Monday, December 17, 2012

Bloody, but unbowed!

I have (sort of, very nearly - touch wood!) restored my computer to full operability.

It has taken me more than three days of nail-biting, hair-tearing anguish, countless hours of rummaging around on online forums trying to find help.

I had discovered that the built-in 'system recovery' feature in Windows was no good to me, because it had - for some obscure reason - only bothered to save a single 'recovery point' during the six months I've had the computer, and this was somehow corrupted, and so unusable.

The computer's manufacturer, Dell, has bundled a device of its own called SyncUp in with the default software. This is apparently supposed to back up all your data online. But this, too, has not been working properly; it always breaks down within a few minutes of startup, and never manages to record a complete system image for backup & recovery purposes.

So, it looked like I was pretty thoroughly screwed. I had a computer that had developed fatal errors in its operating system, and I had no way to back it up.

Or did I? Checking through the 'Safe Mode' startup options again (And god, is that difficult to access! If you don't hit F7 or F8 at exactly the right milisecond, the damn computer just attempts a Normal Startup and locks up again. I must have been through this 20 or more times - maddening!), I stumbled upon a rather inconspicuous additional tool which was seemingly going to allow me restore to my factory defaults from the onboard memory using Dell's Data Safe facility. Now, I wasn't happy about resorting to the 'nuclear option' of turning the clock back six months, and I wasn't confident that the onboard memory wouldn't be corrupted somehow... but I didn't seem to have any choice. And at least I was being offered the opportunity to backup all my data first (I would have been happier if I'd had the option to back it up on an offboard drive, but the interface seemed to be telling me that it would create a secure partition on my onboard hard drive for this). I thought I'd give it a go.

And it worked! Oh frabjous day!!

Well, except that when I relaunched my computer, I had six months of Windows Updates to install, which rendered the thing useless for another dozen hours.

And when I was finally able to start using it again, I found that the Dell Data Safe program was unable to access the backup files it was supposed to have created in my emergency recovery folder. And, to add insult to injury, it seemed to be telling me that it couldn't perform a data restoration from such files unless I forked out $150 dollars for an upgrade! That is outright extortion. I was incensed.

My tour of the online forums this morning wasn't much help. I was led to several supposed freeware applications that promised to be able to access these .dsb files, but either they weren't so able, or they weren't really free. So, I wasted a lot of time installing and then uninstalling these recommended programs.

I also thought - ah, foolish naivety! - that Dell programs ought to have a fair degree of compatibility with the basic Windows programs supplied with their machine; so, I was disappointed that Microsoft's 'backup & restore' facility was also unable to do anything with these dratted .dsb files. In fact, it appeared not to be working at all: it seemed to freeze when I hit the 'browse' button to search a drive for usable backup files. I scoured the online forums about this too, turned up a number of hopefully proffered solutions, found none of them did any good.

All I did learn from these vain investigations is that Dell Data Safe is widely perceived to be completely fucking useless (one user complained that he'd paid for the upgrade, and still found he was unable to access his backup files), very, very frequently creating these problems where people can't restore backed up files - often because the files haven't been compressed correctly and have become corrupted. I also learned that the Windows 7 'backup & recovery' feature is even worse, that it just about never works, and this is a known problem which Microsoft has done nothing to rectify in the last three years.

Oh yes, and when I tried to contact Dell's Technical Support via online chat last night, I was told that they couldn't help me because they'd lost my product registration details. Not sure if this is to do with my computer resetting itself, and wiping any onboard stored data about me, or if Dell's customer database is on the fritz, but it looks as though my product records somehow defaulted to a previous state where they only had details for the retailer I bought it off, not for me. I didn't feel like going through the rigmarole of re-registering my product details at midnight. Indeed, it wasn't practicable - since all the product codes are in tiny writing, on a label which is on the underside of the computer (and upside down, if you try to look at it by simply tilting the keyboard forward - one of the most amazingly fucking stupid pieces of design I've ever come across!), you can't really get a look at them while you're using the computer (and I don't have any decent light in my study anyway, so was working just from the light of the screen!). I got in a grump and signed off.

When I tried again this morning, I couldn't access the online chat facility at all. I was invited to try to e-mail my complaint/query instead, and was then told I couldn't even do that, because my detected location did not match the location I was "registered" in. WTF??!! I travel a lot. I'm almost always using a VPN, anyway. So, the detected location of my computer is probably not its actual location. And last night you told me I wasn't "registered" anyway! My apparent location has never been a problem in the past (I've had to contact the tech support like this a couple of times before). And how can a shift in my apparent location from Virginia (where I bought the damn thing) to California (where my current proxy is) invalidate my access to customer support? It's just INSANE. 

I am deeply, deeply pissed off with Dell right now. I am getting the impression from my survey of online complaints that their laptops are notoriously, disastrously unstable when running Windows 7. I fear I'm going to encounter these problems again and again. And I really don't expect a fairly expensive computer to conk out on me after less than six months of use. If I'd known in June what I know now, I never would have bought the thing. And I don't think I'm ever going to buy a Dell product again.

But wait, it's not ALL gloom. I did manage to restore my computer eventually.

Yes, I discovered that hidden among the sub-folders in the 'Emergency Recovery' folder that had been created for me, there lurks a little .exe file that launches a 'Recovery Wizard' which allows you to restore all the other compressed files in the folder.

Well, most of them. Most of the program files seem to have fallen by the wayside somehow - which is a HUGE pain in the arse.

But at least my Operating System seems to be doing its thing normally again. For now.

So, tomorrow, I might be able to do some blogging again. If I can be bothered. After all this hassle, I really just feel as if I want to SLEEP for the rest of the week.

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