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2009.11.05 Starting over with Windows Vista

posted Nov 5, 2009, 5:25 AM by Troy Cheek   [ updated Nov 5, 2009, 6:54 AM ]
A while back, my nephews received an old computer from some kindhearted souls they knew from church.  These kindhearted souls had heard my nephews' laments that they didn't have a computer with which to do their school assignments.  They were completely and utterly computer-less in an age when computers were a necessity for their education, perhaps even for life in general.  These kindhearted souls dug into their closet, dusted off an old computer, and generously donated it to my nephews.

What my nephews had left out of their tale of woe was that Uncle Troy had a perfectly good computer located just down the hall which they could use at any time for any legitimate purpose.

Upon receiving said old computer, naturally the nephews brought it straight to Uncle Troy to get it working again.  After blowing some dust bunnies out of odd places, moving some wires around, and tweaking some settings, I got it running.  They could now play Big Buck Hunter 3 or whatever it was and look up stuff with the interactive CD-based encyclopedia.  While the computer worked, it was old and slow, and as Uncle Troy just happened to have some less-old and less-slow hardware left over from some of his own experiments, it was only natural that the nephews' computer began a long and painful transformation.  Like the faithful old ax which had been in the family for generations ("We replaced the head three times and the handle five.") eventually the only thing remaining of the original was the idea.  I impressed upon the nephews the importance of glossing over these details when discussing the computer with the kindhearted souls who had donated it.  They were instructed to say "Oh, yeah.  It works great.  We use it every day.  Uncle Troy has souped it up a little, that's all."

In the process, I had replaced the Windows 3.11 which had come with the computer with an old Windows 98 I wasn't using anymore and later with an old Windows 2000 I wasn't using anymore.  What would generally happen was that I would buy myself some new hardware or even an entire new system, pick up or have included the whatever OS was popular at the time, and install my old OS on the old hardware that I put in the nephew's computer.

Somewhere along the line, the nephew's computer became the Family Computer.  As in, everybody in the family used the computer, except for Uncle Troy who had his own downstairs which no one else was allowed to touch.  The parents and the cousins and anyone else living in or visiting the household used the Family Computer.  Uncle Troy did tech support.

Uncle Troy hates doing tech support, by the way.

The entire family was quite happy with the Family Computer until my youngest brother got his new notebook computer.  I shall refer to him here as T3.  Our mother gave us all names starting with "T" under the assumption that this would make use easier to remember or something.  What actually happened was that we were always getting called by other brothers' names and eventually started using numbers.

Anyway, while the Family Computer was working quite well with Windows 2000 and Troy's computer was cruising along with Windows XP, T3's new notebook came with Windows Vista.  T3 spent quite a bit of time bragging about this and showing off to the rest of the family.  Troy had bought a notebook with Vista a year or two earlier but had somehow never gotten around to showing it off to the family for some reason.  T3's notebook showed everyone what Vista could do, which was mostly what the Family Computer could already do but with fancy graphics, a shiny new interface, and most things built in instead of downloaded and set up separately.  The family suddenly started asking why the Family Computer didn't have Vista.

The reasons were simple:
  1. I'd never installed Vista from scratch before and didn't even know if I could do it.
  2. Vista is a resource hog compared to 2000 or XP, and the Family Computer didn't have enough memory, disk space, or processing power.
  3. I'd gotten most OS versions free or greatly discounted while buying my own hardware, but nobody seemed to be selling Vista that way.
This kept me out of hot water for a few months, but then we stumbled upon Vista for a decent price about the same time the local computer store had a nice deal on a motherboard/CPU/memory combo.  Due to some other recent projects, I had more spare parts laying around than usual.  I even found a couple of websites which could walk me through installing Vista on new hardware.

What could possibly go wrong?

Things that went wrong:
  1. The combo came with only 1 GB of memory.
  2. The hard disk I'd scavenged was a 5400 RPM IDE drive.
  3. I somehow missed that I'd need a working DVD drive with which to install Vista.
Last problem first, I didn't want to strip parts from the working Family Computer to build a new one until I knew that the new one also worked.  I did some research and found out it was possible to install Vista from a USB drive.  That kept me from having to pull a DVD drive from a working system.  During installation, I found that one of the front USB ports in the case I was using apparently provided power but no data connection.  I don't know if that was by accident or design.  I've heard of such a thing on notebook computers, that some USB ports are for charging only, but had never seen that on a tower case.  Anyway, I was eventually able to get Vista installed from USB drive onto the IDE drive.

The second problem was that Vista apparently likes to thrash the hard drive quite a bit.  Some of this I could stop by changing settings, but it became obvious that I needed a new, faster hard drive.

The first problem was that with only 1 GB of physical memory, Vista was using 60-70% of available memory just sitting there idling.  While I've read that Vista only caches some data when there is sufficient memory to do so, I was still concerned that once the family started using it, Vista would spend more time swapping out memory to disk than doing real work.

A quick trip back to the local computer store and I had a new SATA hard drive, SATA DVD drive, and an additional 2 GB of memory.  Even after installing all that, I still re-installed Vista from the USB drive just to be a smart guy.  While Vista still thrashed the hard drive, it was now much quieter, much quicker, and didn't seem to lag the system.  Vista's memory consumption changed to 30-40% of available memory when idling.  This is more than the 1 GB I had originally, but it seemed to stabilize there.

After that, it was just a matter on installing the drivers that came with the motherboard, copying over some personal files, and installing Firefox.  Once I had the pictures and music files in place and all the Firefox bookmarks restored, everybody was happy.  Mom could view her digital pictures, the nephews could organize their music collections, and Dad could go from clicking on Firefox to actually viewing a site in half a second.

I was the hero of the family.  Everyone agreed that the new Family Computer with the new Vista operating system was perfect and would meet all our computing needs for years to come.

Two days later, there was a tap on my door.  "Uncle Troy, the new computer can't..."

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