The $1000 HP desktop tower running Windows Vista

When visiting a cultural capital like Washington, D.C., some folks like to visit museums, the theater, and the opera and concert halls.  I headed straight for BestBuy to help a friend dig herself out of the sluggish hell of a 6-year-old Dell PC with 500 MB of RAM trying to run Windows XP.  The old machine also has a failed USB subsystem and a bad CD burner.

Unable to wait for a custom configured machine, we were limited to what BestBuy stocks.  We wanted to reuse her old monitor and it turns out that very few of the systems at BestBuy have DVI output.  Nearly all consumers are being sold computers with analog VGA monitor outputs!  One machine that BestBuy did have was a $1000 HP desktop (no monitor).

My friend said “this is going to be a nightmare; I’ve heard such bad things about Windows Vista; maybe I should switch to Apple?”  I confidently assured her that we would have the machine up and running within 20 minutes.

This top-of-the-line HP includes a keyboard and mouse with the old PS/2 connectors that I hadn’t seen for 10 years.  I plugged them in.  I connected the machine to the monitor and mains voltage and powered up.  After answering a few questions about time zone and language the machine displayed some crystalline graphics and then a soothing uniform blue screen with an error message about “IRQ” and some discussion about dumping core.

I repeated this process a few more times, each time getting farther along before the machined blue-screened.  It finally booted and I was able to connect a network cable and open up a Web browser. No Internet connection.

I called HP for technical support.  The telephone support voice menus helpfully explained that Pavilion PCs were not eligible for phone support.  You had to use the Web to get support via email or chat.  This would be a challenge for someone whose new computer wouldn’t boot.  After about 20 minutes I got through to a human.  They would make an exception for me.  The guy told me to type some stuff at the CMD line.  Blue screen of death again.  The guy explained to me how to do a system restore from the boot options, then hung up because he said it would take a long time.  It sure did.  The first attempt at a system restore got stuck at 47%.  The next one hung at 31%.  The third attempt resulted in a blue screen and core dump.

Apparently the old Haiku can be updated.

Windows Vista crashed.

I am the blue screen of death.

No one hears your screams.

39 Comments

  1. J. Peterson

    January 30, 2008 @ 5:30 am

    1

    I find HP machines particularly evil. It’s one thing to have a Chinese mobo running Redmond’s finest. But HP seems insistent they must “improve” Windows by adding their own unique crap to it. I spent a couple hours debugging a relative’s laptop because the “HP Wifi manager” was consistently shutting Wifi off. Deleting all the HP software and using the standard controls built into Windows solved the problem. I’ve had similar experiences with an HP “Applications Manager” that did little but hang or crash the machine. The Windows Explorer is fine, thank you.

    For all their faults, Microsoft puts at least some effort into testing their software and getting it to work on the vast array of configurations it might run on. HP would be well advised to accept this and leave well enough alone.

  2. Daniel Taylor

    January 30, 2008 @ 10:18 am

    2

    You should have let her buy a Mac.

    Once you remove all the junk HP dumps on a machine, it runs fine. But in the case of a HP with Vista that would include removing Vista.

    While we’re on that topic, does she have a XP CD from her old Dell? I bet you could get that running fairly quickly, and that it would scream by comparison. (In the good way.)

    Or, take the thing back and get a Mac mini with…DVI.

  3. Michael J.

    January 30, 2008 @ 10:31 am

    3

    Not sure why you’re so anti-Mac when for most users it would be a much smoother experience. Not a panacea, but that level of crap is pretty rare (though non-zero).

  4. Rick Leavett

    January 30, 2008 @ 11:11 am

    4

    Although I do think you’d be much less likely to face this problem with a mac, and Apple has been much better about keeping their displays and computers inter-operable, Apple is also extremely stingy with their customer support by phone. You have to shell out lots more money for eCare…so maybe your advice wasn’t that bad after all.

  5. tghfbt

    January 30, 2008 @ 1:09 pm

    5

    Philip,

    Mac is the best intel hardware to run Vista or XP.

  6. tony

    January 30, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    6

    Had the same experiences with HP. I usually spend several hours just uninstalling all the crap that they put in it. I am seriously considering going Mac myself…especially with the bootcamp allowing you to run windows anyway. Vista sucks.

  7. Anonymous

    January 30, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

    7

    That sounds like bad hardware. Probably bad memory or power supply.

  8. Mark

    January 30, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

    8

    ” I’ve heard such bad things about Windows Vista; maybe I should switch to Apple?”

    Your friend has good instincts.

