01/28/2001

I liked how yesterday’s experiment went. So here’s the good stuff I found yesterday.

Laptop intro (Tom’s Hardware Guide)

Aside from spelling errors (notebooks have “gismos,” and PCMCIA network cards connect to CAT5 cable through the use of a “dangle”), this is a pretty good introduction to notebook PCs, covering recent developments like miniPCI and MDC as well and explaining oft-confusing battery technology.

The roundup of video chipsets common in notebooks is nice, and includes the important but easily overlooked power consumption of each solution.

I was disappointed that there was no mention of a previous THG notebook article, http://www4.tomshardware.com/cpu/00q4/001107/index.html , which talked about little-known upgrade paths–by replacing the MMC in a notebook, it’s possible to cross generations. Yes, you can upgrade an old Pentium-based notebook to a P2 or Celeron, assuming you can find an aftermarket MMC.

When you have information like that, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning it whenever another article with similar information gets posted.

These two articles are essential reading if you’re in the market for a laptop, or if your job includes spec’ing and ordering laptops.

EPoX EP-8KTA3 review (AnandTech)

Good discussion of the board’s weaknesses, especially in regards to routing cables and heat dissipation. Heat might be less of an issue if they didn’t assume everyone overclocks, but heat is your PC’s enemy, whether you’re running out of spec or within it. Also good coverage of this board’s special features, including a two-digit diagnostic LCD display on the board. If something goes wrong and it can’t boot, this board will tell you what happened.

Benchmarking is limited to Content Creation, Sysmark, and Quake III Arena under Windows 98, so this is hardly an authoritative evaluation of performance. If you’re into flight sims, racing games, strategy games, or RPG games (let’s face it, first-person shooters aren’t everyone’s thing, and for good reason), Anand’s benchmarks are worthless to you.

This is a decent review, but hardly authoritative. If you’re thinking about buying a KT133A-based Athlon board and you’re considering the EP-8KTA3, you’ll definitely want to look for reviews on another site. You’ll know from reading the KT-133A roundup at THG  that the EP-8KTA3 is a better all-around performer than the Abit K7TA, but you won’t get that from this review.

Mosel Vitelic “PC143” SDRAM (Hardware Daily)

Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous. To wit: “This Mosel Vitelic ram is actually the same as Mushkin Rev2.0 ram. But this one doesn’t have the Mushkin stickers on it and it doesn’t comes with the bubble delivery bag.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Same chips doesn’t mean same module. Same PCB and same chips doesn’t necessarily mean same module. Here’s the scoop: a 7ns chip may not necessarily run at 7 ns. If a chip runs at 6.9 ns, it’s marked as 7. If it runs at 6.6 ns, it’s marked at 7. If it runs at 7.1, it’s marked as 7.5. What Mushkin’s doing is testing and putting the very fastest 7s on their rev. 3 modules. The second-best go on the rev. 2s. This takes additional testing, which adds to the cost. Buy your Mosel Vitelic memory elsewhere, and you’ll have some 6.6 ns chips and some 7.0s–your results won’t be predictable. One module may run a lot faster than the next. But we’re way ahead of ourselves here.

“According to sisoft Sandra 2001, the chips on this ram is made by Apacer rated at 133mhz.” Wrong again. The reviewer’s hardware knowledge seems as limited as his knowledge of proper English grammar. The chips are made by Mosel Vitelic ( www.moselvitelic.com ), a Taiwanese memory manufacturer who’s been around since 1991 (it was a merger of two companies, each founded in 1983) whose memory is gaining a reputation among overclockers because of its use by Mushkin. Apacer ( www.apacer.com ), on the other hand, makes memory modules.

He then ran some tests in SiSoft Sandra that make this memory look very impressive, but they didn’t do anything to stress-test the RAM to ensure that indeed it was stable at 160 MHz. They also encourage running it at 160 MHz CAS3, which is dubious advice–you get better burst speeds but higher latency that way. That’s precisely the problem with Rambus. How about some benchmarks that more closely resemble real-world performance?

Mosel Vitelic is getting such a reputation that you’ll soon see cheap, generic PCBs with Mosel Vitelic chips on them being sold dirt cheap and bought by misinformed people who read reviews like this and think they’re getting Mushkin-calibre memory for half price.

Mosel Vitelic does make and market their own modules, but that’s not what this is. Manufacturers like Mosel Vitelic and Apacer will be pretty safe, but what you’re paying for when you buy Mushkin is their hand-picking of chips, so you’ll get better, or at least more consistent, results with a Mushkin module.

