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In The Lab
From the Mailbag: Troubleshooting, Hard Drives and Drive Letters
by chris

While we wait for the first release candidate of Windows 7 to get here, it's probably a good time to check the mailbag for some "real world" issues.

Ron from Florida writes: "I've been working on a seriously abused Compaq Presario 1620NX (17 different virii, about 180 Trojans, uncounted malware and tracking cookies, etc.) I managed to get everything cleaned up, about 10-12 different virus and malware scans all come clean."
After several reformats, disk wipes, and reinstalling Windows twice, he still has "a problem where usbport.sys is forcing 100% CPU usage... Is there any way I can disable the onboard USB so I can run a PCI USB peripheral board instead?"

If the BIOS does not have an option to enable/disable the USB (unlikely), you still should be able to do it inside Windows from the Device Manager list. You may want to try to access the list in safe mode if the system is hung or very slow to respond because of its 100% CPU load. (You can also try to terminate the process in Task Manager, although what effect that will have, I cannot say. Terminating processes used by Windows can destabilize the system and cause reboots, blue screen, or a shutdown. Some processes are configured to automatically restart if they are terminated or closed.) I did a quick Internet search of usbport.sys 100 CPU and turned up a variety of similar issues being reported on other Compaq Presario systems; several suggest a hardware failure, with the only solutions being to disable the onboard USB or to replace the system board.

To try terminating the process, open task manager either by pressing Control-Alt-Delete or by right clicking on the Windows taskbar and selecting "Task Manager" from the context menu. Select the process tab, scroll down to find the offending application or process, then right click to select "terminate process" or "terminate process tree." The last option will also terminate any other process or code that may be using the one you have selected. If the process is configured to restart, it will reappear in your list fairly quickly.

Right click on the Windows taskbar and select "Task Manager" from the context menu.
In Task Manager, you can select a process and right click for choices to terminate it alone, or to terminate it and any associated processes that may be running.

If the code is running as a Windows Service, the settings that determine how a particular Windows process operates can sometimes be tracked down from the "Services" section of the Computer Management console. An easier method is to disable services temporarily from the "Services" tab of the MSCONFIG application. MSCONFIG also provides a simple way to track down the application if it is being launched at startup from the Windows Registry, as a service, or the Start Menu\Programs\Startup folder. Click Start, Run, and then enter MSCONFIG in the box and click OK. MSCONFIG has a check box to hide Microsoft services, which are usually required for Windows to run correctly. If you disable a critical Microsoft service, Windows may not be able to load or start, causing it to hang at startup, or go into a constant reboot cycle. You may be able to undo that situation by starting in safe mode, but not always.

MSCONFIG provides a way to temporarily disable applications or services that start with Windows from a variety of locations.
System Properties
You can open System Properties by right clicking on My Computer and selecting properties, or from the Windows Control Panel, click on the "System" icon.

To disable a device from Windows Device Manager, right click on My Computer and select "Properties." Select the "Hardware tab" in the System Properties window, and then click on the "Device Manager" button. Near the bottom of the list should be a category for "Universal Serial Bus Controllers." Expand this list to view the devices. Some will be secondary/software/logical devices that will be using the actual hardware device. These may get disabled automatically or disappear when the required component gets disabled or removed. I would look for entries that describe your specific hardware chipset. Right-click on the device and select "Disable." If this is a hardware problem, it's possible that only one controller failed. You might try to disable one device at a time and watch your CPU load during the process. When you install a PCI USB controller, new devices should appear in the list, even if you have the onboard devices disabled. Note: Deleting the device from the list will only disable it until the next device refresh or restart. Deleting causes the device to be uninstalled, but the next time Windows detects new hardware will cause it to be reinstalled using the same drivers. (You would have to identify and delete the hardware drivers and configuration files to prevent automatic reinstallation. Windows would then prompt you to provide the disk, or go search and download the driver again from Windows update if found.)

System Properties
From the System Properties screen, click the "Hardware" tab and then the "Device Manager" button.
Drive Letters
Locate the device in the list. Right click and select "Disable" If you find the correct device, your CPU usage should drop back down to a reasonable level. The device will continue to appear in the device manager list with a red "X" showing it has been disabled. If you delete it, it will be removed, but only until the next hardware refresh.

