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Commodore computer models

The Commodore 64 is by far the most famous and successful computer Commodore ever made. But there were numerous Commodore computer models over the years. Some were also successful. Some were complete flops. Overall Commodore had a good 18-year run, but it could have been so much longer and better.

Let’s take a walk through the Commodore computer models from the beginning in 1976 to the bitter end in 1994.

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Gigabit card only connecting at 100mbps? Here’s the fix.

I finished a modernization project where I replaced all of my 100-megabit gear with gigabit-capable gear, including my cabling and router and access points. But after I replaced my last 100-megabit switch, I found we had two Windows desktops refusing to speed up. Here’s how to fix a gigabit card only connecting at 100mbps.

First, if you know you’re not connecting at gigabit, you probably already know how to do this. But if not, here’s how to check your network speed in Windows 10. Then here’s how to fix it. After all, you want to enjoy the advantages of a gigabit LAN if you have the hardware.

Read More »Gigabit card only connecting at 100mbps? Here’s the fix.

Disable USB mass storage to solve the USB drive-in-the-parking-lot problem

If you’re not concerned yet about the danger of people finding random USB devices in parking lots and plugging them into work PCs, eventually you will be. The answer to the problem is to disable USB mass storage on business PCs. Of course, then there’s the question of how you connect hard drives for legitimate company use.
Read More »Disable USB mass storage to solve the USB drive-in-the-parking-lot problem

Why working fast food and retail was good for me

One of my former high school classmates is concerned. Her seven-year-old’s life ambition is to work at McDonald’s.

I told her not to worry. I didn’t work at McDonald’s, but I spent 2 1/2 years working another, nearly defunct fast-food chain, and that motivated me more than anything to go to college. And then, working two years off and on in retail motivated me to finish college.

At 16, I applied for a job at my favorite fast-food chain. It was in decline at the time, but I didn’t really know that then. What I knew was they were hiring, and if I was going to work somewhere, I might as well like the food.

I blew them away at the interview, and I’d barely made it back home when I got the phone call offering me the job.

I had a lot to learn, but it wasn’t long before the district manager declared I was the smartest guy in the whole district. Himself included. I worked with a lot of interesting people. Some were my age. Some were much older than me.

One was even smarter than me. She was hired a year or so after me. She was an honest-to-goodness, card-carrying MENSA member. She talked like William F. Buckley Jr., including the accent. I understood about half the things she said, but at least I understood half of it. She talked to me more than anyone else she worked with, not that I was much of a challenge for her. But intellect is hard to find in fast food, so I guess you settle for what you can get.

At the end of the summer, she quit. I told you she was smarter than me.

Most of the people I worked with, and for, were much less successful. A lot of them came and went. We were high turnover. Management liked it that way.

On a couple of occasions, I nearly got turned over. One time, a shift supervisor called me lazy in front of a customer. (I wasn’t.) The customer said, “Well, you’re the one leaning against the door while he gets my order ready.” He didn’t like that at all. Pretty soon, he was challenging me to a fight. Knowing there was no way to win in that situation–I could stay and get beat up, or fight back, still get beat up, and get fired on top of that–I took a nonviolent approach. I wiggled my way out of the corner he backed me into, ran across the parking lot, and found a cop.

The shift supervisor wanted me fired over that. I wanted him to spend the night in jail. Neither happened.

The other time, I fell victim to a professional quick change artist. He was slick. He ordered a 50-cent cup of coffee. He paid with a rolled up $20 bill, which he tried to pass off as a single. He acted surprised when I handed him back $19 and change. So he had me change back for a $20.

At that point, I should have closed the drawer and asked him to leave. I know that now.

Being 17 and naive, I tried to keep up with him. And I thought I was doing a pretty good job, until he tried to get me to give him a $100 bill. I didn’t have a $100 and I knew it. And at that point, I called him on his attempt to shortchange me, and called a manager over.

The manager watched him mosey out the door, and we proceeded to count down the drawer. It was short beyond the allowable limit. He had taken me.

