Replace your UPS battery

Replace your UPS battery

My UPS started squawking one Friday evening, the tell-tale sign that the battery was dead or dying. When that happens, it’s time to either replace the UPS battery, or replace the entire UPS. Hopefully you can just replace the battery. Here’s how to replace your UPS battery.

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How safe is my computer from hackers?

On Monday, March 13 at approximately 10:30 AM CST, I will be appearing on KFUO Radio’s Faith and Family program to discuss home computer security with host Andy Bates. One of the questions he’s planning to ask: How can I know how secure my home computer is? Or, to put his question another way, how safe is my computer from hackers?

I’m going to use this space to elaborate ahead of time on some of the things we are going to talk about. We could talk for an hour on any of the questions he’s going to ask, and he gave me three questions and 25 minutes. This is my workaround.

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Digiland DL718M tablet: a review

Digiland DL718M tablet: a review

The Digiland DL718M tablet is an inexpensive (sub-$40) tablet sold at consumer electronics stores like Best Buy. Make no mistake, it’s a basic tablet for basic needs. But given reasonable expectations you can buy one of these and be happy with it.

This isn’t a new market by any stretch. But it seems like tablets in this price range are usually Black Friday specials, or only available on online marketplaces far abroad. The Digiland DL718M is one you can get today if you want.

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Advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0

I hear the question from time to time what the advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0 were. Windows 3.0, released in May 1990, is generally considered the first usable version of Windows. The oft-repeated advice to always wait for Microsoft’s version 3 is a direct reference to Windows 3.0 that still gets repeated today, frequently.

Although Windows 3.0 is clumsy by today’s standards, in 1990 it had the right combination of everything to take the world by storm.

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How to clean viruses off other people’s systems safely

What should you do when someone hands you a computer, tells you they think it has a virus, and asks you to clean it?

Proceed carefully, that’s what. You don’t want to infect your other computers with whatever it has.

To get it gone safely and effectively, you really need two things: an antivirus live CD, and a spare router.
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Save money on cables by not buying at retail

I’m ashamed to say I own one Monster cable. Hopefully if I tell you I bought it at a garage sale for $2, I’ll regain your respect. But there’s an easier way to save money on cables than buying at garage sales.

Unless you need it immediately, there’s no reason whatsoever to buy Monster and other overpriced cables at big-box consumer electronics stores. Profit margins are really thin on most electronics, even the big-ticket items, and they use the cables to make up for that. That’s the reason nobody includes cables in the box.

You’re always better off ordering cables online. Then you can get that $20 cable for much closer to its wholesale price, which will be single digits. If that.

Places like Newegg.com and Mwave.com sometimes run specials on certain cables (dealnews.com is a good place to look) but if you can’t snag a special, check pricing at Monoprice.com and, if you don’t mind futzing around with a wonky search engine and waiting a few days extra for shipping straight from Hong Kong, Dealextreme.com. For that matter, good old Ebay usually has a good selection of inexpensive cables too.

For example, I priced a 6-foot HDMI cable. At the home of blue shirts and extended warranties, you’ll pay $13 for a low-end, house brand cable. A “premium” house brand cable will run $40, and a Monster cable runs an insane $99.

There’s no reason to buy any premium HDMI cable. But even $13 is too much, considering something virtually identical will set you back 3 bucks from Monoprice, and about $6 from Dealextreme. Generally speaking, if you’re ordering one cable, Dealextreme may end up being cheaper. If you’re ordering multiple cables, Monoprice will probably be cheaper.

And if you think that price differential is crazy, try pricing Ethernet cables. At Monoprice, Ethernet cables are cheaper than garage sale prices.

There’s little, if any, truth to the claims you find on Monster packaging, especially when you’re dealing with digital signals. The only claim that has any validity is that gold oxidizes more slowly than other metals, but guess what? I have cables from the 1980s that still work just fine, including the cable connecting the very keyboard I’m typing on now. If they were oxidized, unplugging them and plugging them back in is usually enough to knock the oxidation off and get them working again. Failing that, a blast of De-Oxit will do the trick.

