Nut Behind the Support Call

FRAMINGHAM (03/06/2000) - What an irritating evening! After a long day, I sat down with a cup of tea to write "Backspin" and managed to dump the tea all over my desk. After a bout of furious mopping, the result was a much cleaner desk but a keyboard on which the "o" and "d" refused to work.

So, I had to shut down the machine, find another keyboard, plug it in, restart the machine and endure yet another interminable boot-up (ya gotta love that Windows boot-up). I guess I should be pleased to have to restart the machine for a reason other than my usual ones - normally I find myself rebooting because either Windows 98 has tanked for some bizarre reason or my display has frozen.

I wrote about the frozen display phenomenon in a previous column, after which a Hewlett-Packard Co. chap got in touch and turned their tech support on to me.

The support tech concluded that I was short on RAM - interesting, because the machine comes with 96M bytes, but that's apparently not enough.

Be that as it may, I finally upgraded my RAM a couple of weeks ago and everything seemed OK. Now, when I write "upgraded," I'm serious: I now have 384M bytes, which should be enough even for a memory hog like Windows 98.

Unfortunately, more RAM hasn't solved my problem - frozen displays are still part of my computing experience.

Curiously, just after the last time Iwrote about this, I got a note from Bruce Stratman, who suggested: "Because you can cause your display to freeze, you are well-positioned to test possible fixes. You probably have already tried this [actually, I hadn't], but don't overlook the obvious. Throttle back the hardware acceleration function in the Win98 video display driver settings. I suggest turning it off to verify this fixes the problem, then inching forward until the problem manifests itself, then back one notch. This will fix most video freeze issues."

Stratman hit the nail on the head! I switched off hardware acceleration completely and the freezing problem stopped. Let joy be unconfined! (Thanks Bruce!) Of course, if you drag a window across the screen it looks awful - a trail of window frames appears behind the window you're dragging, and there's a noticeable lag in repainting some application screens.

Of course, I have yet to inch acceleration forward, as I would have to reboot the damn machine each time, and with the boot-up delay, we're looking at a long, long session.

So, I have now entered a new zone of dissatisfaction with my PC. I bought the machine because it was priced right, had a Pentium III running at 450 MHz and had hardware graphics acceleration. Turning off hardware acceleration is an insane (albeit effective) solution.

Looking back on the exchange with the support tech, I bet he classified my call as "NBW" (Nut Behind Wheel). NBW is, I believe, an old joke that goes back to the early days of motorcars. Even so, it has gained a whole new lease of life in the computer business to describe clueless users.

And while it is true that users can be curiously brain dead, I think many of us who deal with them fall into the thinking that all unobvious problems, that is, problems that don't fall into an obvious category, are explicable as being caused by some simpler problem.

So, in the case of my call to HP tech support, my problem must have been not enough RAM because there was no category of solved problems labeled "frozen display." Let's tell him to get more RAM and file his inquiry away as NBW - next!

Memo to HP: Expect a call from me real soon, and do not even think NBW.

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