For those of you who have been following our computer woes (here and here), this is where we are now.  In limbo.

The very good news  A friend lent us his device that turns an internal hard drive into an external, usb device, and we were able to copy the data to a new one-terabyte backup drive.  (Time out for a sigh of amazement.  One terabyte?  We used to do our backups on 5 1/4 inch floppies with a capacity of 110 kilobytes.)  Losing the hard drive would not have been a total disaster, as I have several layers of backup, but they are a bit spotty and it was really, really nice to have access to the files as I had left them the night before all this started.

The related bad news  What's the point of having backed up the whole C drive instead of just my own data, if one can't transfer all that information over to a new machine?  Apparently the way the Windows Registry works, all the programs will have to be reinstalled anyway—which of course means not only a lot of work but that I lose whatever came preinstalled with the original machine.  Oh for the days when they gave you the original disks—even for the operating system—when you bought a computer!  I guess that will save me backup space from now on, unless someone can tell me there's reason for backing up anything other than my personal files.

The lovely news  We've been studying The Five Love Languages in a class at church.  Porter has been exhibiting "Acts of Service" at a great rate with regard to this computer problem:  making phone calls, doing Internet searches, driving across down....

The very frustrating news  The Internet search for the appropriate motherboard was fruitless.  According to the people Porter talked to, that board is very popular right now; many people are trying to find it.  I wonder if it had an expiration date and everyone's is going bad?  Like sour milk or stale bread?  Getting anything other than the correct motherboard would require getting a new case for the machine and kludging things together, as the Gateway motherboard is not a standard configuration.

The absolutely ridiculous customer "support" news So Porter broke down and called Gateway to see how much an out-of-warranty repair would cost.  Guess what?  Not only will Gateway not sell the necessary parts, they won't do out-of-warranty repairs themselves!  I guess one is supposed to buy a new computer, but I don't see how that helps Gateway, since there's no way I'm buying another computer from them...unless all the major companies are in collusion.  But I'm not a conspiracy theorist—yet.

The temporarily hopeful news  The Gateway tech recommended a website for finding the correct motherboard.  It was one Porter had found, and indeed they had the right board, but it was "out of stock."  Buoyed by the Gateway recommendation, Porter called the company, which appeared to be helpful.  Yes, that board was out of stock and they didn't know when if ever they would get it again.  It was a very hot item, and they had another Gateway motherboard that was similar which several people had bought instead of the correct one.  We could buy that and try it out, returning it if it didn't work—they'd even waive the normal 15% restocking fee.  So Porter ordered one ($200) and we had a "party" at the home of the above-mentioned friend who lent us his hard drive enclosure.  Now this is a guy whose life is in large part computers, both his vocation and his avocation.  He had built every one of the uncountable computers in his house, except for the castoffs he as adopted, and I suspect he's done a lot to modify them, as well.  So it was encouraging to see him and Porter settle down to installing the new motherboard.

The discouraging news  At first it went well, thanks to our friend having some spare parts, such as ribbon cable, that had somehow been lost while the machine was at the repair shop :( , and despite the fact that the motherboard came with absolutely no documentation at all, and looked as if it is used, not new.  :(  :(  But it was a case of "almosts."  The board doesn't quite fit so some of the ports wouldn't work.  One capacitor is too tall, so the heat sink doesn't quite line up, so they ahd to monitor the CPU temperature while working.  If it ever works, we'll have to rout out the heat sink some.  But we didn't get that far.  After much twiddling, Windows boots!  Sort of.  But only in safe mode; otherwise it hangs.  After much effort and frustration, they gave up and we went to dinner.  So that's where it stands now:  in our living room, in pieces.

The dilemma  So what do we do now?

  • Pour a lot of time and energy into trying to get Windows working, followed by making all sorts of kludges to get other things to fit/work, and (probably) reinstalling all my programs?
  • Pay to send the motherboard back and hope we get some of our $200 returned?
  • Buy an inexpensive new computer with space for good working parts (e.g. DVD drives, hard drive) from the old machine?  Easier said than done—the "basic" computers I've looked at tend not to have a lot of expansion space.
  • Invest (again!) in a fancy desktop computer and hope this one lasts longer?
  • Take advantage of the opportunity to get a new laptop and hope it lasts?
  • Give it to Jon as a Christmas present?  After all, it has a (probably) working motherboard, a DVD read drive, a DVD write drive (both very nice), a 250MB hard drive, a high-speed, dual-core Athelon processor, a GB of memory, and a few other bells and whistles. (My suggestion)
  • Don't give it to Jon, as a Christmas present for Heather.  (Janet's suggestion)
  • Use it as a boat anchor.  (Porter's suggestion)

