Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Comedy of Errors

This is one long, tragic story.

I own a Pavillion m7480n multimedia PC, which I purchased around April of 2006. I purchased it at CompUSA, in an emergency, because I was in the middle of a serious project deadline and my personal computer at home died in a violent, flaming blaze of glory. I needed a computer fast. One that was fast, with a lot of memory and disk space. I had a limited budget, but wanted one that was going to last, and suited my needs as a software developer and a gaming enthusiast. The Pavillion multimedia PC seemed like a good choice at the time, and it has been, up until quite recently.

I keep a clean machine, in an effort to get the best performance out of it. I removed all the additional games and Norton Internet Security once the OS was installed. Believe me, these HP machines come with a lot of junk. Norton Internet Security has got to be one of the biggest pieces of junk in the galaxy. We're talking about a piece of software that reduces a 3GHz processor equipped with 2GB of RAM to a crawl. Combine that with the fact that the machine ships with about 30 games, two personal finance packages (both MS Money and Quicken), a trial version of Microsoft Office, tons of media software, extra theming software, and all kinds of excess crap to give you the oohs and ahhs, and you've turned what should be a screaming machine into a clay tablet and a stylus. And let's not forget that HP ships with its own updating software, which is highly intrusive.

They also don't provide you with recovery discs, or original Windows discs. You have to create your own recovery CDs off of a hidden partition on the hard disk, and even that doesn't create genuine Windows CDs for you. If you perform a recovery from those CDs, you get the whole shebang or nothing. Which means removing the whole assortment of useless and system-degrading software all over again. Out of the box, the machine has well in excess of 40 processes running, and the mouse often stutters as you drag it across the screen.

Needless to say, I do a lot of cleanup when I first get a machine. I remove the software I don't use. Especially tons of little kiddie games. Personal financial software goes, internet service offers, Office trials, Quicken & Money go, and the dreaded Norton Internet Insecurity. Once it's cleaned, I shut down non-essential services, and defragment the hard disk, making sure it's clean. I keep a clean, fast machine. By the time I'm done, I'll have, on average, somewhere around 27 to 30 processes running, very low memory consumption, and a blazingly fast machine. Which is what one would expect. I sit behind a hardware firewall, and keep the machine clean of viruses, adware, and spyware as well. Regular maintenance on the machine keeps it in tip-top shape.

Everything was going fine, and the machine was a gem for about 6 months. One morning, I was browsing the Internet, reading the news, as is my normal habit, and everything was peachy. When I came home that night, I moved the mouse, and suddenly the machine froze.

The behavior was peculiar. You could move the mouse, and the selection rectangle would appear, but it would not respond to mouse clicks. In addition, it wouldn't respond to keyboard input. I rebooted the machine, and everything came up just fine. But after about 30 minutes of use, it happened again. Reboot and it happened again, after about 10 minutes. Reboot and it happened again, about 5 minutes later. You get the picture.

Eventually, it got to where the machine would lock within minutes or seconds of full system startup. Once Windows was loaded, the system would freeze. I could bring up the Task Manager and see the processes list; you could watch as the CPU cycles for each process and their memory consumption remained active right up until the keyboard and mouse "went dead." The CPU consumption and memory usage just froze.

Now, obviously the USB port hadn't died--the mouse was still working. Swapped it out to prove it. And the CPU was working just fine. The system works beautifully in safe mode, with a USB keyboard and mouse. I even swapped in a PS/2 mouse and keyboard, and the same issue occurred. Something else was happening.

I was fairly stumped. Being a software professional with 20 years experience, that was fairly hard to admit. So, in an act of total humility, I packaged it up and lugged it to CompUSA, where I had purchased the machine. I had paid for the warranty, so I figured I might as well let someone else wrack their brains over it. It was probably something simple, anyway, and I was just overlooking it. So I explained what I had done, what I knew, and gave them my number, telling them to call me if they needed any further information.

What a mistake that was. After telling me it would take three days, they held the machine for three weeks. I never got a call. I had to call them and ask them about the status and whereabouts of my machine. At one point, a week into the ordeal, they said it was in process, and should be ready in a day or so. Obviously, that didn't turn out to be true. When they finally called to tell me it was ready, the technician told me that my problem was that I was running too many processes.

