A bad day commissioning a new PC


I'm quite struck by how well the Asus mini PCs work and, instead of quoting for a traditional style machine in a steel case, I now offer, at a much reduced price an Asus such as the PN41. This can offer a saving of two or three hundred pounds with little reduction in performance and a major saving of space. I selected all the necessary parts (PC, RAM, SSD etc) for my latest customer and placed my order which arrived the following day.

 Building an Asus mini PC is simple and saves a lot of effort over a motherboard, steel case, power supply etc etc. and to ease the chore of testing I ordered a cheap wireless keyboard and mouse and decided to forego an operating system because the Asus spec mentioned "other" operating systems and surely this included Windows 7? I'd assumed the front runners were Windows 10 and 11 but, as I have a fair degree of experience with Windows 7 including its "free" upgrade to Windows 10, I went with this.

 Alas things went awry. I powered up the PN41 and it went into its BIOS screen. Fair enough, it wasn't yet fitted with a hard drive. The new keyboard/mouse dongle was plugged into a USB port and the mouse cursor duly wobbled around the screen on demand so I adjusted the time from the far east reading to current UK time. At this point I noticed the keyboard wasn't working and after poking a few keys I swapped its battery for a new one (actually when I say "battery" I should really call it a cell because it's just a single AA thing) but none of the keys worked, so to save time a put the new mouse and keyboard on one side, removed the dongle and borrowed some from another Asus mini (a PN40 which is connected to my TV) which worked fine.. supplying both mouse and keyboard interaction with the BIOS screen. Next, having already cloned the customer's Windows 7 hard drive, I plugged this in and booted up the PN41, but try as I might nothing would persuade the hard drive to work. To explain a little... sometimes a hard drive equipped with an operating system from an old computer will, after some "repair" loops, work with a new PC. But nothing happened with the PN41 just ending up with a BIOS screen.

 I gave up after trying all sorts of combinations of BIOS entries and plugged a portable DVD into a free USB slot and tried a Windows 7 DVD.. no luck, so I tried a Windows 10 DVD and was rewarded with a message to "press any key" followed by a fairly rapid installation onto a clean 512GB SSD. Shortly after this, the installation was updated and I spotted a message that when ready it would be updated to Windows 11.

 After several reboots and updates Windows 11 downloaded and installed itself without a problem. During the whole process I'd noticed several items of hardware seemed not to have been noticed by the Asus driver installation program, but inserting the CD, pointing to the "unknown" items, and a bit of searching, everything was fine.

I left the PC running and, by the next day, I was ready to call in the customer. As a matter of routine I always introduce a new PC to its purchaser and transfer any data such as his emails and/or install specific programs that they need. In this case, Microsoft Office 2003 and Adobe Lightroom 5.6.

 Time is now 10:50am and the first thing to hand over were his emails. From the cloned hard drive I'd copied a few (huge) PST files and put them into Outlook so they looked exactly like he remembered them in his old PC. As far as the email account was concerned, I typed just enough for the PST files to be copied into place, leaving a few loose ends to add when the customer arrived.. such as his password etc. It turned out that he'd had problems with Outlook some months earlier but confidently expected the new PC to resolve the problems and he would no longer need to access his mail via the email website.

 At this point things went from bad to worse. Try as I might, Google Mail failed to work in Outlook. I checked settings on the Internet and noticed others were having (or more accurately had had problems). There seemed to be two different problems and finally a third.. it seems Google Mail has stopped "unauthorised" reading of mail via "insecure" computers.

We gave up, however I had an idea... "Why not create a new email address with your ISP", I suggested? So we logged into his Talktalk account, and with considerable difficulty, found the appropriate page and created a brand new email address complete with a password.. naturally. Next I added the new address into Outlook and entered suitable settings. It didn't work.. coming up with various error messages. I looked on the Internet and copied various suggestions such as different port addresses but all to no avail.

Not only didn't Outlook work, but we couldn't use Talktalk's webmail either.. we kept getting "Incorrect password".

 Getting no-where extremely slowly I decided to try the on-line help person. After getting really silly responses I perservered and eventually was supplied with a set of port addresses. None worked (I'd already tried these) so we decided to ring up Talktalk. Where was their phone number though? The website after logging in was silent on a phone number but an Internet search revealed one.

I rang and after keying in what we thought were correct responses found a chap who wanted to test the phone line. After arguing with him we had to give up and try again.. but this time pressing a different, but illogical series of numbers. We were lucky and soon spoke to an Indian woman?? not sure, but an awful accent... who eventually grasped our problem. She said she was unable to proceed as the cure was outside her realm of expertise, but never fear (or words to that effect) she would transfer us to a person who'd help.

 After a very long delay and some really strange musical interlude (it sounded more Chinese than Indian) a chap came on the line. Fairly decent English but very abrupt and decidedly most unhelpful. Basically, after listening to our problem and suggesting various things he said in effect.. you cannot have a Talktalk email address you must choose a Google Mail address. But we already created a Talktalk address.. in fact two of these and we wish to use them. Well, you can't he said.

After spending many hours by this point I'd worked out that the problem was our password was not being recognised. As this is the most common problem I encounter with customers using Outlook I'm well prepared, having a Password de-Encryption" program which lets me see what the Outlook asterisks repesent. Each time I typed in a password I'd check to see if it's correct. In our case the password WAS correct but for some reason it wasn't being recognised as such by the Talktalk servers.

So.. what's going wrong? Either Talktalk has also stopped email access via Outlook or possibly the address we created was already in use? That being the case it would obviously be paired with a completely different password.

I eventually suggested creating a third email address that was really unique and trying that... but not now!

It's 6:15pm so, seven hours and 25 minutes later, we packed up the new PC and my customer departed, still having to rely on logging on to Google Mail directly, although now on both his laptop AND his new PN41!

 What else made it a bad day? Well, you recall I'd mentioned the keyboard hadn't worked with the mini PC? Well, I'd decided to do a quick check on the Net to see if there was an issue with this particular model. My business PC is in a the office, some 30 feet from my PC test bench and when I sat in front of the screen I became puzzled. An on-line casino was playing but not an ordinary casino, but one lying on its side. The UHD picture was turned 90 degrees anti-clockwise and it was also pretty obvious a whole mess of applications were running as well. Using the mouse was extremely tricky but I managed to close the rogue applications and discover the key combination to put right the picture rotation.

What had happened was the bad keyboard on the bench some 30 feet away and through two walls had seen my business PC dongle and decided it would use that rather than the one only a few inches away. To prove the point I opened a spreadsheet, selected a cell with my mouse, trotted through to the workshop bench, and typed "qqqq". Sure enough the spreadsheet cell now contained "qqqq". The keyboard RF output even from only its 1.5 volt single cell is pretty potent..

Why would it go wrong? I'd even swapped its battery and it had still failed to see its own dongle.

I suspect there are a few potential reasons. One..., maybe the keyboard firmware is looking for the dongle always starting at the same end of the 2.4GHz band and first sees the distant one and locks onto this? Two... a nearby cordless landline phone operating on 2.4GHz is hogging the dongle's channel and preventing communication? Three.... the PN41's wi-fi plus its bluetooth are wiping out the dongle's comms channel?

The next day I, at least, forced the keyboard to behave itself. I took my laptop into the centre of our fairly large garden, switched it on and plugged in the dongle. Then I inserted the battery into the keyboard. Success!! Both the mouse and keyboard are communicating via their own dongle. Clearly in a reasonably clean RFI environment the keyboard works properly. Will this remain the case when I try again in the premises?

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