Vista Hosed Thanks to Linksys WMP300N

A wireless card should never do this to a computer.

Vista hosed due to Linksys WMP300N

Furthermore, it shouldn’t mess a computer up so badly that even Windows repair or System Restore can’t fix it. But that’s exactly what a recently-purchased Linksys WMP300N wireless card did. In fact my desktop’s Vista installation is so far gone, I have no other choice than to perform a complete re-install. I’m using my laptop currently – I’ll get around to reinstalling Vista when the new computer parts I ordered get here, but that’s another story. (Remember the downsizing post a while ago?)

Following Linksys’ recommendation, I downloaded and installed the Windows Vista driver from their website and proceeded to install it before plugging in the wireless card. At the appropriate prompt, I shut down my desktop and installed the card. Attaching the three-wire antenna was painful enough – the plugs are the screw-type and are placed so closely together that only child fingers could easily screw them on easily. That was the easy part.

Booting the computer back up, I was greeted with the Windows is installing new hardware dialog, which I assumed was the correct behavior. A few moments later, the device drivers were correctly installed. Unfortunately, at this point, explorer.exe locked up. Furthermore, attempts to ctrl+alt+del led to the entire desktop background to fade, in Vista’s “I’m no longer responding to your actions” manner. With a completely frozen system, I had no choice but to push the reset button.  What a bad idea that was.

Long story short, my registry is corrupt and System Restore wasn’t able to complete. Meanwhile, I have a non-bootable machine, thanks to this Linksys WMP300N wireless card. Reading around on the web, I can see that I’m not the only one running into problems with this card on Windows Vista. Linksys, don’t plaster a Windows Vista compatible sticker on the box if it has this many problems! I don’t know how you even managed to get those Vista drivers approved. Where is your QA department? Seriously, I was happy I got a good deal on the card, but it was definitely not worth the pain I’ll have to go through to fix my computer.

Recommendation? Don’t buy the WMP300N if you’re running Windows Vista. Not until Linksys gets its act together in any case.

What Not To Buy in 2007?

According to Mr. Ulanoff of PC Magazine, to avoid buying yourself a lemon of a ‘present’ this holiday season, you just need to follow his tips. But in reality, the things you shouldn’t buy are the points in this article. Here are some snippets from the recently published article that elicited a few chuckles from me. Let’s start if off with his advice for desktops.

Don’t buy: Any PC with integrated graphics.
I promise you that you’ll rue the day you saved $200 but did not opt for an nVidia or (ATI) AMD graphics CPU with discrete graphics memory. I contend that discrete graphics capability will speed up your gaming, browsing and video-viewing pleasure.

I contend that discrete graphics will not speed up browsing, and for most people, will not increase video-viewing pleasure. There’s a reason why the majority of computers still ship with integrated graphics – because most people need nothing more. Not everyone plays games. And if the article is to be taken at face value, integrated graphics will somehow decrease browsing and video-viewing pleasure – it won’t (short of 1080P video, but then you’ll probably be watching that through Blu-Ray/HD-DVD on your HDTV…).

Maybe buy: A mini PC.
The Apple Mini and HP Slimline are cute and fit in tight spaces, and though they don’t offer all the power I’d want, they have more than enough to satisfy most midrange users. If you’re ready for a PC in the living room, don’t want to spend more for a full-blown media center and hate the idea of a BTX-style case next to your 50-inch plasma, mini PCs could offer the perfect solution.

Funny how this follows immediately after the above do-not-buy-integrated-graphics rant, since almost all mini PCs (and ironically enough, the two named ones) are outfitted with integrated graphics. I’m also not quite certain what he means by a BTX-style case? BTX is a motherboard form factor… Alright, moving onto laptop advice.

Don’t buy: A sub-$500 laptop.
I came across a deal for a Dell Vostro for under $400. That seems like a real bargain until you try to visit a flash-driven Web site, view online video, or play even the simplest PC-based game on one.

Again, more misinformation. I don’t know whether the author actually tried this ‘$400 Vostro’, but I can assure you, it will have no problem with a flash-driven Web site, viewing online videos, or playing Solitaire (probably the simplest PC-based game?). Of course, what’s more likely the case is that he hasn’t used this $400 laptop and is just making stuff up. Just as cheap doesn’t automatically mean bad, expensive also doesn’t automatically equate to good. Don’t buy something more expensive because it is more expensive. That’s just dumb.

Maybe buy: A $400 One Laptop per Child PC (part of the “Give One Get One” program).
Yes, I know this contradicts my first point, but if your child or grandmother can live with what is essentially a toy PC, you’ll be doing a mitzvah for an underprivileged child who could never afford a PC.

If you’re in a giving mood, I think you’re better off making a nice $400 cheque out to UNICEF or another charity of your choosing. I’ll let PC Mag’s own article do all the counter-arguing that is necessary. In short form – a laptop for the internet is not terribly useful in a place where there is no Wi-Fi, no internet connection, and no schools. Plus, are you seriously going to saddle your kid or grandmother with this thing?

