"Software Hunt"

"What I did on my summer vacation"

By Kyle Webb and Michael Webb, Assistant Editor and Editor-in-Chief, See staff list for e-mail addresses

Software Hut
Folcraft East Business Park
313 Henderson Drive
Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania 19079 USA
Orders 800-93-AMIGA (800-932-6442)
Info 610-586-5703
Tech 610-586-5705
FAX 610-586-5706

"On the road again...I just can't wait to get on the road again..."

"Where the [expletive deleted] are we?"

"I don't [expletive deleted] know. You're driving!"

"YOU'VE got the map!"

"This map lies! Pull over for a second!"

"Where the [expletive deleted] am I going to pull over?! There's no [expletive deleted] shoulder!"

"Just stop so I can tell where the [expletive deleted] we are!"

"What the Christ? The [expletive deleted] turn signals just quit! Right in the middle of fff-Philadelphia!"

"Odd." (turns hazard lights on and off) "There you go, good as new...for some reason.."

Kyle Webb: It was at this point I had begun to suspect that I was driving an Amiga, as who could explain why that would "reboot" the turn signals...

Michael Webb:

Thus began our odyssey through Philadelphia after four hours on the road from Binghamton, New York. We were in search of the unattainable, the unthinkable: a flesh-and-blood Amiga dealer! In real life, no less!

Actually, we were looking specifically for Software Hut. One of the oldest and most familiar names in the Amiga community, they were the people we called when we decided to buy an (drum roll) Amiga 4000 Tower last year.

Unfortunately, life with the Tower has been less than rosy at times. Most recently, it decided to take twice as long as usual to boot, and freeze just before the contents of WBStartup were executed. Bummer.

Well, this happened before, but at the time, I had been replacing a dead hard disk, and so decided to fool around with the machine's ribbon cable connections. That solved the problem. Later that day, it recurred; this time, wiggling the IDE cable didn't help, so I stripped the machine and reassembled it, and once again, the problem was cured.

This time, however, no such disassembly would help.

My mom and I know this machine intimately. The day after it arrived, we took it apart out of necessity to install the included-but-not-installed Ariadne ethernet board, upon which we discovered several (ahem) "screw ups" in the details of our order (for more information, see my A4000T review from AM2_5-2_6 and AM2_7). So two days later, we operated again, in order to set things straight. With no documentation to guide me, I ended up with a nightmarish kludge for a floppy drive subsystem. (It never did work perfectly during the year up until the latest disaster.) Of course, since we weren't having enough fun yet, the machine decided to stop booting altogether until we (you guessed it) jiggled the right connections.

But that's history. The point is, I have come to know this machine inside and out, but when it acted up a few weeks ago, no amount of fiddling would set the situation straight.

Oddly, I hadn't done anything in particular to precipitate the problem. I was just using the machine one day, when after a reboot, the problem struck. Actually, this would yield the first clues that led me to isolate part of the problem several days before the tech would wrack his brain trying to pinpoint it completely. But that's yet to come...

Kyle Webb:

Normally, with enough broccoli rubber bands, popsicle sticks, and sheer will power, we can get nearly any hardware problem solved; it became apparent that the nightmare was not going to go away this time. (Point-in-fact: I am considering, next Halloween, dressing up as an Amiga 4000 Tower.) Mike's diagnostic skills are pretty impressive, but tech support has something that we do not (as it was later discovered); and that is, complete replacement hardware for all involved units as a "process of elimination" approach. That is, of course, after the skilled / intellectual approach was exhausted by Our Friendly (and most tolerant) TechMan, Chris, Senior Technician at Software Hut. Anyway, on that fateful Friday, July 31st, 1998, I asked Mike to call tech support and see if they would be available the following Thursday for an in-person consult.

Our fate was sealed :)

In truth, it was a worthy and, at times , delightful trip; and as it turned out, our problem could not be solved at home (due to the "replacement part" approach). I should at this point verify that the account of the in-car conversation was true to the best of our shattered recollection (maybe with the exception of an [expletive deleted] here and there). We gave up on the map approach and immediately started using cardinal directions and large landmarks such as the International Airport (easily located by the proliferance of large aircraft all landing in the same spot on the horizon).

Michael Webb:

When it comes to computer problems, I am extremely stubborn. Usually, when one of my computers throws me one of these curves, no matter how scary it seems at first, I eventually nail it down. But this time, things were different. This problem was just too gigantic, too overgrown, too all-encompassing...you get the idea...for one hobbyist to have a chance. I was beginning the get the notion that the phantom lay somewhere in my floppy drive system, especially since I had been working with floppies and had experienced a major read/write glitch and subsequent system crash just before the problem appeared, but I didn't have the resources at my disposal to chase it any further.

Calling tech support is frequently an integral part of my troubleshooting rampages. But this time, I had no leads for the folks at Software Hut. When I told him I had already checked all the internal connections, the junior tech (later to be identified as "John") ran out of ideas and said he would have to consult the senior tech who was on vacation at the time. So I resolved to call back in a few days.