If you want a near clone of Mushkin memory, you’ll have to look for a module manufactured by Mosel Vitelic themselves (good luck), or by a brand-name maker like Apacer containing 7 ns Mosel Vitelic chips. But you won’t necessarily get the same results.

The review concludes with this: “I highly recommend this ram for people who are looking for good overclocking performance. This teaches us a lesson that good ram isn’t always expensive!”

Unfortunately, the reviewer recommended the wrong thing. The true lesson of this review is that you don’t always get burned when you buy cheap memory, but a few runs of SiSoft Sandra isn’t a good way to test system stability, so this reviewer really doesn’t know what he’s got. He only thinks he does.

01/27/2001

More reviews of reviews. I liked how yesterday went, and I found some really good stuff yesterday, so let’s continue on and see what’s good and why.

2001 Upgrade Guide (Ace’s Hardware)

This is an outstanding upgrade guide, working from the assumption that you have an older system (a K6-2 or Celeron with a TNT2 board, which is a pretty common setup), then they test a number of upgrades so you can see what makes a difference. Unfortunately these upgrade candidates already have a modern hard disk and sound card, so they don’t closely simulate a real-world system, but they do isolate the components, so while these upgraded systems will outperform yours, you can see precisely what effect upgrading the video card will have.

For example, you can see right away from their graphs that replacing a K6-2’s TNT2 video card with a GeForce 2 GTS will only improve Half-Life frame rates slightly (up to 25.5 from 22.1), while trading up to a Duron 850 while keeping all the same peripherals increases rates to 51.8 from 22.1. How valuable is that information? I found a GTS card for $229. The same place has a Duron 850/Gigabyte 7ZX-1 bundle for $222. The upgrades cost the same amount, yet one of them increases performance significantly while the other just barely helps. It’s the difference between throwing away $240 and spending $235 wisely (after shipping).

The other great thing about this guide is that it tests more than just first-person shooters. For FPS, DDR gives marginal improvements indeed, but for other types of games, its improvement can be immense. Mercedes-Benz Truck Racing and Formula One 2000, for instance, are faster with a DDR-equipped Duron 850 than it is with a PC133-equipped Athlon 1100.

This guide shows when a GHz+ CPU and new memory technology makes sense, and when it doesn’t, letting you decide when it makes sense to buy the latest and greatest.

Overall: great methodology, nice balance of real-world tests (assuming gaming’s your thang, which it probably is if you read this stuff, since you won’t see much difference between a Celeron 667 and a 1.2 GHz Athlon for office apps). A lot of work goes into guides like this, but it’s worth it. Maybe someday articles like this will be the norm on the hardware sites, rather than the exception. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

VIA Apollo Pro 266 (THG)

This is an analysis piece combined with a preview of VIA’s Apollo Pro 266 chipset. Good explanation of PC architecture for one who doesn’t understand what the north bridge and south bridge are, plus the benchmarks are using boards you can actually buy, rather than reference designs.

Tom Pabst takes his usual swipes at Rambus, and points out that the Pentium III isn’t really able to take advantage of DDR, as evidenced by its similar performance to Rambus- and PC133-equipped systems. Pabst concludes with an assertion that a DDR Pentium 4 chipset would prove how terrible Rambus really is, since the bottleneck with DDR seems to be the CPU, rather than the memory itself. Unfortuantely, he doesn’t provide anything at all to back up this claim, so he comes off as an anti-Rambus bigot. Has he seen a P4 run with DDR? Maybe he’s under NDA, but if he is, he can at least say, “I can’t tell you why I know this, but DDR chipsets for the P4 will prove how worthless Rambus is,” and it would be better than what he wrote. But his speculation of DDR performance with the P4 and how it will compare is no more valuable than yours.

This article does give the useful information that DDR on the Pentium III probably isn’t worth the bother.

Value Biz PC Guide (Sharky Extreme)

Unusual for hardware sites, good focus on what’s necessary for business. No benchmarks; I’d have liked to have seen illustrations of why CPU speed isn’t as important as, say, disk speed, for business apps. Hardware recommendations are solid, and I’m happy to see they don’t assume businesses overclock. They don’t. I disagree with the $100 CD-R recommendation; you’re better off with a Plextor drive with Burn-Proof, especially since such a drive will allow you to multitask. Since time is money, businesses can’t afford to waste time burning coasters. If a slower, cheaper CPU is necessary in order to afford a better CD-R, then so be it.

