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The Network Observer: A Tale of Two Software Vendors; or, Rising from Support Hell, Burning Mad
Posted Nov 1, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

All of us have tried to install a new component on our system, only to have it crash. In my line of work—as a product reviewer I'm constantly testing out new players, drives, or other hardware on my systems—I practically invite problems. Fortunately, most of my review hardware works to one degree or another with Windows, without catastrophes. Most.

This last week I tested a slim DVD-R/RW external USB drive from a new vendor, Apricorn. While they may have been unfamiliar (to me, at least; turns out they've been making storage solutions for PCs and Macs since the 1980s), they are an outstanding vendor in my book, with exactly the kind of service and support we have been missing in the computer business for some time. Of course, I had to go through almost two weeks of problems before my PC could be called a "work" station again.

My first mistake was in assuming that USB meant plug-and-play. Not so with my Windows 98SE test system. Sure, the OS was kind enough to notice that there was a new device plugged in to my USB port. It dutifully presented the "I've found new hardware and am installing drivers for it" message. Unfortunately, I decided to accept all changes without reviewing them.

Lesson One: NEVER accept any changes to the Windows OS without first reviewing them.

For whatever reason, the OS decided that this new USB device also included a new motherboard and other mysterious low-level system devices as well. Worse, there was no way to cancel these changes once they had begun. When Windows rebooted itself, I could only get a 640x480 default display to work.

Fine. I'll just go into the Windows Device Manager, blow away the offending drivers, and start over. Whoa! There are no devices listed in Device Manager! This is not good. Needless to say, I had no network connection, sound, CD-ROM drive, etc. I used another system to check Google for other hapless users who've corrupted their hardware configurations. There I found another step I should have taken to protect my system.

Lesson Two: Make a backup Hardware Profile with the System dialog. Had I done that, I would have saved six to eight hours of trying various recovery procedures. Don't even think of trying the "Add New Hardware" function. That just buried me deeper.

Fortunately, you can easily create one or more duplicate profiles easily in the System dialog. You should do this when you have your hardware set up and running well so the backup is equally good. Just choose the Hardware Profiles tab in the System dialog, highlight the Original Configuration profile, click Copy, and then name the backup "Backup" or "Backup 9-22" or "Bob," for that matter. A backup by any other name is, after all, still a backup.

For me, not having any backup profiles, I had to go several steps further. First, I had to remove all extraneous hardware (sound, network, and USB drives) so as to not confuse Setup. Next, I partially reinstalled Windows using Setup to replace whatever corrupted files were causing Device Manager so much pain. I then reinstalled each hardware device one by one back into Windows.

Everything seemed okay at this point, so I decided to retry the Apricorn EZ Writer. This time I first installed the included CD-RW packet-writing software from a major vendor. This was supposed to allow me to drag-and-drop files from within Windows apps to the EZ Writer.

So I installed the software and plugged in the drive. Everything seemed to be working. I could play music and read data CD-Rs. However, if I tried to open My Computer or run Windows Explorer—bang! The ever-delightful blue screen of death appeared and I had to reboot.

Since this was both a hardware and a software problem, I decided to try tech support from each of the vendors. I did not identify myself as Press to either vendor, so as not to get any special treatment. Apricorn responded within twelve hours of my email. In fact, they took my problem seriously enough to ask me to call their second-level engineer, Menachem, directly.

Menachem also brought on another engineer during the phone call to make sure we covered all our bases. Not only did he do a splendid job of leading me through the recovery process step by step, but he went beyond the call of duty to ensure that my other USB devices would work when the EZ Writer was attached.

I could now record DVD-Rs, DVD-RWs, CD-Rs, and CD-RWs with the drive as well as use my Memory Stick. Windows no longer had any problem with my adding or removing the drive or in reading content from the unit. A big part of the solution was in using another package for reading and recording to the drive. Our conclusion was that the major vendor's UDF software that ships with the Apricorn was simply buggy. Once I uninstalled that and used an alternative, the EZ Writer worked fine.

While Apricorn may be relatively new to most of us, I expect them to become a great player in the industry with tech support like that. They'll take the time to make it right for you when you buy their stuff. What's more, the support section on their Web site (www.apricorn.com) even includes the manuals, FAQs, and drivers for discontinued products, listed right alongside the current products, so you don't have to dig for the information you need.

Maybe it's the very fact that Apricorn is a relative unknown that allows them to maintain such a high level of support. If so, then let's keep them our little secret, OK? Oh, and the other "major" vendor? I am still waiting for any response, despite sending them a reminder. Let's hope there's a "burning" hell for vendors who ignore their customers.

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