Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dealing with the Dell … 2010 Edition

For the longest time, the Dealing with the Dell... post I did back in 2006 was a perennial top post ranker here at the GSD tech ranch.

Most of that I have to credit to Tech Blog’ist Dwight Silverman and Ed Bott who both linked to the post.

So this past week, I stopped by a senior friend’s house after work and set up his new Dell Inspiron 580 Desktop.

My o my. How far we have come.

Back in 2006, setting up that new factory-fresh Dell system took 4.5 hours.  In 2010? Just under two hours.

Sure my experience has grown since then, systems are faster, and this user’s needs were more simple than before, but it was a very refreshing experience.

The User

This wonderful mentor of mine would fall squarely in the “senior” category.  Long since retired but still very active.  He continues to grow PC savvy and I usually function as the premiere pc support source he relies upon.

He has had two laptops as well as a previous Dell desktop system.  All running Windows XP.

He surfs the web, does financial management, is getting into digital photography (after many years as a film-based hobbyist) and prints/scans stuff.

His XP system continued to experience crashes and while adequate, was showing its age.

A few weeks earlier he asked for advice on what to look for in a desktop system and I gave him my basic spiel.

Then he called me to come set it up and swing his data over onto the new system.

The System

The Dell system he purchased came with a quad-core, 6 GB of system RAM, a 500 GB SATA drive, and a new wide-screen LCD monitor.

It was loaded with Windows 7 Home Premium running as x64 bit flavor.

He had gone ahead and purchased the MS Office 2007 Student Teacher edition which was pre-loaded.

It also came with a trial McAfee Security Center.

The Setup

I didn’t have much work to do on his current XP system.  It had BSOD and (knowing I was busy with a work project) had elected to have a local PC shop work on it.  They “solved” his problem by saving his My Documents folder and a few others, overlaying XP as a fresh install, then porting his “My Documents” folder back into the fresh profile.


Gone were the Outlook Express data stores that were kept in a non-My Documents location along with a lot of other data.

Fortunately all of the key stuff was still present and he had religiously been backing up Quicken data to a USB stick and CD media.

Lessons learned…call me.  Really.  If I’m so busy I can’t look at it I can give you advice.  Anyway…

Shut down the old system.  Pulled all the cords/cables, etc and strung the new ones out of the box.

Cordless mouse and keyboard now.  Sweet.

In about ten minutes it was unboxed, cabled up, and powered on.

I quickly set up the single user account on the system and rebooted.

It was wicked-fast.

I checked the add/remove programs list and it was refreshingly clear of any and all crapware and third-party software add-on bloat.  Both the x32 and x64 bit Java versions had been loaded and were current.

No need for deployment of the awesomely helpful PC Decrapifier (recently updated to version 2.2.1).

Quick and deeper system reviews using Process Explorer and Autoruns found everything ship-shape.

Flash and Shockwave got installed and updated.

I uninstalled the McAfee trialware package.

I made sure the Windows 7 Microsoft Firewall was on and set correctly before plugging it into the DSL modem. (for some easy Win7 alternative firewalls see this The Best Free Firewalls for Windows 7: Top Firewall Options Compatible with Windows 7 Including Software from Comodo, Sunbelt, and Outpost) post.  More on why I stuck with this one later..

Windows Updates took quite while to download over DSL. (Cable broadband has spoiled me silly.)  I think there were about 32 Microsoft updates as well as maybe three hardware driver updates.

Microsoft Security Essentials also got installed and configured for daily scans about this time.

I had to enter the MS Office key and activate it.  No problems.

I installed the ACDSee Photo Software trial so our budding digital photographer could try this semi-pro application out, having learned that he wanted something a bit more sophisticated than the FastStone Image Viewer could provide, particularly in regards to photo image management.

I also tucked away downloads of ShowMyPC as well as TeamViewer Portable so we would have remote support options in place prior to any future calls for assistance to me.

We quickly loaded the latest version of Quicken which he had purchased.

