Showing posts with label tech. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tech. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

How to make Google News RSS feeds once again work in The Old Reader

A couple of days ago, I noticed that my Google News RSS feeds in The Old Reader weren't working properly. The feed was getting served up to me, but when I clicked through to the article, it took me to the main Google News page.

It turns out this was happening because Google News automatically modifies the URL (similar to how Google search changes the URL from the actual URL of the page to a redirect starting with "" with a bunch of tracking information in it.) Something about the redirect makes it now point to the main Google News page, rather than to the article in question.

After some experimentation, I discovered that a Firefox extension called "Don't track me Google" effectively eliminates this redirect, so I can once again click on the article in The Old Reader and be sent to the actual article.

I previously had another extension for this purpose called "Google search link fix", but for some reason it wasn't effective with the latest changes to Google News.

I have no idea if this works in browsers other than Firefox, or feed readers other than The Old Reader.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Things They Should Invent: customize the user-facing appearance of Word without changing documents' appearance

As I'm dealing with vision issues resulting from my head injury, I've been contemplating whether changes to the appearance of my computer interface would make things easier for me. Perhaps a light grey or beige background rather than stark white? Perhaps a different font might be easier to read?

The problem is that, as a translator, I'm expected to deliver my translations with the same formatting and appearance as the client-provided source text.  So if I were to change the background colour or the font, I'd have to change it back before delivering the text. Since some texts have specific and complex client-provided formatting, changing it back would be time-consuming and increase the likelihood of introducing errors that would make the client unhappy.

I would really like to be able to change the appearance on my screen without changing the underlying formatting - like imposing my own style sheet upon what I see.  Web browsers have accessibility options that let you override a webpage's formatting - I'd also like to be able to do this in a Word document.

Early versions of Word (circa 1993) had the option of making the interface look like WordPerfect 5.1, which many users at the time would have been accustomed to. However, the final document wasn't grey text in whatever font that is on a blue background - the final document was text in the colour selected by the user, in the font selected by the user, on the background selected by the user.

Word could do this in 1993. So why not also do it now, so people with visual issues can work on an eye-friendly interface while creating a document that meets the graphic and/or layout standards of their employer or their client?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The final score in the laptop battery management match-up

I bought my laptop in December 2010, and started indiscriminately plugging it in whenever possible, without regard for any battery management strategy. The battery stopped working in April 2013, for a total of 2 years and 4 months.

Then I started putting the laptop in airplane mode whenever it was plugged in, and completely draining and recharging the battery on the rare occasions when I needed to work from battery. The laptop lived until November 2017, for a total of 4 years and 7 months.

Shortly before the laptop died, the battery status said something to the effect that my battery wasn't working at top performance and it was time to get a new one, although I could keep using this one for as long as it lasted. (I don't have the exact message.) It didn't display this message before the previous battery suddenly stopped working. (I noticed there was a problem because the battery light was suddenly blinking orange.) I currently don't know whether the battery had anything to do with why the laptop stopped working.

Therefore, based on my one-person study, airplane mode is better for laptop batteries (at least the kinds of batteries computers used in 2010) than leaving it plugged in indiscriminately.

Note that this is the exact opposite of what all Dell online support said, but consistent with what every in-person tech said.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Things They Should Invent: manual wifi switches on cable modems

One of my many delightful eccentricities is that I don't normally use wifi. The vast, vast, vast majority of my interneting is done on my computer at my desk, so I connect the computer to the modem by ethernet cable. I do turn on the wifi when I need it, but I figure keeping it always-on would increase the risk of someone breaking into my network without benefitting me in anyway.

However, this could become a problem if my computer dies.  Currently, the way to turn my wifi on and off is by accessing the modem through my web browser.  If my computer dies so completely that I can't persuade it to cling to life for long enough to turn my wifi on, I won't be able to get online with an alternative device.

Solution: a manual switch on cable modems that can turn the wifi on and off.  In addition to allowing you to turn on your wifi when you don't have a computer, it would also allow you to definitively turn off your wifi and thereby control access to your network - for example if you suspect someone unauthorized is using it but don't have the technical prowess to confirm, or if you're a parent who wants to keep close tabs on your kids' internet use.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


When Eddie Izzard was running marathons across South Africa and periscoping his progress, I repeatedly saw people in the comments asking how he gets wifi way out in the middle of nowhere.

I've recently seen people call into question the authenticity of civilian tweets from Syria by saying that wifi couldn't possibly be working with all the war constantly knocking out power and infrastructure.

In both these cases, it's glaringly obvious to me that they aren't using wifi, they're using their data plan. They don't need a wifi hotspot (or electricity if their phone is charged), they're using...I don't actually know - satellites or towers or whatever it is that transmits cellular data.

My first thought was to wonder if people are now using "wifi" as a synonym for any type of wireless internet, even when it's clearly not actual wifi.

But another thing I hear about from time to time is the possibility of introducing free wifi in public places as a public service. And when I think about it, the number of places that offer free wifi as an amenity seems to be increasing - restaurants and stores and malls and even the TTC have introduced it, and the trend seems to be towards more rather than less public wifi.

All this time I've been assuming that everyone has a data plan (except me, because I'm frugal with my cellphone use). But could it be that far fewer people than I expected have data plans and far more people than I expected are dependent on wifi - to the extent that it doesn't even occur to them that people might have another method of connectivity?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Laptop battery progress report

In April 2013, I blogged about mixed messages I was receiving about laptop battery management.

I just realized enough time has passed for a progress report.

In April 2013, my laptop battery died at the age of 28 months, during which I'd been using the computer primarily plugged into the wall but with the battery still installed and active.

After I replaced that battery, I decided to try disabling battery charging when the computer is plugged in, meaning that the power cord is not charging the battery but is rather providing power directly to the computer, although the battery is still physically present. I've been doing that for 42 months, and it still seems to be working well. The battery does gradually lose power over a period of many months (I have to charge it an average of twice a year) but it has lived for significantly longer than it did with the computer plugged into the wall.

I intend to proceed this way for the rest of the life of this battery.  I doubt this computer has the life expectancy to also test it with removing the battery, but if it it turns out it does, I'll test that and report back.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why do some plugs and cables wear out?

My earbuds stop working every few months. First one ear goes, then both of them.  It seems to happen whether I buy them cheap or mid-range. (Haven't tried expensive ones myself, but other people have told me they wear out too.)  This has been happening since I was a teenager using them to listen to a walkman, and it continues at the same rate even now that I work from home (which is relevant because I use my earbuds for far fewer hours a day and they also spend much less time being knocked around in my purse.)

The Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter that I use to connect my external monitor to my computer wears out every couple of years. First the image doesn't always appear on the external monitor when I close the computer lid (I have to open the lid to get to the power button), then it starts taking multiple unplugs and replugs for the image to show up on the external monitor, then the monitor starts blinking out at random times, and finally it does this weird thing where the whole computer freezes when I try to switch to the monitor.  Then I get a new adapter, and everything goes back to normal.

I had the same problem with the cable that connected my cellphone to my computer, back when such a thing was possible. It would just stop working every few months.

Why does this happen?  These things are basically just plugs and wires. What exactly would cause them to stop functioning?

And why doesn't it happen with things like kettles and toasters and lamps, which also have plugs and wires?

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Things Microsoft Word Should Invent (multilingual spellchecking edition)

1. Display all spelling and grammar errors, no matter how much it slows down the program

If your Word document has too many of the red squiggles indicating spelling errors as detected by the spellchecker, it gives you a warning saying there are too many spelling and grammar errors to continue displaying them.  Then all the red squiggles go away and, if you want to spellcheck, you have to select the spellcheck function from the menu and let the spellcheck program crawl the document rather than correcting red squiggles as you go.

The red squiggles are important to my translation process, and not just for spellchecking purposes.  They show me at a glance where I have and haven't translated, as the text in one language is going to be full of red squiggles when the spellchecker is set to the other language.  This is particularly relevant in very long documents (which I don't always translate linearly) and for bilingual documents - which are also the two kinds of documents that are most likely to involve a phase of the translation process where there are too many red squiggles regardless of whether the proofing language is set to the source language or the target language.

So I want a "Show spelling and grammar errors, no matter what, no matter how many there are, no matter how much it slows down the program" option. Just give me my red squiggles - I'll wait! And if I find it is in fact too slow, I can turn them off, and then turn them back on when I particularly need them.

(Yes, I know you're supposed to be able to mark different sections of the document as different languages or tell Word not to spellcheck a certain section, but in practice I find those functions are hit and miss.  Sometimes I tell it over and over again that the left column is English and the right column is French, or that I don't want it to spellcheck the first six pages, but it just doesn't take.  Same with turning the red squiggles back on after I've translated the whole document - sometimes it just says there are too many spelling and grammar errors without even recounting.  I suppose another option would be to make these functions work reliably.)

2. Add phrases to the spellcheck dictionary

In some circumstances, for certain combinations of genre, context and audience, I have to leave official names in the source language rather than translating them into English. Of course, this means they show up as errors in my spellchecking, even though they're not.

I want to be able to add these official names to the spellcheck dictionary, so it doesn't give them red squiggles and corrects them if I make a typo.  However, I don't want to add the individual words to the dictionary, because taken individually they would still be untranslated words and/or typos. I just want spellcheck to recognize the phrase. For example, I want it to recognize that "Ministère des Affaires municipales et de l'Occupation du territoire" is supposed to be there, but the individual words "ministère" and "affaires" and "municipales" and "territoire", when they don't appear in that exact phrase, are not supposed to be there.   

Computers can do this. Search functions have "whole words only" or "exact phrase only" options. And the error detection aspect of spellchecking is basically a search function (i.e. find all the words on this list, then put red squiggles under all the other words). So they should be able to create this option and thereby help reduce the risk of making typos when some words are in another language that hasn't lived in the user's fingers for as long.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

What's the name for the way parts of my firefox interface are disappearing?

For the past couple of days, my Firefox has been occasionally having this weird graphics problem, where parts of the interface at the top disappear and occasionally black boxes appear over the browser window. Screenshot below, click to embiggen:

Does anyone know what this phenomenon is called so I can google it effectively?

If you have troubleshooting ideas, so far I've tried disabling hardware acceleration, updating my graphics driver, disabling Classic Theme Restorer (which was being used in the screenshot), and disabling transparency in the Windows interface. Each step except disabling transparency helped a little, but none completely eliminated the problem.

The problem can usually be made to go away by changing the browser window size (i.e. clicking the "restore" button on the top right), but that's never permanent. Sometimes, however, I have to close the browser completely.

There weren't any updates or changes that correlated with the arrival of the problem, at least not that I can dig out. A java update appeared in my tray shortly before the problem started, but I didn't actually install the update until after the problem started.

In any case, my real question is the name/term/standard description for this weird way various things are randomly becoming invisible, so I can google it and/or file bug reports.

Anyone know?

Update: Switching to 64-bit Firefox (to go with my 64-bit Windows 7 install) removes the problems of the blank areas, but 64-bit Firefox eats up memory like crazy.  At one point I left the computer alone for 2 hours with only 1 tab open (the weather network), and when I got back it was using 5 gigs of RAM. I'm currently working on the Firefox memory problem and have some avenues, but if I can't make it work I'll do a system restore.

Second update: It turns out the memory leak on 64-bit Firefox is specific to to the combination of The Weather Network website and the Adblock Plus add-on. It doesn't happen on any sites other than The Weather Network, and it doesn't happen on The Weather Network if I disable Adblock Plus.  So I've filed a bug report with ABP to see if they can fix it. They've proven responsive in the past, so hopefully there will be a solution eventually.

As for the random blank graphics, I still don't know what they're called or why they were happening. They don't correspond with specific objects or elements, and move or grow or disappear when I resize the window.  When I try to take an about:memory log while they're happening Firefox crashes (so there are some relevant crash logs wherever it is crash logs get sent to). And they aren't related to The Weather Network or Adblock Plus because they occurred on other sites and even when I had all my add-ons disabled. But the 64-bit Firefox seemed to solve that problem, whatever it was.

With thanks to , and for pointing me in useful troubleshooting directions via Twitter.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Things They Should Invent: the option to delete real words from the spellcheck dictionary

"Costal" is a real word. It means "of or relating to the ribs". And I very, very, very rarely have to use it in my translations.  However, I do have to use the word "coastal" with some frequency, and I tend to typo it as "costal" (or as something that autocorrects to "costal".)

"Pogrom" is a real word. It means "an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, in particular that of Jews in Russia or eastern Europe". And I never have to use in my translations. However, I do have to use the word "program" quite frequently, and sometimes a combination of typo and autocorrect will change "program" to "pogrom".

