Day 1 with a new Dell and Vista

Day 1 with a new Dell and Vista

Summary: The UPS guy just showed up with a new Dell. I’ve done clean installs and upgrades, but this is the first factory-equipped Vista PC I’ve set up for long-term use. I’ve read plenty of complaints about Vista performance and compatibility, so I’m anxious to see how this one stacks up and what happens to it over time. Day 1 was going just fine until someone suggested updating the BIOS...

TOPICS: Dell, Microsoft, Windows

Last Monday, the UPS guy showed up with a new Dell C521. It’s destined to take over as my Vista Media Center machine, but right now it has a more important role to play: It’s the first machine I’ve bought with a fresh OEM installation of Windows Vista. I’ve done clean installs and retail upgrades and Express Upgrades, and I’ve played with some OEM machines from HP and Acer, but this is the first factory-equipped Vista PC I’ve set up for long-term use.

Dell Dimension C521I’ve read plenty of complaints about Vista performance and compatibility, so I’m anxious to see how this one stacks up. My goal, over the next week or two, is to document the process of using this machine and keep a careful eye on its performance and reliability. How does it run in its stock configuration? What happens as I add hardware and software and drivers and Windows updates?

Did I say this is a new PC? It’s actually a refurbished machine

from the Dell Outlet. The C521 is an AMD-based small form factor machine with limited internal expandability but sufficient external ports. The configuration I bought included a dual-core Athlon 64 X2 4000+ (2.1 GHz), onboard 10/100 Ethernet, a 256MB ATI Radeon Pro X1300 video card, 1GB of RAM, 160GB SATA hard drive, and a dual-layer DVD-RW drive. Keyboard and mouse and fax modem, no monitor or speakers or floppy disk. Windows Vista Home Premium is preinstalled.

This is, all things considered, a pretty decent configuration, with no obvious weaknesses for general business use and media playback. Price: $369. Total with tax and shipping: $422.47. (And yeah, I paid for it out of my own pocket. Dell’s PR department has no idea I’m writing about this. I clicked the same links you’d get if you went to Dell’s website. Oh, and if I’d ordered this exact system new instead of buying from the Dell Outlet, it would have cost about $150 extra.)

I’ve ordered and installed several new Dells in the past six months, so the packaging is familiar: A sturdy box with a form-fitting enclosure for the CPU, and another oversize pizza box on top with keyboard, mouse, manuals, and media. The packaging is identical to a new PC, and if it weren’t for the red REFURBISHED sticker on the bottom of the case, I would think this is brand new. It takes less than five minutes to unbox everything and get it all connected, ready to power up for the first time.

Before allowing the preinstalled copy of Vista to boot, I was determined to capture a disk image so I could restore the original factory installation in the future and duplicate the whole experiment. I plugged in an external USB drive and inserted a bootable CD of Acronis True Image 10 Home. It took less than an hour to save an image file (.tib) that included the Windows system volume and the two hidden Dell diagnostic and restore partitions.

So, do you think that image is a good backup? Probably. Would you bet on it? Yeah, me neither. So I yank that puny 160GB drive (remove one screw and the existing drives snap in and out without tools), replacing it with a shiny new Samsung 500GB model. ($109 from Newegg, bringing the total system cost to $531.47). I boot from the True Image CD again and restore the partitions from the image. A half-hour later, it’s done.

The restored image works perfectly. In fact, this system seems downright zippy, but it’s too early to break out the stopwatch. I go through the Dell and Microsoft license screens and do a quick system check. Monitor resolution is A-OK, network is working, I haven’t plugged in speakers yet so I can’t say whether sound is working. No banged-out entries in Device Manager.

Next stop is Windows Update, where I download and install 6 Important and 4 Recommended updates. By this time, it’s nearly 11PM. Although it’s 12 hours after I started, I’ve spent a total of less than a half-hour in front of this system, with it doing most of the work on its own while I’m off doing other stuff.

Last stop of the night is the Dell Support icon in the system tray, which tells me I need to update my BIOS and install a patch to fix a Vista compatibility problem with the preinstalled Roxio Drag-to-Disc software.

dell_bios_update.jpgAt this point, let me share a rule I came up with about, oh, 48 hours ago: If someone tells you to update your BIOS and it’s after 10PM, just say no. Tell ’em you’ll talk about it in the morning. Go to bed and get a good night’s sleep.

