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Finding an open-source alternative to Ghost

Finding an open-source alternative to Ghost. Have I mentioned lately just how pathetic a software company Symantec is? Norton Utilities is adequate, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think I’d put Norton AntiVirus on any computer that I wanted to work right. I’d give you my opinion of McAfee’s product, but that’s a violation of the license agreement, so I’ll give you my opinion of the company instead. They’d rather spend their time and money and energy keeping you from talking about their products than they would making them worth buying.
So, anyway. Since Symantec is making my life difficult, why do we keep rewarding them by buying Ghost licenses over and over again?

Knowing that the Unix command dd if=/dev/hda of=[filename] makes a bit-for-bit copy of a hard drive, I sought to utilize the Linux kernel and dd as an alternative. Pipe it through bzip2 and it’d be great, right?

Uh, no. I imaged a 1.6-gig HD that had about 400 MB in use. About an hour later, I had a 900 MB disk image. This is bad. Very bad. Ghost would have given me a 250-300 MB image in 15 minutes.

But then I stumbled across PartImage, which does an intelligent, files-only disk image like Ghost does. It’s fast, it’s small, it works. NTFS support is experimental, but as long as you defragment your drive before you try to make an image, it seems to do fine.

However, it doesn’t do a full disk clone like Ghost does. Not yet, at least. Not on its own, at least. But this is Unix. Where there’s a will, there are 47 ways.

First, dump your partition table: sfdisk -d /dev/hda > table

Next, get your MBR: dd if=/dev/hda of=mbr bs=512 count=1

Yes, Eagle Eye, dd does grab your partition table. But restoring the table with DD will only get your primary partition(s). It won’t get your extended partitions, so that’s why sfdisk is necessary.

Now that we’ve got that detail out of the way, you can use PartImage to create images of all your disk partitions. It’s menu driven like Ghost. It’s text mode and not graphics-mode, so it’s not as pretty, but it’s also a fraction of the size.

Got your files made? Great. Now, to make the clone, you reverse it.

Write out the MBR: dd if=mbr of=/dev/hda bs=512 count=1

Re-create your partition layout: sfdisk /dev/hda

Then restore your partitions, one at a time, using PartImage either in interactive mode or with command-line switches.

It's a lot to remember, so the best bet would be to dump the images plus these two small files to a CD, make a Linux boot floppy containing dd, sfdisk, and partimage, and write a shell script that does it all. Then you can think about getting fancy and making a bootable CD that holds all of it and restores a system lickety-split.

A lot of trouble? Ugh. Yeah. Worth it? Probably. Ghost licenses aren't cheap, and PartImage has the potential to be a whole lot quicker, since it's built on a better foundation. Today's PCs are extremely powerful, and DOS has been underutilizing PCs' power since the introduction of the PC/AT in 1985. Linux will very happily scale up to whatever amount of memory and CPU power your PC has under the hood, making compression and decompression go faster. And if you do a little tweaking with hdparam before creating and before restoring (again, a good job for a shell script), you'll get far better disk throughput than DOS could ever give you. On these P3-866s, I found PartImage was a good 20-60 MB/minute faster than Ghost.

So this is not only faster, it also frees you from the difficulty of keeping track of Ghost licenses, which is a hidden administrative expense. With Linux and PartImage and the associated tools, you're free to use them as you like. The only questions anyone will ask is, "How'd you do that?"

That's not to say I have any objection to paying for a good product, but when you can't even buy a site license to escape the paperwork, it gets ridiculous. I suspect some companies just count their PCs and buy that many Ghost licenses once a year in order to be rid of the administrative overhead.

So I think it's more than worth it to figure out how to effectively do this job with open-source tools.

Of course I've left some questions. How do you make Linux boot floppies? How do you make Linux CDs? The PartImage site has images of bootdisks and boot CDs, but they don't have everything you need. Notably, sfdisk is missing from those images. And obviously you'd have to write your shell scripts and add those yourself.

I'll let you know when I figure it out. I'm pretty darn close.

04/01/2001

Mailbag:

HD; Impressions; Apple RAM; DOS Utility

I spent some time Friday at my alma mater, giving a presentation at their second annual Technology Fair. I talked about the publishing industry, and how technology gives me something to write about, and allows me to write about it comfortably. Without e-mail, I never could write for Computer Shopper UK.

A lot of my fomer teachers are retired now, or nearing retirement. My journalism instructor is giving up that class next year so someone younger can come in–she retires in three years. My CS instructor is retiring in two or three years. My geology instructor told me about changes to the science program–they’re a lot more serious about teaching science now than they were in my day. Had it been that way when I was there, I’d have complained a lot, but they probably would have made an engineer out of me. Scary thought.

My former lit/writing/speech instructor asked how my books were doing and what I was up to. I told him I was learning the Queen’s English. He laughed and said it was about time. I complained about how the British use plurals and commas and acronyms, and he alternated between grinning, nodding, and rolling his eyes. At least I’m not the only one who thinks it’s strange–and it’s really good to know that the one who used to spill barrels of red ink on my papers struggles sometimes with the British way of writing things. He told me to let him know when I write something other than a computer book–he said even a Dummies book is probably too much. I told him the atrocious royalty rates a Dummies book pays. He couldn’t believe it. Andy Rathbone and Dan Gookin made money off their Dummies books, certainly. But at 25 cents a copy, most authors won’t make much.

The vice-principal came up, admired my published work, and said, “That’s so cool! I can point at this and say, ‘I know that guy! I used to yell at him!'”

That he certainly did. I did learn one really useful thing from him though. I was a sophomore, about to get fired from my first job (I thought). He saw I was down and asked me one day what was going on. I told him. “You know what you can learn from this?” he asked. I shook my head. “Imagine, if you’re a single mother of three with no education and no marketable skills, so all you can do are these Mickey Mouse jobs. You’re completely and totally at the mercy of those people. Doesn’t that make you want to stay in school and get out of there?” I don’t know if that tactic would work with anyone else, but it worked on me.

