I am a serial reinstaller. That’s a perfectly lawful version of a serial killer where the only thing you kill is your hard drive. It involves reinstalling operating systems over and over again, often in a rotation of different ones. On various computers since 1991 (yes, I am that old), I’ve run various versions of DOS, Windows 3.1, Win 98, Win XP, Win 7, Win 8.1, the old Caldera Linux, the old free-of-charge Red Hat, Debian GNU/Linux, Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE, Slackware, Mint, and others I can no longer remember. And it has felt like I’ve tried out all of those operating systems mostly for the experience of the reinstall and seeing a shiny new desktop (or, in the case of DOS and Slackware, command prompt) on my display.
That was all supposed to change this past March or April, when I decided to sacrifice my meagre savings to a brand new computer from Future Shop. And I already knew I wanted a tower (what people today call a desktop, even though it’s really a tower). That decision earned me widespread contempt. The only people who still buy tower computers are avid gamers, and they build their own, because they consider prebuilt towers to be crap. But the only game I was playing was World of Warcraft, so I didn’t need some kind of overclocked beast, just hardware that ran well and wasn’t seven years old.
So into the local Future Shop I went, and it took me some searching to find the small tower computer section, dwarfed by the gigantic tablet and laptop section. What immediately caught my eye was a mini-tower about one foot tall and 18 inches long, weighing what appeared to be less than 10 pounds. I don’t have a lot of desk space, and don’t like keeping my hardware on the floor, so that was a definite selling point. The computer was an Acer AXC-605. Opinion is sharply divided on Acers, because half the people say they’re excellent and the other half insist they’re crap. I thought the price was right at just under $400 in Canadian bucks, so I grabbed it. I noted from the packaging that it came with a lawfully registrable version of Windows 8.1, so I thought my odyssey through various operating systems was over.
Then the sales clerk got to work on me. He obviously thought I was mentally challenged, probably because most computer people think buying a prebuilt tower _is_ mentally challenged. His sales talk made it obvious that he considered me incapable of feeding myself with a spoon and changing my own diaper. Then he finally got to the point: I was supposed to buy an aftermarket service warranty package from the store that would have cost $200, or half again the price of the computer itself. I politely declined. So then he tried to scare me by telling me that the Acer AXC-605 needs repairs an average of every six months, and each service call costs an average of $200 alone. That almost stopped me from buying the computer, but I decided there was no way he could be telling the truth. If computer hardware broke down and required replacement every six months, even idiots would completely stop buying computers and start using an abacus. So I bought the computer, sans warranty, and walked out.
Later, I had a chance to think about what he had said. I’ve heard stories about repair service offered at places such as Future Shop and Best Buy. It’s intended for people who have trouble finding the power switch–and, from the way that sales clerk at Future Shop talked to me, he was assuming that I didn’t know how to plug the power cord into the wall outlet. But I had previously taken a computer apart physically and reassembled it, and reinstalled and configured and maintained various operating systems. Back in the days of the Commodore 64, I had even written a baseball game called Cowhide, which had been from the pitcher’s perspective, so I knew the basic principles of programming as well, even if I didn’t really know any programming or script languages. So I figured that the people who haul their Acers in to Future Shop for “repairs” every six months are just having software or operating system issues and don’t know how to do a few basic things that can keep a system running smoothly. One of them is reinstalling the operating system from scratch once in a while.
It turned out that you can’t reinstall the version of Win 8.1 that comes with my computer, but you can use a 16-gig flash drive to create a factory reset disk, which can be asked to wipe the hard drive and completely replace the operating system with a brand new version exactly like the one you got when you first bought the computer. In order to use that flash drive, you have to boot off it, and that’s a bit tricky to arrange. I’m not going to tell you how because I don’t want lawyers from large companies threatening to amputate my financial penis, which they make a habit of doing to anyone who inconveniences them. Suffice to say that I did create the factory reset flash drive and make sure I could boot off it. But I’d also had experience with previous versions of Windows that reinstalling the operating system over top of an existing operating system of the same version can sometimes reuse data already present on the hard drive and lead to the dreaded blue screens of death, so, before using the factory reset disk, I arranged to get the installer for Linux Mint onto another flash drive, so that I could install it first in order to overwrite the data on the hard drive. For general information, Mint takes about four and a half minutes to install on my Acer, compared to about 30 minutes for a factory reset of Win 8, and, with Mint, there is much less post-install configuration to get the system just the way I like it. The problem is that several bits of commercial software simply will not run in Linux at all, and I wanted to keep using them.
Long story short, I am still a serial reinstaller. Every 10 days or so, I back up my data, overwrite my hard drive with Mint 17, then do a factory reset of Win 8.1. Getting everything done takes a grand total of about an hour and a half. It’s time well spent to avoid having to drag my computer to the repair shop a mere six months after I bought it. And sometimes it’s even fun to take a break from Windows and just run Mint 17 for a couple of days, as I’m doing right now.