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Dan Rutter

Your CFLs won’t kill you

Much has been said about the mercury content in CFLs. I finally found a rebuttal, courtesy of Australian ex-Amiga journalist Dan Rutter. If you don’t want to read the article: The mercury is in gaseous form, so it will dissipate on its own within a matter of hours, at most. Breaking a CFL won’t turn your house into an EPA Superfund site.

Read More »Your CFLs won’t kill you

Why first-generation flash SSDs are a bit disappointing

I’ve been waiting with anticipation for flash-based SSDs to come out. If you’re unfamiliar with these, they’re hard drives with no moving parts, so their life expectancy is 10 years, and they’re quiet, run cool, and they have virtually no seek time so for some tasks they’re lightning fast.

The best drives on the market, from what limited information is available, seem to be the Samsungs.The problem is that these drives have a sustained read speed of 50 MB/sec and write speed of 27 MB/sec. Under ideal circumstances, a conventional hard drive can exceed those numbers–especially the write speed. So what’s going on?

The main reason is that these drives have no cache on them. Conventional hard drives have a small amount of RAM that acts as a buffer between the computer and the platters. Today a budget drive has 8 megs of RAM. A lot of high-performance drives have 16, and I’ve even seen some that have 32.

The most frequently used data can come off this buffer at high speed. Writes can go to the buffer and the computer can get on with life, and the drive can write the data to the platters when it gets less busy. The other advantages of a solid state disk often can make up the difference when reading data, but if you’re writing a lot of data, the conventional hard drive wins the race most of the time.

SSDs could benefit from cache for one good reason: conventional RAM chips are still much faster than flash memory.

Now for the good news: I’ve read reports that the Samsung drive can boot Windows in 15 seconds and most common applications have single-digit load times. So if you don’t do a lot of writes, these drives can give you a performance boost.

The other complaint is capacity. You can pay $400 for a 32 gig SSD, which is more than you’d pay for a full terrabyte of conventional storage. For some people, this is a problem. Given the work I usually do these days, 32 gigs is plenty for me, and I could probably find ways to get by with 8. I just don’t keep a lot of huge data files around. But if I needed acres of data storage, I could load the operating system and my most critical apps on the SSD, and use the conventional drive for storage.

The old knock on flash memory was its finite lifespan. Put Windows’ swap file on a flash drive and let it run, and theoretically you could wear out the memory in a matter of days. And that’s always one of the first comments that shows up when the topic of flash drives comes up on sites like Digg and Slashdot. But today’s flash memory sustains more writes than the old stuff did, and newer drives use a technique called wear-leveling, where it distributes writes amongst the available chips. This technique makes the chips last a lot longer now, to the point where one respected tech journalist, Dan Rutter, actually recommends putting flash drives in old laptopos with maxed-out memory for the express purpose of holding a swap file. And Macintosh users have been using flash disks to soup up old Mac laptops for several years now. Flash disks give obsolete laptops a boost in both speed and battery life while reducing noise and heat, and it’s pretty safe to say that current technology allows a flash drive to last 3-5 years when used for this purpose, which is about as long as a conventional drive.

My next major system upgrade will probably be a Samsung SSD for at least one of my computers. It’d make a fantastic upgrade for my laptop, at the very least. The laptop will run faster (the hard drive in it is several years old, and I think it runs at 4200 RPM) and the battery life will improve considerably. I also like the idea of having a super quiet, cool-running desktop for the family room. But I definitely hope the second-generation SSDs will include some cache. Otherwise, there’s not much advantage to them over the old trick of buying a large, high-speed Compact Flash card and an IDE-CF adapter (Addonics is one source of these), as long as both the card and the adapter support UltraDMA.

One way for neighbors to harass each other

Dan Rutter always makes me laugh. And his current front page is no exception: While he normally talks computers or R/C toys, he’s made no secret of his love for cats. And last week he made an impassioned plea for Australians to adopt cats. And he noted that his shelter of choice also has “dogs and camels and stuff.”

Which of course gave me an idea.Of course I haven’t tried this because, well, I don’t live in Australia, and when I clicked on the link promising camels all I got were fluffy bunny rabbits. No big nasty teeth, no bones strewn about, and no knights who say “ni!” in sight.

So here’s what I’m thinking, assuming someplace that promised camels actually delivered or something. I had a bad lease about five years ago that I was looking for a way out of. The place wasn’t so much the problem, it was that my neighbors were psycho.

