Windows 2000 Professional's Minuses Outweigh Plusses in Five-Day Ordeal

by Bryan Pfaffenberger

I decided to see whether I could successfully install Windows 2000 Professional on a computer that had been running Linux quite nicely, thank you, for nearly four years. Of course, this was a flagrantly stupid thing to do, given that the Windows 2000 Professional docs insist that you shouldn't even try to install the software without first making sure that one's hardware is fully compatible. But I've gotten Linux to work successfully with less-than-compatible hardware, and part of my experiment was to find out just how flexible Windows 2000 might be in this respect. So, I moved all my data off Lothlorien, my well-loved but somewhat elderly Linux-powered PII-400, wiped out Linux and installed Windows 2000 Professional. I mean, I tried to.

The experiment failed. Although Lothlorien readily accepted and ran Red Hat Linux 5.2 through 7.0, it greeted Windows 2000 with all the enthusiasm of a patient rejecting an incompatible organ transplant. In a futile attempt to get Windows 2000 to run, I attempted to upgrade my motherboard, succeeding only in zapping the BIOS. In the end, I had to buy over $500 of new hardware and a copy of Windows ME to get Lothlorien working again. I lost days of work, came close to committing a crime, suffered through innumerable crashes and lost my temper repeatedly--and Lothlorien still isn't functioning with anything close to the stability it had when it was running Linux.

What's wrong with this picture? In case you miss my point, I'm not trying to bash Microsoft or Windows 2000. I know that Windows 2000 installs very nicely on fully compatible, up-to-date hardware. In addition, I'm not claiming that any of what follows is Microsoft's fault, really. I made mistakes, didn't read the docs as well as I should have and made dumb decisions, the most glaring of which, I am sorely tempted to say, is the one that launched this entire endeavor. Arguably, my hardware is flaky, even though Linux had no trouble running it. But, darn it, Microsoft has gazillions to spend on improving the installation experience and legions of talented programmers. Shouldn't a user such as myself be able to install Windows 2000 Professional successfully--even when my hardware isn't 100% certified by the hardware compatibility list? After all, I've pulled this trick on Linux a few times. Admittedly, I wouldn't claim to be a technical genius, but I am good enough to install Linux--many times, with varying distributions, on a variety of systems--without experiencing more than passing difficulties that I was, in each instance, able to resolve successfully. And Linux, as you know, is supposed to be so hard to install!

WARNING: What follows is not for the faint-hearted; you will encounter graphic depictions of hardware incompatibilities, irrational decisions and fits of rage. Vivid descriptions of motherboard destruction may prove disturbing to young computer users. Do not try this at home!

Day 1

Looking back, the decision seemed reasonable at the time. My employer, the University of Virginia, had the temerity to demand that I return the Windows-powered notebook system I had been using. I try to stay conversant with the three leading operating systems, Windows, Linux and Mac OS, and, suddenly, I no longer had a Windows system around. But I did have two systems running Linux, and one of them, dubbed Lothlorien in my Middle Earth-inspired network, now seemed redundant. I purchased a copy of Windows 2000 Professional and forged ahead.

I figured I'd be back on-line within two hours, maybe three. But the gods have ways of punishing hubris.

The first time-consuming ordeal followed quickly after I inserted the Windows 2000 Professional CD-ROM to begin the installation process. Although my system had no trouble booting from Red Hat CD-ROMs, it wouldn't boot from the Windows disc. I solved this easily enough. I borrowed my son's Windows-powered notebook, made a Windows 98 emergency disk and booted from Drive A.

Next, I attempted to use the venerable DOS fdisk utility, one of the utilities provided on the emergency disk, to repartition my hard drive. After all, there's no need for all those Linux-specific partitions which would map out as separate drives in the Windows universe. But fdisk kept telling me that the extended partition contained drive letters, which it damned well didn't, and refused to delete the existing partitions. In the end, I rebooted with my Red Hat Linux CD-ROM, initiated an install and used the Linux version of fdisk to eliminate the unwanted partitions. Microsoft has apparently done absolutely nothing with fdisk since the utility first appeared, back when most of you reading this column were in diapers, most likely. Anyway, I was now ready to switch to the CD-ROM drive and start the Windows 2000 Setup utility. When I did, I was asked to type in my verification code.

The next ordeal was moral and legal. I am ashamed to admit this, but I came close to committing a crime.

Never one to keep my personal space all that neatly organized, I had misplaced the Windows 2000 Professional CD-ROM jewel box and, with it, the all-important verification code which is printed on a sticker that is, in turn, glued to the jewel box. I spent a frustrating hour looking for jewel box, without success. The Windows documentation provided a number to call if you can't find your verification code, but it turned out to be the piracy hotline, and I feared they wouldn't believe my story. Of course, I had also misplaced the receipt for the program purchase along with the jewel box.