You can imagine my immediate reaction. I told him, not so subtly, that he was blowing air out of his ass. There was no possible way that that was the problem. It was running the same number of processes that it had been running since I had originally configured the machine 6 months earlier. No new applications had been installed. That could not possibly have been the problem. He argued with me about it for twenty minutes. Finally, I told him that he should just pack up the machine and I would take it to the Geek Squad for a second opinion, and I'd get my money back from CompUSA since they had not resolved the issue. He said, "Well you can take it there, but I used to work there, and they'll tell you the same thing."

Personally, I was relieved he didn't work there anymore. It bolstered my confidence in getting a more intelligent response from Geek Squad.

Unfortunately, I never got to take it to Geek Squad. The situation got worse when I arrived at CompUSA. I contacted the store manager and explained the situation to him, and told him why I wanted my money back. Naturally, the store manager has no technical savvy whatsoever. So he brought in the manager of the technical repairs department. And he grabbed the kid that had "repaired" my machine. They asked the kid to explain what he had done.

This kid had the audacity to speak to me like I was an idiot. He began his diatribe by trying to explain to me the difference between hardware and software--badly. He spoke slowly, softly, like I was a four year old, and he was trying to explain why you don't touch a hot burner on the stove. I stopped him immediately and disabused him of the notion that I had no technical knowledge.

I explained to him that I know the difference between a hardware interrupt and a software interrupt. Then I asked him a series of questions. Did you scan the hard disk for errors? Is it properly defragmented? Did you perform memory diagnostics? Are all the interrupts working properly? Did you check for hardware conflicts? Did you perform a virus scan? Is it free of spyware and adware? Did you ensure that all the device drivers were up to date? To each question, he nodded slowly and answered, "Yeah."

Then, he explained to me that the machine worked fine in safe mode and that they concluded that it was not a hardware problem. That was fine. I could accept that. But then, to my utter horror, he said that they had performed a system restore from the hidden recovery partition on my machine.

"You did a what?"

He went on a rapid speech then about why they did it and that restoring the system seemed to have solved the problem. He claimed it was a nondestructive restore. I was flabbergasted. I told them to bring the machine out, set it up, and show me. They did so, and when it booted, you could see all the original software reinstalled, and the applications that I used for work were no longer installed. I asked them to bring up task manager, and count the number of running processes. It was, of course higher than the number that had previously been running. More importantly, I noticed that the additional user accounts that had been on the machine were gone, and so was their data!

"You lost my data."

They insisted it was still there. I was irate at this point. I wanted to know why no one had called me to ask any questions. They'd had my number for the full three weeks, and no one had called me to ask any questions before they'd taken this catastrophic step. The kid stammered for a second before I looked at him and said, "Look, I'm in software development, and I have to be in constant contact with my customer to do my job. How can you do your job without calling the customer? You had my number for three weeks. Why didn't you call me before you made this kind of a decision?" He couldn't answer the question.

Then I asked him if he had bothered to check the graphics driver before he did the restore. I reminded him that in safe mode, Windows uses a default, safe 640x480 graphics driver--not the 3rd party driver that you may have installed. He sidestepped the question, but I was so ticked off now that I grilled him. "Did you check the graphics driver or not?" He sidestepped three or four times before I made him answer it. "Just answer the question. Did you check that before you wiped my machine or not? It's a yes or no question." He finally admitted that he did not check the graphics driver to see if it was causing the problem. "So there it is. You didn't do your job. You erased my hard disk, lost my data, and didn't solve this problem. I can guarantee you that it will reoccur. I want my money back."

The store manager disagreed, believing that they had solved the problem. He settled for half the fee back. I counted my losses at that point, because I was ready to do violence. I packed up the machine, and left.

(I immediately went down the street to Best Buy and picked up a new laptop for $1300 bucks. I've sworn off of CompUSA. Their arrogance, lack of thoroughness, and the way they handled that whole ordeal has led me to boycott them. I've always had bad experiences with them in the past, but this was simply the last straw. It's sad that they happen to be the only place you can buy Apple computers in my neck of the woods.)

Two days later, the problem came back.

I restored the system again, hoping it might solve the problem. I wasn't sure at this point if they'd done a full restore or not. This time, I wanted to be sure. Within days, it reoccurred.

So there I was, sitting at home with a machine that didn't work. In the meanwhile, I borrowed a laptop from the office so I could continue to work from home, and used it to research the issue. I couldn't find anyone on the Internet reporting a similar issue. Frustrated, I described the problem to the CIO and IT tech at work. Their first guess had been a bad USB controller; that was obviously not the problem. All the USB devices worked fine in safe mode. So they invited me to bring in the machine and let them take a look at it.

