the juice without resorting to pulling the plug.

Preparations
This was going to be an all-out brawl. The battle lines were drawn; War had been declared. Due to the odd partitioning of the hard drive (losing several Gigabytes to a recovery partition which effectively duplicated the recovery CD-ROM set), proprietary software tasks running in the background and intentionally broken IE installation, we decided our best course of action would be to completely partition and reformat the hard drive, and retrograde from the preinstalled WindowsME to Windows98 for compatibility reasons, as explained later. As no software discs were provided, it was necessary to obtain (i.e. WaReZ) copies of Office 2000 and the other products we were legally entitled to. Let's just keep the copied Windows 98 disk quiet, since we technically aren't licensed to that (although the newer version, WindowsME, IS legally licensed, and I think that should entitle us to retrograde to any obsolete version of it we choose--if anything, M$should pay US for this :) This left us with a handful of illicit CD-Rs, including Windows98, WindowsME upgrade disc (in case we decided to be nice and legal) with stolen CD-key (the one Compaq provided wouldn't work with the upgrade CD we copied), Office 2000, and EZ CD Creator 4. (The Candice Pacheco disc being played in my stereo at incredible volumes during this time frame was NOT pirated, it was snakedborrowed from the school radio station.) To be safe, we preserved the existing WindowsME partition while installing the new system, in case the Craputer would not work without all its background-task voodoo and custom install wizardry. This required Partition Magic 6 to deal with the WindowsME/DOS-less craputer combo, obtained (again, trying not to break any more laws than necessary) by purchasing the software from a friend for$1, then selling it back the next day (for $1). As with any heavy partitioning/formatting activity, our craputer repair required one more critical element: significant quantities of alcoholic beverages. Getting medieval on one Craputer Nicely enough, partitioning and formatting two new partitions (one Win98 and one for data files [*cough* MP3s *cough*]) went off without a hitch. Until coming to the realization that it is UTTER CRAP, we were originally going to install a virgin copy of WindowsME. Our attempts to procure a WindowsME install disc met with frustration and failure, not ONE WaReZ site having an ISO of it for our legally-entitled pirating pleasure. After about an hour of enduring endless 404 errors and popups (how did they get past my filters?) it was decided that wardialling the dorms for a copy was a more productive solution. We eventually got hold of a friend with a fresh-from-Microsoft WindowsME disc, and wasted no time in burning a copy. Installation of WindowsME would have been painless except for one niggling little detail: the CD was a @#$%% Win98 upgrade! So it was on to either A) finding another, non-upgrade copy of ME, or B) finding a token copy of Win98 to fool the ME installer. The nice folks across the hall happened to have a '98 disc lying around, and loaned it to us. We had learned our lesson the first time around, and did a test-install from the original CD before wasting another CD-R. Sure enough, another &%@*! upgrade, this one requiring Windows 95. Now, we were back at that familiar old crossroads: A) dig up my Windows 95 installer (left it at home! Drat!) , and install 95 -> 98 -> ME, B) find another 98 ... or C) Teach Chris Linux...
("Will Ultima 9 run on this Linux thing?"  "Probably not."  "Cross off C.")

Luckily, the guy-across-the-hall's roomate had a non-upgrade copy of Windows 98, putting us back in business yet again. I am far from a stranger to (re-)installing a Microsoft operating system, and installation took about 20 minutes. It was getting late, so I set the '98 disc burning (at a whopping 2X, which is what you get for buying the cheapest CDRW drive on the market :) and we called it a night.

The next day I awoke at the crack of noon, looked at the clock, groaned, rolled over, checked my armpits for B.O., threw on some clothes and went to lunch, doing a rather respectable Don King impersonation (by virtue of a bad case of bed-head). There I ran into Chris and James(2), and explained our current status. What immediately followed was a lengthy tirade on WindowsME, complete with food spraying from the mouth and one meaty arm, its flabby underside sluggishly trailing behind by virtue of its own inertia, violently shaking the balled-up fist at the end of it. James' heart rate was easily countable by the throbbing vein that had surfaced on the side of his forehead. Our suspicions were confirmed, and as the fire-and-brimstone WinME sermon wound down, we realized that defacing our new Win98 installation with WinME would just be a big waste of (up)time, not to mention compatibility. No ME.

