A lightweight Windows web browser. Windows!? What’s that? Yes, I still use it at work, even though my Windows time at home is dwindling. A couple of weeks ago I told you about Dillo, a superfast, minimalist Web browser for Linux that’s in development. It’s still considered alpha-quality; I’ve had absolutely no trouble with it but some readers report it crashes on them occasionally. I’ve had enough success with it that I want it at work.
I’ve been doing a bunch of work in DOS the past few days, and I’ve found some useful disk tools. A lot of people use the shareware WinImage or GRDUW to create images of floppy disks. That’s with good reason, seeing as floppies are so unreliable–this way, you’ve got a backup on a hard drive or CD-ROM drive, and it’s so much more convenient when you need a particular disk to just grab a blank, make a fresh copy from an image, and go do your thing. But I found some DOS utilities, some recent and others oldies but goodies, that give you the functionality of these shareware utilities but with the advantage of being free, smaller, faster, and in most cases running on a wider variety of operating systems–all good things. So they don’t have a nice clicky mousey interface… I don’t like using a mouse anyway. Maybe you’re like me, or maybe you like powerful utilities and don’t mind giving up the mouse to be able to use them.
So here goes.
Creating disk images. My favorite is Diskwarez DF — of course I like this utility, seeing as it bears my initials. DF is a short and sweet utility for creating and writing disk images compatible with Rawrite and the Unix dd utility. Runs under DOS and under Windows 9x and NT in a command window. There are dozens of DOS disk imaging utilities out there, but this one has the advantage of being compatible with a very common cross-platform standard. Check out the Diskwarez site, as it’s got tons of info on disk programming, as well as some other utilities like free disk editors. Despite the name, it’s not a pirate site–Diskwarez software is distributed under a free license somewhat similar to the GPL.
If you prefer self-extracting images, you can use the similarly named DOSDF to create them.
Bigger, faster, better floppies. The other feature of GRDUW is to format high-capacity floppy disks and floppies that give faster access than disks formatted with Windows Explorer or the DOS format utility. Enter FDFORMAT . You can do that and plenty of other cool things with this utility. You can gain more usable space on a 1.44-meg floppy without resorting to weird disk formats just by reserving fewer root directory entries. For example, FDFORMAT A: /D:16 gives you the maximum available space on a 1.44-meg floppy by reserving just 16 root directory entries (if you’re storing large files you don’t need more than 16 anyway, probably).
For extra speed, use Sector Sliding: FDFORMAT A: /X:2 /Y:3 speeds up the disk by 50-100 percent by arranging the tracks in a more optimal order. Supposedly you can gain even more speed by playing around with the gap length, but the author says disks are less reliable when you do this. If you’re more interested in speed than in reliability, add the /G:32 switch to the command listed above.
And by default, the boot sector on disks formatted by FDFORMAT automatically try to boot to the hard drive rather than giving you the dreaded “Non-system disk or disk error” message. Why couldn’t Microsoft think of that?
And of course you can also format high-capacity disks. Use the /F168 option to format a 1.68-MB floppy, and the /F172 option to format a 1.72-meg floppy. These switches can be combined with the others as well. Keep in mind that extra-capacity disks aren’t bootable.
FDFORMAT’s downside is it won’t run from inside Windows NT or Windows 9x. The best thing to do with it is to format a disk with it on a PC booted into DOS (DOS mode from Windows 9x’s boot menu is sufficient), then take that disk and use the aforementioned DF or DOSDF utilities to make an image of that disk, then when you need to format a new high-speed disk or a new disk that won’t give you errors when you leave it in the drive, use the image.
Formatting bad disks. And finally, for those dreaded Track 0 Bad errors that render a disk unusable, there’s FR , which uses workarounds to try to make the disk usable again. Typically I get rid of floppies with bad sectors pretty quickly, but if it’s an emergency, this program might bail you out. I used to get around Track 0 errors by formatting the disk in my Amiga–for some reason the disk always worked after that–but seeing as I usually don’t have my Amiga set up, this is an alternative.
And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I wrote that I found a better way. SmartFormat also does Track 0 workarounds, uses the date and time to create unique disk serial numbers (instead of Microsoft’s license-plate method), provides a fast format that’s up to 60% faster than Microsoft’s method, and can optionally format 1.72-meg disks. SmartFormat runs within Windows, usually.
Virus insanity. Dark and early yesterday morning, a warning from the good Dr. Keyboard made its way across the Atlantic and into my inbox. “Beware nakedwife.exe,” it said, with a postscript: “Who would open an unexpected executable anyway?”
