Tag: sylvania g

Sylvania G skips hard drive if partition 1 is less than 2GB, AKA “20,000 dumb BIOSes under the sea”

I previously posted about a problem with my Sylvania G netbook (original model GNET13001 with a VIA C7-M CPU, not the Meso) that I recently upgraded to a 32GB KingSpec 1.8″ ZIF SSD, where it would boot Windows XP just fine, but a Windows 7 installation on the same hard drive would do something extremely unusual: the system would not only fail to boot Windows 7, but the BIOS would not even load and execute the MBR at all, skipping the hard drive ENTIRELY in the boot order.

I figured this out late last night, powered by coffee, Doritos, and forum posts to distract me periodically. The major difference between XP and Windows 7 is the partitioning and MBR code, and the Windows 7 MBR code boots up Windows XP just fine, leaving partition tables as the most likely culprit. I modified the MBR assembly code to output a message indicating that the MBR was loaded and executed, and then halt the system. This way I would be certain that the MBR was executing at all and wouldn’t wonder if the code was somehow tripping over something that caused it to kick right back out. With a partition spanning the full disk, my message showed up. That was expected; XP worked fine, and the partition table was set up in the same fashion that it was under XP. Then, to test and see if we had some sort of issue relating to the cylinder/head/sector geometry values in the raw partition table data, I tweaked the values in the table to be slightly different, and saw no change. Then, to see if we were dealing with a problem with the starting sector for partition 1 being 2048 under Windows 7 instead of 63 under XP, I gradually bumped the partition entry up; first to 64, then 100, 200, 400, 1000, 2000, 2047, and 2048. None of these partition starting sectors caused the boot process to fail. Then, I started trimming the ending of the partition. From 31.6GB to 15GB, then to 4GB. No change, it still tried to boot.

I changed the ending cylinder from near 1000 all the way down to 100 and it stopped booting. YES!

From there, it was simply some intelligent logical bisection of the numbers: 200 failed, but 400 worked. Since 256 is 2^8 (powers of two being very significant) I tried 250, 255, and 256, which also failed. A greater jump straight to 300 passed, though; it was at that point that I realized I was dancing around another important number in terms of computer memory: 2,097,152 KB (4,194,304 512-byte sectors) which is also a power of 2, and happened to be right between the sector counts of 256 and 300 cylinders (these equations are in C/H/S format, and I’m ignoring the first 2048 or so skipped sectors just to annoy you):

256*255*63 = 4,112,640 sectors
300*255*63 = 4,819,500 sectors

With this new information, I changed over to LBA (sector) entry instead, and made the TOTAL number of sectors in this partition 4,194,303. It failed to boot.

When I set the total number of sectors in the first partition to 4,194,304 sectors (exactly 2GB), the Sylvania G loaded and executed the MBR normally, where just one sector less would cause the entire hard drive to be skipped in the boot order.

This effectively means that a stock Windows 7 can never boot on this system without major trickery. I consider this a very severe and stupid BIOS bug. What I don’t understand is how it is possible that this check even exists in the first place. (Edit 2017-03-12: I realized it could be for skipping a small “utility partition” like older laptops do, but that’s what the partition table ACTIVE flag is used for already.) The computer would have to read the MBR from the hard drive into memory and intentionally check the first partition’s size for a minimum amount to make this bug happen, so someone either at VIA, Phoenix (it’s a Phoenix BIOS), or Sylvania (Digital Gadgets, Inc.) had to go out of their way to put this bug into place. Worse yet, there are absolutely no BIOS updates in existence for the Sylvania G, and never will be, so this bug is permanent. Fortunately, if your first partition is larger than 2GB in size, you can blissfully ignore this problem, which means that Linux installations using a compatible partitioning scheme, Windows XP, and Windows Vista all should run on the Sylvania G without hitting this problem at all. Windows 7 is effectively not an option, though. In the next few days, I plan to attempt to overcome this bug and get Windows 7 working on the Sylvania G anyway, as a personal challenge if nothing else.

I am left to ponder what other systems might be having this same issue. The BIOS has no business whatsoever attempting to “verify” my partition table of choice, in my opinion, and I want to know at what point and for what purpose this bug/misfeature was introduced. If anyone has a system that seems to skip the hard drive in the boot order with Windows 7, when Windows Vista or especially Windows XP would work just fine, please leave a comment below with your experiences and insights. I’d love to engage in a discussion with anyone else who feels they may have hit this type of bug.