Some discussion of when SCSI would be appropriate on the desktop also would have been nice, as SCSI does have its place in the office.

But overall, this is a solid guide. By blindly following its advice, you’ll build a better PC than you’ll get from many of the direct PC vendors.

Internet Connection Sharing (Dan’s Data)

Nice, down-to-earth, and pretty thorough overview of what it takes to share an Internet connection whose primary target is people who are less ambitious than me–an old 386 or 486 running Linux isn’t among the options he presents. I guess he could have titled it “ICS for the Rest of Us.”

This is thorough without getting too bogged down in particulars, and it’s cross-referenced with an outstanding Networking 101 piece by the same author, and weird jargon is cross-referenced with an online dictionary. Some reviews of the various options would be nice, but he gives a good thumbnail sketch of each option’s advantages and drawbacks. The author, Dan Rutter, is a mainstream computer journalist in Australia who seems to have a very high standard for his work.

Definitely bookmark his networking piece, http://www.dansdata.com/network.htm , and if you keep a notebook, print out a copy to put there as well, as it’s an outstanding overview that answers most of the common networking questions like the difference between a hub and a switch. You may find yourself referring back to this one as well, but it’s more specialized and as such, not as generally useful.

His other stuff is useful, well-written, and downright entertaining. Few computer writers are fun to read. Dan Rutter usually is. Many people consider Ace’s Hardware the best of the hardware sites, but I really think Dan’s Data gives Ace’s a big-time run for the money.

01/26/2001

Hey hey! It works! The server was down all day yesterday, which was a shame. I wanted to try a new experiment. So I’ll try it today.

I saw criticism over at Storage Review on Wednesday morning for their critiques of other hardware sites’ reviews. I disagree with this criticism; many of the reviews out there are atrocities, with poor methodology, hearsay, reviewer ignorance, and other shortcomings. Sometimes these reviews are more misleading than the information in the products’ advertising or packaging! I believe Storage Review is well within professional bounds to point out these shortcomings when they find them.

The mainstream media does this all the time. Columnists and editors will criticize the reporting done in other publications. Most newspapers also employ one person, known as the ombudsman, whose job it is to criticize and/or defend, as appropriate, the publication’s own work.

Seeing as the hardware sites out there often do very sloppy work, even compared to the mainstream media, some policing of it is a very good thing.

Then, over lunch, the idea hit me. Why not do some critiquing myself? I’m trained in editorial writing and editing. I have some experience as a reviewer. And I’ve published a fair bit of my own work in the arena of technology journalism–newspaper columns, a book, individual magazine articles, a series… So I’m qualified to do it, even though I’m not the biggest name out there. And that kind of content is certainly more useful than the “this is how my day went” stuff I’ve been posting way too often.

I’m not so arrogant as to assume that the webmasters of these large sites are in my readership and would take my advice. I don’t expect to change them directly. What I do expect to do is to raise people’s expectations a little. By pointing out what’s good and what’s not so good, hopefully I can raise the public consciousness a little, and indirectly influence some of these sites. If not, then at least my readers are better informed than they otherwise would be, and that’s definitely a good thing.

KT-133A roundup (Tom’s Hardware Guide)

This is a roundup of six VIA KT133a boards. Good review overall. It doesn’t get bogged down in three pages of history that tend to look like a cut-and-paste job from the last similar review, unlike some sites. But it does give just enough history to give proper perspective, though it would have been nice to have mentioned it took EDO and SDRAM some time to show their advantages as well–DDR is no more a failure than the technologies that came before. Unusual for Tom’s, this review isn’t obsessed with overclocking either. Lots of useful information, such as the memory modules tested successfully with each board. Inclusion of the DFI AK74-AC, which will never be released, is questionable. I can see including a reference design, but a cancelled commercial board doesn’t seem to make much sense. You can get an idea from its scores why it got the axe; it was consistently one of the bottom two boards in the roundup.

Emphasis was on performance, not stability, but Pabst and Schmid noted they had no compatibility or stability problems with these boards. Stability in benchmarks doesn’t guarantee stability in the real world, but it’s usually a good indication. As tight as the race is between these boards, stability is more important than speed anyway, and since the majority of people don’t overclock, the attempt to at at least mention compatibility and stability is refreshing.

