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Have PCs become more frustrating, or is it just me?

Usually, I consider myself a pretty knowledgable Computer User. I always have a screwdriver handy, and I even know which end a soldering iron gets hot on. My last Computer I didn't build myself was a 1988 Commdore PC1. However, my latest experiences fiddling with Computers and Computer games have been more frustrating than usual.

Page Overview : Usual (?)Problems - Voodoo - mini monitor + ELSA - screw it not - SB incompatible + Pentium Performance + Rage 3D - CDROM kaput - Unchanging Changer - Microsoft - StarFleet 2D + GL Monster Kill - Losing Memory? * What do you think?

Usual (?) problems It started last year when I had to replace a floppy drive that suddenly had failed in my 486DX2/80 Tower, which houses 1 IDE and 3 SCSI drives, one of them a 5½" full-height beast. The replaced drive failed a few days after I put it in. The problem is not yet resolved.I also had some problems earlier in the year getting some PCs to run; the one I built for Myriam to take with her to Celle where she's an "apprentice" teacher for biology and mathematics suffered from a failed HD controller and funny behavior when coupled to another machine via an Interlink cable. This is all "electronics" stuff and I expect trouble of that sort. Another machine (486 EISA board with 16 SIMM slots) showed spurious parity errors when fitted with 16 1MB-SIMMs, but basically ran. After cannibalizing this one for Myriam's machine, I put some other old parts in to make a machine for Jakob Jonas (2½ years) to use when watching his Brøderbund Living Book (he's hogging the Pentium for that now, and that IS frustrating when you want to use the time to play a quick pod race). That machine didn't work at all well, and the trouble is not resolved, either. I'll make another try with my old 386/40 board and see if that helps. As I stated above, that is usual trouble and always went with building PCs, I think.

Frust the 1st - Voodoo It started getting really frustrating when I took advantage of falling prices and bought a Guillemot Maxi Gamer 3dfx Voodoo card to speed up GTA on my 486/120 where I run Win95 and access the Internet. Problem 1: It wouldn't work. The PnP BIOS didn't show the card, Win95 gave it 8 bytes instead of the big chunk it needs for mapping the card's memory, and Glide apps didn't work, either. DirectX, you ask? The 200MB C: partition had not enough space to hold DirectX 5, partly because the system folder had swollen to 140MB. I made a few backcups (most programs are on other partitions), formatted C: and reinstalled Win95. I installed the S3Trio64PCI drivers for my 2D-card, installed directX 5, installed the Maxi Gamer drivers, no go. I tried it in different orders, changed slots, downloaded new drivers, switched the Trio64 for a S3Virge card I had lying around (bought it for the LCD Shutterglasses that came with it when it was on sale), reinstalled Win95 a couple of times in the process, but the best I got was a black screen, most of the time I didn't even get that when I wanted to use 3D features, often the machine would simply lock up. Ok, I thought, maybe it's the 486 board, it was one of the last ones out and should be compatible, but I wanted to build a Pentium anyway, so I did that and found the Trio64 showed vertical stripes in the Pentium at any SVGA resolution, and the Voodoo card would still not be recognized. When I went to claim a refund the price had dropped 79 DM (I still got the price I paid for it back, luckily). Most frustatrating: because of the frequent Win95 re-installs, I didn't restore my Internet configuration after I gave up on the Voodoo, and so was offline for about a month.

Frust the 2nd - mini monitor After fiddling with the graphics cards in the 486/120, I finally left the S3 Virge card in it. What's the problem? When I switched monitors (the 486 got degraded to a non-adjustable SuperSync 2A VGA monitor), the S3 Virge card showed quite a wide black margin, thus reducing it from a 14" to a 13"-monitor, in effect. This probably means I'll have to adjust my monitor upgrade plans.

Delight the 1st - ELSA Following the 3dfx desaster, I bought an ELSA Victory Erazor Riva128 card which cost only 50DM more and put it in the Pentium. It worked at once and has excellent performance. The P200 runs GTA without 3D-acceleration at 600x800x16 at full speed. The video input works like a charm. The 15" VESA DCC monitor is recognized and works well. I have a good feeling about this.

Frust the 3rd - screw it not When I put the 3.5" Floppy in the Pentium, I found that one of the nuts on the floppy already had a screw in it which was broken off flush with frame - no easy way to get it out. Result: luckily, I had a second drive handy; when I made that trip to the store, they exchanged the screwy drive.

