Computing problems

Friday, November 3, 2006 at 5:23 | Posted in computer, linux, Personal, ubuntu | 14 Comments
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I have had loads of hard- and software problems the last couple of months which I was hoping to get rid of once and for all by bringing home a new computer on Wednesday. As always with computers, however, nothing is to be taken for granted. There is always an element of surprise lurking where you least expect it.

It all started some time in the early summer as Microsoft announced that they were going to discontinue supporting Windows 98. I realized that this was going to bring me a lot of trouble. I have used the opsys almost from the date it was released and my computer dates back to that time as well. In fact, the box is a bit older than that. It used to have Windows 95 in it as a baby computer.

My approach to the known problems ahead was similar to that with other great problems in my life. I thought of it occasionally but did absolutely nothing about it. I did not hurry to do something even at the point where ZoneLab refused to issue their updates for Win98. Albeit not updated, their firewall did what I was expecting it to do.

The inevitable happened one morning in early September. My computer would only boot in safe mode. Running a complete antivirus check and scanning for spyware confirmed that my box had not caught a flu due to wreckless surfing in the web. As far as I could tell, all essential opsys and other software elements were intact. I concluded that this was the day and hour to step out of the wonderful world of Bill Gates.

A part of the reason why I did nothing to prepare myself for the collapse was knowledge of existence of two compact disks somewhere on the bottom of my desk drawer. One of them was the install CD of Linux Ubuntu. I copied the few files on my hard drive that had not been backed up already to be later transfered into a web server. I then inserted the CD to my computer and leaned back.

Although the disk made noises during the operation, the install was relatively smooth and painless. I figured the noises were caused by the CD drive of my aging computer and took little notice of them. It was only later that I learned that the disk was not very healthy either.

Much to my dismayal I detected that dispite of a successful install, my computer still would not boot. Having read the documentation again I found out that the minimum memory of 32 Mb was sufficient just for the install itself. Running Ubuntu would require at least 128 Mb. My computer only has 80 Mb.

So it was time to grisp the other disk and stick it into the CD drive. This was a light version of Ubuntu that would run from the CD together with a swap partition created with each boot. This is one of the reasons I have not turned off my computer unless I absolutely have to these two months. Each boot brings a fresh swap partition which means that all my desktop and browser settings are returned to defaults, including but not limited to keyboard layout, character codes, bookmarks, passwords, log ins and so on.

Running a CD based opsys also means that while I can download small and medium sized files, I can not install and run applications on my hard drive. You would not imagine how much I have been missing my favorite web browser. The whole World is talking about Firefox 2.0 but I have been stuck with a prehistoric version. And since I am unable to download add ons, all pages with flash elements and/or audio and video files remain out of my reach. Not to mention that this is not exactly high speed surfing. The WP editor does not like the browser either: it tends to accidentally select and drop out pieces of my text which I have naturally not had the chance to save by then.

I first thought that the problem could be solved the easy and obvious way: by buying more memory. That turned out to be easier said than done, though. Having run around the town for three weeks I had to admit that not even the best computing junk yard in Helsinki could supply me with memory that would fit such an old machine.

It started to look like replacing the old computer would be the only option. The cheapest second hand machines with sufficient memory were around 170-180 € and most of them would have had a pre installed Windows 2000. I could of course have replaced the pre installed opsys with Linux but I decided to wait around a bit to see if something more attractive would not pop up in the market.

That strategy seemed to pay out. Last week I found an offer one could not refuse: an Acer Aspire T136-T87Z with 256 Mb of memory and a pre installed Linux Linpus for 289,90 €. I would say that this is a bargain price even without a monitor. I can always buy a new monitor later, just as I can add up the memory if it turns out to be necessary.

So I was sitting here at my desk on Wednesday evening. Having unpacked the computer and plugged in everything that needs to be plugged, I turned on the brand new computer. My first surprise was that I would have to enter a user ID and a password. I thorouhly searched through the carbage pile of the package and found all sorts of documents, such as recycling advise (for a brand new computer!) and refencies to the Canadian electric safety regulations but I did absolutely not find a note with the ID and password.

At that point I had no option but to bring back some life in my old faithful which I had already put aside. Having once again set up my desktop and browser preferencies I did some googleing and found this information in the Linpus web site:

Please Login with the ID and password provided below.
ID: root
password: 111111

Having done that I was indeed able to use my new computer. Sort of, anyway. It turned out that the pre installed Linpus did not include a graphic interface. I have some experience of Linux but operating in the console mode and memorizing command syntaxes is not my strongest side although I did quite a lot of that during the golden age of MS-Dos.