The interim solution I'm using our (old) laptop, having devised a scheme for keeping large quantities of data on the Maxtor 60G portable hard drive I take with me when travelling.  The immediate reason for this is that the laptop's hard drive capacity is only 20GB (actually less) which is woefully insufficient to hold my data alone—and Porter and I share this machine.  I think I like the idea, and plan to continue using it even when/if we get another machine, because then I won't have to worry about synchronizing data when we travel.  The interim solution is actually working fairly well, my primary frustrations being (1) I can't burn CD's or DVD's; (2) I can't read DVD's; (3) there are only two USB ports, and (4) the USB ports are old and slow—not only does data transfer take forever, but I'm heartily sick of having Windows tell me, every time I plug in a device, that it would peform faster if only I had a USB 2 port, when it knows quite well that I don't.

Stay tuned.  I believe it's time to write my friend Bill McCollum a letter.  It's a little early for Christmas cards, but I think he's due one in his capacity as Florida's Attorney General.  I need to vent about Gateway to someone besides my faithful, but small, blog audience. 

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 8:05 am | Edit
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I once replaced a 4-year-old Gateway motherboard (the original computer was about $2000, back in 1993) and the new one didn't fit in the case. I just used it with the case slightly open. For a few months. Then I got rid of it and didn't own a computer for several years, since I had one in my office that someone else would fix when it broke.

My advice? Get a cheap new (or used) computer and plan to replace it about when its warranty runs out. Keep all your data on an external drive so moving is relatively painless. I don't like this answer because replacing hardware often is so wasteful (toxic waste, too!) but they just don't make computers that will last a long time, at least not at the consumer level. Perhaps that will change someday, but I don't see the motivating factors lining up in that direction anytime soon.

Posted by Peter on Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 11:20 am


Posted by IrishOboe on Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 11:24 am

Thanks, Peter and Janet. That's a scary thought -- expect to replace your computer every year? You're talking to someone who drives a 15-year-old car. And hates shopping.

On the other hand, I am looking forward to ways of "holding my computer more loosely" and not being so dependent on one particular machine or system. I'm a long way from that, but this whole situation is making me think about it.

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, September 20, 2007 at 9:55 am

I wouldn't really expect to replace a computer every year, but I want to be ready at any time. Having my data and all the "extras" as separate items that can easily migrate to a new machine is the way to go. A machine might last 1 year, or 10 (Poisson distribution?). Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Posted by Peter on Thursday, September 20, 2007 at 12:33 pm

Would you give examples of what you mean by "extras"? I'm not sure what I can relegate to external drives. Somehow I imagine Microsoft would make it impossible to have the software exclusively on a portable drive....

Or did you mean peripherals like DVD burners? If I could make my formerly internal drives work externally, I wouldn't feel so bad about the boat anchor.

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, September 20, 2007 at 1:06 pm

Yeah, I suppose a DVD burner is the sort of thing I had in mind. But since you already own an internal one you might as well install it in your next machine if it fits and the box doesn't come with one built in. But for any future add-on purchases, prefer the external option if available.

I don't know about Microsoft. They might prevent you from installing their stuff on an external drive and then using it elsewhere. If so, just use an open-source alternative.

In addition to using an external drive for all your important data, I recommend keeping offsite backups. I'm not sure what the best solution for that is. For my photos I'm using FlickR, and some other stuff is on LimeDaley.

Posted by Peter on Thursday, September 20, 2007 at 2:36 pm

LimeDaley is great! Part of my backup plan includes burning DVD's to store offsite, that is, at someone else's house...which in our particular case you could say is a special LimeDaley service. :)

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, September 20, 2007 at 3:09 pm

If you get a "regular" desktop machine, it is pretty easy to replace parts one by one. Every once in a while a new standard comes out that makes it harder to just replace one part, but pretty rarely, and there are almost always ways around it. The only example I can think of at the moment is when the power supplies changed from AT to ATX, that made it so the motherboards, power supplies and cases had to be replaced all at once.
Once the switchover to ATX happened (10 years ago?), I have used the same size cases - and the only reason that is plural, is that I bought a Dell from Sidd, so it wasn't compatible with a regular motherboard, so I had to buy a new case when Josh bought me a new motherboard.