At first, the were boggled by the problem itself. They'd never seen anything like it. I described the problem to them again to refresh their memory, then explained how they could get the task manager up and watch the processes freeze. Sure enough, there it was. The mouse cursor would move, and the selection rectangle would sometimes appear, but you couldn't click on anything, and the system didn't respond to the keyboard. The only thing you could do was reset it via the power button. (And I abhor shutting the machine down that way.)

They looked at it for a day and a half. Finally, using MSCONFIG and process of elimination, they were able to pin down the culprit: Windows Update. Essentially, they disabled every service and startup program, and then rebooted the machine. Then they brought each one online, and waited to see if the problem would reappear. It only reappeared if you turned on Windows Update. And it reappeared every time you turned on Windows Update.

Well, that fairly sucked.

I need Windows Update. I have to be able to get critical security updates for the system. So I had to do something. We created the recovery CDs, and embarked on a plan. We were going to fully reinstall the system, and see if it worked.

On the way home, I go another brainy idea. What if I replaced Windows XP Media Center Edition with Windows XP Professional? After all, I don't need all that extra multimedia stuff. I would remove the multimedia components from the box, and install XP Pro on it. Then I'd have a clean install, without all the crap that ships on the recovery CDs. And it should work. My theory is that the problem is with something that's shipping on those Recovery CDs, or something that HP Update is pushing onto the machines, and breaking Windows Update. Ultimately, Windows Update has to work. 

So I stopped by Staples, forked over $300 bucks for a Windows XP box, and went home to set up the machine.

To my chagrin, the software won't accept the product keys when I run Setup from inside the existing Windows session. Bummer. I call Microsoft, they get me a new CD key, and those don't work either. I call Microsoft back. Apparently, I have to boot from the CD to install, because even if you specify full installation, Windows will treat it as an upgrade if you launch Setup from within an existing Windows session, and you cannot upgrade Media Center Edition to Professional Edition. (Apparently, that would be a downgrade, which is why the keys are invalid.)

So I try to run Setup from the disk, booting the machine from the CD. Lo and behold--XP needs SATA RAID drivers. I don't have them, and HP won't provide them for use with Windows XP Pro. Isn't that nice? Further, when you install 3rd party RAID drivers in Windows XP, it expects to get them from a floppy drive. I don't know if Microsoft has noticed lately, but computers these days don't have floppy disk drives. My mom's machine has one, but that's only because it's a number of years old, and we slapped it in because we had one on hand and wanted to close an open slot on the front of her machine that was letting dust into the chassis. (And no, I didn't have a bay cover on hand.) The Microsoft tech support guy on the line had the nerve to tell me to buy one.

"You're telling me I have to buy additonal hardware to install your operating system?"

"Well, no."

"That's good. Because this machine doesn't have anywhere to put one. Now how the heck am I supposed to install a RAID driver on this machine?"

So Microsoft decides that the answer is to bring in HP in a 3-way conference call. So they put me on perpetual hold, and finally connect HP. Just as HP is answering the line, my wireless provider (you know, the most reliable wireless network in the country) drops the call. I chalk it up, and wait for Microsoft to call me back. They took my number. They'll do that. Right?

Foolish me.

So I call them back. I get someone else. Back to square one. They reach the same conclusion. Back on perpetual hold. Get the HP individual on the line this time. I actually hear voices! Yay, a possible resolution is coming. Verizon drops the call again. Now I'm getting ticked. It's midnight, and that's twice. I wait again. No return call from Microsoft.

I call them back. I give the case number again. This time I explain in detail that the customer support individual could do a lot of good if he would have called me back. Now I'm upset, and have to spend another half-hour going through the whole thing again, even though it's supposedly all logged in the case file. And you never get the same tech support guy. Never. Ever. But I make it clear that I know it's not his fault, because he's not the guy who didn't call me back. So he goes through the same process, dial up HP, and starts the conference. Again, call dropped. Three times. And does he call me back? Hell no.