Well, guess what? The lease didn’t say anything about not allowing pets. Camel, anyone?

I think that would have been the end of my lease. Fortunately, we’re talking about people who aren’t very smart here.

Landlords, here’s what to do if one of your tenants gets a camel. First, find out if it’s female. Hopefully it is. Then, rent a male camel from somewhere. (You’re on your own as to where you can get a camel for a day in the United States.) You know what’s next. Lots of little camels running around, that’s what.

Then when the neighbor comes calling, you act all innocent. Camel? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Oh, that camel! Nope, couldn’t be him, he was neutered. Your camel must have gotten friendly with a stray or something…

Or maybe I’m just slap-happy.

Lucky for me, my neighbors are cool. I’m the weirdest guy in the neighborhood.

Trust me, after living next door to people who believed the X-Files were real, it’s good to be the weirdest guy in the neighborhood.

A nice upgrader’s motherboard and a cheap fan

I already talked about the $35 Foxconn 3400ATX case, so I might as well start talking about the other parts I used to build a very nice $200 upgrade last week.
Shuttle AK32L. It’s a very basic Socket A motherboard, using the VIA KT266 chipset. It plays both kinds of music, country and western–I mean, it supports both kinds of memory, PC133 SDRAM and DDR266, and CPU-wise it’ll work with everything from a 500 MHz Duron, if you happen to have one around, to the fastest Athlon XP you can get your hands on at the moment.

By today’s standards it’s a very basic motherboard. Aside from AC97 audio, there’s nothing built in besides the obligatory parallel, serial, USB, and PS/2 ports on the outside and a floppy and a pair of ATA100 connectors on the inside. It sports an AGP slot and six PCI slots (the last is shared with an AMR slot you won’t use). This plus its ability to use either DDR or PC133 (or even PC100) makes it an ideal upgrade board. But if you’re looking for serial ATA or IDE RAID or Firewire, then you’d best move along, there’s nothing to see here.

Performance-wise, I didn’t run any benchmarks on it. But let’s say this: I booted up Win98 in safe mode on this board with a Duron 1.3 in it, and it felt fast. That says something when a board will run Win98 safe mode fast.

Being more concerned with stability than with speed, I loaded up the BIOS with relatively conservative settings, but noted that there are plenty of features to keep a tweaker happy–memory timing, FSB and voltage adjusting, etc.

The lack of an AGP Pro slot and presence of only two DDR slots will keep this from being a performance freak’s board, however.

But if you’d like to goose the performance of a tired K6-2 or Pentium II system, you should be able to pick up an AK32L with a 1.3 GHz Duron and a decent fan for around $100. That’s what I paid at Newegg for a Duron 1.3 ($41), the AK32L ($55), and a Cooler Master DP5-6I11A fan ($3!).

Cooler Master DP5-6I11A fan. It’s a big heat sink. It’s got a fan on it. It keeps your CPU cool. It works. What else do you want to know?

The amount of noise it makes isn’t obnoxious. I didn’t do any tests on it to find out its heat dissipation capabilities — leave that to Dan Rutter, but he’s never tested this model.

It cost me three bucks. What I got was an aluminum heat sink with a decent-sized fan on it that doesn’t make a huge amount of noise. It had a nice thin layer of heat-sink grease applied to it already, a fact I found out accidentally when I looked down at my thumb after handling it. That’s a nice touch though–it saves you from having to buy a tube of the stuff and fumble around with it.

It’s marketed as an AMD Socket A fan, but it’ll work on Socket 370 and Socket 7 systems as well. It’s serious overkill for all but the very last Socket 7 CPUs, but for $3, I doubt many people will complain. It’s been a really long time since I last opened the case of a Pentium-133 or similar and found a working fan, so if you’ve still got something of that ilk hanging around, this would be a good pickup.


More reviews of reviews. I liked how yesterday went, and I found some really good stuff yesterday, so let’s continue on and see what’s good and why.

2001 Upgrade Guide (Ace’s Hardware)

This is an outstanding upgrade guide, working from the assumption that you have an older system (a K6-2 or Celeron with a TNT2 board, which is a pretty common setup), then they test a number of upgrades so you can see what makes a difference. Unfortunately these upgrade candidates already have a modern hard disk and sound card, so they don’t closely simulate a real-world system, but they do isolate the components, so while these upgraded systems will outperform yours, you can see precisely what effect upgrading the video card will have.

