Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Microsoft, Nice Mapping.

It’s ironic that I should start reading Donald A. Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” in the week I once again take up the struggle to install a video card in my computer. 

I thought at first, way back in January when the video card adventure started, that I had a bum card. In describing my symptoms to the card’s manufacturer, they agreed with my diagnosis. I sent the card back in for a refund.

Then, circumstances being what they are, I waited. Last night, about two months after my first failed attempt, I tried again with another, more powerful card. It met the specs of my computer – which with a 500-watt power supply and the necessary slot for the card – has what it needs to power the card.

Or not. 

Plugged the card in and nothing. Or, rather, the same symptoms as last time: No booting at all, just a blank screen. 

This time, the card came with instructions. Weenie, one-size-fits-almost-all instructions, yes, but instructions nonetheless. I followed them. And nothing. 

So to the Googleplex I went, not hoping for much. 

Until I found this – It is, as I suspected in January, a Windows 8 thing, but not an incompatibility, but a change in the computer’s fundamental firmware architecture that adds a completely invisible step to the process of installing a video card.* Part of the program the computer uses to invisibly regulate hardware has to be altered in order to let an aftermarket hardware – interior to the machine – be added. 

Frustration beyond belief.

Here’s where Norman comes in.

A bit of machinery, properly designed, should have visible means of communicating with its user. Buttons should have one function. Services should not have to be activated through the application of a complex bit of number-punching or button-pushing. And what visible signals the machine gives should make it evident what went wrong, or what isn’t working. 

As it is, the only indication I will have that tonight’s trick to install this video card actually works is if I can get dual monitors set up. Otherwise, I’m stuck at the black screen which tells me, yeah, something’s wrong, but darned if I know what it is.

Fixing this is simple – even to a non-computer guy like me. If the computer detects something out of the ordinary with its secure boot system, perhaps flashing a message to the user would be a good thing – and in the event it has to do with video cards, the message could be delayed until the user invariably restores the device to its original configuration and starts the computer up normally. The message could be: Oh, you tried to install something, and it didn’t work. Here’s what you need to do.

Or, it could be simpler: Just recognize the new damn hardware. 

That happened with my printers. I have a wireless printer which, when I turned on the new computer in December, connected flawlessly. Even the outdated scanner I have, after a driver update, connected just fine. I knew what to do in both cases because I’d done it before and got the expected result, as Norman outlines in his book. 

Trick is, I’ve also installed interior hardware, without a problem, with the positive feedback from the devices. I was expecting that with the new computer and the new video card. Not getting the expected result led me to several conclusions:  
  • Power supply, even the 400-watter replacing the 300-watter in the machine (which the video card specs said was okay) did not work. So I spent more money on a 500-watt supply and kept the 400-watter, simply because to return it would mean losing half its cost in shipping.
  • I’d done something “wrong” installing the card, so I reinstalled it several times, to no avail.
  • By reinstalling the card so many times, I had ruined it or the PCIE port in my computer. So off to the store goes the “broken” card, and I wait a few months to try again, only to fail again. 

Nowhere in this mess, until last night, did I even see this Windows 8 Secure Boot system mentioned. Oh, I had many people tell me to “change my BIOS,” which might have fixed the problem. But they assumed I knew how to do that. And nobody seemed to know how to do it on a Windows 8 machine. 

Fortunately, folks more persistent than I whittled away at the problem between January and now. Their action prompted HP – my computer’s manufacturer – to set up a (hopefully) helpful page to offer instructions to would-be card installers on how to do it properly. We’ll see how that works. The fix is getting more visible, but, indeed, is not visible if you’re there, on your own, twiddling your thumbs and contemplating sending yet another “faulty” card back to the store. 

*Note: I am writing this before I actually try the fix I’m about to describe, so maybe my attitudes will change. But I’m confident this will work.

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