01/07/2001

Mailbag:

HD; disk I/O tweaking

There was cause for celebration last night. And celebration means dinner at Courtesy Diner, where the specialty is the heart attack on a plate. That pretty much means anything but the pancakes, but the favored selection is usually some combination of chili, eggs and hash browns–known here in St. Louis at least as a slinger.

So Gatermann and I had our slingers as we listened to the denizens’ weird selections on the jukebox, then we headed out to a world-famous St. Louis landmark–Ted Drewes’ Frozen Custard. We were surprised to find it wasn’t busy, because it was the first warm Saturday we’ve had in weeks. It was actually over 30 degrees and the snow was melting, but the wimps stayed home. Going to Ted Drewes’ and not having to wait in line for 20 minutes is a rarity. I’ll have to remember that January is the time to go there. In August, that place is lined up well out into the street. Incidentally, there’s a Baskin-Robbins right next door that makes a killing off people who decide fast service and air conditioning sound a whole lot better than waiting forever in line in the world-infamous St. Louis heat and humidity.

As for why Ted Drewes’ is any better than any other frozen custard in the world, I haven’t figured that out. I think it’s nostalgia as much as anything. It’s just about the last remaining landmark in St. Louis on what used to be U.S. 66, a road so famous that there used to be a TV show about it. I know it’s even known in Europe, because Depeche Mode recorded a heavily synthesized version of that show’s theme song in the late 1980s.

Well, Route 66, now known as Missouri 366–you can tell the difference between a city slicker and a countian by what they call 366, because it’s Chippewa in the city, but Watson in the suburbs–pretty much looks like any other metropolitan drag these days. Its distinctive features are mostly gone.

They tore down the 66 Park-In Theatre (where many a St. Louisan was conceived) and the Coral Courts motel (where Bonnie and Clyde hid out, and also where many a St. Louisan was conceived) back in 1993, so what’s left? A bunch of strip malls, as well as real malls infested with 14-year-olds trying to look 25. Well, that and a run-down custard stand with hand-lettered plackards announcing the day’s specials. It’s easy to see what has the most charm.

So we got our custard and entertained ourselves by watching 16-year-olds driving in what’s left of the snow. One of them peeled out in the parking lot and just about nailed a dumpster with his mom’s minivan.

Yes, a good St. Louis celebration.

Oh yeah, I forgot to say what the cause was.

I made it over to Gatermann’s around 5 or so. I’d suggested over the phone that he try disabling the L2 cache on Tim Coleman’s PC and see what happens. Well, when I got there, Tim’s computer was sitting there at a command prompt–further than it had been in a long time. He popped in a Windows Me CD, and it made it through the installation. Parts of it were fast, but the final stage was painfully slow. We didn’t complain though–it was working. We got it installed and Tom did some quick-and-dirty optimization (I taught him everything I know). Then I took the helm. I re-enabled the L2 cache, and nothing. It started booting, but at the point where the floppy drive should seek, it kicked into 132-column text mode and gave me a flashing cursor in the upper left. I powered down, powered back up, entered the BIOS, turned off the L2 cache again (no original Celeron jokes please), and the old Cyrix fired right up. Ironically, the CPU is one of the few parts we haven’t blown yet on this thing.

So we ran through it, concluded that the speed is acceptable for what Tim uses it for, and called him up with the good news. I probably ought to give the board a thorough examination under magnification to make sure there’s nothing physically wrong with it and maybe try another CPU in it, but since I was lacking both a CPU and magnification at the moment and the system was working, that would wait.

So it was off to dinner, without Tim because he’s remodeling his kitchen. We would have offered to help, but Tim doesn’t trust either one of us with power tools. So we didn’t.

I’d say we thought of Tim as we watched the teenagers make fools of themselves in the parking lot, but he’d probably be offended. Besides, I’d be lying.

Mailbag:

HD; disk I/O tweaking

01/06/2001

New adventures in SCSI. I was digging around this week and I found an old SCSI card. The PCB identified it as an Initio INI-9100A. I seem to recall I got it with my CD burner a few years back, and that I ditched it when it wouldn’t work with Windows 2000 RC2. Curious to see if drivers were ever released for it, I checked Initio’s Web site, and lo and behold, the release version of Windows 2000 was supposed to support the card. Since I’ve got a couple of decent SCSI CD-ROM drives laying around, I figured, why not try it?

