Help out my creaking old computer.
July 19, 2007 3:00 AM   Subscribe

Succour for Aged Computers Filter: I've got an old computer that is having two problems. 1) When it boots up, it always asks to go into safemode. This is an old problem. 2) when it boots up, I can use the kb to select safemode (or not) or make selections in the bios, but when XP loads up, mouse and kb aren't working!

I will note that when I set up this old beast, the kb and mouse worked, and it would usually boot into windows after two or three tries. (It's a backup computer for when there are too many people in the office.) Now, it will boot up after two or three tries, and then the mouse will hover in the centre of the screen; the keyboard won't work (the caps lock key won't even light up at this point, and the green keyboard light goes off).

It's not a USB keyboard - it came with the (Dell) computer and plugs into its dedicated port in the back.

As regards the safemode booting: It boots up, and the black screen ("we apologize..") comes up with the option of safe mode, safemode with networking, load windows normally or load windows with the last working settings. I usually do normally or last working settings, and windows will either load (slowly) or will freeze while loading.

When it does load, the networking etc. are working - i can't test anything due to no mouse or kb input tho! When the kb and mouse were working, everything did work properly when windows would start up.

I'd appreciate help with either or both of these problems. Many thanks in advance.
posted by By The Grace of God to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
When did you last format the drive an resinstall windows? The randomness of the symptoms you've described makes it sound like a hardware issue of some sort, but you'd first want to format the drive and install XP from scratch to rule out driver issues.
posted by pompomtom at 5:25 AM on July 19, 2007

See if you can get your hands on a Windows PE disc (BartPE, for example). So long as you have a Windows disc handy you can create a PE environment boot disc fairly easily, or find a techie friend to make one for you.

Boot the system from the PE disc. (This starts the computer by loading a stripped-down version of Windows from the CD.) Run the standard hard drive error checks on your C drive. Forcing a full system check for errors can often reset some hidden flags on the hard drive that cause it to go into safe mode or trigger error checks on boot.

You'll also be able to tell if the keyboard/mouse errors are hardware or otherwise - if it is a hardware problem you'll have the same issues in the PE environment.

The second thing you can do while loaded into PE is to copy all of your important files off of that computer. Once backed up, it is often much easier to wipe and reinstall than to fix a system that has years of built-up errors present.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:31 AM on July 19, 2007

Another shortut is to test the hardware with a Knoppix or Ubuntu bootable CD. This will both allow you to back up your data for a reinstall as well as test the hardware.

If the keyboard works normally before XP boots to safe mode and/or the keyboard works fine in another OS - chances are really good it's a driver issue with XP and not a hardware failure issue.

However, this can only be solved by doing the legwork. There's no magic bullet for this one. You have to troubleshoot it, there's no other way. But a proper live Linux CD will make it super easy.

Also, if your computer is really old, you might want to consider rolling back to Windows 2000*. There are some great "mini" versions of Windows out there that people have stripped down for optimal functioning with older, slower hardware, as well as instructions on how to strip down your own legitimate, licensed install.

*Run behind a proper firewall, of course, as it's vulnerable.
posted by loquacious at 8:45 AM on July 19, 2007

It's not necessary to "nuke and pave" Windows to fix minor problems with drivers. But more about that in a minute.

The fact that the keyboard works for BIOS selection argues that the hardware is probably "good," but it would help to know whether you are dealing with a PS/2 style mouse and keyboard, or an even older PC/AT style connector keyboard, and serial port mouse. Or, perhaps your computer has PS/2 style inputs for keyboard and mouse, but the keyboard is an old PC/AT style, run through an adapter. I've seen situations where the use of adapters to connect legacy hardware produced flaky results, simply because the mechanical package of plugs and adapters was weighty and long enough to make the electrical connections unreliable. So, it would be worth trying a substitution of a known good mouse and keyboard, of the style appropriate for the computer's ports (PS/2 if the machine has PS/2 ports, etc.), before going further. And if your machine uses PS/2 ports, make sure that you put the keyboard in the keyboard PS/2 slot, and the mouse in the mouse connector. These are often color coded lavendar and green to ease confusion, but they should also be marked, perhaps with enigmatic little icons. On some machines, if the mouse and keyboard connectors in a PS/2 type machine have been reversed, you'll get the behavior you describe (keyboard works during BIOS, but doesn't during boot) because of PS/2 port steering during POST.

Once you're sure you've done everything you can to insure the integrity of hardware that you're working with, boot again into Safe Mode with Networking. If the keyboard and mouse work normally in this mode, you may be having other driver issues, particularly with the video driver. Try resetting your display settings for lower resolution and color depth, and re-boot to Windows. If Windows can then boot normally to lower resolution video settings, you can work on figuring out what changed from there.

The suggestion by loquacious to try a Knoppix or Ubuntu Live CD is a good one, if you have some time to download a CD image and burn a LiveCD. If the machine would boot from the LiveCD and give you normal keyboard and mouse functions, that would prove that it is your Windows installation that is borked. If you haven't time or skills to do the LiveCD step, however, you could just go on with repairing Windows, on the assumption that there is some driver problem with your current install. To do this, you need your Windows installation media, and the time to do a repair install.

A Windows XP repair install preserves your existing software installation, user accounts, and partitions, but jacks up Windows, and re-detects your hardware, builds a new Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) over the hardware it finds, and sets your Windows installation back down on a known good HAL, with all the drivers needed for your hardware freshly installed. Previous System Restore points are all wiped, and a new one is created. If your Windows XP installation media is very old, and has only SP1 or no Service Pack, you might want to prepare a slip-streamed SP2 installation CD before doing the repair install. And, you'll want to run Windows Update after the repair install, to apply all the post SP2 security fixes.
posted by paulsc at 9:50 AM on July 19, 2007

paulsc, do you know if it's possible to prepare a slip-streamed SP2 CD using a Mac or Linux computer?
posted by 6550 at 8:04 PM on July 19, 2007

"paulsc, do you know if it's possible to prepare a slip-streamed SP2 CD using a Mac or Linux computer?"

The slipstreaming scripts supplied by Microsoft are Windows products, but you might be able to run them under wine. I've never tried it myself, but the scripts/.exe supplied by Microsoft are just command line patch, so it should work, if wine supplies the drive mappings expected by the scripts.
posted by paulsc at 8:26 PM on July 19, 2007

Thanks. I'll check wine out, then.
posted by 6550 at 8:35 AM on July 20, 2007

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