An Adventure in Technical Support--NOT!

In addition to writing about Windows NT, I install it for people, including computer artist David Em. David is one of the pioneers of computer art--he started during the late seventies, using custom programs chiefly written by Jim Blinn at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where NASA controls and creates unmanned space probes, such as Voyager.

That in itself is a good measure of how far computers have come. Then, Blinn wrote programs in FORTRAN to picture Voyager's encounter with Jupiter. Later, he rewrote the code to produce the graphics in The Mechanical Universe and Mathematics. Today, you can buy a home computer powerful enough to produce work that good--but you need a strong operating system, like NT, to run the applications well.

David's work appears on some Herbie Hancock albums, on posters, and in a book collection. Not surprisingly, he intended to use his computer for programs, such as Fractal Design's Painter, Adobe Photoshop, Altamira Composer, and, in the future, Adobe Premiere and Autodesk's 3D Studio. He needed a fast and capable computer with room for expansion.

After some months of research--while both David and I tried to stay abreast of the state-of-the-art in a modern-day Red Queen's race--we finally decided on equipment. We built quite a nice computer for him composed of an Intel Triton II AZP (alias "Zappa") Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI)-slot motherboard (256KB of secondary cache), an Intel Pentium/120-MHz processor (32MB of RAM), an Adaptec PCI 2940W fast and wide SCSI controller, a Conner Peripherals CFP-4207W 4GB Wide SCSI drive, an Orchid video-capture card, a Diamond Stealth 64 PCI SuperVGA card with 4MB of RAM and the multimedia MPEG decoder card, a Plextor SCSI quad-speed CD-ROM drive, a Logitech SoundMan sound card with Altec speakers, a Cirque touchpad mouse replacement, and a Wacom wireless 4" by 6" pen pad.

Topping the system off was a Nanao T2-20 monitor, a truly fine display that should serve David through the next two computers that he buys. Until flat-screen displays improve two more orders of magnitude, demanding tasks such as art, layout, and CAD are going to be done on monitors. At least, that's what you can tell your spouse when he or she asks why you need to spend $3000 on an over glorified TV.

David planned to edit video. He'd picked the Conner hard drive because reviews claimed it had the highest sustained throughput in its class. We tested the system at 5MB per second throughput, which is extremely good, under Windows 3.11.

We installed Windows 3.11, intending to install Windows 95 or NT afterward. The installation went well enough: Applications loaded fine. David got some actual work done after two weeks of dinking and twiddling with hardware--the kind of time-suck that computers are supposed to prevent. Along came August 24, and David eyed Windows 95 with a certain interest. He decided to be adventurous and install it: This became important during NT installation a few weeks later.

NT in the Cross Hairs
I didn't expect any problems installing NT: The hardware was pretty stable under Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, the motherboard was the most popular available for the Pentium, and everything else was on the Hardware Compatibility List, or HCL in Microsoft parlance. (I guess those initials mean equipment goes on the list only after passing the "acid" test!)

We cracked open a new copy of NT Version 3.51 and loaded the first two install floppies. At the hardware-recognition step, where NT determines what equipment it has available, we got the dreaded blue screen. That screen is equivalent to UNIX's panic messages or an Amiga guru meditation number and is similarly oriented toward the expert.

Unlike my previous NT installation woes, which were immediately traceable to hardware, this problem seemed to be one of those mysterious puzzles that persists for weeks without resolution. "Kmode exception not handled?" "Irql not less or equal?" Not encouraging. "Page Fault?" That I remember from college. Oh, and during at least one of these tries, NT refused to recognize the SCSI controller and hard disk, too.

After some more futzing around, removing boards we didn't need for the basic install, David and I made the call to technical support. Like a jailed man, NT comes with one free--actually toll--call for help, but it's to Digital, not Microsoft. I guess this is due to the alliance between them. "Dave" (no last name), the technician who answered the phone at Digital, tried to be helpful. At his instruction, we tried different installation options: copying the files from the CD-ROM to the hard drive, custom installation, etc. We got a variety of blue-screen messages again, all of which were unhelpful--the cybernetic equivalent of "I've fallen, and I can't reach my RAM!"

The Intel motherboard wasn't on the HCL, Digital's Dave said. I mentioned that this was the most popular board around and that many of its older relatives were on the list. Sorry, no, Dave explained. Support for one board doesn't mean support for another, even for Intel products. Perhaps you should make sure you have the latest BIOS for the board. Gosh, I countered, the board's only a month old: Wouldn't it have the latest one? Interestingly enough, possibly not, Dave told us. The date on the BIOS is 1992, which obviously is incorrect because the Pentium chip wasn't built then. After an hour on the phone to Digital with no results, we hung up.

One of the major joys of being a nosy columnist is calling companies out on problems like this. Through Microsoft's public relations agency, I hooked up with Jonathan Perera in the NT group. David and I walked through what we'd done and were given some more things to try. Nothing worked. We got the "Page Fault in Nonpaged Area" error message. "Cool," said Jonathan. I was thinking of a stronger epithet.

Then, Jonathan had another idea: Have you tried turning off the RAM cache during the hardware-recognition step? Uh, no, we hadn't. (It's in boot options in CMOS setup, of all places, on this motherboard.) We ran NT's install again and--success! Off it went, copying files, albeit very slowly because we had the RAM cache turned off.

I felt pretty stupid. I knew that was a common solution to install problems but hadn't thought of it. But neither had the Digital guy! And the problem was only in the installer because we re-enabled cache after the first phase of installation was finished and NT worked fine.