Bright and early yesterday morning, I responded. “About 90% of the users I support. Thanks for the heads up.”
Fortunately for me, our e-mail administrator remembered the chaos wrought by LoveLetter nearly a year ago and filtered out the attachment at the server side. If what’s now known as W32.naked ever arrived at my place of employment, Outlook literally never knew what hit it.
Unfortunately for everyone else, the vast majority of people–including people savvy enough to build their own PCs and even network them–seem to just blindly open any attachment people send to them. And that’s how computers get infected, and messes like W32.naked spread.
When an unexpected attachment arrives, there are two and only two safe things to do with it:
1a. Update your virus definitions
1b. Detach the attachment, saving it to your desktop or someplace else
1c. Scan the attachment for viruses, and if it’s infected, delete it immediately.
1d. Verify the attachment is indeed what it claims to be. Open it in WordPad before opening it elsewhere. You’ll develop an eye for what a JPEG file looks like in WordPad, or an MP3 file, etc. Open a few files you already know are JPEGs and MP3s to get your eye trained. If what you see is what appears to be executable code, the file’s not what it appears to be. Delete it immediately.
1e. If you must, now that you’ve verified the file isn’t anything dangerous, open it for your viewing pleasure.
Steps 1c and 1d can be interchanged.
2. Delete the file.
(optional step 2b). E-mail the person and kindly ask them not to send you that kind of stuff anymore.
I don’t have time for process 1. At work I’ve got computers to set up, computers to fix, documentation to write, meetings to attend, people sticking their heads in my cube (I really must look into getting a pair of Mastiffs to keep at my cube’s entryway to keep that from happening), so e-mail attachments at work go straight to file 13 about 90 percent of the time. Hello, strange file. Now that I’ve met you would you object to never seeing each other again? You can leave a message but I’ll only press erase, let’s skip hello and go straight to goodbye. Now that you’ve seen the doctor, don’t call me anymore. I think you get the point.
It’s much better to miss the occasional joke than to lose data and then have to spend all day reinstalling everything. Whatever happened to telling jokes in person, anyway? Seems a lost art these days…
There really isn’t a good way to automate the process and keep your computer safe. Trust me, if there were, wouldn’t you think I’d have figured it out? You’re talking to the guy who spent a week trying to figure out how to get Windows 9x to boot out of a ramdisk, after all.
Of course I’m mostly preaching to the choir here. But maybe this is a new concept to someone out there…
Optimizing the BIOS. Dustin Cook sent in a link to Adrian’s Rojak Pot, at www.adriansrojakpot.com , which includes a BIOS tweaking guide. It’s an absolute must-read. I have a few minor quibbles with a couple of the things he says, particularly about shadowing and caching your ROMs with Windows 9x. He says you shouldn’t do it. He’s right. He says you shouldn’t do it because Microsoft says not to do it with Windows NT, and Windows 9x “shares the same Win32 architecture.” It does and it doesn’t, but that’s flawed logic. Shadowing ROMs isn’t always a bad thing; on some systems that eats up some usable memory and on others it doesn’t, depending on the chipset and BIOS it uses. But it’s pointless because Windows doesn’t use the BIOS for anything, unless you’re in safe mode. Caching ROMs makes very little sense; there’s only so much caching bandwidth to go around so you should spend it on caching memory that’s actually being used for something productive. So who cares about architecture, you shouldn’t cache and shadow your ROMs because Windows will ignore it one way or the other, so those facilities are better spent elsewhere. The same thing is true of Linux.
Still, in spite of this minor flaw I found in a couple of different spots, this is an invaluable guide. Perfect BIOS settings won’t make a Pentium-90 run like a Pentium III, but poor BIOS settings certainly can make a Pentium III run more like a 386DX-40. Chances are your BIOS settings aren’t that bad, but they can probably use some improvement. So if you want the best possible performance from your modern PC, visit Adrian’s. If you want to optimize your 386 or 486 or low-end Pentium, visit the site I mentioned yesterday.
Actually, it wouldn’t be a half-bad idea to take the downloadable versions of both guides, print them, and stick them in a binder for future reference. You’ll never know when you might want to take them with you.