Do buy: Any laptop with a widescreen.
Standard 4:3 aspect ratios are yesterday’s news, and not just because it’s hard to play widescreen video on them. A widescreen gives you more screen real estate, so you can run e-mail and the AOL Instant Messenger window next to each other without hiding anything on either interface.

I’m going to nitpick, just because this guy deserves it. A 19″ 4:3 LCD typically has a native resolution of 1280×1024 while widescreen versions are 1440×900. Both yield nearly the same number of pixels; in fact the 4:3 display has slightly more. Still, he makes a good point. Widescreen monitors are a better suited for multitasking, presumably emailing and chatting at the same time (wow).

Next up, Digital Media Players.

Don’t buy: PC-less players.
These players from Haier and Slacker sound cool—there’s no PC required and music streams directly from a Wi-Fi connection—but the reality is that they’re not ready for prime time. The more content you put on Haier’s arguably innovative new player, the slower it gets. Plus, though Slacker (which works with Internet Radio stations) will work with open Wi-Fi networks, it pulls music onto the hard drive for off-line playback. So how is that so different than what you do with an iPod classic?

No PC required, but you can still use a PC with them. The more music you put on it, the slower it gets? Where did he get that from? Of course Wi-fi is going to be slower than playing straight off the hard drive, but did he forget that the Haier still has a 30GB drive for music?

Do buy: An iPod touch.
The most lust-worthy digital music player ever made simply has no equal.

He’s right – almost no other player of that capacity (8GB and 16GB) is that expensive ($299 and $399 respectively). Lust-worthy? Sure. But then I’d rather converge it all in an iPhone if the interface if what you’re after.

Don’t buy: A digital camera with less than 5 megapixels.
The deals on 7-megapixel-and-above cameras are simply too good. Obviously, 4 megapixels will print decent 4-by-5-inch photos, but 8-by-11-inch and larger images (yes, you may someday print larger ones) need more resolution. Plus you can’t zoom into detail on a 4MP image the way you can an 8MP one. You’ll be surprised at what you see when you look closely enough. (“See, Honey? I was wearing my wedding ring on that business trip.”)

It’s this sort of mentality that started the megapixel race between the digital camera makers. The result is cramming millions more pixels into the same (or smaller) sized sensors. Consequently, picture quality in point-and-shoots for the most part hasn’t gone much of anywhere over the last little while. I bet the 5MP 2/3″ sensor of my Sony F717 (from almost 5 years ago) beats the pants off 98% of the point-and-shoots today. Zooming to 100% of many of the high resolution photos taken with anything other than the lowest ISO presents a nasty mess of noise and/or noise reduction.

Don’t buy: Linux.
The world’s cheapest operating system is the darling of every do-it-yourselfer and the potential bane of every cheapskate user. You’ll save money and, I bet, lose your mind if you switch to Linux. Note to DIYers: This advice is intended for middle-of-the-road tech consumers. You, with the screwdriver in your hand, please feel free to download as many copies of Ubuntu as you want.

Even with the included post-script at the end of this ‘tip’, it’s sure to get a bunch of you Linux enthusiasts’ panties in a wad. I mean even I was a little irked at the comment. I mean, who buys Linux in the first place? 😉

Do buy: A new PC.
You won’t know how slow you’re going until you bring home a brand-new PC that’s pumped full of high-end graphics, bottomless storage, and loads of RAM. If you skimp on any of these areas, you’ll be sorry. It may not be today or tomorrow, but it’ll happen someday and likely continue for another three years, until your next PC purchase.

Again – not everyone is a video gaming, HD video-watching, multitasking geek. Average families, spend half the amount this author wants you to and still be able to do all the things you wanted, without the ‘high-end graphics, bottomless storage, and loads of RAM‘.

Well, that’s it for now. Remember, this holiday season, don’t buy into the ‘What to Buy for Christmas’ lists, but even more so, don’t buy into the ‘What Not To Buy’ lists. Thanks for reading.

Ongoing Dell Battery Situation

I’ve decided while I’m on the phone, I’m going to do a bit of live-blogging. I’ve recently run into some issues with my 6 cell battery for the XPS M1330 – it has around 15% of battery wear after only 3 months of use – two of those months were of light use. I’ve probably discharged the battery a total of 20-30 times. I’ll be trying to get a replacement.

9:35pm – I call the only technical support number listed in the Dell Canada Support site: 1-800-847-4096.

~10:00pm – I’m connected with a gentleman in the technical support team and provide my information, only to find out that I’m in the wrong department. I’m supposed to be talking with the XPS support department. I get the direct line to the XPS department for future reference, but wouldn’t it be nice of Dell to update their support site with the XPS support number instead of having me wait 25 minutes to be told that? Oh, for your info, the Dell XPS support line is 1-866-398-8977. I’m also told that it’ll be about a minute.

10:32pm – Still waiting. Music’s been looping for a while now.

10:47pm – Finally get connected and relay my information.

10:48pm – I tell the technician about the battery problem – a full charge is only up to ~85% of the design capacity in three months. Unfortunately, he insists since the Dell battery health meter is showing ‘normal’, he can’t do anything about it. First tip: redesign your battery meter to incorporate some sort of time and use relativity – 15% loss over 2 years of use may be fine, but 15% wear over 3 months of relatively light use is excessive. Obviously my explanation that the battery going from 20% charge down to 6% charge instantly, skipping everything in between isn’t enough. Nor is the full charge capacity number versus the design capacity number.