I would like to have the option of removing these words and others like them from the spellcheck dictionary, so red squiggles appear underneath them as though they were typos. Because, despite the fact that they are real words, they are nevertheless typos. They're not supposed to be there, and I'd find it convenient to have them flagged as such.

I'd also like to have the option of having profanity, slurs, slang words for body parts and functions, etc. treated like typos. They most often aren't supposed to be in my work documents (I have had one or two interesting transcripts, but they were very much the exception), so it would be useful to flag them as such to avoid particularly embarrassing typos.  This seems like something Word could allow users to opt into or out of with a checkbox - and it would have the added bonus of pointing out potentially-controversial words to users who might be ignorant of the potential controversy (perhaps because they're sheltered, perhaps because they aren't writing in their first language), thereby allowing users to make an informed decision about whether to use these words.

The true purpose of spellcheck is not to provide a comprehensive list of "real words", but rather to help users catch errors. Sometimes an error can take the form of a perfectly valid word.  Allowing us to not just add words to the spellcheck dictionary but also to delete words from the spellcheck dictionary would enable spellcheck to better fulfill that mandate.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

itunes deleted all the music off my ipod

The ipod: a 4th generation ipod touch running iOS 6.0
The itunes: itunes 11.0
The computer: PC running Windows 7

I added some new music to my itunes library, then synced my ipod (like I've done many, many times before) to add that music to my ipod.  But, to my shock, itunes instead deleted all the music off my ipod!

I tried to sync it again, but this didn't add any music to it. And, unfortunately, the second attempt to sync overwrote the backup of my ipod (itunes only keeps one backup and there's no way to keep others!), so I couldn't just restore the backup.

I went through all the usual disconnecting, reconnecting, turning stuff on and off, pressing both buttons to reset the ipod, but I still couldn't convince my music to go back on my ipod.  At one point about 400 songs (out of over 8000) went on the ipod, but when I tried to add more they went away.

Some parts of the internet suggested that this was a copyright thing, and music that wasn't purchased through the itunes store was being deleted, but that wasn't the case here.  I've never purchased any music through itunes, and the 400 songs that did end up on my ipod were from a mixture of CDs and downloads.

This discussion thread had some people experiencing the same problem. Some people suggested that this was a known issue and if you went to the Apple store they'd fix it, but they never specified what the Apple store did to fix it. I was slightly reluctant to do that, because the Apple store would probably update my iOS, and whenever my iOS is updated something goes wrong with one of my apps.  Also, since my computer is a PC, the Apple store won't even look at it, even if part of the problem is in the itunes that is on my computer.  So all I could see them doing was restoring my ipod, thereby forcing me to upgrade my iOS, and sending me on my merry way.

During the course of my research, I learned about the Manually Manage Music option in itunes, which allows you to drag and drop music onto your ipod rather than using the sync function. I tried to put my playlist on the ipod using this function, and it transferred about 500 songs (again with no discernible pattern) which is better than before but still only a small fraction of my 8000+ playlist.

Someone on the internet who was having the same problem mentioned transferring their songs album by album, so I decided to try to transfer the songs from an album that didn't get transferred.  I typed the name of the album into the search box in itunes, selected all, and dragged them over to the ipod.  It sat on the first step of the process (something like "preparing for transfer" - I'm not about to try it again just to get the exact name of the step!) for a really long time, leading me to believe it wasn't going to work.  Resigned, I contemplated whether to update and restore the iOS, update or reinstall itunes, go to the Apple store, or any number of time-consuming and no doubt fruitless steps that happen next in the troubleshooting process.

At some point during this contemplation, I idly backspaced the album name that I'd typed in the search box of itunes, so itunes once again displayed all the songs.  And, at some point during this contemplation, itunes started transferring the remaining ~7500 songs to my ipod!!

I have no idea if backspacing the album name out of the search box is what caused all the songs to transfer.  I have no idea if it was caused by something else I failed to notice.  But I haven't been that happy since the day my computer finally came back from the Dell depot!

So now I'm keeping my ipod in Manually Manage Music mode, so I don't have to do a full sync the next time I want to put more music on it. If I have trouble again, I'll try transferring just a few songs isolated by searching in itunes, then backspace the search out of the search box.  (I have no idea if that will work, but that's where I am in my testing.) However, I'm dreading what will happen when I have to sync the ipod again to update apps or something.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Things They Should Invent: emails that self-delete once they've expired

1. Sometimes I get coupons in my email that are only good for a limited time or on a certain day, or if I spend a certain amount of money.  Often when I get them, I don't immediately know whether I might be making any purchases that qualify. But then, a few days later, I realize that I might possibly have a coupon that matches a purchase I'm going to be making.  So I search for my email, but the results turn up hundreds of coupons (since I never delete anything) and I don't know which ones are still valid and have to open more emails than should be necessary to determine whether there is in fact a relevant coupon.

2. Sometimes I email someone and get an out-of-office message.  If I'm subsequently sending group emails that are only relevant immediately (as opposed to something they'll need when they get back from their absence), I like to leave the people who are absent off the email list.  The easiest way to see who is absent is to visually scan my inbox and see whom I've received Out of Office messages from. (They have a distinctive icon in Outlook, so I can tell at a glance.)  But, again, the problem is that I can't tell at a glance if the out-of-office is still in effect, so I have to open more out-of-office messages than necessary to determine who I should leave off the group emails.

Proposed solution: optional expiry dates in emails.  If the content of the email is expired, the email is deleted from the recipient's inbox.  This would apply automatically to out-of-office messages - once the recipient is back in office, the out-of-office message is deleted from the recipient's inbox.

Variation: recipients can have the option to turn off the self-deleting (either as for all emails in their inbox or on an email-by-email basis), but the default setting is self-deletion once the email expires.

Or if that's just too much to handle, a technological solution for the out-of-office problem would be for automatically-generated out-of-office messages to state the return date in the subject line. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Things They Should Invent: cellular network detection device

My cellphone uses both the Rogers and Fido networks. The other day I was involved in a long texting conversation while walking around the neighbourhood doing my errands, and I noticed that in certain places I got the Rogers network but not the Fido network, and in other places I got the Fido network but not the Rogers network.

This makes me think that it might be possible for there to be certain dead zones for a particular cell phone provider even within an area that's supposed to get service from them.  Which could be an annoyance if you switch providers only to find that you can't get service in your apartment or in your office.

