The Vista/Dell Experience

I needed a new laptop. My choices were to scrounge around and try to find something with Microsoft XP, or to bite the bullet and opt for Vista. One of the problems with the former was that many graphics cards that come with XP machines will perform only marginally at best with Vista (or at least I am told). I am not a PC guru, but I have a trusted friend who told me to stay away from at least a dozen options that I was considering because of graphics card issues. I have learned from experience that it is better to be safe than sorry.

I had a second requirement in that I wanted a very good machine for cheap. My third requirement was that it had to be better than my desktop model. My desktop had an older processor, but it did have 2 gigabytes of memory. The new laptop (with the addition of a new monitor) would replace the desktop system.

Like it or not, Vista is here. My desktop was running Windows 2000 Professional, and although it was running fine, it would soon be unsupported. I had performance issues, as well. I also needed the laptop up and running with all my stuff on it by the end of April. No, I was not going to consider a Mac. Here, then, were my requirements:

  1. I wanted a very good laptop for cheap.
  2. It had to have a good processor with at least 2 gigabytes of memory.
  3. It had to be up and running with all my stuff on it by the end of April.
  4. It had to have a graphic card, memory, and processor capable of running Vista reasonably well, although it did not have to have Vista itself, per se.
  5. In a weird-but-true situation, the deal had to please my friend more so than me.

Although Vista was not a requirement (capability to run Vista in the future was), all the non-Vista machines that I looked at had crappy graphics cards that were ruled out by my friend. Changing a graphics card is no big deal in a desktop model, but on a laptop, it is.

To get a machine for cheap, we were watching Dell for refurbished models, as well as other places for the best deals. All in all, I had a pretty tough set of requirements, and at least three weeks passed with my friend nixing every choice that I presented him. Finally, a machine came in that met his satisfaction. And if he was satisfied, then so was I.

The Machine

Dell Inspiron 6400/E1505 notebook
Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7200
4MB Cache/2.00GHz/667MHz FSB
2 GB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz (2 DIMMs)
TV tuner w/ remote control
15.4 in WSXGA+ notebook screen
Windows Vista Home Premium
6-cell primary battery
Intel Pro Wireless 3945
8X CD/DVD burner (DVD+/- RW) with double-layer write capability
120 GB SATA hard drive (5400 RPM)
256MB ATI Mobility Radeon X1400 HyperMemory graphics card
Norton Internet Security 15-month subscription
Image restore software
Free shipping

The price was $1,099. I am not a geek, but I assume that this was a very good deal, given my set of requirements and also by looking at current pricing of that configuration in a Dell catalog. I was also able to pick up a refurbished Dell UltraSharp 2407WFP 24-inch widescreen flat-panel LCD monitor for $539 (also with free shipping) that my friend said was to die for. I wanted to get a 22-inch monitor for way less, but my friend, bless his heart, would have none of it.

Software Problems

The problems started shortly after I received my stuff. All the hardware was fine, but I started having huge problems when I loaded my existing Office 2002 versions on the machine. I kept getting repeated messages that an application was trying to access my Outlook mailbox. By repeated, I mean something like 20 popup boxes, one right after another, all saying the same thing. Canceling the messages did no good; I had to OK every damn one of them. Then, after a 30-second pause or so, there would be another blast of 20 messages to respond to.

The specific message was: “A program is trying to access e-mail addresses you have stored in Outlook.” Check out this Outlook experience: “I can deny or I can allow for 1, 2, 5, 10 minutes. If I don’t select 1 minute, I am not able to do anything with the form. Only if I did select the check box ‘Allow for 1 or 2 minutes,’ then only I am able to get the program to work.” That person’s experience was actually better than mine. Regardless of what I did, I was not able to get Outlook to work at all:


Imagine that popping up every second for 20-30 seconds, after which you get about 20-30 seconds to do something, followed by another blast of 20 or so prompts. Allowing access for 10 minutes does not help.

