| I try to support the community by always buying preinstalled, and my only real problem is trying to find a vendor who knows what they are doing (cheaper than Dell et al). Usually the way things have been installed can be figured out from the /etc files, and actually most times the install is pretty standard.
I bought a PIA too, in June 2000. I had to do 2 or 3 returns, obviously a low-quality operation. However, I did get it working after a few months. I wiped it and reinstalled fairly early, so I don’t remember all the details, but here goes.
First of all, the machine was shipped with Corel Linux, which is Debian-based, not Debian. So it’s not too surprising that a simple apt-get broke it. I think you might find some advice about upgrading in place to Debian, try a search engine. As I said, I simply started with a fresh Debian install and copied over the bits like WordPerfect that are in Corel but not Debian. I don’t think anything custom was written for the PIA, other than setting it up with the right config files.
Do you still have any kind of backup of the original install? You can figure out most of how things were installed by poking around in /etc. If not, this is most of the configuration (from memory). The modem is a standard non-Winmodem. The IRQ can be figured out from the BIOS since they set up all the IRQs to be used by the PCI bus except for the modem one. The sound chip is an Ensoniq 1371 I think. The graphics chip is a Cirrus Logic which XF86_SVGA supports (I believe the exact chip number is mentioned in the motherboard manual). I think X -probeonly will detect it.
The rest of the system is pretty standard.