Proposed solution: some kind of a device that can tell you which cellular networks can be picked up in a particular place.  You carry it around, it detects networks, and it tells you which networks it detects.

These devices could be rented out by cellphone retailers for a reasonable price per day. I'm sure potential customers would be quite happy to pay a reasonable amount to confirm that a signal is available right where they need it, and I'm sure cellphone providers who try to compete on signal quality would be happy to empower potential customers to confirm the quality of their signal.

Currently, if you look on cellphone providers' websites to see where their signal is available, they give a rough geographical map. Since I live in the geographical centre of Toronto, all providers claim to provide service in my neighbourhood.  Nevertheless, there are pockets where the Rogers signal can't reach, and pockets where the Fido signal can't reach, which suggests that there may well be pockets where other signals can't reach.  Cell providers can't reasonably be expected to provide a map of all these pockets, but surely they could provide us with a device that would let us detect them ourselves.

Maybe someone could even make an app that would do this?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

My second Dell depot repair experience

The good: Dell appears to have fixed my computer by implementing the solution I suggested

The bad: It took two months after I suggested the solution, two separate depot repairs totalling 13 days computerless despite the fact that the problem occurred under an on-site service warranty, and an assortment of additional stressers.

The details:

The problem was that, following an in-warranty replacement of a failed hard drive, my BIOS sporadically failed to recognize the presence of operating system on the hard drive.  This was a particularly stubborn problem, and had persisted through all possible troubleshooting and one previous attempt at depot repair.

I felt like they were grasping at straws when the best idea they could come up with was another attempt at depot repair and I was very reluctant to send my computer away and have to spend some time computerless, but the telephone technician told me it would be expedited since it's the second attempt (5-7 business days, rather than the standard 5-10).  Since my first attempt at depot repair had only taken 4 days all in, I reluctantly agreed to give them one last chance.

I received the shipping box on a Monday, which was the day before my grandmother died, and when I learned of her death I decided to postpone sending out my computer for a week.  Being computerless is very stressful to me, and I didn't want the additional stress when I was freshly bereaved.

So the next Monday, I dropped my computer off at the closest Purolator shipping office (a local print shop).  I decided to drop it off rather than having a courier pick it up so I could use my computer for part of the day on Monday and prepare it for shipping at my leisure rather than having to have the whole thing ready by 9 in the morning because I don't know what day the courier will come.

Unfortunately, there was a snowstorm on Monday, so the Purolator truck didn't show up at the store to pick up my package!

After a frantic Tuesday morning spent trying to figure out why my computer wasn't in the Purolator system, it was ultimately picked up on Tuesday evening, and arrived at the Dell depot on Wednesday morning.  I figured no big deal, last time around it arrived at Dell on Tuesday and was back in my hands on Thursday, so I'll probably still get it back this week.

The Dell tracker showed that they received my unit at 8:30 and began diagnosis at 2:30.  Okay, a bit more of a delay than last time, but still reasonable.  I was heartened to see the expected return day showing Thursday.

But on Thursday at 10 am, the status changed to "Customer Hold", which meant it was on hold until they got some information from me.  I waited and waited, willing the phone to ring, obsessively checking my email, but no one contacted me. 

As you might have noticed if you follow me on Twitter, this stressed me out. What was the problem?  Why did they need to contact me?  And if they so needed to contact me, why hadn't they done so yet?  Had they lost my computer?  Was it going to take months to fix?  What could possibly be going on?

I spent much of the day stressing and crying and catastrophizing, and when I hadn't heard back by the end of the depot's business hours I started emailing and tweeting at anyone I thought might have information.  I finally got a snippet of information from @DellCares: apparently, the depot hadn't been able to reproduce the problem.  But that just raised more questions.  Why did they need to contact me?  And why hadn't they? If you need information from the customer about how to reproduce the problem before you proceed further, what is gained by not contacting the customer?  It seems like in this case you'd either ship it straight back with "could not reproduce" to keep your numbers up, or you'd contact the customer right away so you could move forward.  Both @DellCares and one of the techs I'd been emailing with said they'd have the depot get back to me the next day, so I eventually managed to soothe myself to sleep.

On Thursday at 10 am, I still hadn't heard from anyone.  So I checked the tracker again, and it said the hold had been lifted at 9 am.  But no one had contacted me!  What was going on here?  From where I'm sitting, it looks very much like they wasted a day (thereby doubling my number of computerless days because of the weekend) for no particular reason! 

At 11, the tracker said they'd begun repair.  I was glad to see progress, but how could they be repairing if they couldn't reproduce the error?  I hoped this was just an interim step towards shipping my computer back to me.

Meanwhile, the email tech told me that the hold delay was due to the depot having to find out whether I have a complete or limited warranty.  How does that take a whole day?  And why did the tracker say "customer hold" when that wasn't information that they'd find out from me?  And what kind of strange crazy problem did I have that required them to double check the warranty?

On Friday, the tracker still said the computer was under repair and the next update would be Monday.  So I bolstered myself for the stress of a computerless weekend, exacerbated by all these questions about the mystery hold.

On Monday, I eagerly refreshed the tracker over and over, but it hadn't been updated despite the fact that it said Monday was the next update day.  Had the repair failed?  What if they couldn't figure it out and insisted on holding onto my computer for weeks and weeks?  Partway through the day I received an email the email tech, but all he had to say was that the computer was still in repair.  It seemed like the email was either automatically generated or he was blindly transcribing the tracker status into email without regard for utility.

Then, towards the end of the day on Monday, the tracker said the repair was complete and they were shipping my computer back to me!  I was half delighted and half nervous, uncertain if the problem would actually be fixed or not, and, because of the various horror stories I'd read online, partly dreading that my computer might come back in worse condition.  I'd already decided that if this repair hadn't fixed it I wouldn't accept a third depot repair because it was just too stressful for me, so I was also partly dreading having to be assertive to get my computer fixed without Dell marking me as a problem customer.

I received my computer on Tuesday.  I was so worried that something might have gone wrong that I videoed the unboxing and the first few boot-ups, just in case I needed evidence of any damage or evidence of the problem reoccurring.

The first mystery was on the slip that came with the computer, telling me what work had been done. Under "The unit was received with the following cosmetic issues which is not covered by Dell's HW Warranty", everything was checked (Scratches/Marks on top cover/Case, Scratches/Marks on LCD Screen/Bezel, and Scratches/Marks on Palmrest).  There were no scratches or marks when I sent it out!  I inspected it closely, and discovered...there were no scratches or marks on it when I received it back either!  Did the depot check all those off as a matter of course so they wouldn't be obligated to repair any damage they did???  Yet another source of distrust!