Dell Software Support — Less Than Worthless

I made the mistake of calling Dell for support. Dell told me that I did not purchase coverage to help me with this problem. I replied that I paid an extra $70 for one year’s support with my purchase. Software support responded this was a software issue and my policy was for hardware only. I asked for escalation. The supervisor said I could have signed up for one month of support for $50 at the time I bought the machine, but it would now cost me $250 (and that it was a good deal). Dell would not give me the first month for $50 anymore. I was too late. What kind of policy is that, anyway? I threatened to return the machine (I wasn’t serious, as I needed something), but all that got me was “one free try” for 15 minutes. The software support team looked around for a while, and their conclusion was that I had a virus. I told them that others had this problem, as well (there are lots of references to this on Google), but they insisted I had a virus. I escalated one more time and was told once again that I had a virus. I explained why it was extremely unlikely that I had a virus, but they responded, “Take it or leave it for $250.”

So here’s the deal. I have a brand-new machine, running Vista, behind a hardware firewall, with Norton security on the machine, and one of the first things I did was update virus configurations (after I got my DSL connections working — which, by the way, was another time-consuming problem in and of itself), but the best Dell could come up with was that I had a virus, and Dell wanted $250 to fix it.

I told Dell where to go. Dell software support seriously sucks. But I knew that headed in. I have had previous support issues with Dell. I wasted a few more hours of my friend’s time and mine scrambling around on the Internet for a solution. I did find some free software that, supposedly, would fix this problem. It locked up Outlook, and I had to remove it.

Somewhere along the line in my attempts to fix the problems, Outlook itself realized I had a problem and searched for a solution. The solution was a set of fixes to Outlook. I put them on. Same problem, another search. More fixes. This went through three iterations. After the last fix was applied, the solution from Microsoft was one that I should have been bright enough to figure out in the first place: I needed to upgrade to Office and Outlook 2007.

One can actually spend days on crap like this, and I did, while slowly loading other stuff from my old machine to my new machine, and getting a small amount of other work done, as well. Note that Vista has a feature to move data files between computers automatically, but it does not work with Windows 2000. Sheesh. I am not even going to go into the details of the time and effort it took to fix a corrupted Outlook file on my old machine, which happened in the process of trying to export it to the new machine. That alone took half a day to fix, and I still do not know how it got corrupted.

Flying Saucers and Missing Shards

There was no real choice. I decided to purchase the home version of Office for 2007, and by Microsoft’s clever design, Office Home does not come with Outlook. I had to purchase a stand-alone version of Outlook.

Microsoft packages its stuff securely. I removed all the clear tape that I could find on the Outlook box, but I still could not get the box open. If you have not seen these boxes, they consist of very thick, bolted plastic and a slider to open the top. I could not get the slider open. I was not a happy camper, and at 3 a.m. on the third day of trying to get the computer to run, I just decided to force the box open by prying it apart.

This was a mistake. The box splintered into a dozen or so pieces, and I cut my hand in the process. The CD went sailing across the room, and I was dripping blood on the carpet. Although the CD was not damaged, the product key was. It split into three pieces, of which I could find only two. I spent two hours that night looking for a tiny plastic shard containing two characters of the product key…to no avail.

I decided to load the disk, and of course, it would not load authorized (without the key), but it would load unauthorized with a 25-use limitation, after which the product would not run. I also opened, this time successfully (with no cuts or bruises), the Office 2007 box and loaded that software as well.

Lo and behold, the problem of repeated messages — “A program is trying to access e-mail addresses you have stored in Outlook” — went away. I suspected as much. Word and Outlook talk to each other. Vista just cannot handle programs accessing the mailbox like they used to. So I would have paid Dell $250 for nothing and would have trained them as well (assuming, of course, that I would not still be searching for the solution some two weeks later). On next to no sleep for three days of messing around, I went to bed somewhat happy at 5 a.m.

A New Product Key

The next day, I called Microsoft. I was actually impressed with its automated voice menu system, as I quickly got to someone who could help me with activation.

I told them I had a problem they had never heard of before. They assured me they had heard everything. I explained the problem, and they stood corrected. They had not yet heard of anyone cutting their hand opening a box of software, with the CD sailing across the room, with the product key splintering in pieces, one of which could not be found.

The contact generated a new key for me. I entered it, and it was accepted on the first try. Hooray! I was happy. I spent the rest of the day loading other software on the new laptop. I was pleased to see that my own programs ran without a hitch. I also managed to get some real work done for a change. So was everything up and running on the fourth day? Not so fast.

