The pain of installing Windows XP onto new Dell computers

Objective: Partition a new Dell desktop to have multiple partitions running Windows XP and Red Hat Linux.

Installing Windows XP: My lab bought four new Dell desktop computers running 3.0 GHz Pentium 4's. We received the units and set up one to test a few settings and see how hard it would be to setup a dual boot system with Windows XP and Fedora Core 2 (free version of Redhat Linux). So, I erased the hard drive and set up 6 partitions (it is a 250 GB drive after all). I used the Windows XP install CD that came with the computer to partition the drives and install WIndows again. (It came with one partition and I don't know of a way to partition it without formatting it.)

So, Windows installed and it rebooted. Seemed like it was working fine except I noticed that the windows were redrawing a little slow. I figured the graphics driver wasn't loaded correctly, so I went to Windows Update to see if it would download and install the driver for me. It wouldn't load because it couldn't find a driver for the ethernet card. It looked on the Windows XP CD and couldn't find it. It then wanted to go on the internet to find a driver as shown on the right. I find this a little ironic since I was initially trying to get on the internet and it was the driver that would allow me to get on the internet. We later found out that the driver for the sound card was also missing. Three fairly important drivers were missing. I was quite disappointed in Widows XP since I thought it was supposed to have a large number of drivers included. I am particularly disappointed since an ethernet driver is a rather basic and standardized component and that this XP CD came from Dell with their computer. I then went looking through all the stuff Dell sent with the computer, but I found no CD that contained any drivers. Both the ethernet and sound was built into the motherboard.

After looking and thinking about it, we decided to set up another one of the new computers and see if we could copy the drivers from it. We found them and used a USB flashdrive to download them and put them on the new computer. I then restarted and the internet was working. Since the video was still a little jerky, I went to Windows Update and updated all the drivers and everything else it said I should update. By this time, it was time to go home for the day and I left.

The next day, I came in a little late and there was a note attached to the computer saying that this computer had probably been infected with a virus. My schools IT department will shut off any port that they think might have an infected computer attached to it, which they did to this one. Someone in my lab told the IT guy what was going on, so he brought up another computer that was configured as a firewall with two ethernet cards. I plugged this in and ran the new system behind this. I then installed a virus detection/removal application, searched the hard drive and it found a virus and quarantined it. At this point, it was basically ready to use.

Installing Fedora Linux: We then decided to install Fedora Linux onto another partition. I went to their website, downloaded a DVD iso disk image and burned it to DVD disk, all for free (well, $1 for the DVD disk). I inserted the DVD into the computer, restarted, clicked a few options and it installed Linux. It then restarted and asked me which OS I wanted to boot into. I choose Linux and it booted. Oddly enough, I opened the browser and it has already connected to the internet. It didn't ask me what to do or even delay at all to configure the internet like Windows does. Additionally, I had the entire Open Office suite installed as well as quite a few other open source programs like the Gimp for working on photos. (On the XP side, we still needed to install (and buy) all this stuff. Without even updating the system, it ran for a day without getting a virus. I then updated all the software and it never asked me to reboot (compared to XP, which I had to reboot about 5 times).

Comparison: Installing Windows XP took about 5 hours to get it up and running and virus free and took the help of two other computers (one to get the ethernet card drivers from and one to act as a firewall). Installing Linux took less than 3 hours (about an hour to download the iso image, half an hour to burn it, and about an hour to install it). So, now that I have figured this out, I should be able to get all four of them up and running very quickly. My only irritation is that we have to keep Windows running on these computers at all. The only piece of software that we need Windows to run is Solidworks, a CAD modeling program. Just about everything else my lab needs to run also works on Linux. I am very impressed with Fedora. I tried Mandrake a little while ago, but wasn't so impressed. Fedora works very well.

Addendum: Within the first six months we have had these 4 computers running, we have had to contact Dell three separate times to get two motherboards replaced and one hard drive replaced. Contacting Dell (i.e. actually talking to a person) took many hours on a phone and about 7 e-mails to finally convince them that our motherboards were broken. Once they were convinced, they did send someone out and fixed it onsite, which was nice. These computers have not impressed me much. These machines cost about $1300 each and have had these kind of problems. I cannot imagine what kind of problems the cheaper Dell computers are going to have. They may be cheap, but you definitely are getting what you pay for.

Similarly the software has been problematic - Windows XP was starting to crash and have various problems after about 8 months, so we had to reinstall a fresh disk image. Not too hard because we have the entire disks imaged, so we just copy that over and update all the software. (Linux has been working fine so far.) Took about a day to get these 4 computers running Windows XP again. Granted, these are public machines, so they are not taken care of by anyone person, but I have had 5 computers running Linux in an afterschool program running for about 6 months with almost no maintenance required.