Dreading the prospect of having a damaged computer in hand that Dell would refuse to prepare, I booted up, still taking video.  On the first boot-up, it said "Setup is preparing your computer for first use", just like it did after my last depot repair.  Figuring that meant they hadn't tested it like I asked, I created an account, finished the installation of Windows, and decided to boot up a couple more times to see if the problem reoccurred.

On the first boot-up after the installation of Windows was completed, I saw that there were in fact two Windows accounts: my own, and one named "Dell".  Maybe this meant they had tested it!  I did two more boot-ups from complete shutdown, and the problem didn't reoccur. 

I looked at the device manager, and saw that the hard drive they'd installed wasn't Western Digital this time! The device manager said my hard drive was a "ST1000LM024-HN-M101MBB", which, according to google, is a Samsung hard drive - just like I originally had and I requested after the first round of hardware troubleshooting failed back in December!

That appears to have solved the problem (so far at least, knock wood).  Since I got the computer back, I've had 8 boot-ups from a power-off state and 3 boot-ups from a hibernate state, and it has worked every single time.  I sincerely hope this means it's fixed!

A squandered opportunity

This whole saga has been a squandered opportunity for Dell to delight me and win back my unquestioning loyalty.  As I mentioned in my post about how Dell needs to empower its employees, the telephone tech was not empowered to dispatch a Samsung hard drive as I requested, even after we'd eliminated every other variable.   

 If he had been empowered to do so, the whole problem would have been solved with the second on-site service call.  I would have been delighted with Dell for, once again, saving my ass in the dying days of my warranty, and would have blindly gone with Dell for my next computer purchase, buying the best gaming laptop they'd be willing to sell me with all the warranties and upgrades available.

Since the problem would have been solved before xmas, I would have told everyone at xmas (empty-nester baby boomers and millennial young professionals, most of whom have more disposable income now than they ever have before) all about how Dell saved my ass.  But, since the problem was still ongoing at xmas, I instead was telling them about how Dell was stressing me out by wanting to send my computer to a depot even though the problem occurred under an on-site warranty.

Since I wouldn't have had any reason to google up other people's Dell depot experiences, I wouldn't have seen other people's horror stories and therefore wouldn't have been stressing out nearly as much.  I wouldn't have been saturating my Twitter feed with worries about Dell.  I wouldn't have been blogging extensively about everything I found stressful about Dell.  I would simply have written one blog post praising their warranty service, and gotten on with life.

But, because the Dell telephone technician was not empowered to take my suggestion of using the original brand of hard drive, and because the first round of depot repair either couldn't or didn't this suggestion, my loyalty was not won over and all the word of mouth and social media I produced about Dell over the past two months was full of stress and worry.

They should be able to do better, and it's rather their loss that they didn't.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

My Dell depot repair experience

The good: the whole process took less than 4 business days, despite my having been told that it takes 7-10 business days.

The bad: it didn't fix the problem

Update: It took a second, more stressful depot repair to fix the problems by applying the solution I thought of in the first place.


This repair was the next step in the process of repairing the very mysterious process of BIOS intermittently not recognizing the operating system on the hard drive. When I sent the computer out, I included a note (one page, typed, with informative subheadings for easy scanability) detailing the history of the issue and what we'd tried already, describing my recent observation that the computer was more likely to boot up on a second try if I turned it off and on quickly so it was still "warm" (like an old car that needs to be warmed up), and mentioning my theory that a different brand of hard drive, ideally Samsung, should be tried.

Purolator picked up the computer from me on Monday afternoon. It arrived at the depot first thing on Tuesday. According to the online tracker, it was in "diagnosis" status for an hour, then was moved to "repair" status.  On Wednesday afternoon, it was shipped back out via Purolator, and on Thursday morning it arrived back at my door.

The depot report stated that they'd replaced the hard drive (with another Western Digital) and the processor. I booted it up, and found that Windows was in Setup mode from an initial installation, which is how you normally receive a computer from Dell.  I completed the setup, then decided to reboot it from a "cold" shut down state three times before I restored my data, just to make sure the problem had been solved.  On the third try, it once again failed to detect the operating system.  (In subsequent boot ups from a power off state over the next few days, it took two tries, four tries, and one try to boot up successfully.)

I emailed my tech to let him know about this and got an out of office message, so I decided to restore my system image so I could at least have my computer back for the moment.  On Friday, my tech emailed me back saying he'd look into what the next step would be.  I haven't heard back from him yet (which is fine - I asked him prior to sending it out what happens if the depot can't fix it, and he said he's sure there's some measure to take but that he has no experience with this, so he probably has to escalate it.)

So, long story short, I'm pleased with the turnaround time, but displeased with the fact that they couldn't fix it.

I suspect that their inability to fix it is yet another sign of Dell employee disempowerment.  The replacement hard drive I received was Western Digital despite the fact that my notes to the depot tech said that this was the variable that has yet to be eliminated. I suspect that this is because Dell employees are not empowered to provide another brand of hard drive.  (Although the ungenerous interpretation would be that it's because they ignored or disregarded my notes.) The fix they applied wasn't properly tested (again, despite my notes) because they didn't finalize the installation of Windows and therefore couldn't possibly have tested it with multiple start-ups from a power-down state.  I suspect that this is because they're required to deliver computers to clients with Windows in set-up mode rather than finalized. (Although the ungenerous interpretation would be that they couldn't be bothered to take the time to finalize and test properly.) So, because of this disempowerment, the computer was returned to me without the problem corrected, completely unbeknownst to the technicians.


I don't know what happens next. I emailed the tech in charge of my case, he said he has to look into what's to be done next, and he hasn't gotten back to me yet.

This doesn't actually bother me at the moment, because I genuinely don't know what I want from them.  Well, that's not completely true - what I want is a single, simple fix, ideally that I can implement myself, that will correct this problem and leave my computer functioning perfectly and meeting my needs at least for the next year.  But I don't know what I want from them that's within the realm of possibility.

My best guess is still that the problem is with Western Digital drives and that a Samsung drive should be tried, but the Dell website no longer sells non-SSD Samsung drives (and introducing SSD at this point would be the opposite of controlling for variables).  They did sell non-SSD Samsung drives in December, but they seem to be gone now.  So I can't reasonably expect them to provide parts that they don't have.

