Friday, November 11th, 2005
9:42 pm - I've Got Acute Windows XP Paranoia Blues...  
So, I've wiped out and reinstalled Windows XP on Suzily three times now, and I'm going to have to do it at least once more. This isn't the first time I've done something like this. Knowing how finicky Windows can be, I tend to obsess about at least getting the initial install just right so that I won't have to come back and brain wipe the machine for a good long time. I've done a number of XP installs on machines at work, and I've gotten so I can usually get it exactly the way I want it on the very first attempt. Granted, all those installs are actually reinstalls of Windows XP Pro on a Dell computer, so they rarely vary much. This time, though, it's different. The machine seems to have come back wrong.

This all started out innocently enough. I was actually pretty satisfied with the first real install I'd done. There were a couple of differences between it and all the installs I'd done at work, but nothing that appeared major, at least initially. The main one was that instead of having me log in as administrator the first time it booted, XP popped up a screen asked me to provide it with a list of user names. (The test install I'd done with a Dell disk also asked for user names.) Confused, I tried to just hit "next,", but it insisted that I type in at least one name, so I did. I was a bit worried at first, because I don't see the point in forcing the owner of a machine to have users in addition to the administrator if only the owner is going to use the machine. However, when I took a list at the list of users in the control panel, only the name I specified showed up, and it had administrator privileges, so I assumed that XP had merely renamed the administrator's account.

Other than that, the install went swimmingly. I installed all the hardware specific drivers, updated XP to SP2, and started loading apps. Firefox and Thunderbird were no problem. I'd installed what had been the main hard drive in the old incarnation as the slave drive in Suzily, so it was easy to move all the settings files over to their proper locations in the Documents and Settings folder prior to installing the apps. Voila, all my bookmarks and accounts were ready to go. The only mishap was it turns out you should delete all the previously installed extensions and (especially) themes when you move the settings over. Trust me.

Next up was Office 97, and things didn't work quite as well. XP wouldn't properly install the service packs, and without the service packs Excel, Word, and Access crash. A lot. I've seen this problem before, but this time my workaround, er, didn't. Fortunately, I still had my old patched version on the slave drive, so I just overwrote the new install with that. Works like a charm. All that needs to be done is to first install Office 97 from disk, then grab the "Office" folder from the "Program Files\Microsoft Office" folder of a patched (SP2) version of the program, drag it into the new installation's "Program Files\Microsoft Office" folder, and Bob's your uncle. Access still gives me some bizarre looking errors, but they don't affect anything, and don't crash the program. I was satisfied with the state of the machine. I used it Saturday and Sunday, and everything was jake.

Then things went to hell. I needed to look at an old e-mail in my AOL files, so I copied the files over, and tried to launch AOL. Now, I've been using the same version of AOL (4.0) since 1996 or so. A lot of the following upgrades were legendary in the ways the frelled with machines. The old version worked fine. I didn't even have to install it. I just had to transfer the files, and make a shortcut to aol.exe. Until now, that is. When I tried to launch it this time, I got a nasty message saying that XP couldn't guarantee that such old, decrepit software would work properly, and strongly recommended that I install a newer version. That was when I made my big mistake. I followed the recommendation, and installed AOL 9.0 (Security Edition).

Now, there were other reasons for upgrading. I don't use AOL that often, only for some mail accounts, and I'm on the cheapest plan they have ($5/month). I'm loathe to ditch it because I've been a member since back when I had my C-64, and it was still called Quantum Link. There are also some features that AOL 4.0 just can't access. I hadn't heard of any really nasty incompatibilities with the OS since version 6.0 or so, so I decided what the hell, I'll give it a shot. What's the worst that could happen?

Maybe getting hit by twenty simultaneous virus/spyware infestations would qualify as worse, but I'm not so sure. All I know is that it installed a ton of unnecessary stuff without giving me the option to reject it. And then it wouldn't even recognize my old files, which was the whole point of the exercise in the first place. It was then that I tried what I should've done in the first place. I set the compatibility option for AOL 4.0 to Windows 95, and tried launching it again. I got the same warning message, but I clicked through it, and whaddaya know. It worked. Bozhe moi!

I tried uninstalling the newer version. The uninstall routine sucks. I was left with bits and pieces of it all over the system. Also, the uninstall routine had said it was removing files that it didn't think I needed, but wasn't totally sure, as they were shared dlls. At that point I figured that since I hadn't gone very far installing apps, it would probably be a helluva lot easier just to start over again.

There was just one thing. I'd already activated XP, so if I reinstalled, I'd have to activate it again, which since I'd already used up my one activation meant that I'd have to actually call and explain myself to Microsoft. Fortunately, I found a method of transferring the activation key, as long as it was going to be used on the same machine. So, I copied the required files over to the slave drive, and set to work starting from scratch again.

Again, it was easy, and about an hour after starting, I was ready to transfer the activation key. To do that, you have to start the machine in safe mode, which I did. When I got to the welcome screen, I was surprised to see that not only was the account XP had me name there, but also the actual administrator's account. Apparently, XP decided that I wasn't worthy to even know it existed under normal circumstances. It explained a glitch I'd noticed when I tried sorting the start menu. It didn't sort properly because it was sorting the programs registered to the administrator separately. The user account XP created had administrator's privileges, but couldn't see the administrator's files. Since a lot of programs (like Office) default to installing under the administrator's application data, I'd never be able to see them, either. How the frell is someone supposed to manage a machine like this? I don't understand what was causing this. None of the machines at work ever behaved like this.

[Okay, did a little research and figured it out. The screen where you specify user names is part of the network setup wizard. I've been telling the install routine to automatically setup the network, something I never do at work, which is why I'd never seen it before. Next time I'll do it manually. Still doesn't explain why they don't let you skip past the wizard. I mean, I was perfectly happy with the default networking settings.]

[After a couple of failed attempts to get around it, and doing even more research, and that's not it at all. It's part of the standard XP setup routine that Dell must skip.]

The other thing that was strange was that the machine had started making funny noises. I first noticed it as I was transferring a bunch files from the slave drive. There was a very satisfied sigh-like hum coming through the speakers that matched the movement of the on-screen file moving animation. Resizing a window produced the same. Just moving the mouse over the menu options in Firefox did it. Figuring I must've screwed up the audio drivers, I went back to square one.

Another reinstall did nothing to help the sound situation. I chanced upon an anecdote talking about how a powerful video card could interfere with an on-board audio system, producing the kind of noise I was hearing. Certainly it was tird to what was happening on the screen. I tried experimenting both the video drivers and settings, but that did nothing. Reinstalled again. The noise didn't happen until after I installed the drivers for the video card. I found a post that suggested that hyperthreading in the CPU is the problem, and that it should be disabled. Tried that. Didn't work.

Finally, I remembered that my buddy, Alex, had the same brand card, and also remembered that he'd had driver problems, so I called to see if he'd seen something similar. Nope, but he did remind me that I probably ought to try it all again with the very latest drivers for everything, from the BIOS to video. It was certainly advice I've given other people, so while we were talking about other stuff, I searched out the latest versions of all the drivers and downloaded them to the slave drive.

So, that's what's next. Another reinstall, this time with all the very latest drivers. I've already flashed the BIOS chip with latest version of the BIOS. Tomorrow morning I do the rest. The weirdest part of all of this is that I didn't notice any of the sound stuff the first time around. I'm not sure if it's because it wasn't there, or because I was just completely oblivious.

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