A cheap upgrade for obsolete computer cases

The ATX standard has changed very little in the last 15 years, which means some rather old computer cases can still accept new motherboards, as long as you also replace the power supply.

The bad news, as I stare at the case that once housed a Micron Client Pro 766 Xi (a 266 MHz Pentium II that was state of the art in 1997) is that front-mount USB ports were unheard of in those days, as were digital camera memory cards. Instead, machines of that era used obsolete floppy and Zip disks for removable storage. They also typically had more 5.25″ bays than we need today. When CD burners cost $400, most of us kept a reader in as well, to avoid wearing out expensive burners prematurely.

Read more

The rise and fall of Shack, and how to fix it

Wired has a nostalgic piece on the not-quite-late, not-quite-great Radio Shack. I think it’s a good article, but it glosses over part of the reason for the store’s decline.

It blames computers.But blaming computers ignores Tandy’s long and successful run in that industry. Most Apple fanatics and other revisionist historians conveniently overlook this, but when Apple launched the Apple II in 1977, Tandy and Commodore were right there with competing offerings. I don’t know about Apple, but Tandy and Commodore were selling their machines faster than they could make them.

As demand for home computers with color and sound grew, Tandy released its successful Color Computer line. And after IBM got into the PC market, Tandy became one of the early PC clone makers. They made businesslike PC/XT and PC/AT knockoffs, but their most successful machine, from a sales perspective, was the Tandy 1000. The Tandy 1000 started off as a clone of the IBM PCjr, but whereas the PCjr lasted about two years in the marketplace, the Tandy 1000 became a lasting standard for home PCs that could run IBM business software as well as entertainment titles with color and sound. It was everything the PCjr should have been, and it resulted in IBM software often being relabeled “IBM/Tandy” in stores.

In the 1980s, Tandy was definitely one of the big five companies. The first computer I ever used was a Tandy, in 1982. But the next year, I changed schools, and that school had Commodore 64s, so my allegiance changed. But I really think it was Tandy, more than any other company, that was the undoing of my favorite company, Commodore. Tandy’s computers weren’t any better than what Commodore had. And Commodore computers were sold at Kmart, but Tandy computers were sold at Radio Shack, and the prices were comparable. You had to go to St. Louis to buy a Commodore 64 or Amiga, or order it through the mail. But even in tiny Farmington, Missouri, which was a town of about 8,000 in the middle of nowhere, there was a Radio Shack on the edge of downtown where you could walk in and buy a computer.

Admittedly, the computer industry did change, and eventually it outgrew Radio Shack. By the early 1990s, when I did my stint selling computers at retail, the computer section of the store where I worked was larger than the typical Radio Shack store. Just the computer section. We sold four or five brands of computers and generally had at least four models of each brand, with an entry-level machine, something near top-of-the-line, and a couple of mid-range models in between.

If you wanted cheap, we had Packard Bell and Acer. Tandy couldn’t compete with them on price, though its machines were generally of better quality. But if you wanted quality, we had Compaq and IBM, which generally were better quality than Tandy, and by the mid 1990s, they’d gotten religion on price too.

And on the odd day that we couldn’t beat Radio Shack on price and or selection with the computers themselves, we had a much larger selection of monitors and printers, not to mention the aisles and aisles of books and software.

And if you didn’t live in the big city, another alternative sprung up in the early 1990s. You could pick up the phone, dial an 800 number, and order a computer from Dell or Gateway 2000. Just like ordering pizza, they’d build a computer to your specifications and deliver it to your door. You wouldn’t have it the same day like you would by going to Radio Shack, but you’d pay less, and you could get exactly the processor speed, hard disk capacity, and memory that you wanted.

There just wasn’t any way for the Tandy/Radio Shack model that had worked so brilliantly for about 15 years to compete with those two new models.

Eventually Tandy sold its factory to AST, a mid-range brand that fell by the wayside late in the decade but for a while was a retail juggernaut. Initially Radio Shack switched over to selling AST PCs, and later replaced them with Compaq and IBM, but there was never enough room in the store for more than one or two models.

In retrospect, I think the best thing Radio Shack could have done in the late 1990s would have been to go back to its DIY roots, selling computer components like cases and motherboards to people who wanted to build their own PCs rather than settle for what larger retailers offered off the shelf. It’s not a large segment, but it’s a niche that the large retailers have never had much success catering to. (The exception being regional chains like Fry’s and Micro Center.) And while the independent clone shops almost without exception can offer better advice, better selection, and, probably, better prices, Radio Shack is almost always closer, and the clone shops can’t compete with Radio Shack’s hours. Radio Shack is open on Sunday, and it’s open until 9 PM on other days.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I was tinkering with a PC in the evening or on a Sunday, needed something, and Radio Shack was the only place open. So I went, whether I thought they’d have what I needed or not. Sometimes they actually had what I needed.