For example, you can see right away from their graphs that replacing a K6-2’s TNT2 video card with a GeForce 2 GTS will only improve Half-Life frame rates slightly (up to 25.5 from 22.1), while trading up to a Duron 850 while keeping all the same peripherals increases rates to 51.8 from 22.1. How valuable is that information? I found a GTS card for $229. The same place has a Duron 850/Gigabyte 7ZX-1 bundle for $222. The upgrades cost the same amount, yet one of them increases performance significantly while the other just barely helps. It’s the difference between throwing away $240 and spending $235 wisely (after shipping).

The other great thing about this guide is that it tests more than just first-person shooters. For FPS, DDR gives marginal improvements indeed, but for other types of games, its improvement can be immense. Mercedes-Benz Truck Racing and Formula One 2000, for instance, are faster with a DDR-equipped Duron 850 than it is with a PC133-equipped Athlon 1100.

This guide shows when a GHz+ CPU and new memory technology makes sense, and when it doesn’t, letting you decide when it makes sense to buy the latest and greatest.

Overall: great methodology, nice balance of real-world tests (assuming gaming’s your thang, which it probably is if you read this stuff, since you won’t see much difference between a Celeron 667 and a 1.2 GHz Athlon for office apps). A lot of work goes into guides like this, but it’s worth it. Maybe someday articles like this will be the norm on the hardware sites, rather than the exception. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

VIA Apollo Pro 266 (THG)

This is an analysis piece combined with a preview of VIA’s Apollo Pro 266 chipset. Good explanation of PC architecture for one who doesn’t understand what the north bridge and south bridge are, plus the benchmarks are using boards you can actually buy, rather than reference designs.

Tom Pabst takes his usual swipes at Rambus, and points out that the Pentium III isn’t really able to take advantage of DDR, as evidenced by its similar performance to Rambus- and PC133-equipped systems. Pabst concludes with an assertion that a DDR Pentium 4 chipset would prove how terrible Rambus really is, since the bottleneck with DDR seems to be the CPU, rather than the memory itself. Unfortuantely, he doesn’t provide anything at all to back up this claim, so he comes off as an anti-Rambus bigot. Has he seen a P4 run with DDR? Maybe he’s under NDA, but if he is, he can at least say, “I can’t tell you why I know this, but DDR chipsets for the P4 will prove how worthless Rambus is,” and it would be better than what he wrote. But his speculation of DDR performance with the P4 and how it will compare is no more valuable than yours.

This article does give the useful information that DDR on the Pentium III probably isn’t worth the bother.

Value Biz PC Guide (Sharky Extreme)

Unusual for hardware sites, good focus on what’s necessary for business. No benchmarks; I’d have liked to have seen illustrations of why CPU speed isn’t as important as, say, disk speed, for business apps. Hardware recommendations are solid, and I’m happy to see they don’t assume businesses overclock. They don’t. I disagree with the $100 CD-R recommendation; you’re better off with a Plextor drive with Burn-Proof, especially since such a drive will allow you to multitask. Since time is money, businesses can’t afford to waste time burning coasters. If a slower, cheaper CPU is necessary in order to afford a better CD-R, then so be it.

Some discussion of when SCSI would be appropriate on the desktop also would have been nice, as SCSI does have its place in the office.

But overall, this is a solid guide. By blindly following its advice, you’ll build a better PC than you’ll get from many of the direct PC vendors.

Internet Connection Sharing (Dan’s Data)

Nice, down-to-earth, and pretty thorough overview of what it takes to share an Internet connection whose primary target is people who are less ambitious than me–an old 386 or 486 running Linux isn’t among the options he presents. I guess he could have titled it “ICS for the Rest of Us.”

This is thorough without getting too bogged down in particulars, and it’s cross-referenced with an outstanding Networking 101 piece by the same author, and weird jargon is cross-referenced with an online dictionary. Some reviews of the various options would be nice, but he gives a good thumbnail sketch of each option’s advantages and drawbacks. The author, Dan Rutter, is a mainstream computer journalist in Australia who seems to have a very high standard for his work.

Definitely bookmark his networking piece, , and if you keep a notebook, print out a copy to put there as well, as it’s an outstanding overview that answers most of the common networking questions like the difference between a hub and a switch. You may find yourself referring back to this one as well, but it’s more specialized and as such, not as generally useful.

His other stuff is useful, well-written, and downright entertaining. Few computer writers are fun to read. Dan Rutter usually is. Many people consider Ace’s Hardware the best of the hardware sites, but I really think Dan’s Data gives Ace’s a big-time run for the money.