Several days later, John, carrying the word handed down that it was a software problem, had me reinstall my 68040 and 68060 libraries. Actually, when I first got him on the phone that day, my floppy drives were disconnected, and I could not for the life of me subsequently get both of them working simultaneously again! More clues pointing at the floppies. Anyway, I jumped through all the right hoops, but there was no go. John and I were out of ideas, so I arranged to bring the beast -- in person -- the following week.

"Armed" and Dangerous

Kyle Webb:

Four hours later (after having gotten up at stupid o'clock, I'm not telling you when), laughing somewhat insanely (no sleep :), parked in a cemetery just down the street (the only place quiet and shady nearby we could find in a hurry) from Folcroft Business Park, within which we were eventually to find Software Hut, eating melted sandwiches and drinking body-temperature sodas (sorry, no ice), we proceeded to our Destination Point.

"This is a good sign..."

Software Hut turned out to be located in a giant cement pond full of cement cubicles with numbers on their doors, with barely a tree or shrubbery to shade the car which I couldn't park anyway (all spots taken, so I "perpendicular-parked" (Editor's Note: And I just took my road test last week. Aren't you glad I'm learning from the best) next to Software Hut employee vehicles) and there...on the door...same numbers that are indelibly stamped on the back of the Tower, the date of manufacture: 313 (Henderson Drive) (1997). Spooky, huh? We walked in like something the Philadelphia city workers scraped off the pavement (hey, long trip) and immediately met Anthony ("Big Red," "Ant") who to his credit did not call the police to eject us from the premises (it didn't hurt that we immediately identified ourselves). We extracted The Beastie from the car and gave ourselves up to the air conditioning within. The ambience was friendly and comfortable, and a welcome relief from the blistering heat without.

"Hello, this is Software Hzzzzz..."

Kyle Webb:

My first (and favorable, I might add) impression of SoftwareHut was that of Yon Atypical Computer Store (All-Amiga!....or nearly so..) with the requisite shelves lining the walls with an abundance of software, balanced nicely with Yon Typical Computer Room Look ("stuff" and boxes and goodies stacked hither and...yon :)

"This is Software Hut. Yes, we do have FUSION in stock."

...and, "...from the inside, looking out".

Kyle Webb:

Goodies, indeed! Seems Software Hut has a gentleman customer from Connecticut (who used to be employed as a baker) who comes to town twice-a-year-ish bearing culinary gifts. We were offerred to partake in the delightfully sweet-looking repast, but I politely declined so as not to bounce off the walls to be followed by a crash (I know, bad word). The Designated Driver must avoid such things :)

Kyle Webb:

Ya ask me, there's something downright unnerving about a "neat, organized" computer area, most particularly in the service "bays". I like that "lived-in" look, and Software Hut has that balanced look of professionalism and action. The staff proved friendly, inviting, and capable, and they weren't too peeved about the somewhat regular explosions of camera flash by yours truly. (I was asked why there were no pictures of myself taken for this report, to which I responded lamely, "...but my arms aren't long enough!!" I wasn't prepared to interrupt Mike in his conversations with Chris Smith, Senior TechMan, for the purpose of immortalizing me on film. Point: it seemed to be a good plan to have Mike provide all the information and knowledge gained in the battle with The Tower to date, and therefore I didn't much interject or interrupt.

Kyle Webb:

So invited (well, we rather followed Chris, but no one stopped us) into the inner sanctum of The Service Area, Chris proceeded to remove the Tower cover...

Now you know why they call it "exploded view"...

... and proceeded to attack the problem.

Homage to the Monolith. Now let's throw bones.

It became apparent before too long that this was no ordinary malfunction:

"Hmmm..tastes good....less filling?"

When Chris said the "expletive" (motherboard) as a suggestion of one of the possibilties, I felt it was time to break away from the intense atmosphere of the Service Area. Meandering into the sales section of Software Hut, I did one of those "chick things" and squealed (I hope not too loudly) "Oooooooo!! Posters and t-shirts!!"...

This is the one that should have been blurred.

...and I met John, TechMan II (Tekmantu?)...

"Isn't that one of those digital thingies?"

...and I met Trish...

Meet Trish. Her smile provides Software Hut's interior lighting.

...and this is Trish, manning the order line that was ringing all day...

"Er, uh, police...they're back!"

While the gentleman were brainstorming in the back for four hours (yikes) I picked up on a few "factoids": I was told that Software Hut, owned by Mr. Joey Muoio (that's "MOY-OH") has been in business since 1982. They are an authorized Amiga dealer and assembler (and it would appear, repair center) with the majority of their business taken on the phones that rang constantly while we were there, with the balance of their fiscal health maintained by a comparitively small (compared to their phone orders) number of walk-ins during the course of any given day. "Joey" was not in on Thursday, August 6, 1998, during the hours that we were present. There were two individuals we had dearly wished to meet, one of which was Mr. Muoio; the other, I was led to believe, was his mother, whom we had fondly dubbed "Grandma". Many's the time when calling Software Hut's order line we have spoken to this delightful and pleasant woman, knowledgeable and eager to help, who would occasionally call out (presumably across the shop) "JO-EEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!" when confronted with a query for which she did not have an immediate answer. "Grandma" and "Joey", we missed you. (*)

Sometime near noon, Chris and Mike made several breakthroughs / discoveries, and for this highly technical development in the plot, I hand over the report to Mike:

Michael Webb:

The first thing Chris had noticed when he had opened the machine was that the floppy drives were cabled incorrectly. That made sense, because after they had quit working earlier in the week, I had found that the "wrong" way was the only way to make one of them work.