The virgin OS installation was a sight in itself (ah, the amazingly fast bootup, the amazingly responsive system, the amazingly empty task tray!), but did not a Craputer exorcism make. We still had to install all the random s**t to make all the hardware work. The first piece of hardware I could think of was the Internet Keyboard, a keyboard equipped with volume controls (what computer user wants to use those obscure programs like Windows Volume Control?), a "media button" (which invariably loads Windows Media Player), and more online shopping buttons than you can shake a credit-card at. My first bad idea was to search the Internet for a program to handle these buttons. Found "the" Compaq program somewhere and installed it, only to find out (half the buttons worked, half didn't) that there is no single Compaq program to run the Internet keyboard. There is a different fscking program for each keyboard, and nearly a dozen different Compaq keyboards with different combinations of shopping buttons!! *Grrrrr*. My next stupid mistake was to try finding the Compaq keyboard driver on the Compaq website. I eventually found a link to a "universal" keyboard driver on their user-to-user bitching forums (along with a dozen "I need customer satisfaction"-type inquiries), installed it, and watched in horror as the ILLL took effect. The ILLL, the Inherent Low Limit Law, is the law which states that all-you-can-eat only applies to the first three plates, unlimited is only unlimited up to 200hrs/month, and Universal signifies an 80% chance of compatibility. Being in the remaining 20%, the Compaq 7000Z's keyboard did not match any configuration known to the Universal driver. Yet another link, this one to "Softpaq #1234567" (yes, I made that number up), for which they offered to sell us a driver CD at a "low, low price", claimed compatibility with the "Presario keyboard", so I naively assumed (this being a Presario model) that it just might work. In this endeavor I was, as with conversing with most any female, Wrong Again.

Desperation, late-night delirium and more than a few alcoholic beverages led me to try digging around on those cryptic Recovery CDs. Starting Windows on my own machine and carefully checking that CD-Autorun was turned OFF (to avoid any potential auto-reformatting nasties alluded to on the Recovery CD packaging), I began to dig around an endless directory structure, the constituents of which could only have been named by countless monkeys beating on keyboards somewhere in the subterranean depths of Compaq headquarters. Under e:\to\be\or\not\to\be (okay, it was more like e:\93475439\a2c\drv\892397\B88840 -- these weren't smart monkeys) was a file named "dummy.txt", the first filetype I recognized. It contained only one line of text: "Craig is a loser." . Eventually, more dummy.txt's showed up deep in the directory structure, containing "THIS LINE IS BLANK" and "This file is a real dummy." to name but a few. As far as reading material went, it wasn't exactly stimulating (I was expecting at best the complete works of Ray Bradbury--Compaq was obviously limited to a finite number of monkeys--but would settle for a few urine/fart/creepy-creature lines from the desk of Stephen King), but it at least told me the stuff on the disc was probably not encrypted. Trivial encryption's all the rage these days since the advent of the DMCA, because now any company can do a real half-assed job of protecting something, and simply sue the crap out of anyone ("Intellectual Property Violators") who succeeds in decrypting it. !UOY eus nac I won ,nostaW krow dooG  Trivial sue-your-ass-off encryption is no match for the ambitious mathematician, but for lazy college students on the verge of seeing tiny elephants and little pink Christina Agulera monsters, things are different.

After slightly more digging, I hit upon gold: A ZIP file. It contained files vaguely resembling Windows drivers. A little more digging...a DVD player! Not the one that was actually installed (& didn't work when unzipped onto the Craputer), but it was a start. Finally, after traversing one disk in its entirety and most of the second, I found the (right) keyboard program. Immediately reprogrammed Chris's shopping buttons to slashdot.org, teenagewildlife.com (freakin David Bowie fans), Hotmail, Compaq's support forum, and for the big button in the middle, COMPAQSUCKS.COM. Our virgin Win98 installation, once working fine, began to hang on shutdown again, so it can be logically deducted that the keyboard driver (actually consisting of three cryptically-named background apps connected together by unimaginable Windows voodoo) is the cause of this problem as on the factory-shipped Craputer.

