HP Compaq 6910p upgrades

I spent some time exploring HP Compaq 6910p upgrades because used HP Compaq 6910p laptops are dirt cheap these days. I picked one up for $75 as an alternative to a Black Friday cheapie.

If you look for one yourself, either look for one with a valid Windows 7 or Windows 10 license on it, or get one at a deep enough discount to make it worth your while.

Here’s what I did to turn an outmoded laptop from 2008 into something better than what I could have bought on Black Friday.

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How to save money on tech

CNN offered up some good tips on saving money on tech. But of course I want to analyze and comment on it myself. Anything else would be out of character. Here’s how I save money on tech.

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An Amazon shopping trick

I alluded to this the other day, but some people might find it worth mentioning in its own right. As most people know, Amazon offers free shipping on orders over $25. And if you’re buying something small, shipping can end up being a large chunk of the total bill.

So when buying something sold directly by Amazon or fulfilled by Amazon, you can save the shipping by building a shopping list, if you can put off the purchase a little while.

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Dvorak: The future of retail is search

This week in PC Magazine, John C Dvorak said the future of retail is search. He’s right.

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Buying that Nook was more work than it needed to be

I drove to the Kmart the 90s forgot–on Manchester Avenue in St. Louis, if it matters–in search of a $70 Nook Simple Touch. I found it in the electronics section, in the very back of the store, in a glass case with a bunch of obsolete stuff. If you need VHS tapes, I know your place.

The price was wrong. That was a bad sign, but I waited until the clerk wasn’t busy.

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Is that price a good deal or not?

So you’re shopping online, and want to know if you’re getting a good deal on something. It’s pretty easy to shop around, and check multiple web sites to see how they’re pricing an item. But sometimes prices change over time, and wouldn’t it be nice to know if pricing on the item is relatively stable, or if it’s something that frequently goes on sale for less?

Enter the Camelizer.
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A bargain SSD for the masses

I spotted a bargain SSD: The Kingston SSDNow V+100 96 GB  is available at Amazon for $130. (It’s available other places for about the same price, but with Amazon’s free shipping, it’s probably cheaper there.) It uses a Toshiba controller that (by some accounts) lacks NCQ, but other than that, it’s a modern controller, and it has a good track record, having been the controller Apple used in its Macbook Air.
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How to make a really nice $500 computer

Steve Jobs: “We don’t
know how to make a $500 computer that’s not a piece of junk.”

Steve Jobs is either lying or lazy. I’m guessing he just doesn’t want to play in that space. Of course, you probably
already knew that.

Here’s how to make a really, really nice $500 computer. All prices are
from Newegg.Intel Atom 330 motherboard/CPU combo: $82
Kingston or Crucial 2 GB DIMM: $20
OCZ Vertex 30 GB SSD: $129
2.5″-3.5″ HDD adapter: $19
Lite-on 22X SATA DVD burner: $23
Foxconn MicroATX case with 300W power supply: $40
Windows XP Home OEM $90

So there you have it. $403 before shipping. You still need a keyboard
and mouse, but there should be enough after shipping to get something,
assuming you don’t already have one. While this system won’t burn the
house down, the dual-core Atoms are surprisingly quick and more than
adequate unless you’re heavily into gaming or media production. But if
you’re into those things you aren’t in the market for a $500 computer
anyway.

The Intel board is unglamorous but very dependable. It also draws very
little power and runs very quietly. It’s great for word processing and
e-mail, adequate for multimedia, and it’ll play non-3D games just
fine. Other companies are making Atom boards, but I’d stick with Intel this time. ECS doesn’t have a history of producing top-quality boards, and I’ve never heard of the outfit making the other Atom boards Newegg sells. Plus, I think the non-Intel boards have Atom 230 (single-core) CPUs in them. It’s worth paying the extra $15-$20 to get that second core.

The SSD will make this computer outperform many more expensive
computers. But more importantly, it won’t crash. Anyone who’s gotten an
untimely phone call from a relative wondering why the computer won’t
start up and where all those digital pictures went will appreciate that.
A conventional hard drive would cost as little as $40 and gives more
space, but 30 gigs will last a while with a casual user. And the lack of
disk crashes is probably worth the extra money. Between the SSD and the
Intel board, the system will be very quiet, which is probably worth
something. In this era of PCs that sound like wind tunnels, you don’t
really appreciate whisper-quiet PCs until you have one.