Going back made me feel old though too. One guy came up to me. “You know my brother.” He said his name. Uh, yeah, his brother and I were best friends. The last time I saw this guy, he was probably in the fifth grade, if that. Now he’s getting ready to go off to Mizzou and major in business. Remarkable. I thought I spotted another former classmate’s kid sister, but she didn’t say anything to me.

Afterward, one of the students showed me a Web application he’s putting together in PHP. It’s nowhere near finished, but when it’s done, it’ll be better than the commercial app the shcool is using now. I felt a long way from hacking out programs on my C-128, which was what I was doing when I was his age.

I’m jealous. In some regards, George W. Bush has the world’s coolest job.

Uh oh. I know they had this idea before I printed it, but the day after I suggested someone needed to copycat Apple’s cube design and put a VIA C3 chip in it, I read this.

Another source. Regular readers of the irreverenet British IT publication The Register will undoubtedly recognize the name Mike Magee. Well, The Great Magee has had some health problems of late, and then along the way it seems he’s split with the Register and gone off on his own, and at least one of his former staffmates seem to have followed him. You can find his stuff at http://theinquirer.net .

Monitors. I ordered a 19″ NEC FE950 monitor last weekend, the black model, since the place I ordered from was out of stock on the white. I got a good price on it too–$386 before shipping. I remember when a 14″ RGB monitor used to cost about that much. Sure, that was 15 years ago, but hey, I remember it. And that’s before calculating inflation. Very nice price. By way of comparison, my dear departed NEC Multisync II monitor cost about $910 new after adjusting for inflation. How far we’ve progressed.

Well, sorta. Back in those days, you ordered something over the phone, and it showed up about a month later. These days, when you order from someone reputable, stuff shows up in a week or less. And if you need it overnight, you can definitely get it overnight. But not this time. Not from this place. I order on Saturday. They finish processing my order on Thursday and ship it, but they haven’t notified me of the tracking number yet. I didn’t order from my usual sources–this place was considerably cheaper–and I know, you get what you pay for. But these guys had a pretty good ranking on reseller ratings, and a Computer Shopper reader’s choice award and a Better Business Bureau membership to boot. How bad can they be?

Well, by 1986 standards they’re still doing OK. But it’s a darn good thing I wasn’t in a hurry.

And I just realized, I could have used that logic to justify a 15-inch flat panel. Oh well.

Mailbag:

HD; Impressions; Apple RAM; DOS Utility

03/19/2001

Another useful hidden utility. If you’ve never used Sysmon.exe, remember it. With Windows 98 and newer, you can use it to track CPU usage, memory usage, and disk throughput (usunted information, I always searched the Web. When I wanted useful information, I hit DejaNews. Sure, there was a lot of junk out there, but 50% of it was good stuff, and most of that never made it onto the Web. I never did find any useful information on the Asus SP97V motherboard on the Web, because the hardware sites weren’t into it. I found out what I wanted to know about it from DejaNews. When I wanted to know how to get Windows NT Workstation machines to authenticate against an OS/2 domain, I found out how on DejaNews. When I needed information about XTs and ATs for some insane reason, I hit DejaNews.

I spent a little time in the comp.sys.ibm.pc.hardware hierarchy for old time’s sake yesterday. I’m sure I’ll get a ton of spam now because I probably didn’t spam-filter all of my e-mail addresses, but that’s OK. It was pretty fun. I’ll have to do it again someday soon. It’s the closest thing I can find to an old-style BBS that still exists and has a sizable community. The scary thing is, some of the old WWIVnet message boards had a bigger community than comp.sys.ibm.pc.hardware seems to have. The questions I answered were hardly difficult ones, and some of them had been sitting for a couple of days, which never would have happened on WWIVnet. And I know WWIVnet wasn’t even the biggest of the BBS networks, it just happened to have a lock on the St. Louis market in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I wonder where all those wizards went?

I ought to install a text-based newsreader on my Linux box to give myself a more authentic atmosphere though. This stuff just doesn’t look right when it’s running in a GUI. Not to me at least–back when I was dialing up BBSs, nobody ever ran Windows. At the very least, it should be running in a terminal window. Hmm. Maybe next time…

Even if the community is smaller, Usenet does have one big advantage over the old-school BBS though: No busy signals.

03/06/2001

Inexpensive PCs. I want to post something useful before I handle the issue of the day. So here goes.

A longtime friend wrote in wanting some advice on buying an affordable PC. Yesterday’s build-your-own route using closeout components and a Saturday afternoon isn’t realistic for the person he was asking for. (Undoubtedly the issue came up in conversation because he’s pretty computer-savvy, and he said, “Well, my son knows an awful lot about this stuff, and a friend of his writes computer books, so let me see what they have to say.”)

So, what to do when it’s not practical to build your own?

Do the same thing my mom and aunt do and my grandmother used to do when they’re buying anything. Shop around. I still have nightmares in which my aunt exclaims, 10 hours into a shopping marathon, “I’m looking for bargains!” Some of it rubbed off on me. Some. NOT A LOT! (I know, I know, denial’s the first symptom.)

Anyway. Shop around. Not at Best Bait-n-Switch and Circuit Vulgar-Adjective-that-Rhymes-with-City. You don’t want consumer-grade HP Pavilion and Compaq Presario junk. And you definitely don’t want slimy salespeople who know more about sales commissions than they know about computers. (I know, Best Bait-n-Switch salespeople aren’t commissioned, but their managers get monthly bonuses based on sales, so you’d better believe they’re putting the screws to the salespeople.) Avoid the salespeople. Use the Internet. I routinely find great deals at a wide variety of places: www.insight.com , www.onvia.com , www.outpost.com , www.pczone.com , www.cdw.com are all reputable. And a lot of times you even get free shipping from Onvia and Outpost.