Another look at the irresistable offer showed that the absense of a graphic interface was indeed mentioned in the ad. With the smallest possible font face but it was there. Not that I would have complained anyway. I did still have the Ubuntu disk to rely on.

At this point I discovered, of course, that the alarming sounds during my first install were not at least entirely caused by the old CD drive. The disk itself had suffered quite a lot. While the brand new drive had considerable difficulties with reading the disk, the install did eventually start. Unfortunately, it also soon stopped.

The process was during several attempts hung where disk system information was to be transfered. I concluded that the installer was looking for a floppy drive in the computer which modern machines, of course, no longer have. Not even in expert mode was I allowed to pass that point.

I made a couple of pathetic attempts to install an even older version of Linux Debian. The lengthy install proceeded into the point each time where the install programme congratulated me for a successful install. But after the first boot it apologized for failing to produce a graphic interface. This was said to be a known bug issue that would “shortly” be fixed.

Just to rub some more salt into my wounds, the CD with the light version of Ubuntu – which I have not removed from my old computer during the last two months – turned out to have stuck in the CD drive. I do not like to poke inside a computer as it is. And thinking of the chance that another accident might happen if I tried to force the disk out of the guts of that machine, I decided to leave it where it is so that I can be relatively sure to have access to the web untill this will have been sorted out. Unfortunately, this also means that I have to plug and unplug all the cords and wires each time I switch between the two computers. And reset the settings of my old machine at every boot.

What I need now is a good copy of a Linux install disk with a graphic interface. I did some surfing and e-mailing yesterday which provided me a reasonable amount of optimism. I was clever enough to write to my friend Martin-Eric. If anybody knew where I could obtain what I need, it would be him. He wrote back to me an said that he could have provided me a CD himself unless he was out of town. But he did know where I could get it ASAP.

So I am going to visit the web cafe recommended by Martin-Eric later today. I am not shouting hip hurray as yet. All sorts of surprises can still occur. But if the best case scenario were to happen just this once, I may be using my new computer already today.

I also wrote to the dealer yesterday evening. It was a pretty friendly letter, considering the circumstances. Apart from the missing log in information, I just pointed out that I would have been happy to pay at least the price of a compact disk in case they had offered me one with a good version of Linux with graphic interface, such as Ubuntu.

I do realize that Linux users are a relatively small fraction of the market. And you can obviously not sell them a lousy product for an expensive price, as is the case with those who still live in the wonderful world of Bill Gates. But that may very soon change as more and more people get fed off with the Eddie Edwards of operation systems.

Besides, an average Linux user is a heavy user compared to most people who prefer Windows. Accordingly Linux people buy more gadgets to their computers. Which is why the retailers should definitely not ignore their business.



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  1. Hello!

    I have given up trying to use Windows 98 SE a long time ago. I switched to Windows XP, the prize is about 75 €. I was able to buy Windows XP Professional OEM at eBay’s auction house for 60 €. I think the price is worth it. Everything works fine. I have no problems. I can watch DVD with my computer, and I can use speech recognition. Firefox works fine, everything works fine.

    A few months ago I tried to use Windows 98 SE on an older machine. It didn’t work out. I had too many problems.

    I have tried Ubuntu Linux, it is a great operating system. But in 99% I use Windows XP, and only in 1% I use Ubuntu Linux. I hope that it is possible to migrate to a Linux operating system in the future. But at the moment, Windows XP is the first choice. Linux might be something in one, two or three years.

    Result: I don’t want to support Microsoft, but Windows XP works fine. It is worth its price – about 75 € for Windows XP Home saves you a lot of trouble. In a few weeks there will be probably a new version of Windows – but I wouldn’t wait. I am sure that Windows XP will be supported for at least two years from now on.

    I wouldn’t buy a computer with only 256 MB RAM. My computer has 2 GB RAM. I think, it shouldn’t be less than 512 MB RAM.

  2. I installed Linux Ubuntu for a few hours ago and so far I am impressed. I have obviously not had a chance to see it in practical work yet because most of the evening has gone for installations and downloading software but there is a clear difference with the junk pile I still used this morning. 😉

    256 Mb is not much but if you compare it with the 80 Mb I used to have, it is quite a lot. The ideal amount of memory would depend on what you want to do. I do practically everything through the web and I hardly ever access audio and video files. Adding the memory may become something to consider at a later date but a better monitor is my priority. I doubt that adding memory would do me enough good to compensate loss of sight using a bad monitor. The idea that I have a hard drive of 80 GB sounds crazy because all of my files – personal and public – are in various web servers where I can easily access them.

