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In the Trenches with LAROKE

Konsultant's Log, Cyberdate 10.28.1998 (HAL proves that even IBM can make a lemon)

    Situation Report
    Take Charge And Move Out
    United States of America
    Mission Report
Previous HAL Articles:

Cyberdate 10.25.1997 More fun with P2, HAL and 4-Bits

Cyberdate 10.11.1997 P2's transformation slips into high gear

Cyberdate 10.04.1997 Putting out brushfires

Cyberdate 08.23.1997 When we last left our hero, HAL..

Cyberdate 06.14.1997 When it rains, it pours

Cyberdate 05.17.1997 HAL's softwarez feeding frenzy continues

Cyberdate 05.10.1997 HAL gets more software

Cyberdate 05.03.1997 Feeding Softwarez to HAL 9000

Cyberdate 04.19.1997 Moving the HAL 9000

Other Sources:

PC Repair Rip-Off! By Charles Piller. PC World conducted a detailed investigation of service stores. Posing as unsophisticated customers, PC World reporters in six cities tested 20 branches of four giant computer chains. After reading this article, you'll never view computer service the same way again.

DON 5408 Hi! My name is DON5408. This website is dedicated to my hobby "UnOfficial" IBM Aptiva Support.


Autodesk, Inc. AutoCAD LT v1.0

Genicom Corporation TI Microlaser printer (formerly manufactured and supported by Texas Instruments)

IBM Corporation Aptiva Stealth PC

Office Depot, Inc. Office supplies and equipment

Matsushita Electric Corporation of America Panasonic E50 monitor

Tandy Corporation Radio Shack


SITREP: I haven't reported on the computer I call "HAL 9000" for awhile, but my most recent experience with a chronic hardware problem told me it was time. I purchased HAL from Radio Shack, and I thank my lucky stars I followed the store manager's recommendations this one time and purchased the extended warranty plan because various parts of HAL have been back to Radio Shack several times in his short service life.

This last time it was the problematic MM50 monitor and for the first time a "How are we doing" card came back from the repair shop with it. The two lines on the card devoted to "Other comments" are just not enough to do the saga of HAL's repairs justice, so I am devoting this log entry to that story and will write the URL address of this episode in the "Other comments" space before sending it back.

So what follows will chronicle the four separate times (so far) I have had to have HAL repaired and there is enough blame for both the Radio Shack Repair Center and IBM to go around. I do not have anything bad to say regarding the Radio Shack store where I bought HAL. The store manager's service has been wonderful. She always takes care of me right away in a cheerful manner even though I have not made a major purchase since HAL and they only see me in there for small parts or clutching various subsystems of HAL in my arms.

Aptiva StealthThe irony here is that I paid big bucks for HAL and I knew it at the time. I reasoned it would be worth the high price due to IBM reliability. Also, as an architect, I'm sensitive to style and HAL's Darth Vader looks called out to me. So much for the reliability premise . . . One more rule of thumb on the trash heap. Well, let's get on with it while I've got a head of steam up.

TACAMO: In December 1996, I purchased HAL, an IBM Aptiva Stealth Type 2159 Model S7H PC, A thing of beauty with all his integrated components in matt black. This system has a "media console" separate from the "tower" that houses the CPU. The media console houses the CD-ROM drive and floppy drive in a concealed flip-up door arrangement. The power switch and indicator lights are also on the media console. The media console is about the size of a laptop PC and sits beneath the monitor which is supported by a separate tubular stand. The media console is connected to the tower with a thick umbilical cord of cabling. The tower can be concealed behind furniture with this arrangement, hence the term Aptiva "Stealth".

When HAL broke the first time barely a month after purchase, I didn't know exactly how to troubleshoot the unfamiliar component arrangements. IBM also posts a dire warning not to open up the media console.

HAL was OK one minute and dead the next. When I tried to restart him by pressing the power button on the media console, indicator lights would flash and he would try to start, then shut down again before the POST routines. This sequence would always happen twice in rapid succession before he shut down for good.

Beyond checking all the cables, I was not sure how to proceed. What the heck. That's what I got the extended warranty for. I packed the media console and tower in the original boxes and Styrofoam and took these components to the Radio Shack store. I filled out the paperwork, then went home and waited . . . FOUR WEEKS!

I finally got the call to pick HAL up. His power supply had failed. FOUR WEEKS! I would later find that this kind of turn-around is the rule, not the exception at this particular Radio Shack Repair Center . . . In my experience, anyhow.