    My wife needed to do some autocad work at home. Autocad is not available on the Mac (yet?) so we decided we would try one of the virtualization packages; vmware fusion in this case. I, like your friend, was wary of Vista, but it installed like a dream and hasn’t even hinted at a problem. So although I don’t particularly like it, it hasn’t been a disaster.

  9. C.Brehmer

    January 30, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

    9

    After years of trying to convince my family to switch to Mac. I finally succeeded, one at a time, each new switcher becoming a cheerleader to beckon the others along. You should have listened to your friend. What is the value of time wasted?

  10. Chris Adams

    January 30, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

    10

    I’m sure you thought about it but … you really should have gotten the Mac. Even if you aren’t planning to run OS X at all it’s better than having to deal with the bundled crap, buggy installers and frequently dodgy hardware decisions which HP, Dell, et al persist in subjecting their customers to.

  11. Bala

    January 30, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

    11

    I agree. HP adds all this unnecessary ‘software’ to the boxes they build that renders the new computers sluggish and useless at times.

    I am surprised an Apple was not your choice/recommendation.

  12. Paul Hoffman

    January 30, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

    12

    Return it. HP has proven (yet again) that “the HP Way” was replaced by “the Compaq way” which means crappy hardware support and even crappier tech support.

    If you buy an Apple system that is this bad, at least you get helpful support.

  13. Michael

    January 30, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

    13

    So did you finally let her buy an Apple? I think this calls into question your matchmaking skills more than anything else. ;)
    (See your previous post)

  14. Sean

    January 30, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

    14

    I had the same problem with my new Dell, but it’s hardware, not software that’s to blame. Buying a Mac would’ve in no way prevented this from happening.

    (Because I bought an XPS, I get real tech support. They are sending me a replacement computer as I type this.)

  15. George

    January 31, 2008 @ 10:45 am

    15

    My father was buying a new computer and asked me (and my brothers) for advice. In a rare showing of unanimity, we told him he could buy any computer he wanted, but if it wasn’t a Mac, we weren’t giving him any tech support. (Even my Windows-using brother said this.)

    He bought a Mac. Now he doesn’t *need* any tech support.

  16. philg

    January 31, 2008 @ 10:48 am

    16

    I returned the system to Best Buy (a painful process that would have taken hours on a busy weekend day) and she reverted to her ancient Dell. When she receives documents from people using Macintoshes, she cannot open them. If she had a Macintosh, she would be sending documents to her professional colleagues (all Windows users) and they would not be able to open them. She has some software that is Windows-only. I don’t think that she is tech-savvy enough to be part of the 2% minority.

    Just today I had to use an FAA Web application (IACRA) that is Windows/MSIE-only (one of my students is ready for a checkride). They replaced a paper form that took about 20 minutes to fill out with a clumsy Web app that most people need to use three or four times before they can succeed. In theory a Macintosh user can still use the paper form, but it throws a monkey wrench into the system and significantly delays the time until the final pilot’s certificate is issued.

  17. anono-mouse

    January 31, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

    17

    –buy an Intel Mac

    –buy (or obtain) a copy of Vista or, better yet, XP.

    –install a nice clean, unadulterated copy of Windows on the Mac under bootcamp, thereby having the option of booting either OS

    –This one machine will allow you to experiment with document interoperability between Win and OS-X versions of Word, Excel or whatever. You’ll probably find that the problems you report occur when the documents originate on older, non-Intel, Macs.

    The only issue I have found with Windows on a Mac platform is that the laptops only have a single button mouse, requiring either an external pointing device, or remembering key combinations for the mouse.

  18. Mountain_Dewd

    January 31, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

    18

    Now that you both are over the need to have it today, go to MacMall and order a new Apple. You can get it configured with Parallels (awesome virtualization package) and your choice of Windows operating system (XP or Vista) already pre-installed.

    They’ve taken the pain out of it. Parallels has the ability to allow you to right click on a file and choose any program you want to open it with. The list will include Windows and Mac programs that are installed on your computer, it doesn’t care. You wouldn’t be able to tell you are running a Windows program from within OS X. The only reason to have a Windows only machine to run a Windows only program is if the program is extremely graphics and CPU intensive like a high end game. A Mac with Parallels is the way to go. Just a couple of years ago I used Virtual PC to run Windows programs on my Mac. That sucked, but it was the best thing at the time. It’s amazing how much better virtualization is now. It’s ready for the real world.

  19. Jim Howard

    January 31, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

    19

    I’ve bought a lot of HPs for my business. If you order as a ‘small business’ you get computers that are not loaded up with crapware.

    I’ve had nothing but disaster with any PC bought in a retail store from any manufacture.

