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On Windows and hardware support

I have blogged before about my part-time job as an external support technician for small businesses and people with near to no computer skills to be able to deal with their systems. Actually, this encompasses almost all of my posts related to Windows since, while I have used it for development and test a few times, I definitely don’t enjoy using it, or even keeping it around at all.

While, as I said, I don’t enjoy using Windows at all, it is true that I have my own licenses of it; yes plural. One I bought for various kind of work, and was a pre-ordered Windows 7 Ultimate license (which I paid less than half what the running price in Italy was, thanks Amazon); the other was given to me with the infamous Dell laptop — getting Ubuntu instead of Windows on that laptop wasn’t a choice from the website, and the call-centre would have given me a sloppier laptop for a 20% extra of price, the “cost” of the license was negative then; not nice, but a fact of life.

The Ultimate license is tied to an installation within a virtual machine (alas, also paid for), while the other is on the laptop itself, mostly because I need(ed) it to update the system’s BIOS and the smartcard reader’s firmware. From time to time I feel enough energy to half-waste my time with it and look if Dell released some new update — I still hope in something that can make the fingerprint reader speak a standardish protocol that some Linux software can make use of. Last time I did that, a number of drivers were updated and I wanted to get them all at once; Dell allows you to use some software of theirs to do so, but it only works with Internet Explorer or Firefox, not Chrome (which is my browser of choice nowadays). Oh well.

As usual for BTO computers, the Dell page provides a few options for drivers that aren’t really present on the unit itself; contrarily with my experience with other vendors (more on that in a moment), Dell only provided a few, and all that they provided was a “not there” option, rather than a “one out of many” option. All in all, it wasn’t as painful as other rebuilds I ran.

On the other hand, yesterday I picked up an HP laptop, not for a job but for a friend of mine, or rather for my friend’s mother. It’s a pretty recent laptop, it’s as powerful as my own Dell (same CPU, much bigger hard disk, ATI graphics card — this is the only thing I envy of that laptop), and came with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit preinstalled. Unfortunately, since it was bought, a number of problems came up.

The one reason why I was asked to look at it was that they were unable to install Windows Live Messenger on that system. I wouldn’t have minded suggesting use of Pidgin – I did convert a number of friends to that, and thanks to GTalk & Facebook a few have totally abandoned the Microsoft messenger network – the problem came down to be quite more complex: Windows Update just didn’t want to work. At a first glance the system seemed to be infected by some virus of sorts.

Interestingly enough, they didn’t call me first; I was actually the third choice; the HP tech support was called first, and they insisted that a recovery (nicer word for “format and reinstall”) was needed; a local shop tech was called as well, he insisted on installing a number of other software on the box, including Nero and the Kaspersky antivirus, but didn’t solve the problem, suggesting instead a downgrade to XP (which is silly nowadays, as much as you might find yourself more comfortable with that, running XP in 2010 on a 64-bit capable multicore machine is asking for trouble).

Anyway, I agreed with the HP techs that a recovery was needed, and took the laptop home for backing it up before install, but not before asking whether they or the techs created the recovery media.

While Dell provided me with old school DVDs with the operating system and the drivers, HP ships their laptop with a recovery partition on the disk, and some tools to eventually create recovery media. When I first tried to get a Linux-running laptop rather than the MacBook Pro I was using since 2005 or so, I got a Compaq cheap-o laptop with Vista, so I knew the drill: the recovery media was either in a silly number of CDs or in two DVDs, it could be created once only, as afterwards the software stopped providing the option. Of course nothing stopped me at the time from making a copy of the two DVDs in form of ISOs and burning another pair of them — still wondering who in which department of HP came up with such a backwards idea.

Funnily enough, the techs didn’t create a recovery media set because “there’s the partition, that’s better”, which is a lame excuse for “couldn’t be arsed” — not only the partition can be infected because it’s accessible by the standard operating system, but also you cannot rely on it if your harddrive melts and you have it replaced. As you might have guessed already, HP sells the recovery media themselves. Okay, I doublecheck that the software still allows me to proceed and yep; that means that the techs are really being incompetent and not malicious.

I bring the laptop home, and first thing first I start up a SysRescueCD USB key to check for viruses — I’m not sure, maybe SysRescueCD upstream is reading what I write, or my mind, since they added the iSCSI Enterprise Target package in their latest releases, which allows me to export the partitions as a whole to read with the virtual machine (much faster and more reliable than using ntfs-3g and Samba). In a situation that I really don’t like, the scan leads to no virus identified, at all, with an up-to-date definitions database. Oh well, it’s backup time by now.