Optimizing DOS again. An awful lot of system speed is psychological. I’d say maybe 75% of it is pure psychology. It doesn’t matter so much whether the system really is fast, just as long as it feels fast. I mentioned yesterday keyboard and screen accelerators. Keyboard accelerators are great for people like me who spend a lot of time in long text files, because you can scroll through them so much faster. A keyboard accelerator makes a big difference in how an old DOS system feels, and it can improve the responsiveness of some DOS games. (Now I got your attention I’m sure.)
Screen accelerators are a bit more of a stretch. Screen accelerators intercept the BIOS calls that write to the screen and replace them with faster, more efficient code. I’d estimate the speedup is anywhere from 10 to 50 percent, depending on how inefficient the PC’s BIOS is and whether it’s shadowing the BIOS into RAM. They don’t speed up graphics at all, just text mode, and then, only those programs that are using the BIOS–some programs already have their own high-speed text routines they use instead. Software compatibility is potentially an issue, but PC power users have been using these things since at least 1985, if not longer, so most of the compatibility issues have long since been fixed.
They only take a couple of kilobytes of memory, and they provide enough of a boost for programs that use the BIOS that they’re more than worth it. With keyboard and screen accelerators loaded in autoexec.bat, that old DEC 386SX/20 feels an awful lot faster. If I had a copy of a DOS version of Microsoft Word, I could use it for writing and it wouldn’t cramp my style much.
Windows Me Too? I’ve read the allegations that Microsoft aped Mac OS X with the upcoming Windows XP. Maybe I’m dense, but I don’t see much resemblance beyond the resemblance between two cars made by different manufacturers. The Start menu has a new neon look, which is probably Apple-inspired to some degree. The Windows taskbar has had Dock-like functionality for several years now–it was added with IE4. The biggest change seems to be the Start menu–they’ve taken the Windows 2000 initiative, where only commonly used stuff is shown, to an extreme, and now the Start menu, at least in some screenshots, looks bigger. I don’t know if it really is or not–I saw another 1024×768 screenshot in which the Start menu actually takes a little less real estate than my current box at the same resolution. And they’ve re-drawn some icons.
As a whole there’s a more textured look now, but some of the Unixish Window managers have been doing that stuff since 1997. The login screen bears a definite resemblance to some of the Unixish login screens I’ve seen of late.
Microsoft is claiming this is the most significant user interface change since Windows 95. That’s true, but it’s not the big step that Windows 95 was from Windows 3.x. It’s an evolutionary step, and one that should have been expected, given that the Windows 9x Explorer interface is now older than the Program Manager interface was when it was replaced. Had 24-bit displays been common in 1995, Microsoft probably would have gone with a textured look then–they’ve always liked such superficialities.
Stress tests. New hardware, or suspect hardware, should always be stress-tested to make sure it’s up to snuff. Methods are difficult to find, however, especially under Windows. Running a benchmark repeatedly can be a good way to test a system–overclockers frequently complain that their newly overclocked systems can’t finish benchmark suites–but is it enough? And when the system can’t finish, the problem can be an OS or driver issue as well.
Stress testing with Linux would seem to be a good solution. Linux is pretty demanding anyway; run it hard and it’ll generally expose a system’s weaknesses. So I did some looking around. I found a stress test employed by VA-Linux at http://sourceforge.net/projects/va-ctcs/ that looked OK. And I found another approach at http://www.eskimo.com/~pygmy/stress.txt that just speaks of experience stress testing by repeatedly compiling the Linux kernel, which gives the entire system (except for the video card) a really good workout.
And the unbelievable… Someone at work mentioned an online President’s Day poll, asking who was the best president? Several obvious candidates are up on Mt. Rushmore: Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt. Most people would add FDR and possibly Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson to that list. I was talking with a good friend the other day about just this issue, and I argued in favor of Lincoln. Washington had a tough job of setting a standard, and he was great, but Lincoln had an even tougher job of holding a bitterly divided country together. So if I had to rank them, I’d probably say Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and then we have a mess. I don’t agree with their politics, but FDR and Woodrow Wilson probably belong in there. James Madison and James Monroe belong in there, the question is where. Then it starts to get really tough. Was Harry Truman in those guys’ league? Not really, but he’s worlds better than Warren G. Harding and Bill Clinton. Fine, pencil him in at 9. Now who gets #10? Some would give it to Ronald Reagan. It seems to me that Reagan is at once overappreciated and underappreciated. A lot of people put him at the very bottom, which I think is unfair. But then there was this poll that put him at the very top, by a very wide margin. When I looked, Reagan had 44% of the vote, followed by George Washington at 29% and Abraham Lincoln a distant third at 14%.
