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02/25/2006 Entry: "Replacing the parents' PC"

Yes, I am back from the Visit To The Parents. Or more to the point, the Visit To Fix The Parents' Computer. Or as it turned out, the Visit To Replace The Parents' Computer.

Not that there was anything wrong with it -- the old computer, I mean. It was a perfectly servicable Compaq with a 180 MHz Cyrix CPU, that had only two problems. First, someone had plugged the telephone cord into the wrong jack. Second, indiscriminate use by every relative below the age of 18 had completely filled its modest hard drive with games and other junk.

I arrived with an excellent set of instructions from Gina Trapani on How to fix Mom's computer. If you're undertaking a similar mission, I recommend you print out this checklist. Her comments are for Windows 98, but are useful when approaching a Windows 95 machine like my parents'. (On Win 95 you have to download some different utilities, and you don't have Windows Update.)

Because my folks are confined to dial-up, I spent a few days downloading all of these utilities to my laptop....and a few more for good measure. I also grabbed some applications I thought they might like, such as Mozilla and Thunderbird and even OpenOffice. I knew their computer didn't have an Ethernet card, so I burned this motley collection onto a CD-R. (I may post the complete list later.)

After I replugged the modem cord and scrubbed about 1 GB worth of junk from its 1.5 GB hard drive, I was able to start running test software. I started with a commercial diagnostic package (McAfee Office 2000) that I had left over from my Windows days (and Y2K). The hardware checked out ok, and its (old) virus scanner reported "clean." That's as far as I took it, because it was clear that they needed a new computer.

I had started by asking "what do you want to do with your computer"? In addition to the expected "browse the Internet" and "email", I learned that they wanted to get a digital camera, maybe a scanner, and also to run a few work-related programs -- specifically, word processing and spreadsheet. The camera at least -- and probably any modern scanner -- would require a USB port, which their computer didn't have and which Win 95 doesn't support. They'd also need a larger hard drive to do much with photography. And they were considering high-speed Internet service, which needed an Ethernet card (and I hadn't brought one with me). So I said to them, "you should buy a new computer."

Let me digress here to explain why I didn't install Linux. They clearly needed to run some Windows applications. (As appealing as the prospect might be to me -- who just had to delouse their hard drive -- I didn't want to inflict upon my folks the wails of protest they'd hear from the rugrat contingent when all of their cutesy Windows games wouldn't load.) And I wouldn't be around to help -- they'd have to get support from their computer store. If I'd had more time, and they had high-speed Internet, I might have persuaded them to buy a Lindows -- oops, Linspire -- PC from Wal-Mart. As it was, we had to take what Staples had available, and that meant we were buying Windows XP whether we wanted it or not.

So it was off to Staples, for the next-to-bottom-end Compaq PC. (The bottom-end unit was out of stock.) This gave them a Sempron 3000 with 512 MB of RAM and a 160 GB hard drive, DVD reader/CD writer, 56K modem, Ethernet, and (gag) Windows XP Home SP2. They already had a monitor and printer, but we were able to add a nice HP multifunction printer-scanner-copier for $29 after rebates. I think well of Compaq/HP PCs, AMD CPUs, and HP peripherals, so I was happy with the assortment.

You'd think a brand new PC with brand new software would be a job of take it home, plug it in, turn it on, and it works...wouldn't you? No such luck. I had to call HP/Compaq tech support within a hour of getting it home.

I give credit to HewPaq for wanting to do the right thing. Aware that Win XP is, um, deficient as regards security, they want to keep their customers safe. So they bundle a Norton Security package on the hard drive, including Norton's own firewall, antivirus, and anti-spyware product.

The problem is, you get only a trial version...and according to my reading of the pop-up screen, that trial version disables itself after 60 days unless you subscribe to Norton's continuing services. Now, if they'd just said antivirus and anti-spyware updates would cease after 60 days, and you had to subscribe for updates, I would have probably installed Norton. But to disable all of the security software, on a computer owned by an unsophisticated and probably-unaware home user, smacks too much of a ransom demand. "Pay up, or your computer gets it."

I did not want to leave that kind of time bomb in my folks' computer, especially these days when an unprotected Win XP machine has a survival time of less than 20 minutes on the Internet. So I resolved (a) to install alternative firewall, antivirus, and anti-spyware programs, and (b) never, never, never to buy or recommend a Norton product ever again.

Like I said, HewPaq tried to do the right thing, but they either (a) should have sprung for a full, unrestricted version of the Norton software, or (b) left it off entirely. Here's why.