I rebooted on the evening of the fourth day, as some software that I had loaded required a reboot. I went into Outlook, and it would not run. It seems Microsoft gave me the key for some sort of trial. I could not send or forward messages, but only receive them. That problem only happened after I rebooted. No problem, I thought, I’ll just call Microsoft again.

The next day, I called Microsoft’s automated system, but this time, it took me to a person in India who had no idea what I was saying. Eventually, that person gave me another number to call. It was for “Microsoft paid support on a per-incident basis.” No thanks. I called the first number back and talked to yet another person who redirected me back to India, where once again I received no help.

Somewhere along the line, I escalated the problem and finally got to someone who was (after several attempts) able to generate a product key for me that actually worked. Ultimately, I had to uninstall Outlook, and then reinstall it with the newly generated key.

Dell Hardware Support

It was only after getting all my software up and running and stuff moved off the old machine that I even bothered with the new monitor. That was five full days later. The new monitor came up, but I could not get anything to display on it. It’s like it was sitting there turned on, but unattached to my computer. Furthermore, Dell neglected to send me a user’s manual with the monitor.

I called Dell hardware support about the monitor. When it comes to automated response systems, Dell’s is as bad as it gets. After a very lengthy delay in the automated system, with me repeatedly doing nothing but swearing and pressing the operator key on my phone, I was actually connected to a real live person.

This time, I was very lucky to get a person who not only cared, but who also knew what he was doing. This is a very rare combination these days. He walked me through configuring the monitor so that I could use both the laptop monitor and the new flat-panel monitor. The graphics card (for which I also have no manual) seems to work beautifully, at least for my purposes. I would like to say that Dell hardware support is great, but after the software fiasco and the length of time it took to get to a live person, I believe that I simply got a random “good draw” — sort of like catching double aces to start off a hand of Texas hold ’em.

But the guy who helped me configure the ATI graphics card was very good, indeed, especially since this was actually a software problem.. I felt blessed in light of recent experiences at both Dell and Microsoft that this hardware person from Dell even agreed to help.

Hmmm. It now seems that one feels “blessed” to get any help. Is that unusual?

Lessons Learned & Advice

  • Do not even think about trying to get prior versions of Office or Outlook (at least 2002 versions) up and running on Vista. If you buy Vista, plan on purchasing new versions of Office and Outlook
  • Dell software support totally sucks. Plan on this problem never being fixed
  • Dell laptops are fine, but only if you know enough to make a wise selection or if you have a guru helping you. Actually, that statement is not unique to Dell
  • I really do like Dell’s 24-inch flat-panel monitor
  • Dell hardware support is, likely, far better than software support. Then again, I may have simply been very lucky with hardware support. However, anything is better than Dell software support. In fact, if you have a software issue with Dell, you may want to try hardware support first and pray
  • It may take you far longer than you think to get a new machine up and running
  • Do not attempt to force open a hard plastic case containing software unless you want a cut hand, missing shards of product keys and an extra day of grief
  • Get a knowledgeable person who understands your needs to help you. I am very pleased with my new system now. Thanks, R.E.!
  • The Vista experience took me 5 days. Armed with info from this post, however, your results could be much better.

Addendum: I have been running Vista now for about a week with no additional problems. I like it, especially the extra security. Many things you do now require permission, which is fine with me. There will be no more automatic uploads if you accidentally visit a rogue site.

Some will note that I have previously stated that OpenOffice would be the end of Microsoft revenue streams. I think it will…eventually. And because of problems like mine, businesses will be slow to migrate to Vista.

Vista did not change the fact that Microsoft’s upgrade model is under stress. New computers may come with Vista, but the amount that Microsoft can get for Office and the like will probably drop significantly over time. I just can’t see users in India and China paying for Office when they can get something nearly equivalent for free.

It was my personal timeline to do something quickly that forced me into one more Office upgrade cycle when I was still relatively happy with Office 2002. I got six years of use out of Windows 2000 Professional and close to five years out of Office and Outlook 2002. For many, myself included, I expect or at least hope this will be my last major paid-for hardware and software upgrade cycle for a long time.


Mike Shedlock ~ “Mish”

April 17, 2007