Although this space is generally reserved for issues arising when tutoring seniors, this week I have a variation on that theme. I am the senior doing the learning – and it is more painful than you might expect because it involves family.

My daughter and son-in-law have been complaining that their ancient computer seems to be getting slower. Unbeknownst to me, they had installed XP on a W98 class PIII computer with an indicated 396 meg of DRAM. They have no documentation on the motherboard and I was not familiar with the inside of the box, so I suggested that they had at least two memory slots, one with 256 meg installed and the other with 128 installed. They likely had a third slot and each one could certainly hold at least 256 meg – maybe more. The DRAM was probably PC133 or PC130, and since that is cheap now the easiest thing for them to do (other than get a modern machine) was to install more memory. That was the first mistake.

The other mistakes started compounding. My son-in-law was not raised in the tradition of fixing things. But he wants to try. So he laboriously removed their computer from its built-in space and removed the side panel. He called to tell me that it had three slots for DRAM and one of them was empty. Hidden in that simple statement was the next two mistakes. He had not told our daughter that he was going to open the box, and she had not been religious about backing up data. Do you see where this is going?

I told him that I had a lot of spare memory and would give him some. When I got to their house, we installed another stick and booted, or rather tried to boot. The graphics didn’t come up, but the beep and HD activity told me that things seemed to be working. Since the AGP card sticks out in the region of the DRAM connectors, I thought that maybe it had been disturbed. Then I realized that the AGP card was actually an older ATI combination graphics card and TV decoder. The video cable input was empty, and they said that they don’t use the TV feature. So I suggested taking the computer to my house for some general cleaning and maintenance, but I expected to yank the graphics card and install a newer one if the old one couldn’t be coaxed into life.

Cleaning the contacts on the AGP card got it working again, more or less, but now the system wouldn’t boot to Windows. It booted right through DMI verification and hung. I innocently asked my son if he had noticed anything else wrong with the computer before opening it. He said that it had been getting slower so he tried to de-fragment the C: drive (they have a small HD for the system and another for data), but it wouldn’t defrag. I asked why. He said that the system reported something about bad sectors and then stopped.

This is not a situation that promotes marital bliss. No matter what the ultimate diagnosis would turn out to be, the computer had been working before he took it apart and it did not work now: end of story.

So I started with the DRAM. The third slot would accept nothing. That’s strange. Maybe it has something to do with those jumpers? Wish I had some documentation. The second slot held what was labeled 256 meg, but was only being read as 128 meg. That seems to be related to the fact that it was PC133, but the other slot held a 256 meg stick with no problem. I replaced the PC133 with an old stick salvaged from another computer and the system booted with the correct amount. The third slot can remain a mystery – who needs it? One has to know when to stop.

Then I addressed the hosed HD. After stumbling around, I installed software in a spare computer to do a forensic examination of the bad boy. To make a long story short, it was hosed, but some parts were recoverable. I copied the good parts and set about to rebuild their computer from scratch. When I called my daughter to ask her send over the various documentation and CDs that came with her computer to help me rebuild it, she had not heard that I had rescued and restored her data. “But I told your husband the good news.” “Maybe, but I’ve not talked to him.” “Oh.”

The best part of the whole adventure is that I sorted through the various offerings for forensic and restoration software and was able to procure for a reasonable price a package that enabled me to recover the My Documents and other personal information including their (un-backed-up) tax files. Now that I have paid my dues in sweating through that task, maybe I can do the same thing next time one of my clients has a problem. Not that the process is fun, but who among us can swear that everything of value is backed up adequately?

Why was I not proactive enough to analyze their computer while it was still limping along? Oh, well, next time.

Click here to read about my new tutorial on helping seniors. The new version has grown considerably over the original. It has more topics and anecdotes, and fewer typos. While you’re at it, check out my expanded tutorial on decision theory.

[tags]computer repair, senior learning, senior computing, DRAM, RAM, memory[/tags]