If you are a glutton for punishment and you enjoy pain, despair, hair pulling and cursing at tech support people try this for size:
- Brand spanking new Dell XPS 630i
- Vista Home Premium OEM 64 Bit
- nVidia nForce 10/100/1000 MBps Networking Controller
- Linksys BEFSR81 v3 Router
This is pretty much a setup of my brand new gaming rig. I covered all the other specs yesterday, so I’m skipping stuff like CPU speed or video card here because they are irrelevant. The above combination is recipe for suffering. It’s partly my fault because I forgot to double check these things before I jumped on 64 bit Vista bandwagon. And I’m sure I will discover more annoyances like this as the time goes on. It seemed such a good idea at the time:
- 64 bit is the future
- I like the future
- I also like to have a lot of memory
- 64 bit operating systems have been sold to mainstream users for few years now, so the technology should be semi-mature
Who could argue whit the stuff above? There are probably a dozen counterpoints that feet in between ??? and Profit, but I forgot to factor them into this equation.
Some of you can probably see where this is going. I guess this is the rite of initiation. You are not really a member of the “I hate Vista Club” until you have experienced one of the famous Vista networking issues. I just got my initiation, and it was not pleasant. I am pretty sure that most other people would simply assume that Vista 64 bit is a piece of crap and downgrade to a pirated copy of WinXP. Fortunately I had the patience and know-how to sort it all out.
What killed me was combination of the hardware and software components I listed in the first paragraph. You see, I have an old router. Routers are one of these things that last forever. You go out and buy a new computer every few years, but hardly anyone replaces their router. You buy it, you set it up and then you avoid touching it unless your internet goes down. Unless of course you are one of the few people brave (or crazy enough) to flash-bake your router with an open source Linux firmware for awesome routing capabilities. And if you are one of those people you probably have 7 routers and 8 switches in your house, so whenever you brick something you can just swap it out.
Most of us, mere mortals however use a single router with a plain vanilla firmware that was installed on the device and are fairly content with it. And that’s where the problem lies. When you upgrade to a new flaky, half baked 64 bit OS you may or may not experience it clashing with dusty old firmware that was not designed to work with 64 bit architecture. In my case I believe this was a combination of old firmware, and the particular 64 bit network drivers for my ethernet card.
But let me start from the beginning.
Huston we have a problem…
I came back from work the other day, and opened the shiny new box that contained my brand new computer. It was the beautiful new gaming rig that I have been waiting for. I had an evening of TF2 and Fallout 3 all planned out in front of me. I did not expect any trouble.
I hooked it all up, turned it on, went through the initial configuration and disabled the stupid shit like the Vista Sidebar or the Dell Dock) and tried to go online to download the essentials: Firefox, Vim, Dropbox client and etc. That was the moment when the proverbial shit hit the fan.
Vista decided to label my network as “Unidentified” and set my access as Local Only. No problem, I thought – I’ll just disconnect and reconnect. I clicked on “Repair Connection” watched a progress bar for a few seconds and… It failed to get an IP address.
Or rather it gave me that stupid 169.x.x.x address and no default gateway. In router speak, giving someone a 169 IP address is roughly equivalent to yelling “Get off my porch!” and slamming the door in their face. It means “no internet for you buddy”. I was not happy.
I know Win XP and Win 2k like the back of my hand – I have worked with these systems for years and I can troubleshoot networking issues in my sleep. But these are 32 bit systems. Vista is a new and ugly beast I haven’t had a chance to grok yet. So I did what any user would do when confronted with a silly configuration problem. Instead of sitting there racking my head and randomly tweaking configuration settings until I find the magical combination, I dialed the tech support number.
Dell Tech Support – Round 1
Yeah, I know – calling Dell Warranty Support line for software configuration help is like asking Stephanie Meyer for novel writing advice – it tends to be harmful rather than helpful. But I half suspected that I might have been shipped a defective machine. It has happened to me before. We once got a laptop with a faulty Wifi card at work, and it took me 3 days and 7+ calls to actually get it replaced. The Dell drones made me reinstall windows 3 times before they actually agreed to escalate the case.
I was afraid this will end up being something similar. On the other hand I was hoping that perhaps it is something simple. Something I’m missing because I’m not familiar with Vista. Sadly this was not the case. Dell tech support told me to reboot the computer (surprise, surprise!), power cycle my modem and router, touch my nose with my left hand and jump on my right leg and other common troubleshooting steps. Then they concluded this must be a software issue and it should actually be very easy to fix, but it was the wrong department for this kind of stuff. The guy I was talking to suggested that he can transfer me to another department were they can better handle this issue.
Dell Tech Support – Round 2
I spent the next 20 minutes listening to crappy on-hold music and looping voice recording that assured me that while my call is very important to them, they are not going to pick up the phone just yet. Finally, I got a human being on the line who apparently was not trained in the phone grating thing. Usually when you call a place of business the person on the other line introduces themselves, thanks you for your call and etc. This guy picked up the phone and said:
“[audible sigh] … hello!”