I keep a can of De-Oxit on hand, but I can’t think of a time that I’ve needed to use it on a cable. Keep in mind I live in St. Louis, and if there’s one thing St. Louis is known for, it’s humidity. If my cables can go 25 years here without getting oxidized, yours can too.

Buy a used business printer and save a bundle

I’m through with cheap consumer printers.

Due to the nature of my wife’s work, we print a lot by home standards. We buy paper by the case, not the ream, and a case of paper probably lasts us a little more than six months.

Our workload just isn’t practical for the kind of printers you find next to the telephones at consumer electronics stores. So I bought an HP Laserjet 4100. And even if a case of paper lasts you a couple of years, you might want to buy an office-grade printer too.A typical consumer monochrome laser printer, if you shop around for a good sale, costs around 60 bucks. Replacement toner cartridges cost anywhere from $50-$70, depending on capacity. And at some point, which could be as little as 20,000 pages, the drum or the fuser or some other semi-replaceable part will wear out and you’ll have to replace it, at a cost of $100-$150. Most people don’t do it, since it’s cheaper to just buy another printer. And by that point, the printer will be discontinued, replaced by a new model that’s a little smaller, a little faster, a little quieter–and uses different, incompatible toner cartridges. If you got lucky and found toner on sale and stocked up, you’re out of luck.

Let’s do the math. 8 toner cartridges at $60 apiece, plus the printer at $60 gives you a total cost of $540 to print 20,000 pages. That’s 2.7 cents per page over the practical lifespan of the printer.

Businesses are discarding old HP Laserjets like crazy, either because the maintenance contracts on them get to be too expensive, or because they’re replacing them with units that can print color, or units that can scan and fax in addition to printing.

This week I bought an HP Laserjet 4100 from a computer recycler for 30 lousy bucks. The toner cartridge still has about 5,000 pages left in it, and the fuser/drum assembly will be good for another 175,000 pages. It’ll take me 17 years to wear that out–and since the printer is already 7-9 years old, I don’t know if the rest of the printer has 17 years left in it.

But there are still Laserjet 4000s in service and that printer came on the market about four years earlier, so I’m pretty confident I’ll get four years out of the hardware.

I’m less confident of current consumer laser printers lasting four years doing what I ask of it.

It’s possible to find toner cartridges for HP 4100s at a cost of anywhere from $20-$50 and last 10,000 pages. The "maintenance kit" that includes a drum and fuser costs about $150. I probably won’t ever need one, but if you find an HP 4100 with more miles on it, you may.

Old toner cartridges have an expiration date on them, but you can ignore that as long as the cartridge is still sealed. Once the cartridge is opened, you can expect it to last 2-2.5 years. So buying old cartridges for $20 or $30 off Amazon or eBay is fine, and stocking up if you see a bunch of them is fine.

Let’s do the math on a less than ideal HP 4100 that needs a maintenance kit and toner cartridge right away. At $50 for the printer, $150 for the maintenance kit, and $100 for two cartridges, you’re looking at a cost of $300 to print 20,000 pages, yielding a cost per page of 1.5 cents.

I’m looking at more like half a cent per page, since I lucked into a low-mileage unit.

Either way you look at it, a used HP 4100 is a better deal than a consumer-grade printer. The cost per page is lower, and it’s a lot more convenient because you’ll be changing toner cartridges and filling the paper tray less often.

Even if you have your heart set on buying new, the economy is similar, but the financial hit up front is a lot higher. The HP 4014 currently costs $800, and the cartridges are around $100. At 10,000 pages per year, the cost per page is a reasonable 1.5 cents over the course of 15 years.

Personally, I’d rather buy a used older model that’s already depreciated, keep the up-front cost low, and recoup the savings quickly.

And yes, I am partial to HP. One of the reasons they’re common is because they work well. When I supported printers for a living, I could almost set HPs up and forget about them. They didn’t even jam all that often. I’ve also supported a lot of Lexmark printers. They were pretty reliable, but we had more strange issues with printing than I ever saw with HPs. And I see the same pattern at work today, though I’m no longer responsible for fixing the printers. The HPs just work, but about once a week the Lexmarks die suddenly with a weird error message.

