Ask Dan: Vista woes and USB TV

Date: 5 March 2007
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


I recently purchased a new Toshiba Satellite P100 laptop. I was originally after the P100/N02, but after placing my order and paying for it at Harvey Norman, Toshiba cancelled my order because they didn't want to sell the older N02, but they wanted to push their new 400. HN was good enough to give me the newer product at the same price as the older one. The reason I wanted the older one in the first place was so I didn't have to endure the PAIN and MISERY that is Windows Vista.

Needless to say, I, like many poor suffering folk around the globe, am constantly frustrated by Vista and its incompatibilities with simple things, such as USB devices. I bought a very nice Logitech MX Revolution wireless mouse to use with my laptop, but does Vista recognise it? Of course not! Every time I plug in the USB receiver I have to tell Vista to look on my HDD to find the three drivers it needs to run the mouse. Windows 2000 Pro (which we run at work) took a mere 5 seconds, and my mouse worked first time, every time.

Vista is also a RAM tart, using up to 1GB (of my 2GB) of RAM with no programmes open, just idling along in my desktop. USB storage devices are also a pain; having to go through the process of telling it to install the drivers each and every time I use any USB device (my mouse included). It's like Vista uninstalls, or doesn't save the driver settings when it reboots. I've downloaded every available update for Vista that I could find and it still doesn't work. I'm currently sourcing a copy of XP I can put on there so that I don't throw my otherwise perfectly excellent $AU3600 laptop out the window in a fit of Vista induced rage!

My question is, however, to do with USB TV tuners for laptops. My laptop has Media Center on it, which is great for watching movies (it even came with a nice RC6 remote control) and the Harman/Kardon speakers are great for a laptop. But I'd like to be able to watch TV on it.

My aunt has a USB tuner that she picked up when she was living in England, and it works a treat. I've been browsing what Aus PC Market has, and I'm not sure what to buy, if any. Is it worth it? Do they work? Should I not bother until I get XP running on my laptop?

Also, Aus PC Market recommend I have a "3GHz CPU" for HDTV. My Toshiba has an Intel Core 2 Duo T7400 blah blah blah, with 2Gb of RAM and a GeForce Go 7900GTX video card. Should that be enough to run HD?


I don't know what the heck's going on with your drivers in Vista. It shouldn't be reinstalling the drivers for anything every time you plug that thing in, and even if it does reinstall drivers (if, for instance, you move a USB device from one port to another) it should be able to find the files automatically.

Most people don't unplug and replug their cordless mouse receiver all the time, so you wouldn't expect to hear a lot about that particular problem on the Net even if it were ubiquitous. But if you're getting the same problem with USB storage devices (which shouldn't need an outboard driver at all - actually, the mouse should work for basic functions with a built-in Windows driver, too), then something ain't right.

I don't think there's any way to tell Vista to behave this way. It's got some new and exciting security features, but this isn't one of them. Perhaps a reader will have a clue.

The RAM-use problem, though, is not actually a problem.

Vista has a few new caching ideas, one of which is "SuperFetch", which pre-caches data from the applications you most often run in RAM so they can start faster.

If that RAM's needed for something else, Vista just drops the cache data on the floor and is immediately ready for use as normal.

So while Vista does indeed genuinely need more physical memory than XP - a gigabyte's tolerable, but 1.5 or 2Gb are nicer - the low amount of free memory it shows simply means that it's doing something with the memory you're not yourself using for anything right now. Which is a feature, not a bug.

(This is analogous to the situation where people restrict the size of their swap file to stop it taking up too much disk space, or fragmenting the drive, or whatever. Which is fine, except it means they're going to hit hard out-of-memory errors if they ever do need more virtual memory than the limit permits. And if they don't, then the swap file wouldn't have grown past the limit anyway.)

I agree that nuking Vista and switching back to XP, at least until a service pack or two has come out for Vista, would probably be a good idea (then you can upgrade...).

I'm kind of surprised that you didn't get that option from the factory, seeing as even Dell still let you get XP on a significant sampling of their products. From what I can see, though, Vista is indeed the only option for the not-sold-in-the-USA Satellite P100/400 sub-variant. Only a couple of US P100s let you choose XP, and there is, of course, no option at all to buy a laptop with no operating system, the way civilised people do it.

So, for once, I think this problem with a computer from the geniuses at Harvey Norman does not have anything to do with Harvey Norman.

Just the same, though: Don't buy a computer from a department store. Just don't. Don't do it. Thank you.

Moving on to the TV tuner: Vista driver problems aside, there's no reason whatsoever why a USB TV tuner wouldn't work just as well with your computer as with any other. It took a couple of years for tuner hardware that works with Australia's slightly quirky terrestrial digital TV standard to arrive (and a bit longer before it actually consistently worked...), but my lamentations in my old HDTV piece are now pretty much only of historical interest. There are plenty of options now, and they work pretty well.

You may, of course, have Vista driver problems with a USB TV tuner, or with an ExpressCard one, for that matter. TV tuner cards, especially the ones made for the Aussie backwater, seldom have very dedicated driver teams; lots of tuner hardware still has no Vista drivers at all, as I write this.

Your Toshiba ought, at least, to have USB ports that work properly, which is more than can be said for a lot of Dell laptops. So if a USB tuner screws up, port defects ought not to be the problem.

Yes, your laptop's mere 2.16GHz dual core T7400 CPU is more than fast enough to handle high definition TV decoding data rates. Core-series Intel chips, like the Pentium Ms that preceded them, get more work done per clock tick than the Pentium 4s that are still the basis of quick and dirty CPU clock speed recommendations.

Clock speed is a lousy metric by which to compare CPUs - AMD CPUs back into the mists of time have also been considerably faster per clock than the long-pipelined high-clocked P4s. Clock speed becomes an even worse yardstick every time a CPU manufacturer starts making high-work-per-clock processors and then immediately, according to the Holy Book of Marketing, stops advertising clock speeds and starts putting obscure model numbers like "T7400" on their chips.

But clock speed recommendations are, still, a fast way to deflect poor unfortunates who're wondering whether their 266MHz P-II is good enough for some task or other. So that's why you keep seeing such recommendations on retailers' Web sites, on the sides of game boxes, and so on.

The limiting factor for nice digital TV reception on a recent PC is not processing power (well, not unless you're doing some heavy duty digital video recorder stuff, anyway), but local signal strength and quality. That can be very highly variable, especially if you're chancing it with an indoor antenna. And Aus PC Market, like a number of other dealers, won't give you a refund on your tuner gadget if it just turns out that you can't receive digital TV where you live.

Digital TV, like digital audio, is very nearly an all-or-nothing proposition. Either it's perfect, or you get nothing, with a narrow band in the middle where your picture keeps glitching, but you don't get the obviously visible signal quality feedback that most people remember from days of leaping around the living room with a pair of rabbit-ears.

Aussies who'd like to investigate the probability of good digital TV reception where they live, without just jumping in by buying a PC tuner or a set-top box or whatever, may find Digital Broadcasting Australia - and its discussion forums - handy.

Aus PC Market offer a selection of external TV tuner and video capture devices to the discerning Australian couch potato.