Just to prove my point, I went to Insight, the first place I thought of. I found a Compaq Deskpro Celeron-500 with decent specs (64 megs of RAM, I forget what sized hard drive, and Windows 98) for $450. So you get the quality Compaq reserves for big corporate clients for an eMachine price. Very nice. That leaves a monitor. I know this person’s working on a tight budget and $450 may already be pushing it. I find some bottom-feeder 15″ monitors for $119. Then I spy a 15″ NEC monitor for $150. I’ve got a six-year-old NEC monitor that’s still going strong. And last year I threw away an NEC monitor built in 1988 that finally died after about 12 years, much of it hard use. NEC quality is definitely worth $30 extra.

Now, does NEC give you the same quality on their entry-level monitors today as on my older monitors that were top-drawer when they were built? Probably not. But they’re certainly better than Proview, and better than most monitors PC makers relabel. And while Compaq does some things that drive me up the wall, I’ll take a Deskpro over absolutely anything I can buy at a consumer electronics or office supply store. Heck, I’ll take a used Deskpro over any new consumer-grade PC.

So there you go: quality worthy of corporate use, for 600 lousy bucks.

I can’t always find a steal of a deal at Insight, but I can usually find something good at one of those five places.

So shop around, and when you find a price you’re willing to pay, ask a knowledgeable friend about it just to make sure. It’s not just people who build PCs in their basements for fun who get all the good deals.

Subscriptions. I was going to say something about this trend then I decided I’d wait until someone brought it up. Yesterday, two people did. I’m not too surprised; ever since Gun-Bob Sweatpants went the subscriber route, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in my traffic.

I currently have no plans to adopt a subscription model.

For me, it’s an easy question. If I were to go to that model, 20 people would subscribe. Then, for less than I get for publishing a typical magazine article, I’d be committed to produce quality content on a regular basis for a year. Bad move.

But let’s say 600 people subscribed. At, say, $25 a year, that amounts to 15 grand. That’s a decent chunk of change. But once again, I’d be committed to produce quality content on a regular basis, I wouldn’t feel as free to experiment, and if I had to take a week off–or, heaven forbid, a few months off like last year–it would be very, very bad.

And besides, when people pay money, you feel worse about hacking them off because they have ownership. Take last month’s gun debate as an example. I killed off that topic because I found it boring and I suspected other people did too. After I started writing about computers again, readership climbed back to pre-gun levels. But what if that discussion had involved my five or six longest-time subscribers? Would I have been able to kill off the topic? I don’t know. I can hack off those five and risk losing five subscribers, or humor them and risk losing a few hundred subscribers. Somehow, when there’s no money involved, it’s easier to take those kinds of risks. The best way for a writer to grow is to take risks, and no publisher’s going to pay me to take risks.

Now let’s look at this another way. When I started out, I had about 25 readers. Soon I had 200. Soon after that I had to take my extended sabbatical to let my wrists heal. Within a month or so of coming back, I had about 175 readers and I stayed flat. I started working hard to promote the site, and pushed that to 400. I stopped promoting, and it dropped slightly. Now, it looks like I have about 600 readers.

Now, 600 subscribers, at $25 apiece, would net me 15 Gs. But if I keep my content free, I have every reason to believe that within six months I’d have 1,000 readers or maybe even 1,500. That gives me more leverage when I  write professionally. The first question any editor asks is, “Can you write?” I can say yes. But what if I say, “Well, I write a daily essay on whatever I feel like, and 1,500 people around the world read it.” Isn’t that a much better answer?

Can I (or my agent) use my daily readership as leverage when negotiating writing deals? You bet. Can I get more than $15,000 worth of benefit from that? Not this year. But if I get one magazine article or book chapter because of this site’s impact, I make more than I’d make under a subscription model. (Which will net me even more readers, and more clout. See the vicious circle?) But that’s a moot point anyway, because there’s no way anyone’s gonna pay 15 grand to listen to me spout off every day. Not this year. And not next year either.

I also realize that people’s needs change. Yes, I paid to subscribe to Jerry Pournelle’s site, because for a while, his site was absolutely invaluable to me. But over time his content changed, and my needs changed. I visit his site a couple times a month now. But I used to visit a couple times a day. When I visit, I don’t learn nearly as much as I used to, at least not about computers. Part of that’s because my needs have changed. And part of it’s because in the time since then, I’ve spent some 6,500 hours being paid to work on computers and I’ve written a computer book, a half-dozen articles for publication, half a book manuscript no one will ever see, done a tech review for someone else’s book, and reviewed three chapters of still another person’s book before it was published. I guess you could say I outgrew him.

And I fully expect a good percentage of my readers to outgrow me. Hopefully they’ll still find some reason to visit anyway, if my content remains free.

Besides, I get my Web hosting and most of my promotion for free. Is it right for me to charge people under that model? I don’t really think it is. I can remedy that, but frankly, for a while I even felt a little guilty using this site to promote my book. Then I decided that me promoting the book gives me credibility, which lends credence to Dave Winer’s saying a large number of professional journalists and authors use Manilla, which lets him sell more Manilla and make money, so he benefits and I benefit. So I no longer have a problem with that.

If my content really is worth something to you, there are a couple of things you can do. You can buy my book. I benefit monetarily from that, and book sales give me clout just like Web readership does. Some people even buy my book and give it to people for Christmas and birthday presents. That may be going a bit overboard but I appreciate it. And if you buy the book from my link on this site, I get a kickback from Amazon in addition to my royalty from O’Reilly.

