Computers and Skype and cell phones, oh my!

It has been a very busy and eventful and rather disorienting two and half weeks since my last post. I’m updating in chapters. Technology issues have been taking up a lot of my attention for the last few days–way too much of my attention, so I’ll get all that dispensed with first.

I have a netbook (mini-laptop), which I am very attached to. It’s an Acer AOA150 Aspire One, which I named Pigwidgeon after Ron’s little owl in the Harry Potter books, and hence I refer to my netbook as Pig. He’s actually a decent little machine with lots of good features and a very good sound card. He blew his motherboard while he was still under warranty and got an all-expenses-paid trip to Texas for a new one; this did not affect his hard drive, so his original system was intact. He’s been fine since then, but I’d been noticing a few minor little glitches, mostly with McAfee (anti-virus software) and Skype.

I hate, loathe and detest McAfee, which came bundled with Pig, and I’d intended to remove it and install Security Essentials, which I have on my other systems. But I forgot to do so before McAfee auto-renewed the subscription in December, to my great annoyance, and I hated to waste my money. McAfee lets all kinds of crap through, slows the system to a crawl, installs updates and forces reboots at inconvenient times, and is a worthless POS even when it’s working right. It wasn’t working right on Pig because I kept getting odd messages about a scan being interrupted. I also was noticing that when Pig went into standby mode, he didn’t want to come out. And he did seem to be running rather slowly, even though his hard drive was only about half full.

Then there was Skype. I used to run conference calls from Pig without a problem, up until a few months ago when Skype started whining that Pig “wasn’t running fast enough” to make calls. I wish I’d paid closer attention to the timing of the problems, but I only use Skype intermittently. However, my issues seem to have started with Skype’s latest upgrade to ver. 5.3, with all the enhanced videocalling features. Suddenly I was having all kinds of trouble with Skype–if it let me connect at all, the call quality was poor. It was worse if Pig was running on battery, but still dicey when I had him plugged into AC power.

Skype’s error messages said it wasn’t the Internet connection speed–wireless or ethernet cable, the connection was okay. It was the computer’s speed. Pig has a 1.6 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM, and runs Windows XP Service Pack 3. According to Skype’s website, the minimum system requirements are 1 GHz and 512 MB RAM, even for video calls. So what was the problem? On top of this, Skype auto-starts and runs in the background when you boot up the computer (and hogs more memory than anything else), and often when Pig had been booted up for a while and was sitting by itself, Skype would crash and shut down for no apparent reason. So, something was mucking up Skype even when I wasn’t using it.

This past Sunday, I had so much trouble getting Skype to work on Pig, the Readercon committee conference call started about 20 minutes late. No one gave me a hard time, but I was embarrassed and aggravated. There’s nothing like being embarrassed in front of people whose opinions you care about to give you a solid boot in the rear toward finally addressing a nagging issue.

I’ve been fussing with this problem since Sunday, in consequence–and I’ve had no success whatsoever. I started out going online and looking for tips and tweaks to help improve Pig’s performance. I did the usuals like clean up the hard drive and remove useless programs. I also did some less usual things and I guess I was a bit too zealous because I somehow wound up completely fouling up Windows. Oops. But Pig is entirely a backup machine; there was nothing on him that couldn’t be reinstalled or copied over from the bigger systems (that’s probably why I got reckless). So I just threw my hands up, wiped his hard drive and did a clean re-install of Windows XP from scratch.

When that was all done (the 97 critical updates from Microsoft included), before I even put any data files on Pig, the very first program I re-installed was Skype. It gave me exactly the same error message. The hard drive was empty, I checked all the performance settings, Pig was running as fast and clean as he ever would run–and Skype said he was running too slow.

I emailed Skype Support. They replied very promptly, but their reply was totally useless: links to a couple of Wiki-How pages about ways to improve your computer’s performance, all moot after a total re-install of Windows onto a clean drive, and a somewhat breezy brush-off: “As your issue is not from Skype’s end.” [sic] In other words, “sorry, not our problem.” (Today Skype sent me a feedback form asking me to rate their Support response. I let ‘em have it.) Much searching of the support FAQs on Skype’s website didn’t garner any answers, either.

I took a look at the newer Dell laptop–the one that was my main computer before I bought the big workstation in January, 2010. It’s running great, but I’d maxed out its hard drive. I just replaced its keyboard (for the second time, blasted cats!) and battery this spring. It has a 1.7 GHz processor and 2 GB of RAM, so it doesn’t have that much more under the hood than Pig does. It runs Skype perfectly–no error messages of any kind.

Acer’s website hasn’t been very helpful, either. My final thought was to add some memory to Pig. I did that for the Dell laptop and the improvement in performance was phenomenal. Pig should support 1.5 GB of RAM. But Acer claims that “the user” can’t replace the RAM in this particular model of netbook “because of its design.” (That probably means that the memory chip slot is underneath the motherboard. I don’t have any problems about going in there, but Acer obviously doesn’t want me to, and won’t help. The memory would only cost about $20, too.)

