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04/07/2001

Caveat emptor. Dan Bowman wrote in asking about a barebones Duron system he found. $399, just add an HD. He was nervous about it but wanted confirmation. It sounded OK until I found the word “Amptron.” You should translate the word “Amptron” as “No,” or, “Don’t buy it.”

Amptron is part of the PC Chips group, and the running joke about PC Chips was that PC Chips made parts so bad that even Packard Bell wouldn’t touch them. Typically a PC Chips board will sell for $65 or less and have integrated everything, so you can build a really cheap system in it. Mom-and-Pop stores will use systems built around a PC Chips board to undercut the consumer electronics chains, because, let’s face it, an integrated motherboard selling in the mid two figures will allow you to undercut even the entry-level $399 eMachine.

My personal experience with PC Chips boards has been horrendous. Defects abounded. I had one system that worked fine until you tried to access the floppy drive. Then the PC would bluescreen. Every single time. I had two other PC Chips boards that didn’t work at all. That was when I swore the company off for good. Some of my coworkers have bought cheap PCs at Mom-and-Pop shops, had problems, and brought them in to work for me to look at. Wouldn’t you know it? PC Chips. In both cases the problem turned out to be really, really dumb statements in config.sys and autoexec.bat so the motherboards weren’t at fault, that time. Honestly, I was surprised.

So… Friends don’t let friends buy Amptron, or any of the other members of the PC Chips group. Eurone and Bondwell are the only others I can think of off the top of my head.

I’m not sure why anyone buys these boards anyway, seeing as you can always get an FIC board for $10 more, and FIC generally makes good stuff. But anyway…

If you’re looking for a cheap Duron upgrade, look for a Gigabyte GA-7IXE4. It sells for about $85, and it’s a bare board. No video, no audio, no nothing. If you’ve got an existing PC, it’s perfect. Pair it up with a Duron-750 at $60, and salvage all your other components from the old machine, and you’ve just hot-rodded your aging PC for $145.

Soyo’s not my favorite motherboard company, but they’re miles ahead of PC Chips, and if you need an integrated solution they’ve got one for a good price. The K7VLM-B uses a VIA KL133 chipset and includes audio and video. Its 2D performance isn’t great, but its gaming performance is outstanding for an integrated chipset. The K7VLM-B sells for about $95, so you can build a low-end Duron gaming rig very inexpensively.

The other problem with barebones systems is the difficulty of knowing what you get. No one cares about anything but the motherboard maker. But what about the case? Will you sever a finger trying to open it? What about the power supply? Will it struggle to light the IDE activity LED? It’s impossible to know. Yeah, it’s a little hassle to spec out a case and power supply, and it’s a little hassle to mount the board instead of having it all done for you, but in the long run it’s more than worth it.

This particular barebones PC also included 256 MB of RAM. That really scared me, especially considering everything else. No one puts an Amptron board in a system and then puts Kingston memory on it. People buy PC Chips boards because they’re cheapest, so they’ll buy whatever commodity RAM is cheapest. A cheap motherboard plus cheap RAM is a recipe for disaster.

You can at least take comfort that they aren’t charging you any extra for the problems. They’re included, free.

Troubleshooting Mac extensions

Troubleshooting Macintosh extensions. An extensions conflict is where you lose your innocence with fixing a Mac. Not all extensions and control panels get along, and certain combinations can have disastrous results.

Here’s my method. Create a folder on the desktop. Drag exactly half the extensions out of System Folder:Extensions and drop them in the folder. Select all the extensions in that new folder and give them a label, so they stand out (it makes them a different color). Now reboot and see if the problem goes away. If it doesn’t, create another folder, move the remaining extensions into it and give them a label. Move the first batch back into the extensions folder and reboot.

Now, add half your extensions back from the folder on the desktop to the extensions folder. If the problem comes back, move that half back into the second folder on the desktop and move the now-known good half into the extensions folder. After each test, remove the labels from the extensions in the extensions folder. Just keep swapping halves until you narrow it down to one bad extension, using labels to keep yourself from getting lost.

I don’t recommend Conflict Catcher because all it does is move the extensions around for you–it’s no easier than this method, and this method doesn’t cost $50.

This is how we build ’em in St. Louis. Neither Gatermann nor I are really in the habit of naming our PCs unless a name is just painfully obvious. In the case of his Linux gateway, the name was painfully obvious. One name and one name only fits: Mir.

This is how we build computers in St. Louis. This is Tom Gatermann’s Linux gateway: a Micronics P75 board with a Cirrus Logic PCI SVGA card, a Kingston PCI NE2000 clone connecting to the Internet, and a Bay Netgear 310TX PCI 10/100 (DEC Tulip chipset) connecting to the local LAN. Yes, that AT case was as cheap as it looks. Maybe cheaper.

Inside the case, there’s an IMES 8X IDE CD-ROM, an ancient 1.44 MB floppy drive of unknown origin, and a 1.2 GB Quantum Bigfoot HD, of which about 1.5 MB is used (booting’s much faster off the HD than off the floppy).

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Mir is made from, well, a pile of junk. A Micronics P75 board. A Cirrus Logic PCI SVGA card. Whatever 72-pin SIMMs we had laying around. A Quantum Bigfoot 1.2-gig HD. A really trashed 3.5″ floppy drive. The cheapest-looking AT case ever. But we did skip the Linksys NICs. The NICs are a Kingston PCI NE2000 clone and a Bay Netgear 10/100 based on the DEC Tulip chipset.