10:53pm – I ask for a transfer to someone with a bit more knowledge and someone who can help me with my problem. I’m being transferred. On hold again.

11:00pm – Okay, I thought I was being transferred, but the guy came back on the line and told me he’s just transferring me now.

11:11pm – While waiting, here’s an interesting technical support idea. Have two tiers, one for the normal user and another one for more knowledgeable and technically-oriented users. Have a few ‘skill-testing’ questions to make sure the caller does know his stuff if he requests the advanced line. It would save a lot of grief, skipping all the scripted lines. I mean I’m practically doing their work for them by having pre-diagnosed the issue.

11:20pm – I get another technician. Oh wait, it isn’t. It’s the same one as before. I can’t fucking believe this. I explicitly ask for supervisor this time. I didn’t think I’d need to state that explicitly. If he couldn’t help me, what makes him think the guy sitting next to him could…?

11:29pm – I get the same tech back again because the queue for the supervisor is very busy, but luckily, he consulted the supervisor and offered me a replacement battery. Case closed.

The whole experience was close to a nightmare, interspersed with some sad comedy – for example being transferred back to the same person. Oh well.

Dell XPS M1330 Fiasco

Delays? Check.
Canceled orders? Check.
Lack of communication? Double check.

Unlike wine, the problems with the Dell XPS M1330 order process only seems to get worse with time. Forgetting the completely inaccurate estimated delivery times set out by the customer sales representatives at the time of purchase and delays in certain parts of the world that have pushed back ship dates by a month, numerous people are now finding their orders canceled. The lucky ones have been notified and their orders re-placed – others have had no notification and their orders were not reinstated. This is not how Dell should be treating their paying customers.

I’ve been in contact with a Senior Manager at Dell corporate (Round Rock) who I’ve been feeding information and thoughts from various online communities. One of my major suggestions to him was to get someone in a knowledgeable position at Dell to visit these communities and post responses to popular questions and concerns regarding the new line of Dell laptops. Issues range from the delays and misinformation about the Dell XPS M1330 ship dates to improperly advertised NVIDIA 8600M GT video cards to poor quality control of the new Inspiron laptop line (grainy LCDs and noise from the headphone jack). Nothing on that front has materialized and the discussion on Dell has turned overwhelmingly negative in recent weeks. Product and service are tied together and despite a relatively good product launch, service since then has been abysmal.

Dell’s corporate blog, Direct2Dell has also been silent on the XPS M1330 issue since the last update a week ago (Edit: They’re now updated the blog, more at the end of this post), which crushed expectations. Although updates were promised, nothing new has been written since July 13th. Now, I don’t know how Dell’s internal communication system works, but one week should be more than enough time to find out some information about the status of a flagship product. If it’s not, then there are some serious issues at Dell, far more severe than the delay of one product. I honestly hope that this is not the case.

So why the silence, Dell? Is Dell harboring the mentality that nothing should be said until there’s something good to say? At this point, I think I’d rather the truth, thank you very much. If there are serious issues, I’d like to know about them and adjust my purchasing plan accordingly, instead of hanging in limbo. Dell has already lost many orders – even within the Notebook Review community, several people have canceled their orders. Others are planning to do so if they do not hear any additional updates, and soon.

I’m not even certain about the status of my order. A few days ago, my heart skipped a beat when my account page at Dell told me I have no recent orders. I suspected that this was the result of my order being canceled. However, my order status page still shows the laptop as being in production. It’s been ‘In Production’ for the past 8 days. I think it’s about time I called up Dell and gave them a piece of my mind.

Update: Well, Direct2Dell finally got an update on the M1330 a little after I wrote this. Gist of it is, systems are starting to ship – Dell ran into some production issues with the laptop – but the lead times are still in place due to low availability of certain parts, like the LED display, which is popular.

Bank Security These Days

I know there are plenty of stories about stolen identities, bank accounts cleared out, or fraudulent credit card uses. These things all point to some sort of security breach, may it be on the victim’s part or the institution’s. To counter these troubling trends, banks especially have started to do more to ensure appropriate use of their services. But there gets to be a point where these security measures adversely affect how I can use those services.

So it’s fairly normal to have a password for online banking, a passcode for telephone banking and a pin number for ATM banking. Three different security features for three different methods of access is reasonable. However, within the past year, I’ve had to add 5 random questions to my online banking, which I may be asked to answer at random upon logging in with my password. For tele-banking, I must also be able to recite any number of letters from a secret word of my choosing. It seems like the ATM’s the only thing that’s been spared.

Add on the fact that I have a couple bank accounts and all of a sudden we’re talking about tens of security features I must be able to potentially authenticate. To be honest, I’m not sure how well I can remember all of them. It seems inevitable that I’m going to be locked out of my own account one of these days, when I just can’t remember one of the numerous questions I could be possibly asked.

Security? Sure I’m all for it, but this is getting a little ridiculous…