Socket 7 Upgrade Advice (AnandTech)

This is a collection of upgrade advice for Socket 7 owners. This review, too, doesn’t get too bogged down in history, but the mention of fake cache is noteworthy. This was a PC Chips dirty trick, dating back to 1995 or so, before the K6 series. It wasn’t a very common practice and didn’t last very long–certainly not as long as the article suggests.

Lots of good upgrade advice, including a short compatibility list and pitfalls you can expect. Also included are some benchmarks, but it would have been nice if they’d included more vintage chips. The oldest chip included was the K6-2/450, and AMD sold plenty of slower chips. You can’t extrapolate the performance of a K6-2/300 under the same conditions based on the 450’s score.

Also, the rest of the hardware used is hardly vintage–you’re not likely to find an IBM 75GXP drive and a GeForce 2 video card in an old Socket 7 system. Using vintage hardware would have given more useful results, plus it would have given the opportunity to show what difference upgrading the video card and/or CPU makes, which no doubt some Socket 7 owners are wondering about. Testing these chips with a GeForce does demonstrate that a more modern architecture will give better peformance–it exposes the weaknesses of the CPU–but indication of how much a new CPU would improve a three-year-old PC would be more useful to most people. Few people have the delusion that a K6-3+ is going to challenge an Athlon or P3. They just want to know the best way to spend their money.

No deceiving graphics or lack of knowledge here; what’s in this article is good stuff and well written. It’s just too bad the testing didn’t more closely resemble the real world, which would have made it infinitely more useful.

Memory Tweaking Guide (Sharky Extreme)

This is a nice introduction to the art of memory tweaking, and it explains all those weird acronyms we hear about all the time but rarely see explained. Good advice on how to tweak, and good advice on how to spend your memory money wisely. They disclosed their testbed and included the disclaimer that your results will vary from theirs–their benchmarks are for examples only. The only real gripe I have is that the benchmark graphs, like all too many on the Web, don’t start at zero. From looking at the graph, it would seem that Quake 3 runs six times as fast at 640x480x16 than at 1600x1200x16, when in reality it runs about twice as fast. Graphing this way, as any statistics professor will tell you, is a no-no because it exaggerates the differences way too much.

Asus CUSL2C Review (Trainwrecker)

This is a review of the Asus CUSL2C, an i815-based board intended for the average user. This review has lots of good sources for further information, but unfortunately it also has a little too much hearsay and speculation. Some examples:

“Of course, Asus won’t support this [cable] mod and we’re pretty sure that doing it will void your warranty.” Of course modifying the cable on an Asus product, or any other manufacturer’s product, will void your warranty. So will overclocking, which they didn’t mention. Overclockers are either unaware or apathetic of this. In matters like this, assertiveness is your friend–it gives a review credibility. One who is assertive and wrong than is more believable than one who is wishy-washy and right.

“Arguably, Asus provides the best BIOS support in the business. We believe Asus develops their BIOS’s at their facility in Germany.” Indeed, Asus claims to have re-written over half the code in their BIOSes, which is one reason why Asus boards perform well historically. Most motherboard manufacturers make at least minor modifications to the Award, AMI, or Phoenix BIOS when they license it, but Asus generally makes more changes than most. This claim is fairly well known.

I was also disappointed to see a section heading labeled “Windows 2000,” which simply consisted of a statement that they didn’t have time to test under Windows 2000, followed by lots of hearsay, but at least they included workarounds for the alleged problems. Including hearsay is fine, and some would say even beneficial, as long as you test the claims yourself. This review would have been much more useful if they had delayed the review another day and tested some of the claims they’ve heard.

There’s some good information here, particularly the links to additional resources for this board, but this review is definitely not up to par with the typical reviews on the better-known sites.

DDR Analysis (RealWorldTech)

Good perspective here, in that DDR is an incremental upgrade, just like PC133, PC100, PC66 SDRAM, and EDO DRAM were before it. But I don’t like the assertion that faster clock speeds would make DDR stand out. Why not actually test it with higher-speed processors to show how each of the technologies scale? Testing each chipset at least at 1 GHz in addition to 800 MHz would have been nice; you can’t get a P3 faster than 1 GHz but testing the Athlon chipsets at 1.2 would add to the enlightenment. Why settle for assertions alone when you can have hard numbers?