And by virtue of being the most common, HPs will be easy to find in the first place, and in the long term, it will be a lot easier to find parts and toner for them. I owned a Lexmark 4039 laser printer for many years, but the toner was more expensive than HP toner because it was harder to find, and once the printer was old enough that I needed parts, I couldn’t find them at a reasonable price.

What about cleaning the printer up? Some offices are much more kind to their printers than others. My 4100 seems fairly typical. It had a couple of stickers on it telling where to call for service, and a number of black marks that looked like they came from shoes. Maybe it sat under someone’s desk for a while and got the occasional kick.

Labels come off pretty easily with lighter fluid. Squirt a little lighter fluid onto the end of a napkin or a cotton swab. In the case of paper labels, wipe them until they’re saturated with lighter fluid and let it dry, then repeat the process a couple of times. The label will peel off very easily. If any adhesive residue remains, another wipe or two will take care of it. In the case of plastic or metallic labels, just rub the edges and let the lighter fluid wick under it until one of the corners lifts. Pull that corner up some more, then dab some more lighter fluid underneath. Eventually the adhesive will weaken enough to allow you to peel off the label. Then wipe away any remaining adhesive afterward.

Some marks will come off pretty easily with lighter fluid too. Others don’t even require that much–some will respond just fine to window cleaner, or just a little soap and water.

Stubborn marks will usually come off by buffing with car wax or metal polish.

My 4100 looked a little rough when I brought it home, but it took me about five minutes to make it look more presentable.

So if you’re in the market for a monochrome laser printer, don’t go to any of the big-box stores. Search Craigslist instead for an old HP office printer. HP Laserjet 4000s, 4050s, and 4100s are in a sweet spot right now in regards to pricing and availability of toner cartridges. Toner for the older HP Laserjet 4 and 5 printers (which date to the mid 1990s) is harder to find.

Don’t pay any more than 50 bucks for a bare printer. Be prepared to pay more for one that has extras like networking, a duplexer, or an extra tray, but it’s not uncommon for people to sell those parts separately, since they’re often worth more than the printer. Networking is nice to have if you have more than one computer. Duplexing is nice but it won’t help you if you mostly print single-page jobs. If you don’t know what you’d use extra trays for, then you probably don’t need them.

Replace your video game system’s power cord cheap

This weekend I found myself in search of a power cord for an original Playstation. It’s the same plug that the Sega Dreamcast and Saturn and Sony PS2 use, but it seems like online almost everyone wants $10 for a suitable replacement. I learned how to replace your video game system’s power cord cheap, and I’ll share the secret with you, too.

I found out by accident that the local Game Stop sells them for $4.99. I had to run an errand about four doors away from a Game Stop anyway, so I dropped in. It took me a little while to find, but I found the cable.

It’s not the same. What they sell as a “universal” AC power cable has two round sides on the plug, not a round and a square like the original Sony cable. I knew I’d seen the connector on the end of that Gamestop cable before, so I didn’t pay $5 for it. It turns out it’s universal because it also fits the original Xbox. An Xbox cable works on a Playstation but not the other way around.

Replace your video game system's power cord cheap. Look for this connector.
This super-common power connector fits most video game consoles. If you find one of these in a junk drawer, it can replace a missing video game power cord. Image credit: Miguel Durán/Wikipedia

I did some digging, and I found that the official name for the connectior the Playstation uses is IEC 60320 C7P. The “P” stands for “polarized.” The “universal” connector on the cable Gamestop was selling is the IEC 60320 C7. The nonpolarized plug fits the polarized connector, but not the other way around.

A ton of home appliances use the IEC 60320 C7. Every tape recorder or boombox I ever owned, for instance. It’s the most common connector used for devices that draw 2.5 amps of current or less. Well, my boomboxes are long gone, so I raided my wife’s. Hers just happens to be different. Rats. I ended up swiping the cable from a dead laptop AC adapter. Wouldn’t you know it, it plugs right in to the Playstation’s power port. That old laptop cable was probably made in the same factory as the cables Gamestop sells as universal video game power cables.

