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After hours tech support nightmare


This week, I was asked to look at somebody’s computer as a personal favour to my dad. I don’t often do tech support work after hours anymore, as the problems that need to be fixed are often complex, bothersome and are more effort than the worth of the computer. However, as this was a personal favour, I said yes.

I always like to have background information on a computer before touching it, as sometimes knowing this is enough to fix a problem without touching the machine. In this case, all I got told is that the computer was working, but after a series of 3 rapid power failures, it now refused to start Windows and was saying something about a non system disk. My first reaction was to suggest that any flash drives, floppy disks or CD’s in the computer be removed, as this is often the reason for that type of message. Said person replied that there were none of those in the computer.

After I received possession of the computer, I started it up to see the message myself. After verifying that the hard drive was plugged in, set as master and so forth, I then knew that it was most likely damage to the file system on the hard drive. My recovery cd’s I had on hand couldn’t mount the drive, which was always a worrying sign. Using the XP Recovery Console, I was told that the drive was blank. This was not what I wanted to see, so I decided to hook the drive up into our old family computer and run the usual CHKDSK. CHKDSK refused, stating that the drive was in RAW format. At this point, I was willing just to give up and walk away. When a NTFS drive suddenly appears as RAW, it means the file system is badly screwed up. Data is usually still on the drive, but depending on how badly the FS is busted, that data may only be recoverable by professionals.

Today I decided to take one last shot at the thing, after remembering a piece of software called TestDisk. It’s an open source program that does data recovery from many file systems. Running the program, it told me that the boot sector was bad. I told it to fix that, after which I tried to get a listing of files so I could back them up. That didn’t work, as it now told me that the Master File Table was screwed. Taking a chance, I ran CHKDSK again, and lo and behold, this time it ran. Took quite a while, but it seemed to fix all of the file system damage. I tried to boot the broken computer with the newly fixed hard drive, to no avail. I inserted the XP CD again and ran FixBoot from the Recovery Console. I was going to run FixMBR, but didn’t want to damage anything further before backing up the files.

Going back to our old family computer, CHKDSK ran at start-up, repairing yet more damage to the FS. I ran it again afterwards, just to make sure, at which time it came up clean. Going back to the broken computer, I was now able to start it up and get into Windows. Unfortunately, the computer has a mix of AVG 2011 anti-virus and HP bloated printer software on it, which makes it crawl like syrup. The next time I restarted the box, the start menu had vanished, the RPC Server service refuses to start and more. I can’t even check the system logs, as without the RPC service running, the Event Viewer won’t open the logs. I’ve now thrown in the towel for good, and will be suggesting that the person buy a new computer. I’ve got their documents, which I can easily give back on a flash drive/DVD.

I’ve come to a conclusion about doing free tech support in my spare time: it just isn’t worth it. When you work on a 7-8 year old Socket 478 Celeron with a 20GB hard drive and 1GB RAM, you appreciate how far things have come in the last 2 or so years. As I’ve said to my dad, a computer is not like a car. While both are expensive, a car will give you anything from 10-30 years service if it’s looked after. A computer will give you perhaps 5 if you are extremely lucky before it becomes so old and obsolete that you end up spending more money to keep it running than buying a new computer. As sad as it is, that is the relentless march of progress in technology.

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