A Few Things On My Mind
While we were copying files, I asked a bunch of questions:

  • If you copy NT to the hard drive before installation, why does the installer then expand all the files to disk before it copies them again? Jonathan explained that the installer doesn't discriminate between installing from CD-ROM and installing from a hard disk. This may change in the future, but for now you need more than 100MB of free disk space to install this way.
  • Why doesn't NT come with a debugger for these kinds of situations? There are too many new computers and motherboards coming out for Microsoft to test every one. More importantly, models are obsolete too quickly to test every one. Every three to six months, PC companies bring out new models or silent revisions to existing ones, or they use entirely different motherboards without changing the system model number. Providing better debugging tools, even if only on request, would cure many cases of Home-Brew Flu and decrease Microsoft's technical support bill. Microsoft is "taking that technology forward," Jonathan said, which could mean anything from "Don't bother me, kid" to "We're having a duel over that with paintball guns."

Of course, the commitment to support for NT cuts both ways. Intel should have tested this motherboard with the NT installer and made whatever changes were necessary to support it. Doubtless, vendors will do this as NT becomes more popular, just as those manufacturers who advertise themselves as "Ready for OS/2" or "SCO OK!" have done.

  • Why couldn't we get the Wacom tablet to work on NT? Windows 3.x has direct support for a "secondary pointing device," the exact thing we needed. Under NT, the support is not as explicit. This is important: If NT is to seriously challenge the Mac's dominance of graphics, it must support light pens, bitpads, etc. More accurately, NT needs a way that device manufacturers can directly integrate to the operating system, as Windows 3.x does. Artists need more natural input devices than a mouse for drawing.

More questions came up while David and I were installing.

  • Why couldn't we get the highest resolution going under NT? The Diamond Stealth 64 video card certainly supports 1280-by-1024 resolution with 24 bits of color in both Windows 3.1 and Windows 95. NT won't let you choose that many colors and that much resolution simultaneously. (Interestingly, Windows 95 won't either, limiting you to 8 bits of color at that resolution, but upon reboot, it runs in 24-bit mode anyway.) Jonathan insisted you need more than 4MB of RAM for that mode, but a little multiplication says you need only 3840KB. A call to Diamond seems in order, and the phrase "fixed in the next release" comes to mind.
  • I'd heard that NT on RISC platforms had an Intel CPU emulator, but I hadn't heard any details. Yes, Jonathan said, there's a complete 286 emulator in NT for Alpha, MIPS, and PowerPC. Any program that runs in Standard Mode under Windows 3.1 will run on those other systems. Obviously, it'll be slower than if you're on a standard office PC running Windows directly, but at least you can run them. And Microsoft is working on a 486 emulator, Jonathan added, so in the future any Windows 3.1 (and by then, probably Windows 95) applications will run.
  • What about Microsoft's applications? Will they all move to non-Intel NT platforms? Some have; many won't, at least not anytime soon, Jonathan said. Microsoft's mantra of "Ready for Windows 95" is becoming "Ready for 95 and NT," but even Microsoft isn't following that promise entirely.

The most popular application for Windows--besides Solitaire--is probably Microsoft Office. There's an Office for NT, so you can run Excel 5, Word 6, etc., on any computer that runs NT. But, concurrent with the release of Windows 95 was the new Office 95, containing Word 7, Excel 6, Access, etc., now all renumbered as 95. Jonathan said Microsoft won't move the newest Office to non-Intel NT: There's still a lot of non-portable code in Microsoft Office, stuff that will require a lot of rewriting. I think Microsoft just doesn't see the non-Intel market as large enough for the effort, at least not right now. And, if you like Microsoft Office, there's certainly nothing wrong with Excel 5 and Word 6, except that they're just not the latest versions anymore.

Jonathan also mentioned that there's a fix disk for NT 3.51 available, which is mostly patches for running Office 95 on Intel-based NT.

Success!
All this time, NT had been copying its files and setting itself up. Well, mostly: It never did recognize the Logitech SoundMan audio card. Logitech's bulletin-board system had no NT drivers and we still didn't have the Diamond card running in 1280-by-1024 mode at 24-bit resolution.

More importantly, NT had not migrated the applications from Windows 95. That is, the applications were there on the hard drive, but they weren't listed in the Program Manager. We had to use the migration facility, which is straight out of Windows 3.1 and does nothing about modifying the path or reading the .INI files for applications. Jonathan said that Windows 95's Registry file format is different from NT's, and Microsoft is working on a fix for that, too. For now, if you have a lot of applications already installed, you'll want to migrate to NT from Windows 3.1, not from Windows 95.

At that, we thanked Jonathan and the other Microsoft people for their help and hung up. But I don't find Microsoft's support policy on NT acceptable, and I told them so. Either NT is a desktop operating system with all of the desktop's support needs, or it's a network operating system, where it's more or less OK to refer support to a dealer network. One toll call at no additional charge is not enough technical support for installation, especially when the caller gets no satisfaction. I had to pull rank--tell them I was a Windows NT Magazine columnist--to get a solution. For now, if your business depends on getting NT up and running, I strongly recommend you get supported hardware or a "no work, no pay" invoice from your vendor.

Contact Info
Adaptec * 408-945-8600
Cirque * 800-454-3375
Conner Peripherals: 714-641-1230
Diamond * 408-325-7000
Intel * 800-538-3373
Logitech * 800-231-7717
Nanao * 800-800-5202
Plextor * 800-886-3935
Wacom * 800-922-9348