Note to Microsoft: If you want to provide better customer service, listen to your customers. Wireless companies drop calls. Call the customer back if they suddenly disappear from the line. We didn't wait all that time in line, trying to get our problem resolved, and then just hang up on you. Especially if we've been really polite and helpful. Call us back. What you guys did to me last night, three times in a row, was shameful, and only irritated me to the point where I wanted to curse you up and down. Your customer service department needs a serious upbraiding for that type of behavior. You guys are supposed to pride yourself on excellent customer care. How long does it take to call the customer back and find out if the call was dropped? Now you have to deal with bad PR. And I'm not doing this because I'm ticked. I'm just saying it was something you could have done better, and should be doing better. Making us call back into the queue wastes our time, makes us angry and short-tempered, and makes for a really tough experience for your customer support folks. I know that the phone support folks I talk to really don't like to deal with irate customers. Being proactive about things as simple as this can save you time and money, since it will reduce the stress for both the customer and your phone support personnel. Isn't that worth it?

At this point, I'm fed up with dropped calls. I swap out one of the DVD drives with a 300GB Maxtor drive I've got sitting around, and boot off of the Windows CD. Works like a charm. Setup installs Windows onto the machine and it's screaming. Only problem: I have a couple of devices that Windows can't identify:

  • Ethernet Controller
  • PCI Controller
  • RAID Controller
  • Unknown Device

So I log onto the HP Support site and explain my problem in a chat site. The tech support person there is very helpful and provides me the links to the drivers I need. Apparently,these devices are integrated into the motherboard, and upgrading the motherboard drivers will automatically install the appropriate drivers. So I download the drivers on my laptop, burn a CD, upload them onto the PC, and then install them.

No dice.

The devices are still not identified. I've figured out that the unknown device must be my sound card, since there's no sound on the machine, and there's no audio device in the Sounds control panel.

I contact HP support again. I explain the problem to them, letting them know that the motherboard device drivers didn't work. Suddenly I'm getting a different story. Now, according to HP, you can't install XP Pro on a Pavillion m7480n. Or, rather, you're not allowed to. What you're getting, when you buy this machine, is an OEM version of Windows XP Media Center Edition--it's been modified for their machine. They won't support any other version of Windows on it, and that's why you can't find the CDs for it or the individual device drivers. They want to ship me a new set of recovery CDs. I reiterate that re-running the Recovery CDs will not solve my original problem. Windows Update will continue to make the system freeze. They say, repeatedly, that they are certain that it will fix the problem. I am laughing inside, and bashing my head against the desk.

How thick-headed can you be? I have described the problem to you repeatedly. I have told you the steps that were taken. Reinstalling from the recovery CDs does not resolve the issue. The system is now quite stable under XP Pro, except for the simple fact that I can't hit the Internet. And now you want me to return the machine to its previous unstable state? How can you ask me to do that?

So, here I am. I have a $300 copy of Windows XP Pro, and I can't connect to the Internet. Other than that, the machine is screaming. I can't get Windows to identify the Ethernet controller or the RAID controller, so this big-ass hard disk in the machine is just useless. And I've got no sound.

So what have I learned?

  1. Never buy a prebuilt machine again. I'll build my own in the future.
  2. Never buy from CompUSA again.
  3. Never, ever trust your computer to the technical support staff at a computer store. They will make potentially catastrophic decisions about your computer without consulting you, and once those decisions are made, you have little or no recourse. I lost the notes for a novel I've been working on for twenty years. Thank God for backups. But I did lose the last six months of revisions. (Shame on me.)
  4. Don't use a cell-phone to conduct technical support calls. Use a land-line, or use a chat service. Chat services are better, because some of them will send you the transcript via email.
  5. Don't expect technical support staff to call you back, even though they take your number. That's largely just lip-service to give you a warm and fuzzy feeling.

And what am I doing now?

The only thing I can reasonably do. I'm actually going to try reinstalling, one more time, from those damned recovery CDs. Eventually, something has to give. Even if it means forking over more money for an extended warranty and shipping the whole kit and kaboodle back to HP for service.

It just amazes me that I have to go through all this crap in the first place. It's been a serious comedy of errors. 

Addendum: Reapplying the OS from the recovery CDs worked. I'm writing this blog update from the freshly repaired machine. But I made it a point to not apply any of the HP updates, since I suspect that one of their automatic updates is what hosed the machine. I'll only install critical updates from Microsoft in the future. So far, it's running nice and fast.

But I'm still waiting nervously for something to go wrong. Call me a skeptic.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

Yeah, nice machine. I just received my m7480n back from warranty service today. I sent it in because any hard drive activity causes any audio/video output (WMC, WMP, iTunes, YouTube, Quicktime, etc.) to be choppy and skip. Repair tag in the box said they swapped the DVD drive to "fix" it. Back on hold with HP support again.