Intel and Micron imagine a future beyond flash memory

In the shadow of Windows 10, Intel and Micron announced a new type of persistent memory that’s 1,000 times faster than the flash memory in today’s SSDs. It’s still not as fast as DRAM, but it’s fast enough that it’s going to make things possible that weren’t before.

Intel and Micron weren’t the first to develop something like this–HP has been working on something similar for years–but HP hoped the product would be out by now, and as far as I know, it didn’t happen. It looks like Intel and Micron’s similar technology is going to happen.

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Tips for buying computer memory

Tips for buying computer memory

Many years ago, I wrote something titled Memory Buying Secrets. That post is lost to history, thanks to migrations in this site’s early years, but there are a number of things you need to know when you’re buying memory that can save you money and frustration, so I figured I would revisit that topic today. Here are my tips for buying computer memory, based on decades of experience. Read more

Hot tip: Memory probably isn’t going to get much cheaper

Hot tip: Memory probably isn’t going to get much cheaper

Friday I saw a story from a financial publication suggesting that DDR3 DRAM prices will be increasing soon due to increasing demand for PCs, thanks to Windows 10’s release and the back-to-school season.

That got me thinking, and while memory prices aren’t at an all-time low right now, they are pretty cheap. A Crucial Ballistix Sport 16GB kit runs about $105 right now. About two years ago, I paid $99 for the same kit. According to the pricing history available to me, the cheapest it’s ever been was $70, and the highest it’s been is $160.

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The difference an SSD makes

Back in the spring I bought a used computer. My wife wanted one, and while I probably could have cobbled something together for her, I didn’t have any extra Windows 7 licenses. So I bought a home-built Pentium D-based machine with Windows 7 on it from an estate sale for $70. The Windows license is worth that, so it was like getting the hardware for free.

When I got the hardware home to really examine it, it turned out not to be quite as nice as I initially thought. It was a fairly early Socket 775 board, so it used DDR RAM and had an AGP slot, limiting its upgrade options. The system ran OK, but not great, and it was loud.

The hard drive was a 160 GB Western Digital IDE drive built in 2003. That’s an impressive run, but a drive that old isn’t a good choice for everyday use. It’s at the end of its life expectancy and it’s not going to be fast. This weekend I got around to replacing it with an SSD. Read more

First impressions of a low-tier tablet, plus why I don’t shop at Best Buy

I received my Nook Color this week. I haven’t hacked it yet–I only just got an SDHC card for that, which is a story in itself–but to my pleasant surprise, I’m not certain everyone would need to. Yes, it’s marketed as an e-reader, but what I took out of the box is a viable entry-level tablet. It certainly wants you to read books on it, but aside from the e-reader, it also has a music player and a web browser. Out of the box, it does the basic things people buy tablets for.

I’ll hack mine, because supposedly it’s easy and virtually nothing can go wrong, and I like having maximum control over my devices. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Upgrade diary: HP Pavilion a305w

Wow, what a slug. Want me to tell you how I really feel?

Typical Black Friday special from years past. Cheap, but what a limiting future. Here are your handful of options. As far as I can tell, there are about eight of them.

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Upgrade diary: Compaq Evo D51S

Compaq Evo D51S
The Compaq Evo D51S is a well-built, small computer and it offers a few upgrade options

I upgraded a Compaq Evo D51S today. This was also sold under the name D510, and may have also been sold under the HP or Hewlett Packard brand. It was intended to be a low-profile, relatively affordable business computer.

Upgrading it poses some challenges, but there are some things you can do with it.This one has a 2.0 GHz Celeron in it. It will support a 2.4 GHz P4 without any issues (and a lot of them were sold with that chip), but I think that’s as high as you can go with the CPU.

The 2.0 GHz Celeron that came in this system will bog down with a heavy Photoshop filter and I’m sure some of the things I do in Adobe Premiere would bring it to its knees at times, but if your primary use of the machine is word processing, spreadsheets, web browsing and e-mail, it’s plenty fast. I would max out the system RAM before I replaced the CPU.

