PC Economics

My mother-in-law taught me a lesson in PC economics a few weeks ago. We’ve had our differences over the years because I married her daughter and took my wife away to Minnesota, but I’m told that’s natural. My mother-in-law visited a few weeks ago and I rebuilt a PC for her.

It’s a Gateway P5-100, originally purchased in October 1995. We’ve abused this machine over the past 3 years, and I think it spent most of its life with the cover off. I don’t know how many peripherals we’ve added and taken away, but it was missing lots of little screws and those back cover thingies by the time I began rebuilding it for my mother-in-law.

It has a Western Digital 1.6-GB hard drive, 48 MB of memory and a CD-ROM. I added a $14 Shuttle sound card and $10 speakers. I also scrounged an old 500-MB hard drive to give her a little extra space.

The plan was to put in the sound card and extra hard drive, load Windows 98 from scratch, install some applications.

The whole thing turned into another of Greg’s mini-fiascoes, starting when I booted from the first floppy. The little diskette light flashed, the BIOS told me it had a disk error, and the system died. I tried several floppies with the same result.

I scrounged another floppy drive, disconnected the original, and connected the new one. I would like to strangle the bozo who designed the connectors on floppy cables. Upside down is identical to right side up, and when I accidentally connected it upside down, it blew away the diskette’s formatting. This is especially annoying because upside down for some floppy drives is right side up for others, and nothing is labeled.

After several days of scratching my bald head, I finally figured it out. The floppy cable had rubbed against the sharp edge of a metal I/O cage over the years, which wore a spot in the cable. The whole problem was a bad cable, and I had made it worse by trying replacement cables and floppy drives connected upside down. I fixed it and put some duct tape around that sharp edge to round it off and protect the replacement cable.

Next, I installed Windows 98. Fortunately for me, the Windows 98 boot diskette has real-mode CD-ROM drivers for lots of popular CD-ROMS. This was good, because my cable adventure blew away all other copies of the Gateway-supplied CD-ROM driver.

Shortly after that, the CD-ROM died anyway, so the Gateway drivers would have eventually been worthless. The Windows 98 Autorun program kept starting: Every time I closed it or tried to launch something else, that stupid Autorun program ran. It turns out the CD-ROM was constantly going online and offline, and this caused the Autorun program to constantly fire up. I replaced it with a $34 rebuilt generic CD-ROM, and the system ran fine after that.

Except for the sound card, that is. My mother-in-law’s favorite Windows 98 screen saver has fish swimming across the screen and bubbly noises. Sometimes when the power saver kicked in, the system would hang or crash. Any screen saver without audio effects worked fine. Since the Shuttle sound card driver was from July 1997, and Windows 98 did not supply its own driver, my guess was that Shuttle needs to supply an updated driver.

There was more. I had Plug and Play problems getting the sound card to work, the IDE jumpers on that added hard drive did not behave as advertised, and the system kept forgetting what year it was because the CMOS battery died .

I’ll bet I put at least 40 hours into troubleshooting this machine, all of it with a naive user watching and wondering why this guy who supposedly does this for a living can’t quickly fix it.

For me, this was a mildly irritating family exercise. But when I think about the economics on a larger scale, I shudder. Assuming a salary of $50,000 per year, it cost roughly $1,000 to fix that $500 PC. Add 40 hours of lost user productivity at the same salary, and the cost doubles to $2,000. Add the potential cost of lost data -- none in my case -- and the cost becomes incalculable. Multiply this by the number of desktops in your company, and the cost becomes staggering.

Sooner or later, every PC support group deals with a machine like this one. In the old days, when a terminal died, we spent a couple of hundred bucks and plugged in a new one. Today, when a PC dies, we spend thousands in hidden costs and hard cash to fix it. Sometimes I wonder if we’ve made any progress. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.