Friday, May 1, 2009

Acer Perspire One!

Modern technology

Owes ecology

An apology.

-- Alan M. Eddison---

In light of recent developments with my Acer Aspire One, I think modern technology owes a bit more than an apology to ecology and ecologists like me. To state that I’ve been having problems with my mini laptop (apparently they are called ‘netbooks’) would be like saying that nuclear weapons can kill people.

For the last month, I’ve been walking around in a daze trying to figure out how a three month old laptop can go from hero to villain with speeds that belie its 1Gig RAM. What makes matters worse is that I had recommended it to half a dozen ecologist friends of mine who immediately went ahead and bought it. This post is not just a rant, it’s also a warning to all those who are planning to buy the Aspire One about the potential problems. And I’m not going to give you the regular review shit about how the screen is small, resolution is less and keyboard is cramped.

After purchasing it in December, I was feeling pretty good about its light weight and extreme portability. I was able to carry it around wherever I went in a small backpack and seemed ideal for the life of a travelling ecologist. In the middle of a survey for slow loris in the state of Meghalaya in northeast India I would constantly congratulate myself on the money well spent. I was feeling too smug and I should have seen the writing on the wall right then.

The first signs of trouble started in the most unlikeliest of places. Cherrapunji. It has to be one of the most scenic and pleasant places in India. It’s the kind of place where you don’t really expect anything to go wrong, least of all the lean, mean light machine in your backpack. On the 12th of March it just stopped working. Rebooting was of no use. The screen was dead and although the indicator LED’s came on, the computer display for all practical purposes was dead. 

A few days later I was back in Shillong and frantically searching the Acer forums and discussion groups on the net for a clue. Many people reported it and there didn’t seem to be any solution. The discussion threads died without a satisfactory answer. The only Acer service centre happened to be in Guwahati, a hot dusty hellhole that some people call the gateway to northeast India. Personally I think there couldn’t be a worse advertisement for the northeast than Guwahati. However, that was where I was headed. 

On a hunch, I called up my friend Vivek in Bangalore, the only person to have bought this computer before me. And sure enough, I hit the jackpot. The same thing had happened to him a few weeks back! So what was the solution? Apparently all it needed was a BIOS update which any service centre would be able to provide in 10 minutes. Could it really be that simple? So why hadn’t all these jokers on the forums never said anything about it? This was an important lesson. Never believe all you read in the forums, or rather don’t expect them to solve your problems always. I decided to keep this nugget of information to myself and see what the service centre guys would come up with. As expected, the lone service guy slowly moved his right hand up to scratch his head in the classic sign of “ I don’t have a clue”. I decided I had proved my point and didn’t fancy having to spend the night in Guwahati. I gave him my BIOS update trump card. It was like a bulb went on somewhere inside his head. “Oh!”. It took exactly ten minutes just like Vivek had promised and the comp was up and running. 

“Phew! Close shave!” I kept repeating on the bus back to cool Shillong. Little did I know..

A few weeks passed. Meanwhile all the photographs and data from the survey had been transferred to the computer. I should also mention that I had meanwhile committed the most basic mistake of all computer users. I hadn’t partitioned my hard disk and was relying on pure luck to see me through whatever challenges (read crashes) that technology had in store for me. In the euphoria of having come out through a near death experience (not mine, the computer) I began to feel it was indestructible.

And then came 10th April. The survey in Meghalaya had just ended. I was sitting in Shillong with two colleagues at the forest rest house. The computer was playing some music when a particularly good song came along in the playlist. Now most people who have seen this computer would know that the speakers are next to useless because of their tiny size and tinny noise. Yet the public demanded a higher volume. I turned it up to the maximum volume and went out. Five minutes later when I came back the computer was dead again.

That was the start of another hellish journey. No matter what we did it refused to start up and would continue to reboot just as it reached the windows ‘loading’ screen. No amount of F8’s, ‘last known configuration’  ‘safe mode’ or ‘DOS mode’ helped. It just would not start.

So, it was back to Guwahati again. This time even Vivek didn’t have an answer. There was no time to check the internet. Pulse and heartbeats were rising fast. I just had to get to the rundown service centre first. 

The service centre guy like all service centre guys had one answer to all computer solutions. Reinstall Windows. Of course, he didn’t have a clue what had happened in the first case. I had all my survey data in there and there was no way I was going to let him obliterate any slim chances I had of recovering that. I spent five hours with him trying to persuade him to retrieve the data. In all fairness, he tried whatever he could (which wasn’t much). Then came the deciding moment. What was to be done? I decided I was going to take my chances and asked him to leave it alone. I wanted to get back to Bangalore (the ‘IT city’) and hopefully find someone more competent. I still couldn’t believe that two and half months of hard work would go poof just like that.

It was then that I started searching the net for information on such problems. Apparently in the last one month many people all over the world had the same problem with this computer and nobody had a clue why. All of them had had to reformat their disks and have everything reinstalled. Then came the crazy explanations. Apparently the Aspire One crashes if you play U2’s “Hold me thrill me kiss me” loudly claimed some people. Some said, not just that, other U2 songs too. Then someone else discovered even other songs by other artists (not necessarily non Irish) could bring it on. It was funny for the guys on the forum, while for me it was a life-and-death thing. Some techie guys suggested this intriguing possibility – computer body too small, right speaker too close to hard disk, loud volume creates vibrations and magnetic field disturbances. Hence hard disk crashes!! (read story here

This seemed like one cruel unending joke.

Finally I decided to hand the computer over to Karthik, colleague and friend who was on his way to Bangalore the next day. Then what followed were tense phone conversations as Karthik investigated all the so-called ‘hardware data retrievers’ some of whom apparently specialised in ‘disaster recovery’. Under normal circumstances I would have found these terms enough fodder for some famous jokes and put-downs. I really don’t think much of hardware guys. As if to justify my faith in them, two guys who tried their stuff on the computer surrendered with their hands in the air. The third guy was smarter. He claimed he could do it for 2,500 bucks. That reminded me why I hated them.   

The situation seemed pretty hopeless now. I was still not in Bangalore and there was no point in harassing poor Karthik anymore. I told him to ditch the search and sit back till I got there. One day later I get up in the morning to see a missed call from Karthik at 1245 in the morning. I call him back and he gives me those four wonderful words “Hey, I did it”. He did it! What he had done in a brainwave was to load the open source Operating System Ubuntu from an external drive and managed to get the computer running. Once in, he could see all the stuff I wanted and simply copied them onto another external drive. I was so happy and relieved; I had no idea what to say.

I know it’s going to be tough to get anything out of Acer for all the harassment I had to go through for no fault of mine, but I want to make sure all of the Acer Aspire One users read this and take note. Serious shit could happen and you’d better be ready. If you’re stuck with an Aspire One, preparedness should be second nature and backup should be your middle name.    


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Anonymous said...

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Anvita Lakhera said...

I am leaving a comment to tell you that I really liked your blog. It's a real find. Hope to read more in the future. All the best.

Dawgmatix said...

Thank you Anvita and the four anonymous well wishers! Glad to know you liked it. Hope to get back to blogging soon (doing a PhD AND blogging seems pretty tough!). If you liked this, you may like to check out my other blog on northeast India experiences too.
Cheers and keep reading :)