If Radio Shack wants to reverse its sagging fortunes, I’m not sure that it’s too late to take that DIY road. Stock a book on building PCs and a book on upgrading and repairing PCs in order to grow that market. Limit the selection in order to accommodate the limited space in most stores, but carry one or two of everything that’s needed to build a PC, or to upgrade or repair a PC when the competition is closed.

Deciding exactly what to carry could be difficult, but a safe and non-creative approach would be to just pick a couple of price points and sell whatever they can find at that particular price point while remaining profitable. Keep it simple, using multiples of $25. Have computer cases priced at $50 and $75. Have power supplies for $25, $50, and $75. Have hard drives for $75 and $100. Have a motherboard for $100, and CPUs for $50 and $100. AMD or Intel? Carry both, or see if one or the other is willing to cut a deal to have an exclusive.

And this also opens the door to oddball gadgets and adapters, like 20/24-pin ATX converters, ATX power supply cable extensions, USB cable extensions, USB hubs, serial, parallel, and PS/2 to USB converters, and other small, profitable niche adapters. And if there’s room, of course they can carry an Ethernet switch, Ethernet cables in a variety of lengths, and perhaps even cable and DSL modems.

They can take the same approach to selling computer components as they’ve always taken to selling discrete electronics components. When I need a resistor or an LED, I can get it a lot cheaper by ordering it online or by driving to an electronics supplier. But I can be at Radio Shack in five minutes, and they’re open late and on weekends, so I usually end up going to Radio Shack and putting up with their cellphone pitches.

If they’re still able to eke out a profit selling resistors and heat sinks by virtue of being the most convenient option, I think they can do even better selling computer components the same way.

And that would still leave room in the store for cell phones, the odd adapters and components that no other major retail chain sells, and cheap R/C toys.

I think it’s a better plan than officially unofficially renaming itself to Shack (next door to Hut, where you buy pizza) and harassing customers about cell phones at the checkout.

Garage sale adventures: The treadmill

Earlier this year my wife asked me to look for a treadmill. So I started keeping an eye out. A month or two ago I spotted one at an estate sale, but everything was wrong about that deal.

Today, I pulled the trigger.Unlike the last one, this one wasn’t a hulking beast of a machine, and it looked like it would come apart fairly willingly. At $45, the price was in the neighborhood of what we were willing to pay, and the owner was willing to let us test it out. I called my wife to ask her to come look at it.

She liked it. Then she tried it out and still liked it. I whipped out a couple of twenties and a five, and the previous owner’s husband and I set about disassembling it enough to fit in the back seat of a Honda Civic.

They had mentioned to another patron a willingness to come down to $35. I didn’t try to talk them down. Why? I knew I’d need his help getting it apart and getting it into the Civic. If I nickel and dimed them, he probably wouldn’t be nearly as willing to help me out.

It wasn’t a good fit. After some manhandling, we raised up the machine, rolled down the window, put a towel over the window, and I drove home with about three inches of treadmill sticking out the rear window.

I reassembled it right after lunch. I wanted to get it back together while the memory of disassembling it was still fresh, since some parts of it weren’t quite obvious, at least not to me.

Once I had it all together I cleaned it up. Sometimes a little dish detergent and an old rag is all it takes, but this one had some black marks that required Purple Power. The Purple Power did a nice job for me for the most part.

But there were a few black marks (probably from shoes) that the Purple Power didn’t do so well on. For those, I pulled out another trick. I rubbed metal polish on them. The polish actually removes a bit of the surface of the plastic, so it can affect the texture or sheen, but the slight difference in texture or sheen will almost definitely look better than the black marks would. I’ve used this trick numerous times to restore old plastic train cars, computer cases, and video game cases.

There are some scratches on the painted surface that would require some touch-up paint if I wanted it to look new, but at least I got it clean. A sunny day, a willingness to either take it apart or drag it outside, and a can of Krylon primer and gloss white paint is all it would take to get the metal parts looking new again. It might be a while before we get that sunny day.

Now we have a machine that should last several years and that I know how to take apart if and when the motor dies. If that happens, a new set of brushes should be all it will take to get it going again. It may be time consuming but the parts will cost less than $5. A new one would probably cost $200 or $250, so I think we got a pretty good deal. And while it doesn’t look completely new, I think it certainly looks presentable now.