Now maybe you’ve already bought my book and you’ve given copies to everyone you know and a few people you don’t (thanks). Or maybe you’ve read the reviews, read the sample chapters, decided my book’s not for you, but you like the things I write about here (thanks). If you want to give something, then the next time you’re planning to buy a book or a CD or software, click on my Amazon link and buy it. I get a small kickback.

So when people do that, I get a few bucks every quarter. And it doesn’t cost my readers much of anything–they’re just buying stuff they probably would have bought anyway. And it’s anonymous, so I get most, if not all the benefits of subscription without any imagined pressure. Everyone benefits.

Now, what about the subscriptions and members that Manilla speaks of? That’s just signing up for e-mail updates and the right to directly post responses to the things I post here. There’s no cost involved, and what gets e-mailed out are my daily posts. Granted, they differ slightly sometimes from what stays here because sometimes I go back and edit the content slightly. Subscribers and non-subscribers basically get the same benefits.

02/26/2001

Printer shopping. My sister, Di, was in town this weekend, with her printer: a hand-me-down Panasonic KX-P4410 I bought my freshman year of college, which would make it 7-8 years old. It started jamming every time you print not too long ago, and now it doesn’t even respond at all. Looking at it, I couldn’t tell if the printer’s problem was the drum unit or the toner cartridge; a new drum unit costs nearly as much as Panasonic’s current closest equivalent printer today costs. Put a drum and a toner cartridge in it, and you’ve paid as much as you would for a new printer. So while I hate for a possibly good printer to go to waste, it’s just not worth it to spend that much on what was at the time Panasonic’s entry-level laser-class printer.

Panasonic printers aren’t so easy to find these days, so we ended up getting an HP LaserJet 1100. We found one for $285 with a $30 rebate, which isn’t bad for a printer that normally sells for $425 on the street. It’s a low-end printer, but it’s HP, so it’ll last a long time. And at 8 pages per minute, it’s got plenty of speed for what Di does–she’s not going to be printing book manuscripts with this. Driver support isn’t the best from HP these days, but it’ll work with an HP LaserJet 4 PCL5 driver, which means any new OS should support that printer even if HP is slow in supplying official drivers. I’m not in love with HP’s driver policies these days but they still make good iron, and I can keep it working for years to come.

Napster. With Napster on the ropes, the time seems to be right for this. I wrote a piece a month or two ago, without really knowing what I’d do with it. With Napster’s days numbered, it seems pretty obvious: post it now because there is no market for such a piece. It’s long so I think I’ll split it up. What is it? It’s an industry insider’s perspective on Napster. How much of an insider? Well, my interviewee is a musician, producer, and at one time owned an indie record label. His views will be a bit surprising. I’m guessing this’ll be a three-parter by the time I split it up.

02/06/2001

Shopping. I went to Wal-Mart yesterday intending to pick up shampoo and vitamins. On a whim, I wandered over to the electronics section, and found some surprises. I knew they sold HP computers, but I didn’t realize they’d branched into the types of product that require you to pop the hood to install. I guess PCs really have gone mainstream. Power splitters, four bucks. Keyboard adapters, four bucks. Creative 52X CD-ROM drives, 58 bucks. You can get the same thing, only the white box version, from Mwave.com for $36, but shipping will eat half the price difference and if you need a CD-ROM drive at 3 a.m. for some reason, well, you can get it. The same goes for a keyboard or a mouse. Don’t laugh–I was visiting a friend one weekend several years ago, and about 8:30 p.m. Friday he decides it’s time to build his new PC. So we piled into his car and barreled off to CompUSA, and arrived in the parking lot at 9:05. Too late. So I know someone who’d appreciate being able to get components at odd hours.

More interesting was a special phone cord made of LAN-grade CAT5 cable. Pricey at $8, but it’ll improve your modem connection slightly, if you’re still cursed with a dialup connection. They had network cables too, at $8 for a 10-footer and $12 for a 15-footer. That’s about the same price as CompUSA, but Wal-Mart is probably closer and it’s open longer hours.

I didn’t end up buying any of that stuff. I did find a rotating CD tower with a 112-disc capacity for 10 bucks. I snapped that up. I’ve got about 1/4 that many data CDs laying around, but the way those things breed, I’ll fill it. You’ll frequently pay that price for a 25-disc tower. I also found a disk box for $2. Nothing fancy at all–it looks like a recipe box–but who needs something fancy to hold disks? I remember I used to pay $8 for beige disk boxes with see-through tops that held 50 disks. This costs 1/4 as much and holds more. The plastic’s thinner and you can’t see through the top, but these stack better. And the price was right. So I grabbed one. I thought about getting a second, but I figured no, I probably only have about 50 stray disks laying around, so a second box would just be extra clutter, and I just spent all weekend trying to get rid of extra clutter. I got home, herded up all the stray floppies I could find, and filled the box. Then I spotted another stack of floppies laying forgotten under a pile of papers. Rats. I should have grabbed a second box. Next time I’m out I’ll grab another one.

O’Reilly revisited. Frank McPherson had some interesting observations yesterday about O’Reilly in general and Optimizing Windows in particular. He said he didn’t like the title. I never liked it either; I thought it was cumbersome, limiting, and meaningless (which is why I usually just call it Optimizing Windows). Games is too limiting, graphics is too limiting, and multimedia is a buzzword that’s lost all meaning. The book title on the contract read “Essential Windows 9x Optimization.” I’m not sure if that was the title on the proposal or where that working title came from. I remember giving O’Reilly a list of about 10 possible titles, but they kept coming back to Optimizing Windows for Games, Graphics and Multimedia. I cited gamers in the proposal as one potential audience for the book, they ran with it.

Frank also brought up pricing and book length. It’s much harder to write a short book; had I skipped the self-editing process Optimizing Windows probably would have been closer to 330 pages instead of 290. I didn’t see that adding filler would add any value to the book, and I really wanted to stay under 300 pages so the book wouldn’t look intimidating. But people expect computer books to be thick. I remember seeing a picture of someone’s Apollo workstation, and he included a picture of his Apollo manuals. They would have nearly filled one of my 6-foot bookshelves. It was a ridiculous mass of 3-ring binders. But people seem to expect computer books to be 900 pages, just like they expect a CD to play for an hour.

