In an earlier column, we reported on the alarming message we got from a piece of fix-it software from Symantec called Healthy PC. We tried it on a Toshiba 205CDS laptop and promptly got the following disturbing report when the software checked the computer's hard disk:
"Healthy PC has detected a serious hardware configuration problem. Your hard disk has not been installed properly. Further use of your computer will eventually result in data loss. Please visit the place where you purchased your computer to have it repaired."
This seemed strange since the hard disk was factory-installed, so we ran another Symantec utility, PC Handyman, to see if it found the same problem. It didn't. So we concluded one of the programs was a dud, and we promised to let you know which one. We then headed off to the store where the computer came from.
The store's owner, who had sold us the unit, was mystified. He said he would check with his wholesaler and let us know. In the meantime, we backed up the hard disk and continued to use it without incident. The column brought comments from several readers, and a couple of the messages shed some light on the problem.
One reader said laptops are so notorious for their incompatibilities with the basic PC standard that neither Microsoft Windows 95 nor Windows NT is capable of "configuring" fully on any "Wintel" (Intel-processor-based, running Microsoft Windows). "It's not surprising to hear that any software, especially diagnostic software, has a hard time verifying a Wintel laptop."
The incompatibilities, the reader said, were the result of the special technology the manufacturers must incorporate to allow the systems to run without excessive heat, to keep the hard disk from being damaged by the inevitable bumps and jolts it receives, and to allow the computer to run with minimum power consumption. Such features make each laptop different from a standard desktop and different from other laptops as well.
That suggested that the software had simply been unable to analyze the computer properly. But another reader had a much different diagnosis. "It sounds like an error in the partition table," the reader said, "but Healthy PC doesn't use those words since most people don't know what a partition table is."
A hard disk "partition" is a section of a disk that is set up to be recognized as a single drive. Large hard disks are often set up, or "partitioned," to be recognized by the computer's operating system as several different drives, say C, D and E. A disk can be partitioned as a single drive, as is the case with the Toshiba 205CDS. The partition can be set by the user, but is normally done at the factory when a disk is installed. The operating software includes a utility called FDISK to do the job. There is one vital requirement: The size of a partition must match the space available on the disk or, at some point, there will be trouble.
In fact, Healthy PC's explanation of why the hard disk problem it detected is so dangerous did say this: "Windows may not be able to access all of your hard disk, although Windows may think it can. When Windows passes the limit on the hard disk, Windows starts writing to the first part of the disk again, causing data corruption." That sounds like exactly the kind of trouble an error in the partition table could cause.
The reader suggested loading FDISK and using it to check the partition information. We did. "Make sure the partition size in MB (megabytes) matches the total disk space which appears beneath it," the reader advised. "The partition can be smaller, but if it's bigger, you're in deep doo-doo."
Well, FDISK reported the partition size was 775 MB, the advertised size of the hard drive, but it said the total disk space was only 774 MB, exactly the problem the reader had suggested, and apparently just what Healthy PC was talking about. And how could the factory make such a mistake?
So it appears that Healthy PC was right all along. PC Handyman missed the problem. And Toshiba has some explaining to do.