When I speak of the hard right in the media, that’s what I’m referring to: blind allegiance to an icon, however flawed. Don’t get me wrong, Reagan was no Warren G. Harding–he did win the Cold War after all. Conservatives say his economic policies saved the country, while liberals say it very nearly wrecked it. All I can tell you is my college economics professor taught that Reagan at the very least had the right idea–the big problem with the theory behind Reagan’s policies is the impossibility of knowing whether you’d gone too far or not far enough. Fine. FDR played a similar game. Both are revered by their parties and hated by the other party. But as president, neither Ronald Reagan nor FDR are in the Washington and Lincoln league. As a man, FDR probably was in that league, and if he was not the last, he was very close to it. But with the truly great presidents, there is very little doubt about them–and in the cases of Lincoln and Jefferson, their greatest critics were the voices inside their own heads.
Great people just don’t run for president anymore, and they rarely run for political office, period. It’s easy to see why. Anyone truly qualified to be President of the United States is also qualified to be en executive at a large multinational corporation, and that’s a far more profitable and less frustrating job. And the truly great generally aren’t willing to compromise as much as a politician must in order to get the job.
Early on, we had no shortage whatsoever of great minds in politics: Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe certainly. Plus men who never were president, like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. We had, in effect, from Washington to Monroe, a string of men who met Socrates’ qualifications to be Philosopher-King. (Yes, John Adams was single-term, but he was a cut above most of those who were to follow.)
But as our country developed, so many better things for a great mind to do sprung up. Today you can be an executive at a large company, or you can be a researcher, or a pundit, or the president of a large and prestigious university. In 1789, there weren’t as many things to aspire to.
If we’ve got any Benjamin Franklins and Thomas Jeffersons and George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns out there today (and I believe we do), they’ve got better things to do than waste time in Washington, D.C.
No, our greatest president wasn’t Ronald Reagan, just as it wasn’t Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy. That’s nostalgia talking.
Shopping. I went to Wal-Mart yesterday intending to pick up shampoo and vitamins. On a whim, I wandered over to the electronics section, and found some surprises. I knew they sold HP computers, but I didn’t realize they’d branched into the types of product that require you to pop the hood to install. I guess PCs really have gone mainstream. Power splitters, four bucks. Keyboard adapters, four bucks. Creative 52X CD-ROM drives, 58 bucks. You can get the same thing, only the white box version, from Mwave.com for $36, but shipping will eat half the price difference and if you need a CD-ROM drive at 3 a.m. for some reason, well, you can get it. The same goes for a keyboard or a mouse. Don’t laugh–I was visiting a friend one weekend several years ago, and about 8:30 p.m. Friday he decides it’s time to build his new PC. So we piled into his car and barreled off to CompUSA, and arrived in the parking lot at 9:05. Too late. So I know someone who’d appreciate being able to get components at odd hours.
More interesting was a special phone cord made of LAN-grade CAT5 cable. Pricey at $8, but it’ll improve your modem connection slightly, if you’re still cursed with a dialup connection. They had network cables too, at $8 for a 10-footer and $12 for a 15-footer. That’s about the same price as CompUSA, but Wal-Mart is probably closer and it’s open longer hours.
I didn’t end up buying any of that stuff. I did find a rotating CD tower with a 112-disc capacity for 10 bucks. I snapped that up. I’ve got about 1/4 that many data CDs laying around, but the way those things breed, I’ll fill it. You’ll frequently pay that price for a 25-disc tower. I also found a disk box for $2. Nothing fancy at all–it looks like a recipe box–but who needs something fancy to hold disks? I remember I used to pay $8 for beige disk boxes with see-through tops that held 50 disks. This costs 1/4 as much and holds more. The plastic’s thinner and you can’t see through the top, but these stack better. And the price was right. So I grabbed one. I thought about getting a second, but I figured no, I probably only have about 50 stray disks laying around, so a second box would just be extra clutter, and I just spent all weekend trying to get rid of extra clutter. I got home, herded up all the stray floppies I could find, and filled the box. Then I spotted another stack of floppies laying forgotten under a pile of papers. Rats. I should have grabbed a second box. Next time I’m out I’ll grab another one.