I think Frank hit the nail on the head when he talked about layout. He cited bigger print and more whitespace and more use of graphics. Indeed, those things sell. I remember doing newsletter layouts with my ex-girlfriend. I’d lay the elements on the page, then she’d add tons of whitespace. A lot less fit on the page, but it looked a lot better and read much more quickly that way. She also added a lot of unnecessary flourishes. A hardcore computer geek would dismiss that as bravado, but it makes the pages look a lot better. People notice those things when they flip through the book or magazine in the store.

My editors at Computer Shopper UK asked me to provide them with more screenshots than I have been lately. I sent them 14, which I thought was a ridiculous number. I just got a PDF proof of my next article, for the April issue. They used 11 of them, and there’s no denying it looks great.

Pricing’s tougher. I suspect O’Reilly uses higher-quality paper than some of the other publishers, and that quickly adds cost. But if I didn’t have a degree in magazine publishing I probably wouldn’t notice the difference. I know Joe Consumer doesn’t notice and would rather pay $5 less. Some people would buy the book printed on newsprint if they could save 10 bucks. I’ve forgotten almost everything I ever knew about binding, but my O’Reilly books are bound better than some of the other computer books I have. I don’t think that matters much either though; I have a lot of comb-bound computer books too and I don’t think less of them because of it.

02/01/2001

I don’t like to do “this is what I did yesterday” messages but that’s all I’ve got. Mostly I re-imaged some Macs. I did get to put an HP optical drive in a Compaq Proliant server we bought used for pennies on the dollar from a failed dot-com. But no one had any drive rails. Luckily, I had a Compaq 386 sitting under my desk. I opened it up, pulled the 5.25″ drive, walked over to the Proliant, and it slid right in. Perfect. I unbolted the drive, bolted the rails to the optical drive (I had to find different screws), and put the drive right in. And the guy who normally handles the servers asked how I did it so fast. Hey, I did tech review on a book about PC hardware. I know how to work on these things… And I worked on far too many Compaqs my first two years of college. (And far too many IBMs my last two years of college.)

Hot tip: Compaq drive rails cost something like $30 from Compaq. Compaq 386s are free, when you can find them. Or they’re cheap. Or someone pays you 15 bucks to haul them away. Or, there’s eBay. I just found 12 people selling them there, with zero bids on them. Asking price: $4.99-$9.99.

I also parted out a Pentium-75 that no longer works. This is the only dead Micron PC I’ve seen, honestly. And I suspect the problem is the third-party memory in it (the memory there isn’t Micron, which tells me the original stuff was pilfered at some point). Since it’s useless, it’s either part it out and discard the stuff that can’t be used, or pay someone to haul it off. Well, I’m having a hard time getting my Soyo SY-7SBB motherboards running. Outside the case, they’re fine. Put them in one of my AT cases, and they don’t work. I suspect not enough grounding, or grounding in places it doesn’t want it. This Micron case is much more configurable than any of the AT cases I have, so it’ll help me solve the mystery. (I won’t go modifying my IBM PC/AT case until I figure out, with the Micron case’s help, where I need ground points. Then I’ll Dremel out the existing caseworks and put in spacers where I need them to be. Ah, the troubles I’ll go to for a chance to see someone’s face when they see something unexpected…

Last night after church, one of our seminary students was cleaning off his car. (We got some ice last night.) He had this dinky little plastic ice scraper that would probably fit in your shirt pocket. I was waiting for my car to warm up, noticed him struggling with that thing, so I pulled out my heavy-duty scraper, with its long metal handle and big brush, and walked over to his car. “I can tell you’re from Texas,” I said. Boom, boom, boom, and in 30 seconds I had all the remaining ice off his windshield. He watched me with huge eyes. I just laughed as I brushed off his windshield.

Heavy-duty ice scrapers are your friend. One day last week I had a half-inch layer of solid ice on my car. With this scraper, it still took me 10 minutes to clean it off. With a hand-size scraper, my only choice would have been to let the car run for 30 minutes with the defroster going full force.

And what’s this? I had 317 page reads at 3 p.m. yesterday. On a so-so DAY I get 317 reads. (I can get 600 on a good day; about 260 on a bad day.) That can’t be one person, because one person reading, if they spend two minutes per post, will get 30 in an hour. Maybe it was someone looking for something. I hope they found it. Or maybe a speed reader really really really likes my stuff.

And this from Gatermann. I got mail from a reader asking about getting a modem running under Linux. I noticed he used Southwestern Bell and suggested that was probably the problem, not his modem or Linux. I suggested he contact tech support and ask if Linux works. Gatermann piped in. They won’t even know what Linux is, he said. Remember, these are the people who couldn’t understand why they couldn’t ping me when I couldn’t get an IP address. (Yeah, I rolled my eyes too the first time Tom told me that story.)

But I suspect everyone there has heard of Linux. Heck, my ex-girlfriends know about Linux. The one I talked about taking me to the state capital and eating doughnuts on the steps (hey, if there are any Mizzou alumni out there and you know anything about this tradition, would you please e-mail me about it? Thanks in advance), one night we were sitting out there, and she brought up Linux. SHE did. At the time, I hated Linux because all I’d seen was Slackware. Another girl I dated briefly brought up Linux as much as she could because she knew I was writing a book about Linux at the time. Heck, people walk up to me at church and ask me if I know anything about Linux!

So Southwestern Bell employees have probably heard of Linux. But Tom’s right, they probably can’t say anything meaningful about it.