UPDATE: I have verified that the problem boils down to one single check against the LBA “number of sectors” in partition 1 on the drive being equal to 0x400000 (4194304) or higher, and nothing more. I was able to get Windows 7 to boot normally by copying everything from partition 1 into partition 2, deleting partition 1, then using a hex editor to change byte 0x1CC to 0x40. Since all other parts of partition 1’s table entry are zeroed out, it isn’t seen as a valid partition on the disk, but the BIOS is only checking the DWORD value at 0x1CA-0x1CD to be 0x400000 or greater, so it simultaneously bypasses the bug/misfeature in the BIOS and doesn’t confuse the MBR nor Windows 7 at all, as the partition structure is completely valid. If I was adventurous, I’d shuffle the partition down to sector 2048 and reclaim the missing 100MB, but since I’d lose that space under Windows 7’s out-of-the-box partitioning scheme anyway, and it’s 0.1GB of a 31.6GB SSD, that kind of capacity loss isn’t significant at all.

Since the workaround is as simple as using a dummy entry where partition 1 is supposed to be, this trick should work for any operating system. Just start partitions at number 2 instead of 1, and apply the change 1 with a hex editor when you’re done, and you can have a tiny “first” partition without consequence! The only time you’ll ever need to redo the hack is if you run something that rewrites that portion of the partition table.

The Sylvania G dies, but yields an AWESOME customer service experience.

It’s official: something went severely wrong with the Sylvania G netbook I bought in October.  The keyboard AND POWER BUTTON will completely “lock up” at random and QUICKLY, yet the computer itself still runs in the background, and the hard drive developed a couple of bad sectors (which I remedied by doing a zero fill–more on that in another post).  It’s fairly unusable now, and it’s still within the warranty period, so I called up Sylvania’s support number for help.  The company that actually makes these netbooks is called Digital Gadgets, and it is them who I have dealt with.  So, how did it go?

I haven’t been this happy about a customer service experience EVER.

I explained to the tech that I bought the netbook in October 2008, that I run a computer service shop, and detailed heavily what was wrong and the evidence that I had gathered to make my judgment call that the netbook was screwed up.  Apparently the ink used for the serial number sticker is poor, because it had smudged off to the point that it was unreadable, which I made very clear early on in the call.  This is about where you would expect me to spew off about the run-around I was given and the stupid hoops I had to jump through to prove to the person that it was indeed screwed up, because 99.9% of service and support agents have almost no authority to help customers and are usually in the business of preventing warranty returns at any cost.

But that didn’t happen, not even a tiny little bit.  No run-around?  Surely I jest, right?  WRONG!

The tech support agent, named William Lee, promptly started the process of generating an RMA and took my shipping address to send a totally free return shipping box to.  About eight hours later (and after business hours, no less) I had an RMA number in my email inbox, with instructions on what to do when the box arrived.  As of this writing, the box hasn’t yet appeared, but that’s because I only called them a couple of days ago.

It is astonishingly refreshing to be able to deal with someone like William.  He did everything exactly right, without a single flaw in his procedure.  He LISTENED TO THE CUSTOMER’S PROBLEM, taking the time to ensure he understood exactly what was going on from my perspective.  He also BELIEVED THE CUSTOMER’S STORY AND EXHIBITED BELIEF IN THE CUSTOMER’S GOOD FAITH, which is the exact opposite of what most suppot agents do: showing a lack of faith and general distrust of the customer right off the bat.  Because he LISTENED and BELIEVED, this brought about the UNDERSTANDING  that there was a clear issue covered under the warranty which needed to be resolved quickly as possible.  Within a reasonable time frame, he PROVIDED A SPEEDY RESOLUTION TO THE CUSTOMER’S PROBLEM.

Let me explain exactly why I am writing in this fashion.  William’s example should be followed by all companies, and sadly it is almost nonexistent in the corporate customer service landscape of today.  The benefits to the customer (in this case, myself) are fairly obvious: the problem was resolved quickly and the customer’s precious time was not wasted to achieve that resolution.  But what about the benefits of William’s actions to the BUSINESS?

  1. William spent as little time as possible chatting it up on the telephone.  This left William free to service other customers, reducing overall load on the customer service department at Digital Gadgets.  It also made William a much more valuable asset to the company, because William is able to service more customers than an agent who is given no authority and is required by the company to simply  toss customers through hoops.
  2. On the flip side, William did not abbreviate our conversation.  He spent the time required to understand my situation, but did not ask me to perform senseless exercises when it was quite clear that the problem was hardware-related and not fixable over the phone.
  3. I was heard but not patronized, AND a SIMPLE solution was presented QUICKLY.  This greatly increases my faith in Digital Gadgets as one of their customers, increasing the chances that I will purchase from them in the future AND RECOMMEND THEIR PRODUCTS TO OTHERS  AS WELL.  Over time and across many customers who are similarly situated, this leads to MORE SALES, which can quickly and easily exceed the cost of a warranty repair on my one individual netbook.

William is doing it right.  Other businesses could take a few lessons from how he handled my situation.  I can’t wait to get my fixed toy back in good working order, and I’m very happy to have bought a computer from a company that treats me like a customer should be treated.

Time ensures that things rarely remain the same.

At Tritech, many things have changed since even just one month ago. Here’s a spiffy list of such things. By the way, my new favorite word is “terse.” The magic of the word “terse” is that practically all of its synonyms not as terse as “terse.” It’s a self-fulfilling definition! ^_^ So, what’s been going on during my silence, you ask? Read on!