Sometime, May or June 1997, I began to notice video problems with HAL. Upon startup there would be continuous, rapid, vertical scrolling until the Windows 95 800x600 screen resolution would kick-in. Since I always work in this resolution, I decided I could live with this malfunction, everything else being equal.

By December, noticeable pincushion that could not be adjusted was distorting the display. Finally, the Pincushion effect was enough to make the screen unreadable along with flickering in the top 3/8" of the display.

This time I packed the MM50 monitor in the original box and Styrofoam and headed for Radio Shack. It is not Radio Shack policy to provide "loaner" equipment while your equipment is in their speedy repair shop, but now HAL was functioning as my main work machine, so I could not afford even one day of downtime.

I purchased an IBM MM55 monitor for use with HAL while his monitor was in for repair. There is only one year difference between HAL's MM50 and the MM55 sold with the newer Aptiva Stealth models. In that short time IBM had changed the connector cabling and the monitor base design. The MM55 has a USB bus pass-through connector, which makes sense and different audio connectors (from the MM50) for the built-in speakers and microphone, which doesn't (to me at least).

And, for the life on me, I cannot understand why they would redesign the swivel monitor base with a slightly different diameter so that it will not work with the MM50 support which is the same as the MM55 support in every other way. This meant that I would have to balance the MM55 monitor on top of HAL's support stand by gravity alone and that I would not have sound through the MM55 speakers or built-in microphone.

Again, it took the repair center FOUR WEEKS to decide to "replace the monitor". I hadn't recorded the monitor's serial number, but how come the "new" monitor came back to me in the original box and broken Styrofoam? My friendly Radio Shack store manager was nice enough to take back the MM55 monitor at this time since it really didn't interface very well with HAL.

By the end of March 1998, the "New" MM50 monitor began to develop the same symptoms as the old MM50 monitor it had replaced. Typically, the first sign of trouble to manifest was the uncontrollable vertical scrolling during early system bootup.

Then on April 22nd: HAL is acting up again. The monitor is "jittery" and the vertical scroll on reboot is getting worse. Also, I had to start AutoCAD LT v1.0 to pull up a "DWG" file. When this application is started, it changes the display characteristics. As a result, HAL's monitor (only five months old) became very jumpy . . . I exited AutoCAD LT, but the display did not return to normal. In fact, the "pincushion" effect became extreme - the display took on an hourglass shape losing two inches in width at the middle of the compared to the top and bottom.

I rebooted HAL, but during the POST tests, I got two beeps (instead of the customary single beep) and a POST error message which shunted me into the BIOS setup screen. This screen indicated a "System Board Error #127" (whatever that is). In the "STANDARD SETUP SECTION", the speed of the CPU was listed as OMHz! Ouch! I was able to exit the BIOS setup without making or saving any changes and HAL continued to bootup into Windows 95, but the jittery hourglass screen remained.

I warm-booted HAL a few times with the same results. Finally, I shut HAL off for a few minutes. When I turned him back on, things were back to normal (except for the ever-faster vertical scrolling during the initial boot procedures). HAL's display was OK for about a half hour and, as I log this, the jittery hourglass effects are back and getting worse. ~!@#$%^!! This ~!@# monitor is not quite four months old!

After shutting down HAL, I connected one of the other office monitors to him for testing . . . Worked fine - No vertical scrolling on startup. No distortion in Windows 95. I packed up the failing IBM MM50 display and headed for Radio Shack.

After I took the monitor to Radio Shack, I went to Office Depot and got a 15" Panasonic E50 monitor to act as a replacement for the three to four weeks I estimated Radio Shack would consume fixing or replacing the bad display again.

HAL developed a nervous tick with the temporary replacement monitor. The mouse pointer would jump at random times to random locations and sometimes fire off a click. The result is that applications would be triggered when I'm not even about. It might be a result of the new monitor which is not as tightly integrated into the system as HAL's own IBM MM50 monitor that blew up. I did not even install the drivers that came with the Panasonic PanaSync E50 display.

SIX WEEKS to the day from the time I had taken the "new" MM50 monitor to Radio Shack, the repair center returned it . . . no explanation of what the problem was accompanied the "repaired" monitor. SIX WEEKS!!!

3:28 PM 9/22/98 Well, HAL's monitor gave up the ghost for the third time about one PM. I boxed it up and returned it to Radio Shack again for repair. I replaced it with the 17" ViewMate monitor I got as a spare when Kato's monitor cashed out some time back. It seems to work better with HAL than it did with Kato (a clearer image, not too fuzzy to work with as it was on Kato).