Then came the HP Printer Driver update.  Windows 7 did pick up automatically the base drivers for the device, but I had to download the full x64 bit software package to realize the scanning and other advanced features his HP printer offered.

All done with no issues and in no time flat.

Using my Rosewill RCW-608 USB2.0 Adapter I finally yanked the IDE hard-drive from the XP system, connected it up to the new system, and in just over five minutes had copied over almost 20 GB of user documents, photos, music and tucked them away in their proper Windows 7 library locations.

After a quick review with the x64 bit version of Recuva as well as DiskDigger I was hopeful I could recover additional files that had been nuked, in case they were needed.  I advised my mentor to keep the drive in a safe place, out of the old system. If he found something very important later we could arrange for a data recovery at the sector level.  Othewise if all ended up being good, we could arrange for a secure wipe of the drive before he donates or tosses the old system.

Then came the Mail Client

As mentioned, he had been using Outlook Express.  I had done my homework and was all set to root out the .dbx files buried in the C:\Documents and Settings\your user name\Local Settings\Application Data\Identities\{your Windows user identity number}\Microsoft\Outlook Express location.

Unfortunately, the “crack” local PC support shop tech had only focused on the “My Documents” folder and not bothered to save the entire user-profile folder with all it’s hidden system and application files and folders.  Oh bother.

Outlook Express doesn’t come available for Windows 7.  I could have gone with Thunderbird or another email client, but to keep things simple as possible for this user I just set up Windows Live Mail (which turns out was pre-installed on his system with most of the other Windows Live items as well).

Turns out Windows Live mail is very slick and has a very simple interface.  He felt quite at home in it and it reminded me of a minimalist version of the full Outlook application.

I was all set with my Verizon email settings to manually configure it.

But I was amazingly surprised that after we had put in his Verizon email address and proceeded, Windows Live Mail had automagically pre-configured all the settings correctly!  Sweet!

Fortunately for us both, we had never set his former Outlook Express client to delete messages off the server once downloaded, so all 9500+ of his emails were still living.  Down they came (and continued long after I left).  So we were lucky that though the Outlook Express files had been nuked, they were “recoverable”.  I showed him how Windows Live mail offers to “add contact” up at the top by each email sender’s name so he can quickly rebuild his contact lists.  We reviewed the junk mail settings/folder, the calendar and how to change views and add items. Easy peasy.

Wrap up and Final Thoughts

I have to confess we have come a long way since the last time I had to set up a factory Dell system for a home user.

The process was faster, the setup was simpler, and Windows 7 alone makes a large improvement.

Because of the precipitous XP system failure/reload, I didn’t get a chance to use any of the various user/system migration tools/utilities I had brought along to the setup party.  That was good for me but clearly not a representative experience for most users moving from one physical XP/Vista system to another Windows 7 system.  Being a sysadmin I did feel very comfortable with the manual user-data transfer process and having a drive adapter made it rocket-fast.

You will have noticed also that I stuck with many Microsoft products for the security protection and web-work.  No I didn’t load Firefox.  We stuck with IE 8.  I went with MS Security Essentials and not VIPRE or AVG Free or avast! Free Antivirus or even Comodo Free Anti Virus. I didn’t even use a more robust third-party firewall with anal-retentive outbound traffic monitoring/blocking.

Why all this stock Microsoft stuff?  Clearly there are “better” browser, email, and security options out there.  I know because I use them all on my own systems at home and work. 

The answer is complex and easy at the same time:

This was not my system. 

I knew my friend and how he had used his PC over many years.  I needed to keep it simple, consistent, and easy for him to use.  That in turn will result in less need for troubleshooting and support.  The fewer deviations and more transparent the systems and software applications, the easier it would be for him to enjoy it and still remain acceptably secure.  Too much security was a bad thing as the block/allow notices from the previous firewall under XP often led to many safe and necessary things getting blocked by accident and causing support calls to me when software “just wouldn’t work right” anymore.

Sometimes hardened security options leads to more problems and frustrations.  That ends up with it being turned off.  Even worse.