I’m happy. I saved five bucks. (The wasted trip to Gamestop doesn’t count because I walked there from someplace I had to go anyway.)

It wasn’t long ago that you could find this type of AC cable anywhere for a two or three dollars, tops. By anywhere, I really do mean anywhere–discount stores, Radio Shack, consumer electronics stores, maybe even dollar stores if you’re lucky.

Cables are high markup items, but even at $3, these things offer a healthy profit margin, so they should still be readily available at something near that price. I know sometime in the last decade I’ve bought one of these things at Kmart.

So before you pay even $5 for a replacement cable, raid the drawer where you keep all your stray electronics wires and see if you can find one that fits. Failing that, look around for something else around the house, like a boombox, VCR, or DVD player, that has a power cord that will fit. If not, hit the electronics section of your local discount store. Odds are it’s closer than the closest game store, and a suitable cable should cost less there too.

Don’t go into a store asking for an IEC 60320 C7 because they won’t know what you’re talking about, of course. The name may be listed on the packaging. The United States doesn’t require that name to be molded onto the cable, although some countries do. Study the image above and you should recognize the cable on sight in a store. If worse comes to worse, print out the picture above and bring it with you to compare. Miguel Durán drew it to be helpful, so let it help you.

So why does Sony use the polarized connector? Probably to fool people into buying a replacement cable from them at an inflated price to replace a lost cable. They fooled me, and I should know better.

Microsoft getting into the backup business?

I take issue with this Register story, which says Veritas has a better name in the storage arena than Microsoft.

Enron has a better name in the storage arena than Veritas. Ditto BALCO and FEMA and Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart.

So Microsoft wants to get into the backup business? Good.I gave three of the best years of my life to the shrink-wrapped stool sample that is Backup Exec. I believed, wrongly, that the Constitution protects sysadmins like me from that piece of software in the clause that mentions cruel and unusual punishment.

After that last job put me out with Thursday night’s garbage, one question I always asked on job interviews was what they used for tape backups. Had anyone said Backup Exec, I would have walked out of the room immediately.

Nobody did. That was good. There are still some smart people in the world. My confidence in humanity was somewhat restored.

Microsoft’s offering will no doubt have problems, but when batch files and Zip drives are more reliable than your competition, who cares? Backup software is one area that desperately needs some competition. Microsoft entering with its usual less-than-mediocre offering will force everyone else with their less-than-mediocre offerings to either improve or die, because Microsoft’s offering will be cheaper, and there will be people who will assume that Microsoft’s offering will work better with Windows because nobody knows Windows better than Microsoft. (In this case, that assumption might actually be true.)

What’s wrong with Backup Exec? Ask your friendly neighborhood Veritas sales rep what they’ve done about these issues:

If a Backup Exec job backing up to disk contains both disk and system state data and it’s the second job to run on a given night, it will fail just as certainly as the sun coming up the next morning. Unless they finally managed to fix that bug, but I doubt it. I sure reported it enough times.

Remote backups happening over second-tier switches (D-Link, Linksys, Netgear, and other brands you find in consumer electronics stores) usually fail. Not every time. But more than half the time.

Those are just the problems I remember clearly. There were others. I remember the Oracle agent liked to die a horrible death for weeks at a time. I’d do everything Veritas support told me to do and it’d make no difference. Eventually it’d right itself and inexplicably run fine for a few months.

Maybe competition will fix what support contracts wouldn’t. And if it doesn’t, maybe Backup Exec will die.

And if Backup Exec must die, I want to be part of that execution squad. Remember that scene in Office Space with the laser printer and the baseball bat?

I never thought I’d say this, but now I’m saying it.

Welcome, Microsoft.

How DOS came to be IBM’s choice of operating system

The urban legend says Gary Kildall snubbed the IBM suits by making them wait in his living room for hours while he flew around in his airplane, and the suits, not taking it well, decided to cut him out of the deal and opted to do business with Bill Gates and Microsoft, thus ending Digital Research’s short reign as the biggest manufacturer of software for small computers.

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