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I needed a new laptop. My choices were to scrounge around and try and find something with Microsoft XP or to bite the bullet and opt for Vista. One of the problems with the former was that many graphics cards that come with XP machines will perform only marginally at best with Vista (or at least I am told). I am not a PC guru but I have a friend who I trust that told me to stay away from at least a dozen options I was considering because of a graphics card issues. I have learned from bitter experience that it is better to be safe than sorry.
I had a second requirement in that I wanted a very good machine for cheap. My third requirement was that it had to be better than my current desktop model. That desktop had an older processor but it did have 2 gigabytes of memory. The new laptop (with the addition of a new monitor) would replace the desktop system.
Like it or not Vista is coming. My current desktop is running Windows 2000 Professional and although it was running fine, it will soon be unsupported and I have current performance issues as well. I also needed the laptop up and running with all my stuff on it by the end of April. No, I was not going to consider a Mac. Here then were my requirements.
- I wanted a very good laptop for cheap
- It had to have a good processor with at least 2 gigabytes of memory
- It had to be up and running with all my stuff on it by the end of April
- It had to have a graphic card, memory, and processor capable of running Vista reasonably well, although it did not have to have Vista itself per se
- In a weird but true situation the deal had to please my friend more so than me
To get a machine for cheap we were watching Dell for refurbished models as well as best deals at other places. All in all I had a pretty tough set of requirements and at least 3 weeks passed with my friend nixing every choice that I presented him with. Finally a machine came in that met his satisfaction. And if he was satisfied then so was I.
Dell Inspiron 6400/E1505 Notebook
Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7200
4MB Cache/2.00GHz/667MHz FSB
2 GB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz (2 DIMMs)
TV Tuner w/ Remote Control
15.4 in WSXGA+ Notebook Screen
Windows Vista Home Premium
6 Cell Primary Battery
Intel Pro Wireless 3945
8X DVD +/- RW w/dbl layer write capability
120 GB SATA Hard Drive (5400 RPM)
256MB ATI MOBILITY RADEON X1400 HyperMemory graphics card
Norton Internet Security 15 Month Subscription
Image Restore Software
The price was $1,099.00. I am not a geek but I am assuming this is a very good deal given my set of requirements and also by looking at current pricing of that configuration in a DELL catalog. I was also able to pick up a Dell Refurbished UltraSharp 2407WFP 24-inch Widescreen Flat Panel LCD Monitor for $539 (also with free shipping) that my friend said was to die for. I wanted to get a 22 inch monitor for way less but my friend, bless his heart, would have none of it.
The problems started shortly after I received my stuff. The hardware was all fine but I started having huge problems when I loaded my existing Office 2002 versions on the machine. I kept getting repeated messages that an application was trying to access my outlook mailbox. By repeated I mean something like 20 popup boxes one right after another all saying the same thing. Canceling the messages did no good, I had to OK every damn one of them. Then after a 30 second pause or so there would be another blast of 20 messages to respond to. Not just once again either but forever.
The specific message was "A program is trying to access email addresses you have stored in outlook." Check out this Outlook Experience. "I can deny or I can allow for 1,2,5,10minutes. If I don't select 1 minute, I am not able to do anything with the form. Only if I did select the check box "Allow for 1 or 2 minutes" then only I am able to get the program to work." That person's experience was actually better than mine. Regardless of what I did, I was not able to get Outlook to work at all.
Here is the dreaded message.
Imagine that popping up every second for 20-30 seconds after which you get about 20-30 seconds to do something followed by another blast of 20 or so prompts again. Allowing access for 10 minutes does not help.