I was unhappy to see Windows 2000 failed to bring up the Add New Hardware wizard after installation, but when I looked in Device Manager, the card was there. So I powered down, connected an old NEC 12X SCSI CD-ROM to it, powered back up, and bingo! I even got activity during boot. A quick verification by reading the disc, and I’m happy. So I powered down again. What else can I throw at it…? I spied an ancient, ancient Quantum 52 MB SCSI drive. (Don’t ask me why I keep this stuff.) I knew the card wouldn’t boot off it, since it lacks an onboard BIOS, but would the drive still work, I wondered? So I powered down, plugged the ancient thing in there, power back up, and I thought I saw the drive’s LED flicker during boot. Yes, back in this drive’s day, hard drives had LEDs on the front of them. They even had faceplates! I watched Windows finish booting, opened My Computer, and sure enough, I had an extra hard drive up there. But what on Earth could be on it? I opened up the drive, and hit gold. I must have used the drive sometime within the past five years, because it contained a copy of Caldera OpenDOS. That, believe it or not, is extremely useful. OpenDOS’ FDISK will delete any partition, unlike Microsoft’s. So I’m very glad I tried the drive.

So now I’ve got two SCSI-equipped systems, one of which is bootable. I’ve got an excuse to go buy a $220 IBM or Quantum 10,000 RPM SCSI drive… Uh oh. Good thing I got some overtime at work this week and will get some more this weekend.

And it looks like it’s unplanned upgrade time. Tom Gatermann called me up yesterday. He was replacing our friend Tim Coleman’s hard drive and the system just wouldn’t come back up. He futzed around with it for an hour, trying everything he could think of, then called me. I had him try putting the hard drive on auto detect, reset all the PnP/ESCD data, and of course, check all the cables. Nothing. The board would POST, then die. Well, without having a POST card (I know how to make one except I don’t have an EPROM burner) I can’t diagnose it any further.

Come to think of it, I should have had him disable L2 cache and see if that brought it back to life. It’d be slow as can be, but that’s a good way to troubleshoot a Socket 7 system, or a 386 or 486 for that matter. Strip the system down to just motherboard, CPU, video, a boot device, and a single bank of memory (a single DIMM or one pair of SIMMs). Disable L2 cache. If it works with L2 cache disabled, it’s a motherboard problem of some sort. Check all jumpers, re-seat anything that’s re-seatable, and try again. If it still doesn’t work, it has to be a CPU, video, or memory problem. Then you’ve got a few more steps to try, including disabling L1 cache and switching out the video and memory.

Tom took the system home with him, so I’ll be giving it a look today.

At any rate, it looks like we’re dealing with a blown board, and every time Tom or I do anything with that system, something goes. Tim’s on power supply #2, motherboard #2, sound card #2… Tim’s got an army of cats, and the system’s on the floor, which gives me concern. The system can pull in cat hair, and with it, static electricity. And I don’t know how good Tim’s wiring is. It’s a very maddening problem. Had anyone else built the system, I’d be cursing them, but Tom and I built it ourselves, and we used the same calibre parts we use in our own systems. So we think it’s an environmental problem.

I’m thinking I’ll go ahead and pick up a Gigabyte motherboard with a Duron chip on it, then give Tim my two-year-old AOpen AX59Pro board. I normally run systems much longer than that, but I want to help Tim, and I really ought to try to stay somewhat current.

Linux 2.4 again. I was right. Within 4 hours of 2.4’s release, Alan Cox released Linux2.4-ac1. A few hours after that, Linux2.4-ac2 followed. When does he sleep, I wonder?

01/05/2001

Mailbag:

Video card; Optimizing Windows; Maxtor drive

A links day, mostly. I spent most of my free time last night conducting an interview, the fruits of which just aren’t ready for here yet. But man… There really is something that’s better than messing with computers. It’s chasing down a story. (Purely my opinion, of course. I can hear the “Shaddup, ya slimy journalist!” mutterings now.)