Now it was on to the DVD player. Two DVD player programs on the Recovery CDs, and neither was the one that came on the Craputer. I'll spare you the waterworks and just let it be known that we decided it would be necessary to boot into the WinME Craputer partition to watch DVDs, at least until a streaming-to-screen edition of DeCSS comes along. This brought us to find an incredibly nice, free boot manager called XOSL.

Update: We did find a new DVD player, called Videolan. It provides fast, high-quality, very smooth [better than any commercial players we tried to reinstall/pirate] DVD playback when it isn't crashing :-)

Then came the important apps. Mathcad, Office, etc. were safely on CDs in their unmodified, installable forms, so the really important productivity applications were installed first. Quake, Wolfenstein and Half-life are drag-&-dump compatible (with the exception of HL's cd-key requirement), so they were simply copied onto the new partition. With the help of un-crippled sound drivers [Hint: Open the case and read the numbers off the soundcard to find out what you really have (e.g. "1373 chipset"), then get the drivers from CreativeLabs directly or search the Web for them. The Compaq preloaded drivers may underpower your card.] Wolfenstein played with reasonably decent sound. Half-life ran nicely whenever Rob came over to waste time on Chris' computer without permission (& get his ass fragged again and again and again...and again), but crashed Win98 with a BSOD (and fscked-up video settings upon reboot) whenever Chris tried to run it.

Penny Pinching in hardware
Music CDs would not play after installing Windows98 on the Craputer. Once our little Compaq exorcism progressed to the point of removing the case, we knew why. No frappin' audio cable from the CD-ROM to the soundcard! This mystified all of us until the possibility collectively dawned on us (could the manufacturers be this stupid?) that the playing-a-CD-thru-the-speakers process had been kludged to run entirely in software, digitally reading bits one frame at a time from the CD using digital audio extraction, sending them down the IDE cable, and converting them back to an analogue via some kind of WAV-playing routine. I don't think it is necessary to explain all the reasons why this is really friggin' stupid. (Okay, okay...

• Ties up the CPU, slowing the system
• Ties up the IDE channel
• High CPU loads / system crash / player crash / exclusive programs / DOS mode /etc. will cause the whole shebang to quit working
• I could go on....)
All this so Compaq could save some pocket change on an audio cable. Although we had several computer audio cables lying around, Compaq is (predictably) in on the Connector Conspiracy, and only one end of the standard audio cable would fit. We went and bought another one from a computer store within walking distance (the whole time fighting the urge to load up on $5 120VAC case fans) for under$1.

Besides lacking an audio cable, the Craputer was also missing the PC Speaker, the tool-of-choice for old DOS games and POST error beep codes. Another jaunt, this time to Rat Shack, netted us a \$2 mini-speaker perfect for our needs (as well as a few more free cuecats). Of course, the block of connectors going to the front of the PC covered up the PC_SPK connection, but this is easily corrected with some wirecutters and a soldering gun (who needs that non-working power switch anyway?). But lo-and-behold, we connected the speaker to PC_SPK and... nothing! No startup beep, no sound in Wolfenstein...nada. A trip back to the Compaq bitching forums and some more interrogating suggested that the Craputer PC speaker pins are (disabled in hardware?) nonfunctional.

Conclusions
Craputers suck.

(1) This included several ready-made cases, a nifty homemade design consisting mainly of Plexiglass and PVC pipe, and pictures of a friend-of-friend's most mimimally-packaged PC consisting of a power supply, hard drive and bare boards pinned to a wall.

(2) Name changed to protect this person, widely held to be a Microsoft addict and the biggest Bill Gates sycophant (-> asskisser) in the known universe, now denouncing WindowsME to the bowels of Hell, from a severe ass-kicking from Dollar Bill's goons.