Ask the Doctor

Kaya Systems

The doctor tackles Post-Upgrade Blues, Drive Order, Upgrading an XPS 700 , and more

Post-Upgrade Blues

I upgraded to Windows 8 on my laptop. Can you tell me how to reinstall Windows 7 ? I tried restoring the system from Windows 8 but did not have any luck. Is there a way to use my recovery discs or will I need to purchase a copy of Windows 7?

- Michael De Matteis

The Doctor Responds:

If the recovery discs are the ones that came with your laptop, you should be able to use them to reinstall Windows 7 (provided that’s what your laptop shipped with). Your product key should still be on the sticker on the bottom of your laptop. If not, you can download the Window 7 ISO that corresponds with your license here and use that to burn a new install disc. If that doesn’t work, due to OEM licensing constraints, contact your laptop manufacturer; they may be able to get you (or sell you) a new recovery disc. Some laptops also have a recovery partition that you can boot into to reinstall Windows—when you boot, keep an eye out for any options to press keys to access a recovery feature.

Classic Shell restores the Start button and menu, and even gives you a choice whether to completely eliminate the Start screen or not, so you can ease into it.

If you want to downgrade because of program incompatibilities, go ahead and downgrade. But if you just miss the Start menu and hate the Metro interface, there’s a way to keep the performance improvements of Windows 8 and get the classic Start menu back. Several ways, actually, but we like Start8 ($5) or Classic Shell (free). Install it and you can add a Start button back to your taskbar, and even disable Metro entirely. And later, when Metro gets more useful or you feel like experimenting, you can get Metro back without having to downgrade now and upgrade again later.

SSD Program Sorting

I recently upgraded my old computer with (among other things) an SSD . I don't want to fill it up with unnecessary stuff. I have installed Windows 7 and MS Office on it, but have directed downloads, documents, pictures, videos, etc. to default to a secondary hard drive. I'm wondering about programs. If they aren't frequently used, or maybe just a trial program, is it OK, performance-wise, to put a program on the HDD rather than on the SSD? Would this have any effect on the overall system performance?

- Jack Orkin

The Doctor Responds:

In the future we will all have enough SSD space to install every program we want, but right now few of us can afford an SSD that big, so some programs invariably have to be installed on mechanical drives. This is perfectly fine. Putting your OS and your most frequently used programs on the SSD is the best way to take advantage of your SSD’s access speeds, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with installing less frequently used or trial programs on the HDD. Your instinct is right on the money. They won’t load as fast, of course, but who cares? If you wind up using them all the time, make room on the SSD. Otherwise, they’re fine where they are.

Put the Jumper Down

A long time ago, there was an article in your magazine dealing with optimal communication/connection arrangements for hard drives and CD-ROMs via E-IDE primary masters/slaves and E-IDE secondary master/slaves.

I am building a new rig that has SATA components: two SATA HDDs and two DVD drives. They are plugged into the mobo SATA ports: 0 and 1 for the hard drives, 2 and 3 are empty, and ports 4 and 5 go to the DVD drives. Is there a better way to connect these components to reduce communication bottlenecks?

- Sunnie

The Doctor Responds:

The good news, Sunnie, is that the day of having to manually jumper your hard drives and optical drives are long over (although the Doctor will note that cable select worked pretty well at the end).

SATA is point-to-point and does not feature a master and slave relationship like Parallel ATA had, so don’t worry about that aspect. The only thing to really be mindful of when hooking up multiple SATA devices is which controller they go to. Modern boards usually have multiple SATA controller chips. Some go to the board’s south bridge/peripheral controller hub, and others go to discrete controllers put on the board as a value add. Generally the chipset controller is preferred over discrete components. One other thing to consider is whether the port is SATA 6Gb/s. On AMD chipsets, all of the SATA ports are SATA 6Gb/s. On Intel, only two of the six from the chipset proper are SATA 6Gb/s. If you eventually buy an SSD that runs at SATA 6Gb/s you will get the best performance running it on a SATA 6Gb/s port. Since your hard drives and optical drives don’t benefit from this (very much anyway), the Doctor recommends cracking open your motherboard manual and finding out which of the ports are SATA 6Gb/s. Plug your other drives into the SATA 3Gb/s ports and leave the 6Gb/s ports open for the day when you install an SSD.