I messed around the last couple of days with importing messages and addresses from the Mac version of Netscape Communicator into Outlook. That’s an adventure. I’ll have to write that up, maybe this weekend. And for the first time in several years, I’m actually doing Windows NT administration on the domain level again. Granted, it’s not a production domain–the purpose is strictly research. But it’s kinda nice to move back into that realm for a little bit, though I don’t want to stay in that role too long.

I had tons of mail, some of which I got to and some I didn’t. I put off the less time-critical stuff until the weekend. But keep it coming. Frankly the mail’s better than the stuff I come up with on my own, I think.

Search request of the day. Every once in a while I get a weird one. Yesterday’s was, from Google, “hate Southwestern Bell.” Who doesn’t?

But first the big news. Linux 2.4 is out. Its release seemed like a bit of a letdown, with Linus Torvalds saying pretty much, “Oh, by the way, it’s out.” Expect to see distributions based around it soon, but probably not tomorrow.

What’s new about it? Scalability and speed, mostly. And I found the 2.3 series had slightly better memory management. Hmm. Seems quite the opposite of Microsoft, doesn’t it, when new releases require less memory than the previous version did? Of course the bloated GUIs will eat up all the memory the kernel frees up.

Duron vs. Celeron. From the head-to-head comparisons I’ve read, the Celeron/i815 combination is a better productivity box, by a hair. But the Duron/KM133 combo, though slow for productivity, is a surprisingly good low-end gaming box. And even in its weak spots, it’s still better than anything we had a couple of years ago. And I hold firmly to my statement that no computer made since 1997 is truly obsolete.

And on to the links…

A place to buy SCSI stuff. The great people over at Storage Review love Hypermicro. They’re at www.hypermicro.com .

Everything you ever wanted to know about SCSI. (I’m on a SCSI kick.) It’s at www.scsifaq.org .

Fix your VIA-based mobo. All the latest VIA drivers are over at www.viahardware.com/download/index.shtm .

Gigabyte GA-7DX preview. Get your AMD-760 fix over at www.xbitlabs.com/mainboards/ga-7dx.html . It’ll probably be a few weeks yet before you can buy one though. But this board sure looks good.

Mailbag:

Video card; Optimizing Windows; Maxtor drive

01/04/2001

Mailbag:
Book question; Linux; Hard drive
Optwin update. I spoke with Glenn Gilmore, a marketing director at O’Reilly, today, and he assured me there are plenty of copies of Optimizing Windows available. He suggested there must be a glitch in Amazon’s database, which he said happens fairly often. Since O’Reilly and Amazon do a lot of business, he’s probably in a position to say that.
So, to reiterate, the book is available, and there are enough copies in Tennessee to last quite a long time. If it’s not available at Amazon, please check Fatbrain or Barnes & Noble or another online reseller.
I crashed my machine and lost my post for today. Good thing that doesn’t happen often. I launched Word in order to start writing up a book proposal (don’t get too excited yet–just because I write a proposal doesn’t mean I do anything with it, and even if I do something with it, it doesn’t mean anyone else will like it) and Word never came up. Winamp fell silent. Mouse movements became as erratic as George Brett’s throwing arm in the 1970s. The mouse cursor changed to a vertical bar and never changed back. The caps-lock light didn’t light when I hit the caps lock key. Ctrl-Alt-Del brought up the task manager but wouldn’t let me do anything else. Yup. We’re hung. I waited five minutes to be sure. Nothing. It never came out of its coma. I hit Ctrl-Atl-Del a couple of times and rebooted.

Like I said, this doesn’t happen often. After I rebooted, I found out there are new critical updates for my computer. I wonder if that had something to do with my crash…? Significantly, Windows Update promptly crashed, but this time it didn’t take the system down. I’ve really gotta learn to just say no…

(And if it seems like I’m being overly dramatic, remember, this doesn’t happen to me often.)

So, what’d I lose? I’m trying to remember.

The rest of the story on memory. Visit www.pcguide.com/art/sdram.htm for the little tidbits I didn’t tell you last week. I didn’t leave out so much.

Optimizing Windows. It looks like it may be out of print. Amazon is now saying it is. I need to contact O’Reilly to find out for certain. They could do another printing, but the question is, are they willing? With O’Reilly mostly pulling out of the Windows market, I don’t know. My editor said this past fall that this title was safe–for now. But it’s not Fall 2000 anymore, so anything’s possible.