The memory probably isn’t totally critical, but when you can get Kingston or Crucial for 20 bucks, it makes sense to do it. They’ve both been around forever and have a long history of making quality memory. There’s no reason to put anything other than a 2-gig stick in this board’s single DIMM slot. The system will take 2 gigs, and 2 gigs is cheap.

The rest of the parts are nothing special. Lite-on makes reasonably good
optical drives and has been for some time now, but if something else happens to be on sale for under $20,
or something else happens to be available with free shipping, that’s fine. You
won’t lose anything by using it. Foxconn cases look reasonably
professional without costing a lot of money, and their power supplies
are decent enough. An Atom board with an SSD won’t tax any power supply very hard anyway. You can buy a
cheaper case if you want, but be sure to read the reviews. Some cheap
cases are made of really light-gauge metal and are prone to cut you.
I’ve never had that problem with Foxconns.

The other trick with cases is to watch shipping prices. For whatever
reason, Newegg charges more to ship some cases than others, so it could
very well be worth your while to look at cases that cost $5-$10 more.
Shipping could actually make them cheaper.

You can get the proper mini-ITX case for boards like this, but you’ll pay more for it. Unless you need the really small form factor, it makes sense to just use a cheap and common micro-ATX case. The bonus is that you get some expansion space if you want to add another optical drive, card readers for your digital camera memory, or stuff like that.

And XP Home is XP Home. Vista may run on this system with 2 GB of RAM
and an SSD, but seriously, does Vista do anything that XP doesn’t?
Especially Vista Home vs. XP Home? I’ll stick with the old reliable. I
happen to know from experience that XP Home runs very nicely on a system
with 2 GB of RAM and an SSD.

This particular system will perform nicely, will be extremely reliable
(it wouldn’t surprise me if it still functioned perfectly fine 5 or 10
years from now), and depending on the case, can be easy on the eyes. And
if you want to get swanky, you can skip the cheap case, get an $80
Lian-Li and a separate sale power supply, and have a great-looking PC
while still staying south of $600.

Any way you do it, this system will cost more than a $399 mass-market PC. But I think it’s more than worth the $50-$70 premium.

03/06/2001

Inexpensive PCs. I want to post something useful before I handle the issue of the day. So here goes.

A longtime friend wrote in wanting some advice on buying an affordable PC. Yesterday’s build-your-own route using closeout components and a Saturday afternoon isn’t realistic for the person he was asking for. (Undoubtedly the issue came up in conversation because he’s pretty computer-savvy, and he said, “Well, my son knows an awful lot about this stuff, and a friend of his writes computer books, so let me see what they have to say.”)

So, what to do when it’s not practical to build your own?

Do the same thing my mom and aunt do and my grandmother used to do when they’re buying anything. Shop around. I still have nightmares in which my aunt exclaims, 10 hours into a shopping marathon, “I’m looking for bargains!” Some of it rubbed off on me. Some. NOT A LOT! (I know, I know, denial’s the first symptom.)

Anyway. Shop around. Not at Best Bait-n-Switch and Circuit Vulgar-Adjective-that-Rhymes-with-City. You don’t want consumer-grade HP Pavilion and Compaq Presario junk. And you definitely don’t want slimy salespeople who know more about sales commissions than they know about computers. (I know, Best Bait-n-Switch salespeople aren’t commissioned, but their managers get monthly bonuses based on sales, so you’d better believe they’re putting the screws to the salespeople.) Avoid the salespeople. Use the Internet. I routinely find great deals at a wide variety of places: www.insight.com , www.onvia.com , www.outpost.com , www.pczone.com , www.cdw.com are all reputable. And a lot of times you even get free shipping from Onvia and Outpost.

Just to prove my point, I went to Insight, the first place I thought of. I found a Compaq Deskpro Celeron-500 with decent specs (64 megs of RAM, I forget what sized hard drive, and Windows 98) for $450. So you get the quality Compaq reserves for big corporate clients for an eMachine price. Very nice. That leaves a monitor. I know this person’s working on a tight budget and $450 may already be pushing it. I find some bottom-feeder 15″ monitors for $119. Then I spy a 15″ NEC monitor for $150. I’ve got a six-year-old NEC monitor that’s still going strong. And last year I threw away an NEC monitor built in 1988 that finally died after about 12 years, much of it hard use. NEC quality is definitely worth $30 extra.

