Maybe we should just throw this clunker out
December 27, 2008 11:58 PM   Subscribe

Double whammy! Persistent "ghost" floppy drive, and slow, halting performance, all on my parents' PC.

My parents' PC is an HP Pavilion a412n of 5+ years, on Windows XP Professional. It has enough problems for the past year or two, to warrant two questions:

1. Everytime it start it up, whether from a fresh boot, hiberation, or stand-by, I get "Floppy disk(s) fail (40)". Then, I have to press F2 to continue with the booting, which proceeds along fine.

The floppy drive is long gone already. "All right", I thought. "Let's just disable the floppy drive then in the BIOS." Did just that, reboot, yay, the message is gone!

Until the next time I boot it up/revive from hiberation. The message appears again. Then I go back into the BIOS to disable the floppy drive. Lather/rinse/repeat. A couple of times, I rebooted after disabling the non-existent drive, and it STILL gives me the damn message.

What's up here? Some mystery cable in the computer? I didn't think a floppy CABLE alone would cause the problem. Another drive messing with us? We have a ZIP drive and a dual-layer DVD burner (why, I don't know, my dad's stupid sometimes) with no problems. A faulty BIOS? I hate to think that's the case, since it might mean "just frickin' buy a new PC already", and money is tight these days. Help!

2. The PC is always "working". The hard drive light is always blinking/on, except after an HD defrag or when it's off. I've tried spyware scans, virus scans, defragging and Glary Utilities for the temp files and whatever. However, I don't use Glary's Registry cleaner, since from past experience, any Register cleaner eventually screwed up something that snowballs into a schizophrenic PC. Also, I've looked up on "unnecessary" Windows services and tweaked those too. Nope.

Surfing the Internet is sluggish too, but not bandwidth-wise. Usually, after clicking a link, the PC kind of lags before continuing on. This happens in IE7. I could try to get my mom and pop to convert to Firefox, but it's hard to teach these old dogs new tricks. They tried Firefox once and said they didn't like it *gasp*. I doubt they'll like Opera either.

FWIW, it's a Celeron processor, which I know is pretty weak to begin with. But in the PC's early days, it was preppy. Net surfing was a snap. Now, everytime I'm by my mom's side, she complains about how slow the PC is.

My parents do the most basic of computing basics: read email, write documents and spreadsheets, once in a while listen to someone's podcast or watch YouTube for business. No one else uses the PC. The HD is only a quarter full.

So, what's the verdict? Can I prep this old PC into shape again without reinstalling (did that once, didn't help matters)? What other cleanups am I missing, if any?

No "buy a new PC" or "get a Mac" or "get Linux" advice, please. Money's tight, and like I said: I can't teach those two old dogs new tricks.
posted by curagea to Computers & Internet (8 answers total)
How long since windows has been reinstalled? Back up all data to external storage, find out what applications they use regularly and make sure you have copies. Reinstall windows, install all software updates, install the applications, make a disk image of the hard disk so that you can start from this stage next time reinstall is required (probably annually).

If performance is still bad after this process, then you have a hardware problem.
posted by singingfish at 12:28 AM on December 28, 2008

On a computer that old... (for the floppy drive problem).. I would be suspicious that the BIOS battery had died. That might make sense if its not truly saving BIOS modifications. Is the computer keeping time accurately ? Can you change something else in BIOS and reboot and see if it kept the change ? (or is the weird behavior only happening with the floppy option?)

For the performance problems.. It sounds like you've done what you can to clean up the hard drive. How much memory does the computer have ?... (even if you keep the hard drive clean and defragged, the activity light will still be active if the computer is low on memory and needs to be constantly swapping to the swap file) Especially with a weak Celeron CPU, my recommendation would be to have atleast 512 memory - preferably 1gig. (adding memory is relatively cheap and quick when compared to a new computer or reinstalling the OS)

Other things I might try:
1.) create a bootable Linux "Live CD" (such as Ubuntu) and see how performance is under that
2.) temporarily remove your parents hard drive and install a different (blank) one. Install Ubuntu on that and test/play around with it. If performance is still "slow" you may have a hardware problem
3.) you've probably already done this.. but pop the case open and blow everything clean with a can of compressed air. Make sure all your fans are working smoothly and visually look over the motherboard to make sure there are no obvious hardware problems (such as leaking capacitors or corrosion,etc)
posted by jmnugent at 12:49 AM on December 28, 2008

Then I go back into the BIOS to disable the floppy drive. Lather/rinse/repeat.

Many BIOS distinguish between the floppy drive (A:, B:, 3.5", 5.25", etc) and the floppy driver controller (an on board chip.) Make sure you're disabling both.

Could be a mother board battery problem, but then you'd see this type of behavior elsewhere, anytime you changed a BIOS option... so that's unlikely. Does the drive still show up under Windows Device Manager? If so, you haven't disabled it in the BIOS. If all else fails, open the case, and make sure the floppy cable and power are pulled from the dead drive.

The PC is always "working".

If the PC is five years old it may be grinding away with only 256mb of ram, or worse. A fresh install of XP will fix this, for a time, but once you start cranking up the optional applications, even antivirus packages like Norton or Mcaffee you'll quickly see the machine start grinding again.

I could try to get my mom and pop to convert to Firefox, but it's hard to teach these old dogs new tricks

Um. Yeah. Install it. Make them use it. The learning curve from IE is about three and half minutes, and that's if you're slow.

what's the verdict?

A new, ultra-lowend PC from Dell or some other manufacturer will solve 100% of your problems. What do out of the box PCs go for nowadays? $399?

