Category Archives: Hardware

Upgrades, remedies and a diagnosis

(originally from 5/21/00)
Upgrade Central. I got a steal of a deal on a pair of Antec 300W power supplies, so I did the power supply shuffle this weekend. While I was at it, I also threw in bunches of memory while I had the systems open. My dual 366 runs a lot better now with 320 MB of RAM in it. Never skimp on RAM, especially on dual-CPU systems.

I can’t resist. Microsoft Remedies. Someone sent in some complaints about Outlook, viruses and scripting, which I’d love to post but it takes a lot of effort to do that right now. Suffice it to say, Gary, I think you’re right, but I don’t think Microsoft gives a rip about anything but driving competition, real or imagined, out of business using any means possible. Security and quality be damned. (Notice they’re not exactly falling all over themselves to remedy the performance problems Internet Explorer causes, even though it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to do.)

So, proposed remedies… Put Mehdi Ali and Irving Gould in charge. Who? They’re two guys who knew how to chase short-term profits without stifling innovation. You’re still asking who? Ask any Amiga fan who they are, then duck.

And it’s almost official. I’ve been diagnosed (at least, I have a preliminary diagnosis) with the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome. I don’t know if it’s a matter of psychology, having been hit too many places with reflex hammers, or the Vitamin B6 shocking my system, but whatever it was, I was a mess Saturday.

Expect updates to be brief and less frequent than before for a while. I’ll do my best to answer my mail, but I’m still trying to devise a plan. (I do feel a bit better today, at least I’m using my shift key, unlike yesterday.) And I wrote this much with the two-finger method, rather than touch-typing–I’m a very fast touch-typist when healthy.

Selecting a mass storage medium

Thursday, 5/4/00
CD-RW vs. Zip vs. Superdisk. Mail from India.

I am writing from New Delhi, India.

I read your comments on the site concerning ‘super floppies’. I would be very grateful if you could help me in this matter.

I have been thinking for some time about whether to buy a CDR drive or a ZIP drive. Recently my computer was hit by the CIH virus. Some of my data was lost.

I am a graphic designer as well. Consequently I need to transfer heavy files of an average of 10-15 MB to the printers or to show to my clients. I have been using file splitting softwares of late — but now I feel the need of alternative means of carrying the data for them.

Also some people say that CDRW cannot be read by some CD ROMs. I primarily need the drives for data back-up and transferring 10-15 MB files b/w printers, clients and my office.

Should I be buying an HP CDR or an Iomega 250 MB zip drive ?

I would be extremely helpful, if you could help me in my decision.

Thanking you,

Anshuman Bhargava.

First off, I’m sorry to hear about CIH getting you. We really need to find other ways to amuse 15-year-olds.

You are correct that some CD-ROM drives won’t read CD-RW discs. It’s a sure bet that any drive more than about three years old (pre-1997) won’t. Drives made since 1997 are supposed to be able to read them, but that doesn’t always happen. But with CD-R discs selling for peanuts, at least in the United States, that’s not too much of a concern. I’m usually willing to spend 75 cents on a CD-R I only use once. (I try to think of it as wasting 75 cents, rather than wasting 600 megs when I use a CD-R to transport a 20-meg file. Somehow that seems less wasteful.)

I had a conversation at work about Zips vs. Superdisk vs. CD-R/CD-RW the other day. I have a Zip drive, and I use it exclusively for installing Windows on computers I can’t easily connect a CD-ROM drive to. That’s it. I don’t trust it with any data I value. I’ve just seen too many of them fail. I know graphic designers swear by Zips when they aren’t swearing at them, but I’ve seen too many disks and drives fail. The Superdisk looks good, and Imation is on more solid financial ground than Iomega so I’m much more confident that Imation will be around in 5 years than I am about Iomega, but the LS-120 superdisk is much less common, and its capacity is lower.

If I were in your position, I’d get a CD-RW drive (I like Yamaha and Plextor, though I’ve also used HP, Sony and Philips drives) along with a spindle of CD-Rs and CD-RWs. Once you have a good idea which of your clients can handle CD-RWs and which ones have to use CD-Rs, you’ll be in good shape.

From an archival standpoint, CD-Rs make me a lot less nervous than either Zip or LS-120, because they’re optical rather than magnetic. I have plenty of 15-year-old floppy disks still floating around, but I’m not very confident many of them are still readable. Longevity varies greatly depending on the quality of the media, but you should be able to expect a couple of decades at least from quality CD-R (Kodak, Taiyo Yuden, and Mitsui discs are the safest; Kodak is the easiest of the three to find), plus they’re cheap, plus they can’t be damaged by viruses or user error. I periodically burn everything that matters to me to CD.