In the meantime, just because Amazon doesn’t have it doesn’t mean it’s unavailable. Check www.bestbookbuys.com/cgi-bin/bbb.cgi?ISBN=1565926773 to see who’s got it in stock and at the best price. Borders and Barnes & Noble, of course, are reputable. So are Fatbrain and Buy.com, all of whom were offering it when I checked.

Back to that proposal. So is finding out my book’s probably out of print related in any way to me writing a book proposal? Maybe. But just as significant, I got a newsletter from my alma mater yesterday, and an old archrival was very obviously showing off in the Class Notes. And the wording, and the details that were included, along with the details that were excluded suggests that the audience was intended to be limited. Maybe just to me.

That archrival needs to be put back in that archrival’s proper place (a legend in my archrival’s own mind), so I’m motivated. I’ll even use NaturallySpeaking to get this project out if I have to. Time to write a book that gets both critical acclaim and sales.

Speaking of publications… The February 2001 issue of Computer Shopper UK should be out now. This issue features the second installment of my “Optimise Your PC” series, this one with a focus on DOS compatibility.

Mailbag:
Book question; Linux; Hard drive

01/03/2001

Mailbag:

Dual Celerons; Chap. 9

Dead ATX power supplies. Yesterday was my first day back at work in a while (I was burning up vacation time most of last week). I “fixed” an ATX power supply first thing that morning by unplugging it and plugging it back in after waiting 10 seconds. I see that problem somewhat frequently on Micron desktop PCs for some reason. If it gets to be a regular occurrance on a particular PC, we get Micron to RMA the power supply.

Mac-PC font conversion madness. We also ran into some problems migrating some documents from Macs to PCs, so the resident Unix guru, who’s also the other resident Mac guru, and I spent all afternoon struggling with it. Finally, we just started converting a couple of the crucial Type 1 (PostScript) fonts manually to get around the problem. He had his Linux laptop with Netatalk configured, so I dumped the fonts to his Linux box, which he then converted and I grabbed on a PC via FTP.

There is no good free way to move fonts between the Mac and Windows, alas. From the Mac to Unix is no big deal. But all the freebie converters have major drawbacks. I went and got the $45 shareware CrossFont from www.asy.com and tried it out. It gave satisfactory results on two of the fonts, but totally mangled the line spacing on the third. We suspect that font has problems, so it may not be CrossFont’s fault, but it would be nice to know for sure.

Speaking of Type 1, Adobe Type Manager Light is now a free download for both Windows and the Mac. Get your copy at www.adobe.com. There aren’t a huge number of free PostScript fonts out there, but there are some.

The Epson Stylus 1520. Today was a Mac problem day mostly. I ended the day by troubleshooting an Epson Stylus Color 1520 that didn’t want to print pure colors. Pushing the clean button didn’t help. I finally just switched over to the printer’s local port (we usually print via the Epson Stylus RIP to get PostScript Level 3 support), opened an application, loaded a file, chose to print, then hit the Utility button from the print dialog box. I do wish there were an easier way to get to the utility function. I cleaned the nozzles and aligned the print heads, and voila, we once again had nice prints.

Too bad Epson hides that utility so deeply, because I spend a lot of time cleaning those stupid printers and that’s really something an end user could do, if they could remember how. (I have a hard time remembering how, which is part of the reason why I’m putting it here. Running a Web site has its advantages…)

The other problem I have with this printer is that because it cost $500, people seem to think it’s a high-volume printer, capable of printing thousands of pages a month. It’s not. It really is a consumer-grade printer. While the print quality is very good as long as you have the right paper, that’s this printer’s appeal, and that’s why it costs so much. Printing thousands of sheets a month is a great way to burn through printheads, and that’s not something that’s user-replaceable. It’s not even something I can do–it has to go into the shop. And no, when you pay $500 for a printer, you don’t get onsite service.

Mailbag:

Dual Celerons; Chap. 9

01/02/2001

Mailbag:

IE shortcut; Optimizing WinME; Partition; 10/100 NIC; Mobos

Trimming down Windows 2000.¬†Someone else observed last week that, among other things, Windows’ included games are now critical system components. That’s messed up. Fortunately, it’s fixable.

