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cheap stuff

Is peel and stick tile any good?

Is peel and stick tile any good? That’s a fair question, considering its low cost. And if you just buy the cheapest peel and stick you can find and slap it down without any preparation or thought, you probably won’t be very happy with it.

That said, if you do good prep work and think about it, you may find peel and stick vinyl tile more durable than costlier floor types.

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How to repaint screen door/storm door handles

I have three storm door handles, much like the one to the right, that were a bit worse for wear. The painted black finish had worn off over time in places, creating an uneven finish of dull black and dull gray.  Replacing them would make the house look a lot better in a subtle way, but there was nothing wrong with them–they worked fine, they just looked worn out.

So I repainted them instead of replacing them and saved myself $30.

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Cheap computer gear for the week of Sept. 15

What kind of cheap stuff have I uncovered this week? Socket A microATX mobos are still 20 bucks. For those of you blessed with tower cases, 47-gig full-height 5.25″ SCSI hard drives are 20 bucks. If your storage needs are more modest, a 23-gig version is 8 bucks. CD-RW drives are very close to the dollar-per-X mark (32X drives for about $30, 40X drives for about $40, 52X drives for around $50). CRT monitors are dirt cheap because everyone wants flat panels. For that matter, so do I. I guess I need to go find a couple of consulting gigs.

Network infrastructure for a small office

We talked earlier this week about servers, and undoubtedly some more questions will come up, but let’s go ahead and talk about small-office network infrastructure.
Cable and DSL modems are affordable enough that any small office within the service area of either ought to get one. For the cost of three dialup accounts, you can have Internet service that’s fast enough to be worth having.

I’ve talked a lot about sharing a broadband connection with Freesco, and while I like Freesco, in an office environment I recommend you get an appliance such as those offered by Linksys, US Robotics, D-Link, Netgear, Siemens, and a host of other companies. There are several simple reasons for this: The devices take up less space, they run cooler, there’s no need to wait for them to boot up in case of power failure or someone accidentally unplugging it, and being solid state, theoretically they’re more reliable than a recycled Pentium-75. Plus, they’re very fast and easy to set up (we’re talking five minutes in most cases) and very cheap–under $50. When I just checked, CompUSA’s house brand router/switch was running $39. It’s hard to find a 5-port switch for much less than that. Since you’ll probably use those switch ports for something anyway, the $10-$20 extra you pay to get broadband connection sharing and a DHCP server is more than worth your time.

My boss swears that when he replaced his Linksys combo router/100-megabit switch with a much pricier Cisco combo router/10-megabit switch, the Cisco was faster, not only upstream, but also on the local network. I don’t doubt it, but you can’t buy Cisco gear at the local office supply store for $49.

For my money, I’d prefer to get a 24-port 3Com or Intel switch and plug it into a broadband sharing device but you’ll pay a lot more for commercial-grade 3Com or Intel gear. The cheap smallish switches you’ll see in the ads in the Sunday papers will work OK, but their reliability won’t be as high. Keep a spare on hand if you get the cheap stuff.

What about wireless? Wireless can save you lots of time and money by not having to run CAT5 all over the place–assuming your building isn’t already wired–and your laptop users will love having a network connection anywhere they go. But security is an issue. At the very least, change your SSID from the factory default, turn on WEP (check your manual if it isn’t obvious how to do it), and hard-code your access point(s) to only accept the MAC addresses of the cards your company owns (again, check your manual). Even that isn’t enough necessarily to keep a determined wardriver out of your network. Cisco does the best job of providing decent security, but, again, you can’t buy Cisco gear at your local Staples. Also, to make it easier on yourself, make sure your first access point and your first couple of cards are the same brand. With some work, the variety pack will usually work together. Like-branded stuff always will. When you’re doing your initial setup, you want the first few steps to go as smoothly as possible.

I’d go so far as to turn off DHCP on the wireless segment. Most wardrivers probably have the ability to figure out your network topology, gateway, and know some DNSs. But why make life easier for them? Some won’t know how to do that, and that’ll keep them out. The sophisticated wardriver may decide it’s too much trouble and go find a friendlier network.

Why worry about wireless security? A wardriver may or may not be interested in your LAN. But that’s one concern. And while I don’t care if someone mooches some bandwidth off my LAN to go read USA Today, and I’d only be slightly annoyed if he used it to go download the newest version of Debian, I do care if someone uses my wireless network to send spam to 250,000 of his closest friends, or if he uses my wireless network to visit a bunch of child porn or warez sites.

Enough about that. Let’s talk about how to wire everything. First off, if you use a switched 100-megabit network, you can just wire everything together and not give much thought to anything. But if you’re using hubs or wireless to connect your desktops, be sure to put your servers on 100-megabit switch ports. The servers can then talk to each other at full speed if and when that’s necessary. And a switch port allows them to talk at full speed to a number of slower desktop PCs at once. The speed difference can be noticable.



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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 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 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.


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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.