Dell seems to have successfully come a long way, at least based on this system, on removing all the crapware and bloatware that used to bog down their systems.  Alas this isn’t the norm with all factory systems, but in my experience, those purchased direct from the OEM’s seem to have way fewer bloatware/crapware than those picked up at BigBox outlets and office supply stores.  And even then, in many cases even these systems seem more dialed back now with that nuisance stuff than in years past.

Yes…and given the options when setting up a new factory-fresh system and porting the old data over, on an after-work worknight, I’ll take this brave new 2010 PC world over that of 2006 anytime!

And I have to chuckle.  This still-youthful senior friend is ripping away now on a quad-core, 6 Gig RAM, 500 GB SATA drive running a x64 bit OS that is so fast we both might need to go to confession after using it.  It seems sinfully fast and robust for a simple middle-of-the-road home desktop system.

Yes indeed. How far we have come.


--Claus V.


Dwight Silverman said...

Excellent post, Claus. Very interesting.

I'm curious about your decision not to install other browsers...

Yes, it's his system. But why not install Firefox or, even better, Chrome on his machine, and not leave shortcuts on the desktop or taskbar? If he wants to play with them, they are available, but won't get in the way.

Also ... why use a 3rd party remote access program when the one included with Win7 works great?


Claus said...

@ Dwight -- Thank you very much.

You pose some excellent questions that I didn't take the time to expand in the post. The "this was not my system" statement was accurate but didn't go into the complexities I alluded to.

Regarding the browser installation question; I based that primarily on prior experience with this specific user's habits.

In this particular case, I knew the user would very not likely use any other browser but IE. I had installed Firefox on his previous XP systems (desktop and laptops) but it was never used, even though I had spend a number of times explaining and demonstrating its usage. And yes, I agree Chrome/Chromium might have been an even better (and simpler GUI) than even IE 8. Typically I do install a "portable" version of Chrome or Firefox tucked away...just in case as a backup go-to browser on all home-user systems I set up and configure even if they don't use it. I might want to while doing troubleshooting or if IE gets seriously borked by malware/viral activity.

For this particular user there was just no desire to need to do so. This is an exception rather than the rule.

I suppose I could have also done so and set Firefox/Chrome to also be the official default system browser to it was more transparent.

But here is the final key in that decision. Because this particular user has a pretty well defined PC comfort zone, one he gets outside of it, he typically will call for support help immediately. For the overall desktop system and performing advanced tasks that usually is me. But with software or service issues (ie. DSL/email working/not-working) he is more than not likely to call the corresponding service desk for the product.

In my experience, many such service desk staff are geared to working in/with IE when they perform their work. If an alternative browser is running and they are feeding him instructions based on IE, things typically won't match which leads to frustration on both ends. Or in some cases the web-based remote management software used just doesn't behave in Firefox/Chrome like it does in IE. Again more potential frustration.

I want to avoid that as much as possible in this particular user's case.

Regarding the 3rd party RC apps: Again, this is a special situation. Yes Win7 has a very robust RDC application. He doesn't have any additional network components so it is conceivable that I could get him to find his dynamic IP address, feed it back to me, then initiate a RDP connection. Or even better the cool and friendly Remote Assistance in Windows 7 method.

However, with RDC, the screen session will lock out the local user out of the desktop so he cannot see what I am doing. That's sometimes fine, but typically I need the remote user to show me what he/she is doing so I can see what they or the system is specifically tripping up on. Also, I can't teach/demonstrate something to aid in the end user's learning if they can't see what I am doing.

Microsoft's Remote Assistance gets around those issues but in some cases can be (just slightly) more involved getting the session end-points connected.

In my years performing desktop support, having a user double-click either the ShowMyPc shortcut on the desktop or that of TeamViewer, telling them to click the Show My PC Now button, then feed me the numbers shown is dead fast and simple.

Once running I can easily transfer files, control the pc, let the user see what I am doing, and let them show me what they were doing or want to do. In the case of TeamViewer, they don't even have to push a button.

In the end it's just nice to have all these options at our disposal.


--Claus V.