Also, the assertion “And don’t forget, even though things like DDR, AGP, ATA/100 and other advancements don’t amount to a significant gain all on their own, using all of latest technology may add up to a significant gain,” is interesting, but it’s better if backed up with an example. It’s possible to build two otherwise similar systems, one utilizing AGP, ATA-100 and DDR and another utilizing a PCI version of the same video card, a UDMA-33 controller, and PC133 SDRAM, and see the difference. Unfortuantely you can’t totally isolate the chipsets, so minor differences in the two motherboards will keep this from being totally scientific, but they’ll suffice for demonstrating the trend. Ideally, you’d use two boards from the same manufacturer, using chipsets of like vintage from the same manufacturer. That pretty much limits us to the VIA Apollo Pro series and a Pentium III CPU.

And if you’re ambitious, you can test each possible combination of parts. It’s a nice theory that the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts, and chances are a lot of people will buy it at face value. Why not test it?

This reminds me of a quote from Don Tapscott, in a Communication World interview from Dec. 1999, where he spelled out a sort of communication pecking order. He said, “If you provide structure to data, you get information. And if you provide context to information, you get knowledge. And if you provide human judgment and trans-historical insights, perhaps we can get wisdom.”

This analysis has good human judgment and trans-historical insights. It has context. It has structure. The problem is it doesn’t have enough data, and that’s what keeps this from being a landmark piece. Built on a stronger foundation, this had the potential to be quoted for years to come.

01/24/2001

Finished! I finished up the Shopper UK article after straightening out my registration with PowerQuest last night. I left myself wide open for some jokes with my screenshots, and though I’m mad that Partition Magic no longer comes with Magic Mover, the headliner is improved over its previous incarnations. There’s little point in upgrading if you’ve got 4 or 5, but if you’re still putt-putting around with v2 or v3, go for it.

Had a conversation with Steve DeLassus last night too. (Steve was one of the tech reviewers for Optimizing Windows and we’ve known each other for more than 10 years.) He let me in on what I have in store for myself in a few years, we talked PCs a little, and he complained about me not mentioning him on the site much anymore. So now I have. He and I need to get started on a project at some point. Then his dog Buster can destroy it. I tried to talk him into one of those $29 Soyo Celeron boards but he wouldn’t bite. He also reminded me of our arms race, where we each try to accumulate more PCs than the other, and he mentioned that, being a bachelor, I have an unfair advantage because I can put things in unimaginable places and get away with it. Strangely, he didn’t mention the phone-in-the-fridge incident.

And a late dinner with the music director from church. Hence the short shrift today. It’s hard to squeeze an article, a long dinner, a long phone conversation, plus an Office 2000 mass-deployment plan plus sleep into 24 hours and have much left.

01/23/2001

Mailbag:

More Networking

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.

Mailbag:

More Networking

01/22/2001

When I was 10, it was a very good year. Well, not really, but I can’t pass up the obvious Sinatra reference. Bear with me.

I had a conversation the other day with Gatermann that I thought was pretty funny. Tom sells cameras, and he’s got this Mac-o-phile who comes in and always talks about how great his Mac is. But his Mac is really a five-year-old Power Computing Mac clone, and he does all his day-to-day work on PCs. He always talks about how much better his Mac is than a PC, but he never uses it.

At any rate, Tom’s got another regular who’s in the market for a computer. This guy’s trying to talk him into an iMac or a Cube or something, but he’s torn. It just seems a PC gives you more bang for the buck, he thinks. Tom told him to look into an Athlon-based system.

I told Tom to tell him to go to micronpc.com and configure a Micron Millenia with an Athlon, since Micron does the best job of any direct build-to-order vendor I know of not giving you cut-down components, and their prices are generally really good. Tom snickered. I asked if he had a computer.

“He has a PCjr.”

I hit the table with both hands and nearly stood up. “He’s got what?” Tom didn’t even really know what a PCjr is, other than it’s really old.

“A single-floppy wannabe IBM XT, with 128K of RAM,” I told him. “Vintage 1984.”

Still snickering, Tom said he told this guy that if he did decide to upgrade, he knew of a guy (me) who might be interested in buying the PCjr.

I laughed. Well, let’s see. I’ve got this PC/AT I’ll be fixing up. I’ve got a PS/1 I can rebuild. And I’ve got a still-useful IBM computer that also happens to be unmodified, a ThinkPad. So since this is IBM Central anyway, why not? Then I remembered why not: I don’t have that kind of space. I’d have to put it in my kitchen, but there’s not really any room for it there either. Any computers I bring in at this point have to serve some function, and making people wonder aloud, “Why on earth do you have one of those!?” doesn’t count.