He couldn’t fire me on the spot, but he told me that would probably happen the next day, and sent me home.

I went home, told my parents what had happened, then retreated to the basement. I fired up the computer and wrote my account of what happened, including what the manager did wrong. And to defend myself, I also gave a nice account of other goings-on at the store. If I was going down, I was going to take the store’s poor management with me.

The letter quickly found its way to the corporate office in Ohio, and it wasn’t long before I was getting calls all hours of the day. Including when I was at school. Corporate was amazed to find out the letter that was causing such a stir had been written by a 17-year-old.

“With all due respect, your corporate policy sucks,” I told one executive. She asked what I thought they should do.

“Train your employees.” After all, they were trying to fire me for handling a situation improperly, but nobody had ever told me how you were supposed to handle that situation.

One day, while all of this was going on, the vice principal of the school took me aside. “What’s going on?” he asked. He knew something was bugging me. I told him the story.

“Imagine yourself a single mother with no education, not even a high school diploma,” he said. “You’d be completely at the mercy of those people.”

I didn’t agree with the man all that often, but he was right about that. And I resolved to never be at the mercy of those people again.

A year or so later, after all the store management churned, I told one of the new managers if he was bored, my file was probably the most interesting reading in the whole file cabinet. An hour or so later, he came out and told me I was right.

I quit in early August 1993. I was starting at the University of Missouri. The company was in bankruptcy, and the store closed about six weeks later. I visited one last time before it happened. By the end of the year, the chain had pulled out of Missouri entirely. I understand the chain is still in business, barely, but confined to a dozen or so locations in and around Ohio. Ironically, I’m traveling to the city it used to be headquartered in next week. On other business.

I have a fiery streak, and it was visible then, at least as much as it is now. My manager at my second-most recent job told me once that I could be difficult to deal with, but that was because I care, and given the choice, he’d take the guy who cares. Every time.

I worked retail for two summers and spring/holiday breaks as well, while I was in college. I sold computers. I had a mixed relationship with management there too. Some of the managers liked me because I knew my stuff and could sell a ton of product, as long as I believed in it. Some of the managers hated me because they couldn’t tell me what to do. I wasn’t going to steer a customer toward a Packard Bell computer just because some manager wanted to move a bunch of Packard Bells. I had more integrity than that. And one manager hated me just because I was white and had some college education.

I worked hard and I sold a ton of Compaq computers in my time there. And there was only one time a customer ever stumped me with a question. He brought in a weird cable and wanted an adapter to connect it to a modern PC. I now believe it was an IEEE-488 cable. What? Exactly. I don’t feel bad about that, because I guarantee there wasn’t anyone else who would have known what that cable was either.

But if they needed a memory card for an obscure IBM clone computer, or needed to know if a certain piece of software or peripheral would work with their old computer, I was your man. I either knew whether it would work, or it would take me about two minutes to figure it out.

I was good at what I did, but I didn’t like being controlled. I didn’t like that I wasn’t paid on commission, but the managers got bonuses based on monthly sales. So in effect, store management got commissions on my work.

But mostly, I didn’t like what one of the managers did to me the day after Christmas.

His name was Steve. He called me at home and said he needed to talk to me. In person. I asked if it could wait for my next shift. He said I needed to come in immediately. So I drove 20 minutes to see him.

He told me I was being laid off. The store was getting rid of its Christmas help.

Never mind I was going back to school in five days and probably would only work a couple of shifts anyway. Never mind my dad had just died and I really needed the money from those last few shifts. Never mind I’d always done everything they asked me to do. None of that mattered.

I saw him the day before I left for college, when I went in to pick up my final check. “How’s it going?” he asked with a fake game show host grin on his face.

“I’ve been better,” I said.

“What’s wrong? Are you sick? Are you hurt?”

“I’m leaving for college tomorrow, and I really needed the money from working this week. But none of that matters to you.”