Quite surprised, I replied with another hello. He repeated his hello with annoyance in his voice which confused me more. So I asked the first thing that came to my mind: “Who is this?”
“Who is this? You called me!” he replied not even bothering to hide his annoyance. I explained that I was transferred to this number by another Dell technician and inquired if this is indeed the correct line. He assured me that yes it was, and asked me what the problem was.
I asked if he could just pull up my case notes, cause the other guy has documented it pretty well. He said that yes, he could but he is not going to. Splendid!
After listening to my complaints, he confirmed that this is indeed a common problem with their XPS line with 64 bit Vista and that it should be trivial to fix.
Unfortunately, he said, I did not purchase a software support plan for this computer and thus he would need to charge me a one time fee of $30 to even attempt troubleshooting this. Or, you know – I could buy a 6 month plan for mere $300 which apparently is a steal. I declined, and asked them them to transfer me back to the warranty support line.
Apparently there are 17 different support plans that you need to buy to be fully covered. There is your basic hardware warranty plan which covers regular wear and tear or hardware failures. Then there is the silver warranty support which covers the same, but the call center is not staffed by chimpanzees but by poor Indian farmers who have no technical expertise. They don’t actually have computers in that call center – just paper manuals and an abacus on each desk. If you want to talk to someone who actually was trained to use a computer you need the Gold Premium Support pan. There are also plans for accidental damage that occurs on work days, accidental damage that occurs on weekend, accidental damage while traveling, accidental coffee spill support plan, software support plan that only applies on Tuesdays and Thursdays and a few others.
It is designed this way so that they can transfer you from support center to support center until they find one that you are not covered for and con you out of your money. Very clever!
Dell Tech Support – Round 3, Return of the Jedi
15 minutes later I was talking to an Indian lady with a very thick accent and infuriating speech patterns. Her sentence structure was unusual:
“For this computer, I must confirm: you have Wireless network card, that is correct sir?”
No, I don’t. I don’t have a wireless card. It’s a desktop.
“Thank you for that answer sir. For this computer, I must confirm: you have not a Wireless network card, that is correct sir?”
“Oh, ok. Thank you for that answer sir. For this computer, I must confirm: you have do have a Wireless network card, that is correct sir?”
What? No! No! I have an Ethernet card. Ethernet!
“Thank you for that answer sir. For this computer, I must confirm: you have do have a Wireless network card, and you are trying to connect to the Internet. That is correct sir?”
Jesus Jumping Christ! It is a wired connection. I plug in a wire that goes from my router into the back of my computer!
“Thank you for that answer sir. For this computer, I must confirm: you have do have a network card wired. You have a wire goes from router of yours to the computer in the back. I also confirm that and you are trying to connect to internet wireless. That is correct sir?”
This went for about an hour. I swear it was almost like talking to Yoda. But at least Yoda was consistent in the way he mangled English. This lady would switch it up, and to make things worse she would start each sentence slowly, then speed it up and then slow down at the end. Most of the time I had to ask her to repeat the middle of her sentence, and she would repeat the whole thing, word for word, with the same intonation, and the same incomprehensible word-mumble in the middle.
She also made me reboot the computer, power cycle the modem, uninstall McAfee and few other silly things. She finally concluded that I need to call Linksys as this seems to be a compatibility issue with my router. At least that’s what I think she said.
This made some sense to me. Router could be the problem here. After all, this is a 64 bit OS and my router is probably the oldest device on my network. Chances are it was the culprit.
Bricking the Router
I commandeered my brother’s computer and started researching Vista 64 bit and router issues. I couldn’t find anything specific, but apparently older routers do tend to have trouble with Vista and a lot of people online resolved their problems via firmware upgrade.
I’m one of these people that thinks that the words firmware and upgrade should not be used in the same sentence, unless that sentence is “firmware upgrade bricked my device”. So you can imagine I was very weary of doing this. But I was also desperate, and I definitely didn’t feel like talking to any more support drones.
So I went to linksys site, downloaded the most recent firmware and proceeded to run the upgrade using the web interface. It failed in a spectacular way and for a second I convinced that I bricked the router.
I lost connection to the internet and I couldn’t bring back the UI interface at all. Instead of fixing my networking issue for one machine I pretty much knocked every single other computer off the internet. Excellent!
Thank god Routers are not that expensive. I was really mad at myself for destroying a perfectly good piece of hardware that served me well for years. It also meant I would need to make a trip to an electronics store and buy a Vista compatible router right there and then, or live without the internet until the next day. It was already 11pm so all the bigger, cheaper stores with good selection were already closed. I really did not feel like driving around all night trying to find a 24 hour electronics store which could sell me a router replacement.
Fortunately power cycling the device restored my internet connection. It did not restore the UI however. Apparently doing a firmware upgrade via the web interface on the BEFSR81 router never ends well. I looked it up online, and everyone who has ever tried it regretted it afterward. This makes me wonder why they even have this functionality on their device.