Another member of my family, who must remain anonymous, handed me a list of verification code numbers that he'd found in a few minutes of web searching. I came darned close to using one of them, which would have been, of course, a heinous criminal act, despite the fact that I own a lawfully purchased copy of Windows 2000 Professional. You'd think they could put a copy of the verification code number in the manual! Fortunately, the jewel box finally turned up. I typed in the number, and all was well once again.

From there, things seemed to go smoothly. (Ha!) After about an hour of disk-grinding, the early afternoon saw Windows 2000 Professional on-screen.

The first impression? Terrible. Windows 2000 Professional didn't detect my video adapter and, as a result, I was looking at a 640 x 480 display with 16-color resolution. Also not detected was my SCSI adapter and, in consequence, my Zip drive and CD-ROM drive didn't work. From my sound card issued an occasional shriek along with ominous buzzing noises.

When seasoned Linux users run into problems of this sort, they drop everything and go on-line to find the answers, which is just what I did. What a shock! In place of the Linux community's abundant self-help resources, I found a series of rather sleazy commercial sites, loaded with blinking GIF animations, popup windows, demands for site registration and something like user discussion, but none of them offered usable help. One search brought up a site with what appeared to be a user posting, an individual pleading for help with his Zip Zoom SCSI adapter and Windows 2000. But there weren't any replies other than a tip to visit site such-and-such, where all your answers will be found, as long as you register and provide intimate details of your finances and web browsing behavior. There are exceptions, I'm sure, but the Windows 2000 on-line community seems to have, in general, the moral and spiritual qualities of your average porn site.

Day 2

There's a pattern here and I see it clearly now: I make my worst decisions in the morning. As dawn broke on Day 2, I resolved that I would damned well get this system running, even if my hardware wasn't officially labeled as compatible. From Linux, I've learned that it's often possible to get quasi-compatible hardware running with a bit of tweaking; after all, Windows 2000 did install and it was running. The decision seemed sensible at the time.

First, I tackled the SCSI adapter. It's a ridiculously simple ISA adapter, a Zip Zoom adapter. The Adaptec chip identified it as an AHA-1502, but the Windows Hardware Wizard doesn't list an AHA-1502. It does, however, list an AVA-1502. After spending a couple of hours doing an exhaustive web search, I found out that the Windows 2000 AVA-1502 driver is really the driver for the AHA-1502; it is, indeed, the Sparrow driver, which Linux users know and configure as the AHA-152x. And it worked.

Next, I tackled the video adapter and sound card. Windows 2000 didn't report any resource conflicts, but I discovered--after another four hours of experimentation--that the adapter and sound card seemed to be competing for the same memory address. I recall hearing that adapter manufacturers often fail to document the full range of their devices' resource usages, and my experience seems to bear this out. (Now I know what they mean by "Plug and Pray.")  After remapping the video adapter's memory addresses, I had everything working (or so I thought). I shut down the system and called it a day.

Day 3

With what I thought to be a working Windows 2000 system, I began the next day by installing my  copy of Office 2000 Premium, a process that ate up a couple of hours. Still, it went very smoothly and by noon on Day 3, I believed--stupidly, naively--that I was ready to get back to work. I fired up Word, started to write, and...Zap! The dreaded Blue Screen of Death, with the horrifying message "IRQL NOT LESS OR EQUAL".

To a competent user such as myself a message like this presents no special difficulty. One quickly deduces that the IRQL, whatever that may be, is too large. It must be less than or, at the maximum, equal to, and it is not that way now. Logic is indeed a powerful tool, is it not?  But there is just one problem. The phrase in question has no object, in the grammatical rather than the computational sense of the term. Less than or equal to what?

An hour of searching the Windows Knowledge Base turned up a troubleshooter, which indicated, as if I didn't know, that the problem was most likely due to an incompatible adapter. Still, I tried tweaking the adapter settings manually, hoping I could figure out where the conflict was occurring. Click, reboot, crash, Blue Screen of Death. Click, reboot, crash, Blue Screen of Death.

There comes a time when a rational person must say, "Enough!" Instead, I made yet another boneheaded decision. I would continue. Damn the resource conflicts, full speed ahead! The rationale was that I'd already spent two and one-half days on this quest; I wasn't going to quit until I succeeded. Dimly, I perceived that I could well spend another two and one-half days in futility, which would compound the damage, but I dismissed this thought from my mind. And why not? Marginally compatible hardware has never stopped me from getting Linux running successfully. In an attempt to pin down the problem, I spent hours working through the testing procedures suggested in the Knowledge Base troubleshooter, all without success.