When the RAM or processors change sizes, it can sometimes be hard to find the older sizes, though as in Grandpa Wightman's case, it sometimes is easy to replace broken parts with stuff other people think is junk, since it is so old.

I wouldn't think an external drive is important - hard drives haven't changed sizes in 20 years. SATA drives are now becoming more standard instead of IDE, although there are still conversion kits you can get if you had the wrong type for your motherboard.

I expect a computer to last 5 to 10 years. The computer I bought in college (used) is now 12 years old, and I am not sure if I am going to have it run our phones, or give it to goodwill - it still runs fine. Josh gave me a motherboard maybe 4 years ago, so I upgraded, but it was to a relatively slow processor (800Mhz Duron), so that won't have as much life as the previous computer, and I have been wondering whether it would be good to replace the motherboard and processor in it to get faster machine. There are a maybe three hard drives in the system, but one or two of them were bought in the mid-nineties. I did buy a new hard drive at one point when one of them had some trouble, but haven't needed it yet.

I am likely to have RAIDed hard drives if I ever upgrade - it is great knowing that a hard drive can completely fail and not lose one bit of data. And it isn't that expensive to do RAID5 - I purchased some hard drives yesterday: $210 for 750GB (1TB at RAID5), plus the RAID card, which I will buy since it is for Lime Daley, but it isn't necessary for a home computer. (oh, and I was happy to see that the hard drives have a 5 year warranty - I thought all of the manufacturers had dropped to one year warranties, but Seagate still has a five year warranty)

I have a USB-to-2.5"-IDE drive converter, which is handy for bringing large amounts of data around in my pocket, but I wouldn't want to run my computer off an external drive, I think. I'd expect the heat dissipation is worse for a non-fan external drive, so lowering its life. Though if you wanted to go that route, I don't know of any applications that wouldn't run off an external drive.

I think you should get a computer from Chris in a standard case, using whatever parts from your current computer that you can, and then come spend a week in Pittsburgh installing Debian and learning how it works. The world is becoming increasingly less dependent on Microsoft, so I think you could end up being happy with a non-Microsoft system, and the benefits that gets you. One side benefit that might not be obvious to a non-Microsoft system is that the hardware can be significantly less powerful, and so that contributes to longer lasting hardware - ie. I used a 200Mhz processor until three or four years ago, and was fairly happy, and I am more of a power user than most. And the 800Mhz processor (640MB RAM) runs Linux faster or at least comparable to my 2.2Ghz processor (1.5GB RAM) running XP at work. And my 2Ghz processor (768MB RAM) XP laptop isn't even close.

Well, this seems like this is probably my own blog post by now...

Posted by Jon Daley on Friday, September 21, 2007 at 11:33 am

Well, I am obviously late for the party but I thought I would add my two cents.

My initial thought while reading your article was that you needed to go ahead and invest in building yourself a new computer. The obvious benefit to this strategy is that you can scale as you feel appropriate---a large case capable of supporting RAID and any number of other upgrades; parts you select so future swap outs are on your terms; the opportunity to use some of the peripherals and hardware you already have; and innumerable other positive features.

I must also state that as a fellow customer of Gateway, one that was, in fact is extremely pleased with the enduring performance of a once-great but now aging system, I am extremely put off by this and another recent negative experience with the cow box people.
Best of luck what whatever plan you inevitably select. Oh, and thank you again for the poor man’s cake. It was delicious!

Posted by David July on Friday, September 21, 2007 at 9:07 pm

Many thanks to you all. Your comments are most informative, especially since they don't all agree. :)

David, you're not too late; I'm notoriously slow at making this kind of decision, especially when I have a work-around that works on a temporary basis (the laptop). But it needs to be done.

As you know, we WERE loyal Gateway fans, and had found their machines extremely reliable. But the company has changed.

Jon, I love the idea of getting a computer from Chris in a standard case using whatever he can from our old one, and having lots of room for expansion and RAID and other cool things. And of course a week in Pittsburgh is attractive for many reasons! I'm not ready to give up Windows altogether, though. Too many of my applications depend on it, and I don't want to try to find work-arounds, at least not yet. I'll e-mail you with more questions about the possibilities.

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, September 27, 2007 at 9:05 am

Thought you might find this interesting. I guess you shouldn't buy a Dell either.,0,3588245.story

Posted by dstb on Friday, October 26, 2007 at 8:37 am

I note that Gateway is second from the bottom....

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, October 26, 2007 at 6:39 pm
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