Thursday, November 24, 2005

Computer Problems?

Eugene Volokh is having problems with his Dell computer, and your Indigent Blogger is here to give you the low down on the break down at Dell. I immediately guessed at the nature of the problems Mr. Volokh would have with Dell by the description of his problem in the first paragraph of his post.

I have a simple problem: The hard drive for my Dell notebook crashed after my computer was out of warranty. I bought a new hard drive, but now I need a boot disk for the Microsoft XP Professional operating system that I originally bought loaded onto my computer. I suspect this happens very often; there ought to be a standard procedure for it.

That is a relatively simple problem but not for the Dell support folks thanks to the cost-saving decision to exclude the original media for the Windows operating system.

I'm talking about the CD that could be used to reinstall Windows (or whatever) on your Dell computer from scratch. This is precisely what you would need if your hard drive crashed or if you upgraded to a bigger hard drive. What Dell provides to its home-user customers instead is a "Disaster Recovery" CD. Dell is right about one thing, the entire concept of the way that recovery CD works is a disaster. Dell makes a mirror image of the operating system as it is before the end-user gets their hands on it, and stores that image on a separate partition of the hard drive. If you own a Dell personal computer (that has not been "re-imaged" through your own corporate IT personnel), you'll be able to see this magical recovery partition by typing compmgmt.msc in the Start-Run command box and selecting Disk Management from the Storage folder. You should see a list of logical "volumes" at the top right, and the physical disk they reside on in the bottom right.

That "recovery partition" is important because it works in conjunction with the recovery CD. The recovery CD "restores" the operating system on a Dell computer back to factory condition by erasing EVERYTHING on the user's partition and reinstalling the "mirror image" from the hidden recovery partition. Since Mr. Volokh replaced his original hard drive, there was no magical recovery partition rendering the recovery CD (and the canned support script walking him through it) absolutely useless. So, Mr. Volokh would need to purchase a new Windows XP CD for two reasons; 1) Dell provides a "Disaster Recovery" CD rather the actual media for the operating system, and 2) the Disaster Recovery CD does not recover from disasters involving the hard drive where the hidden recovery partition is located.

I talked to the person; and finally, finally got a chance to buy a new copy of Windows XP Pro (the software that they knew I had bought with my original system) for a $100 discount off their $309 standard price.

Here we have one of the greatest computer crimes of our time. Most Dell computers sold for home users do not come with the "Professional" edition of Windows XP. The Professional edition is an option for which Mr. Volokh probably paid extra at the time of his original purchase. However, he still received no media for his operating system with his original system. Dell then has the balls to charge him $209 to replace the media he should've received when he purchased his system.

Readers of The Indigent Blogger, brace yourselves! You can purchase an OEM version of Windows XP Professional (the same thing Mr. Volokh just purchased) for $75 from eDirectSoftware. Yeah, bookmark that link! And yes, it is legal software. Yes, I have done business with them on many occassions. No, I am not affiliated with eDirectSoftware in any way. There's even a bonus for Dell users because the OEM media that eDirectSoftware ships to you is currently imprinted with the Dell logo.

How is that possibly legal you ask? Here's an explanation that I wrote for my small circle of customers:

You have an OEM license of Microsoft Windows XP Professional. The sticker affixed to the outside of your computer has your Product Key, which is your proof of ownership and represents your legal license. Do not permit others to use your product key! Using your product key to activate Windows installations on other computers is illegal and could jeopardize your ability to receive free offers, critical updates, and upgrade pricing for new operating systems from Microsoft.

You are permitted to make one backup copy of your media to be used in the event of damage or loss to your original OEM software media. If you purchased your computer from The Indigent Blogger after September 2004, you should be able to simply insert a blank CD-R disc into your CD-ROM drive and type 'makexpcd' at any command prompt. This will create a backup copy of your Windows XP OEM installation media.

The Indigent Blogger cannot replace or repair lost or damaged installation media. In the event that your original hologram CD is lost or damaged, and your hard drive data is lost or damaged, and you don't have a backup installation CD, you may need to purchase a completely new version of Windows XP Professional. Under no circumstances will The Indigent Blogger provide replacement media.

So, the license to use Microsoft software is really tied to those convoluted product keys you have to type in when you install it for the first time. The truth is that you can use ANY media for the same license type of the same product to re-install or add components to an existing installation as long as you have the unique product key. For example, the product key on the "Windows XP Professional OEM Version" sticker affixed to the outside of Mr. Volokh's laptop could be used to install Windows XP Pro (OEM) from the media he will receive from Dell. In fact, he could buy a new OEM version from eDirectSoftware and and install it using the product key on the sticker affixed to his computer years ago when Dell shipped it from their factory.

What will not work is mixing edition or license type. When you buy Windows XP (Home or Professional) off the shelf at a retail store, that is a "Retail" license. The license purchased with most computers or from places like eDirectSoftware is an "OEM" license. There are subtle differences that I will not get into here. Let's say you buy five copies of Windows XP Professional OEM Version from eDirectSoftware and four of the CDs are crushed during shipping. You can absolutely use the one remaining CD to install the operating system on five computers as long as you use one each of the five product keys (received with the media) when prompted during installation. However, if all five CDs were damaged during shipping, you could not use the product keys received with the OEM media to install from the "Retail" CD your wife bought you for Christmas last year. In that case, you would enter the OEM product key and it would be rejected by the retail installation CD.

I realize this is rough reading for any day, let alone Thanksgiving Day, but I thought I would shed some light on how Dell (and most other OEMs) handle your operating system licensing and media and offer some tips on how to protect yourself against their poor practices. I also hope this clarifies how much more important those little stickers and product keys are than the actual CD that comes with your software purchase.


Anonymous visitor said...

"If you purchased your computer from The Indigent Blogger after September 2004, you should be able to simply insert a blank CD-R disc into your CD-ROM drive and type 'makexpcd' at any command prompt. This will create a backup copy of your Windows XP OEM installation media."

My computer doesn't recognize "makexpcd" as a command. Is this something special to your machines?

10:13 PM  
Blogger The Indigent Blogger said...

Yes. That was an option I started building into my systems late last year.

5:42 AM  

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