Open the file C:WinntInfsysoc.inf in your favorite text editor, after making a backup copy of course. Search for the string “HIDE,” (without quotes, but including the comma). Delete all references to this string. Save the file. Reboot. Now open Control Panel, Add/Remove Programs, and go down to Windows System Components. You can now cleanly uninstall the Windows components that may not be useful to you, such as the Space Cadet Pinball game, or the Accessibility Options. I’m in the habit of just banging on the shift key several times to turn off my screen blanker. Why shift? Because it won’t send weird keystrokes to whatver application I left running in the foreground. Unfortunately, hitting shift five times usually pops up the Accessibility options, much to my annoyance. So I was very glad to finally be able to uninstall that feature.

And a bargain NIC. This week only, Circuit City is selling the D-Link DFE-530TX+ 10/100 NIC for $14.99 with a $9.99 mail-in rebate. While I prefer the DEC Tulip chipset for inexpensive 10/100 NICs, the Realtek chipset in this D-Link works with Linux and Windows, and that’s an absolute giveaway price. I mean, come on, most of us spend that much every week on soda.

I’ve got a D-Link laying around as a spare, but I had a Circuit City gift card with about $7 left on it, so I picked one up. Besides, I needed a stereo miniplug-to-dual-RCA cable, so suddenly I had two semi-compelling reasons to go to the shark-infested cave. It’s good to have some spare parts, and the D-Links have much better compatibility than the NDC card with the obscure Macronix 98715 chipset I still have in at least one of my systems.

I’ve seen some ludicrous claims that D-Link gives you 3Com and Intel quality at a Linksys price. I don’t buy it for a minute. But for a small home-based network, why pay $40-$60 for a NIC if you don’t have to?

And somehow I managed to avoid the sharks as well. I guess I just didn’t have Pentium 4 tattooed across my forehead.

Amazon now seems to be selling Optimizing Windows at its full retail price of $24.95. Obviously sales are slower now than when it was selling at (sometimes deeply) discounted prices, but still much better than November levels. If you’ve bought it, my heartfelt thanks go out to you. If you’ve posted a review, another thank you.

If you’ve read it and like it and feel like writing a review, either at Amazon or another online bookseller such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, Bookpool or Fatbrain, please feel free to do so. I appreciate it greatly. And if you have comments or questions on the book, feel free to e-mail me.

If you’re wanting to do a price compare on Optimizing Windows, visit www2.bestbookbuys.com/cgi-bin/bbb.cgi?ISBN=1565926773.

Mailbag:

IE shortcut; Optimizing WinME; Partition; 10/100 NIC; Mobos

Plextor bargains, and Year 2000 in review

A bargain Plextor CD-RW. I just spotted this great tip in a link to a link to a link in the StorageReview forums. The Iomega ZipCD 12x10x32 appears to be a relabeled Plextor drive, and it sometimes sells for around $100. So if you’re looking for the best CD-R on the market at a great price, go get it.
Details are at www.roundsparrow.com/comp/iomega1 if you want to have a look-see.

The $99 price seems to be a CompUSA special sale. Check local availability at www.compusa.com/products/product_info.asp?product_code=280095 if you’re interested.

Incidentally, the IDE 12x10x32 drives from TDK and Creative are also reported to be re-branded Plextors. Regular retail price on these four “twin” drives is similar, around $300. The TDK and Creative drives come with Nero Burning ROM, however, making them more desirable than the Plextor model. Iomega bundles Adaptec’s CD suite.

Happy New Year. An ancient Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” Well, 2000 certainly was interesting. So, my toast to you this year is this: May 2001 be less interesting than 2000. Boring isn’t always bad. Just usually.

Linux 2.4 almost made it. Yesterday, Linus Torvalds released linux2.4-prerelease and vowed there won’t be a prerelease1, prerelease2, etc.–this is it. Bugs get fixed in this one, then the final 2.4 comes out (to be immediately followed by linux2.4ac1, no doubt–Alan Cox always releases a patched kernel swatting a couple of bugs within hours of Linus releasing the new kernel. It happened with 2.0 and with 2.2, and history repeats itself).

