Thursday, January 25, 2007


It's time to catch-up on what's been going on -

New laptop arrived (see here), works great, just could accept the old laptops hard disk (new laptop is setup for SATA, old one was ATA, converters don't fit into laptop bay, and not sure what they'd do for a hard disk locked one anyway).

So - sent the hard disk off to to get them to unlock it, so I could recover the data. They were able to - sent it back, slipped it into the USB case, plugged it into the desktop - nada. Didn't panic, unplugged it, and plugged it into the new laptop - voila. Recovered Nava and my documents folders, then the Outlook files, which are always nicely hidden, and then the Quicken files, which Quicken likes to store it it's program directory.

Dell wants the old dead laptop back (some might call it evidence) with the hard drive, so I've deleted all of the personal stuff, and am now "shredding" it (running a program to remove all traces of deleted files, and on top of that, write different patterns of data, so even then, it's damned tough to find anything).

On the monitor saga, finally dragged my laptop docking-station home from work, which has DVI output. Plugged it in, couldn't get 1600x1200 (while I can get ~2048x1600 at work, so it's not the laptop/docking-station). Called Samsung back, to which they couldn't argue, and are, hopefully, sending out replacement #3. Last time this happened, talked on a Monday, it was shipped on Tuesday and arrived on Thursday. This time, no sign of it even shipping yet.

In the meantime, one of the armchairs in the living room decided to break both springs that help it stay "closed" when the leg rest is down. No worries - we'll just swing by the store (The Leather Factory) on Saturday. Oops - where did they go? Out of business. Somewhat annoying for us, but at least we didn't have something on order, and bye-bye deposit. Tried to find the name of who made the mechanical system for it, found some patent numbers, but that hasn't helped yet. Did a temporary fix tonight, by swaging on a loop (the spring itself didn't break, just the hook on it's end that connects the extendable leg rest part to the frame) of wire instead. Took 3 prototype attempts to figure out how to swage the loop and then swage the loop onto the spring. Might even last long enough to forget about finding some new springs - or at least give me more time to see if I can salvage some off of a Goodwill chair or so!

And then yesterday, driving home, my left headlight just dies. Worked when I pulled out (could see 2 dots reflecting), didn't when I got home. Went to Pep Boys to get a replacement - got a pair (decided to replace them both). Of course, the dead one is crammed in between the battery and the frame, so you have to crane your neck around even to see the plug, and once you get your hand in there, it's all by feel. But - only took an extra couple of minutes, so it wasn't so bad.

So that's the what's up blog, to catch-up. Which sounds like Ketchup. Which is pretty much what this post is - squashed tomatoes and some sugar. Good with fries. Better than mayo, unless it's a nice garlic aioli.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

I think technology is making me bipolar...

Received the replacement for the previous laptop that died - it was a 500m, which was a ~4yr old design. They said they didn't have that model around anymore, so would give me something somewhat newer. The replacement is a Dell e1405 - a very good, middle-of-the-road laptop:

  • Intel® Core™ Duo T2050 (1.60GHz, 2MB L2 Cache, 533 MHz FSB), 100G,
  • 1G of RAM
  • 14" WXGA+
  • 7200RPM hard disk
  • 8X CD/DVD dual-layer burner
  • 802.11 b/g
  • Bluetooth

A very nice system overall. Processor is 1 generation behind what I was going to buy, and I'd like a discrete graphics card, and WSXGA, instead of WXGA+. But hey - it's a ~$1200 system I got for free.

When I signed into my Dell account, to register it and link it to my account, I found out that it comes with a 3yr "Complete Care" warranty. Yep - old laptop died ~1.5yrs out of warranty, and the replacement, thank you very much Dell for just giving us a replacement, the replacement has a 3 year "Complete Care" warranty, which covers:

  • Liquid spilled
  • Dropped
  • Electric surge
  • Broken LCD
  • Accidental breakage

Doesn't cover damage in fire, theft, intentional damage (they even mention hammer marks), or normal wear.

PFA. The ~$1200 replacement has a $300 warranty.

So - that was the highlight of the week.

On the same day the laptop arrived, also got the replacement monitor. 2nd replacement, as the first one was "torqued". New one looks great, sits almost perfect level. Very happy. Not. After resolving the initial display issues of hooking up the monitor while the computer is running, the display mostly behaves nicely. Except it's a 20" monitor that should have 1600x1200 resolution, and we can't get it w/ the DVI input.

Call Samsung tech support - they walk me through a couple of things, and then pass me on to Level2 support. They walk me through a few more, and then decide it's the ATI Radeon 9550 video card I have, as the monitor will display 1600x1200 with the analog video cable, just not with the DVI capable.