  20. Darin Marinov

    January 31, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

    20

    I purchased the same (from what I understand from the description) HP desktop from Best Buy in Los Angeles. The sales clerk did say that the system is full of junk software and suggested I pay $125 (or somthing like that) to the Geek Squad, which was on site, to remove it. I did, and in an hour I had my computer clean and ready to go. I also assumed that if there were any issues with the machine the Geek Squad guys will see them and I will save myself the whole bad experience of finding them out and returning the merchandise.

    Since Best Buy owns Geek Squad (as far as I know), I wonder if they somehow “encourage” their customers to use Geek Squad for those clean up and other services.

  21. d.w.

    January 31, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

    21

    No offense, Darin, but paying someone $125 to remove crapware from a machine I just bought strikes me as little better than extortion. What a sad state consumer-grade Windows PCs have reached.

  22. David Eddy

    February 1, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

    22

    re: document conversions to/from Win/Mac

    I’ve been using Mac since 1990. Went straight from MS-DOS 5 to Mac.

    Sending from Mac to Windows:

    (a) “printing” to pdf is built into the Mac OS. So instead of printing to paper, you print to a pdf file. Then email the pdf file. Much nicer when you don’t want someone tampering with your work. (It’s my understanding that Windows users must buy the Acrobat “distiller” if they want to generate pdf files…?)

    (b) I’ve been emailing a lot of MSWord 2004 (from Mac to what I assume are primarily Windows recipients) documents recently & so far no one has complained on the receiving end.

    Receiving from Windows:

    An exceedingly useful utility/file conversion tool is DataViz’s MacLinkPlus
    http://www.dataviz.com/purchase/buy/maclinkplus/mlp_order_pg1.html

    The list of file conversions is way too lengthy to list… Wordperfect, Lotus, Windows 97, 2000, XP, 2003, just to mention a few.

  23. Anthony

    February 1, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

    23

    I would just load Ubuntu on her old PC and buy one of those PCI USB 2.0 cards you can get for about $10

    Either that or pickup one of those eee pcs. Very nice.

  24. ColoZ

    February 1, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

    24

    IACRA is one of the most boneheaded software projects the federal government has come up with — it’s up there with grants.gov. I took my checkride over two years ago and was amazed at the idiotic Windows+MSIE requirement. This is a web app, folks! I can’t believe it’s still not been improved.

  25. philg

    February 2, 2008 @ 1:31 am

    25

    Folks: sending a collaborator a PDF is not a very practical way of working together since most people don’t have software capable of editing PDFs.

  26. Daniel Taylor

    February 2, 2008 @ 3:57 am

    26

    What are people sending her from Macs that she can’t open? And what does she send out? I’m curious to know because sharing files normally isn’t a problem.

    It may be rare, but it is a major pain for a Mac user when a web site requires Windows and IE. I’ll grant that. But even if she spends a lot of time in Windows, it’s not bad advice to still buy a Mac and run Windows in a virtual machine. (Boot Camp is useless. You end up just running one or the other. Who wants to reboot to launch a program for the other side??

  27. Salaam

    February 2, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

    27

    I just helped two close ones get new computers, and I must say that I succumbed and told them to buy the additional warranty. I bought a Vista laptop a year ago, without additional warranty, and it’s fine, fingers crossed. The laptop my cousin bought a few months later and took overseas is dead.

    My laptop’s terribly slow, so someone suggested Ubuntu as above. I was almost there, but there’s some software I use – keyboard mapping software- that’s not quite yet stable on Linux, I gather. Once it is, off to Ubuntu with the laptop.

    Desktop – I’m not sure. No Photoshop, etc. on Ubuntu. Seems to me that dual boot, Parallels, or something of the sort is necessary to deal with Windows-only headaches.

    Anyway, we’re better off now that we were three or so years ago, when PC’s came preconfigured only with anti-virus software, but not with firewalls and anti-spyware software.

  28. Jagadeesh Venugopal

    February 2, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

    28

    Let me offer a different experience:

    I purchased a Compaq Presario 756NR laptop from BestBuy recently. It came with Windows Vista Home Premium preinstalled on it. Its an AMD Turion dual core with 2GB RAM.

    The machine has performed flawlessly from day one. Of course, I haven’t installed anything major on the system other than Firefox and Thunderbird, but still, there was never an issue with the system. Response is pretty snappy and the high falutin’ graphics work well too.

    Now one may ask what I got with Windows Vista that I didn’t get with XP. I don’t know. It all looks the same to me (all I run is Firefox/Thunderbird/OpenOffice/MS Word/Quicken) except for a lot more eye candy. But then again, I did not pay any more for Vista over XP. It came with the machine.