Now, does NEC give you the same quality on their entry-level monitors today as on my older monitors that were top-drawer when they were built? Probably not. But they’re certainly better than Proview, and better than most monitors PC makers relabel. And while Compaq does some things that drive me up the wall, I’ll take a Deskpro over absolutely anything I can buy at a consumer electronics or office supply store. Heck, I’ll take a used Deskpro over any new consumer-grade PC.

So there you go: quality worthy of corporate use, for 600 lousy bucks.

I can’t always find a steal of a deal at Insight, but I can usually find something good at one of those five places.

So shop around, and when you find a price you’re willing to pay, ask a knowledgeable friend about it just to make sure. It’s not just people who build PCs in their basements for fun who get all the good deals.

Subscriptions. I was going to say something about this trend then I decided I’d wait until someone brought it up. Yesterday, two people did. I’m not too surprised; ever since Gun-Bob Sweatpants went the subscriber route, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in my traffic.

I currently have no plans to adopt a subscription model.

For me, it’s an easy question. If I were to go to that model, 20 people would subscribe. Then, for less than I get for publishing a typical magazine article, I’d be committed to produce quality content on a regular basis for a year. Bad move.

But let’s say 600 people subscribed. At, say, $25 a year, that amounts to 15 grand. That’s a decent chunk of change. But once again, I’d be committed to produce quality content on a regular basis, I wouldn’t feel as free to experiment, and if I had to take a week off–or, heaven forbid, a few months off like last year–it would be very, very bad.

And besides, when people pay money, you feel worse about hacking them off because they have ownership. Take last month’s gun debate as an example. I killed off that topic because I found it boring and I suspected other people did too. After I started writing about computers again, readership climbed back to pre-gun levels. But what if that discussion had involved my five or six longest-time subscribers? Would I have been able to kill off the topic? I don’t know. I can hack off those five and risk losing five subscribers, or humor them and risk losing a few hundred subscribers. Somehow, when there’s no money involved, it’s easier to take those kinds of risks. The best way for a writer to grow is to take risks, and no publisher’s going to pay me to take risks.

Now let’s look at this another way. When I started out, I had about 25 readers. Soon I had 200. Soon after that I had to take my extended sabbatical to let my wrists heal. Within a month or so of coming back, I had about 175 readers and I stayed flat. I started working hard to promote the site, and pushed that to 400. I stopped promoting, and it dropped slightly. Now, it looks like I have about 600 readers.

Now, 600 subscribers, at $25 apiece, would net me 15 Gs. But if I keep my content free, I have every reason to believe that within six months I’d have 1,000 readers or maybe even 1,500. That gives me more leverage when I  write professionally. The first question any editor asks is, “Can you write?” I can say yes. But what if I say, “Well, I write a daily essay on whatever I feel like, and 1,500 people around the world read it.” Isn’t that a much better answer?

Can I (or my agent) use my daily readership as leverage when negotiating writing deals? You bet. Can I get more than $15,000 worth of benefit from that? Not this year. But if I get one magazine article or book chapter because of this site’s impact, I make more than I’d make under a subscription model. (Which will net me even more readers, and more clout. See the vicious circle?) But that’s a moot point anyway, because there’s no way anyone’s gonna pay 15 grand to listen to me spout off every day. Not this year. And not next year either.

I also realize that people’s needs change. Yes, I paid to subscribe to Jerry Pournelle’s site, because for a while, his site was absolutely invaluable to me. But over time his content changed, and my needs changed. I visit his site a couple times a month now. But I used to visit a couple times a day. When I visit, I don’t learn nearly as much as I used to, at least not about computers. Part of that’s because my needs have changed. And part of it’s because in the time since then, I’ve spent some 6,500 hours being paid to work on computers and I’ve written a computer book, a half-dozen articles for publication, half a book manuscript no one will ever see, done a tech review for someone else’s book, and reviewed three chapters of still another person’s book before it was published. I guess you could say I outgrew him.