O’Reilly revisited. Frank McPherson had some interesting observations yesterday about O’Reilly in general and Optimizing Windows in particular. He said he didn’t like the title. I never liked it either; I thought it was cumbersome, limiting, and meaningless (which is why I usually just call it Optimizing Windows). Games is too limiting, graphics is too limiting, and multimedia is a buzzword that’s lost all meaning. The book title on the contract read “Essential Windows 9x Optimization.” I’m not sure if that was the title on the proposal or where that working title came from. I remember giving O’Reilly a list of about 10 possible titles, but they kept coming back to Optimizing Windows for Games, Graphics and Multimedia. I cited gamers in the proposal as one potential audience for the book, they ran with it.
Frank also brought up pricing and book length. It’s much harder to write a short book; had I skipped the self-editing process Optimizing Windows probably would have been closer to 330 pages instead of 290. I didn’t see that adding filler would add any value to the book, and I really wanted to stay under 300 pages so the book wouldn’t look intimidating. But people expect computer books to be thick. I remember seeing a picture of someone’s Apollo workstation, and he included a picture of his Apollo manuals. They would have nearly filled one of my 6-foot bookshelves. It was a ridiculous mass of 3-ring binders. But people seem to expect computer books to be 900 pages, just like they expect a CD to play for an hour.
I think Frank hit the nail on the head when he talked about layout. He cited bigger print and more whitespace and more use of graphics. Indeed, those things sell. I remember doing newsletter layouts with my ex-girlfriend. I’d lay the elements on the page, then she’d add tons of whitespace. A lot less fit on the page, but it looked a lot better and read much more quickly that way. She also added a lot of unnecessary flourishes. A hardcore computer geek would dismiss that as bravado, but it makes the pages look a lot better. People notice those things when they flip through the book or magazine in the store.
My editors at Computer Shopper UK asked me to provide them with more screenshots than I have been lately. I sent them 14, which I thought was a ridiculous number. I just got a PDF proof of my next article, for the April issue. They used 11 of them, and there’s no denying it looks great.
Pricing’s tougher. I suspect O’Reilly uses higher-quality paper than some of the other publishers, and that quickly adds cost. But if I didn’t have a degree in magazine publishing I probably wouldn’t notice the difference. I know Joe Consumer doesn’t notice and would rather pay $5 less. Some people would buy the book printed on newsprint if they could save 10 bucks. I’ve forgotten almost everything I ever knew about binding, but my O’Reilly books are bound better than some of the other computer books I have. I don’t think that matters much either though; I have a lot of comb-bound computer books too and I don’t think less of them because of it.
What’s going on with memory prices? Every time I say they’re stable, they drop again. I’m not going to say anything about current prices, except they’re low. Face it: I remember five years ago, paying $48 for an 8-meg stick, and I felt like I was stealing it. Kingston memory for $6 a meg! Unbelievable!
I told Dan Bowman on Sunday that you can get a 128-meg PC133 Kingston module at Outpost.com for $59 with a $20 mail-in rebate. Then yesterday he sends me word that I can get a 128-meg PNY PC133 stick from globalcomputer.com for $49. No rebate hassles whatsoever, and plenty of stock. So $6/meg has become $.31/meg. Prices may stabilize there, or they may free-fall some more.
What happened? Overproduction. Millions of chips were produced for millions of computers that didn’t sell over Christmas, which is supposed to be the heaviest buying period of the year. Not a whole lot of upgrades were bought either. And now, with demand for Rambus increasing a little and DDR looming overhead like the Enola Gay, they’re stuck with a bunch of inventory that’s living on borrowed time. Gotta move it, because demand’s moving elsewhere. There’ll be demand for SDRAM for many years to come (just as there’s still some demand for EDO DRAM today), but its days as the memory everybody wants are about to come to a close.
So as long as you have some use for SDRAM, this is a great time to buy. But keep in mind that the stuff you buy now probably won’t move with you to your next PC. A current PC with 384 MB of PC133 SDRAM will be useful for many years to come, true, but next year when you buy a motherboard that takes DDR or Rambus, you’ll have to buy new memory again, so it makes absolutely no sense to hoard this stuff.
So should you buy? Windows 9x sees diminishing returns beyond 128 MB of RAM, unless you’re playing with RAM disks. Windows 2000 really likes 256 MB of RAM, but for the things most people do, there’s little point in going past that. Of all the OSs I use right now, Linux does the best job of finding a use for such a large amount of memory. So if you’re below any of those thresholds, sure, buy. But if you’re there already, you’re better off banking that money until the time comes for your next major upgrade.