I'm worried that they'll ask me to send it to the depot again so they can try other things, which I really don't want to do.  I feel like I've already been cooperative enough by allowing it to be sent to the depot once for a problem that occurred under an on-site service warranty, and like I've already been inconvenienced enough being without my computer for 4 days for something that didn't even fix the problem. I don't know what my response would be if  they told me that's what the next step is.

It does occur to me that the next step might be to replace the computer, and I don't know how I feel about that either. Apart from the boot-up problem, my computer still works beautifully, and I've heard that replacement systems are refurbished and therefore sometimes not always particularly good quality, so I'm afraid that I might end up with something worse.  My computer was very customized and upgraded, and even at the age of 4 years it still surpasses current entry-level systems. I don't know if they'd even have comparable refurbished systems available, and comparable new ones from Dell retail for close to a thousand.I'm also afraid that if they did replace, they'd want me to send my old computer back before sending me a new one, which would leave me computerless again, for something that may or may not end up being comparable.

So at the moment I'm quite content to wait patiently for their response, avoid shutting down my computer as much as possible, and enjoy my regular everyday life with my regular everyday computer.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Things I Don't Understand: shiny glass computer screens

My first flat computer monitor (and, in fact, every subsequent monitor) was a 17" LCD monitor with a screen that's made of plastic (or, at least, something softer and less shiny than glass).  I don't know what this kind of monitor is actually called, but I like it.

But I've noticed that more modern computer monitors, especially those with wide screens, have screens made out of a shiny glass. If you go into a store and shop for monitors, you find a lot of monitors made out of very shiny glass, and far fewer made out of the less shiny plastic.

I don't understand why they do this. The shiny glass screen greatly increases glare, and seems like it would get dirty far more readily.  I don't like it at all, but it seems more and more difficult to get a plasticky less-shiny screenof the style that has far less glare and doesn't get dirty as easily.

Why did they change it?  What's the advantage?  Why are the less-shiny plasticky screens harder and harder to find?

Friday, January 09, 2015

Dell needs to empower its employees to keep the company's promises

As I've mentioned before, every computer I've owned has been from Dell, and I've been completely loyal to them my entire adult life, but I've been losing my trust in them during the life of my current computer.

I just realized that this loss of trust can be boiled down to one thing: the employees aren't fully empowered to keep the company's promises.

Here are two recent examples of lack of employee empowerment, how they made me lose trust in Dell, and how they would have won back my loyalty if the employees were fully empowered.

The Warranty Extension Problem

About 2 months before the four-year on-site service warranty I purchased with my computer expired, I got a mailing from Dell offering me the opportunity to extend my warranty.  The mailing was customized, with my name, computer type, purchase date, existing warranty details, and even my service tag number.  I called the number provided, and spoke to a gentleman who was prepared to sell me a warranty extension for a reasonable price.  I agreed, and as he verbally reviewed what I'd just purchased, he mentioned that this extension was for mail-in service.  "Wait," I objected, "My warranty is for on-site service!"  He insisted that there's no such thing as on-site service for laptops, even though that's what I have and I had successfully had a technician dispatched to my home for a previous issue with this computer. So I told him I had to think about it before paying that amount for mail-in service, and hung up.

Then I reached out to @DellCares on twitter.  When I told them the situation, they told me there's no such thing as an extension of a four-year warranty, even though I had a customized mailing offering me just that and the gentleman on the phone had just offered to sell me one, just not with on-site service.  I showed them a picture of the customized mailing, and they told me I must have received it by mistake.

Since @DellCares thought warranty extensions didn't exist, I figured I should take what I can get and called the phone number again. But the gentleman I spoke with this time told me this wasn't the number for Canadian service (even though it was printed on my customized mailing sent to my Canadian address and they'd offered to sell me a warranty not an hour earlier) and gave me another number to call.  I called that number and got what sounded like a US television provider (I forget the name), saying that they can't accept toll-free calls from outside the US.  So I called Dell back and, weirdly, got the same representative. He gave me another phone number that was one digit off what I'd written down.  I repeated it back to him and got it confirmed, but when I called it I got what sounded like a fax machine.

I went to the Dell website in an attempt to find the correct phone number and, as I was logged into my account, discovered I had the option to buy the warranty extension online!  Awesome!  The price was higher than the first gentleman I'd spoken with named, but it included on-site service and was available at the click of a mouse! I bought it, immediately got a confirmation email, and that was that!

Or so I thought.

A month later, when my hard drive began failing, I called tech support, and they mentioned that there was only about a month left on my warranty.  Wait, what?  I just bought an extension!  Long story short, my warranty extension somehow didn't go through.  It didn't appear on my account, and my credit card wasn't billed.  If the hard drive problem had come just a few weeks later, I would have been out of warranty without even knowing it!  Unfortunately, the warranty representative I spoke to wasn't able to sell me the same warranty I thought I'd already bought.  She could only sell me mail-in service.  I offered to send her the email showing that I'd bought it through the website previously, but she had no mechanism to receive emails from clients.  Nor could she put me in touch with someone who could fulfill this promise - the best her supervisor could do was reduce the price on the mail-in service.

So despite the fact that Dell twice promised me the opportunity to buy an extension of my on-site warranty, both times entirely on its own initiative with the promise generated by its computer systems that were well aware of the age and nature of my computer system and my geographical location, I couldn't get in contact with a person who could sell me this promised warranty, even though the price I was willing to pay was more than the cost of an entry-level laptop at a Boxing Day sale.

The On-Site Service Dispatching Problem

As I mentioned before, I'm currently going through some very mysterious technical problems. I've been through extensive troubleshooting over a period of weeks, and had every hardware part that could possibly be involved replaced, yet the problem persists.  The technician I've been working with says all that's left to be done is send it to the depot.

The problem is that this technician is not sufficiently empowered.  The entire process has been completely logical, and I totally understand from a diagnostic perspective that having it looked at in person is the next logical step, but he has no mechanism to dispatch an on-site technician to make a diagnosis.  They can only dispatch on-site technicians to install specific replacement parts that are dispatched as a result of remote diagnosis.

On top of that, he also has no mechanism to dispatch a different brand of hard drive.  This is an issue because the boot-up failure only happened with Western Digital drives, not with the previous Samsung drive, so it's a variable that hasn't been eliminated.  (Also, it's the only remaining variable to eliminate that either I or the telephone tech can identify.)