2:19 PM 10/1/98 The friendly manager of the Radio Shack store called to let me know the "repaired" MM50 monitor was ready for pickup so I went and got it. One week later I received a postcard at home from the Repair Center informing me my monitor had been sent to the Radio Shack store and should be ready for pickup.

12:12 PM 10/17/98 I finally got to installing HAL's "repaired monitor". I didn't do it when I first got the MM50 back because it's a pain in the butt to manhandle big, bulky CRT displays around in the close confines of the Krash Lab. Except for emergencies, I usually wait until I'm in a good mood for this kind of work. When I got around to it I found that the repair center hadn't fixed all the problems, but the monitor is workable, so I can struggle with the MM50 some more until it goes completely south again.

The monitor still has rapid vertical scrolling on startup and still has pincushion "hourglass" problem once HAL boots into Windows. I was able to adjust the pincushion, however, and it is still holding as I write this. This is the first time RadioShack included a "how'd we do" response card with the returned monitor. They only kept it a week this time, so I guess they want a pat on the back . . . SORRY! No can do.

MISREP: As stated at the beginning of this log entry, when I bought HAL at the end of 1996, I paid a premium price - IBM was not cutting anyone any breaks on their Stealth models at that time. That was OK with me because I was prepared to pay for IBM quality. HAL's power supply failed within a month. The MWAVE soundcard/modem malfunctions intermittently, and now the second monitor has gone south. I'm definitely suffering some disillusionment here. The only thing I'm really happy about is buying Radio Shack's 3-year full parts and service warranty contract which has saved my bacon money-wise in this situation.

If I'm a PC consultant, why am I in this fix? Frankly, because of the extended warranty. Parts and labor are free until 12/31/2001 or my stamina fails, whichever comes first. Otherwise I would have replaced this monitor a long time ago. It also lets me see my competition in action.

I became a computer consultant in the first place due to this brand of frustration. Every time a PC or related device broke at the office, I had to find someone to fix it. It was always someone different. A laser printer repair broke the camel's back. I had a TI Microlaser repaired locally when a power surge fried one of it's chips. A couple of months later when the Microlaser failed again (something different this time), I went back to the same place . . . Standing there, outside a locked storefront with nothing more than some torn posters and a dead potted plant on the other side of the dusty glass, I decided I would learn to fix these things myself. And I do, most of the time.

People need their computers just like they need their cars. For the same reasons some people choose the corner garage over the big dealership, they choose the consultant over the superstores. It all boils down to convenience and service. I make house calls and if I can't fix it there, I do the mule work and carry it back to the Krash Lab. And if I can't fix it in a reasonable amount of time (it happens), it is returned to the customer and there is no charge. A reasonable length of time is a day or two, not SIX WEEKS! People depend on these things.

If you think I'm picking on Radio Shack's repair center, check out PC World Magazine's report on this subject (PC Repair Rip-Off! by Charles Piller April 1998).

OK, Enough. I am sending notice of this rant to IBM Aptiva Support and the Radio Shack Repair Center. In the name of fairness, I will update this log entry with their comments if they respond.

The MM50 has been working now for almost two weeks . . . I'm cautiously optimistic.

== UPDATE ==

Cyberdate 10.29.1998
Radio Shack
Mr. James Smith, Regional Tandy Representative, contacted me via telephone this morning after reading my e-mail and this article. He had also reviewed the service logs of the repair center in question.
Mr. Smith said the turn-around had been only a few days (except when they had to wait 37 days on IBM for a part) and the problem appeared to be with the courier they use between the stores and the repair center. The courier reported timely delivery logs to Mr. Smith, but I know on one occasion when I called the repair center they reported the monitor had just left the shipping dock. I then called the store but the monitor did not arrive there for over a week. This would be unacceptable even in Roman times since the repair center and the store are only about ten miles from each other. I do believe that over the course of all four repairs, more time has been expended "in the truck" or the courier's depot than at the repair center.
Mr. Smith declined the offer to send me a response for this article. He didn't want to make excuses or appear adversarial. He just wanted to fix the problem. He asked me to contact him personally the next time I have to use the repair center.


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LAROKE Microcomputer Consultants
155 East Boca Raton Road
Boca Raton, Florida 33432
(561)368-0659 (Tel & Fax)

Issued Wednesday October 28, 1998

Updated Thursday October 29, 1998

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