Dell Software Support - Less Than Worthless
I made the mistake of calling Dell for support. They told me that I did not purchase coverage to help me with this problem. I replied that I paid an extra $70 for one year's support with my purchase. They responded this was a software issue and my policy was for hardware only. I asked for escalation. The supervisor said I could have signed up for one month of support for $50 at the time I bought the machine but it would now cost me $250 (and that it was a good deal). They would not give me the first month for $50 anymore. I was too late. What kind of policy is that from Dell anyway? I threatened to return the machine (I wasn't serious as I needed something), but all that got me was "one free try" for 15 minutes. They looked around for a while and their conclusion was that I had a virus. I told them others had this problem as well (there are lots of references to this on Google) but they insisted I had a virus. I escalated one more time and was told once again that I had a virus. I explained to them why it was extremely unlikely that I had a virus but they responded "take it or leave it for $250."
So here's the deal. I have a brand new machine, running Vista, behind a hardware firewall, with Norton security on the machine and one of the first things I did was update virus configurations (after I got my DSL connections working which by the way was another time consuming problem in and of itself) but the best Dell could come up with was that I had a virus and they wanted $250 to fix it.
I told Dell where to go. Dell software support seriously sucks. But I knew that headed in. I have had previous support issues with Dell. I wasted a few more hours of mine and my friend's time scrambling around on the internet for as solution. I did find some free software that supposedly would fix this problem. It locked up Outlook and I had to remove it.
Somewhere along the line in my attempts at trying things Outlook itself realized I had a problem, and searched for a solution. The solution was a set of fixes to Outlook. I put them on. Same problem, another search. More fixes. This went through three iterations. After the last fix was applied the solution from Microsoft was what I should have been bright enough to figure out in the first place. I needed to upgrade to Office and Outlook 2007.
One can actually spend days on crap like this and I did, while slowly loading other stuff from my old machine to my new machine, and getting a small amount of other work done as well. Note that Vista has a feature to move data files between computers automatically but it does not work with Windows 2000. Sheeesh. I am not even going to go into the details of the time and effort it took to fix a corrupted Outlook file on my old machine that happened only in the process of trying to export it to the new machine. That alone took a half day to fix, and I still do not know how it got corrupted.
Flying Saucers and Missing Shards
There was no real choice. I decided to purchase the Home Version of Office for 2007 and by clever design from Microsoft, Office Home does not come with Outlook. I had to also purchase a stand alone version of Outlook as well.
Microsoft packages their stuff securely. I removed all the clear tape that I could find on the Outlook box but I still could not get the box open. If you have not seen these boxes they consist of very thick bolted plastic and a slider to open the top. I could not get the slider open. I was not a happy camper and at 3:00AM in the morning on the third day of trying to get the computer to run, I just decided to force the box open by prying it apart.
This was a mistake. The box splintered into a dozen or so pieces and I cut my hand in the process. The CD went sailing across the room and I was dripping blood on the carpet. Although the CD was not damaged, the product key was. It split into three pieces of which I could only find two. I spent 2 hours that night looking for a tiny plastic shard containing two characters of the product key to no avail.
I decided to load the disk and of course it would not load authorized (without the key) but it would load unauthorized with a 25 use limitation after which the product would not run. I also opened, this time successfully (with no cuts or bruises), the Office 2007 box and loaded that software as well.
Low and behold the problem of repeated messages "A program is trying to access email addresses you have stored in outlook" went away. I suspected as much. Word and Outlook talk to each other. Vista just cannot handle programs accessing the mailbox like they used to. So I would have paid Dell $250 for nothing and would have trained them as well (assuming of course that still would not be searching for the solution some two weeks later). On next to no sleep for three days of messing around I went to bed somewhat happy at 5:00AM.
A New Product Key
The next day I called Microsoft. I was actually impressed with their automated voice menu system as I quickly got to someone who could help me with activation.
I told them I had a problem they had never heard of before. They assured me they had heard everything. I explained the problem and they stood corrected. They had not had yet had anyone cut their hand opening a box of software, with the CD sailing across the room, with the product key splintering in pieces, one of which could not be found.
The contact generated a new key for me. I entered it and it was accepted on the first try. Hooray! I was happy. I spent the rest of the day loading other software on the new laptop. I was pleased to see that my own programs ran without a hitch. I also managed to get some real work done for a change. So was everything was up and running on the 4th day? Not so fast.