I hope this helps.

Identifying the motherboard in a mystery system

Wednesday, 4/26/00
I had to identify the type of memory a system in a remote location uses today. This technique won’t always work as smoothly as it did for me, but it gives you a fighting chance.

Life’s much easier with name-brand systems: go to Crucial, tell it you’ve got a Compaq Presario 660, and it gives you the Crucial/Micron part number. This wasn’t that easy. The system was built by Budget Computers, a clone shop in St. Charles, Mo. So, here’s how I identified it. I had the owner shut down, unplug the keyboard, and power back up. Up pops the dumbest of error messages–“Keyboard not present, press F1 to continue.” The good thing is, the BIOS code is there in plain view. In this case, it was i430VX-W877-2A59GPA9C-00.

I headed to motherboards.org, clicked on Spot (their board search engine), punched in the letters PA, since that’s the manufacturer code for Award BIOSes (they tell you how to extract the code from AMI BIOS strings as well), and found out it was an EPoX board. Good deal. I punched the part number code into their search engine and got a fat goose egg. Hrumph. I headed to EPoX’s site at www.epox.com, and found a list of EPoX BIOS codes in their knowledgebase. Cool. It turns out that i430VX-W877-2A59GPA9C-00 is the code for the EPoX P55-TV. Crucial doesn’t have a parts listing for the P55-TV, but EPoX’s site has the manual online in PDF form. I viewed the manual, and whaddya know, it’s got four SIMM sockets and a DIMM socket, and it supports FPM, EDO, and SDRAM, up to 128 MB. I happen to know that the 430VX chipset doesn’t cache more than 64 MB, so the utility of putting 128 megs in it is questionable (unless you’re going to make a 64 MB RAM disk under Windows 9x). I don’t know if that’s mentioned in the manual or not. I was mostly interested in whether it had DIMM sockets capable of taking SDRAM, because SIMMs are priced like highway robbery these days in comparison.

Head back to Crucial, tell it I want pricing on an SDRAM DIMM, and immediately I know the pricing on 32, 64, and 128 MB modules. Total time invested: 15 minutes.

And I had a college professor try to tell me once that the Internet isn’t a legitimate research tool. Well, legit or not, it gave me all the information I needed in slightly more time than it would have taken for me to disassemble the system and look for myself, assuming I was close enough to the system to actually lay hands on it (I wasn’t).

A freeware (GPL) boot manager

Want to boot multiple versions of Windows 9x, DOS, NT, Linux, and BeOS on the same machine? (Hey, there’s use for that 40-gig drive after all!) Potentially, you can use XOSL to do that. The screenshots look really slick–this could be a System Commander killer.
I’ll have to put a fresh drive in a machine and experiment with it this weekend. Use at your own risk–the version numbers suggest it’s stable, but I only point it out because it sounds interesting, not because I’ve tried it. (I usually try things out before posting links, but this seems too cool to keep to myself, and I’m short of time.)

Overclocking Pentium-75s

I had an overclocking conversation at work today. A coworker wanting to overclock a laptop. I told him I didn’t think that was a good idea. Then this was waiting for me at home:

From: Curtis Horn
Subject: Pentium-75

Hello, I’m one of your readers and I check your view for the tips you sometimes put up. I’m working on a compaq pentium 75 also and maybe you can do what I did. Overclock the chip to 90Mhz. the way I did this is by changing the bus speed to 60Mhz, from 50. this has speed it up significantly I think because the memory is also speed up. You’ll also get a laugh out of this, it’s a Compaq 972 and it has 8MB of memory — ON the Mother board!! I could not believe it. but it’s there. Luckily this leaves 4 simm slots open, so i can add 4 8MB SIMMs. (16MB SIMMs are way to expensive and I have some 8MB laying around and can buy some more for 10$ each) I convinced the person to buy a 5Gig quantum drive, so they have something they can use when they upgrade. Well hope the P75 you’re working on OCs as easily as the one I have here.

Curtis

http://homes.arealcity.com/cis/

Compaq used to put a fair bit of memory on the motherboard itself. My Presario 660 (a 486/66) has 4 MB on the board. There are a couple of Compaqs from the 900 series still floating around at work that have 8 MB on the motherboard as well. But it’s not a common practice anymore, and I don’t recall any other manufacturer who did that regularly–I remember Compaq doing it because I used to sell Compaqs by the truckload and frequently I ended up adding upgrades to them.