And I fully expect a good percentage of my readers to outgrow me. Hopefully they’ll still find some reason to visit anyway, if my content remains free.

Besides, I get my Web hosting and most of my promotion for free. Is it right for me to charge people under that model? I don’t really think it is. I can remedy that, but frankly, for a while I even felt a little guilty using this site to promote my book. Then I decided that me promoting the book gives me credibility, which lends credence to Dave Winer’s saying a large number of professional journalists and authors use Manilla, which lets him sell more Manilla and make money, so he benefits and I benefit. So I no longer have a problem with that.

If my content really is worth something to you, there are a couple of things you can do. You can buy my book. I benefit monetarily from that, and book sales give me clout just like Web readership does. Some people even buy my book and give it to people for Christmas and birthday presents. That may be going a bit overboard but I appreciate it. And if you buy the book from my link on this site, I get a kickback from Amazon in addition to my royalty from O’Reilly.

Now maybe you’ve already bought my book and you’ve given copies to everyone you know and a few people you don’t (thanks). Or maybe you’ve read the reviews, read the sample chapters, decided my book’s not for you, but you like the things I write about here (thanks). If you want to give something, then the next time you’re planning to buy a book or a CD or software, click on my Amazon link and buy it. I get a small kickback.

So when people do that, I get a few bucks every quarter. And it doesn’t cost my readers much of anything–they’re just buying stuff they probably would have bought anyway. And it’s anonymous, so I get most, if not all the benefits of subscription without any imagined pressure. Everyone benefits.

Now, what about the subscriptions and members that Manilla speaks of? That’s just signing up for e-mail updates and the right to directly post responses to the things I post here. There’s no cost involved, and what gets e-mailed out are my daily posts. Granted, they differ slightly sometimes from what stays here because sometimes I go back and edit the content slightly. Subscribers and non-subscribers basically get the same benefits.

03/04/2001

PC building sanity check. I’m getting really tired of reading hardware forums because I keep seeing the same awful advice over and over again. One of the fairly big vendors, I forget who, is offering 128-meg DIMMs from some outfit called Zeus Components for $25, and 256-meg DIMMs for $57. One person who bought this wrote in talking about how it was a no-name PCB with no-name chips on it (a sure bad sign if there ever was one) and how great it is.

Reality check: Why would anyone spend good money on decent components, then cripple them by putting bottom-feeder memory on it? Stability will go down the toilet. Performance won’t be as good as it could be–memory performance is overrated, yes, but so is CPU performance and the same people who cry about how miniscule the gains from using quality memory are often the same ones who waste a weekend by trying to milk an extra 25 MHz out of their CPUs. Getting memory that runs at CAS2 instead of CAS3 makes about as much difference as that extra 25 MHz does, and it won’t burn out your system prematurely either.

Let’s consider all of this, and use numbers to back them up. I just priced a Gigabyte 7ZX-1 motherboard with a 700 MHz Duron CPU. This is the slowest, cheapest Duron that’s still available everywhere. Price, including fan: 165 bucks. The motherboard is respected as a stable board, priced nicely, and includes Creative audio onboard. A decent Enlight midtower case that won’t slice you up and a 300W power supply is $62. A 32-meg Guillemot GeForce256 card–not state of the art, but for mid-range gaming and anything I do, it’s drastic overkill–is $80. So you’ve got a foundation for a system that was absolutely unbelievable just 18 months ago, for 300 bucks.

Considering what you get for $300, I think you can afford to put something other than $25 128-meg DIMMs in them. Save those for some other sucker.

The same vendor had 256-meg CAS2 PC133 Corsair DIMMs for $129. Corsair’s not my first choice and Crucial is offering free shipping right now. A Crucial 256-meg CAS2 PC133 DIMM is $96. The highly regarded Mushkin high-performance DIMMs (latency of 2 all around, so they’re great if your motherboard allows you to adjust all your memory timings but admittedly they’d be overkill on some of the boards I have) are $150.

So we’re at $396 for an awfully nice PC that just lacks storage. CD, DVD, and floppy drives are pretty much commodity items these days. Buy Plextor, or buy whatever’s available at a decent price and doesn’t look like it cost $12 out of the back of a van parked at an abandoned gas station. That leaves hard drives.

