Hardware developments

Hardware news. Lots of stuff today. We’ll take it one at a time.
AMD to hit 1.5 GHz by January. Intel intends to release a 1.5 GHz P4 in late November/early December. AMD’s a bit behind that (assuming Intel will deliver, which they’ve been having difficulty doing lately), but the 1 GHz Athlon performs similarly to a 1.4 GHz P4. Good news for us, bad news for Intel. AMD intends to release a 1.2 GHz Athlon within a month, along with an 800 MHz Duron.

In related news, the AMD 760 chipset (the SMP-enabled one) will be released this year.

The P4 problems are related to the use of PCI graphics cards and Intel has reportedly fixed the problem. Although allowing much higher clock rates, the P4 is less efficient than the P3, so a 1.4 GHz P4 is expected to give comparable performance to a 1 GHz P3. It won’t be until Intel hits 1.5 GHz and higher that the new architecture will give any performance advantage over what’s available now. Not that you can find a 1 GHz P3…

Memory prices are down. If you’re looking to buy, this is a good time. You never know when they’ll rise again, or fall for that matter.

Maxtor buys Quantum. In a consolidation of disk manufacturers, Maxtor bought the disk manufacturing wing of Quantum for $2 billion, making Maxtor the world’s biggest disk manufacturer. Quantum’s tape operations will be spun off into a new company, to be named Quantum.

Mail on modems

From: al wynn
Subject: External 56K modems

What do you think is the best external 56K modem in the market ?


The best external 56K modems on the market are the 3Com/US Robotics Courier and the Zoom/Hayes Optima series, but they’re extremely pricey. The 3Com/US Robotics Sportsters and the Zoom/Hayes Accuras are nearly as good, cost about half as much, and are much easier to find. I don’t even look at other brands of modems; I stick with the big two (and give the edge to US Robotics).

Modems, voice recognition and video cards

More NaturallySpeaking adventures. You must all the thinking now that my life consists of church brochures and NaturallySpeaking. That’s just about right. I work for hours on the church brochure, and then I come home and play with NaturallySpeaking.
I found a nifty menu option last night called analyze documents. Basically he conceded text files, word processing files, HTML, or almost anything else that contains text. Luckily for me, I save just about everything I write. Not so luckily for NaturallySpeaking, that amounted to 2.8 MB dating back to about 1994. So, NaturallySpeaking has now read more of my stuff than even my mother. So it now has peculiar insights into what words I am likely to use. This seems to help accuracy some, but it is no substitute for use.

I found myself impressed with it at first, and I still think it can be usable, given the right equipment, but this definitely is not Star Trek. I think we can get used to each other and become a productive team, but I find NaturallySpeaking is not the most appropriate word. It definitely works best when I speak in a pretty unnatural voice.

On a more positive note, it doesn’t seem to be affecting my word choices too badly. Dave still sounds like Dave, and to me at least, that’s a good thing.


From: “al wynn”
Subject: Are there any ISA graphics cards with 4 MB or 8 MB of memory on them ?

I am looking for the fastest ISA graphics card on the market. Do you know which ones have 4 MB or 8 MB of memory on them ?

I have a SIIG SuperVGA Pro ISA graphics card (model VV-VNE212), but it has only 2 MB of memory, and max out at (1280 x 1024 x 256 colors) resolution.

I want to upgrade, and I am searching for the fastest/highest resolution ISA graphics card out there.


Maybe one of my readers knows of one, but it’s been years since I’ve seen an ISA graphics card that even remotely resembled something worth having. There’s just not much of a market for ISA graphics cards, because the ISA bus is such a terrible bottleneck.

When I have seen them, they’ve been really pricey–$70 for a 2-meg card with an underwhelming Cirrus chipset. You’re probably better off replacing the system, if you want my opinion (not that you asked for it–but who does?). I’ve seen 32-meg TNT2-based AGP cards for $80, and that’s a far, far better card. You’d be looking at having to get a new CPU and memory, in all likelihood, in order to use an AGP video card (because it sounds like you’re upgrading an old 486), but just as an example, you can get an FIC VA-503+ motherboard with a 500 MHz K6-2 processor for about $130. A 64-meg DIMM is about $60. That TNT2 card is $80. (I’m getting all these prices off mwave.com). You’re looking at $300 after shipping, but you’ll have a far better system in the end. Replacing your ISA card with something better (if there is anything better available) will cost close to 1/3 of that.


From: Mark Bridgers
Subject: Voice Recognition
I’m following your voice recognition trials with great interest. We have a key phrase to test it — “Recognize Speech”. It usually comes out as “Wreck a nice beach”. If your combination can get that one right, we’ll try it for some of our products.

Thanks for keeping up the site. Its great to have you back.

Mark Bridgers


I am dictating this message. Here’s your acid test: recognize speech.
How’s that?

From: “al wynn”

Subject: 16550 UART questions.

I am running Win95, have an external 28.8K IBM data/fax modem (model 7852 010 v.34, attached to COM2, Interrupt 3, Adress 2F8), and an internal SIIG 1132+ I/O controller card (with two 16550 UART serial ports, 1 ECP/EPP parallel port).