SOLUTION: Sylvania G and Windows XP timing issues

This excerpt is from the Tritech Computer Solutions page called Sylvania G Netbook Tips and Tricks.

Thanks to a helpful developer at the ZSNES forum, we found the solution to the VIA C7 platform speed/timing problems with certain programs.

Edit C:\BOOT.INI and add the /usepmtimer switch to the boot command line for Windows XP. This uses a timer that is stable even when in power management modes, which means that the throttling of the C7 CPU and accompanying chipset do not affect its timing characteristics.

Some applications like ZSNES rely on a very precise and stable timing mechanism (in the case of ZSNES, speed regulation depends on QueryPerformanceCounter) and the normal timer on this platform is unstable in certain power management states. Also, we used WCPUID’s real-time clock display to figure out that the System control panel (sysdm.cpl) reports the frequency wrong on the C7 and that it is in fact running at 1200 MHz when under a full load, despite Windows’ insistence that somehow the CPU is going as low as 198 MHz when the lowest ACPI P-state is 400 MHz.

If you have games on this netbook and are experiencing strange timing jerks or other glitches, you need this simple fix.

Sylvania G’s VIA C7-M versus Windows XP

I changed my Sylvania G (original, non-Meso) netbook to Windows XP/Linux dual-boot to test some software I’m working on, and discovered that while Windows XP certainly does boot and run in general on the G, some kind of system timer or timing loop is severely out of whack! I wanted to use my little G as a portable gaming machine from the Windows XP install, and to my horror, ZSNES couldn’t decide what speed it wanted to run! Now, I’ve never had a single issue with ZSNES on any computer I’ve ever tried it on, even preferring the Windows port of it over the Linux native one, and not once has a problem existed with ZSNES that I couldn’t find an easy fix for, until now. I’ve been researching the matter and gathering evidence, and I may have a potential answer to the problem.

Why I love my (original) Sylvania G netbook (and how to fix its “issues” easily)

UPDATE: THIS IS NOT ABOUT THE UNDER-$200 NETBOOK WITH WINDOWS CE, WHICH IS A TOTAL PIECE OF JUNK. Please don’t ask me about those. They’re junk.

My Sylvania G netbook.
My Sylvania G netbook.

If the tips in this entry help you, please send me an E-mail message letting me know!  I GREATLY appreciate feedback!

A lot of professional reviewers out there seem to have nothing but bad comments on the original (non-Meso) Sylvania G netbook.  I bought one of these puppies for $300 and felt like I was getting quite the steal.  Then again, I’m a Linux user, so I feel more “at home” with a Linux laptop (though my primary line of work is obviously fixing all the problems under Microsoft’s OS every day of my life).  I love my Sylvania G.  It’s tiny, light, the battery lasts forever, people look at it and think I’m watching a DVD on a portable DVD player rather than computing, its wireless actually works far better than I expected…the list goes on.  Granted, it lacks some software that I’d like, but for its primary purposes (Internet browsing, light office apps, maybe an MP3 here and there), it does the job beautifully.  I wish it had all the shortcuts to all the control panels available, but they’re not there because the 800×480 WVGA screen can’t handle them vertically; I’ll tell you how to bypass the vertical issue in a minute.

The main reason I’m writing this is not to explain why my G is so awesome, but rather how to make it that way.  The number one complaint about the G is its postage-stamp sized mouse trackpad, and believe it or not, the laptop comes with the tools needed to fix the insane acceleration that it comes with by default (no more “buy a USB mouse if you’re going to buy this laptop” complaints!)  The biggest advantage of the G over the practically identical Everex Cloudbook (which the G is basically a rebranded version of) is that unlike the Cloudbook, with its moronic “mouse buttons on the left side of the unit, mouse trackpad on the right” layout, the G has the touchpad assembly below the keyboard, WITH THE BUTTONS IMMEDIATELY BESIDE THE PAD.  That leaves the excessive tracking speed (where you can just lift your finger off the pad and the mouse moves two inches across the seven-inch LCD) as the only remaining issue, and HERE IS HOW TO FIX THE SYLVANIA G NETBOOK POINTER TRACKING SPEED, STEP BY STEP!

(This section has been moved to the Tritech Computer Solutions page called Sylvania G Netbook Tips and Tricks.)

For $300, and with my tips above, the original Sylvania G is an absolute gem.  You simply can’t beat its value unless you drop another $100 on an Acer Aspire One (what I originally wanted but couldn’t justify purchasing.)  Once you slow down the mouse and add some launchers for some helpful applications, the G starts to look far better than it may have on display in the store.  I don’t know about the Meso, but I don’t care, because I’ve found the perfect laptop for my needs and that’s the end of the story!  I absolutely LOVE my G!

Once again, please send me feedback if this helps you out!