On various occasions, the managers who did like me tried to talk me out of going back to school. Stay with the company, they urged. Look at them. Look at what they’d done without a college degree.

Yep, look at them. The best of them are probably still managing stores, somewhere. One of the managers who didn’t like me got demoted. And Steve, the manager who laid me off, got fired for sexual harassment.

I graduated college in May 1997, with a bachelor’s degree from one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the world. The same school hired me, fresh off my stint in retail, to unbox 400 IBM PC 330s and install memory, network cards, and operating systems on them. I understood the job was temporary.

When that job was done, they found money to keep me around. I worked for them part-time, off and on. A semester before I graduated, they offered me a full-time job with benefits, as a network administrator, and allowed me to work around my class schedule.

Today I’ve worked full time in some form of information technology or another for 13 years. I’m also a published author on two continents.

I’m successful. Not as successful as I want to be, but successful. I don’t necessarily have everything I always wanted, but my family and I definitely have everything we need. I’ve had some ups and downs, but the last two times I’ve quit a job to move on, someone’s tried to talk me out of leaving. And both companies tried to lure me back months afterward–one successfully.

Not wanting to sell junky consumer electronics again and really not wanting to sell processed sandwiches and fries again has something to do with all that.

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.

Confessions of a former Best Buy salesman

The State of Ohio is suing Best Buy. One former employee talked about his experiences working for the company.

I last worked for the company in 1995. To its credit, the company did much to persuade me to finish college: It motivated me to get an education so I could get a better job. A few things have changed since 1995, but what I’ve read today about the company rang so true.It might not be a good idea for me to say a whole lot more, seeing as my experiences are limited to working at two different stores nearly a decade ago, and seeing as my name is on it.

But what “Hopjon” said is very, very similar to my experience.

Extended warranties

They’ve never called them those, because extended warranties have a bad rap. They were called “Performance Guarantees” in my day. Now they’re PSPs, or “Performance Service Plans.” For a Benjamin or two, they’ll stand behind the product if it breaks outside of its manufacturer’s warranty period.

“Hopjon” says these warranties are misunderstood, if not downright misrepresented. My experience matches his. I was told that the “No Lemon” clause would replace the product the third time it had to come in for service. This was what my manager told me, and what I related to customers.

I found out the hard way, and to my great horror, that this isn’t the case. If you read the fine print very carefully, it stated that this replacement happens on the fourth service call. Not very clearly, mind you. Customer service knew the difference.

The difference is profitable.

Now, was it malicious? It’s hard to say. None of the managers who trained me were as smart as any of the managers I had when I worked fast food. The question is whether they were told the same thing I was told, or whether they were just told to read it, and someone higher up was hoping these misunderstandings would sometimes occur.

Upper management saw to it that much more time was spent explaining the benefits of 900 MHz cordless phones than all the terms of the extended warranties. (At the time, a 900 MHz phone was a $400 item.)

Whether to buy the extended warranty depends on the quality of the product and the cost of the product versus the cost of the warranty. If you choose to buy one, go over the terms with customer service. Don’t go by what the salesperson says.

Was I pressured to sell the warranties? Yes. Did I? It depended. When there was something in it for me, I sold more warranties than anyone else in my department. When the incentive wasn’t there, I could go weeks without selling one.

Employee expertise

The people who work there very rarely know much of anything special about what they sell. The managers were moved around from department to department. During my second summer with the company, the former computer manager was managing audio. The computer manager had been the manager of CDs and VHS tapes the summer before.

For a few weeks that summer, I worked in audio. I had been the most knowledgeable person in the computer department, by a long shot, especially when it came to any computer more than a year or two old. If the question involved a 286 or an XT, I was the only one who had a chance of answering the question. A customer only ever stumped me once, and that was someone who wanted to hook up an IEEE-488 printer to a PC. I’d never seen the cable he brought in before.

But for a couple of weeks I worked in audio, because my old boss wanted me. Eventually I moved back into computers because the computer people kept dragging me back over there to answer questions, and it didn’t look good to have some guy from audio answering all the computer questions.

