Halloween is only a week and half a way, but I got my own treat this week (and just a few too many tricks for my taste). The treat was particularly cool...I got myself a new laptop and, since I managed to build it into a student loan for the masters program I'm in, I went pretty high end. 17" screen, dedicated video, Core 2 Duo, 2 gigs of RAM, the works. I tracked this badboy all the way from China (Go Fedex! 4 days from Shanghai, give or take an International Date Line crossing) and sent one of my Introduction to Computers students racing to the main office as we watched the Fedex truck pull into the school. She came back grinning with a laptop-sized box from HP and we turned the unveiling into a class party (and a lecture on the benefits of 64-bit computing).
This was actually the source of considerable excitement for the geekier among us, since the Core 2 Duo processor allowed me to run 64-bit Windows (and 64-bit Vista and 64-bit L'Unix) and eek out every last little bit of performance those little silicon cores could muster. I'd just ordered the laptop with XP Home since I had copies of both 32- and 64-bit XP Pro and wanted to save a hundred dollars and change.
Some of you probably know just how naive I was. In my defense, 64-bit enabled processors are not toys with which we readily get to play here in K-12 Ed Tech. So I blithely go home, break out my Windows CDs and get to installing. Should I have verified the availability of 64-bit drivers? Of course. Should the attractive teenagers not plunge into the dark and foreboding woods in search of axe murderers in your average horror film? Probably not. But it wouldn't make for much of a story if any of us showed common sense in these scenarios. Besides, the sticker below the keyboard said Windows Vista Capable. That's all the encouragement I needed to wipe out that lame Home install and go 64-bit!
As you may have guessed, I ran into a couple of snags. XP doesn't have built-in support for SATA drives, so you need a special utility from Intel during install (f6flpy64.exe, by the way) from Intel to get the setup to even recognize your drives (you know that F6 option at the beginning of Windows installs? It's for SATA, too, not just SCSI and RAID as the little message suggests.)
My particular video card didn't have any 64-bit drivers either. 800x600 on a 17" widescreen is heartbreaking, so this was almost a deal breaker. Fortunately some clever folks over at www.laptopvideo2go.com pointed out that Nvidia (manufacturer of my particular card) used the same driver architecture for all of their cards and were kind enough to modify an inf file to enable 64-bit support for all recent Nvidia cards. This didn't exactly thrill Windows, which noted that the driver was unsigned, but since I'm now typing this at 1680x1050, I can live with that.
I still don't have audio either. I haven't found a hack for that chip yet and I think I need another beer before I start looking for my Ethernet driver (wireless works, so who cares?), but at least I'm running, after too many hours fiddling with a brand new laptop.
So what's the moral of the story? Marc Wagner has said it repeatedly in his Vista posts. TEST, TEST, TEST! Get your copies of Vista, 64-bit or otherwise, find out what drivers and utilities you have, need, or can't get, and TEST! The first few times you do this, make sure that you have an Internet-connected computer next to you with a floppy drive and a CD-burner. There's lots of help floating around the Net, but if you can't access it, this might be a lot more challenging.
All this cost me was a few nights and a few beers to keep frustration levels in check. Obviously these kinds of unforeseen difficulties can be a lot more troublesome in for IT staff, teachers, and students out in the real world.