    One irritant for me is that they didn’t supply any recovery disks, but instead created a recovery partition. I will have to burn the DVDs myself with the recovery software. They could have spent the extra dollar or so and supplied the DVDs with the laptop.

  29. Eric

    February 2, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

    29

    “When she receives documents from people using Macintoshes, she cannot open them. If she had a Macintosh, she would be sending documents to her professional colleagues (all Windows users) and they would not be able to open them.”

    Just wanted to clear up that this hasn’t been an issue for 15+ years (if it still were, there wouldn’t be a business in my industry able to run properly, as they’re nearly all Mac/PC hybrid networks, and get along with nearly complete compatibility) — there’s almost certainly something else wrong with the Dell if this is the case. All the major document-oriented software available on both platforms (including MS Office) use the exact same file formats.

    Speaking as someone who uses both platforms every day, get her the Mac. Now that you can run Windows apps directly in the OS (see Parallels), there’s no reason to put up with HP’s crap.

  30. Rener

    February 2, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

    30

    I’m the only Mac/OS X user in a multi-national company running Windows 2000/XP (and a couple of new Vista machines) on the desktops. Because of my work, I have to interoperate with every department in almost all formats, including Office docs.

    I’ve NEVER had a problem with being unable to open files or sending files people have had problems opening.

    With Office docs, I use Office 2004 (waiting for my upgrade to 2008!), or use Office 2007 via Parallels (which, ironically, if you don’t save in 2003 file format, can create file-compatibility problems all its own).

    Parallels also allows me to run IE 6 and IE 7 for sites that require it (and, again, ironically the cross-compatibility between IE 6 and 7 is something as bad as IE vs. Firefox, Opera, Safari, etc.)

    Any problems with compatibility are user-side and can be easily fixed by a little knowledge and proper habits. However, problems with bad HP hardware and 3rd party Vista support are entirely out of your hands, and (as you well discovered) can be far faster “game enders”.

    Let your friend get a Mac if she wants one, and let her go to the Apple store where they’ll show her how to quickly, easily, enjoy the computing experience again.

  31. KW

    February 2, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

    31

    While I agree there are some advantages to going the Apple way it’s not always the best option. Buying a mac then having to by a copy of XP or Vista to run the Win only software you need is obviosuly an extra expense that many people can’t or don’t want to incur.

    And the truth is the quality of Apple’s hardware is really no better ( or worse ) than HP,Dell ect. We’ve had two mac’s with serious hardware problems that occurred in under two years ( both machines with failed logic boards and one with two logic board failures) and getting service was neither easy nor cheap. Apple quality is not what it used to be so I would never buy another Mac without the Applecare which can be pretty expensive (almost $400 for a MacBook Pro).

    Apple has great software but average (at best) hardware and service…

  32. Mo

    February 2, 2008 @ 5:50 pm

    32

    @anono-mouse:

    On all Intel-based Mac laptops, right-click is a tap on the touchpad with both fingers—as far as I know, Boot Camp’s drivers support this in Windows. No external mouse or clever software to fudge control-click support required.

  33. Marc Salzberg

    February 2, 2008 @ 8:55 pm

    33

    Often the reason people with Windows machines can’t open Mac files is the lack of an extension.

    You have to make sure that someone sending a Word document from a Mac includes a .doc extension, or an .xls extension for an Excel spreadsheet. Without the extension, Windows doesn’t know which application to open the file with.

  34. MarkG

    February 2, 2008 @ 11:23 pm

    34

    Sorry for the length of this post but I’ve tried to include all the hints your friend might need so as to make choosing between a new Mac or a PC easier.

    Regarding file conversion, users with the older (now obsolete) “Classic” operating system, Mac OS 9 or earlier, would often not be aware that Windows users expect and need 3 letter file name suffixes to identify the file type, so as to automatically associate the file with a program on thier computer and open it. (Since this was not a Mac convention until Mac OS X).

    On Windows, when your friend receives an unknown file type she should just try renaming it with the most likely 3 letter filename extension for the program she is hoping will open it e.g. .doc for Word etc. Most often this will work. She could also ask her contacts using older Macs to name thier files this way before emailing them or use a file conversion utility like the one mentioned in a post above.

    Here is a useful reference (to send to your friend to look up file type codes) obtained by doing a simple Google search: http://www.fileinfo.net/common.php

    If she uses MS Office she should have no problems sending files to other Office uses whether she is on Windows or Mac provided that the recipient is using a recent enough version of Office to recognise the file type. (Such as Office 98 onwards).