Now that memory costs next to nothing, a lot of people think real computers have to have 768 megs of RAM. Really, you get diminishing returns above 128 megs. Two years ago I was ridiculed for suggesting people should get 128 megs of RAM. Now people are routinely buying six times that amount. Trends. (sigh.) Since a 256-meg stick costs around 100 bucks, fine, get 256 so you can run any OS you want and run it fast. But really we need to be thinking about hard drive speed. Sure, a hard drive doesn’t do anything for Quake frame rates, but for everything else it does, and if you’re like me and actually use your computer, you’ll appreciate a fast disk really quickly.

The IBM 75GXP is currently the fastest IDE drive on the market. At $135 for a 30-gig model, it makes absolutely no sense to buy anything else, period. If you need more storage than that, a 45-gig costs about $150, a 60-gig $215, and a 75-gig $275. The sweet spot seems to be 45 gigs.

But if you’re going to run Linux or NT or Windows 2000 and you were ready to buy 768 megs of RAM anyway, why not look at SCSI? An Adaptec controller will run you $200, while a Tekram will start at around $100. You can get a nice 10,000 RPM drive from IBM, Quantum or Seagate for around $235. Now we’re talking a 9-gig drive here, but speed’s more stem out with a $33 LG Electronics CD-ROM and a $14 Panasonic floppy drive. The damage? $844. That’s without a keyboard, mouse, or monitor, but seeing as everyone likes different things there, I always leave those out of base pricing. And of course you still have to buy an OS.

That’s an awful lot of computer for about $850. The components are high enough quality that they should be good for 4-5 years, and I suspect the system won’t be a slouch by then either. The specs will be laughable, but if someone sits down to use it, they’ll have difficulty believing it’s “only” a 700 MHz computer. And if you want to upgrade it down the line, it’ll continue to be worthy of your trouble for a long time to come.

I think I found my new hangout. Well, in about five weeks it’ll be my new hangout. I was going to give up using Windows for Lent–not that I enjoy using Windows, but not using it would be a terrible inconvenience, and the purpose of Lent is to give up something that reminds you of what Jesus gave up. Since Windows is an everyday part of life, it would suffice–I could use a Mac at work, and just run Linux on my PCs at home. But since my job is partly fixing PCs that run Windows, or writing about Windows, I can’t very well do that. So instead I gave up meat. All meat. If it used to be an animal, it’s meat–no using seafood as a loophole.

So, Penny’s BBQ, a little place I stumbled upon yesterday, won’t be my hangout until Lent’s over. I love BBQ–must be because I’m from Kansas City. My favorite R.E.M. song is “The One I Love,” which Michael Stipe wrote after his favorite BBQ joint burned down. Listen to the words really carefully sometime. He’s not talking about his prom date.

I always get sidetracked when I’m talking about BBQ. Penny’s is about 10 minutes from home, depending on how obnoxious St. Louis traffic feels like being. It smelled good outside the place, which is always a good sign. It’s tough to find BBQ in St. Louis, let alone good BBQ. But Penny’s turns out to be comparable to the typical fare you find at every other stoplight in Kansas City, I’ll be a very happy camper. But that’s easier said than done. I’ve never really understood it, because there’s plenty of good BBQ in Chicago and in Kansas City and, frankly, throughout Missouri. If you’re ever driving through Missouri on I-70–my condolences if you are–in a tiny little town about an hour east of Kansas City named Concordia, there’s a BBQ joint called Biffle’s that’s nearly as good as the best places in KC, and it’s easier to get to and not as crowded. I plan my trips to KC so that I end up driving through Concordia around meal time.

The downside to giving up meat is I can’t really write about it, beyond that. Had I given up Windows, chances are a lot of people would have wanted to read about how it was going and what I was finding. Oh well.

Heh heh heh. Need a cheap computer for someone? How’s a Tekram Socket 370 microATX board with built-in audio and video sound? Promising? You bet, especially considering its $35 price tag here. Put it in an inexpensive microATX case, drop in a $50 Celeron-533 PPGA (this board only works with Celerons with the old Mendocino core, not a Coppermine) and a $50 Crucial 128-meg DIMM, add your favorite hard drive, and you can have a really nice system for $350 or so. Or if you’ve got parts laying around, you know the drill.