By Carter B. Horsley
Last fall, I got a new "start-of-the-art" personal computer, the Dell Dimension XPS D300.
My Insight 486DX50 had been "state-of-the-art" in 1991 and had served me pretty well until I had to upgrade to Windows 95 (see Hell).
With great anticipation, I unpacked the new 300-megahertz Pentium II MMX computer from Dell with its 6.4-gigabyte hard drive, 192 megs of RAM, 56K modem, 24X CD-ROM, PCI slots, an AGP slot and card and a USB port.
In addition to its much faster speed and memory, this computer would give me the advantages of the added MMX embedded code for multimedia extensions in its Pentium, the advanced graphics port (AGP) for significantly increased video capabilities, and the universal serial port (USB) for much improved ease of connection of external modules.
The only thing this machine did not have was a SCSI connection for my Hewlett Packard IIIC scanner, which had its own SCSI adapter card that I planned to install in one of the expansion slots.
When I opened up the Dell mini-tower, therefore, I was shocked to discover that there was no place to put this sole "legacy" card. The machine had only two ISA-bus slots and they were filled with the new Creative Labs Awe 64 soundcard and the new U.S. Robotics 56K internal modem card. There were no other ISA slots. The other slots were three empty and available PCI-bus slots and the AGP slot, occupied by a STB Velocity 128 card (because they had no Matrox Millennium II cards that I ordered in stock).
Dell technical support told me the ISA slots were being phased out, but that no soundcards or modem cards had yet been made for PCI slots! They explained that the AGP slot substituted for a third ISA slot.
In comparison to these six slots, my Insight had eight slots (all ISA as PCI had not then been introduced). Gateway's new PC's ship with at least one available ISA slot!
My only solution was to remove the modem card and use an external modem so that I could install my SCSI card. (I did install it, but I never could get the computer to recognize both the card and the scanner even though I went out a bought a PCI SCSI card after hours of frustration.)
It is rather incredible that this top-of-the-line Dell computer ships with no available ISA-slots, since the vast majority of computer buyers today are upgrading and have significant investments in various cards that should be legitimate "legacies."
In the process of checking this situation, I went to the Dell website to look at the available configurations, hoping that there was a tower. There were no towers available with the same chips, but I discovered something much more worrisome: the video card they shipped had a note that indicated it was not compatible with Internet Explorer 4, which is an integral part of the new Windows 98.
Another call to Dell and I was told that it was no problem and just download a patch from the STB website and it will work just fine. I went to that site and found two patches for the specific card. I called STB and asked which patch I should download. Neither, I was told, because Dell had insisted on a proprietary design and the patches would not work with it and, yes, that card is incompatible with Internet Explorer 4 and I should talk to Dell although the non-Dell STB cards are fine.
I finally got Dell to send me the Matrox Millennium II AGP card, which has no such incompatibilities.
Dell had advertised the wonders of the STB card they ship extensively, full-page color ads on the back covers of most major PC magazines for month highlighting and extolling its virtues!
It is shocking beyond belief that such a famous and seeming reputable company as Dell would not only sell a "name-brand" component that is dramatically different from the "name-brand" component and proprietary, but also sell a component for its "Rolls-Royce" model that is incompatible with the next and very imminent version of Windows!
A brilliant article on AGP graphic cards in PC WORLD magazine at the end of the year was even more disturbing as it revealed that the vast majority of AGP cards now shipping do not implement several of the most important feature sets that the specifications were created for and as a result are only marginally better than non-AGP cards. Most of these features relate to 3D-rendering and texture maps, and will be very significant when available for graphic artists, animators, filmmakers and web-site designers.
This again was very bad news as both the STB Velocity 128 and the Matrox Millennium II AGP cards are low on the list of implementation of these important and wonderful features. Both cards are fine at 2D rendering and are fast, but do not offer anywhere near the full promise of AGP!
Buyer beware, of course, but this is just plain shoddy as most support technicians are not fully conversant with these features and I received a lot of misinformation/disinformation from Dell.
Although Dell shipped me the wrong hard drive and more RAM than I had requested, which was annoying but not critical, what was infuriating was my discovery that Dell had partitioned my 6.4-gigabyte hard drive into three partitions of about 2 gigabytes each, meaning that I would have to separate data from programs and probably could not even fit all my programs on one partition. More importantly, however, was the fact that Dell had not used the FAT-32 system that is only available in new computers. FAT-32 is the 32-bit file allocation table for hard drives that enables the computer to store files in smaller "clusters" and thus make more efficient use of the hard drive. Dell used the old FAT-16 system and this results in considerable slack, that is "wasted" space since in its largest partitions it saves all files, regardless of size in 32K clusters, so if a file only is 1K it still occupies 32K on the hard drive. The amount of "slack" can be one-third or more on most hard drives. FAT-32, which has been available on most new computers for over a year, can store files in 8K clusters and have enormous partitions. Dell did not ask how the user wanted the drive partitioned and its use of FAT-16 removes one of the major advantages of buying a new computer! Gateway, in contrast, does not partition its large hard drives and its installed system is FAT-32! Windows 98 is reported to contain a file allocation converted, but the mere thought of fooling around with valuable data is daunting and no sane person relishes the prospect of reformatting an existing and nearly full hard drive and having to install all one's programs. Hopefully, the Windows 98 FAT converter will work seamlessly, and one early report indicates that it does. The converter works very well, indeed, freeing up almost 600 megs on a 2-gig partition. It does not, however, repartition the hard drive into one partition, an operation that can only be accomplished by a format command.
The moral is to explicitly ask the seller about everything you care about in a new computer:
Are the brand-name components identical to those sold by the brand names?
How is the hard drive partitioned and what file allocation system is installed?
Does the AGP card contain all AGP features and if not which ones and if not what does and is available?
Is everything compatible with Windows 98?
Check about how many expansion slots are available and ask what type, and see if there are alternatives.
Remember that whatever you will buy will be "obsolete" in a few weeks most likely, but make sure that you get the most expandable system possible.
In the summer of 1998, Dell began shipping 450 megahertz computers with very large hard drives and Windows 98. The good news is that they were shipping with FAT-32 and that the hard drives were only partititioned into two parts, a small one and a very large one. The Dells were also shipping with second generation AGP video cards. (8/24/98)