But if you are buying, let me reiterate: Get the good stuff. I had a conversation with someone on a message board today. He asked why, if 95% of all memory chips are fine, it makes sense to pay more for a brand name. I pointed out to him that with 8-16 chips per module, a 95% rate means you have a 25-50 percent chance of a bad module, since it just takes one bad cell in one chip to make the module unreliable. It’s much better to get A-grade chips, which have a .1% defect rate, and buy from a name brand vendor, who will in all likelihood do their own testing and lower the defect rate another order of magnitude. To me, knowing that I won’t have problems attributable to bad memory is definitely worth the few bucks. Even the bottom-feeders aren’t beating that Kingston price by much, and the shipping will make the cheap, nearly worthless memory cost more than the good stuff.
Tracking down memory problems is a real pain, unless you’ve got a professional-quality memory tester. I do. Still, verifying a memory problem and then isolating it to a single stick can take hours. I have all the facilities necessary to let me get away with buying the cheap stuff and I won’t do it. That should tell you something. Buying generic memory isn’t like buying generic socks or generic spaghetti. In memory, brand is a lot more than status.
Partition Magic. I tried unsuccessfully last night to track down a copy of Partition Magic 6 so I can revise the article on multi-booting Windows 98 and Windows Me that won’t go in the March issue of Computer Shopper UK. It’ll be in the April issue instead. I also had to deal with some personal issues. It’s not like my whole world’s upside down–it’s not–but a pretty important part of it is right now.
Have I been brainwashed by Redmond? In the wake of MacWorld, Al Hawkins wrote a piece that suggested maybe so. My post from Thursday doesn’t suggest otherwise.
So let’s talk about what’s wrong with the PC industry. There are problems there as well–problems across the entire computer industry, really. The biggest difference, I think, is that the big guns in the PC industry are better prepared to weather the storm.
IBM’s PC business has been so bad for so long, they’ve considered pulling out of the very market they created. They seem to be turning it around, but it may only be temporary, and their profits are coming at the expense of market share. They retreated out of retail and eliminated product lines. Sound familiar? Temporary turnarounds aren’t unheard of in this industry. IBM as a whole is healthy now, but the day when they were known as Big Black & Blue isn’t so distant as to be forgotten. But IBM’s making their money these days by selling big Unix servers, disk drives, PowerPC CPUs and other semiconductors, software, and most of all, second-to-none service. The PC line can be a loss leader, if need be, to introduce companies to the other things IBM has to offer.
Compaq is a mess. That’s why they got a new CEO last year. But Compaq is a pretty diverse company. They have DEC’s old mini/mainframe biz, they have DEC’s OpenVMS and Digital Unix (now Tru64 Unix) OSs, they have DEC’s Alpha CPU architecture, and DEC’s widely acclaimed service division, which was the main thing that kept DEC afloat and independent in its day. Compaq also has its thriving server business, a successful line of consumer PCs and a couple of lines of business PCs. The combined Compaq/DEC was supposed to challenge IBM as the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, and that hasn’t happened. Compaq’s a big disappointment and they’re having growing pains. They should survive.
HP’s not exactly in the best of shape either. They’ve made a lot of lunkhead decisions that have cost them a lot of customers, most notably by not releasing drivers for their widely popular printers and scanners for newer Microsoft operating systems. While developing these drivers costs money, this will cost them customers in the long run so it was probably a very short-sighted decision. But HP’s inkjet printers are a license to print money, with the cartridges being almost pure profit, and HP and Compaq are the two remaining big dogs in retail. Plus they have profitable mainframe, Unix, and software divisions as well. They’ve got a number of ways to return to profitability.
The holidays weren’t kind to Gateway. They actually had to resort to selling some of their surplus inventory in retail stores, rather than using the stores as a front for their build-to-order business as intended.
Dell’s not happy with last year’s results either, so they’re looking to diversify and give themselves less dependence on desktop PCs. They’re growing up, in other words. They’re killing IBM and Compaq in PCs, and those companies are still surviving. Dell wants a piece of that action.
Intel botched a number of launches this year. They had to do everything wrong and AMD had to do everything right in order for AMD to continue to exist. That happened. AMD’s past problems may have been growing pains, and maybe they’re beyond it now. We shall see. Intel can afford to have a few bad quarters.
As for their chips, we pay a certain price for backward compatibility. But, despite the arguments of the Apple crowd, x86 chips as a rule don’t melt routinely or require refrigerants unless you overclock. All of my x86 chips have simple fans on them, along with smaller heatsinks than a G4 uses. I’ve seen many a Pentium III run on just a heatsink. The necessity of a CPU fan depends mostly on case design. Put a G4 in a cheap case with poor airflow and it’ll cook itself too.