01/31/2001

Mailbag:

Music, HD, Linux modem

Sick. Something you’ll (hopefully) never see: DefragCam. I can blame one of my twisted coworkers for that idea.

A sad referrer showed up in my logs yesterday. It was a search request, from Hotbot, on the string, “I’ve never had a girlfriend.” I’m pretty sure that phrase appears as part of a sentence in Are we talking about more than just sunsets? but as part of a phrase. I seem to remember writing, “I’ve never had a girlfriend outside the winter months,” or something like that. I have no way of knowing where that request came from. Probably a bored, lonely teenager. More people have never had a girlfriend than anyone’s willing to admit. Including a majority of teenagers.

It’s only a problem if you let it be one. Unfortunately a lot of people do, and that makes them vulnerable to all sorts of scum, like advertisers and fringe religious fanatics and seedy individuals, all promising things they can’t or won’t deliver.

Not that I’m much of an advice-giver (unless you’ve got a slow computer, then I’m pretty good), but the best suggestion I’ve got is to find something you’re good at. Lose yourself in that. If you’re not good at anything, find something you enjoy and lose yourself in it. You’ll get good at it. That alleviates the boredom, and it builds confidence, which makes you good at other things. Does it make girls notice you? Only indirectly. But it’s better to be a winner who only occasionally has girlfriends (and remember, ideally you should only be in a successful relationship once anyway) than to be a loser who always has a girl.

I hate to sound callous, but given the choice between having a book published to my name, or having any of my ex-girlfriends back, I’d choose the book. I wouldn’t even hesitate. When I find a girl who’s cooler than writing magazine articles, and she thinks I’m pretty cool too, then I’ll know it’s time to settle down.

I guess that’s the other good thing about losing yourself in other interests. If a girl starts hanging around who’s more interesting than those things, great. If she’s not, that’s your subconscious mind’s way of telling you to keep looking.

A new way to benchmark. Finally, there’s a multitasking-oriented benchmark, available from www.csaresearch.com . Keep an eye on these guys. I didn’t use any benchmarks in Optimizing Windows, because they don’t reflect real-world performance and they generally test your hardware, not the operating system as it stands on your machine. This benchmark uses new methods that try to take multitasking into account, so it will do a better job of reflecting how a system feels. It was like I was telling my sister yesterday. If I put two computers in front of her, she doesn’t care which one puts up better numbers. She knows which one’s faster. But with a lot of the benchmarks today, the faster machine doesn’t put up the best numbers. Or a PC might put up numbers that appear to kill another, but when you sit down to use the two, you can’t tell a difference.

Time for a review. I’ve been so critical of reviews lately I decided to try my hand at writing one myself, to see if I’ve still got what it takes.

Linksys Etherfast Cable/DSL Router

Broadband Internet connections are increasingly common, and it’s hard for a single PC to use up all the available bandwidth. Plus, more and more homes have multiple PCs, and it’s a shame to spend $50 a month for Internet access and limit its use to a single PC. A number of third-party programs for sharing an Internet connection exist, and recenolution. These devices are about the size of a hub, plug into your cable/DSL modem, have a built-in firewall, and include one or more ports. You can plug your PCs into these ports and/or plug in a hub or switch so you can support a larger number of PCs. Another advantage of a standalone router is additional security against hackers. A Unix box can be very secure, but if a hacker does get into it, he can do a lot of unpleasant things, to you or to someone else (but make it look like you’re the one doing it). A hacker can’t do much to a router besides mess up its configuration. You can reset it and reconfigure it in five minutes. So the security of one of these devices is very tough to beat.

One of the most popular standalone cable/DSL routers is the Linksys BEFSR41, also known simply as the EtherFast Cable/DSL Router. It’s widely available for around $150. The best price I could find on it was $131. I tested the 4-port version. A 1-port and 8-port version is also available. The 1-port version is less expensive but requires a separate hub or switch. If you already have one of those, you can save some money, but the 4- or 8-port version is ideal since it includes a built-in switch. I have an 8-port dual 10/100 hub; the Linksys router therefore gives me three additional higher-speed network ports, since switches are faster than hubs. Most people will probably want the 4- or 8-port version, because it’s easy to get spoiled really quickly by a 100-megabit switched Ethernet LAN.

Configuration is wickedly easy. Plug it into your cable/DSL modem, plug a computer into it, turn all of it on, configure the PC for DHCP if it isn’t already, then open a Web browser and go to http://192.168.1.1 . Feed it the factory password (which is undoubtedly documented all over the Web, but I won’t document it here as well), then make the changes you need. Most people won’t have to do any configuration other than changing the configuration password. If you want to put it on a different subnet, do it, then run winipcfg, push the release all button, then the renew all button, reconnect to the router, and make other changes if need be.

Administration is easy too. Just connect to the router via its Web interface, and click on the Status tab. You instantly get your network status. If your ISP drops your connection, hit the Release, then the Renew button. From the DHCP tab, you can tell the router how many clients to support. You can go to the advanced tab to configure port forwarding or a DMZ if you want such a thing–most of us won’t.

The only thing I had difficulty doing was upgrading the firmware from the browser interface. The router must not have liked the version of IE I was using. However, nothing stops you from downloading and running the firmware upgrade directly–as long as you’ve got a Windows box handy. Mac and Linux users may have problems there. Firmware updates seem to come every couple of months.

The firewall built into the router is unable to pass Steve Gibson’s LeakTest, but all hardware routers have this weakness–it’s virtually impossible for a hardware router to tell the difference between innocent traffic and malicious traffic caused by a Trojan Horse. However, the router passes ShieldsUp! ( www.grc.com ) with flying colors.

The speed of the connection is certainly acceptable; with me running a caching nameserver on the Linux box it replaced that machine should be able to outperform any standalone router any time. Of course this is purely subjective; the speed of the Internet changes constantly. Nothing stops me from running a caching nameserver behind this router, which will help performance significantly. Local network performance on the built-in 10/100 switch is outstanding.

