I spend a fair amount of my time helping many people with their personal computers (mostly laptops, but desktops as well). A friend of ours noted that I had my own Computer Ministry a while ago. Lois liked the term and printed T-Shirts labeled Pastor Pedhazur, with the names of many in my flock. 🙂
Among the many people I help are our cul-de-sac neighbors (I support the mom, dad and teenage daughter) with whom we’ve been good friends for 18+ years.
The Dad’s current laptop is a Dell E1405. It’s a nice small-to-midsize laptop running XP. When he bought it, it came with 1GB of RAM (two 512MB sticks) and an 80GB disk (with only 55GB of usable space, we’ll get to why in a bit).
It ran well for a while, but started giving him a bunch of trouble when his teenage daughter used it a few times (possibly before she got her own Dell for Christmas, or possibly because it was simply more convenient one day for whatever reason). Being a teenager, she visited sites she shouldn’t have, installed stuff (wittingly or otherwise), and the machine was infected with a number of viruses and spyware programs.
I used to fix their machines in their house, and chat with them while I was working away. There were many days (mostly on weekends) where I’d be there for upwards of five hours. I didn’t mind, because (like I said above), we’re good friends. But, I tend to play poker mostly on weekends now, so when they have a problem, I tend to pick up their machines (or they drop them off) and I work on them in my house.
So, a month ago I picked up his machine and spent the day cleaning off all of the viruses. That went reasonably smoothly. I also deleted the daughter’s account (with their permission), now that she definitely has her own full-time laptop (yes, I previously had to clean hers as well, but she’s kept it pretty clean since then).
Even though the cleansing went well, I noticed the dreaded BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) a number of times. In fact, I could provoke it at will (if waiting a full hour each time counts as at will). It felt like a bad memory chip, since it failed in the same way every time, but I couldn’t be sure.
I have a dozen or so utility CDs which I can boot off that have various tools on them to help me with my ministry. I pulled out one that had a variety of memory tests, booted from it, and let it run for a few hours. No joy, I couldn’t provoke any failures. Then I pulled one of the RAM chips out, and ran the one-hour program, and indeed, it still failed.
I then swapped the memory chips, and reran the program, and it ran to completion. I also moved that chip to the secondary slot, and it continued to work, so it appeared that neither slot was bad either! Aha, had to be a bad RAM chip, right? Perhaps, we’ll find out in a minute or two… 😉
As an aside, Dell puts the second slot under the keyboard, and the machinations you have to go through to get to that slot are nerve-wracking and unwieldy. Of course, now that I’ve swapped chips for him numerous times, I’m a daredevil at doing it and can swap the chips in my sleep… 🙂
He could have run on 512MB, but that’s not a lot of headroom for Windows XP. Instead, the next day, we ordered two 1GB modules. The following weekend I took the machine again, and put in the memory modules. I reran the long program, and it failed at the one hour mark, again… 🙁
I pulled one chip, reran the program, and it worked, so it appeared that perhaps one of the slots was bad (or flaky), but at least he was back to 1GB of memory, not a total loss. I returned the machine to him.
A week later, I called to ask how it was running. Sheepishly, he admitted that it was crashing a ton, but that it came back each time (in fact, it auto-rebooted), and he was limping along, able to check his email, etc., but not really use the machine for extended periods. Clearly, he felt badly imposing, but I felt badly that he didn’t!
We were leaving for VA that day, so I told him I’d check it out when we returned, which was a few days ago.
My plan was to reinstall Windows XP from scratch to be sure that it wasn’t a deep software corruption on his system. If a fresh install still showed regular crashes, then he had to have some kind of hardware problem.
I picked up the machine on Friday morning. I have a number of ways that I back machines up (mine and others) depending on the situation. For ultra-safety and complete backups, I tend to use a commercial program called EZ Gig II (it’s a custom Linux distro with some sort of packaging of a dd-like program, though not exactly that). The program came with an external disk drive kit that I bought a while ago, and I’ve been very satisfied with it. There are many free programs that accomplish the same thing.
However, I didn’t want to use that program for this task, because it creates a blob that can’t access individual files. You can restore the entire disk to another partition, but not copy over one file that you just forgot you’d need, etc. Still, I wanted a full backup, and I didn’t want to just copy all of the files.
I pulled out another of my trusty utility disks. This one is the BartPE CD, an excellent collection of Windows utilities on a bootable CD. The advantage of this over a Linux bootable CD is that you are really running Windows, so all disk activity is virtually guaranteed to work with NTFS filesystems, including writing. Don’t flame me, Linux has gotten really good at this too (with NTFS-3g in particular), and I do use it, reliably, but BartPE comes with a specific utility which I really wanted to use for this specific task!
That utility is DriveImage XML. This is very cool software, that works exactly as advertised. There are two reasons why I use EZ Gig II more frequently than this. EZ Gig is way faster and EZ Gig will allow me to store multiple images of the same drive on the same target (backup) drive. DriveImage XML is slower, and doesn’t let me name the backups, so it’s less flexible.
That said, it has a feature that makes it way better than EZ Gig for the task I needed, which is that it stores a map of the data it backed up in a separate XML file, and every file (or directory, etc.) can be restored (or rather extracted) separately.
So, I booted the Bart PE CD and ran DriveImage XML and backed up the drive to an external hard drive. I was now ready to reinstall Windows XP. For years, no one has been better than these folks at keeping every bit of stuff that came with any PC they purchased. It took them 30 seconds to find the original CDs and manual.
But, I mentioned above that the disk had 55 usable GB on it. That’s because it had a hidden restore partition on it as well. I found the key combination to boot off of it from the manual (actually, the online manual at Dell’s site, since it was easier to search that). When I booted the machine, I pressed Ctrl-F11 and was presented with the Recovery Menu.
I chose a full reinstall. The machine chugged along, and a litte bit later, it was like new from the factory (bloatware too), including Microsoft Office which they had paid for separately. Cool.
I immediately deleted all of the bloatware and proceeded to bring the system back up-to-date with Windows Update. Here, I made a very critical error! Early on, I allowed Windows XP SP3 to be installed by Windows Update. While it completed correctly, after it was installed, other critical updates could not proceed (including updates to IE 7). I’m guessing that the system was simply in an inconsistent state.
I was tempted to start all over, and reinstall XP from the recovery partition again. Then I decided to try something I’ve been aware of, but have never attempted. I picked a Restore Point from the Help and Support menu in Windows, and picked the restore point that was automatically set before SP3 was installed. In effect, I was rolling back the SP3 install.
That worked, and I was left with only one program that I had previously deleted to delete again. I then forced a new save, so that I could roll back again (without needing to delete this extra program), just in case.
I then performed all of the updates in XP, each time skipping SP3. Only when SP3 was the only update left did I allow it to install. Perfect. I then ran the program that always provoked the memory error (this time with 2GB of RAM back in the sytem!). It ran flawlessly. I did a bunch of other things, and never got the BSOD! Joy!
So, it turns out that it was indeed a deep software problem, and reinstalling Windows fixed it. He’s now got a very nice sytem, with a nice memory upgrade, clean of anyone elses stuff (family and malware included).
After getting it running, I put in the Bart PE CD again (this time not booting from it, just inserting it while logged in), and ran DriveImage XML again. I was able to pull over all of his files (Documents, Settings, etc.) and check what programs were installed as well.
He’s up and running now and I returned the machine to him yesterday afternoon. I had the machine in my possession for roughly 26 hours, but it was side-by-side with mine, and I worked on Friday, played poker on Saturday, etc., without losing a beat on my own stuff. Pretty good result all around! 🙂