So, despite the fact that I cheerfully paid a premium for on-site warranty service back when I purchased the computer, I still have to send it in to the depot (and therefore be computerless for two weeks).

What would have happened if these Dell employees had been empowered

If these employees had been empowered, I would be singing Dell's praises and they would have won back my blind loyalty.

For the warranty issue, if either the warranty rep or the @DellCares person had been empowered to extend my on-site service warranty, I would have been thrilled.  It never occurred to me that a warranty could be extended before I got the mailing in the first place, and when I got the mailing I thought "This is the solution to all my problems!"  (My problems being that the early signs of hard drive failure were manifesting themselves without my recognizing them, and I don't really want to buy a new computer this year, hoping instead to wait for Windows 10.)  If I'd gotten a warranty extension, I would have blogged and tweeted enthusiastically about how awesome Dell is for anticipating my needs.

But because they weren't empowered, I feel tricked and abandoned, and have lost trust in them since a transaction just somehow didn't go through despite my being sent a confirmation email, I got no notice whatsoever that it had failed, and resolving the problem was simply not possible.

For the tech support dispatch issue, if the telephone rep had been empowered to dispatch a different brand of hard drive to rule out that variable, or to dispatch a tech to diagnose on site when it became apparent that we'd eliminated every avenue for remote support, I would take this as a reminder of why I was loyal to Dell in the first place. Even if it took multiple tech visits to solve, I'd be delighted that they're taking such good care of me. Dell's on-site warranty support has saved my ass with every computer I've owned, and if they'd been able to do the same with this one, they'd have completely won me over. I'd be totally loyal to them once again. I'd be blogging and tweeting their praises. When buying my next computer, I'd go to the Dell site without even considering comparison shopping and buy the best gaming laptop available with the best warranty possible.  When people are discussing what kind of computer to buy, I'd say "I always go with Dell because their warranty service is so awesome!"

But because the tech wasn't empowered to do anything except have me send my computer to the depot and therefore spend at least two weeks computerless, I'm stressing out, I'm googling for information about Dell's depot service and finding horror stories, and I feel betrayed and tricked and abandoned that I have to send my computer out despite having purchased on-site service.

One Dell innovation that I appreciate is after you call tech support, the tech you speak to is assigned ownership of the issue.  You get an email with a tracking number, and you can email the same tech back if you  have further problems.  They'll give you further support by email or arrange a callback at a convenient time.  I love this because it means you only  have to wait on hold and explain your problem once.  After that, it's just a continuation of the same conversation, occurring at your convenience.

And the telephone tech I've been working with is awesome. He's perfectly polite at all times and above-and-beyond patient.  I have no objection to his technical skills - his initial pre-googling knowledge is greater than mine, and there was nothing I could google up that he didn't already suggest.  Thanks to Dell's system of having a single tech take ownership of the issue, he's gotten back to me promptly every time I've emailed him, and I've been notified of his expected return on days when I've emailed him while he's out of office. Dell just needs to extend this to its logical conclusion, so my awesome tech has the authority to do everything necessary to solve my problem rather than being forced to leave me with the stress and uncertainty of sending my computer into a void.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Contemplating my next computer

All of my computers have been Dells, always because I got at least five years out of the computer and was extremely happy with their warranty support.

With my current computer, I've had a number of experiences (not all of which I've blogged) that have led me to question my loyalty to Dell.  These aren't so much technical problems, but customer service problems - not getting call-backs when I'm supposed to, people on the phone who aren't empowered to keep promises made to me by the Dell website or personalized mailings I received, repeatedly getting my call dropped when getting transferred to the person who can allegedly solve my problem, etc.

Because of this, I'm not automatically going to Dell for my next computer.  I haven't done comprehensive research yet, but the internet suggests that other brands like Asus/Acer (I don't remember which it was - obviously I'll have to research more) may have better components, so I'm considering looking for higher quality elsewhere.

But, at the same time, my current problems make me realize how much I value warranty support. I'm aware of the economic argument against extended warranties, but, for hardware problems especially, I like having the option of making it someone else's problem.  But I haven't been able to find any other companies that have warranties as long or comprehensive as Dell's.

The internet has also suggested the possibility of buying from Dell's "small business" store rather than their "home" store, on the grounds that the "small business" end of things apparently has better user support.  I haven't looked into that extensively, but it's on the table.

At this point, someone usually suggests that I build my own.  I'm reluctant to do so because I'm clumsy.  After observing technicians dismantle and reassemble my current computer, I'm afraid that if I tried to build one myself, I'd use too much force or something trying to snap components together and break some circuit board or plastic bit, rendering the whole thing useless.  Paying money for components and putting time and effort into assembling them with the end result being a computer is one thing, but paying money for components and putting time and effort into assembling them only to destroy something and create an expensive paperweight is another thing. My computer is too important to me to put it at the mercy of my fine motor skills.

And, at this point, someone usually suggests that I get a Mac.  But I'm reluctant to do so based on my experience with other Apple products.  I don't particularly want to pay a premium for something that's soon going to be treated by the manufacturer as obsolete and non-maintainable, at least as compared with my current technology usage patterns.

But another option might be to start treating my computers as disposable, i.e. spend only a few hundred dollars for something that I don't expect to last longer than a year rather than a couple thousand in an attempt to get five years out of it.  Doing this may eliminate any bad feelings of regret at spending big money on something that doesn't end up working beautifully for many years, and might even introduce an element of happiness when it comes time to upgrade - "YAY, I get a better computer!" as opposed to the current "WAAH! I have to shop for a computer!"  But I don't really feel very good about the idea of deliberately buying lesser quality with the expectation of throwing it out.  In general, it seems more ethical and, frankly, classier to buy quality and longevity whenever possible.

Thoughts welcome. I'd particularly be interested in firsthand experience with warranty support from retailers or manufacturers other than Dell.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

BIOS sometimes (but not always) doesn't recognize the operating system on my hard drive

The computer: Dell XPS 15 running Windows 7

In early December, one of the built-in diagnostics found that the hard drive failed a "SMART short self test" and a "targeted read test", which meant that failure was imminent. 

I'm still under warranty, so I got it promptly replaced by in-home service, successfully reimaged, and life proceeded as normal.  I cheerfully chalked this up to my standard "Dell saves my ass with a major repair just before the warranty expires" narrative that's happened with every computer I've owned, and carried on with life.