The training is nothing. They have training sessions once a month, where they hand out manufacturer-supplied literature that gives an overview of the product, and then you take a test. You eventually have to pass it in order to stay gainfully employed, but the tests aren’t all that hard. I only missed one question on the Windows 95 literacy test on my first try, without ever looking at the educational literature.

Whatever the employee knows was gained on his or her own time. On company time, you’d better find a way to look busy, or else a manager will find something for you to do. Probably unloading the truck.

No pressure

That’s the mantra. It’s bull.

Now it’s true that the salespeople aren’t paid on commission. When I was hired on at age 19, I made a flat $5.35 an hour. That was 55 cents an hour more than I had made as a cashier at a now-defunct roast beef chain. Minimum wage was $4.25 an hour, as I recall.

Occasionally there were contests based on performance. Sometimes it was sponsored by one of our suppliers. Some days a store manager felt generous and would come by and tell us whoever sold the most warranties that shift would get a free CD.

But store managers got monthly bonuses based on sales. So, in effect, the managers were paid on commission. And yes, they did pressure the people under them.

So the people who do most of the legwork aren’t paid on commission, but the pressure is still there. In effect you get the worst of both worlds.

Bait and switch

I only remember one specific incident involving a printer and the person at customer service refusing to honor the posted price, and the department manager getting involved. Ultimately the customer was offered another, much more expensive printer, which he refused. The details are pretty hazy though. The customer was clearly right and the manager yelled at me after he left.

I do remember employees being accused of bait and switch by customers, and sometimes bragging about how close to the legal limit they’d come, but had just skirted the line.

The general attitude was that since they offered rain checks on sale merchandise that was out of stock, bait and switch was impossible.

Used merchandise sold as new

I had one manager who was especially fond of re-shrink-wrapping returned merchandise and selling it as new. This is against corporate policy, and it doesn’t necessarily go on everywhere. But the capability is there, and with it, the temptation.

As far as whether open-box merchandise was opened in the store or was a return, don’t let anyone fool you.Someone probably returned it.

People return merchandise for any number of reasons. You can save some money by buying open-box stuff, but you’re taking a chance. Customer service inspects the merchandise before taking it back. But it’s a fast inspection, and whoever is available does it. It’s not an expert inspection.

The story you may hear is that another customer wanted to see inside the packaging, so someone opened it in the store. That happens on rare occasions. Rarely was that item then marked down and sold as open-box merchandise. I usually saw someone re-seal it to sell as new. I’m pretty sure this was against corporate policy. I don’t know if it’s legal or not.

Do I shop there?

For seven years I didn’t, and I still try to avoid it but sometimes don’t have a choice. Circuit City used to be the closest alternative, but it had its own problems and closed. Silo left St. Louis way back in about 1990. The local chain, Goedekers, closed its South County store in about 2002.

In the name of competition, I buy all of that kind of stuff that I can at Office Depot or OfficeMax or Kmart. When it comes down to Best Buy or Wal-Mart, then I’ll buy at Best Buy. Not because I think Best Buy is a better company–I don’t like either company–but because Best Buy isn’t as big and powerful.

I wish people would realize that all so-called “Big Box” stores will have these tendencies, because the name of the game is maximizing profits. The smaller, local stores will charge higher prices, but in almost every case they give better service.

Beware the leaky capacitors

In case you haven’t heard about it elsewhere, there are some recent motherboards having problems with leaky capacitors.

Basically, the problem is the electrolyte in the capacitors becomes chemically unstable, the capacitor pops and starts leaking, the capacitor stops doing its job, and system stability falls out of the sky.

An EE can do a better job of explaining what a capacitor does, but in my very limited electronics background, every project I ever did used capacitors to eliminate noise or smooth out current.

Abit has come out and acknowledged the problem, but other manufacturers are also said to be affected, including Asus. So this isn’t a problem limited to cut-rate boards, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the cut-rate boards also are affected, because the issue stems from cheap Taiwanese knockoffs of a costlier Japanese design.