Anyway, the 2.2 prerelease turned into a series in spite of Linus’ vows, so Linus isn’t always right, but I expect 2.4 will be out this month, if not this week.

Linux 2.4 will increase performance, especially on high-memory and SMP machines, but I ran a 2.3 series kernel (basically the Linux equivalent of an alpha release of 2.4) on my P120 for a long time and found it to be faster than 2.2, even on a machine that humble. I also found it to be more stable than Microsoft’s final releases, but hey.

I ought to download 2.4prerelease and put it on my dual Celeron box to see how far it’s come, but I doubt I get around to it today.

Other lowlights of 2000. Windows 2000 flopped. It’s not a total disaster, but sales aren’t meeting Microsoft’s expectations. PC sales flopped, and that was a disaster. The Pentium 4 was released to awful reviews. Nvidia bought the mortal remains of 3dfx for a song. Similarly, Aureal departed from this mortal coil, purchased by longtime archrival Creative Labs after bankruptcy. (In a former incarnation, before bankruptcy and being run into the ground, Aureal was known as MediaVision. PC veterans probably remember them.) A federal judge ordered the breakup of Microsoft, but the appeals process promises to at least delay it, if not prevent it. We’ll hear a lot about that in 2001, but 2001 probably won’t bring any closure.

Hmm, other highlights. Apple failed to release OS X this year, and saw its new product line flop. Dotcom after dotcom shuttered its doors, much to Wall Street’s dismay. Linux companies didn’t topple MS, much to Wall Street’s dismay. And speaking of Wall Street, Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) flip-flopped in the rankings of richest man in the world several times.

And two of my favorite pundits, Bob Metcalfe and G. Burgess Alison, called it quits last year. They are sorely missed.

And once again, 2000 wasn’t the year of the NC.

I know I missed a few. But those were the highlights, as I see them.

01/01/2001

Mailbag:

Partition; IDE/SCSI; Lost CD ROM; Optimizing ME; Win 98/ME

A bargain Plextor CD-RW. I just spotted this great tip in a link to a link to a link in the StorageReview forums. The Iomega ZipCD 12x10x32 appears to be a relabeled Plextor drive, and it sometimes sells for around $100. So if you’re looking for the best CD-R on the market at a great price, go get it.

Details are at www.roundsparrow.com/comp/iomega1 if you want to have a look-see.

The $99 price seems to be a CompUSA special sale. Check local availability at www.compusa.com/products/product_info.asp?product_code=280095 if you’re interested.

Incidentally, the IDE 12x10x32 drives from TDK and Creative are also reported to be re-branded Plextors. Regular retail price on these four “twin” drives is similar, around $300. The TDK and Creative drives come with Nero Burning ROM, however, making them more desirable than the Plextor model. Iomega bundles Adaptec’s CD suite.

Happy New Year. An ancient Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” Well, 2000 certainly was interesting. So, my toast to you this year is this: May 2001 be less interesting than 2000. Boring isn’t always bad. Just usually.

Linux 2.4 almost made it. Yesterday, Linus Torvalds released linux2.4-prerelease and vowed there won’t be a prerelease1, prerelease2, etc.–this is it. Bugs get fixed in this one, then the final 2.4 comes out (to be immediately followed by linux2.4ac1, no doubt–Alan Cox always releases a patched kernel swatting a couple of bugs within hours of Linus releasing the new kernel. It happened with 2.0 and with 2.2, and history repeats itself).

Anyway, the 2.2 prerelease turned into a series in spite of Linus’ vows, so Linus isn’t always right, but I expect 2.4 will be out this month, if not this week.

Linux 2.4 will increase performance, especially on high-memory and SMP machines, but I ran a 2.3 series kernel (basically the Linux equivalent of an alpha release of 2.4) on my P120 for a long time and found it to be faster than 2.2, even on a machine that humble. I also found it to be more stable than Microsoft’s final releases, but hey.

I ought to download 2.4prerelease and put it on my dual Celeron box to see how far it’s come, but I doubt I get around to it today.