Two days later, I booted up and it said it couldn't find the operating system.  I freaked out and called tech support, and during one of the reboots that happened while they were running me through diagnostics, Windows suddenly booted up normally.

Over the next several days, this happened every time I booted up.  BIOS wouldn't find the operating system on the hard drive the first time or two (or three or six), but then it would find it for no discernable reason.  And after it did find it and boot up Windows, everything would proceed beautifully.

Over the course of several days, on the phone with a Dell rep whom I've spoken to more than any other human being this month, we ran every diagnostic in the book, repaired the boot sector, reinstalled Windows a couple of times, and manipulated all the potentially-relevant BIOS settings.  The problem still persisted.  Boot-up failed more often than not, but once it succeeded everything worked normally.

From a technological standpoint, this problem would occur somewhere in the connection between the hard drive and the motherboard. So, finally, they had a tech come in (with the beautiful in-home warranty service I paid a premium for when I bought my computer) and replace my motherboard and my hard drive.  I reinstalled Windows, booted up successfully a couple of times, reimaged, and got on with life.

But then, the next morning, the problem reoccurred again!  BIOS didn't recognize that there was an operating system on the hard drive, despite the fact that literally everything that might be contributing to this problem had been replaced!

So now they tell me that the only choice is to send it in to the depot, which would leave me without a computer for a total of 7 to 10 business days.  This makes me very sad.  My computer is central to my social life, play and creativity (fortunately I have another for my work), and is the absolute core of my happy place and self-care. The idea of being without a computer for 2 weeks is a grey cloud lurking over my head. I literally feel like there's something ominous standing behind me.  I told the tech (and he agreed) that I don't want to send it out before January so it doesn't incur further delays what with all the statutory holidays this time of year, but even though I get to enjoy my computer during this difficult holiday period, I'm still feeling impending dread about the prospect of 2 weeks without it.

I understand from a diagnostic perspective why they'd want to look at it in person in a depot (I found myself thinking during this process that it would be faster if I could just take it in somewhere and sit down with a tech at a workbench who had a lot of different tools and components and just try stuff out), but it's just disheartening to have to be without a computer for so long when I've already paid a premium for a warranty that includes on-site service.

There's one factor in all this that we haven't been able to test or rule out: the brand of the hard drive.  Both replacement hard drives that the BIOS doesn't reliably recognize have been Western Digital (which was also the brand of the external hard drive I used to own that was giving me problems.)  The previous drive (which never once had this problem) was Samsung.  When I googled around the problem of the BIOS sometimes not recognizing that the hard drive has an operating system, I found Western Digital hard drives were disproportionately represented.  But it seems like Dell, like most large companies, buys equipment in bulk, so they have no mechanism for providing me with a different brand of hard drive.  I don't know if the depot would be able to do this either.

So that's my current emotional crisis.  If you've ever successfully solved this problem of BIOS sporadically not recognizing the operating system on a hard drive, I'd love to hear in the comments how you solved it!  If your answer is going to be to buy a different type of computer, please save it for my upcoming post contemplating the purchase of my next computer.

Update: After two attempts at depot repair, Dell finally installed a Samsung brand drive, which, just as I suspected, made the problem go away. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

Dell XPS 15 / NVIDIA GeForce GT 435M / external monitor issues

I've recently had some curious computer behaviour that appear loosely related to my video card+external monitor  combination.  I have no idea if they're related to each other, I have no idea if this is the whole story, I have no idea if there's some other underlying issue I can't see.  I'm just documenting what I know here for googleability in case it's helpful to someone.

The computer: a Dell XPS 15, running Windows 7
The video card: NVIDIA GeForce GT 435M
The display: a Dell E178FP LCD monitor, connected to the computer via a Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter (because the computer doesn't have VGA output and the monitor only has VGA input. However, sometimes I unplug the external monitor and instead use the built-in screen, which has widescreen dimensions.

The monitor blinking out problem

Every once in a while, it seemed randomly, the monitor would blink out, as though it had gone into sleep mode even though I don't have a sleep mode set.  Moving the mouse or pressing the keyboard wouldn't work and opening up the laptop wouldn't even work.  It would be completely frozen and I'd have to do a hard reboot. The appearance of this problem correlated with appearance of the monitor occasionally flickering when I was shredding paper (about 3 feet away from the monitor) and with difficulty switching back and forth between laptop screen and external monitor - when I connected the external monitor, it wouldn't pick up the picture (even when I pressed Windows key + P).  It would take multiple pluggings and unpluggings to make it work, and sometimes even a reboot.  And it got worse as time passed.

After this had been going on for some time, I noticed that the monitor blinked out when the Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter got jiggled.  I therefore bought a new adapter, and the problem stopped happening.

The Windows 7 Action Centre mystery

Shortly after I bought the new Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter that could withstand jiggling, an alert appeared in my Windows 7 Action Centre saying "Solve a problem with NVIDIA Graphics Driver."  However, when I clicked on it, it said "This solution could not be downloaded."  It's been saying that for months, always when I did in fact have a full and active internet connection.  The problem that it claims to be solving correlates with times when the computer crashed because of the adapter problem, so I don't know that there is in fact a driver issue (when this first appeared, my driver was the most recent one available).

The bad Windows Update

I don't routinely install all Windows updates, because in the past I've had problems with them conflicting or causing problems. Once my setup works, I prefer to keep it that way.  But, just recently, I noticed an update called "nVidia Graphics Adapter WDDM1.1, Graphics Adapter WDDM1.2, Graphics Adapter WDDM1.3,  released in October, 2013". I thought this might be the NVIDIA solution that the Action Centre was trying and failing to deliver, so I installed it.

And it completely disabled my external monitor.  No matter how many times I unplugged and replugged and switched back and forth between the monitors, nothing would display on my external monitor.

So I did a system restore, and the external monitor started working again.

The takeaway
(to the best of my knowledge):

- If your external monitor is connected using a Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter and you lose monitor signal, freezing the computer, try replacing the adapter.
- If this has happened and there's a useless Solve a problem with NVIDIA Graphics Driver" notice in your Windows Action Centre, this might be why.
- If you have installed a Windows update called "nVidia Graphics Adapter WDDM1.1, Graphics Adapter WDDM1.2, Graphics Adapter WDDM1.3,  released in October, 2013" and lost the use of your external monitor, try undoing the update.