Since I was reasonably certain that the problem wasn't being caused by any of the adapters, there was only one remaining possibility: motherboard incompatibility. I wasn't going to be able to get Windows 2000 working without upgrading my motherboard's BIOS.

A web search disclosed that my elderly motherboard's manufacturer was still in business, and I found that a BIOS upgrade was indeed available. Unlike the BIOS upgrades for some of the newer boards, though, the accompanying blurb said nothing about Windows 2000 compatibility. Still, I decided to give it a try; the new BIOS was designed to fix system hangs after certain memory paging events, which seemed a likely explanation for the problems I'd experienced.

I followed the instructions religiously; really, I did. I rebooted with a floppy, launched the BIOS upgrade utility and watched in horror as the utility updated all but one segment of Lothlorien's BIOS. And there it hung. For hours.

Finally, I gave up and switched off the power, knowing full well what the result would be. When I turned it back on, Lothlorien's communication organs flashed randomly, like a zombie who's just had his brain ripped out. The screen? Blank.

It's the end of the third day. With Linux, I had a fully functional computer. Now I have a pile of useless junk.

There followed a fit of rage. I yelled. I cursed. I made a big stack of every Microsoft product  I could find, piled them up in the middle of the floor and made ready to jump up and down on them until they were mashed beyond recognition.

Just in time, the words of Jimmy Buffett came to mind: "Hell, it could be my fault." If you don't believe Microsoft when they say that you shouldn't try to run Windows 2000 with incompatible equipment, you've only yourself to blame.

Windows 2000 just isn't like Linux. With Linux, hardware compatibility comes in degrees, as we all know from the famous Red Hat compatibility lists; a moderately skilled user can get any marginally compatible adapter working with a bit of tweaking and a little help from the community. With Windows 2000, apparently, it's a Boolean, either/or thing. If the hardware ain't on the list, it ain't compatible. Period.

So it was my fault all along.

The Microsoft products survived. But it was a close call.

Day 4

Another morning. Arguably, another crappy decision.

I had to replace the motherboard, that much was clear. Just about every other component of my system isn't officially compatible with Windows 2000, but it seemed clear that the major problem was the motherboard. The trouble was, I had to find a new motherboard locally. I had to get this system up and myself back to work, and that ruled out mail order.

A visit to the local computer store revealed that none of the available motherboards were on the list of Windows 2000-compatible hardware, so I decided to give up on Windows 2000 entirely. I purchased a copy of Windows ME, described by Microsoft as far more compatible with the full range of hardware out there. I bought a new motherboard, a new SCSI adapter and a new video card. Because I couldn't believe how sluggish my system ran Windows with the old PII-400 chip, I decided to buy a PIII-800. Out more than $500, I drove home with the thought--illusion--that my problems would soon be over. (You know what's coming next, don't you?)

With a new brain and several new organs, Lothlorien came alive, and I installed Windows ME. Then I reinstalled Microsoft Office. Taking into account time spent looking for verification codes, which I had misplaced as usual, this phase of my ordeal consumed another five hours.

But at last I had a working system.

Or so I thought.

Day 5

Running Windows ME, I'm left to wonder what's new about this product; it's virtually indistinguishable, apparently, from Windows 98 Second Edition, save for the inclusion of some new multimedia software (most of which is downloadable from the Web). But this is supposed to be the best choice in terms of hardware compatibility, right?

Wrong. No sooner than I fired up Word, the system froze. No Blue Screen of Death this time, just a comatose mouse pointer. I won't go into the sordid details, but another three hours of system configuration and rebooting finally unveiled a resource conflict involving my new more up-to-date hardware, a conflict that Windows ME didn't initially register, for some reason. Parenthetically, I think I made a mistake opting for ME; Windows 2000 may offer less compatibility, but it gives you more tools for figuring out what's wrong. I also think it's more stable, once you've worked out the resource conflicts. But I can't bear to go through another install.

By late afternoon on the fifth day, I finally had a working Windows ME system, and I'm using it right now to compose this column. I still have the odd, unaccountable crash every now and then, but such crashes are of the type you associate with a flawed memory architecture and buggy software rather than a deep, underlying and undetected hardware problem. The intermittent crashes sure do keep you on your toes, though. Don't forget to enable Autosave!

I haven't experienced an essentially unstable OS in quite a while, and it's bringing back a recollection of...of...of what? Oh, I remember.

Of why I installed Linux in the first place.

Bryan Pfaffenberger ( http://www.people.virginia.edu/~bp/) is Associate Professor of Technology, Culture and Communication at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and a UNIX (subsequently Linux) user since the mid-1980s. He assures us that he is recovering from his ordeal.

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