I'll buy that. Update the ATI driver / software, re-boot. No luck. Re-install the Samsung monitor driver. No luck. Maybe it's a software problem, and I need to do the Microsoft Windows trick of rebooting, and while the machine is booting, crawling into the room, naked, begging for pity from the software gods. No luck.

Open up the desktop, remove the ATI card, and put back in the old Nvidia one (no DVI). Analog 1600x1200 resolution w/ out any problems (no duh). Remove all ATI software. Remove all evidence there was any ATI software (regedit, remove Programs/ATI*). Download the latest ATI software. Find out it wants Microsoft .Net Framework 2.0. Download and install that. Download security updates for .Net. OK - all set to re-install, so turn desktop off, swap cards, make sure monitor is off, turn desktop on.

Go outside for a smoke, with the computer booting, but the monitor connected by DVI, but not turned on. Come back in, power the monitor on, trying to make sure that ATI card sees the Samsung Monitor as a new monitor, and tries to set itself up for it. OK - resolution defaults to 800x640. Go to resize - hey, instead of having 20 random sizes above 1280x1024, now there's only two - 1440x1080 and 1600x1200. That's promising. Try 1600x1200. Same damn problem - you see 1280x1024, and can "pan" left/right or up/down to the see the remainder of the screen. Check ATI software, and it's sure that the Samsung can only display 1280x1024 natively.

Which is exactly what it said 2hrs before I started the whole "re-install" process. But, at least when I talk to the ATI tech support folks on Monday (no weekend phone support), I can say "yes, I updated all the drivers and software", and "yes, I then did it again, after removing all previous versions", and "yes, I did crawl into the room naked and groveling", so maybe that'll speed-up the process of them giving me to someone who may be able to help.

New laptop working fine - I wanted to remove the free McAfee security tools, and install Norton. I've used Norton for years, and they've got this hook into me - every time I need to re-subscribe, I can pay something like $15 more and just update to the latest / greatest security and utility suite. And you can use it on 3 computers. And I like to have all the computers in the house running the same basic software (OS, security, office tools), so that it's easier to support and network them, and if I screw something up on one, I know how to make the same mistake on the others ones.

Amazingly, McAfee pissed Nava up more than Norton did, so she demanded I remove it. I was pretty sure she would go with the "change as little as possible" on the new laptop, given the recent tech problems we've had. Which would be a shame, as futzing with electronics is one of the things I really enjoy. Nothing like getting into the guts of hardware or software, finding the little ways of make it do things slightly better (OK, slightly different, but to me it seems better). Having another screw or widget to add to the box of "wonder where that came from" parts.

But, since the monitor / video card didn't agree to play nice together within ~4hrs of labor, fun hobby turned into a chore.

Now you know why I don't fix my own car. If the computer crashes, odds are it won't kill anyone. OK - Nava may kill me, but no civilians. (Statistics say if you are killed, it'll likely be by a loved one.)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To...

Hate Dell.

Had 2 problems on Saturday, as LavaN describes here
- the "back-light" in our Samsung Syncmaster 204T, after a bit of vigorous dusting. Well - average dusty, and then vigorous pulling to try to get it to raise back to the right height.

Good news - it's under warranty, and Samsung offers a replacement program (same or better monitor, you get the new one and send back the old one, which they fix and pass on to the next person).

Then there was the home laptop - Dell Inspiron 500m. The damn "loose" power cord finally caused it to die. Nope - not the AC Adapter, but the DC Jack it plugs into (little metal cube at about 1 o'clock from the fan). Damn Dell "advanced" power-supply, that guarentees you can't use someone elses, as there's a chip in the AC Adapter that talks w/ the laptop, and won't recharge the battery unless they say Howdy to each other. Unlike most AC Adapters, that slip onto a metal pin, since the Dell needs 3 connections (power, ground and signal), the metal pin is replaced by a plastic protrusion, which has connections on inside and outside. Kind of like a cross between a coax and a power plug.

And the AC adapter part slides onto it, connecting on the outside of the ring, inside of the ring, and the pin in the middle. Well - that's what it's supposed to do. Only has 3 problems:

  1. The AC Adapter plugs "straight" into the back of the laptop, instead of using an angled plug that's less prone to wearing out. Don't know why the Dell ones fail for me, while the IBM ones I use at work don't, but they do. See Exhibit #2.

  2. Don't know why, but the either the adapter plug expands, or the DC Jack end contracts, cause the combo loosened up after the 1st year. Power cord kept falling out on it's own - you'd get the low battery alarm, and then notice that the power plug was just sitting on your leg instead of powering the laptop.
  3. Plastic - somewhere between styrofoam and balsa wood for strength. Didn't last. Broke off. Caused short. Caused fire / melting components. Caused laptop to no longer get power. Caused laptop to break.