Yes, you could fry an egg on the original Pentium-60 and -66. Later revisions fixed this. Yet I still saw these original Pentiums run on heat sinks smaller than the sinks used on a G4. The Athlon is a real cooker, so that argument holds, but as AMD migrates to ever-smaller trace widths, that should improve. Plus AMD CPUs are cheap as dirt and perform well. The Athlon gives G4-like performance and high clock speeds at a G3 price, so its customers are willing to live with some heat.
And Microsoft… There are few Microsoft zealots left today. They’re rarer and rarer. Microsoft hasn’t given us anything, yet we continue to buy MS Office, just like Mac users. We curse Microsoft and yet send millions and billions their way, just like Mac users. We just happen to buy the OS from them too. And while we curse Microsoft bugs and many of us make a living deploying Windows-based PCs (but the dozen or so Macs I’m responsible for keep me busier than the couple of hundred PCs I’m responsible for), for the most part Windows works. Mac owners talk about daily blue screens of death, but I don’t know when I last got one. I probably get one or two a year. I currently have eight applications running on my Windows 98 box. OS/2 was a far better system than Windows, but alas, it lost the war.
I can’t stand Microsoft’s imperialism and I don’t like them fighting their wars on my hardware. They can pay for their own battlefield. So I run Linux on some of my boxes. But sometimes I appreciate Windows’ backward compatibility.
I always look for the best combination of price, performance, and reliability. That means I change platforms a lot. I flirted with the Mac in 1991, but it was a loveless relationship. The PCs of that era were wannabes. I chose Amiga without having used one, because I knew it couldn’t possibly be as bad as Windows 3.0 or System 7.0. I was right. By 1994, Commodore had self-destructed and the Amiga was perpetually on the auction block, so I jumped ship and bought a Compaq. Windows 3.1 was the sorriest excuse I’d seen for a multitasking environment since System 7.0 and Windows 3.0. I could crash it routinely. So I switched to OS/2 and was happy again. I reluctantly switched to Windows 95 in 1996. I took a job that involved a lot of Macs in 1998, but Mac OS 8.5 failed to impress me. It was prettier than System 7 and if you were lucky you could use it all day without a horrible crash, but with poor memory management and multitasking, switching to it on an everyday basis would have been like setting myself back 12 years, so the second date wasn’t any better than the first.
Linux is very interesting, and I’ve got some full-time Linux PCs. If I weren’t committed to writing so much about Windows 9x (that’s where the money is), Linux would probably be my everyday OS. Microsoft is right to consider Linux a threat, because it’s cheaper and more reliable. Kind of like Windows is cheaper and more reliable than Mac OS. Might history repeat itself? I think it could.
The computer industry as a whole isn’t as healthy this year as it was last year. The companies with the most resources will survive, and some of the companies with fewer will fold or be acquired. The reason the industry press is harder on Apple than on the others is that Apple is less diversified than the others, and thus far more vulnerable.
It’s that time of year again. MacWorld time. I work with Macs way too much, so of course I have opinions. If you expect me to withhold them, you don’t know me very well.
Let’s face it: Apple’s in serious trouble. Serious trouble. They can’t move inventory. The Cube is a bust–unexpandable, defect-ridden, and overpriced. The low-end G4 tower costs less than the Cube but offers better expandability. Buying a Cube is like marrying a gorgeous airhead. After the looks fade in a few years, you’re permanently attached to an airhead. So people buy a G4 tower, which has better expandability, or they get an iMac, which costs less.
Unfortunately, that gorgeous airhead metaphor goes a long way with Apple. The Mac’s current product line is more about aesthetics than anything else. So they’ve got glitzy, glamorous cases (not everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, I hear some people lust after Britney Spears too), but they’re saddled with underpowered processors dragged down by an operating system less sophisticated under the hood than the OS Commodore shipped with the first Amiga in 1985. I don’t care if your PowerPC is more efficient than an equivalently-clocked Pentium IV (so’s a VIA Cyrix III but no one’s talking about it), because if your OS can’t keep that CPU fed with a steady stream of tasks, it just lost its real-world advantage.
But let’s set technical merit aside. Let’s just look at pure practicalities. You can buy an iMac for $799. Or, if you’re content with a low-end computer, for the same amount of money you can buy a low-end eMachine and pair it up with a 19-inch NEC monitor and still have a hundred bucks left over to put towards your printer. Yeah, so the eMachine doesn’t have the iMac’s glitzy looks. I’ll trade glitz for a 19-inch monitor. Try working with a 19-inch and then switch to a 15-inch like the iMac has. You’ll notice a difference.
