Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 130 / JUNE 1991 / PAGE 90

Ghost in my machine. (tips for installing new software in your PC)
by Daniel Janal

Everyone loves a good mystery--except when it concerns your computer. And when that computer is essential to your home business, a mystery is almost certainly murder most foul.

One night after work, just recently, I installed a new software program that I was sure would help me create better-looking documents. It didn't take long to discover that the software I had just bought didn't work properly without a companion program--which I hadn't bought. So I went back to my trusty, old program.

That's when the problems started. The software didn't load.

I panicked. I couldn't work without my old software, which reads all the files I've created over the past five years.

I called my favorite computer guru, who patiently walked me through the vagaries of CONFIG.SYS HIMEM.SYS, and other DOS combobulations. He suggested that my new program had corrupted the other files. That made sense. I took the new program off my hard disk and reconfigured the system. The problem persisted.

I called the folks who had sold me the computer. They couldn't have been nicer, even though the warranty had expired months earlier. I returned the computer, and they spent four hours (for free!) looking at the system, testing parts, and making backups. That's when we found a problem--the command file for my word processor was corrupted. We reasoned that the sector of the disk upon which the file was stored had been damaged by the hard drive head hitting the exact same spot 40 times a day, every day, for the past 10 months.

I was so relieved that I promptly ordered two megabytes of memory so it would run my new software program more efficiently. The technician even upgraded my ROM BIOS for free.

But I had forgotten Janal's Theory: If something can go wrong, then two things will go wrong, so you can't do an independent, scientific test to pinpoint the first problem.

I reloaded by word processor. It worked, but then my checkbook program froze. I figured that the new memory was bad. Or maybe that the new BIOS was to blame.

I lugged the computer back to the store. They couldn't figure out why my computer had locked up. They copied my checkbook program to the D drive. It worked fine. They reset the memory and exchanged the new BIOS for the old. We didn't have an answer, but my computer worked. I lugged it back home.

I loaded the word processor again and typed a few lines. The cursor stopped dead. I repeated my actions ten times with the same results. I'm not a computer expert, but I figured something had to be wrong.

I returned to the repair center for the third time. I set up, typed away, and waited for the lockup. Of course, it didn't lock up at all. Very embarrassing. It was here we entered the computing Twilight Zone. The technicians wondered if the problem might lie in electromagnetic fields in my office. "Was there any new construction near your office?" they asked. Maybe. "Well, put aluminum foil around the bottom of the computer," they said.

Then I noticed two clues. The computer was lying flat. I turn mine on the side. Could that be it? We used their keyboard. I drove home and got my keyboard. We plugged it in, and I typed away. The computer froze. And it froze immediately after I invoked a TSR. Things were getting interesting. Was it my keyboard, or was it my TSR?

I headed home, feeling like I'd finally solved the mystery. Once in my office, I set the unit on its side, wrapped it in aluminum foil so it resembled my Thanksgiving turkey, plugged in a keyboard from an old computer, removed the TSR, typed a bit, and then left the room for an hour. When I returned, I found the computer running fine. No problem, I thought.

The next day, I turned the computer on and heard two odd beeps. XCMOS Checksum Error, the computer told me. Another mystery. One friend suggested I replace the batteries. Another thought there was a hairline fracture of the motherboard. I wondered if that would be covered by major medical. My computer seems to work fine--even with the error. Maybe it just needs a little tender loving care.

Still, I expect it to die any minute. But before that happens, I'd like to propose a few strategies to help you deal with computer problems that arise in your home office:

* Make copies of your files regularly and store them somewhere safe, outside your house.

* Buy your computer from a reputable dealer who offers good service.

* Before buying a computer from a mail-order company, make sure the firm has a good reputation and a good service attitude. Be informed.

* If you buy through the mail, you'll want to find a local computer doctor with a good reputation. Compare carry-in and on-site service rates.

* Never introduce two new elements to your computer at the same time. If one part is bad, you'll have trouble pinpointing the culprit.

As for me, I think that my computer is haunted.