Bus speed isn’t nearly as important in the Pentium Pro/II/III/Celeron and AMD Athlon arena, but in Socket 7 and earlier, you’re right, it makes a huge difference. Remember, the bus speed determines the speed at which the CPU can access the memory and the cache, and as the Mendocino Celeron illustrated, cache speed is more important than CPU speed or cache size. In the early days of Tom’s Hardware Guide, Tom Pabst revealed that a Pentium-150 running at 75 MHzx2 outran a Pentium-166, and a Pentium-166 running at 83MHzx2 outran a P200. So what was the point of buying a P200 if you weren’t going to overclock it, right? Ah, the good old days…. This, of course, was one reason Intel decided to start locking CPU multipliers.

The speed of the PCI bus was also tied to the bus speed. A good Pentium-100 could outrun a Pentium-120 because the Pentium-100 had a full 33 MHz PCI bus while the Pentium 120’s PCI bus ran at 30 MHz. The Pentium 75’s PCI bus ran at a pokey 25 MHz. Nobody wants to slow down their video and disk performance by 10 percent, let alone 25 percent.

Overclocking P75s is risky business though. Intel never intended to make a P75. The problem was, they had terrible yields initially on their P90s, but they found a good percentage of the bad chips would run reliably at 75, so they created the P75 and phased out the P60 and P66. (The P66 was actually a better performer because of the bus speed.) The P75 sold like crazy, and Intel wasn’t going to can a best-seller, so once they got over the yield problems, they still marketed P75s. I’ve heard of people going as high as 133 MHz with P75s. I experimented once with a P75 and took it as high as 120 MHz, but couldn’t get 133 (I suspect people getting to that level may have been increasing the voltage). It didn’t run reliably at 120 MHz for long, though I know of people who swear up and down they got 75’s running at that speed reliably with no special tricks.

Overclocking an old chip like that is fine, as long as you’re aware of the risks and willing to live with them. I’d definitely put a heavy-duty CPU fan on it (like a PC Power and Cooling fan for a high-end K6-2). In my case, I’m more interested in having a PC that’s as reliable as possible. Her life’s plenty complicated enough without having and overclocked P75 to deal with.

And we now have better ways to measure overclocking’s effects. Microsoft doesn’t have a dog in this fight but they see the weirdness.

But thanks for the idea, and for the stroll down memory lane, definitely.

Victory over a cantankerous Pentium-75

Yes, the cantankerous Pentium-75 finally realized that resistance is futile, because I have more stamina than most computers. The problems when we started: sound was flaky, CD audio didn’t work, the modem didn’t work, and the system didn’t always boot properly. Once I got my mitts on it, things quickly got worse and the system wouldn’t boot at all except in safe mode, and of course nothing works in safe mode.
After borrowing some hardware from Gatermann (I don’t know where all my AT stuff went but I sure can’t find it) and spending some serious time with it (writing about NFS and flipping back and forth between my writing station and the P75), it works. Very nicely, in fact. It blows away most Pentium-233s I’ve seen. Seriously. It boots in 30 seconds. Word loads in 10-12. That’s hardly a cause for celebration when a system with a K6-2/500 and a modern hard drive boots Windows in 20 seconds and Word 97 in 4, but consider this: This is a 75 MHz Pentium with 256K L2 cache, a SiS 5500 chipset, a mere 32 megs of RAM, a #9 Vision 330 video card (with an S3 764 chipset), an ISA ESS688-based sound card, and a very old 850 MB Maxtor hard disk. Vintage 1995 all around. Cast in that light, this machine kicks some serious butt.

I suspect some of the problems were hardware-related. After reinstalling Windows, I went and grabbed an audio CD (the always-cheerful Still, by Joy Division), dropped it in, and it indicated it was playing. But I didn’t hear anything. So I stopped the CD and checked the hardware. The CD-ROM drive was set up alone on the secondary channel (good), as a slave device (not good). The audio cable looked like it was seated properly but I wasn’t sure. I took the drive out, gave it a once-over, triple-checked all cable connections, and let it go. I powered up, grabbed another CD (Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes this time), and by the time I got the speakers plugged into the right jack, Tori Amos was asking why we always crucify ourselves. I didn’t have an answer to that question, but I had sound. Good. Either this computer doesn’t like Joy Division, or what I did fixed it.