You can forget about motherboard replacements in this machine. Everything about the motherboard inside is odd, to get everything to fit in a smaller case. Compaq used to be criticized (sometimes unfairly) for using proprietary motherboards, but this one’s definitely proprietary.

Inside, you’re limited to two DIMM slots. I pulled the memory and replaced it with a pair of PC2100 DDR 1 GB DIMMs, which is the maximum the system supports. According to Crucial, PC3200 memory is compatible. Of course if you’re buying new memory, it makes sense to buy the faster stuff, in case you ever want to put the memory in another system.

In late 2010, 2 GB of PC3200 RAM sells for about $90. That’s close to the price of the computer itself, but more memory is probably the best thing you can buy for one of these machines, especially if it came with 256 MB of RAM.

The onboard video is the Intel 845G integrated video. It was better than I expected, but it steals system memory and, at least theoretically, it reduces memory bandwidth. The AGP slot is oriented vertically, so there’s only room for a low-profile card. That limits your choices somewhat. I had a low-profile ATI card with an early Radeon chipset on it. It’s not the most exciting card in the world, and may not even be better than the integrated Intel video, but it freed up some system memory for me. For what I want to do with this system, it will be fine. I’m not sure that Sid Meier’s Railroads! will run on it, but Railroad Tycoon 3 will, and from what I understand that’s the better game anyway.

There are a number of low-profile AGP video cards on the market that would be a suitable upgrade for this machine. None of them are cutting edge, but there are a few that are DirectX 9-capable, and prices range from $20 to $40. The built-in video is adequate, and while my first impression of it was that it didn’t bog the system down nearly as badly as the integrated video in the P3 days did, I’m still not a big fan of it. I think adding a discrete video card is a good move.

The stock Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 is a pretty good performer. At 40 GB it’s relatively small, and it won’t keep up with a brand-new drive, but for a lot of uses it’s plenty fast. From what I understand it will support hard drives larger than 137 GB but you may have to mess with IDE modes in the BIOS to make it happen. The trick appears to be to set the BIOS to use bit shift instead of LBA. Additionally, you have to be running Windows 2000 SP4 or XP SP2 to see the full capacity of the drive. I don’t have a large drive to put in it, so I haven’t tested that.

There’s no room for a second drive in there, so if you want additional storage beyond what’s already there, it will have to be external. Or you can jettison the floppy drive, but then you’ll have a goofy-looking hole in the front of the computer. That’s the price you pay for a low-profile system.

The CD-ROM drive in my particular unit was pretty balky. I’m going to replace it with a CD-R/RW drive for the short term, and eventually (probably early next year) put a DVD burner in it. I’m primarily interested in putting home movies on DVD. For backup and data transfer, I pretty much use USB flash drives exclusively now. They’re a lot faster and more convenient than messing around with CD/DVD burning software. Any drive with an old-school 40-pin IDE connector will work.

Speaking of USB, the USB ports all seem to be USB 2.0, which is nice (installing software off a USB 2.0-based flash drive makes you want to swear off optical media forever), but the ports on the front are recessed far enough that only a standard cable or a very low-profile flash drive can plug into them. My SD reader would only plug into the back, which is inconvenient.

The system has two full-size PCI slots for expansion. I put an IEEE 1394 (Firewire) card in one of the slots, since I want to do some light video work with it. The other slot will probably get an 802.11b wireless card. If I needed that PCI slot for something else, I could plug in a USB adapter for wireless networking.

I used to be in the habit of buying the biggest case I could afford or find (they weren’t always the same thing), so a really low-profile desktop like this Evo 510 feels a little strange. But a lot of things are different now. I could put a 1 TB hard drive in this system if I needed an obscene amount of storage. USB ports eliminate the need for Zip or Jaz or Syquest drives and even, to a large extent, for CD or DVD burners. If it weren’t for my interest in video, I wouldn’t bother with a burner in this machine at all. And since sound and networking are built in, there’s no need for a lot of expansion slots. It would be nice to have three PCI slots instead of just two, but I would imagine a lot of people never even fill two.