You could add more ram, or upgrade to a faster hard drive, but at this point, unless your time is absolutely worthless, your parents are better off buying a new PC.

Can I prep this old PC into shape again without reinstalling

You can waste even more time trying to solve whatever mystery issue is eating up system cycles, or you can do the prudent thing, back all your files up, and re-install. I very much like this Windows XP install and tweak guide. Use it and you're fresh XP install will run as quickly as possible.

No "buy a new PC" or "get a Mac" or "get Linux" advice, please. Money's tight, and like I said: I can't teach those two old dogs new tricks.

Um. Yeah. So in other words, your question is, "Give me all your good advice except for the advice which is actually the best, that I don't want to hear."

Money is tight for everyone. If your parents can justify spending a few hundred dollars on a new pc, go that route. If they can't, investigate upgrading the ram to one or two gigabytes. If investing even $1.00 is too much, then back everything up, and re-install XP, get rid of IE, and install Firefox. You don't say if they use Outlook, but Thunderbird is a better alternative. Get rid of any Norton products and use a combination of Spybot, AdAware, and AVG for keeping the machine clean. Setup nightly or weekly scans and defrag jobs, and make sure your parents keep the machine on.

"Can't teach these two old dogs new tricks" is just an idiotic statement. These are your parents, not feral cats. They have already learned to use a computer, a web browser and more... for you to take a few minutes and actually show them how to use Firefox (phrase it in terms of, "Do you want to spend money to upgrade, or do you want to use this faster program?") isn't asking that much. It is essentially identical in functionality to IE.
posted by wfrgms at 1:55 AM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Does the ZIP drive not get read as a floppy-type drive by the PC? I've never used them, really, but I was under the impression that they were just floppy drives that could also write high-density disks ("ZIP disks")...

(jmnugent: The BIOS is not battery powered in any way, and does not store any options that you can change, short of flashing the BIOS - you mean the CMOS battery, likely, and CMOS options.)
posted by Dysk at 2:46 AM on December 28, 2008

Definitely sounds like a CMOS battery issue. Cursory googling of CMOS replacement. If it's losing BIOS settings after changing them, this is the most likely issue - confirm with settings you never use (such as boot order beyond the HD) before hunting that battery down.
posted by davemee at 2:58 AM on December 28, 2008

Five years is about right for needing to replace the CMOS battery. The battery is inexpensive, and widely available (in most large pharmacies in my area, near watch/camera batteries). That might or might not solve your direct problem, but will prevent other problems from creeping in.
posted by dws at 8:00 AM on December 28, 2008

I dont see how the CMOS battery is affecting your performance. Im guessing that the floppy error isnt the real issue here.

It looks like that model shipped with 256 megs of ram. That's really the bare minimum for XP. When you have very little ram you're going to constantly thrash the drive with swap file operations. That model can hold 1gig max of ram. I suggest buying two 512 modules. I doubt buying two 256 modules will be much cheaper.

Now that you have some ram in there I would be very suspicious of that hard drive. Have you done a disk check yet? If that drive has any bad sectors then I would assume its the source of your performance issues. Perhaps 5 years of swap thrashing has ended its life. 5 years is usually when you start seeing problems. You can also check the event log for any events from a source listed as 'disk.' If you are seeing read or write errors to the drive then replace it ASAP. You can also check the SMART attributes with a free application like SpeedFan.

You can get an 80 gig drive for less than forty dollars nowadays and its throughput will be at least twice that of the one in there. Its really incredible how slow budget drives were five years ago.

FWIW, it's a Celeron processor, which I know is pretty weak to begin with.

That's not necessarily true. The celeron is just a trade name of Intel's budget chip. Usually its just a pentium with a little less cache. Im guessing there's a northwood-based celeron in there, which is actually a nice little CPU for the stuff your parents run. Its actually pretty rare for the bottleneck to be the CPU for a computer, especially one used for web and email.

A new drive and more ram will probably cost you $100 dollars total. It will probably extend the life of that machine another 2 years, easy. FWIW, I just saw a nice little dual-core Dell with 19" flatscreen for $399 at You can probably get a Dell for $299 sans monitor. It may not be worth dropping $100 if you can get a new machine with a warranty for only 3x that.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:22 AM on December 28, 2008

Response by poster: Whoo, okay, so a little update:
- This thing shipped with 512mb of RAM and was originally on XP Home. I thought that would be enough (it was enough back in the day), since my parents, like I said, does the most basic stuff. It was upgraded to Pro because my parents lost the original install disc and I could only get Pro.
- Never used any Norton products since day 1. It was always AdAware, Spybot, AVG, and Spywareblaster.
- Actually, the last time my dad said "no" to Firefox was probably back when it was version 1.0. He just said he'll try it out. Now it's Mom's turn to convert.
- No Outlook use; they check email via browser. I thought about using Thunderbird, which I love, but my dad has like 6 different Yahoo emails, each with at least 30 folders to store his stuff. The thought of downloading all those emails, which probably runs in the thousands.... *shiver* I'll have to make that guy clean his stuff up first.
- Last reinstall was during the summer. Looks like I need to do it again -_-.
- Yep, sounds like the CMOS battery died. My dad has attested to the screwy time (it seems to roll back to year 2000 or something every once in a while)
- I remember doing a disk check a couple of months ago, and the disk came out clean.
- The "old dogs new tricks" statement was not so much about them not being able to learn, it's that they don't really want to. Once they get comfortable with a routine, it's a bit hard to shake them out of it.

Thanks for the advice, everyone. I'll see what I can do with this computer, and will get a new one as a last resort. There goes the rest of my winter break...
posted by curagea at 11:26 AM on December 28, 2008

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