Apparently Linksys has released a special executable app which would flash the firmware via some undocumented FTP channel. The forums confirmed that the app was also the only way to restore the web UI once you fucked it up by trying to flash the firmware the documented way. The executable used to be hosted on Linksys FTP site few years ago, but it has vanished. They probably axed it when they end-of-lifed my model 3 or 4 years ago. I had no clue it was that ancient. As I said – routers last forever. Needless to say all the links posted in the forums were broken and it looked like I was up the shit creek without a paddle.
Eventually thanks to my trusty Google-Fu I found it. I don’t have the link anymore (I was working on my brothers computer) but it was either the Linksys application or something close enough to it. I think it was called TFTP.exe or something similar. I wish I have saved the link – I can’t seem to be able to find it again. I was posted on some shady mirroring site and I didn’t fully trust it but I was desperate!
Thankfully It worked and I it successfully restored my router to full functionality.
Did it help to resolve my Vista issue? Of course not. That would be to easy! Even after I went through all this trouble to flash the firmware, my Vista box still refused to connect to the internet.
I decided to call Linksys support and see if they could tell me if this model is even capable of working with Vista. I tried googling it but I got a mix of opinions. Some people claimed it works fine. Others said it doesn’t work at all. Some people said it wasn’t working originally, but firmware upgrade helped. I really didn’t know if I needed to buy a new device or simply change some silly settings on the one I had.
Linksys Tech Support
Guess what I found out? Absolutely nothing! Linksys support drone told me that this is indeed a common issue and there is an easy fix for it, but… My router is out of warranty.
Can you detect a pattern here? It’s an easy fix, but you have to pay us. Otherwise we can’t tell you. I understand that they need to make money, but it is infuriating when people deny you basic support like that.
I tried to squeeze out some free information out of him – for example a simple yes or no answer to whether or not it is possible that this router is just not Vista 64 bit compatible. He of course replied that he can neither confirm or deny this without me paying a support fee. I explained that I was not about to pay their fee just to be told I need to buy a new router.
Somehow that got through to the guy on the other end of the line and he suggested that I try their chat support. Apparently it is free and since this should be an easy fix I might get my answer there. I figured that I might as well try that.
Guess what happened?
When I tried to log into their chat system, their whole website went down. I shit you not! Instead of chat support I a page that notified me about a “scheduled maintenance” to their support systems that will last a few hours. Some days you just can’t win.
Internet to the Rescue
I gave up on tech support. I decided to find a solution to this issue or die trying. Two hours later I emerged victorious. Apparently my router does not like the “Auto Negotiation” settings used by the 64 bit Vista drivers for my nVidia ethernet card. This was mentioned as an off-hand on page 6 of some gigantic discussion thread somewhere on the interwebs. The author of that post claimed that manually setting the speed to 10MBps Full Duplex solved his problem.
Encouraged by this, I pulled up the device manager, located that setting in the Advanced tab and changed it accordingly:
Miraculously, as soon as that setting was changed the network icon in the task bar changed to display a little globe icon – a clear indication that internet connection was established. I checked my IP address and it was a real one this time – none of that 169 crap. I was ecstatic. Just for shit and giggles I tried the 100MBps Full Duplex setting but that didn’t work.
If you are having this issue this is what you need to do.
- Go to device manager (type in devmgmt.msc in the search box and hit enter)
- Double click on your network card
- Go to the advanced tab
- Choose Speed/duplex settings from the list.
- Change the Value to 10Mbps Duplex
This should fix it for you. The only problem with this is that the setting will likely limit my local connection speed. Then again, maybe my old router always capped the network speed at 10Mbps and I just never realized it.
Anyway, here is a hint: when you are upgrading to a 64 bit OS make sure your networking hardware supports it. Otherwise you may end up like me wasting countless hours trying to get your machine online.
Here is something to consider – this issue was difficult to figure out for me – and I am a computer geek with good deal of IT expertise. I got it working because I do know a thing or two about this stuff – but I had to figure it out on my own by looking it up online. I can’t imagine what a regular user would do in this situation. I assume they would either buy a new router or send the computer back to Dell and buy another one (likely with Windows XP). Either that or they would pay out of their ass for the premium support.
There are no winners in this scenario. Either the end user gets conned out of his hard earned cash, or someone loses a customer for life. Maybe they will return the machine and never buy from Dell again. Maybe they will scrap a Linksys router and then stay away from that brand for the rest of their life. Or perhaps they will ditch Vista and ask the kid next door to install a pirated copy of XP on their machine.
Also, I’m a little bit disappointed that Dell did not send me that stupid customer satisfaction survey link in the mail. I get these all the time whenever I call them at work. This time around, I got nothing. I would totally enjoy giving them the lowest marks possible and venting in the comment boxes. Instead I’m venting here I guess.