Appearance-wise, it’s a solid product, made of two-tone blue and black plastic but it’s not cheap plastic. Styling is modern but tasteful–no wild colors or translucent parts. It has indicator lights up front, a reset switch up front, and ports in the back. It also has built-in legs, so presumably it’s stackable with other Linksys hardware (I don’t have any Linksys switches or hubs, so I can’t check that).

The only flaw I can really find with this router is that the MAC address can’t be changed. Some ISPs authenticate against the card’s MAC address, which allows them to control how you connect to them. It also prevents you from using this type of device. Some competing routers allow you to change their MAC address, so they can spoof that card and get around the limitation.

I read of problems using it with services that use PPPoE (PPP over Ethernet). My service doesn’t, so I can’t test this. Buyer beware.

I was disappointed that the 45-page manual didn’t have an index, but it had a lot of nice information in it, such as pinouts for Ethernet cables. It’s written in clear, plain and straightforward English. Manuals of this length and quality are rare these days.

I think it’s a decent product, but for my purposes I want something else. I don’t want something so easy to reset to factory defaults and configure. Why? It’s getting corporate use, and I want it to be complex enough to scare people away. I want the user interface of an HP LaserJet printer control panel. It’s a pain to configure, so therefore end-users don’t mess with it. I’m not sure if I’ll find such a beast, but you bet I’ll look for it.

Mailbag:

Music, HD, Linux modem

01/29/2001

Slim pickings. There isn’t a whole lot of new content going up over the weekend, so I’ll hit two useful, if slightly flawed hardware articles. And I guess I’ve gotta come up with some of my own stuff.

Shopping. I went computer shopping Saturday for the first time in, oh, years probably. I build my own and have been doing so since 1996, so I normally take no interest in retail PCs. But a friend of a friend is in the market for a PC, and I didn’t want her to get ripped off, so I offered to go shopping with her to keep such a thing from happening. Note I didn’t offer to build her one–I’m trying to get out of the build-a-PC-for-a-friend business for the most part.

So we hit Office Depot. The superdupercheap trend seems to be abating a little; there’s a lot for under $1,000 still, but the $499-and-under market is waning. eMachines is playing there, but Compaq and HP seem to have retreated. I noticed plenty of Durons, which ought to make AMD happy.

We also hit Computer Renaissance. I’ve heard horror stories about the place, but figured I could probably handle the slimy salespeople. I can talk way over their heads when I want to (“I don’t care what anyone says, compared to Microchannel, PCI is rubbish. At least with Microchannel, I knew where the resources were going and I knew they’d stay put!”), and I can play intimidation by dropping OS/2 and Linux compatibility questions. They left us alone though, which was nice. I saw P200-based Compaq Deskpros for $199, including 15″ monitor. I wanted more power than that for her. HP Vectra PII266s were $399; PII233s were $379. Both included monitors. What caught my eye was a $299 Compaq Deskpro. It had a Pentium Pro-200, which was about as fast as the PII-233 due to its on-die, full-speed cache, and it had a SCSI hard drive. For productivity use, this Deskpro is fine. Its 32 MB RAM is awfully low, but that’s curable. DIMMs are cheap. The SCSI will be nice. And it’s hard to find a better-built machine than a Compaq Deskpro. Life expectancy of this machine will be much higher than that of a new Compaq Presario, eMachine, or HP Pavilion.

But if mail-order had been an option, I probably would have pushed her in the direction of a Compaq iPAQ. For about $399 (without monitor), you get Windows 2000 and a corporate-quality (as opposed to consumer-quality) PC. Expandability is nil, except for the memory, but for word processing and Internet use, it’s great, and that’s what she wants. And it’s got USB and Ethernet built-in. If I had to equip a small business with a fleet of PCs quickly, that’s probably the direction I’d go. And I like them for home use too.

On to the reviews.

ATA-66 vs. ATA-100 (Real World Tech)

Good methodology, at least as far as hardware selection goes, and he explains his methodology as well. Full disclosure is always good, as it shows confidence you have nothing to hide.

The testing is a little suspect though. Using three trials and taking the highest number isn’t the accepted method. It’s better to take 9 or 10 trials, discard the highest and lowest, and average the remaining scores. I say this because in my own tests, I sometimes get a string of two or three weird scores that are awfully high or low. Running more than that, then discarding the outliers gives scores more likely to reflect the real world.

For these purposes, the flawed method probably suffices; it shows the slight advantage of ATA-66 and ATA-100 over ATA-33, though it may be exaggerated. The tests show little or no advantage to using ATA-100 over ATA-66.

This isn’t the best online test I’ve seen, but it’s definitely not an atrocity either. There is carefully-planned research here, by someone whose experience shows.

Gigabyte GA-7ZXR review (BX Boards)

All I can say is this is a very unremarkable hardware review. They didn’t disclose the testbed setup other than the CPUs used. Benchmarks were limited to Winstone 99 and Quake 2, and then they didn’t list any competing boards, so you’ve got a bunch of numbers but nothing to directly compare them with!

Lots of pictures and a list of features, but frankly there’s nothing here that probably wouldn’t be on the manufacturer’s Web site.

The quality of writing is better than average, but this review’s usefulness is limited to introducing you to a board you may not be familiar with yet. Unfortunately to learn much of anything meaningful about it other than what it looks like, you’ll have to wait for one of the other sites to get their mitts on it.

01/13/2001

Have I been brainwashed by Redmond? In the wake of MacWorld, Al Hawkins wrote a piece that suggested maybe so. My post from Thursday doesn’t suggest otherwise.

So let’s talk about what’s wrong with the PC industry. There are problems there as well–problems across the entire computer industry, really. The biggest difference, I think, is that the big guns in the PC industry are better prepared to weather the storm.