I knew the first order of business, before even dialing up the modem, was to install a firewall. No problem, I thought: Windows XP SP2 actually includes quite a serviceable firewall, as long as it's activated. (Not always the case!) So during the installation I ensured it was activated. And I skipped the Norton registration because I didn't want their software.

So, turn it on, dial up, connect to local ISP, and...nothing. No email, no web access, can't even ping a web site.

Hence the phone call to HP's (commendably 24/7) customer service line. The customer service rep was actually helpful, and didn't recite the usual rote nonsense of reboot-your-PC, reinstall-Windows. While talking to him I had a brainstorm -- was the Norton firewall active? I know that installing two software firewalls on a Windows PC is a recipe for disaster.

The Norton control panel wouldn't let me do anything until I had completed their registration form, so I went ahead and registered. Lo and behold, up popped a control panel indicating Norton Firewall was active. Switching off the Norton Firewall solved the problem. (I told the customer service rep so he can add that tidbit to their knowledge base.)

The next step was to install an antivirus program. I had come equipped with five...and a good thing, too.

I first tried AVG Antivirus Free Edition, which I had used with good results under Windows 98. Alas, one of its features is to filter email -- normally a useful feature -- but on my parents' machine, all it did was block all access to the POP server. Thus, no email. I tried to disable this feature, but everytime I rebooted the computer it re-enabled itself. So, off with AVG.

Second try was ClamWin, an open-source product. This installed ok and caused no problems, but the disk scan was painfully slow. Worse, I didn't see an automatic update feature. (I've since found it does have one.) I can't expect my folks to manually download and install new virus signatures, or even to remember to do so regularly.

So, third try was BitDefender (whose Linux incarnation we use on one computer here). This installed ok and ran ok, so I left it. I was amused to note that BitDefender and ClamWin both found viruses in the Eudora attachment directory that I had copied from the old Win 95 PC. It seems that my folks had received these in spam emails long ago, but because they were using Eudora and never clicked on attachments, these just sat unexecuted in the Attach directory. (That's why I say a good email client is one of your lines of defense.)

Alas, I discovered before leaving that BitDefender Free Edition comes with only a one-year license, so either I make another visit in twelve months, or I convince my folks to spend some more money. At least it's just the virus scanner -- not the firewall.

Finally, I downloaded (over dial-up) the new Microsoft Anti-Spyware program, which is said to be fairly decent. It's called "Windows Defender" now, which I guess sounds better than "Windows Band-Aid". I was amused to note that you have to let Microsoft check that your PC has a legitimate copy of Windows before you can download the software. Normally this causes my hackles to rise, but since this was a legit purchase, and they're going to need to run Windows Update regularly for as long as they own this machine, I went ahead and let Microsoft snoop.

I neglected to mention the wealth of advertising offers -- not just from Norton, but from AOL and Microsoft and I forget who else -- I had to clean off their Win XP desktop. I think Microsoft is selling advertising space.

(Incidentally, I found to my annoyance that I can turn off the Norton antivirus, but I can't turn off the damned message that will pop up every 14 days reminding my parents to buy their stupid product. Not until the next visit, anyway, when I intend to scrub every vestige of Norton from their hard drive. I've really come to dislike these guys in just a few short days.)

I left only one offer on the screen, because it's remotely possible that my stepmother will want to take advantage of the 60-day trial of MS Office: 60 days free, and when you're hooked, a heart-stopping price tag to keep using it. (These guys know their marketing.) I left the offer, but I also installed OpenOffice 2.0, with desktop shortcuts to the word processor and spreadsheet, and made sure my stepmom knows how to launch them. She said they look familiar enough that she thinks they'll be fine for her needs.

I also opted for Netscape instead of Internet Explorer -- a choice offered at the time of system installation! -- and installed Thunderbird for email, removing the shortcut for Outlook Express. My stepmom says Thunderbird looks enough like the program she uses at work, that she's comfortable with it.

So at least I've got them using OpenOffice, Thunderbird, and Mozilla (as Netscape). The next time they need to replace their PC, they'll be right at home with Linux. And a good thing too. I spent a full day (afternoon, night, and following morning) getting their Windows PC installed and working.

I'm left with only one question: with a Sempron 3000+, 512 MB of RAM, and all the latest whizzies, how come the computer is so damned slow? I don't mean Internet access -- I mean booting, and launching programs. Windows XP is such a pig.


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