    The suggestion to use pdf is fine if the intention is that the recipient does NOT edit the document. Sending email attachments from Mac OS X using the Mail program is usually safe for Windows recipients if the user checks the “Send Windows Friendly Attachments” checkbox in the “Open” window when selecting the file to attach. This preference can also be found in Mail by going to Edit > Attachments > Always Send Windows Friendly Attachments.

    Email between Macs and PCs should not be a problem if she can follow the guidelines above. The main problem she will have on a Mac will be using older websites that are not written to work with anything but Win IE.

    (Some of which are banking sites. In such a case she could write to the bank informing them that because their online banking enforces the use of a Microsoft based computer she is going to change banks to support competition).

    The best way to have Win IE for such an event is to run it in Win XP in a virtual environment such as Parallels or Fusion on her new Intel Mac. Even a cheap Intel Mac mini (with enough 3rd party RAM on board) will run Windows XP well and output to DVI. A used or near new 2GHz 2GB mini on Ebay will be under $600 and will retain a fair share of its value when it comes time to upgrade later. This is a common way to try Mac OS X before commiting to a major investment.

    Some people link their new Mac with their old PC peripherals via a KVM (Keyboard, Video, Mouse) switch for the period while they are working between both computers and wish to share the same peripherals between them. Macs will work with nearly all USB PC mice and natively support 2 buttons without extra drivers. To use more than 2 buttons you will need to get the Mac drivers from the mouse manufacturer.

    When using a Mac for the first time your friend may need to adapt to the key combinations used. The most important changes are “Command” (the Apple key) replaces “Control” in Windows key combinations, “Option” = “Alt”, and “Control” click is the equivalent of a “Right” click. “Shift” is still shift and “Tab” is still tab and “Command-Tab” = “Alt-Tab”.

    With a half hour invested in learning these adaptations you friend can then freely choose her new computer based on what works best for her.

  35. Lisa

    February 2, 2008 @ 11:57 pm

    35

    Re: document compatblity… it’s the mac user’s fault, they forgot to click the box that says “send windows friendly attachments”.

    I have a few macs and working for one of the one of the wintel manufacturers at work I have to use their computers. I send my self word and excel docs from home and it all works fine both from the mac to pc and vice versa.

  36. philg

    February 3, 2008 @ 2:28 am

    36

    Daniel: I’m not sure what people send her that she can’t open, but I know that she is never going to be an expert user of any operating system (nor should any normal person want to be!). Folks in other comments have suggested that she get a Macintosh and then discipline herself to include file extensions explicitly when sending attachments. I wouldn’t expect her to retrain herself in this manner. Nor would I expect her to be able to remember commands in two operating systems simultaneously (her laptop is a fully functional Windows XP machine). Most of her computer support comes from friends who drop by her house. None of these people, including myself, know how to use a Macintosh. All of them know how to do basic sysadmin/network admin on Windows.

  37. Daniel Taylor

    February 3, 2008 @ 3:51 am

    37

    I do see your points. If she has another XP machine and her friends can’t help her with Mac OS, Windows probably makes sense.

    Honestly? I would try installing XP (Vista will be as foreign to her as a Mac) and if that didn’t work the first time, return the thing and help her get another brand. I admire your patience. I probably would have returned the thing about mid way through your experience.

    I guess it’s true that no good deed goes unpunished :-)

  38. John

    February 3, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

    38

    Phil, I think you’re missing what a few people are alluding to: buy a Mac and then run Windows–and *only* windows–on it. IOW, use a Mac as if it’s a PC. (I have a friend who is doing this right now with a Mac mini purchased for his Windows-using wife.) Booting and running Windows on a Mac is supported by Apple. They provide the drivers and everything. You’d only need a little help with the initial setup, after which it’d behave just like a Windows PC…only it’d have no crapware, no PS/2 ports, a DVI port, a USB mouse and keyboard, etc. :) (Yes, you’d have to buy a separate copy of Windows, but “OEM” copies can be had for less than $100. It’s well worth the money.)

  39. Barry

    February 12, 2008 @ 11:33 am

    39

    BTW, some companies are still selling computers with Windows XP installed – Dell and Lenovo, at the least. I bought a Lenovo laptop with Windows XP pro. It came with a dead battery, and the various codes and SN’s on the computer and battery were written with small font, black letters on medium-gray background, making them almost impossible to read. However, after an hour on the phone we figured it out, and they shipped me a working battery.

    Another vote for a Mac.

    With Bootcamp and Parallels, it soundsl like only niche issues are left (I’m still one of them, wanting to run SAS). Certain things, like an FAA stupidity requiring IE, are work-arounds which you could do from another computer. That’d cost you the odd hour, but it’s clear that you can have many hours sucked out of your soul by non-working PC’s, so you’re probably better off.

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