Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 139 / APRIL 1992 / PAGE 46

Help with hardware. (computers) (Column)
by Tony Roberts

One of the secrets to getting the most out of your hardware is to take advantage of support services offered by vendors. Although many vendors provide phone numbers that you can call for information, it can be difficult to get a straight answer from someone by telephone. Fortunately, there are alternatives.

The bulletin board systems operated by many hardware and software manufacturers can be a real gold mine for anyone who has a modem. On these systems, you'll usually find the latest information about a product, as well as notices about bug fixes, workarounds, and upgrades.

Not long ago I purchased a new Super VGA adapter. I ordered it from a supplier who bought it from a distributor who got it from who knows where. Although my suppler tries to keep up-to-date, I know he doesn't always have the latest information on every piece of equipment he sells.

So after I installed the video board, I called the manufacturer's BBS and checked out the message base and the files available for downloading, I discovered that the ROM for the board recently had been upgraded, giving the board additional capabilities.

When I tested my board, I found that I had the old ROM and called the company about getting an update. There was nothing to it. I gave the receptionist my name and address, and three days later I had the new chip. It took a little work, but in the end I received all the capability I'd paid for. If I hadn't investigated, I might never have learned about the upgrade.

In addition to picking up the news about the new BIOS chip, I also located a couple of interesting video utilities that demonstrated the capabilities of my new board.

Many manufacturers have forums on GEnie and CompuServe in addition to separate company-based bulletin boards. These forums are great places to discover whether or not anyone else has already unscrambled the problem that's vexing you.

Don't overlook these BBS systems as a way to get the most out of your equipment. In many cases, these systems are maintained by the programmers and designers who created the products you're asking about. What better source of information could there be?

Manufacturers also can be of assistance in helping you reclaim castoff parts. Many offices accumulate boxes of memory boards, modems, and input/output cards that have become separated from their documentation. These mystery boards could be of value if only someon knew how to set the dip switches and jumpers. With a little detective work, you may be able to enhance your system with some of these rejects.

First try to determine whether the hardware is in the junk box because it doesn't work (is it burned, broken, or missing chips?) or because no one knows how to make it work.

If you find a board that appears to be in good shape, check its markings for either the name or initials of the manufacturer. Sometimes these will appear as part of a copyright notice. Also, make note of the board's serial number, and if it has a revision number, make note of it, too.

Next, determine exactly how you want to use the hardware. In the case of an I/O card you might want to configure its parallel port as LPT2 and its serial port as COM3. Dig up the phone number of the manufacturer and place a call to technical support.

If you have good information on the board's markings and serial number and if you know exactly how you want to use it, chances are you can get the help you need to return the board to service. Also, ask technical support how you can get a copy of the pertinent documentation so you can change the configuration again later if necessary.

Unfortunately, this mystery hardware is all over the place. In some cases, documentation for these boards was lost or thrown out; but in many cases, documentation was never provided. Some vendors fail to give you the booklet for the video adapter, the internal modem, or the I/O card when they build a system for you.

Perhaps they assume that if you get the system home and it works, you'll be happy forever. Sorry, but that doesn't suit me. Computer boards are modular--designed for mix and match--and in an office environment there's value in moving hardware to the station where it'll do the most good.

In addition, more and more homes are housing multiple computers, and being able to swap components is essential. You may want to let your children use an older system for their schoolwork and gameplay, but you may want to keep that system's I/O card for your new computer. Without the documentation, you have a problem. If you have easy access to the switch and jumper settings, reconfiguration is pretty simple.

Keep this in mind as you shop for computers and demand adequate documentation for every component you purchase. I've had computer dealers tell me I didn't need any documentation. My reply has been that I may not need it, but I want it because I might need it later on.