Other lowlights of 2000. Windows 2000 flopped. It’s not a total disaster, but sales aren’t meeting Microsoft’s expectations. PC sales flopped, and that was a disaster. The Pentium 4 was released to awful reviews. Nvidia bought the mortal remains of 3dfx for a song. Similarly, Aureal departed from this mortal coil, purchased by longtime archrival Creative Labs after bankruptcy. (In a former incarnation, before bankruptcy and being run into the ground, Aureal was known as MediaVision. PC veterans probably remember them.) A federal judge ordered the breakup of Microsoft, but the appeals process promises to at least delay it, if not prevent it. We’ll hear a lot about that in 2001, but 2001 probably won’t bring any closure.

Hmm, other highlights. Apple failed to release OS X this year, and saw its new product line flop. Dotcom after dotcom shuttered its doors, much to Wall Street’s dismay. Linux companies didn’t topple MS, much to Wall Street’s dismay. And speaking of Wall Street, Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) flip-flopped in the rankings of richest man in the world several times.

And two of my favorite pundits, Bob Metcalfe and G. Burgess Alison, called it quits last year. They are sorely missed.

And once again, 2000 wasn’t the year of the NC.

I know I missed a few. But those were the highlights, as I see them.

Mailbag:

Partition; IDE/SCSI; Lost CD ROM; Optimizing ME; Win 98/ME

Name-brand memory vs. generic

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.

There are three factors that go into the quality of a memory module: the quality of the chips, the quality of the printed circuit board (PCB), and manufacturing.

When memory chips are made, they are tested. A memory chip that runs at or below spec gets classified as an A-grade chip. Chips with minor defects are classified as C-grade chips and shouldn’t be used in PCs.

Memory manufacturers will also charge varying amounts based on how much testing they do for the chips. Top-tier chips are guaranteed to have a failure rate of .1% or less–we’re talking one in a thousand chips failing here.

The least expensive chips aren’t tested at all.

The only way to ensure you’re getting these best-of-the-best chips is to buy name-brand memory. The best way to ensure you’re getting C-grade or untested chips is to buy the cheapest module you can find.

Inexpensive PCBs use a four-layer design, with signal layers on the outside, and power and ground sandwiched inside. This is inexpensive to produce and easy to repair. Unfortunately, this design leaves you open to signal noise, which can corrupt the data stored in the chip, and lead to unpleasant things like BSODs.

A better approach is to put the signal layers inside, and put power and ground on the outside, protecting them. Better still is a six-layer design, which adds two more ground layers for even better isolation. The higher the memory speed, the more important this extra isolation becomes.

You can sometimes tell the difference between a 4-layer and a 6-layer board by looking at it under a strong light. By turning it slowly, you can isolate discrete layers with the naked eye. However, it’s impossible to tell the difference between power, ground, and signal layers with the naked eye.

Name-brand vendors use high-quality PCBs. Some even proudly proclaim it when they use 6-layer boards. Again, the best way to get a poorly designed 4-layer board is to buy the cheapest memory you can find.

The third factor is assembly. When soldering chips to PCBs, things can go wrong. Trust me. I’m very good at demonstrating. While no one puts together memory modules by hand (I hope), my plumber-like soldering skills make me appreciate good equipment. Quality solder joints are bright and shiny, and they’re applied very quickly. Intermittent solder joints cause problems, and they’re maddening.

Kingston puts every module through rigorous testing. Other name-brand manufacturers test as well. When you don’t even know who made your module, it’s impossible to know whether it’s had the proper testing. Putting it in a PC and watching the BIOS check is not proper testing. Memory has to be very far gone to fail that test.

Miscellaneous computer memory.
The module on the right has Samsung chips on it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was made by Samsung. I’d be fine with putting the HP module directly below it in a PC, though. The same goes for the Kingston module at the top of the image.

Frequently vendors will advertise Micron memory or NEC memory. A Micron or NEC stamp on the chips doesn’t necessarily mean they manufactured the module! Be sure to find out who assembled the module–they usually stamp the PCB, or they put a sticker on the module itself. If you find a so-called Micron module on Pricewatch for half the price that Crucial is asking (Crucial is a division of Micron), chances are it’s a no-name module that just happens to have Micron chips on it.

So, does it really make a difference?

As an IT professional by day, I work on a large network–roughly 700 PCs. I’ll conservatively estimate that farm of PCs has 1,000 memory modules collectively. We buy name-brand memory (Crucial, Kingston, Viking or Simple) exclusively. We buy PCs from Micron, so they have Crucial modules in them. Macintoshes generally come with Crucial or IBM modules.