I did a few more tweaks (OK, a lot more tweaks, because I’m a bloody perfectionist) and soon I had an overachieving P75 sitting atop the now-infamous Tower of Power. I think I’m going to keep an eye on it for one more day, then deliver it.

There are a large number of P233s at work that won’t launch Word in 10 seconds, and they certainly won’t boot Windows in 30.

So, the owner should be happy with it. I’m pretty happy with it. And I’m very glad to have some tangible numbers about what’s possible with the tricks in my book.

If this Pentium-75 is putting your system to shame, you can put an end to that.

Finishing touches: I let RAM Stress Test, by Ultra-X (trust me, you want to go to www.ultra-x.com, not any of the similar addresses–BIG mistake) run for about 20 hours straight. After 100 cycles without a failure, I restarted, booted into Windows, installed Juno (yuck), cleaned up the network settings, then installed Netscape and defragged the drive. The system is still pretty darn fast for what it is.

And, having run RAM Stress Test on the memory (it has commodity memory in it), I have reasonable confidence in the memory, and thanks to SpinRite, I have the utmost confidence in the drive (a Maxtor).

Refurbishing a Pentium-75

Remember that Pentium-75 I worked on a couple weeks ago? It’s back. I love problem-child PCs. Not. But its owner couldn’t be nicer about it, so that makes it better to deal with. This time I’m doing what I should have done in the first place: clean reinstalling Win95 with a minimalist setup. It works so much better that way.
She’s really funny about it. I guess she’s been driving around with it in the trunk of her car since Friday, so it’s been a few places, like the park. Taking the computer to the park for some fresh air… I guess it couldn’t hurt, though I can’t say I’ve ever tried that. “Not the way I drive,” she said. I see…

I’d better see if I can get some stuff written, and maybe put the computer up on the bench and see what I can get it to tell me.

Later:

Whooee! Talk about one sick puppy! I dredged up the motivation to pop that computer up on the bench (so to speak–I’ve got a real Tower of Power going here now, with three minitowers stacked on top of one another, cascading off a KVM switch–I do wish I had a digital camera right about now so you could see). Well, I fire up, and Windows takes a week to load (warning sign #1: this computer may be old, but it’s not a 486SX/25). When that annoying Windows screen finally goes away, I get a Windows protection error while initializing device VAUDRV. Obviously some kind of audio driver. Veree strenge, as Chief Inspector Clouseau would say. (I find myself wanting to type grep -r vaudrv * to hunt down that file, which just indicates I’ve been getting way too much Linux time lately.) I boot in safe mode, nuke the audio drivers, reboot, and…. same error. Let’s look around a bit more. The root directory is littered with stuff that doesn’t need to be there, but nothing causing problems. I see multiple installations of the sound drivers, which isn’t helping but shouldn’t hurt–they’re in separate directories. I see a directory with a weird name, but that turns out to be DOS-mode CD-ROM drivers. A quick scan of autoexec.bat/config.sys reveals they’re not active, so they’re out of mind, if not totally out of sight. Then I notice the disk space: 390 megs free. What’s she been doing? A quick dir /w /s reveals 406 MB used. No way. Scandisk. No problems. Huh? So I run FDISK and… learn that this computer thinks it has an 813 MB drive. What? I reboot, go into the BIOS, and autodetect the drive. No, it’s a 1.6 gig. OK. Reboot, go into DOS, and… 813 MB.

I’m starting to wonder how many problems that’s causing.

A dir /s *.doc turns up very little, so it doesn’t look like she has any data on the machine. I’m thinking visit Maxtor’s site, get a low-level format utility for the drive to wipe out whatever Windows decided to do to that poor drive’s partition table, and start over. But I’ll have to ask before I do that, just in case.

Hey, I wonder if SpinRite would have anything to say about all this? So I run SpinRite. The model number it retrieves from the drive suggests it’s an 850-meg drive. Hmm. Maybe I misread the BIOS? Might as well let SpinRite finish at this point. It thinks it’ll only take a couple of hours on a drive this size. I can go read, or switch over to one of my other PCs and write for a while.

I still think I want to low-level format and start over from scratch. We’ll see if I can get this P75 to outrun the P233s at work. I’m betting I can. (Part of it is that I’m good, yes, but a big part of it is the sorry state of those P233s.) I’m gonna whip this underachieving heap of silicon into shape.

Still later:

I was misreading the drive parameters last night. I’m not used to working with machines with the AMI BIOS. It was reporting the number of sectors where I expected to see the drive size, hence the 850 MB/1.6 GB confusion. So I haven’t found something totally out of the ordinary after all.