I rebooted the evening of the fourth day as some software that I loaded required it. I went into Outlook and it would not run. It seems Microsoft gave me a key for some sort of trial. I could not send or forward messages, only receive them. That problem only happened after I rebooted. No problem I thought, just call Microsoft again.
The next day I called their automated system, but this time it took me to a person in India that had no idea what I was saying at all. Eventually that person gave me another number to call. It was for Microsoft paid support on a per incident basis. No thanks. I called back up the first number and talked to yet another person that redirected me back to India where once again I received no help.
Somewhere along the line I escalated the problem and finally got to someone who was (after several attempts) able to generate a product key for me that would actually work. Ultimately I had to uninstall Outlook then reinstall it with the new generated key.
Dell Hardware Support
It was only after getting all my software up and running and stuff moved off the old machine did I even bother with the new monitor. That was 5 full days later. The new monitor came up but I could not get any output to display on it. It's like it was sitting there turned on but unattached to my computer. Furthermore Dell neglected to send me a user manual with the monitor.
I called Dell hardware support about the monitor. When it comes to automated response systems, Dell's is as bad as it gets. After a very lengthy delay in their automated system with me repeatedly doing nothing but swearing and pressing the operator key on my phone I was actually connected to a real live person.
This time I was very lucky to get a person that not only cared but also knew what he was doing. This is a very rare combination these days. He stepped me through configuring the monitor so that I could use both the laptop monitor and the new flat panel monitor together. The graphics card for which I also have no manual seems to work beautifully, at least for my purposes. I would like to say that Dell hardware support is great, but after the software fiasco and the length of time it took to get to a live body, I believe that I simply got a random "good draw", sort of like catching double aces to start off a hand of Texas Hold-Em.
But the guy that helped me was indeed very good, especially since this was actually a software problem on how to configure the ATI graphics card. I felt blessed in light of recent experiences at both Dell and Microsoft that this hardware person from Dell even agreed to help.
Hmmm. It now seems that one feels "blessed" to get any help. Is that unusual?
Lessons Learned & Advice
- Do not even think about trying to get prior versions of Office or Outlook (at least 2002 versions) up and running on Vista.
- Dell software support totally sucks. Plan on this problem never being fixed.
- Dell laptops are fine but only if you know enough to make a wise selection or if you have a guru helping you. Actually that statement is not unique to Dell.
- I really do like Dell's 24 inch flat panel monitor.
- Dell hardware support is likely far better than software support. Then again I may have simply been very lucky with hardware support. Then again, anything is likely better than Dell software support. In fact, if you have a software issue with Dell you may want to try hardware support first and pray.
- It may take you far longer than you think to get a new machine up and running.
- If you buy Vista, plan on purchasing new versions of Office and Outlook.
- Do not attempt to force open a hard plastic case containing Microsoft software unless you want a cut hand, missing shards of product keys, and an extra day of grief.
- Get a knowledgeable person that understands your needs to help you. I am very pleased with my new system now. Thanks R.E!
- The Vista Experience took me five days. Armed with info from this post, however, your results could be much better.
Some will note that I have previously stated that Open Office etc would be the end of Microsoft revenue streams. I think it will.... eventually. And because of problems like mine, businesses will be slow to migrate to Vista.
Vista did not change the fact that Microsoft's upgrade model is under stress. New computers may come with Vista but the amount that Microsoft can get for Office and the like will likely drop significantly over time. I just can't see users in India and China paying for Office when they can get something nearly equivalent for free.
It was my personal timeline to do something quickly that forced me into one more Office upgrade cycle when I was still relatively happy with Office 2002. I got a lot of use out of Windows 2000 Professional (six years perhaps) and close to five years out of Office/Outlook 2002. For many, myself included, I expect or at least hope this will be my last major paid for hardware/software upgrade cycle for a long time.
This post originally appeared in Whiskey & Gunpowder.
Tomorrow I will take a look at the CPI.
Mike Shedlock / Mish