IBM’s PC business has been so bad for so long, they’ve considered pulling out of the very market they created. They seem to be turning it around, but it may only be temporary, and their profits are coming at the expense of market share. They retreated out of retail and eliminated product lines. Sound familiar? Temporary turnarounds aren’t unheard of in this industry. IBM as a whole is healthy now, but the day when they were known as Big Black & Blue isn’t so distant as to be forgotten. But IBM’s making their money these days by selling big Unix servers, disk drives, PowerPC CPUs and other semiconductors, software, and most of all, second-to-none service. The PC line can be a loss leader, if need be, to introduce companies to the other things IBM has to offer.

Compaq is a mess. That’s why they got a new CEO last year. But Compaq is a pretty diverse company. They have DEC’s old mini/mainframe biz, they have DEC’s OpenVMS and Digital Unix (now Tru64 Unix) OSs, they have DEC’s Alpha CPU architecture, and DEC’s widely acclaimed service division, which was the main thing that kept DEC afloat and independent in its day. Compaq also has its thriving server business, a successful line of consumer PCs and a couple of lines of business PCs. The combined Compaq/DEC was supposed to challenge IBM as the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, and that hasn’t happened. Compaq’s a big disappointment and they’re having growing pains. They should survive.

HP’s not exactly in the best of shape either. They’ve made a lot of lunkhead decisions that have cost them a lot of customers, most notably by not releasing drivers for their widely popular printers and scanners for newer Microsoft operating systems. While developing these drivers costs money, this will cost them customers in the long run so it was probably a very short-sighted decision. But HP’s inkjet printers are a license to print money, with the cartridges being almost pure profit, and HP and Compaq are the two remaining big dogs in retail. Plus they have profitable mainframe, Unix, and software divisions as well. They’ve got a number of ways to return to profitability.

The holidays weren’t kind to Gateway. They actually had to resort to selling some of their surplus inventory in retail stores, rather than using the stores as a front for their build-to-order business as intended.

Dell’s not happy with last year’s results either, so they’re looking to diversify and give themselves less dependence on desktop PCs. They’re growing up, in other words. They’re killing IBM and Compaq in PCs, and those companies are still surviving. Dell wants a piece of that action.

Intel botched a number of launches this year. They had to do everything wrong and AMD had to do everything right in order for AMD to continue to exist. That happened. AMD’s past problems may have been growing pains, and maybe they’re beyond it now. We shall see. Intel can afford to have a few bad quarters.

As for their chips, we pay a certain price for backward compatibility. But, despite the arguments of the Apple crowd, x86 chips as a rule don’t melt routinely or require refrigerants unless you overclock. All of my x86 chips have simple fans on them, along with smaller heatsinks than a G4 uses. I’ve seen many a Pentium III run on just a heatsink. The necessity of a CPU fan depends mostly on case design. Put a G4 in a cheap case with poor airflow and it’ll cook itself too.

Yes, you could fry an egg on the original Pentium-60 and -66. Later revisions fixed this. Yet I still saw these original Pentiums run on heat sinks smaller than the sinks used on a G4. The Athlon is a real cooker, so that argument holds, but as AMD migrates to ever-smaller trace widths, that should improve. Plus AMD CPUs are cheap as dirt and perform well. The Athlon gives G4-like performance and high clock speeds at a G3 price, so its customers are willing to live with some heat.

And Microsoft… There are few Microsoft zealots left today. They’re rarer and rarer. Microsoft hasn’t given us anything, yet we continue to buy MS Office, just like Mac users. We curse Microsoft and yet send millions and billions their way, just like Mac users. We just happen to buy the OS from them too. And while we curse Microsoft bugs and many of us make a living deploying Windows-based PCs (but the dozen or so Macs I’m responsible for keep me busier than the couple of hundred PCs I’m responsible for), for the most part Windows works. Mac owners talk about daily blue screens of death, but I don’t know when I last got one. I probably get one or two a year. I currently have eight applications running on my Windows 98 box. OS/2 was a far better system than Windows, but alas, it lost the war.

I can’t stand Microsoft’s imperialism and I don’t like them fighting their wars on my hardware. They can pay for their own battlefield. So I run Linux on some of my boxes. But sometimes I appreciate Windows’ backward compatibility.

I always look for the best combination of price, performance, and reliability. That means I change platforms a lot. I flirted with the Mac in 1991, but it was a loveless relationship. The PCs of that era were wannabes. I chose Amiga without having used one, because I knew it couldn’t possibly be as bad as Windows 3.0 or System 7.0. I was right. By 1994, Commodore had self-destructed and the Amiga was perpetually on the auction block, so I jumped ship and bought a Compaq. Windows 3.1 was the sorriest excuse I’d seen for a multitasking environment since System 7.0 and Windows 3.0. I could crash it routinely. So I switched to OS/2 and was happy again. I reluctantly switched to Windows 95 in 1996. I took a job that involved a lot of Macs in 1998, but Mac OS 8.5 failed to impress me. It was prettier than System 7 and if you were lucky you could use it all day without a horrible crash, but with poor memory management and multitasking, switching to it on an everyday basis would have been like setting myself back 12 years, so the second date wasn’t any better than the first.

Linux is very interesting, and I’ve got some full-time Linux PCs. If I weren’t committed to writing so much about Windows 9x (that’s where the money is), Linux would probably be my everyday OS. Microsoft is right to consider Linux a threat, because it’s cheaper and more reliable. Kind of like Windows is cheaper and more reliable than Mac OS. Might history repeat itself? I think it could.

The computer industry as a whole isn’t as healthy this year as it was last year. The companies with the most resources will survive, and some of the companies with fewer will fold or be acquired. The reason the industry press is harder on Apple than on the others is that Apple is less diversified than the others, and thus far more vulnerable.