When I click on MyComputer/Modems/Diagnostics/MoreInfo, it shows my UART as 8250, not 16550. Do you know why ? Is the UART something on my controller card only, or my modem also has its own UART ? Do I need to upgrade my modem ?

Also, do you know any ISA I/O controller card that has an 16650 UART on it ? (Manufacturer and model number)


The UART is on the controller card itself, rather than on the modem (in the case of externals). I know DOS and Windows can’t tell a difference between an 8250 and a 16450; now that I think about it some more there may have been cases of certain 550s misreporting themselves but I don’t know any specifics. The 550 is frequently integrated into other chips these days, but it might be worth cracking the case and looking–usually, the UART is a big 40-pin chip that sticks out like a sore thumb and it’s frequently socketed. If it says 16450 on it, or, even worse, 8250, you know you’ve been ripped off. If all you find is a small chip with a ton of tiny solder connections made by Winbond or ALi (I can’t think of who else makes I/O chipsets these days, sorry), chances are you do have a 16550.

Just for grins: Do both of your serial ports report themselves as 8250s?

A 16650 is overkill for a 28.8 modem, but if you think you’ll upgrade (or need the 650 for another system), the only ISA 650 card I know of is the SIIG JJ-A04121. The UPC on it is 0662774018614 if that helps. Unfortunately, it’s about as expensive as the external modem you’ll connect to it ($120 retail; mwave.com has it for $78), and it’s big-time overkill because it’s a 4-port card. I know there are other cards available, but that’s the only card I’ve run across.

Sounds cards, hard drives, and initial dual G4 impressions

The underwhelming dual G4. I had a conversation Tuesday with someone who was thinking about ditching his PII to get a dual G4 because he thought it would be faster. I guess he thought if he got VirtualPC or SoftWindows, a dual G4/500 would run like a dual PIII/500 or something, plus give him access to all the Mac software. Nice try.
I’m sure one of these dual G4s would make an outstanding Linux box, but the loss of binary compatibility with all the x86 software is something. Sure you can recompile, but there are those instances where that isn’t an option. And under Mac OS 9, that second CPU sits idle most of the time. Photoshop and a couple of other apps use it, but the OS doesn’t–certainly not to the extent that Windows NT or a Unix variant will use a second CPU.

I’m also very disappointed with the hardware. The dual G4 I’m setting up right now has a 124-watt power supply in it. Yes, 124 watts! Now, the PPC chips use less power than an Intel or AMD CPU, and the G4 uses a microATX-like architecture, but they know full well that graphics professionals are going to buy these things and stick four internal hard drives, a Zip, a DVD-RAM, and a gigabyte of RAM inside. Do that, and you don’t have much punch left to power such “non-essentials” as the video card, extra disk controller, and CPUs… This will cause problems down the line. It would seem they’re paying for the extra CPU without increasing the price dramatically by cutting corners elsewhere.

The G4 remains an excellent example of marketing. IBM could invent sushi, but they’d market it as raw, dead fish (which is why they’ve become a non-contender in the PC arena that they created, with the possible exception of the ThinkPad line) while Apple continues to sell sand in the desert. Remarkable.

AMD pricing. The Duron-600 is a great buy right now; according to Sharky Extreme’s CPU pricing, it’s as low as $51. My motherboard vendor of choice, mwave.com, has the Duron-600 with a Gigabyte 7ZX-1 and fan for $191. Outstanding deal. I’d get a PC Power and Cooling fan for it to replace whatever cheapie they’re bundling.

I prefer Asus motherboards to everything else, but the performance difference between the Gigabyte and Asus offerings is really close (Asus wins some benchmarks by a hair, Gigabyte wins others, with Asus being a bit better overall but we’re talking differences of under 1-4 percent, barely noticeable). The Gigabyte boards cost about $30 less than the Asus. I’m thinking if I were getting a Duron for a value system, I’d go Gigabyte; if I were looking for a Thunderbird-based performance system, I’d go Asus.

I plan to see how Naturally Speaking fares on my Celeron; if it’s not quick enough for me I’ll probably retire my trusty K6-2/350 and replace the board with a Duron or Thunderbird.

Voice recognition. I got my Andrea ANC-600 mic on Monday. Since Naturally Speaking and the SB Live! card hadn’t even shipped yet, I went ahead and put the ANC-600 on my Celeron-400 (still equipped with an ESS sound card) and fired up ViaVoice. The ANC-600 eliminated the background noise and increased accuracy noticeably. ViaVoice still tended to mess up a word per sentence, but at least it was in the neighborhood (it had real problems with past/present tense) and its speed was a little better, though it still tended to drag behind me. The SB Live! should help that; as should the newer software’s reliance on newer processor architecture (ViaVoice 97 was designed with the Pentium-MMX in mind, rather than the PII/Celeron or something newer). I await Naturally Speaking’s arrival with much, much greater confidence now.

From: Dan Bowman

Maxtor HDDs

And the CompUSA down the street always has a good deal on them…

This week, Office Depot is selling Maxtor 15gig drives for $99. That’s a “Warlock’s Mirror” for a little over $200 with tax.




