Gather round, and listen to our tale. A friend named Jimmy crashed his Windows XP registry, so Bec and I figured we should help him out and reinstall Windows. He has a Dell Dimension XPS410, and even had his original XP disk and serial key. We figured smooth sailing, and hoped we’d finish by dinner. When the installer could not see the hard drive, we worried. When we realized that we needed to find drivers for everything, we became enraged. When Windows shut down all hardware because we did not activate it in time, we went insane. Ten hours later, at one in the morning, we called it a night. I write this to assist anyone else in the same situation.
We prepared by making sure Jimmy had everything important backed up. He used a piece of software called Smart Backup, from Western Digital. Needless to say, it behaved anything but intelligently. I’d bet that the guy who installed it for him didn’t permanently map his external drive, so when he reconnected it it had a different drive letter, and backups failed. We didn’t find this out until later, of course. We did export his accounts and contacts from Outlook. We gave the last call, and booted using the Windows XP Home CD which came with his computer.
Upon booting, we realized something had gone wrong when the installer could not recognize the hard drive. It gave us an ambiguous error message about a problem occurring, and we finally narrowed it down to the SATA controller. It turns out that Windows does not natively support the XPS410’s SATA controller. It sounds unbelievable, but this awful truth would only become more evident as time progressed. Some searching gave us several options. We opted for the easiest: to go into the BIOS and change the SATA Operation Mode setting from RAID to Autodetect. This one sentence holds the key. Upon rebooting, the installer now saw the drive. As Jimmy pointed out, an average user like him would have never known to do that.
We formatted the drive while eating some wonderful black bean and pineapple enchiladas prepared by Jimmy’s girlfriend (fiance, whatever). When the format finished, we continued the installation, and after our meal, booted into the clean system. We thought we could celebrate. We thought wrongly. We quickly noticed a lot of things didn’t work, by which I mean that pretty much nothing worked. The video display looked incomplete, and sound didn’t work. Perhaps most importantly, the network card didn’t work either! Yes, we had no connectivity, a broken display, and no audio which meant no speech. We found ourselves in a fine pickle.
We had to face the task of downloading the drivers. This meant navigating Dell’s unusable web site. After a lot of yelling, an aborted call to Dell, several attempts to find the proper number to enter, and some more yelling, we finally got Jimmy’s sighted girlfriend to battle with the site and download the files onto a thumb drive. We inserted the thumb drive, and started installing the drivers. To our delight, the video, sound, and networking all came online. We gave a yell of victory, and decided to get some ice cream to celebrate. We thought we had finally beaten Dell’s proprietary policies. Again, we thought wrongly. We thought the ice cream would lift our moods and bodies. Again, we thought wrongly.
I took over for Bec, who had worked all day. I began installing some applications and restoring some files. I felt good. Suddenly, the speech stopped. I could not get it talking, and worried that NVDA had crashed. Since I had a file copy going, I didn’t want to reboot yet. Before the crash, I heard a balloon stating to reboot so that the new updates could take effect. Jimmy wanted automatic updates left on, as recommended by Microsoft, so we left it on, and it automatically updated to the latest service pack and all. Austin’s computer tip: Never do something just because Microsoft recommends it! It turns out that it updated us right out of a working system.
Upon rebooting, nothing talked. The video looked screwed up again, and networking didn’t work. We couldn’t figure out why, but suddenly all the drivers we had installed had stopped working. Remember that the Dell XPS410 contains hardware which Windows does not natively support. This ridiculous backward evil materialist selfish profit-oriented sneaky scheming philosophy gave its awful roar, for it had found its ally in Microsoft.
With sudden alarm, Bec exclaimed that she had a similar situation on another Dell. She wondered if Windows required activation. She went to try to activate it, and it gave us the options of a network or phone installation. We of course chose network, and of course it didn’t work. Could this really have happened? Did Windows disable all non-native hardware until its activation? I didn’t think so at first, but some searching confirmed this possibility, along with the likelihood that the disk which came with the computer actually contained Dell’s OEM version of Windows XP, as opposed to a true Microsoft version, if such a thing exists. The OEM version required immediate activation, but of course we had no network, making a network activation impossible. We couldn’t believe it. We cursed Microsoft and Dell. Windows had disabled all non-native drivers, including the video, sound, and most importantly networking, making a network activation impossible – a classic Microsoft catch-22!
By this point it had gotten on past midnight, and we saw the situation all too clearly. My logical brain felt satisfied with the explanation – it fit the facts, but my emotional brain reeled with a mixture of bewilderment and rage. My love of open-source software and open hardware standards felt strengthened. Dell puts hardware on its machines which Windows doesn’t support out of the box, then ships their machines with their OEM version of Windows which requires activation, and if you don’t do it in time, it disables the networking, making a network activation impossible. And in case you wondered, others have had no luck trying phone support. It went round and round in my head on the ride home. We said we’d talk the next day, but as this occurred on the Fourth of July, we didn’t feel like facing this evil. Jimmy did, however, and called us after he installed Windows again, put the drivers back on, and activated it. Everything worked, confirming our theory. Unbelievable.
In summary, if you want to install Windows XP on a Dell XPS410, you must keep several things in mind. First, change the SATA Operation Mode setting in the BIOS to Autodetect. Next, download
all drivers in advance onto a thumb drive. This will save you a lot of headaches. Better yet, use a program such as Driver Magician. Finally, use a cracked version of Windows! We tried to do it legally and got burned. Advanced users might even like to slipstream the drivers into the installation, using a program such as n-Lite. If you must use Dell’s version, install the network driver and activate it as quickly as possible. Keep updates turned off until activation. Once activated, update and you should have no problems fnord.
If this article helps just one floundering tech in a tight situation, I will feel like I have done my duty. Dell sucks for doing this. Now I understand why the “Dude, you’re getting a Dell” guy got stoned all the time. If you ever have to service a Dell, you should follow suit. Now more than ever I will loudly oppose Dell to potential buyers. If you want a computer, go local! Find some dude building awesome custom jobs in his garage. Don’t go for the Dell just because it seems easiest. These corporations and their dishonest ways must end. By the way, that ice cream from Wawa made us feel sick. An onlooker the next day would have thought that we suffered from hangovers, taking alka-seltzer at two in the afternoon. It mirrored the experience. I scream, you scream, we all scream for Dell and Microsoft. Give me Linux or give me death!