Identifying problem boards can be difficult, because the affected caps generally are unlabeled, but not all unlabeled caps are problematic. And, as you can see, my usual advice of sticking with a big-brand motherboard doesn’t save you in this case.

I recall a few years ago an article on one of the newsy tech sites like Cnet or ZDNet said some older models of Soyo motherboards could develop this problem. At the time, Soyo declined to comment. So this isn’t exactly a new problem. If anything, it seems to be cyclical.

If you do have a board that develops the problem, you can probably get it replaced under warranty. If not, a skilled technician can de-solder the bad caps and replace them with higher-quality ones. One technician who performs the service charges $50, which seems very fair to me for de-soldering and re-soldering 28 connections.

It’s definitely not a good first electronics project to try yourself though. If it’s something you want to learn how to do, practice on an old, obsolete motherboard or modem or sound card first. And, naturally, I won’t claim any responsibility.

If you develop the problem, this could also be the excuse you’ve been looking for to upgrade, seeing as it’s getting easy to find new motherboards for $60 or so.

You can read more about it in this IEEE Spectrum article.

A total blast from the past

I don’t remember how I stumbled across it, but tries to collect documents from the classic days of BBSing, which the curator defines as having ended in 1995. I wouldn’t have thought it that recent. I was still BBSing in the summer of ’94, but by the fall of ’94 I’d discovered the Web, and I thought I was the last one to wake up to it.
I’d learned FTP and Gopher when I went to college in 1993, and I’d been using Usenet via local BBSs for even longer, but as everyone knows now, it was the Web that put the Internet on the map. I think a lot of people think the Web is the Internet.

Anyway, before the Internet, hobbyists would take computers, get a phone line, hook up a modem, and see who called. There were usually discussion boards, file transfers, and at least one online multiplayer game. The really big BBSs ran on 386s with hard drives, but an awful lot of the BBSs I called ran on 8-bit computers and stored their data on floppy drives. I remember one board I called used seven or eight floppy drives to give itself a whopping 6 or 7 megs of online storage. It was called The Future BBS, and the sysops’ real names were Rick and Jim (I don’t remember their handles), and it ran on a Commodore 64 or 128 with, ironically, a bunch of drives that dated back to the days of the PET–Commodore had produced some 1-meg drives in the early 80s that would connect to a 64 or 128 if you put an IEEE-488 interface in it. Theirs was a pretty hot setup and probably filled a spare bedroom all by itself for the most part.

It was a very different time.

Well, most of the boards I called were clearinghouses for pirated software. It was casual copying; I didn’t mess with any of that 0-1 day warez stuff. We were curmudgeons; someone would wax nostalgic about how great Zork was and how they didn’t know what happened to their copy, then someone would upload it. I remember on a couple of occasions sysops would move to St. Louis and complain about how St. Louis was the most rampant center of software piracy they’d ever seen, but I see from the files on that probably wasn’t true.

Besides illegal software, a lot of text files floated around. A lot of it was recipes. Some of them were “anarchy” files–how-to guides to creating mayhem. Having lots of them was a status symbol. Most of the files were 20K in length or so (most 8-bit computers didn’t have enough address space for documents much longer than that once you loaded a word processor into memory), and I knew people who had megabytes of them in an era of 170K floppies.

A lot of the stuff on the site is seedy. Seedier than I remember the boards I called being.

But a lot of the content is just random stuff, and some of it dates itself. (Hey, where else was I going to find out that the 1982 song “Pac-Man Fever” was recorded by Buckner & Garcia? forgot about that song. If I recall correctly, that’s probably proof that God is merciful, but hey.)

Mostly I find it interesting to see what people were talking about 10 and 20 years ago. Some of the issues of yesterday are pretty much unchanged. Some of them just seem bizarre now. Like rumors of weird objects in Diet Pepsi cans.

Actually that doesn’t sound so bizarre. I’m sure there’s an e-mail forward about those in my inbox right now.