He tried to replace the 68040 and 68060 libraries again, but to no avail. He even reinstalled AmigaOS 3.1 altogether, and later, in a moment of frustrated confusion, asked "Do you have something in [your startup files] that says 'Don't like DF1:'?"

Ultimately, he started rebuilding my system from entirely new components just to track down the culprit. This proved to be a misleading, laborious process -- sometimes leaving both of us scratching our heads for a few minutes at a time -- because the problem turned out to be multifaceted.

To make a long story short, when all was said and done and the dust had settled: my SCSI ribbon cable was going bad, my floppy ribbon cable (the "chopped to hell" one as Chris described it, indicating how floppy cables must be modified to use PC drives in Amigas) was questionable, my floppy drives were misconfigured (even before they were blatantly miswired) -- no wonder they never worked quite right! But recall that I had no documentation to guide me --, and my high-density floppy drive was defective. (Whew!) I think it was the drive ultimately dying altogether that precipated the cascade-effect problem.

But in the end the A4000T was functional again, and actually a bit better off; I had Chris move my main hard disk to the slightly-difficult-to-access rear bracket, where it very well should have been, and he mentioned in passing that my external CD-ROM drive could probably be installed internally. Of course, that has a story all its own associated with it...

Kyle Webb:

Once we had a working Tower in our hands, it was time to beat a hasty retreat (after pulling out the Mastercard). So, with fond memories and our thanks expressed to Chris, who endured the Tower's wrath, it was onward ho and home we go (and I only got lost for a few minutes on the way out). We dragged our sorry butts into the house approximately 12 hours after we had departed, weary and contemplating the installation of the external CD-ROM drive that Chris had indicated might be internally installable. (Huh????) I leave it to Mike to explain the events that transpired, for I wince and cringe at the memory...

Michael Webb:

As I noted above, our adventure was more or less at an end. But little did we know that another one would soon take its place. Fortunately, what followed was fairly short-lived, but it certainly gave us a scare.

My Plextor 6-PleX CD-ROM drive was a hand-me-down from my A500, and therefore an external unit. But since I've had the A4000T, I've wanted to eventually replace it with an internal drive. One of the reasons for having such a big machine, of course, is to reduce clutter by making the unit self-contained. Plus, as I had been intrigued to learn, the A4000T has an internal connector for audio output from a CD-ROM drive. So when Chris told me my external drive was probably just an internal with its own housing and power supply, I was eager to attempt to install it.

The whole procedure was simple. Once I got the case off the drive, an internal CD-ROM drive was revealed. With the appropriate mounting rails attached, it easily fit one of the A4000T's bays. Getting my SCSI ribbon cable and internal power connectors to physically reach all of my devices was another story, but a new ribbon cable and power cable extension solved that problem. I had to translate DIP switch settings from the back of the drive case to jumper settings on the back of the drive itself, but because all connections were beautifully documented on the rear of the drive, this wasn't too difficult. The only exception was that a little guesswork was needed to determine the appropriate SCSI unit number. Overall, the experience strengthened my growing Plextor brand loyalty. The only truly difficult part was finding an audio cable that would fit the CD-ROM and Amiga connectors. The Plextor uses an industry-standard MPC-3 connector, while the Amiga uses some strange unhoused 3-pin arrangement that fits MPC-2 or -3, but requires that a wire be moved over in the connector so that all wires are adjacent. I finally got this working, and now enjoy full-quality CD music through my Amiga's sound system. That's right, no reduction to 8-bit; the mixer is apparently analog.

But what peeved me was that when I put the machine back together, the mouse would not move the pointer. I was thinking "blown CIA chip" (no big deal for some Amigas, but a very big deal for an A4000T with its surface-mounted components that would necessitate (de)soldering to replace a chip). Fortunately, it turned out that one or both of the ribbon cables connecting the ports module to the motherboard had given up the ghost through all the plugging and unplugging they had endured since my machine had gone belly up a few weeks before.

The ports module cables are 40-pin (same as IDE), so replacing them was a breeze. For a short time, though, we thought another trip to Philadelphia was in the works. As much as we enjoyed meeting the good folks at Software Hut, and seeing a real Amiga dealership in person, it isn't a voyage we would like to have to undertake again anytime soon!

"Last thing I remember, I was running for the door..."

Anybody who can figure out what this is gets a free subscription!!!

Thanks Chris, John, Ant, Trish, Fran, "Grandma," and "Joey"

Photography by Kyle Webb
Most captions by Michael Webb
Hint: when you hear FUSION, reach for the stars...

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