Many customers have been complaining that Compaq's Presario 5800 and 5900 models have been freezing up. The complaints increased around Christmas, and the computer maker's customer support operations--both telephone and online--have been swamped dealing with the problem, Compaq said.
Too many software programs, including Windows 98, are competing for limited resources, causing the systems to slow to a crawl, Compaq and analysts said. But Houston-based company's consumer crisis may represent a much bigger issue: Almost all PC makers are struggling to balance the demands of Windows 98 and other programs intended to provide increased functionality.
"If you're a manufacturer, you have to balance what you're going to put on there, what the customer is going to put on there and what performance they're going to get," said PC Data analyst Stephen Baker. "Obviously, manufacturers want to enhance the user experience, but unfortunately that doesn't always jibe with what resources you can get out of Windows."
Microsoft officials could not be reached for comment.
The problems stem from Windows 98 Second Edition and how it uses available memory for opening additional programs. Reminiscent of DOS, both Windows 98 and Windows 95 use small memory blocks for some functions, throwing up a potential performance roadblock. When system resources get too low, the system slows rapidly or locks up, requiring a reboot.
Microsoft's business-use Windows NT is limited only by the amount of physical memory, or RAM, available to the system. But Windows 95 or 98 can run out of system resources, regardless of the amount of RAM, if these smaller memory blocks are used up quickly. As a result, Windows 98 systems are more prone to freeze up if too many actions are ordered at once.
Some Compaq customers who received faster Presario PCs during the holidays may have expected lightning performance, but instead were zapped by the number of programs loaded at boot-up. These programs include McAfee's virus scanning program, system monitoring tools and software to run the Internet keyboard.
"It's actually a perceived lockup," said Compaq spokesperson Hedy Baker. "But in actuality, when the system resources are low, the system goes into a long pause, so it was perceived as a lockup."
Compaq isn't alone in adding extras that load with the operating system, adds that can potentially degrade performance or cause other problems. For instance, most major PC manufacturers, such as Dell Computer and Gateway, offer virus-scanning programs with new systems, that go on automatically. Tools for enhancing sound cards or CD-RW and DVD drives also can take their toll on available resources.
PC makers also face a quandary as they offer tools for automating customer support, such as Compaq's. Such tools can sap available resources and could actually cause the crashes they are trying to prevent, analysts said.
"It's a known issue, and we've been proactive fixing it," Compaq's Baker said. "And the way we've been proactive fixing it is a combination of things: We have a downloadable SoftPaq on our Web site, and we have a Paq tip, which is a description on how to better increase system resources."
Compaq also sends news flashes and software updates via its Service Connection feature, which requires an Internet connection.
Microsoft also offers a helpful Web page for troubleshooting memory problems.
Two SoftPaqs, or software patches, are available from Compaq that could help resolve overall memory problems. SoftPaq 12392, updated yesterday, addresses lockups related to DVD drives and also updates the system BIOS for Year 2000. SoftPaq 12527 addresses memory Windows 98 SE memory problems.
The problem does not affect older Presario series or newer models, such as the 3550.