This rule, unfortunately, didn’t exist on Monday night when I was presented with this option. So I downloaded the flash updater, read the instructions carefully, twice, and plunged ahead. Now, I’ve updated a lot of BIOSes in my time, so I knew something was wrong when the update had only reached the 7% mark after nearly 15 minutes of chugging away. It was nearly midnight, so I decided to let it run while I slept.

Of course, you already know where this story is going, but I’ll leave those details for my account of Day 2, which you can read here.

Topics: Dell, Microsoft, Windows

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  • BIOS

    heh. Welcome to 1970s computing.
  • So on Day 1...

    we figure out that Dell sucks, and find out absolutely nothing about Vista on a pre-installed PC. Yes, this "Microsoft Reports" blog topic is going really well.

    Honestly I think you should have had separate blog entries on the two issues, one for Dell-only issues and one for pre-installed Vista issues. The Dell BIOS issue is independent of the OS (or at least the OS vendor), and its existence in this blog will only stand to cloud the overall issue of whether there are inherent problems with Vista pre-installs. All I see is a Dell issue that would still be an issue if someone wanted to wipe Vista for Linux, or had Ubuntu pre-installed.
    Michael Kelly
    • Just be patient

      The end user experience is a unified one, and anyone who orders a new Dell PC with Vista is going to see this. In fact, many of the issues I've seen people complain about are not Vista-related. I think this point will become more apparent as the series progresses.

      And I disagree that Dell sucks. It is extraordinarily unfortunate that they recommend this BIOS update (more on that tomorrow) but their response has been exceptionally good.
      Ed Bott
      • Impatient is my middle name

        Which explains why I gave Vista the ax after only working with it for about a half an hour.

        I'm not saying Dell sucks overall either, however this blunder is clearly in their court, not Microsoft's, and this particular blunder is completely independent of one's choice of operating system. Which is why I think it serves more of a distraction than anything else. And I don't think a failed BIOS flash (or any BIOS problem for that matter) is what is driving a mass dissatisfaction with pre-installed Vista, because if it was then it would also be driving a mass dissatisfaction with pre-installed XP, and that does not exist.
        Michael Kelly
        • That's not the article I'm writing

          I guess you're expecting me to write something exclusively about Vista. However, I'm writing about the experience of buying a new computer from a major manufacturer that happens to be Microsoft's largest partner. During the course of the next two weeks, I'm going to be writing about Gooogle Desktop, Yahoo Music, and other third-party programs that were included with this computer.

          The fact is that buying an OEM computer isn't just about the hardware or the OS in isolation. It's about the totality of the decisions the OEM makes and how they impact the user experience.

          And this is what Day 1 was like for me. I'm not going to selectively choose what to write about. It's the whole experience I'm interested in documenting.
          Ed Bott
          • I suppose I was expecting that

            considering the title of your blog is "Ed Bott's Microsoft Report".

            You can certainly write what you want, and certainly this BIOS problem is worth writing about. However considering the title of your blog and considering the fact that many people are aching to jump on MS for every computer problem in existence, I do think it is worth emphasizing that this problem could have happened just as easily on an XP pre-install or an Ubuntu pre-install, and that this problem is not likely to be too popular of a problem to have. There are certainly other problems that are related to the OS (e.g. driver issues, poorly installed hardware*, crapware) that are more likely the culprits for poor user experiences on pre-installs.

            *The best thing SATA brought to the masses was not speed gains, but rather the fact that it prevents OEMs from installing the main hard drive and the DVD/CD-ROM on the same cable.
            Michael Kelly
          • Michael: Quit complaining

            My own perspective: Quit complaining. I don't think Ed needs a bunch of disclaimers. Readers of his blog should know something about the BIOS, etc.

            Ed, thank you for your writing. I like it the way it is.
          • I got my point across

            and that's all I wanted. I look forward to the rest of the installments as well. But will say that I hope that overall this turns out to be a typical user experience, because writing a 5 part blog series on an atypical experience is kind of a waste of time unless you are doing this as a hobby. And while failed BIOS flashes do happen from time to time, I would still classify that as an atypical experience. I'm sure I am not the only one who would be complaining if the fifth part of this series concentrated on the process of sending the thing back to Dell to have its motherboard replaced.
            Michael Kelly
          • Microsoft Report

            Right. Dell is Microsoft's largest partner. They sell more copies of Microsoft software than any other single source in the universe. For many consumers and businesses, Microsoft and Dell are inseparable parts of the same experience. So writing about Dell seems pretty darn appropriate to me as the proprietor of the Microsoft Report site.

