New Vista installation… Linux to the rescue

We’ve just bought a new laptop for one of my colleagues here at work, and I’ve been charged with getting it set-up for him. Mainly it’s just a case of connecting it to our network, but I’ll also run any updates, install a few bits of software, and set a few configuration options for him while I’m at it.

The machine is an HP 6725s laptop. It’s stupidly oversized, in my opinion, given that he only really uses it at home (where he has an external monitor) and in the office (where he also has an external monitor). Still, so long as he’s happy with the 15.4″ screen, and he has a good osteopath, then so be it.

It was purchased as running Vista Business edition – though the small print mentioned the “XP downgrade option” was included. That’s fine, I thought, as it would at least give us the option to go back to XP if Vista turns out to be a problem for him. I was a little surprised to find that powering it on went straight to the XP installation screen by default, but as it had been supplied with both Vista and XP discs, it was a simple task to reboot with the Vista DVD and install that.

That’s when the problems started. To give credit where it’s due, the installation process for Vista is a lot more streamlined and sensible than the XP installer. I did have one problem at this stage, though: one of the screens was asking me about the computer’s name, plus a few other things. I have no idea what those other things were, though, because while trying to delete the Vista-supplied computer name using the Backspace key, in order to enter a new name, I accidentally caught the Return key. The installer moved on to the next step, with the “Back” button disabled, leaving me with no way to correct my mistake, or see what the other items on the previous screen were.

Eventually the machine booted… into a desperately poor 800×600 screen resolution. I tried to change the settings, but that would only let me get as far as 1024×768 – better, but still not the laptop’s native resolution of 1280×800. Time to install the drivers.

I broke open the sealed packet with the Vista drivers disc in it, only to find that the disc looked a little scuffed, with a small dent in it. It looked like someone had rested something heavy on it, stepped on it whilst wearing football boots, or given it to a small child as a teething ring. I polished it up as best I could, then put it into the machine. I was actually quite surprised to even be presented with the series of “Do you want to run setup.exe?”, “Really?”, “Really?”, “What, really Really?” dialogues, but somewhat less surprised when the DVD drive made noises like an injured puppy, and Windows politely informed me that it couldn’t run the software after all. Never mind, I’ll just download the drivers off the internet.

Start => Internet Explorer… unable to connect to the website. Hmmm… I probably just needed to set up something somewhere. Except that every route I took ended up informing me that the machine has no networking hardware. Really? Then what’s this RJ45 socket on the side here, with a cable plugged in? The one with two lights? Two lights which were both off 🙁 No network for me.

So I broke out my trusty Linux disc – a Ubuntu 9.04 CD – and booted to a live Linux environment. The screen was running at a crisp and sharp 1280×800, and the network socket had two lights. Within a few moments I was off to the HP support site – which unfortunately didn’t offer a unified zip or ISO of all the drivers, so I would have to grab them all separately. I downloaded the video and network drivers so that I could at least get Vista into a sane state from which to download any other drivers. But where to put the files? I opened the machine’s hard drive within Ubuntu, and was about to save the files onto the root of what Vista knows as Drive C: when I noticed a subdirectory called “HP”. That seemed like a more sensible place to pop them, so I moved the files into there, and rebooted into Vista.

It turned out that the “HP” directory wasn’t such a sensible place after all – it’s a hidden directory in the Windows environment. Knowing it was there, I was able to “cd” into it from a command line window, and run the driver installers that way, but I will admit to scratching my head for a couple of minutes. The video driver wanted a reboot, but then at least came back with a nice crisp full-resolution screen. The network driver didn’t even need a reboot (hurrah!), but was terse to the point of not having a UI at all. After a few minutes my command line prompt returned, so I assumed it had finished installing – and sure enough I had a couple of lights on the network socket, and a working connection to the internet.

So now I’m finally at a stage where I can actually proceed with the configuration of this machine – though I still need to grab the rest of the drivers so that I can put them all on a CD for future use. What I find a little ludicrous is that my Ubuntu CD contained drivers for the graphics and network card, but the Vista DVD (i.e. much more storage space) contains neither. The lack of a network card driver is particularly galling, as without that it becomes extremely difficult to obtain any other drivers.

As it happens, I had a Linux CD and was able to use it. If that hadn’t worked, I could have grabbed the drivers using another machine, then put them on a USB drive. But what would have happened if this machine had been purchased for home use as a first PC? Please Microsoft, even if you don’t provide many drivers for other hardware, at least ship as many network drivers on your DVD as possible.

And to the person who is feeding HP’s driver discs to their toddler: Please stop.

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