Mobo Five for XPS 700

I have a Dell XPS 700 that I purchased in December 2006. I purchased it with a four-year warranty. During that time, the motherboard had to be replaced four times. I ended up buying a new Dell after the warranty period expired and the fifth motherboard failed.

XPS 700: To fix or to toss? That is the question.

I would like to use the XPS 700 as my spare computer, but for that I need a new motherboard. I called Dell to see about a motherboard. They said they could order one for me, but they want $440 for it. I don’t want to buy another motherboard from them knowing it’ll fail after a year. I don’t know enough about motherboards to buy one that’s compatible with my computer but more reliable, and I don’t know if $440 is too much.

Is there a replacement board for this machine I can swap out without being too much of a geek, or should I just bag it?

- Clair Bolton

The Doctor Responds:

$440 is an awful lot to pay to replace a 6-year-old motherboard model. It’s even a lot to pay for a brand-new top-of-the-line motherboard. They don't make motherboards using the nForce chipset any more, or even in that form factor (BTX) any more

For that amount of money you could nearly replace the entire XPS 700 with a faster computer—we’ve come a long way in six years. It's possible to get a modern ATX motherboard to work in that great-looking XPS 700 chassis, but it's rather more work than you'd probably like to do (See here ). You'd still be stuck with an outdated system unless you replaced the CPU, RAM, and videocard, as well. In which case, as we mentioned, you'd probably just be better off with a new computer—unless you really love that XPS 700 case and own a Dremel that you don’t mind using.

DDR with No Bloody 2 or 3

I have an old desktop that was given to me a few years ago. It features an Athlon 64 X2 4800+ in a Socket 939 ASRock 939 board with 2GB of DDR, two hard drives, a GeForce 8800 GTS, and 300W PSU. It was running an early build of Windows 7 , and one day it would power on but not get through POST. I finally got it running earlier this year after essentially unseating every part in the case and reinstalling it. The last part I reinstalled was the RAM, which seemed to do the trick. I used the rig this entire year until my IDE DVD drive started to act up, and when I powered off my system and replaced it with another IDE drive it wouldn't get to POST or the screen where it shows the BIOS checking your RAM and HDDs. After a bit of work, I was able to get my graphics card to display an image, but it only shows the motherboard checking the RAM then freezing.

I personally think that my DIMMs may have gone bad, but after switching the configurations from 2GB (4x 512MB), to 1GB, and then to just one stick, I am beginning to believe it may be something else. I would just get more RAM, but seeing that I'm limited to using DDR (not DDR2, just plain DDR RAM) finding replacement parts has been hard. I cannot afford to build a new rig, which I would rather do than dealing with this crap. What should I do, and what exactly is my problem?

- Wayne Strickland

The Doctor Responds:

The Doc knows that it sounds like a broken record but the two most common failure points in an elderly system (other than HDD) are RAM and power supply. Since you don’t have a spare bucket of parts, you should first try to diagnose with what you have. First, to ensure that your hard drive isn’t going bad and hanging during POST, disconnect both hard drives’ cables from the motherboard. It’s unlikely to be the issue, but disconnect them just to be sure.

You have pulled RAM, but how do you know the last stick of RAM in the machine isn’t the one that’s bad? Swap the last stick of RAM with one of the other sticks and try them in different slots. Remember: Power down your system completely and switch off or unplug your PSU for at least 10 seconds before removing RAM or PCIe devices.

If that doesn’t work, try resetting the BIOS. If that doesn’t work, manually set the RAM timing in the BIOS to the timings supported by the RAM. With the box running, make sure the fan on the CPU is running and not blocked by cat hair, dust, or a mouse house.

If you’re still stuck, the next step will probably take additional parts to troubleshoot. Frankly, the Doctor believes the problem may lie with your PSU. The GeForce 8800 GTS came in numerous configurations, with some consuming more power than others. All of them are probably just a wee bit over-the-top for a 300-watt PSU, especially if it’s a no-name PSU. And even if it has worked fine for many years, a PSU running at 95 percent of peak through long hot summers is likely to have a shorter lifespan than one running at 50 percent its whole life. So, the PSU should be one of your first suspects to replace if you can swing it. Usually when power supplies give up the ghost, they just stop working, but that’s not always the case. It’s possible the PSU has enough juice to POST and get to the RAM check before it gets overloaded and shuts down.

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