Eileen from Boston asks: "What is the difference between eSATA, SATA, ATA, IDE hard drives?"

This question comes up regularly, often from people looking to upgrade or replace an existing drive. In terms of the drive itself, there is probably little difference; they all spin a some specified rate, use rigid platters to store data, and have read-write heads that destroy your data if they "crash" into the platter while it's spinning. The difference is in how data is transferred from your computer to the drive electronics. ATA and IDE are interchangeable when describing the parallel interface used for some hard disk or optical disk drives. Data is transferred through multiple wires at the same time in a "parallel" fashion. You are now seeing another variation called PATA indicating the parallel transfer technology. When using the appropriate shielded cable and with system support, IDE drives can transfer data at speeds up to 133 MB/s (megabytes per second). The standard PATA data cables are flat 40 pin ribbon cables, although these may be configured in a colorful round style cable to improve air flow.

PATA Cables
ATA / IDE / PATA cables use a 40-pin connector to transfer data in parallel over multiple data wires. To achieve a 133 MB/s transfer rate requires DMA hardware support, and an 80-conductor cable, where the additional wires are grounded to minimize data interference between the wires.

eSATA and SATA drives use a "serial" method to transfer data. A serial configuration means that your information is sent one bit at a time over a single data wire. However, because the serial transfer speed may be much higher than what a shielded parallel method can approach, the data transfer rate for SATA drives starts at 150 MB/s; the second generation is out with transfer speed of up to 300 MB/s. The "e" in eSATA stands for external. You can add eSATA connections to a system by installing an adapter card in one of the available slots, or, if the system supports it, by running a cable from a system board SATA connector to an eSATA connector on the back of the case. It's important that your system board supports eSATA operation in the BIOS, since eSATA drives are usually "hot swappable." This just means that you can connect and disconnect the drive while the system is running, and it will detect the drive when this occurs.

SATA Cables
SATA (left) and eSATA (right) use fewer wires to transfer data between the system and the drive. Power to the drive is supplied through a second connector on the drive.

Tony from Long Island writes: "I have a flash drive for work that insists it is my G: drive, only problem I have a network server with the G: designation. When I plug in the drive, nothing happens. I can get it to appear by selecting properties on the network server, and then disconnecting it. My flash drive will instantly appear. How can I have it assume the next unused drive letter (In this case, E:)?"

The drive mapping of your physical drives can be changed from the disk management section of the System Management console. You can launch the management console from the Administrator folder in your program list (If you don't have one, this is a checkbox option to be selected in the Start Menu properties. (You usually need to be an administrator to use these -- that's probably why they are called Administrator tools...) You can also get there by right clicking on My Computer and selecting "Manage" from the context menu.

Unless you manually configure the associated drive letter for a device, the sequence will normally be in the order in which the drive was detected or by the type of device. Network drive letters are assigned the first time you "map" the drive by making the connection. The big difference is that network drive mapping is a logical assignment that can override the existing drive letter of a physical drive. As you discovered, if you disconnect from the network share, then your local flash drive is now accessible. (If the flash drive was installed and a letter assigned before the network mapping was made, the network drive should have been assigned to the next available drive letter in the sequence. Unfortunately, we won't always have all the possible devices attached when that event occurs.)

SATA Cables
When you map a network drive, you may notice that the drive letters include any removable drive letters in addition to unassigned drive letters. Only your physical drives will be excluded from the list.

Here's the process you need to follow to change a physical drive letter assignment:

  1. Plug in your flash drive.
  2. Open the management console; I usually just right click on my computer and select "Manage."

  3. Select "Disk Management" in the list on the left.
    Disk Management

  4. Your physical drives should appear in the right window. Right click on the drive and select "Change Drive Letter and Path."
    Drive Context Menu

  5. The current drive assignment is displayed; click the "Change" button.
    Change Drive Letter

  6. Select your new drive letter and click OK to save the changes. You will receive a warning that changing drive paths can cause programs to stop working. That is true if you actually installed an application or have a shortcut pointing to the drive.
    Select Drive Letter

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