            Hey, it would be much easier for me if I hadn't had hardware problems on Day 1. But I did, and I'm going to document this process fairly, as the real customer I am.

            As you'll see tomorrow, these problems seem to be fairly widespread with this model.
            Ed Bott
          • One would think

            that given the forum in which he is writing that it is not necessary to point out that a BIOS update is not an OS issue. Please - let him get on with his 'adventures' without non-issues being raised.

            As I am considering a Dell system next (after years of build-my-own) I expect to find it interesting, even if hell doesn't freeze over leading me to acquire Vista...
          • "the totality of the decisions the OEM makes and how they impact the user"

            Well this review of your experience doesn't give me any "warm fuzzies" about Dell and/or Vista.

            Day 1 is supposed to be all about "WOW" isn't it? Well all I can say is "wow - thank goodness I dodged that pile of ..."

            Anyway, thanks for the honest and objective report of your experience. I hope Day 2 gets better.
          • Stuff happens

            I've read several stories recently about people who unboxed their new Macbooks and discovered that they randomly crashed or couldn't make a Wi-Fi connection or otherwise failed.

            The point is that hardware failures can happen to anyone, on any platform. In this case, I choose to document the entire process. I certainly don't expect anyone to think this is a typical experience, but it's real.
            Ed Bott
          • Ed you are comparing randoim failures

            with a product that shipped with a known firmware flaw. Yes, stuff happens, but you a describing a systematic error.

            Any engineer knows about variance and random failures. Hardware has performance ant interface specifications. Typically hardware is designed to exceed these with a performance margin that includes random variation in components and lifetime degradation. The level of design margin will, in general, be a good indicator of product quality. Hardware also randomly and catastrophically fails. Infant mortality is usually screened by burn in procedures but there will always be statistical "outliers" that pass even robust screening. The level of screening is another indication of quality. I never had any doubt that Dell uses the absolute cheapest and hence least performance margin components available in order to garner some tiny profit while shipping the most units.

            A firmware issue is not a hardware issue. Further, all or a least some significant fraction of these units must have the flawed and outdated firmware. This is an issue that the technicians and line workers at Dell could and [b]should[/b] have addressed in order to delivery a sound product. [b]Dell failed to exert that level of quality control over a problem that they could correct[/b] in order to delivery a useful and usable product.

            The point is [b]this is not a hardware failure.[/b] This is a firmware issue and it represents failure for Dell to ensure minimal quality standards.

            Any way you slice it, it still sucks.
          • I have a call in to Dell for more info

            Obviously this is not affecting ev eryone who owns this model. I don't know why it affected me and some other people, but I fail to see how you can call this a systematic failure without more evidence. Until I have that evidence, I'll refrain from characterizations.
            Ed Bott
          • So the BIOS update is a random phenomenon?

            What you have said, on your belief alone as you really have no way to know what others are getting, is that only a subset of this model shipping have this [i]BIOS update issue[/i]. That's still not an indicator of random hardware failures; [b]it's an indicator of poor configuration management.[/b]

            Configuration management is required by any ISO9000 company to ensure product consistency. So either Dell isn't ISO9000 compliant or they just suck at following their own ISO procedures. Either way, it's no compliment for Dell.

            If the problem existed in all their shipping inventory, at least that would indicate that they know and are just to cheap to fix their own product and expect their customers to do it instead. However, if there are some units in stock that do and some that don't, that indicates that Dell can't keep their act together and that's something far worse.

            Any way you dice it, this is not a hardware problem as it is fixed by a simple change of firmware code. If I buy [i]X[/i] numbers of identical units from a vendor, I have every right [b]to expect that they are all completely identical[/b]. Apparently not from Dell though...