As it is, this computer fits on a small desk, and if you put an LCD monitor on top of it, the combination will take less real estate than a 17-inch CRT monitor does.

There are a lot of these machines on the market now, either coming off lease or being replaced due to business upgrade policy. They’re cheap ($75-$150 depending on configuration) and I think they make an excellent home PC. They’re cheap, unobtrusive, and surprisingly expandable.

A decked-out 510 probably won’t run Vista all that well, but a lot of new PCs don’t run it very well either. I think a 510 running Windows XP or Linux can be a very useful computer for a good number of years.

The tipping point of obsolesence

Gatermann just sent me a link to a $33 Dell P3-500 at Surplus Computers. It got both of us feeling old, because the day when that was a hot machine doesn’t seem long ago at all to either of us.

My initial reaction: That’s a lot of computer for 33 bucks. You get a 500 MHz CPU, 128 megs of RAM, and a 6 gig hard drive.

And then I got to thinking about it some more. I can think of people who could get by with that machine, but there’s a good reason why the P3-500’s star has fallen and you can get one for $33 without feeling like you’re at a Who concert.I guess first and foremost, you don’t get an operating system. That’s fine; OEM copies of XP home are cheap enough. Older versions of Windows are even cheaper because nobody wants them.

But even if you’re running 2000, you really want a minimum of 256 megs of RAM. For XP you want more than that; my mother-in-law’s PC, which is a Compaq with some flavor of Athlon in it, really drags these days because it only has 256 megs.

So I bopped on over to Crucial to see what I’d need to make that old Dell Optiplex GX1 rev its engine. And the price of a 256-meg DIMM was (sit down): $77.

So to max out the memory on this $33 machine, you’d need to spend another $231.

Gatermann just bought a gig of PC3200 DDR memory for $98.

So rather than spend $231 on 768 megs of PC133 SDRAM, you’d literally be better off buying the PC3200 and getting a $50 motherboard and a $60 CPU to put on it.

Trouble is, this is a Dell. You can’t swap off-the-shelf motherboards into a Dell. Some Dell cases will take a standard board, but you’ll have to replace the power supply. But the GX1 doesn’t use an ATX board.

That’s why this system costs 33 bucks. It’s pretty much at a dead end, and the memory it uses is no longer a mass-market item, so its price is inflated. It’s the same thing that happened to the 72-pin EDO SIMMs we used to put in our original Pentiums–you know, the ones that topped out at 233 MHz.

It’s a great machine for a tinkerer who happens to have a lot of PC100 or PC133 memory around, or for the Ebay addict. Obsolescent memory always sells more cheaply on Ebay.

I’ve always been in favor of upgrading a computer until it no longer makes economic sense to do so. If you’ve ever wondered when that is, this is a classic example.

Thinking on Compaq Presario upgrades

I’m going to be upgrading a Compaq Presario 7360 here pretty soon. It should be fun to shatter some of the myths surrounding recent Compaqs. It’s a standard microATX PC, nothing more, nothing less. With a $20 replacement power supply (Newegg.com calls the form factor used by low-end eMachines, Compaq, HP, and Gateway PCs “mini ATX”), it’ll handle any modern microATX motherboard.
Buying a new PC is easier, and if this PC were going to anyone else, I’d probably just tell the person to buy whatever the local consumer electronics store is hawking in its post-Christmas sales, or whatever Dell has for $349-$399. But for the technically savvy (or those who have a local computer store that’s honest and savvy and don’t mind paying for the use of that privelige), upgrading in pieces still makes sense. A motherboard based on an Nvidia Nforce2 (I’m sick of goofy capitalization) costs $65. Add a $36 1.6 GHz Duron CPU, a $10 fan, and a $35 256MB stick of DDR memory to go with the $20 power supply, and that Presario becomes a formidible computer for not a lot of money.

