A puzzling XPerience

I’m still a PC gamer deep down in my heart, and Windows XP has been a good gateway for that. Most of the games I play also run under WINE, but especially newer titles sometimes take a while until they’re supported. To bridge that gap, I have a trusty old Win XP Home license that I follows me around as a “game console OS”. Every time I upgraded a PC, Windows would move with me.

So last week I gave in and replaced my five year old components (complete with wheezing CPU fan) with new gear. I expected to be able to do things the same as ever, including the ritual of the XP install before Linux, so XP wouldn’t get confused and wipe out the bootloader on installation.

The XP installation was a nightmare already, and it got worse from there. XP can’t talk to the SATA controller so it won’t find the hard drive. I learned that the simplest way around that would be to put the drivers on a floppy and load them during installation, but without a floppy drive, I had to head elsewhere. I read up about slipstreaming — remixing your own XP CD so it includes the drivers. I’m sure it’s against the license with Microsoft, but I suppose there is little choice. Once slipstreamed, the installer managed to see the drive and install XP. I had to run Windows Update to get to XP SP2, because without this, many driver installers would quit with nonsense error messages.

Someone said that Windows is easy to install?

Roughly half an hour later, chipset and graphics drivers were installed, and the first games went on. Played for a bit, fine. The problems appeared after the next Windows Update. Now the system can’t stay stable and randomly BSODs right to hell. I thought the RAM might be flaky, checked that and it’s fine.

I was prepared for an ugly time installing Ubuntu because I thought it won’t support the SATA controller either, but Ubuntu installation consisted of two steps: Run the installer. Reboot. Done. All hardware seems to work and I’ll be doing bonnie++ benchmarks in a second to test my first ever SATA drive.

XP on that machine still isn’t behaving at all and WINE is the best way to play Windows games there. What exactly broke Windows, no one knows. Maybe XP SP3 came down the line with Windows Update? That would be charming.

Without meaning to troll, but Windows installation is horrible. Part of the reason is that non-free software can’t be liberally distributed, so Microsoft can’t include drivers for more modern hardware without going through negotiations with driver makers, and I completely understand that they don’t want that. They also aren’t interested in releasing updated versions of their XP install CDs, with the exception of odd service pack releases every few years, but those generally don’t support more hardware. The mantra in Redmond is “buy Vista”, but most consumers don’t want that operating system and will only accept it if it’s forced upon them. I’m not so sure that Vista could have managed on this hardware at any rate, reading reports from Vista buyers with similar configurations.

I wonder if I’ll manage to ever get that XP stable. Perhaps a reinstall is necessary. Perhaps I will have to buy a floppy drive and load the SATA drivers from there. I can’t say what’s wrong because the logs certainly don’t say anything and I don’t have the source to any of the drivers or the kernel, so there’s no way I can get more detail from the system. Either way, it usually bluescreens a minute after login, so there isn’t much you can do on that front. I think if I had freshly bought this XP license for the new PC, and as an average user, I would be completely pissed off by now.

It’s all very puzzling indeed.

Update: It was all ASUS fault. ASUS’ newer mainboards include a utility called EPU which is supposed to lower RAM frequency and CPU core voltage if the components aren’t in use, in order to save power. It seems that the software isn’t really stable yet and manages to crash machines randomly, probably by picking a core voltage that’s too low. This software ships on the install DVD that accompanies the mainboards and it installs by default using the “install everything” mode, so be wary. Either don’t use EPU at all, or keep it set to “high performance”, which actually defeats the purpose of installing it in the first place.

If EPU were free software, we could at least help them fix it šŸ™‚

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