Since the laptop was >1 year out of warranty, I figured I'd take it apart and see how bad the damage was, and if I could potentially fix it. Motherboard looked fine, but the DC Jack was deformed, and clearly smelled of burning.

So - I took the hard drive out, opened up the desk top, slapped on a 2.5" IDE to 3.5" IDE converter, and booted up the desktop to recover the data. Now we run into problem #4 - if you use the "HDD Password" (aka Hard Disk Drive Password) to prevent thieves (or at least hinder non hacker types) from being able to use your laptop if it's stolen, it also makes the hard drive non-readable in any other system, until you disable the password.

Google it - find out there's a few DOS utilities for helping do this. Go try them out - they say I have the right HDD Password, but can't disable it. I take a guess and figure maybe if I get the "Master" (instead of my User password), I'd be able to overcome this, so I fire off a note to Dell support.

Get a reply the next day from Dell support, which said

  1. The laptop is out of warranty

  2. But, because they give excellent support, if I want to send it in, they'll gladly take a look at it , and let me know how much to fix it.

Now, I know the answer to #2, unless I get lucky and get a service technician who's hands don't drag on the ground. Default answer is the mother board is bad, and it'll need to be replaced. $435 plus labor.

Don't want that - I want the $20 DC Jack replaced. If it works, great. If it doesn't, frack the machine, I'll get a new one. But this isn't what my email to support was about. All I wanted to know was did Dell ever set the Master HDD Password, and if so, what was it, so I could disabled the User HDD Password.

So I reply to their reply saying:

  1. Previous reply unacceptable
  2. I don't want a fix or even a diagnosis
  3. All I want is to get in touch with someone who's heard of HDD Passwords before, and can find out if they did set a Master HDD password, and if so, what is it.

Get a reply late today that best thing would be to call and talk to a technical support person directly, so it doesn't take a long series of email exchanges to resolve. But, I can try email again if I really want / need to.

Call up Dell tonight, and while I'm waiting, take the HDD out of my work laptop, and slip the HDD I'm trying to "unlock" into the work laptop. Boot, get the password prompt, type in the password and it goes through - aka the password storage wasn't scrambled, so maybe the HDD is fine. Since my home laptop HDD is for a very different system, the work laptop BIOS nicely informs me I'm crazy, and asks me if I'd like to go into BIOS Setup instead of trying to boot. Exactly what I want. Try to disable the User HDD Password, and the IBM BIOS Setup Utility tells me I can't do that without first entering / unlocking with the Master HDD Password. Try every password I can imagine I could have set the Master HDD Password to, to no avail.

By this time, I've gotten thru to the first level of Dell support, and have been basically told to GFY. Push back and the support tech says he shouldn't even be talking to me, as he's just a "home / home business rep", and can't see my records, as I purchased it through their Business group. Cool - this laptop was part of a "home PC program" thru my work. Cool part is the Business techs tend to be a bit more savy.

Get thru to Business support group, explain my problem to the guy, going back to the home laptop being totally dead, due to a melt down in the power system, and explain to him that all I'm trying to get from Dell support is if they ever set a Master HDD Password on these machines, and if so, what the heck is it. This was a fun process, as the Business support tech wasn't just a script reader, like the first two I dealt with on this issue, but knew less about these things then I did. So I walked him through how what a HDD Password was for, how it's setup. How I should be able to disable it, but it's not working, and the BIOS utility is telling me I need the Master HDD Password.

This process takes about 30 minutes, as the tech support guy chats with me for 2-3 minutes, taking notes, and then going off to talk with some more senior one, and coming back with either more questions, or things to try that I tried 3 days ago.

After the 3rd or 4th round of this, the tech comes back and says "the whole reason you're doing this is because of the laptop not working. Tell me again how it's not working." So I go into the story, in more details, including my wife using it at the time, low battery beep, plugging in the cord, no joy, then burning smell and scream from the Mrs. (LavaN that is). Tell him what I tried to get after that, and how it always comes back as the laptop ain't getting no juice. Which is why I opened it up, and am trying to download the data onto the desktop.

Off again to chat, back online, making sure that no one was hurt, there was no fire or anything. Says they have an unusual response.

  1. They never set Master HDD Passwords, so don't know what it is, so from here forward, there's nothing they can do to help me with that.

  2. But, they are concerned that the laptop failed in this way, and if I'm willing to accept that they might not be able to give me an identical system, they would like to send me out a replacement, and one that I should be able to plug the existing hard drive into and boot and have all my data.

The replacement may take 2-3 weeks to get here, as Inspiron 500m / 600m / 700m systems haven't been built for a while, but he thinks they should be able to find one and get it out to me pretty quick. No cost to me. Sorry for the problems.

So - just when I thought it was safe to really start hating Dell, they do this.