Inexpensive flash storage for older PCs

I saw this lament in my referrer logs, of all places. Perhaps someone read it, then wondered if I had an answer?

The exact solution the author sought,  a USB-IDE converter so he could attach a thumb drive as an IDE device, doesn’t exist as far as I know. But I can think of two things that are almost as good.

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Attack of the $99 Droid-Pads

A 7-inch, underpowered Android tablet that may or may not be available at your corner Walgreen Drug Store is made some big waves today.  It’s underpowered, but it’s supposedly on sale for 99 bucks. Regular retail price is $129.

Yes, for 99 bucks, it’s a toy. But it could be a fun toy. Read more

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 and sometimes run specials on certain cables ( is a good place to look) but if you can’t snag a special, check pricing at 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, 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.

What to look for in a router

I revisit the topic of what to look for in a router every six or seven years. As important as it always was, I think it’s even more important today, as there are a number of underpowered routers on the market and it’s best to avoid them.

This post originated in 2010. I revised it for 2017 needs, and by the time I was done, I’m not sure much of my 2010 text was left. But that’s OK.

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How to revive an old PC

Somewhere, stashed in a corner of the basement or a closet, pretty much anyone who works on computers or even has just owned computers for a long time has a stash of obsolete hardware, stashed for a just-in-case moment.

Sometimes just-in-case comes quickly. Sometimes not so quickly. It’s when it comes not so quickly that you can run into problems.The first, and easiest problem you’re likely to encounter is a dead CMOS battery. The computer needs to be plugged in and powered on for this battery to charge, and when a computer sits for several years, chances are the battery will go dead. And with it goes the computer configuration, since CMOS memory is volatile, not firmware.

That means all those supertweaked settings you painstakingly entered in after reading Tom’s Hardware Guide in 1996 are gone. But so are the hard drive settings–assuming the hard drive still works.

So the first order of business when reviving a sleeping old PC is just to set it up with a keyboard and monitor, plug it in, turn it all on, watch for a CMOS battery failure message, then turn off the monitor and wait about 24 hours. Come back, turn the PC off and on, and see if you still get a CMOS battery failure.

If not, you’re good. You can go into BIOS setup, autodetect the hard drive if the computer is recent enough to have that feature, and see if the computer boots for you.

If the battery won’t come back, hopefully it’s a replaceable coin type. Remove the battery, take it to Cellular Shack, er, Radio Shack, and they should be able to look it up and find you an equivalent replacement. Buy the battery, tell ’em you’re deaf when they start trying to sell you a cell phone and enjoy the bemused looks you get, then take the new battery home, put it in your PC, power cycle it a few times to see if it needs to be charged, and if not, configure your hard drive.

If the computer doesn’t have an auto-detect feature, the hard drive parameters are hopefully on a sticker on the drive itself. Enter those parameters in CMOS setup, and see if the computer boots.

There’s a very real possibility that the drive won’t work. Some drives react better than others to just sitting. Rather than mess around too much with old drives, I prefer to install an adapter that converts a Compact Flash card (for digital cameras) to an IDE interface. This gives you an inexpensive solid-state drive that won’t develop mechanical problems and will consume less power. You can pick up a Compact Flash adapter very cheaply on eBay or from

This approach works better on motherboards that can autodetect drive types, of course. I’ve never seen a Compact Flash card that had drive type parameters printed on the label. You can put the card in a system that does have the feature, autodetect it, then write down the parameters so you can enter them in.

The procedures for loading an operating system vary. MS-DOS and its contemporaries like PC-DOS and DR-DOS, load from floppy. Windows 95 and 98 require boot disks with CD-ROM drivers, which are easy enough to locate online and download. Windows 2000 will boot off a CD-ROM to install, as will FreeDOS and most Linux distributions.

The other major difficulty with older PCs is just that setting them up was more complicated than it is now. With most modern PCs, you can just put in a CPU, connecting a hard drive, and letting the BIOS detect everything. Older boards may require you to set some jumpers for the CPU configuration, and if the PC is really old (especially pre-Pentium PCs), you may have to set some jumpers on plug-in cards as well. You may have to do some detective work, hunting down markings on the board, then do some Google searching (search both the web and newsgroups for best results) to find a manual or a list of settings. Many vendors have gone out of business or no longer have manuals posted on their web sites. When I went looking for a manual for an Asus SP97-V motherboard, for example, Asus no longer had it online. I had to download it elsewhere.

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