I just built a PC

It’s late, so I’ll save a lot of the gory details for tomorrow, but I built a PC over the course of the last couple of days. I did it a little bit differently than the last couple I’ve built.
All prices quoted are from Newegg.com as of last weekend when I ordered this stuff.

Case

I used a Foxconn PC115. It’s a two-tone case that looks like the cases the big brands use. Since a lot of the big brands buy from Foxconn, it’s probably a derivative of the designs Foxconn sells to them. It’s heavy enough gauge steel that you won’t hurt yourself with it. The mounting points are labeled. It has 11 drive bays. The included 350W power supply is honestly labeled. It’s a lower midrange case. I absolutely wouldn’t buy any less case than this–c’mon, the thing costs 30 bucks–but it’s nice enough that nobody’s going to be embarrassed with it.

Mobo

I used an AOpen AK75. It’s an AMD board, with a SiS 745 chipset. I’ve never had troubles with VIA chipsets, though to hear some people talk they make Yugos look reliable. I maintain that if you know what you’re doing, VIA chipsets are fine. But SiS has a great reputation of late so I thought I’d give a SiS-based board a try. It’s a nice board. It’s fast, and getting Windows to recognize and utilize the chipset is much nicer. Install the AGP driver and you’re in business.

One note about the board: Part of the Windows installation goes so slowly that I thought the board was defective. Right after the system check, it pauses for a long, long time. I’m talking longer than a Pentium 166. It seemed like minutes, though it probably wasn’t much longer than a minute in reality. Once it gets over that hurdle, it’s fast. This was with Win98 and 2000. I didn’t try XP. I had a legal copy of 98 for the system; I started to put 2000 on it in order to see if it ran into the same problems I thought 98 was having.

I only had a few hours’ experience with the board, which is anything but definitive, but it didn’t raise any red flags, and in my experience, most boards don’t wait until the second date to show their bad side. Usually the problems will show up either on the first day or sometime after the 366th.

I looked at an integrated Intel i815 board and very nearly bought it, but the supply dried up before I could pull the trigger. Buying AMD promotes competition, and the AK75 gives a lot more upgrade options in the future, so I’m not terribly sad about it.

Memory

I used a stick of Kingston DDR. It was on sale, I’ve never had a problem with Kingston memory, and back when I was working in an IBM shop, the IBM field techs trusted Kingston memory as much as the stuff IBM used from the factory.

DDR is cheaper than PC133 now, so if you’re building a new system, now’s the time to buy DDR instead. DDR-capable mobos are still more expensive, but they’re faster and you’ll save money in the long run by going with DDR now. DDR is the future. PC133 will stick around a while yet, but it’s headed to the same place EDO memory went.

Video

I used the cheap Radeon flavor of the week. When you don’t do 3D games, video cards don’t matter much anymore. This one was a genuine made-by ATi and I think it cost $29. It’ll stink up the joint if you’re waiting in line to buy Doom 3, but for the rest of us, it’s more video card than we’ll ever need, for a fantastic price.

I don’t have anything against Nvidia, but lately it’s easier to find a full-featured Radeon in the $30-$40 range than an Nvidia offering.

Modem

I used a USR 2977. It’s a real hardware modem and it’s PCI so it’ll fit in modern boards. At $35, it’s not that much more expensive than a Winmodem. And Winmodems steal anywhere from 10-20% of your available CPU power. People go to great lengths–either doing lots of time-consuming and sometimes downright foolish stuff, or spending lots of money–to achieve much smaller performance gains, so it’s stupid not to buy something like the 2977.

Hard drive

I used the flavor-of-the-week 7200-rpm 20-gig Maxtor. It cost $65. At that price I’m not going to be too picky, especially because I was working on a tight budget.

Operating system

Windows 98. Why? It was legal and adequate. Linux would be fine except for a few apps the new owner needs to run. There’s definitely enough hardware here to run XP, and XP might even outperform 98, but when you’re building a $300 system, spending $100 on an operating system when you’ve already got one doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Extras

I stole the CD-ROM, floppy, keyboard, mouse, and monitor from the PC this one was replacing. Along with all the cables.

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