Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Windows Driver Nightmares

All I was trying to do was play a game. The last time I'd the opportunity to relax in this manner was spring of 2000, and so I had to dig out all my toys in order that I might more completely be immersed in the experience. I have a Thrustmaster joystick, throttle, rudder pedals and as my graphics card (Elsa Gladiac) supports wireless, shuttering 3D glasses, I was somehow  compelled to purchase them as well.All told, these toys added up to about $700.00 CDN – pretty steep for somebody who doesn't have time to play games.

So, I plugged everything in, loaded up Decent 3, put on my geeky glasses and prepared for battle. Normally, the 3D experience in Decent with the glasses activated is such that it actually produces feelings of vertigo – today, nothing. I went to the control panel to see if anything was amiss... nope. As Elsa shipped software on CDs in the original boxes which don't recognise the card (brilliant), I wasn't able to use any of the diagnostic utilities which may have discovered the nature of the problem. Elsa had no apology for me when I called regarding this issue, saying that the bundled software was of little value beyond the driver which was the only CD that actually semi-worked.

Having recently installed some software which upgraded my system to the latest version of DirectX, I deduced that this might be the culprit as the glasses require DirectX support to function. I went to the Elsa site in order to attempt to discern whether or not this was an issue by way of investigating their FAQ. Nothing. I DID however discover that there was a new video driver available for my card. Thinking that this might solve the problem (and perhaps improve performance and stability) I downloaded it and proceeded with the upgrade. That was the beginning of what proved to be two days of frustration – when all I had been trying to do was relax.

The driver crashed my system. When attempting to reboot, it got about half way through the Windoze start-up sequence and then stubbornly refused to continue. Of course you don't get any error message – it simply sits there obstinately waiting for you to divine that something's amiss. I was left with little option other than to reboot in "safe mode" (which should more appropriately  be named "crippled mode") in order that I might poke around the system to discover the source of the difficulty. As everything had seemed to install correctly (I installed the new driver again just to make sure) I rebooted figuring the initial system hang must have been the result of some anomaly – nope.

Having little patience for this, I decided to kill the new driver and reinstall the old one. So, I booted the system in safe mode again only to discover that there was no CD-ROM support. Great. I booted to the command prompt and ran the MSCDEX program to enable support for the CD drive. I then ran the set-up program for the original driver. "This program requires Microsoft Windows". Terrific. The fact that the CD driver was now loaded didn't seem to matter once I got back into Windows as again, it didn't recognise the drive. So I figured I'd just copy the contents of the CD over to my C: drive and run it directly from there once back in Windows safe mode.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has seen fit to do away with the majority of useful DOS programs included in Win98 so the diskcopy option was unavailable to me; I had to use xcopy instead. After fiddling with command switches to get the half a million subdirectories to transfer correctly, I ran the install program from the hard drive in safe mode. Useless – it crashed.

So, I figured that perhaps I could run it from a CD drive on one of my other machines over the network. Of course, upon reboot, my network was unavailable despite the fact that I had selected the "with network support" boot option in safe mode. Fine. I figured I'd just go download the old driver from Elsa's site on one of my other machines, save it to a diskette and install it that way. Inevitably, the old driver was not to be found. However, there were several recommendations regarding bios upgrades required to ensure driver compatibility. I tried them all – to no avail.

Finally, I decided to totally deinstall the Elsa driver and use the standard Microsoft VGA in order to get CD support in Windows after rebooting to standard mode. It worked! – sort of. Every time the system booted it saw the PnP card and reinstalled the new driver for it without asking me whether I wanted to do that or not – so of course, the next time I chose to boot it would hang again. As installing the old driver over the new didn't work either, I had to finally search the entire hard drive for all files (strewn everywhere) associated with the new driver which weren't deleted despite the fact I had uninstalled it, manually delete them, and reinstall the old driver. Success! Did the 3D glasses work now? Nope. Why not? Upon further investigation I discovered the cable had come loose. Class, can you spell M-O-R-O-N?

The moral? Seek simple solutions first, next, if Microsoft technology is involved and the project is not mission critical, give up – it's not worth it! Obviously I'm joking (sort of) about the last part, however it does illustrate a point. My Linux box has been up and running for 93 days now with NO crashes. The only reason it hasn't been up longer is that there was a power failure. I have to reboot my Windows machines at least twice a day for a variety of reasons. Either memory leaks slow performance to a crawl, or some blundering process decides to bring the whole system down.

How many times have you actually recovered from the "Blue Screen of Death" by exercising the options presented to you? The more bloated, and "user-friendly" MS operating systems become, the more they are a curse to those who actually know what they are doing. Microsoft's attitude that the user needn't be privy to the inner voodoo which occurs behind the scenes in their operating systems is surely now fuelling the frustrations of home users to the same degree corporate clients have been experiencing for years.

I used to look forward to Microsoft OS releases – no longer. I haven't even bothered taking a look at WinME given the plethora of associated nightmare experiences I've observed.  If this trend continues, the groundswell of discontent will by far overshadow the anti-trust case in terms of danger to the MS monopoly. Watch out for low flying penguins!

Originally published in Ottawa Computes! magazine, January, 2001, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.

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