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For once, it was a bright, clear day in San Francisco. I had time to admire the weather as I waited in line to cross the Bay Bridge. From there it was a fairly short drive to the garage at 5th and Mission, and an even shorter walk to the Moscone Center-site of Microsoft's 1997 Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), and more importantly, a place to meet with my inside source on NT....
The one I call "Deep Dark."
"What's all this nonsense about a Consumer Deception List?" Deep asked, as we huddled together at the back of the main hall, ignoring His Bill-ness' latest high-tech sales pitch.
I pulled out my trusty pocket computer. Deep looked on curiously as I tapped the screen and brought up a long text file.
"I condensed this from a bunch of reader e-mail that's come in over the past few months. Here's the one," I said, pointing. One disgruntled NT user referred to the NT Hardware Compatibility List (HCL) as the CDL, or Consumer Deception List.
"It reads like something from a competitor," Deep said, frowning.
"Well, his e-mail address is from ibm.net," I said, laughing, "but how about the specifics he points to ... like the fact that his tape drive doesn't work?"
"He should've bought SCSI," Deep grumbled.
"Oh, come on," I said, amazed. "Do you mean to tell me there's no support for anything else in NT 4.0?"
"I don't fool around with non-SCSI stuff," Deep sneered. "Do you want me to follow up with the HCL team so they can say, 'No, you idiot, the SCSI drive is the one that works with NT, not the parallel port model-they just happen to both be called Ditto Easy 3200'?"
That made me mad. "Look-the fact is that most systems sold these days are EIDE, not SCSI. And when people go out to buy a peripheral, they get one that's compatible with what they have."
"IDE is junk," Deep said. "We've got people on the NT development team who buy cheap systems for home use, and you know what they do first thing when they get home? They rip out the disk controller and put in a SCSI unit. It's just not worth fighting to make a non-SCSI controller work."
"Deep, the trouble with that is, the HCL doesn't say that only SCSI is supported. Just as it doesn't say that certain features of Hewlett-Packard printers aren't supported, and that certain features of video drivers aren't supported."
Deep nodded. "I agree, the HCL ought to be more specific."
"Damn straight it should-and it isn't just the HCL that's a problem. How about this one?" I said, pointing to yet another message. "He's had two systems that would boot fine from the setup floppy but locked up after rebooting from the hard disk-and Deep, that same thing has happened to me."
Deep looked at the message and swore. "More IDE crap."
"Yeah-but this time it's a controller that's on the HCL," I told him.
Deep thought for a moment. "It could be a virus.... No, he scanned for that. Our driver might be reporting disk geometry inconsistent with the BIOS or the hardware."
"How can he tell?"
"If cycling the power helps, or running other software, or other oddball things seem to cure the problem, then there's probably a conflict with our hardware programming. It sounds strange, but it happens. I remember a certain brand of network card where you could have a memory conflict with the option ROM on the disk controller-so we couldn't get the correct geometry, and the system wouldn't boot."
"It gets worse," Deep admitted. "There's also some disk geometry that NT's boot code should be able to handle, but doesn't."
I thought about that for a minute, not liking what I'd heard. "Do you mean there are bugs in NT's boot sector code?"
Deep nodded. "We're rewriting it for NT 5.0."
"There's a lot more like this, Deep-a guy whose system locks up when he tries to access the floppy drive ..."
"Any chance he's got a second floppy controller enabled accidentally? Some SCSI cards have a floppy controller that needs to be disabled if the system has one already."
"That could be," I said, making a note. "I'll ask him. How about this guy who can't use his network printer?"
Deep nodded. "NT is very bigoted about network printers-to us that means NT Server-hosted network printers. We can't work directly with NetWare-style network printers. To print to a Samba or OS/2 print server, you need to define a local printer and port, like \\PRINTSERVER\PRINTER."
I pointed to yet another message. "Here's a guy trying to back up his system on an Iomega Jaz drive-and before you ask, yes, it's SCSI."
For once, Deep smiled. "No problem! Just boot a safe build of NT and tree-copy the whole disk-except the safe build directory. To restore, install a safe build and copy everything back."
I almost dropped my pocket computer. "Let me get this straight-you're recommending installing a separate copy of NT and using XCOPY rather than the Backup app that's bundled with NT?"
"Look, John," Deep said sympathetically, "I know it's hard to take-but let's get real: People who deal with systems that change need to take out insurance, and with service packs and patches downloaded from the Internet these days, we all deal with systems that change! A big hard disk with enough space for a safe copy of NT is about the cheapest insurance an NT user can take out-and as long as you've done that, using XCOPY just makes sense. It works with any device that can be installed as part of the file system and gets away from all the driver problems and incompatibilities you get into with a backup app-ours or anybody else's."
By this time, Gates had finished his sales pitch, and the meaty part of the presentations had started. Deep pointed to the stage, where Carl Stork, group product manager, Windows platform, was explaining that NT 5.0 will support Plug and Play and power management, but only through ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface). Pre-ACPI devices (the ones you can go out and buy today) will be supported with "legacy" NT 4.0 drivers ... which support neither Plug and Play nor power management!
"Do you mean to tell me that an up-to-date, Plug-and-Play system that I go out and buy today won't be compatible with NT 5.0?" I exclaimed.
Deep cracked a sickly grin. "Well, I guess all good things must come to an end!"
If this strikes you as a less-than-pretty picture, well-sometimes the truth hurts!
Avoid the blues
How can you avoid singing the compatibility blues? Start by checking your system, piece by piece (right down to the motherboard and disk controller), against Microsoft's current NT HCL (http://www.microsoft.com/isapi/hwtest/hsearchn4.idc). If it's not on the list, check with the vendor-call its tech support line and ask about using the device with NT, or browse its Web site and search for the same information. If the vendor knows nothing about NT support, it's a good bet the device won't work.
Even if a device is on the list, you might not get full compatibility. Only the SCSI version of a tape drive or removable-media disk might be supported. That's the case with Iomega's Zip, Jaz and Ditto drives. Only certain video modes might be supported for a display card-at least with the default driver that ships with NT (some vendors supply their own drivers, which may provide extra video modes). Only SCSI-based scanners work (NT 5.0 is supposed to change this), and scanning might be limited in terms of resolution and color depth. Printers might not give you the full dot resolution you've paid for.
How can you find out these nasty little details? Not from the HCL-it just says whether a device is supported or not. The best way is to ask someone who's already using the device with NT. Browse http://altavista.digital.com, choose Usenet instead of The Web as the Search field, and type in the device you're looking for. If you're lucky, you'll find comments from folks using the device-and one of them may be an NT user. Vendor-hosted discussion forums on CompuServe, America Online or Microsoft Network are also good places to ask, though as I write this you still can't browse MSN from an NT Workstation. That hurts!
Time to say goodbye
Something else hurts, too: This is my last "NT Workstation" column. If you flip ahead, you'll see that I'm now writing WinMag's "Windows CE" column, and trying to do both just isn't a good idea. This column will continue, however, as we carry on the tradition of the longest continuing NT column in any monthly magazine (Doug Hamilton started it under the name "Windows NT" in 1992)
I've enjoyed writing these columns and interacting with so many of you over the past four years. I hope that some of you may follow me into the CE world. I can assure those who do that compatibility with NT Workstation will remain a priority for me, and I'll report it in that column. For those who don't, it's been fun. Thanks for reading!
John D. Ruley is a WINDOWS Magazine senior technology editor. His book Networking Windows NT 4.0, Third Edition is published by John Wiley & Sons, NY. Contact John at WINDOWS Magazine's online locations or at the e-mail addresses here.
Windows Magazine, July 1997, page 259.