I did ask Tom a question. If this guy had a PCjr, why’s there any question what to get? He got 16 years out of a wannabe PC, so why not just get a PC again? Besides, I can give him a 5.25″ drive and install it so he can read his existing disks if he wants.

And yes, that’s all I’ve got. Hopefully I’ll have some energy for tomorrow.

01/21/2001

Mailbag:

Win-Mac; IQ; Networking; Mobos

Run OptOut! I was talking today to a good friend who lives a couple of hours away. About a year ago he helped me straighten out–I looked like I was doing all the right things and avoiding the wrong things. I wasn’t drinking, wasn’t womanizing, and on the outside looked like I had everything together, but inside… Nope. He helped me get through it, and the year turned out to be nothing like I had planned, but that’s for the better I think.

But anyway, his computer was anything but better. He’d gone on an upgrade binge, buying memory and a big hard drive, and his system was as stable afterward as most celebrity marriages. So I walked him through reinstalling Windows, running msconfig and eliminating all but the minimal requirements in startup, and though that improved it wasn’t perfect. So I had him run OptOut, from www.grc.com . I ran it on my system at the same time so I could guide him through it. He found no spyware. I found 22 instances. Huh!? I’m normally much more careful than that. But that probably explains the IE crashes I’ve been getting. So I got rid of the spyware.

Do yourself a favor. Go download and run OptOut and see what you find.

More adventures in Linux Gatewayland. I spent another good chunk of the day at Gatermann’s, trying to get his Linux box running. We went ahead and installed a hard drive and an old 8X IDE CD-ROM. I installed a minimal Mandrake 7.2. Mandrake, like the single-floppy distro I’d tried, had problems. The NICs were inconsistent, giving different values when you booted. I don’t like the sound of that. I’m pretty sure I’ve got an old socket 7 board around here somewhere I can swap him, so I’m going to try another board. I’ve got some different NICs too. In the meantime, he’s going to put that drive and his cards in his K6-2 and see what happens. That ought to eliminate the cards themselves as a culprit. If that does the trick, I’ll either give him a different board or I’ll give him the 486 that’s served me well for the past year or so, since I’ll soon be getting a Linksys router. (And that’ll open up a spot on my desk and on my KVM for my out-of-retirement PC/AT. Woo hoo!)

Speaking of the PC/AT, the board doesn’t fit. Well, I can cram my new Soyo board into my ancient PC/AT case, but I won’t get memory in there with it. One of the drive bays sits too low, so there’s no clearance. So, it’s hacksaw time. Don’t try this at home, kids. That’ll eliminate any collectible value that case ever would have had, but with the motherboard, disk controller, and hard drive long gone and the serial number ripped off the back of the case by the previous owner, it probably never would have had any anyway. So I’ll be redefining the word “hacking” as it applies to this computer very soon. I’ve got some time. The CPUs that’ll free up a pair of Celeron 366s won’t arrive until Friday.

Mailbag:

Win-Mac; IQ; Networking; Mobos

The AT’s coming out of retirement

Scary thoughts. UPS dropped off a pair of Soyo AT socket 370 motherboards while I was at work yesterday. So I’ll be picking those up from the apartment office after it opens this morning. That only means one thing. My PC/AT is about to come out of retirement.

Let’s think about that for a minute. When this ancient thing was built, Ronald Reagan was just starting his second term. The Soviet Union still existed, and the Evil Empire loomed large. The most popular game console wasn’t the Sony Playstation–it was the Atari 2600. Some popular rock’n’roll bands of the day: The Police and Duran Duran. U2 was on the map and rock critics knew them, but to the majority of people, the name conjured up images of a spyplane if it meant anything at all. The minivan as we know it today was just coming onto the market.

Dell Computer Corp. existed only as an operation out of a dorm room at the University of Texas at Austin, and it was known as PCs Limited. Gateway 2000 didn’t yet exist. The #2 maker of IBM-compatible PCs was Tandy.

Popular movies included Romancing the Stone, The Terminator, and Sixteen Candles.

U.S. airlines that were still in business: TWA, Eastern, and Pan Am. The most troubled airline at the time was Branniff Airways, which was in a long bankruptcy proceeding (it would later make a comeback, then die again).