Frust the 4th - SB incompatible When I bought the parts for the Pentium, SB16PnP cards were reduced, so I bought one. My first Soundcard was a SB 2.0 deluxe with Lemmings and Indianapolis 500 thrown in, and my second soundcard was a used SB16 ASP SCSI-2, which features good sound complete with bass and treble filters you can set from the control panel. Since I tend to use cheapo walkman speakers (conrad electronics has "CD" speakers for DM 10 a pair) which use the 2 Watt the soundcard provides for a sound that those small active speakers can't really surpass (and those need batteries or another power cable), being able to boost the bass is a decided advantage. I do have one of my computers hooked up to my stereo, but I can't all hook them up, and when I want to listen to a tape while playing, I need extra speakers for the PC. Now I expected the SB16PnP to also have the bass and treble settings; when I installed it, the splash screen asked in red big letters "Are you compatible?", the meaning seemingly being that Creative products would be. Well, that one wasn't - no bass or treble settings: I could've bought a cheaper soundcard. However, in one respect the compatibility has been preserved: some games (empire deluxe, for one) lock the PC after an extended period of play; these lock-ups are clearly SB16-related, as turning sound off or changing the soundcard cures it; and with the new SB16PnP, I already had GLQu### do suspiciously sound-related locks on me after extended play, so it seems that "feature" is completely compatible with the old SB16.

Delight the 2nd - Pentium Performance The pentium machine works pretty well altogether; just when I had built it, pod became available as a cheapo magazine version, so I bought it and played it a bit. Somewhat undelightful about pod is the absence of fan sites on the web, but the UbiSoft site is fairly good. Also undelightful is that I couldn't get it to run on the 486/120, thus precluding multiplayer races (except for splitscreen) until a second pentium is here.

Delight the 3rd - Rage 3D While some reviewers seem not to like this gamepad that much, I must say I do. DOS performance is limited to Win95 DOS boxes, but it says so clearly on the package, so no frustrations there. In analog mode, I can play a wicked game of pod with it; no hand cramping, which I usually get when playing the keyboard on games like this; Myriam has observed that I am so immersed in the game that I actually turn the Thrustmaster Rage 3D as if it was a steering wheel...

Frust the 5th - CDROM kaput After a couple weeks of happy gaming, the new CDROM drive of the Pentium quit. Just an hour ago, I had installed some software packages, and suddenly it couldn't recognize any CDROM at all, helplessly seeking the disk before giving up. There was no gradual deterioration, as would be with a misalignment or dust, it just happened at once. Oh, when it first hapened, a reboot brought the BIOS to state that that was not an ATAPI drive or some such error. Should a CDROM drive go to pot after only 3 weeks of light use? Of course, when I brought it to the store, they couldn't find anything wrong with it... The changer I installed meanwhile also started blinking helplessly after a few weeks. Doing an IDE detect in the BIOS setup cured the problem - but why did it happen in the first place?

Frust the 6th - Unchanging Changer When I went back to the store to get a new CDROM drive, I saw a 6-disk, 8x-speed TEAC C68E CDROM changer for DM 169, which seemed a good buy. I used to have an old NEC 4x4 changer which quit on me (gradually) because of old age, and I know thus that I like having one. One problem with the NEC was that I couldn't get it to work in Single-Letter mode under Win95, but then NEC didn't have dedicated Win95 drivers for that old beast. Single-Letter mode, btw, is when all 6 CDROMs are assigned the same drive letter (X:, in my case; why X:? changing the HD partitions or adding a disk won't change that letter, and programs can still find the CDROM where it was when the program was installed); Multi-Letter is when each slot has is own letter. The disadvantage of Multi is that Win95 seeks each slot when it boots, taking more than 30 seconds to do so; also you have to remember which slot you installed that game for, while in single you can use the slots interchangeably, and also trick multi-CD games such as 11th Hour that don't support multiple drives to accept the CD as changed when in fact you only changed the slot from the drive's front panel. There are some games (such as The Pandora Directive) that support multiple drives, but most don't. So what's so frustrating about it? Without special drivers, the changer acts as a single ATAPI CDROM drive; only slot 1 is usuable. The drive firmware allows playing audio CDs from the front panel in every slot, but that's it. The TEAC drivers give you Multi and Single modes if you can get them installed, which I couldn't. They seem to need to replace the Win95 IDE drivers, and since they don't understand the acer UltraDMA chipset, that didn't work. Neither did the latest update I downloaded from the net, and even if it did I'd probably have lost the UDMA mode. The TEAC FAQ says in case of problems to use the Microsoft CD changer driver which seems to be part of OSR2 and can be downloaded from MS; I already have it because I used it for the NEC 4x4, and it only does Multi-Letter. Sigh. Why can't they produce a CDROM Changer that, without special drivers, poses as a single ATAPI drive, but allows switching slots from the front panel? If you need the old behaviour, make a jumper to select between them, but do it!

