09 March 2010

evil

There are some things that it is reasonable to think that you don't have to worry about as a laptop computer owner. One of those things is that you shouldn't have to fix the partitions on your hard drive just because you pressed the wrong power button when you turned on your machine without wearing your glasses.

That's exactly what happened to me today. This blog is about what happened.

Background

I was up the all of last night battling "flu-like symptoms" (to put it politely), and woke up this morning realising I'd only had two hours of sleep and still felt like crap. In the interests of professionalism I decided to take a sick day. I stumbled from the bedroom to my living room, opened up my laptop, and hit what I thought was the power button. I didn't have my glasses on at the time — I figured I'd put them on and tie my hair back while the machine was booting up, then e-mail my boss to tell her that I wouldn't be in today.

When I returned to the living room, there was a screen saying that Dell Media Player tried to set itself up and couldn't write files to the hard drive. My two immediate thoughts were, Oops, that wasn't the power button and Well, duh, I don't want you to write files to my hard drive anyways, and what are you still doing on my computer? You should have gone away when I ditched Vista 45 minutes after accepting this computer from the shipping company. Remember, The Eyrea is a Linux shop, currently using Ubuntu.

I rebooted the computer by using the correct power button, and got a GRUB 17 error. GRUB, in case you don't know already, is a utility that manages operating system loads. It comes with most home & office Linux distributions, because Linux understands that it has to play well with others. But now GRUB was broken.

Recovering

I was in no physical state to take care of a broken computer, but in between lying down and trips to the washroom I checked out the Ubuntu Forums. This is what I learned: when I hit that button with the house on it instead of the power button, some ill-conceived firmware tried to install a bunch of stuff on my hard drive, even though I hadn't explicitly said "go for it" — I'd just hit the wrong damn button. It had created a new partition on my hard drive and made it the root. That's a lot of power for something with a benign name like "Dell Media Centre." Sounds like it would just play CDs and DVDs, but instead I'm stuck with a non-functioning computer. What gives?

Luckily I had a) my Nokia internet tablet and b) an old live session CD of Ubuntu lying around. the Live CD showed me that a 2.6 GB partition had been created on my hard drive, with an embryonic version of... Windows 95??? on it. This was scary, but the Ubuntu forums had answers.

Turns out I wasn't the first Dell owner to suffer through this, and I was able to find the exact solution I needed. Here's the link if you're interested. I had to download and install testdisk and follow that path to a resolution, but it was easy enough to do. If I'd been healthy, I could have been done in 15 minutes. As always, I'm grateful to the Ubuntu community. On my own, I probably would have taken a deep breath and reformatted the hard drive to fix things. As it is, I lost no data or config settings at all once testdisk restored things.

Prevention

As easy as the solution was, I'd really rather not have this problem again. I'm backing up my files right now — I do that regularly anyhow — but once I know all my data is safe I'm going to have a look around the machine's BIOS and see if there's not a way to disable that button. No-one should have to re-do their partitions with a special utility just because they had bad aim one morning.

And now for the real rant part: I know this sets me up for the cheap shot of "you had a legal copy of Windows, why didn't you just stick with it?". I'd put it another way: if I'm running an operating system, successfully, on a computer for over three years, why should I have to worry that I'll hit the wrong button when I power it up? Linux supports every last bit of hardware on this machine — even though Ubuntu wasn't available as an OEM OS when I bought it, I made a point of making sure its specs matched those of the Ubuntu machines Dell sells in the USA. I shouldn't have to worry that some convenience add-on that was created as a marketing thing for non-techie home users would break my hard drive's ability to boot.

That isn't just a Linux/Windows/hardware thing. The same thing could happen if Microsoft ever comes out with a version of Windows that isn't 100% forwards-compatible for older software (like they already did when they came out with the NTFS format), or if I had greatly tightened the security on the machine — as is standard for machines used in the corporate world. Or maybe I just don't want Dell Media Centre installed. One button push should in no way have the power to wreak such havoc. Remember folks, this is a laptop: if I realise my mistake and try to power down before the worst happens, I probably won't have time. It takes a few seconds to get the battery pack out of this thing. That's not fair to users of any OS.

Postscript: I just looked, and the Ubuntu community spoke accurately — there is no way to turn off the Media Centre button. Looks like I better keep my rescue discs somewhere I can find them easily.

Dell, you've always been a good computer company to me, and very likely I'll buy my next machine from you anyhow, but I'd like to meet the person who came up with this design and hear a very good explanation as to why things were set up this way.

Postscript #2: I just found a link that confirming that if you get rid of the Media Center partition simply because you don't want it, and put Windows over the entire hard drive, hitting the button will wipe your root Windows partition too. So it's not a "Linux thing" at all, but a "hitting this button can cause scary stuff" thing.

1 comment:

  1. I had Linpus Lite and now I have Ubuntu. No major problems (except FB Scrabble won't load in Linux) but I don't try to do much. I got the Rosetta Stone Swedish lessons software over the weekend, that took *hours* to install! My next computer will probably be PC or Mac, I really miss having the ease iTunes. That's nothing about what you wrote except that we're both using Ubuntu!

    Sorry you had such a mess to deal with on a sick day! Touching one wrong button shouldn't cause so much distress!

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