Anyway… I pulled the PC/AT case out of storage, dug out some drive rails, found some Phillips screws that fit it (IBM insisted on using old-style slotted screws for some insane reason–I hate those), and I even dug out a vintage YE Data 1.2 MB 5.25″ floppy drive like IBM used. Then, noticing the 17 years’ worth of accumulated grime, I gave the case a bath. Now it looks two years old instead of 17. Actually, it looks pretty darn good. They don’t build ’em like that anymore. Of course, for what that case would cost to build today, an OEM can probably build an entire PC.

I’ve also accumulated other components: a junky Trident-based AGP video card is also about to come out of retirement, as is my old Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum card with SCSI interface. That CD-ROM drive died long ago, but I’ve got an NEC 2-speed SCSI drive that looks great in the case. (This system’s all about retro looks; if I need speed, I’ll use a CD-ROM drive off my network.) To accomodate that, I’ve got a D-Link 10/100 PCI NIC.

Just one thing’s holding up this project: Computer Surplus Outlet just shipped my Celeron processors. I ordered the boards and chips the same day. That’s annoying.

01/19/2001

Software of the day: SecurePC, from www.citadel.com . I spent most of yesterday evaluating it. The biggest thing it does that system policies won’t do is prevent the installation of software–in other words, it makes NT live up to the hype it’s had forever. I tried installing about 20 or so programs, using different methods to try to get around it, and I couldn’t. The setup programs either gave bogus error messages, told me installing software had been disabled, died outright, or crashed. In one instance, the setup program started, asked some questions, then told me installing software had been disabled. Nice.

The only things it won’t block are standalone programs, such as Steve Gibson’s self-contained gems, that don’t require any installation. But I’m not so concerned about those. For one, they’re rare. For two, they usually don’t conflict with anything because they don’t venture outside themselves. Their only danger is that they might be virus-infected, but that’s why we install always-on virus protection and push virus definitions.

The goal is to be able to set up PCs for use in the field, get them working right, then lock them down so as to keep people from breaking them by installing AOL and Webshots and every piece of beta software under the sun and break it.

SecurePC will do a few things system policies will as well, and its user interface is much nicer than Microsoft’s Poledit. Poledit will allow finer control of the control panels, so SecurePC doesn’t totally replace it, but the combination of the two will let you really lock a machine down. And frankly, even Windows 95 is pretty reliable as long as it’s running on good hardware and the user doesn’t mess with it.

But SecurePC is obviously targeting companies used to paying someone $100 an hour or more to fix PCs, because it runs $99. A 10-pack of the network version is $550. That’s a bargain for a company, but this would be incredibly useful in public computer labs in schools, libraries and churches, who frequently can’t afford that. It’s a shame. Hey, if it were priced lower I’ll bet some people would even buy it for home use. I have one friend who could really use it–it’d keep his 20-year-old brother from messing up his PC.

Tyrannical Security. This kind of software is a draconian measure, but what people all too often forget is that when a PC is sitting on a desk at work, it ceases to be a PC. It’s a CC–corporate computer, not personal computer. It’s a corporate asset, set up the way the corporation dictates. If the corporation says no screen savers, no Webshots, no stupid Yahoo news ticker, no RealAudio, then that’s law. Problem is, that’s impossible to enforce with the tools that come with Windows. But a third-party product to enforce them is a Godsend. Computer toys eat memory and CPU cycles, slowing it down and thus hurting productivity, and many of these toys are so poorly written as to make Microsoft look like a model of stability. Personally, I can’t wait for the day when Real Networks goes out of business. So these programs go in, break stuff, and then there’s lost productivity while waiting for the tech to arrive, then still more while an overworked tech tries to fix it. If we were to buy 1,000 copies of some security program that works and roll it out to everyone on our network, I’d be willing to bet it would pay for itself in three months.

The number of the day: 146. I use the Al Gore method of taking IQ tests. I keep taking them over and over again until I like the results. They say the 135-145 range looks like a genius to most people; the 145-165 range is a true genius. I’m accused of being a genius frequently enough that I’m probably at least a 135.

So since I climbed 22 points in a day, I can assume I’ll climb another 22 points today if I take another one, which will put me at 168–high genius level. Then I can take another one tomorrow, gain another 22 points, and apply for Mensa membership.

Or I can forget about it and get on with life. I think I like that idea better.