After this is also done, I try to build the recovery media; HP gotta be kidding me because this time the options are an unknown (to me) number of CDs or six DVDs. Yes, 6, 4.7GB disks, over 25GB of recovery, sheesh! They sure bundle a lot of software in their recovery. I struggle to find as many empty DVDs at home (I haven’t bought any in years, and no, you cannot use a DVD-RW, copy the ISO and blank it again, they disallow DVD-RW media, as well as dual-layer DVDs), and try using those. To my surprise, it refused to write to them, at all. Okay, I supposed that whatever messed with the system enough to disable Windows Update could have disabled the DVD writer as well, so I decide to try again after the recovery; I ran the recovery from the partition.

Interesting fact: HP allows you to execute either a full manufacturer recovery or a minimal recovery; the latter should be pretty much vanilla, so I chose that. After the install, hell itself came to me. First of all, “minimal” doesn’t really mean vanilla; HP still install their recovery manager (of course), all the drivers and some Windows updates. But that’s bearable.

The bad part started to show itself when Windows Update still wasn’t working; and the same went for the recovery manager, it failed to write to the DVDs. Trying to debug the issue, I noticed two even more upsetting problems: the first was trying to change the network location classification from Public to Work, which threw up a UAC window claiming that “an unknown program” tried to change the system configuration (the Control Panel is an unknown program now?); the second was the Event Viewer applet being totally f♥♥ked up: UAC complained that mmc.exe wasn’t signed (what?), and it didn’t show any message of any kind at all.

Cursing HP loudly, plan B was the only choice. I got a Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit DVD and decided to install a clean, vanilla copy of Windows, and deal with the drivers’ mess later. This actually worked pretty well up to now. The only inconvenience is that Windows refused to active itself online, with the original HP product key, requiring me to call the automatic phone service (which is no longer toll-free calling from cellphones; but it was still better than typing 54 – fifty-four – numbers by hand).

It was definitely funny, though, to note the difference between Dell and HP: the former has the product’s labels visible underneath the laptop, and the Windows license sticker hidden underneath the battery; the latter has it swapped, with the license visible, and all the product’s information requiring the removal of the battery to be read.

Anyway, while the system was installing first and updating afterwards (I don’t think I’d ever expected myself to rejoice so much seeing Windows Update working!) I got the model number and went to look for the drivers on HP’s support page. And then I remembered why I hated working with HP laptops this much.

The page for the exact product name is showing me drivers for the Intel Turbo Boost technology (not supported by this laptop), both ATI and Intel graphics card (it only has the ATI), a driver for Realtek card reader (which doesn’t seem to be present?), two Bluetooth drivers (of which at least one doesn’t work!) and three wireless adapter drivers (Broadcom, Atheros and Intel). Interestingly enough, Windows 7 already detects both the wired and wireless network cards upon install; their drivers, as well as the Synaptic touchpad drivers, all of which are present in the product’s driver page (after you have already chosen Windows 7 as operating system) are downloaded through Windows Update and need not to be installed through the HP packages at all.

At the end of the day I downloaded 117MB of bad (unused) drivers, and 288MB of unneeded or obsolete drivers (including a 200MB worth of ATI drivers, where the original Catalyst is 70MB in size).

I have to say that even though not everything work as it is, my Dell has shown a much friendlier approach both in terms of user experience with Windows, and friendliness in configuration, so in this, I really can’t blame them. I’m just afraid this won’t be the last HP laptop I’ll have to work on.

Comments 3
  1. In my experience, Windows update no longer working is not necessarily a virus (though that recovery did not work makes it likely).If any part of the Windows update database is even slightly corrupted, it will just stop working with basically random error numbers you won’t find any useful information on.With Vista they seem to have done something especially idiotic, since there’s even a special tool that tries to repair things to a working state.On my only Vista install updates started working again partially after that (but I don’t really care anyway, I don’t really use it).The fact that it is impossible to get useful information on the error numbers and Microsoft itself is unable to fix it into a working state after it broke is quite scary to me though, with Debian in the many years of use I at most had to delete a broken file (which apt really should offer to do on its own if it can recreate the information anyway).

  2. Had you tried to delete (or just rename) the SoftwareDistribution folder within the Windows folder and run Windows Update again?That has always worked for me, from XP through 7.(You need to disable the Automatic Updates service before messing with that folder)

  3. The first time around, there was so much crap that reinstalling was still the quickest way around the problem; the second tiem around there wasn’t anything around with Windows Update to mess with.The only problem I could expect to produce at least part of these results, from what I googled around, is if the certificate storage was messed up and Windows didn’t recognise Microsoft’s own signature.

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