Don't you hate it when someone says "Do you want the good news or the bad news?" and then, when asked for the good news, replies "There isn't any". I really do try so hard to avoid inflicting this on people I know, but sometimes it's inevitable. And usually it's when they've asked me to look at their computer which is "playing up", "running very slowly", or simply won't start at all. I really should look in the mirror sometime to see what I look like when smiling sweetly at the same time as gritting my teeth.
So there I was, a few days earlier, sitting in front of a Packard Bell mini-tower that proudly wears its "Pentium 4 Inside" and "Designed for Windows XP" badges. According to the manufacturer's label on the back it's just over five years old, and it's even got a blue LED on the front so it looks reasonably respectable sitting alongside my more contemporary machines. But, inside, it's severely screwed up. You can tell that because the only program that will run is Internet Explorer; and it takes three minutes to struggle onto the screen. Any other .exe pops up the "Choose a program to open this file with" dialog, and all of the Control Panel applets just display an error message that Rundll can't be found.
It looks like it's suffering from at least the W32.Sircam virus, or something similar, and no doubt others as well since none of the four different anti-virus software programs that have been installed during its lifetime are running now. And this was probably confirmed when the owner, a friend of my wife, revealed she'd had a phone call from "a foreign-sounding gentleman" who said he was "associated with Microsoft", had been alerted that her computer had a virus, and that he could repair it over the phone for only 65 pounds (to be pre-paid by credit card). Needless to say I advised her against taking up his offer.
So what to do? I can't get Regedit or any of the utilities on my home-made rescue/repair CD to run. If I boot into safe mode I have no keyboard - neither I nor the computer owner has one with the old PS2 connector, and it doesn't recognize a USB one at boot time. So I can't use the boot menu options, and my original plan of simply stopping the boot loading of drivers and running some scans to remove malicious software is in tatters. Do I want to take the drive out and put it in one of my working machines to scan it? Probably not.
Of course, a quick phone call to the owner reveals that it has all of her photos, letters, and other never-been-backed-up-and-irreplaceable files on it. And, as expected, she "didn't get any discs with it", and there seems to be no rescue mechanism installed either. Windows Explorer won't run, but I can get Internet Explorer to show the disk contents by typing "C:\" in the address bar. So at least I can rescue those valuable files onto a thumb drive.
But as to the operating system, what do I suggest she do? With no rescue or O/S disk, I can't reinstall XP. I could suggest she buy a copy of Windows 7, but I have no idea if it will work on this machine and I can't run the Upgrade Advisor. A full version costs more than the machine is worth, and I don't know if an upgrade version will work (there is no Windows Key sticker on the machine, so I don't know how valid the installed O/S is). In either case, it's going to cost somewhere north of 70 pounds to buy Windows 7 and it may not work afterwards.
In reality, the advice has to be to dispatch the machine to the great God of recycling and buy something more up to date. I can rescue the precious files, and there's nothing inside the box in terms of hardware that's worth saving. She'll end up with something that's much faster and responsive, more resilient to malware, nicer to use, and has a lot more capabilities. But it means finding 250 to 300 pounds that she probably didn't want to spend.
Yet, only a couple of weeks ago, I was raving about how Windows 7 brought several old computers back to life. However, the problem machine was obviously a bargain basement version compared to the various Dell machines mentioned in that post. The beast I'm looking at here seems to use technology from the 2002 - 2003 era, even though it was built in 2006.
Maybe this is the real issue. Most people I talk to still think of a computer as a "thing" that is the same no matter where it comes from or how much it costs. The same people would realize that a TV costing 100 pounds would be very unlikely to have a 48 inch high-definition screen and a full surround sound system, or that paying the price of a budget motorcar would get them a Ferrari.
Perhaps the issue is that almost any computer you buy, even those at the bottom end of the price range, works just fine out of the box. It's only when you actually get to use it for real over a long period, or upgrade it in a few years' time, that you discover you bought something that was effectively out of date when it was new. Oh well, as they say, you get what you pay for...