01/18/2001

A red-hatted worm. Wow. You sure don’t hear about this often.  There’s a worm that exploits a weakness in Red Hat Linux 6.2 and 7.0. Coined the Ramen worm, it defaces Web pages with a tribute to Ramen noodles. This is the first of these that I’ve heard of, and I’ll say it’s an example of why multiple distributions are a good thing. Other distributions aren’t vulnerable to this, so the spread slows. Hardening Red Hat against this isn’t hard–head to securityfocus.com, which anyone who administers Linux boxes for a living needs to be reading anyway. Exploits and fixes are generally documented and fixed long before anything can take advantage of them.

The number of the day is… 114. That’s my IQ, at least according to the 10-minute test I took yesterday in between phone calls while two of my coworkers were arguing about the validity of IQ tests. I popped up, announced my score, fueled the debate and then left. I was feeling vindictive I guess.

Generally, as I understand it, 100 is average. If you’re in the 130s, you’re gifted. I’ve been around some 170s and I keep up with them with no problems. I knew a 190 once. She gave me some problems, partly because I couldn’t understand her when she started spouting off in Latin. Solo hablo ingles y un poco espanol–un muy poco espanol. And I think another part of the problem was I found her boring, too refined.

What’d my coworkers have to say about my score? One of them used me to dismiss all validity of IQ tests–no way that guy’s a 114! His problem-solving ability is too good, and that memory, and and and… Well, slightly above-average people generally don’t write their first book and publish it before their 25th birthday. The coworker arguing in favor of IQ tests blamed my score on environment and poor preparation. I admit, my preparation was awful–I took it on spur of the moment, didn’t check any answers, took a 20-minute test in 10, took a couple of phone calls while I was doing it… So I was hardly scientific.

But what do we mean when we call someone “smart,” anyway?

Good memory? My dad sure had a great memory. I have a pretty good one too. I can probably tell you the starting lineup of every Kansas City Royals team from 1980 to last season. (I’ll spare you). And obscure computer information… don’t get me started. But nobody has a memory as good as a computer. Some would say the only thing dumber than a computer is a toaster, but I wonder, because my toaster sure works a whole lot better than my computer does most of the time.

Intelligence? Intelligence is the ability to reason and analyze. Some people do this really well. Others don’t. Most people who’ve watched me work say I have good troubleshooting and analysis skills, though I often score poorly on tests that measure that. Yet when I took the ACT, I did everything wrong. I went out with my girlfriend the night before. I stayed up late. I decided to come home and study afterward. Then I went in and scored a 30 or 31 on my first try. For those unfamiliar with the ACT, a score of 30 gives you an automatic scholarship from the state of Missouri at any state university. I think 36 is the highest possible score. A score of 26 gets you automatic admission at most state universities. As I recall, I scored in the 98th percentile in social studies, 99th in English, low 80-something in math and high 80-something in science. (Just call me Mr. Humanities.)

Common sense? I guess this is ability to deal with the real world. I’ve run into people who are seriously deficient here. That girl I knew with a 190… She had virtually none. She was always finding herself in situations she couldn’t think her way out of. Some people call this “street smart,” and I think that’s a good description of it. Common sense isn’t as common as it should be.

Wisdom? I think wisdom’s the most important of the bunch. It’s the ability to use what you’ve got. I scored very poorly on one proficiency test that measured my ability to analyze. My biggest beef was that it was heavily slanted towards the mathematically minded, and I don’t have that inclination–my math numbers were what dragged down my ACT score the most–and the last time I had to juggle numbers a lot was in 1994. One time when someone used that score against me, I retorted, “Yeah, so I don’t have as much as some of those guys. At least I know how to use what little I’ve got, and they certainly don’t!” Is it possible that my intelligence and common sense are only slightly above average, and that I use memory and wisdom to compensate? Maybe.

I know someone who doesn’t think she’s smart. And maybe she lacks in one of those areas. I don’t know. What I do know is she knows how to get things done. And I’ve never felt any need to talk down to her. When we’ve talked, I’ve always had the sense she’s understood what I’m talking about–and we’ve talked some pretty heavy subjects at times. Remember my line of work.

When I think smart, I think of those guys I know who had 170-plus IQs and pontificated a lot. She doesn’t do that. But when I think dumb, she doesn’t come to mind either. My former neighbor who believed every conspiracy theory out there and who believed The X-Files is a documentary does. He also tended to overuse profanity and thought very highly of his own intelligence.

I think it was a Supreme Court justice who once said he couldn’t define the word obscene, but he knew it when he saw it. I think the same goes for intelligence. It’s hard to define and even harder to measure, but we know it when we see it.

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