Western Digital hard drives

Apparently it’s possible right now to get WD hard drives dirt cheap at certain warehouse clubs in St. Louis. How cheap? One person wrote in and told me $30 after rebates for a 10-gig drive. He asked me what I thought of the deal. It’s a great price, sure. My problem is, if I bought one, I’d be tempted to actually use it.
I’m very down on Western Digital. At my previous employer, we had about 600 PCs, with a variety of drives: a small number of Seagates, and roughly equal representation of IBM, Maxtor, Western Digital, and Quantum. We had maybe a drive a month go bad on us (ours was an aging fleet). I saw about as many Western Digitals go bad as all the rest–combined. I’ll buy an IBM, Maxtor, or Quantum drive without flinching, but I stay away from WD.

At my current employer, we have fewer problems (newer equipment), but I still see about as many WDs go down as anything else. Here we have mostly WD, Samsung, IBM, and Seagate drives, since that’s what Micron tends to use. Again, I see about as many WDs go as all the others. The last WD to go out happened when I took a half-dozen PCs to a convention in New Orleans. It was the middle of registration, with tired travelers all around, and the machine kept locking up. Finally, one time the drive just didn’t come back. I located a computer store, paid an outrageous price for a drive (unfortunately, another WD because it was all they had), and managed to get the drive in with only a couple hours’ downtime. But after failing me when I most needed dependability, I vowed to never buy another WD. Whenever I spec a drive for work, I get a Maxtor. I find them more reliable, faster, and they’re just as easy to find as WDs. And the CompUSA down the street always has a good deal on them.

Voice recognition

Voice recognition. The great David Pogue e-mailed me over the weekend, at Tim O’Reilly’s urging, to talk a little about Dragon Naturally Speaking, which he says is better than ViaVoice. He says he gets about 110 wpm out of it.
So I did a ton of research to see what kind of hardware you want for Naturally Speaking. Consensus seems to be the SoundBlaster Live! Platinum is what you want (retail $199), plus a noise-reducing condenser mic, which can be had for around $75, and as much CPU power as you can muster. David’s had good success with a PII-300, so my Celeron-400, refitted with the SB Live! and a good mic, ought to be OK. If it turns out to be inadequate, the AMD Duron-600 is dirt cheap and suitable mobos are finally widely available.

With a good mic and a sound card with clean audio inputs, many people claim 95-97 percent accuracy out of the box, climbing to 99 percent accuracy within 1-2 weeks of heavy use. We’ll see. I’m still skeptical, but willing to take the risk. As I told David, sound cards and microphones are cheaper than wrists.

If you’re interested in taking the plunge, wait. Naturally Speaking 5.0’s release is imminent. Don’t race out to buy v4 only to find v5 on your next office supply run.

Attention, bargain hunters: The SB Live! Platinum, SB Live! MP3+, and SB Live! Gamer are all the same card. Avoid the SB Live! Value (now discontinued), as it used a different chip. The difference between the three remaining cards, besides the bundled software, is the 5.25″ bay insert that replicates all the jacks and puts them up front. I like that, so that’s the direction I’ll go. That insert costs as much as the card, however, so if you need a high-end sound card but don’t want to pay $200 for it, get one of the other cards in the SB Live! series.

You can upgrade later by adding an insert, but you’re looking at $150 to do it.

eMachine upgrade advice

I got some mail some time back about eMachine upgrades that I never got around to posting. I’ll just summarize because that’s easier (it keeps me off the mouse).
First off, definitely look into a new hard drive. You can pick up a 7200-rpm drive of decent size (10-15 gig) for under $100 these days. I’ve had trouble getting Western Digital drives to work with older disk controllers, but no problems with Maxtors, and I get better performance and reliability from Maxtors anyway.

Next, eMachines tend to have problems with their power supplies. Get a replacement from PC Power & Cooling. It’s $45. Cheap insurance. And chances are the hard drive will perform better, since the PCP&C box will actually be supplying the wattage it claims to supply (which may or may not be true of the factory box). And remember: low-cost PCs have always had skimpy power supplies. Commodore and Atari made great low-cost computers 20 years ago, but they had horrendous power supplies. Given a properly made third-party power supply, a Commodore or Atari could run for 10-15 years or more (and often did).

Finally, get 128 megs of RAM in the system somehow. If you’ve got 32, just go buy a 128-meg stick. If you’ve got 64, get a 64-meg stick or, if you can afford it, get a 128.

Since eMachines have pretty wimpy integrated video, you might also look into a PCI video card with a Matrox, nVidia or 3Dfx chipset. Matrox gives slightly better 2D display quality, while nVidia and 3Dfx give better speed with 3D games. If you’re into gaming, definitely look into a new card.

That’s the strategy I follow with any upgrade. Get a modern disk in there, then get more memory, and replace anything else that seems underpowered. Do the disk first, then deal with memory, then possibly the video. Then, and only then, do I start looking at CPU upgrades. I’ve turned 200-MHz junkers into very useful machines again just by adding memory and a fast disk. The CPU isn’t the bottleneck in most systems.

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).