A typical memory module has 8 chips on it, and it only takes one bad chip to make the whole module bad. I’ve seen two bad memory modules cross my desk–so we’re talking two bad chips out of a batch of 8,000. So if you’re buying a single module for a home PC, your chances of getting a lemon are pretty slim if you get a good name brand.

For my own use, I buy name-brand memory modules. Usually this means Crucial; I got a great deal over the summer on some PNY memory so I bought a couple of sticks. I use high-quality memory, I don’t overclock, and I generally don’t run experimental software. I almost never get a BSOD or an illegal operation error, even when running Windows 95 or 98. I reboot my Windows 9x boxes about once a month on average, and half the time that’s because I installed or uninstalled something and it requires me to reboot. To give you an idea how I use PCs, at the moment I have seven applications running, with 11 windows open between them, and two TSRs running. That’s my idea of moderate use.

I’d rather have 64 megs of Crucial memory than a gig of the cheap stuff. Hopefully now you see why.

12/30/2000

Mailbag:
The NOW Generation; VCache
Internet Explorer caching. Internet Explorer’s cache has always been out of control. Reader Andrew Leonard wrote in with CacheSentry, a TSR that uses a scant 58K of memory and corrects some caching bugs in IE 3.0-5.5,¬†including keeping your cache size under control. I’ve been using it for a couple of days and love it.
A link. Long-time reader Pete Moore is trying his hand at Daynoting. He’s over at www.peteranthonymoore.com.
Overheard: One of my readers included me in his mass “Happy New Year” mailing this week. Since this is the real beginning of the century and millenium, he included that as well. One of his friends responded back. Accidentally or not, he hit reply all instead of reply, and he said: It won’t be a happy new year, decade, century, or millenium if it’s anything like the last year, decade, century or millenium.

So cynical, yet so true. I know I sure don’t want a repeat of any of the above.

God, hurry up and make me patient! I uttered those words last night, sometime after having mentioned that my intention in life when I was 21 was to be a famous author, and everyone just looked at me. “That’s a great title,” someone said. “You gotta write that book,” someone else said. And no one would disagree. (Rats!) “You might be famous after all,” yet someone else said. “I need that book,” another someone else said.

“But I’m not qualified to write it!” I said. I should know. Does anyone realize how impatient I am with myself?

Let’s check what’s going on inside Dave’s head: Look at this post! Has Dave ever written anything so worthless in his life? Nothing to say! Nothing! He’ll never attract readers with that. And on a good day he only gets 400 page reads. What’s up with that? He should be up to at least 1,000 by now. Pournelle gets 10,000. Dave would be up over 1,000 if he had anything useful to say.

Okay, my self-talk isn’t that bad–I’m exaggerating some–but you get the idea. I can be patient with actual or potential girlfriends–patient to a fault, sometimes–but outside of that, I’m incredibly impatient. Especially with God, who always seems to have His own ideas about how things are going to go (the nerve of Him! (I hope you recognize sarcasm (and I hope you don’t mind nested parenthesis (aren’t they annoying?)))), and they’re always so different from mine. So I’m supposed to write a book about patience?

Then I remembered a couple of things. Sometimes the least-qualified people are actually the most qualified. And even if that’s not the case here, authors frequently know less than nothing about their subject matter before they take it on. It shouldn’t be that way, but hey, no one said the publishing industry made any sense whatsoever.

Umm, that could be bad, taken out of context. I learned a lot when writing Optimizing Windows, yes, but that was pretty much my specialty even before I started writing it. I wrote the book that I needed/wanted in 1996 when I started learning how to push Windows PCs for all they were worth–I already knew how to push an Amiga or an OS/2 box. I tried once to write a book as I learned the subject matter. I won’t do that again. You were spared, some say mercifully, others say regrettably, from the result of that endeavor.

I do realize most of my generation is very impatient. And it’s getting worse. If I had to sum U.S. culture up in one word, I’d choose the word “Now!” and I’d find some way to emphasize it. So, maybe I do need to explore this subject matter. Assuming 47 others haven’t already.

Mailbag:
The NOW Generation; VCache

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