The triumphs and trials of configuring a virgin system

In my Windows 2000 Pro column for the March 15 issue of Windows 2000 Magazine, I discussed the process of selecting a replacement for my aging 5-year-old Pentium II desktop system. I had intended that article to run as the first of two parts, with the second being a column describing how I acquired the new system and my experience getting it up and running.

Well, something funny happened on the way to that second column—my role changed from Windows 2000 Magazine’s Windows 2000 Pro columnist to the magazine’s Mobile & Wireless columnist. As a result of the switch, the next issue of the magazine went to press without my second column, but the magazine's online staff saw that as an opportunity to put part 2 on the Web.

For those readers who didn’t read the first part, I started out planning to buy a fast Pentium III, but changed my mind after doing some research. Instead, I decided to get a system based on AMD’s Athlon processor.

The New System
Before I went shopping, I came up with a list of system specifications that consisted of a 1GHz Athlon-based PC with a 30GB hard disk, 256MB of RAM, a NVIDIA GeForce2 video card, a CD-RW drive, USB support, a 10/100Mbps Ethernet card, and a built-in 56Kbps modem. (To see how I arrived at these specifications, see my March 15 Windows 2000 Pro column.)

Armed with these specifications, I started shopping around for the best deal. I looked on the Web and at local computer stores, and I checked out Compaq, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM (Dell currently doesn’t sell systems with AMD processors). All but one of these offerings priced out at close to $2000—the only exception was IBM’s NetVista A40i, which was $1550 for a 1Ghz Athlon with 256MB RAM and a 30GB hard disk. Unfortunately, the A40i was in short supply at the time, with delivery times quoted at 4 to 6 weeks after placing an order; I didn’t want to wait.

The IBM system was less expensive than the others because I could purchase it without a monitor (I have several spares) and because it came with a less-expensive software bundle than the other systems—Lotus SmartSuite rather than Microsoft Office. This last cost-saving measure got me to thinking: I already had software that I planned to move from the old system. So, if I could get a virgin system and install the software myself, I could probably save some money.

The big-name vendors won’t sell you a system without the software (at least, not through the local computer stores), so I broadened my search and checked out the local system integrators. Eventually, I decided to buy a system from iTech Computer; a local store in Modesto, California (where I live). Because iTech Computer builds systems to order, I was able to nit-pick the precise specifications for the exact system I wanted (including the all-important GeForce2 video card). The system based on my specifications priced out at $1405. I placed my order and received a call when my system was ready (about 3 days later). Unfortunately, I was due to leave on a trip and barely had time to un-box the system, start it up, and install an OS on it. The system arrived with Windows 98 preinstalled, so the easiest thing to do was upgrade that to Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me) and configure the system to dual-boot Win2K later on.

It’s been my practice over the years to set up a new system and then immediately load a big batch job or some other kind of heavy-use process that will keep the computer running (in particular, keep the disks spinning) 24x7 for the first few days. It’s a generally recognized fact of engineering that most electronic components will either fail early on or keep running almost indefinitely. Most big-name computer vendors know this and take the time to "burn in" their systems before delivering them. Because I didn’t know what, if any, burn-in time my new system had received, I decided to do it myself. To that end, I used Windows Me’s Scheduled Tasks feature (from Start/Accessories/System Tools) to start multiple instances of the disk defragmenter, Scandisk, and Disk Cleanup and Maintenance Wizard to keep the system running while I was away. You can accomplish the same thing in Win2K using batch files. When I came back from my trip, the system was still running, so I considered the burn-in successful and moved on to installing Win2K.

I won’t bore you with the ensuing false starts, but suffice it to say that if you purchase a new system, either get it with Win2K pre-installed or be prepared for trouble. You can minimize any problems by reading the instructions that come with the system (or components) first. In my situation, the single most important thing that I needed to do was re-flash the motherboard BIOS (which I downloaded from the ASUS Web site), and then install the drivers that came with the system for the disk controller, video, and built-in modem card. I missed the first step, which resulted in a wild goose chase trying to figure out why the drivers weren’t working.

Win2K also failed to detect my hard disk during setup, another frustration that made it impossible to complete the installation. The error in question was "Stop 0x0000007B Inaccessible_boot_device" (for details, see the Microsoft article "Limited OEM Driver Support with F6 During Windows 2000 Setup"). Eventually, I discovered that the way around that error was to press F6 during setup, which let me install the Win2K driver from the ASUS support CD-ROM. Once I got past that, Win2K setup proceeded. Upon installation, the OS initially came up using the base VGA drivers (it didn’t recognize my video card) and didn’t install a driver for the built-in modem—I had to add the modem driver after setup completed (using Add New Hardware from the Control Panel). Once I knew how to configure the system for installation, the complete process took only a couple of hours; but figuring out how to do it took several days.

Of course, the payoff for all this effort was a much faster system than my old one, which brings me to a bit of a confession—the application I was most concerned with, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 (FS2K), is a little off the beaten path. However, this program is more than a game for me—as a contributing editor to two aviation magazines and a private pilot, FS2K is one of my mission-critical applications. Frankly, its performance on the old system was barely acceptable.

The critical parameter for FS2K and most other real-time simulators is the frame rate, which is a measure of how many times per second the software can update its display of the instrument panel and the outside world. A variety of settings let you optimize the frame rate on a particular system; the most obvious is the display resolution. FS2K also lets you control how detailed the outside world appears with a variety of settings. On my old system, at 800x600x16 resolution and with an Overall Image Quality set to 1 (the lowest setting), I got a frame rate of 4 to 10 frames per second. The new system, at a resolution of 1024x768x32 and Overall Image Quality set to 6 (the highest setting), gives me frame rates of 50 to 60 frames per second. These frame rates exceed the speed of a movie projector or television set, and give a fluid sense of motion that’s uncanny. Combined with the higher display resolution and increased image complexity, FS2K is far more realistic—and a real pleasure to use—on my new system.

FS2K is both a computation-intensive and video-intensive application, so it really benefits from the 1GHz processor and the NVIDIA GeForce2 video card. More prosaic applications like Microsoft Word don’t show the same kind of performance gain. The old system was fast enough to keep up as I type and so is the new one. Still, there are some interesting points where I see a benefit—while copying my large (233MB) outlook.pst file from the old system to the new one, for example, I could check CPU utilization in Task Manager. The old system showed 85 percent CPU utilization while the new one barely ticked over at 2 to 4 percent.

You Get What You Pay For
I’ve struggled a bit trying to think of the right way to phrase this final thought: Unless you have extra time on your hands, I can’t recommend that you purchase a system the way I did. The time I spent figuring out the driver problems and getting the system set up more than offset the money I saved by purchasing a virgin system from a local vendor. On the plus side, I now have detailed knowledge of how to do this, which will pay off if I ever have to set up this system (or a similar one) from scratch again; but it was an expensive way to get that knowledge.

With that said, I’m extremely satisfied with the performance of this system. I’ve now added wireless networking to it, via Intel’s AnyPoint USB-based wireless LAN adapters, and I've moved my old system upstairs to my wife’s sewing room. As I write, the new system has been operating continuously for over 2 months, without any significant problems. In particular, I have had no compatibility issues with the AMD processor. So the Athlon was a good choice for me!