So the eMachine will be obsolete in a year? So will the iMac. You can spend $399 for an accelerator board for your iMac. Or you can spend $399 for a replacement eMachine (the 19-inch monitor will still be nice for several years) and get a hard drive and memory upgrade while you’re at it.
On the high end, you’ve got the PowerMac G4 tower. For $3499, you get a 733 MHz CPU, 256 MB RAM, 60 GB HD, a DVD-R/CD-R combo drive, internal 56K modem, gigabit Ethernet you won’t use, and an nVidia GeForce 2 MX card. And no monitor. Software? Just the OS and iMovie, which is a fun toy. You can order one of these glitzy new Macs today, but Apple won’t ship it for a couple of months.
Still, nice specs. For thirty-five hundred bucks they’d better be nice! Gimme thirty-five hundred smackers and I can build you something fantabulous.
But I’m not in the PC biz, so let’s see what Micron might give me for $3500. For $3514, I configured a Micron ClientPro DX5000. It has dual 800 MHz Pentium III CPUs (and an operating system that actually uses both CPUs!), 256 MB of RDRAM, a 7200 RPM 60 GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM and CD-RW (Micron doesn’t offer DVD-R, but you can get it third-party if you must have one), a fabulous Sound Blaster Live! card, a 64 MB nVidia GeForce 2 MX, and in keeping with Apple tradition, no monitor. I skipped the modem because Micron lets me do that. If you must have a modem and stay under budget, you can throttle back to dual 766 MHz CPUs and add a 56K modem for $79. The computer also includes Intel 10/100 Ethernet, Windows 2000, and Office 2000.
And you can have it next week, if not sooner.
I went back to try to configure a 1.2 GHz AMD Athlon-based system, and I couldn’t get it over $2500. So just figure you can get a machine with about the same specs, plus a 19-inch monitor and a bunch more memory.
Cut-throat competition in PC land means you get a whole lot more bang for your buck with a PC. And PC upgrades are cheap. A Mac upgrade typically costs $400. With PCs you can often just replace a CPU for one or two hundred bucks down the road. And switching out a motherboard is no ordeal–they’re pretty much standardized at this point, and PC motherboards are cheap. No matter what you want, you’re looking at $100-$150. Apple makes it really hard to get motherboard upgrades before the machines are obsolete.
It’s no surprise at all to me that the Mac OS is now the third most-common OS on the desktop (fourth if you count Windows 9x and Windows NT/2000 as separate platforms), behind Microsoft’s offerings and Linux. The hardware is more powerful (don’t talk to me about the Pentium 4–we all know it’s a dog, that’s why only one percent of us are buying it), if only by brute force, and it’s cheaper to buy and far cheaper to maintain.
Apple’s just gonna have to abandon the glitz and get their prices down. Or go back to multiple product lines–one glitzy line for people who like that kind of thing, and one back-to-basics line that uses standard ATX cases and costs $100 less off the top just because of it. Apple will never get its motherboard price down to Intel’s range, unless they can get Motorola to license the Alpha processor bus so they can use the same chipsets AMD uses. I seriously doubt they’ll do any of those things.
OS X will finally start to address the technical deficiencies, but an awful lot of Mac veterans aren’t happy with X.
Frankly, it’s going to take a lot to turn Apple around and make it the force it once was. I don’t think Steve Jobs has it in him, and I’m not sure the rest of the company does either, even if they were to get new leadership overnight. (There’s pressure to bring back the legendary Steve Wozniak, the mastermind behind the Apple II who made Apple great in the 1970s and 1980s.)
I don’t think they’ll turn around because I don’t think they care. They’ll probably always exist as a niche player, selling high-priced overdesigned machines to people who like that sort of thing, just as Jaguar exists as a niche player, selling high-priced swanky cars to people who like that sort of thing. And I think the company as a whole realizes that and is content with it. But Jaguar’s not an independent company anymore, nor is it a dominant force in the auto industry. I think the same fate is waiting for Apple.
The difference between brand-name RAM and commodity RAM. I’ve been seeing a lot of questions along the lines of, “Do I really have to buy name-brand memory when I can find memory for half the price on PriceWatch?” on message boards lately. I talked about memory some in Memory-buying secrets, but I didn’t really go into the difference between generic/commodity/broker memory and the expensive stuff.