So I’m stymied there. I’ve hunted around in online forums and found numerous suggestions for improving a computer’s speed, some of which don’t work and some of which I’m unwilling to try (one complete re-install of Windows per week is enough, thanks). Even less encouraging, I found other people reporting this same problem–”computer running too slow” from Skype on a computer that in other ways seems very speedy indeed–and no one reports finding a solution.

On the plus side, Pig hasn’t looked this good or run this fast since he came out of the box. Being born again didn’t hurt him a bit! I’ve re-installed just about everything that was on him, he has Security Essentials, I piped all the data files onto him straight from the big computer over the network, and I installed the network printer on him correctly this time. He’s smokin’. But Skype 5.3 hates him. And there doesn’t seem to be a thing I can do about it. I guess the next time I run a meeting with Skype, it will be from the Dell laptop. *sigh* Yeah, yeah, I know…three laptop computers and a workstation and listen to me whine. We get so spoiled by our gadgets!

That was Technology Time-Sink Number One. The other Technology Time-Sink has a happier ending. Last Thursday, I got a call from the camera repair shop. I’d just been thinking about them, wondering if there was any point at all in giving them another call. The shop owner said, once again, that they thought they’d found my DVD. My sister was here visiting last week, and Friday was her birthday; on Saturdays the shop is only open in the mornings. So I told them I’d be in on Monday.

Monday afternoon, as soon as the laundry was done and hanging on the lines, I packed up the camcorder and drove to Arlington, again. Well, guess what? They did find my DVD! I don’t know where the Phantom Technician finally located it. Maybe he turned the couch upside down or moved his workbench away from the wall. The shop owner was hiding, and a female assistant I’d never met got the DVD for me, so I had no chance to ask. But I was very pleased and thanked her copiously. No hard feelings! So I have all that footage from the IPNE conference, and it only took me, let’s see, about one half of the original purchase price of the camcorder in repair costs plus four, count ‘em, four trips to Arlington to get it. That video is now on the big computer’s hard drive!

The third technology event since my last post is that I upgraded my cell phone. I’d been thinking about it for a while. I resisted getting a cell phone for a long time, partly because I hated being locked into monthly plans and contracts. But the shelter started using a Tracfone, so I got familiar and comfortable with that, and during my mom’s final illness, when I needed to be reachable, I got one of those. But I’ve had the same, very rudimentary, little Nokia for more than five years. I was getting envious of all the smartphones that took video and photos and surfed the ‘Net and ran apps and had qwerty keypads and color displays.

But it was more than envy. I could perceive that people, especially younger people, were moving onto their phones and off the Internet. I felt that I needed something a lot more up to date to stay connected at Readercon, where I am Con Chair, and just out in the world in general. It’s almost a professional necessity now. I think what really pushed me past my final hesitation was the Joplin tornado, and reading about all the people in Joplin who were posting updates and getting their news from the ‘Net via their cell phones. They didn’t have electrical service, shelter or food but they were staying in touch with their cell phones. A company even brought powered trucks into the devastated neighborhoods so people could charge up their mobile devices!

So I bought a new Tracfone, an LG. It’s a Blackberry clone, basically. It has color, mobile web, a full qwerty keypad, Bluetooth, color display, takes video and photos, and lots of other cool features. I’m a bit hindered in the learning curve by the fact that my house is a cell phone “dead zone,” so I can only play with my phone when I’m away from home. I’ve made my first call on it, though, to my sister during her visit, and it works great. It feels so funny, though–like making a call with a pocket calculator held to my ear. :-)

It was delivered, by the way, by the world’s most confused Fedex driver, ever. This poor woman absolutely would not believe that she wasn’t sitting in her truck in front of my house. She had my phone number with the order, and she called me on her cell. She was actually in her truck, out in the street, in front of the next door neighbor’s house. With my cordless (landline) phone, which sure has terrific reach, I walked all the way down my driveway, across the street, and up to the Fedex truck, talking to her the whole time, before she saw me and finally accepted that she was not in front of my house! And then, I had to point at my house before she spotted it! Then she was apologizing all over the place (she wasn’t the regular driver for the route) and I ended up patting her shoulder and telling her it was okay, the UPS drivers never can find my house, either. But, sheesh! You know that spell in the Harry Potter books where a location can be made “unplottable?” It’s not fiction! GPS systems, Google maps…they all miss my house! If I ever had a stalker, he’d be off lurking around the wrong address! (And gods help him, because I live in Libertarian Land. Everyone has guns.)(And no, I’m not saying. *wry smile*)

More to come!

This entry was posted in geek stuff, general life updates and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.