Hard drive upgrade tips for older PCs

A hard drive upgrade is one of the best ways to extend the usable lifespan of a computer.

A lot of people come to this site looking for hard drive upgrade advice, but I realized that it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about that. Since there are some gotchas, I need to address them.Most PCs, whether it’s a Compaq, Dell, Emachine, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard/HP, IBM, or a no-name clone, use IDE or ATA hard drives. The two terms mean basically the same thing, and the drives are interchangeable. IDE is dirt, dirt cheap, so it’s what virtually everyone uses. But its limitations can cause headaches, especially on older systems.

A growing concern is the question about serial ATA versus parallel ATA drives. Older systems used parallel drives exclusively. The highest-capacity drives are serial ATA, however. Serial allows longer cable lengths and thin, flexible cables that don’t interfere with airflow and look better when put inside computer cases with transparent sides. While the majority of people couldn’t care less what the inside of the computer looks like, cable length and airflow have been serious issues for many years–the first computer I ever repaired, back in 1993, overheated because someone had blocked the fan vents with an IDE hard drive cable. Today, with new computer running so hot that some computer enthusiasts use them to heat their homes in the winter, it’s an even bigger concern.

If your older computer doesn’t have serial ATA connectors, and you want to buy a 400-gigabyte serial ATA hard drive, then you just have to remember to buy a serial ATA controller card. As of this writing, a cheap no-name SATA controller costs a little over $20 while the big names like Promise, Sonnet, and Adaptec cost closer to $60-$80. What do you get for the extra money? Usually you get better performance and you’ll always get better technical support if you run into problems.

If you’re the kind of person who’s been building your own computers since before building your own computers was cool, you might consider taking your chances on the cheapies. If your only experience as a computer technician is adding a new memory stick, it’s much safer to buy a Promise or Adaptec card.

The good news with Serial ATA is that everything else you need to know is either on the poster that comes with the hard drive or in the thin manual that comes with the card. You can quit reading now.

With parallel ATA, there are still some gotchas. Some older systems can’t handle drives larger than 137 gigabytes or 34 gigabytes, and some really old systems can’t handle drives bigger than 8.4 gigs, 3.2 gigs, 2.1 gigs, or (gulp) half a gig.

If your computer dates from 1997, it might have the 8.4 gig limit. Anything newer than that is more likely to have the 34 or 137 gigabyte limit.

Hard drive manufacturers recommend one of three solutions: Use an included software overlay, buy or download a BIOS upgrade, or buy a new IDE controller.

The biggest problem with the software overlay method is that it doesn’t always work. If the computer goes into a permanent coma when you plug a 200-gigabyte hard drive into it, the software overlay won’t help. The other problem is that it’s way too easy to corrupt the software overlay and render the drive inaccessible. Reinstalling the overlay might or might not get your data back. And besides that, the new hard drive is probably capable of saturating your old IDE bus. In plain English, the drive might be able to run faster than your computer can take the data, which means buying a new controller card will make it faster. So I really have problems recommending the software overlay method.

The BIOS upgrade method is better, in that it’s usually free, and doesn’t have the disadvantages of the software overlay. The downside is that sometimes the manufacturers don’t offer a suitable upgrade. Don’t expect to be able to get a BIOS upgrade to allow a Pentium II-333 from 1998 to use a 200-gig drive, for instance. What about the places that claim to sell BIOS upgrades to allow new drives? I’ve only dealt with those companies twice, but in each case, they didn’t seem to have anything newer than the original manufacturer.

I’ve seen some hacked BIOS upgrades, where some enthusiast took the most recently available BIOS and modified it for new drives, but the legality of these BIOSes is very questionable, and I’m a little bit uncomfortable with using a hacked BIOS.

Then there’s that issue of bandwidth. If an older computer only has a 33 megabyte-per-second controller, and the new drive is intended for 133, suffice it to say it’s not going to perform at its peak. A new controller is the better option

The upside to old-fashioned parallel IDE controllers is the price. A Promise ATA133 controller card costs $35-$40. I’ve seen no-names for as little as $17. So the price won’t break the bank, and they give good performance.

And let’s talk performance. Unless you’re into 3D gaming, the two most important factors in computer performance are the hard drive and having adequate memory. A lot of people today take the attitude that a Pentium II is worthless. While it’s true that you can’t play Doom 3 on one, there are a lot of people out there who couldn’t care less about Doom 3 and they just want Word to load fast. For people like that, the best thing to do is max out the computer’s memory (but check prices–RAM for older computers can be very expensive), and buy a new hard drive controller and a big, honking wicked-fast hard drive.

Oh, and make sure your PC doesn’t have any spyware.

WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux