Happy Patch Tuesday

Today was the first Patch Tuesday in nearly four years that I didn’t have to worry about professionally. Since Microsoft released 13 patches today and Adobe released two, my former coworkers might be wondering if I knew something. (I didn’t.)

But I still patched my machine at home, and I recommend you do too. Macintosh owners, you’re not immune, so I have some homework for you too.The Adobe patches apply to Acrobat and to the so-called Adobe Reader (which used to be called Acrobat Reader). I recommend you launch Adobe Reader, go to the Help menu, and select Check for Updates. Unless you’re reading this site on a Commodore 64, these updates apply to you.

Mac users tend to be awfully smug about security, and that myth really needs to stop. Apple hasn’t released any security fixes this month, but they did release 9 fixes last month. The biggest one fixes flaws in 16 different applications. Microsoft probably would have released 16 different patches instead of just one. I prefer the Microsoft approach–besides being a little more honest, it also results in smaller download packages if by some chance one or more of those 16 vulnerabilities happen to not apply to a particular machine.

And now, please excuse me for a moment while I recover from the shock of having used the word “honest” to describe Microsoft.

Just out of curiosity, I looked, and Apple has released security updates every month this year except for April. Unlike Microsoft, they don’t follow a set schedule, and the month isn’t over yet, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see something from them later this month.

I won’t bore you with the details, but basically, what it comes down to is this: If I really want into your computer, all I really have to do is booby-trap a file and get you to open it. It could be a PDF file, a movie, a music file, or something else. I can embed code into that file that gives me complete control of the computer. I just have to know whether your computer runs Mac OS or Windows. And how to write the code, of course. (I don’t know how to write the code and I don’t want control of your computer, so there’s no reason to be afraid of me.)

If you’ve been installing your patches, there’s little reason to be afraid of the guy who who DOES know how to write the code and DOES want control of your computer.

Your computer may update automatically. If you don’t know for certain whether it does, I suggest you find out. Now. No matter whose name is stamped on the case.

Optimizing Firefox

Firefox is a better browser than Internet Explorer by a long shot, but at times it’s made me wonder if it’s strayed from its original mission of being a lean, quick, simple browser based on the Mozilla engine.

I’ve seen several “Optimizing Firefox” guides and most of them talk very little about performance, and the ones I did find were not only disappointing, they also appear to be widely copied verbatim without attribution. So here’s what I do to shaq-fu Firefox into shape.Try out Firetune. Firetune is a wizard-like program that configures most of the common Firefox tweaks based on criteria you select. In my case, since I have a P3-700 with 192 megs of RAM, I selected Slow computer/Fast connection on the Performance tab, and Optimize Firefox memory usage on the tab labeled Other useful settings. For me, the payoff was immediate.

Install PDF Download. If you view a PDF file online, Firefox keeps Acrobat in memory essentially forever, where it does nothing but chew up precious memory until the next time you view a PDF, which might be in a minute, or it might be next month. Take control over this behavior by installing PDF Download.

By default, after installing PDF Download, you’ll get a dialog box asking what you want to do when confronted with a PDF file. If you click the View PDF button, it loads it in your OS default PDF viewer. This behavior is less seamless than viewing the PDF directly in your browser, but it’s much better for performance because after you close the file, the viewer unloads from memory. For even better performance, forget about Adobe’s Acrobat Reader and install Foxit Reader, which is much smaller and faster. By default, when you install Foxit Reader, it will make itself your OS default PDF viewer. Trust me, this is what you’ll want.

On my 700 MHz P3 running Windows 2000, PDF documents display in one second with PDF Download and Foxit Reader installed. That’s faster than Acrobat ever was, even if it was already in memory.

I like the combination so much, I went to Tools, PDF Download Options, and set the default action to Open PDF, rather than displaying the dialog box. Now I no longer dread downloading PDFs from the Web.

Optimize memory usage a bit more. Type about:config into a browser window and scroll down to browser.sessionhistory.max_total_viewers. The default value is -1, which will determine the number of pages in your browser history to cache based on the amount of memory you have. I set it to 1, since I do tend to use my browser’s back button a lot. If you almost never find yourself clicking the back button, or you have a very low-memory machine, set this to 0. Each page it stores takes up about 4 megs of RAM.

Clear your downloads. Hit ctrl-j to bring up the download manager and clear it out. Too many entries slows Firefox down, partly because it increases memory usage.

Keep your version current. Often newer versions of software are slower and fatter than the old versions, but newer versions of Firefox are often faster than older versions because memory leaks and performance problems tend to get fixed in newer versions. I don’t recommend running beta or preview release versions, and I’m not all that crazy about .0 versions either (when Firefox 3.0 is released, I’ll wait until version comes out). I just upgraded an old computer that had been running a very early Firefox 1.0 to, and the difference is incredible.

For what it’s worth, version (the current version) running with these changes feels very zippy on a P3-700 with 192 megs of RAM.

Happy New Year!

The way the ‘Net oughta be. I finally broke down and bought a VCR yesterday. It’s hard to do video work without one, and you want to give people drafts on VHS. When it comes to consumer video, there are two companies I trust: Hitachi and Hitachi. So I went looking for a Hitachi VCR. Their low-end model, a no-frills stereo 4-head model, ran $70 at Circuit City. I ordered it online, along with 5 tapes. Total cost: 80 bucks. For “delivery,” you’ve got two options: delivery, or local pickup. I did local pickup at the store five miles from where I live. You avoid the extended warranty pitch and trying to convince someone in the store to help you, and you just walk into the store, hand the paperwork to customer service, sign for it, then go pick it up. Suddenly consumer electronics shopping is like Chinese or pizza take-out. I love it.
The VCR’s not much to look at and the $149 models are more rugged-looking and have more metal in them, but this model is made in Korea so it ought to be OK, and the playback’s great on my 17-year-old Commodore 1702 (relabeled JVC) composite monitor. For what I’ll be asking it to do, it’s fine. In my stash of Amiga cables I found an RCA y-adapter that mixes two audio outputs, which I used to connect to the monitor’s mono input.

Desktop Linux. Here are my current recommendations for people trying to replace Windows with Linux.

Web browser: Galeon. Very lightweight. Fabulous tabbed interface. I hate browsing in Windows now.
Minimalist browser: Dillo. Well under a meg in size, and if it’ll render a site, it’ll render it faster than anything else you’ll find.
FTP client: GFTP. Graphical FTP client, saves hosts and username/password combinations for you.
PDF viewer: XPDF. Smaller and faster than Acrobat Reader, though that’s available for Linux too.
Mail client/PIM: Evolution. What Outlook should have been.
Lightweight mail client: Sylpheed. Super-fast and small, reasonably featured.
File manager: Nautilus. Gorgeous and easy to use, though slow on old PCs. Since I use the command line 90% of the time, it’s fine.
Graphics viewer: GTK-See. A convincing clone of ACDSee. Easy-to-use graphics viewer with a great interface.
News reader: Pan. Automatically threads subject headers for you, and it’ll automatically decode and display uuencoded picture attachments as part of the body. Invaluable for browsing the graphics newsgroups.
File compression/decompression: I use the command-line tools. If you want something like WinZip, there’s a program out there called LnxZip. It’s available in RPM or source form; I couldn’t find a Debian package for it.
Desktop publishing: Yes, desktop publishing on Linux! Scribus isn’t as powerful as QuarkXPress, but it gives a powerful enough subset of what QuarkXPress 3.x offered that I think I would be able to duplicate everything I did in my magazine design class way back when, in 1996. It’s more than powerful enough already to serve a small business’ DTP needs. Keep a close eye on this one. I’ll be using it to meet my professional DTP needs at work, because I’m already convinced I can do more with it than with Microsoft Publisher, and more quickly.
Window manager: IceWM. Fast, lightweight, integrates nicely with GNOME, Windows-like interface.
Office suite: Tough call. KOffice is absolutely good enough for casual use. StarOffice 6/OpenOffice looks to be good enough for professional use when released next year. WordPerfect Office 2000 is more than adequate for professional use if you’re looking for a commercial package.

Building a Win95 box

Building a Windows 95 box? Why? You nuts?
Why not? You’ve got old hardware, you’ve got a ton of licenses to run an obsolete operating system… It’s a good match. Remember, a Pentium-120 was a titan of a PC in 1995. You couldn’t get anything faster. Running Windows 95 on a Pentium-120 with 24 MB RAM, 1.2 GB HD, and 8X CD-ROM in 1995 seemed like running Windows 2000 on a decked-out 1.4 GHz Athlon today. Maybe it seemed even more extreme than that; I remember selling a good number of 486DX2/66s and DX4/100s in the summer of 1995. They were low-end, yes, but they were at that $1,000 sweet spot. You’d pick up a DX2/66 for $800 and a 14″ monitor for $200, and sometimes as a weekend special we’d bundle the two together with a printer for $1,099 or something.

We had a Pentium-120 to rebuild at work, and we had its Win95 license, so it made sense to just rebuild it with the stuff it had. I know Jerry Pournelle had a really hard time building a Win95 box a few months back. I didn’t have much trouble at all, so I might as well document the pitfalls.

First of all, I used vintage hardware. That helps. Win95 was designed for 1995-era hardware. This PC probably dates from 1996 or so; it has the strange pairing of an Intel 430HX chipset and a Pentium-120. The 120 was more frequently bundled with the earlier 430FX chipset; by the time of the HX, the 133 was considered low-end, the 200 high-end, and the 166 was mainstream. The video card was a plain old Cirrus Logic-based PCI card; no issues there. AGP sometimes threw Win95 for a loop. None of that here. While DMA drivers certainly improved the 430HX, they weren’t necessary for stable performance. In other words, a 430HX-based board with a Cirrus video card works acceptably straight out of the box, with no additional drivers.

Other hardware: A Mitsumi 8X CD-ROM. I don’t remember exactly when 8X came out, but for the most part an IDE CD-ROM is an IDE CD-ROM, from a driver standpoint. A Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16. That was a very common, very well-supported sound card. A DEC 450 network card. Those DEC cards can be a real pain to get working sometimes, but Win95 surprised me and detected it straight up.

But Setup wouldn’t run initially. It took some figuring, but I solved that problem. My colleague had booted with a Win98 boot disk I made over a year ago. He did an FDISK and format to wipe the drive, but he formatted the drive FAT32. The original Win95 didn’t know about FAT32, so Setup was throwing a hissy fit when it saw it. I did another FDISK and format, switched to plain old FAT16, and Setup installed very happily.

Once I got Setup to run, it installed, and quickly at that. And with absolutely no issues. Remember, Win95’s footprint was only about 35 megs. It doesn’t take long for an 8X drive to deliver 35 megs. And the system booted quickly. I didn’t sit down and time it, but I’m used to calling a minute a reasonably fast boot time, and this thing didn’t seem slow to me at all. A little optimization would help, of course. A little logo=0 in c:msdos.sys goes a long way.

Running Win95 on newer hardware is possible, but remember, it’s been nearly four years since it was the mainstream OS. And you can have a lot of headaches trying to do it. Windows 3.1 is in the same boat–it’s downright hard to find device drivers for modern video cards. Then again, I can think of circumstances under which I’d want to run Win95. I can’t think of any compelling reason whatsoever to run Win3.1 at this point in time. (And there wasn’t any compelling reason to run it in 1994 either.)

If I had to build up a Win95 box today and could have whatever components I wanted, I’d probably look for an Asus P55T2P4, easily the best Socket 7 motherboard ever manufactured. (In 1997 when I was in the market, I opted for an Abit IT5H instead and I’m still kicking myself.) That board is most naturally paired with a Pentium-MMX/233, but with unsupported–but widely-documented online–voltage settings, you can run more recent K6-2 CPUs on it. The P55T2P4 allows an FSB of up to 83 MHz, but for stability’s sake, I’d keep it at 66 MHz, or possibly 68 MHz if the board supports it (I don’t remember anymore). You can run a K6-2/400 with a 6x multiplier at either of those settings and be very close to its rated speed. Then I’d use an ATI Xpert 98 video card. Yes, it’s a bit old, but it’s probably the best all-around PCI card that’s still reasonably easy to find. Win95 won’t recognize it without manufacturer-supplied drivers, of course, but that’s not so bad. This combination would give you surprisingly good performance, stability, and minimal difficulty of installation.

Anyway, that adventure reminded me that a Pentium-120 can still be a viable computer. Vintage software like Win95 runs well on it. Office 95 has more features than most of us use, and it’s faster and more stable than the recent incarnations. It also has fewer strings attached. IE 5.01, although recent, would run decently on a P120, as long as you left out Active Desktop. Acrobat Reader 3.0 will still read the majority of PDF files on the Web, and it’s smaller and faster-loading than more recent versions. Do a Web search; you can still find it online.

Don’t get carried away with what you install, and a P120 can certainly surprise you.

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