  3. After ten years of Wintel, I choose to switch to MacOS (read: beautifully deocrated UNIX) in may 2005. Since that, no problems. I know this is not the MOST rational move if you take the financial side into account – all things considered, it may indeed be the Linux + cheap PC-clone hardware that is the most reasonable choice. Anyway, the user experience is something else compared to WinXP, which I also have to use on a daily basis at work.

  4. I might have bought a Mac unless there was this trivial matter of money. 😦
    It is not my first Linux experience tonight but this certainly is something else. I used those MS-DOS PC’s from mid 1980’ies but now it feels as I was only starting to learn how to compute.

  5. I think, Ubuntu Linux is a good choice. But for me, it is not enough. It depends on your needs.

    Okay, your priority is to buy a better monitor. I have done some research in the last few weeks to buy a new monitor for myself. Because I watch a lot of DVDs on my computer, I think about a widescreen monitor. I think, the Hanns.G HW191DP could be a good decision. But at the moment I am not sure. I have to think about that. What kind of monitor do you want to buy? I don’t want to spend more than 200 €.

    80 GB for a hard disk, I think that is okay. I have a 200 GB hard disk (the capacity is in the reality only 189 GB). Only 32 GB are used. It depends on your needs. I don’t need such a big capacity. Maybe in the future, but not now.

    But if you have more RAM, the speed of your computer increases. It is more fun. Okay, you have your priorities, I understand that. Buy yourself a good monitor.

  6. It is just logical that the monitor would be the next step because as from today it is the only item on my computer desk from the last century. It would therefore be the most likely devise to crash next. I am not going to invest much in it. It would be sort of funny to have a monitor that would cost more than the computer. 😉 All I want is a “telly” that would bare with me a few years.

    The local devise is of very little importance for me as all my files are in servers and I use web based tools to access and edit them. I do not even use the regular text editor very often. Image editing may occur occasionally but mostly I just upload text and use my e-mail client (which is why I was particulary glad to be able to return to Opera).This may of course change in future. I am only starting to realize the potential of Linux.

    A couple of weeks ago I transfered about 400 megabytes of files from a server in Finland to another one in Estonia. With any Windows tool that I know of, I would have had to download the stuff to my computer and then upload again which would have been a very slow and work intensive operation. Now I just logged in with SSH in terminal to the Finnish server and from there with FTP to the Estonian server and I could transfere the files direct. The speed of my local web connection would have been the slowest point of the chain without that direct connection.

  7. As for a monitor, I might have one to suit your needs, an LG-flatscreen, 17″, which at the moment lies around unused at my office. Price is highly negotiable since I’m not able to cash out much with it in any case. If interested, please email me for details (in case you dont have my email-address somewhere, use the contact form at my site)

  8. Thanks for the offer, Vesa. I may very well take you on it. 😉
    I am a Gmail user, remember? As such I never loose an address. 🙂

  9. ok fine, we’ll get back to this

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  13. It turns out that a licensing agreement with Microsoft forces Acer to a) either ship with Windows pre-installed, or b) ship without a *real* operating system. Now I bought a Travelmate with Linpus Linux, so, it was option b), and yes, it isn’t even a full version of Linpus, which one must download and pay for. It is a mere “boot” operating system. IN fact, I was able to look at the command history: Before shipping the computer, they erased lots of the commands, and man pages. They erased all of X11, for example.
    It should be possible to leave the drivers and eliminate the commands and re-compile (cross-compile) a bunch of Fedora Linux commands and get a full OS with all the Linpus drivers. But I accidentally trashed the wrong directory system one day, and so….
    Eventually I gave up and just installed Fedora, then NetBSD.

    • Until one day, on the WiFi in a hotel lobby in Cuba, while working, there was this young guy pontificatin loudly—-to his mother—about how Linux was so old, no one used it anymore, so I accidentally trashed the NetBSD command directory. My backup install CD didn’t work, and I forgot about the emergency backup-directory of commands, and rebooted the computer….and had to use the install CD of FreeBSD I had brought along. So now the Travelmate is a dual boot machine: Fedora and FreeBSD. Works fine.

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