Frust the 7th - Microsoft I like the Sidewinder 3D Pro a lot. The 4th axis that is turning the handle makes for exceptional performance in all flight games; my Descent performance improved significantly when I switched to that stick. Circling is no problem. I bought my first Sidewinder when my usual sticks were to innaccurate to fly a Navy Fighters plane (which is hard to do if they won't keep flying straight). However, I have never ever seen the 4 base buttons work yet. As far as I'm concerned, MS could as well have forgotten to wire them. The reason must be that the sound card gameports I typically use are somehow incompatible with the digital mode of that Joystick. The most frustrating part is that microsoft does not mention this on the box, they don't have a compatibility list so I can buy a gameport that will support it, and the MS knowledgebase is totally ignorant of any entries about "Sidewinder".

Addendum 8/98: I found the Sidewinder Device Software V.3 on a magazine coverdisk, and it addresses my complaints. The stick works in digital now, and included was a hardware and software compatibility list as well as a pointer to the correct website. Why the Sidewinder 3D Pro produced 2/1998 still had the 1.5 software disk in the box is beyond me. One wonders how much money microsoft's expensive tech support nets...

Frust the 8th - StarFleet 2D I like Star Trek (sort of), I like the Star Trek adventures, I like Descent, so Star Fleet Academy seemed like a logical buy; so much so that I even bought the game before it got available at budget prices (GTA was another one I had to get at full price). Now this is a space flight simulation game with Multiplayer capability, and Myriam likes Start Trek, too, so she was likely to play it (she didn't like Descent, alas), so I got a second Sidewinder 3D Pro when I bought the game. As it turns out, this was totally useless, because unless someone shows me otherwise, StarFleet Academy will only support a regular two-axis joystick.

Delight the 4th - GL Monster Kill After playing the Doom Demo and playing a little bit of Duke 3D, I felt that these games were pretty shallow, I didn't like to run around in Dungeons and stuck to Descent and Magic Carpet for action (actually, I've played quite a bit of System Shock, too, which also doesn't have Dungeon graphics, and features interesting riddles). More recently, a good Scout has now and again mentioned Qu### (which I may not advertise for in Germany, that's why I can't mention the name), and since there seem to some nifty levels out there, I decided to try it on the Pentium. (Trying it on the 486 seemed pointless - from my descent experiences, 3D games are not worth playing in 240x320 or without a decent frame rate). I got a budget copy for DM 40, installed it, it ran quite nice. I got the new ELSA Victory Erazor drivers that add full OpenGL support to that Riva128 board (no mini client like other people have to put up with, and it will run in a window!). Drawback: Video input now seems to work correctly only at full res, but I expect ELSA to solve that problem soon. I got GLQu### from the net, that was easy to find. A bit more difficult is finding the OpenGL DLL that will utilize the driver, but choosing the MS offer seems to work ok. GLQu### runs 640x480x16 at 33 fps. Quite satisfactory, I thought. Even harder to find on the web is VISpatch, a utility that makes the levels have transparent water in Glqu###; lots of sites mention it, but only one actually has it, as far as I've seen. Fairly hard to find is the documentation for the DInput Joystick setup, but once found, I could set up my Sidewinder 3D Pro to my heart's content. When I have the Pentium hooked up to the Internet, ask me for a circling match if you have a mouse and see if you still look down on Joystick players :-)

Frust the 9th - Losing Memory? While working, my 486 locked up on me, beeping (what's that noise? can't remember setting an alarm clock? Why is that PC not reacting any more?!?). After rebooting, I found it sluggish, always accessing the hard drive. After a while (it was late) I noticed my 32MB RAM had been reduced to 16. Turning the machine on and off didn't help. Opening it up, finding the SIMMs securely seated but jiggling them a bit anyway cured the trouble - for how long?

So have these frustrations always been with us, and I've been lucky before, or do they constitute a recent development? What do you think?

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Created by Michael Mendelsohn 29. Aug 98