            From what you have conveyed, I would be much better off buying components and assembling my own PCs, ala Adrian Kingsley-Hughes's approach, than buying these from a crap-shoot company like Dell.
          • Life with Dell

            I, for one, choose to applaude Ed for his un-biased write up. As a long time Admin and Dell Customer, over 300 CPU's in the last 10 years, I have only had 8 problems with the hardware and only one of those was out of the box. I think Ed is right in his approach to his writeup. In my experience "users" don't care if it's Microsoft or Dell or whoevers fault. They just know it is broke and want it fixed, now I might add. Keep up the good write ups and don't let the nay sayers get to you.
          • ED your a tech dude you of all people should know not to

            ED your a tech dude you of all people should know not to trust a BIOS update to a windows app.

            i all ways download the it and put it on a floppy or burn it to a CD and boot to it to many things can go wrong when in windows and it does not have to be windows fault.
            SO.CAL Guy
        • I should also mention

          that this weekend I gave Vista a second shot on my Toshiba Satellite. I backed up my Gentoo installation to an external hard drive (of course cloning software is unnecessary for Linux as long as you have a LiveCD to reinstall grub to the MBA) and used Toshiba's included CD's, which supposedly restores the laptop to it's original shipped state.

          Now as a disclaimer, I do have 2.5 GB of RAM now, whereas I had 1 GB shipped. But system speed was not really the issue when I axed it earlier (although boot up times are better than I remember), but it was more of a matter of being unimpressed, and a small matter where both wireless and wired networking would not work no matter what I did.

          Well, after using the restore disks, doing a Windows update (several times until there was no more to be done), removing McAfee in favor of AVG's free home edition, and getting rid of all crapware including the Toshiba games (although I left the games installer on), I must say that I have a more favorable opinion of Vista. It's still no faster than XP with 1 GB RAM, but in return there are some interesting features once you get past the unfamiliarity of everything. I particularly like the fact that unless you need some really advanced features (and most home users don't) you do not need MS Outlook because of the calendar and improved contacts features built into Vista (at least Home Premium). That makes the Home and Student version of Office 2007, which lacks Outlook, a much more attractive option.

          Now why the better experience now? I can only assume that the restore disk didn't restore it exactly the same way it was installed previously, because the networking issues vanished once I restored. Also once that was up Windows Update installed some updated drivers, which I am sure improved the experience, plus I was able to ax McAfee which is traditionally a dog. I am still underwhelmed with Aero, but seeing as that is just eye candy for the premium users I can get over that, although multiple desktops would be nice, plus better tweaking tools. Windows Media Center works well (I watched the 4th quarter of the NBA finals on it on over-the-air HDTV last night), and though it's not my favorite PC-DVR solution, its price and ease of installation and setup should counter its minor interface deficiencies. Anyway since I do have a license for it and plenty of disk space I'm going to keep it for now as a dual boot, though more to keep an eye on it than out of any expectation to move back to Windows permanently. But behind all the deficiencies and growing pains that all new operating systems have, I do see the improvements.
          Michael Kelly
      • Dell "quality" for lack of a better way to be civil

        Didn't you buy a "refurbished" Dell C521? So now you have to update the flash BIOS. It sure sounds like Dell sucks to me.

        If a machine is "refurbished" then it should be brought up to the same level and same configuration as that of shipping "new retail" products. Otherwise, it's just a used PC that has had its disk image restored or some component replaced. The BIOS firmware is, in fact, part of the system's configuration, a very important part, indeed. Any vendor that ships a product that must be immediately reconfigured or updated for a flaw that is known to that same vendor when it was sold from their very own facility does in fact "suck."

        It's not like this sat on a shelf in a retail outlet while its configuration got "stale." It was sold from the very same vendor's stock. Dell was counting on you to finish its refurbishment, weren't they?

        Well I hope that the $150 you saved was worth the time you wasted trying to get your PC to actually work. BTW, if it cost you more than 2 hours, you were screwed big time.

        I could accept this whole premise if Dell had made it clear up front, before selecting, buying, and paying for the machine, that it would need extra time and attention to make it viable. But I am sure that you were not informed of this item in the sales price summary. This is known as externalizing hidden costs. That's the real reason Dell sucks in spite of how helpful or responsive their support people are.

        Responding well to problems that they have dumped on a customer is not the hallmark of quality. Selling quality products that require no support or responses to requests is the mark of quality and value.

        You get what you pay for and, dude, you got a Dell...
        • Sorry, you're wrong

          This machine was treated just like a new machine. I can tell from the paperwork and the date/time stamps that it went through the system builkd line as if it were a new machine. And as you'll see tomorrow, the BIOS problem I'm describing here has happened to many people, not just me. The fact that this was sold as a refurb is irrelevant here.
          Ed Bott