We assembled it outside the case because we had so much trouble getting it going correctly–it’s much easier to swap components when they’re accessible. Once we got it going, we never bothered to put everything back inside the case. Maybe we’re trend-setters and this is the next fad in computing. After all, what’s the logical next step after translucency?

01/23/2001

Mailbag:

More Networking

What’s going on with memory prices? Every time I say they’re stable, they drop again. I’m not going to say anything about current prices, except they’re low. Face it: I remember five years ago, paying $48 for an 8-meg stick, and I felt like I was stealing it. Kingston memory for $6 a meg! Unbelievable!

I told Dan Bowman on Sunday that you can get a 128-meg PC133 Kingston module at Outpost.com for $59 with a $20 mail-in rebate. Then yesterday he sends me word that I can get a 128-meg PNY PC133 stick from globalcomputer.com for $49. No rebate hassles whatsoever, and plenty of stock. So $6/meg has become $.31/meg. Prices may stabilize there, or they may free-fall some more.

What happened? Overproduction. Millions of chips were produced for millions of computers that didn’t sell over Christmas, which is supposed to be the heaviest buying period of the year. Not a whole lot of upgrades were bought either. And now, with demand for Rambus increasing a little and DDR looming overhead like the Enola Gay, they’re stuck with a bunch of inventory that’s living on borrowed time. Gotta move it, because demand’s moving elsewhere. There’ll be demand for SDRAM for many years to come (just as there’s still some demand for EDO DRAM today), but its days as the memory everybody wants are about to come to a close.

So as long as you have some use for SDRAM, this is a great time to buy. But keep in mind that the stuff you buy now probably won’t move with you to your next PC. A current PC with 384 MB of PC133 SDRAM will be useful for many years to come, true, but next year when you buy a motherboard that takes DDR or Rambus, you’ll have to buy new memory again, so it makes absolutely no sense to hoard this stuff.

So should you buy? Windows 9x sees diminishing returns beyond 128 MB of RAM, unless you’re playing with RAM disks. Windows 2000 really likes 256 MB of RAM, but for the things most people do, there’s little point in going past that. Of all the OSs I use right now, Linux does the best job of finding a use for such a large amount of memory. So if you’re below any of those thresholds, sure, buy. But if you’re there already, you’re better off banking that money until the time comes for your next major upgrade.

But if you are buying, let me reiterate: Get the good stuff. I had a conversation with someone on a message board today. He asked why, if 95% of all memory chips are fine, it makes sense to pay more for a brand name. I pointed out to him that with 8-16 chips per module, a 95% rate means you have a 25-50 percent chance of a bad module, since it just takes one bad cell in one chip to make the module unreliable. It’s much better to get A-grade chips, which have a .1% defect rate, and buy from a name brand vendor, who will in all likelihood do their own testing and lower the defect rate another order of magnitude. To me, knowing that I won’t have problems attributable to bad memory is definitely worth the few bucks. Even the bottom-feeders aren’t beating that Kingston price by much, and the shipping will make the cheap, nearly worthless memory cost more than the good stuff.

Tracking down memory problems is a real pain, unless you’ve got a professional-quality memory tester. I do. Still, verifying a memory problem and then isolating it to a single stick can take hours. I have all the facilities necessary to let me get away with buying the cheap stuff and I won’t do it. That should tell you something. Buying generic memory isn’t like buying generic socks or generic spaghetti. In memory, brand is a lot more than status.

Partition Magic. I tried unsuccessfully last night to track down a copy of Partition Magic 6 so I can revise the article on multi-booting Windows 98 and Windows Me that won’t go in the March issue of Computer Shopper UK. It’ll be in the April issue instead. I also had to deal with some personal issues. It’s not like my whole world’s upside down–it’s not–but a pretty important part of it is right now.

Mailbag:

More Networking

Name-brand memory vs. generic

The difference between brand-name RAM and commodity RAM. I’ve been seeing a lot of questions along the lines of, “Do I really have to buy name-brand memory when I can find memory for half the price on PriceWatch?” on message boards lately. I talked about memory some in Memory-buying secrets, but I didn’t really go into the difference between generic/commodity/broker memory and the expensive stuff.

There are three factors that go into the quality of a memory module: the quality of the chips, the quality of the printed circuit board (PCB), and manufacturing.

When memory chips are made, they are tested. A memory chip that runs at or below spec gets classified as an A-grade chip. Chips with minor defects are classified as C-grade chips and shouldn’t be used in PCs.

Memory manufacturers will also charge varying amounts based on how much testing they do for the chips. Top-tier chips are guaranteed to have a failure rate of .1% or less–we’re talking one in a thousand chips failing here.

The least expensive chips aren’t tested at all.

The only way to ensure you’re getting these best-of-the-best chips is to buy name-brand memory. The best way to ensure you’re getting C-grade or untested chips is to buy the cheapest module you can find.

Inexpensive PCBs use a four-layer design, with signal layers on the outside, and power and ground sandwiched inside. This is inexpensive to produce and easy to repair. Unfortunately, this design leaves you open to signal noise, which can corrupt the data stored in the chip, and lead to unpleasant things like BSODs.

A better approach is to put the signal layers inside, and put power and ground on the outside, protecting them. Better still is a six-layer design, which adds two more ground layers for even better isolation. The higher the memory speed, the more important this extra isolation becomes.

You can sometimes tell the difference between a 4-layer and a 6-layer board by looking at it under a strong light. By turning it slowly, you can isolate discrete layers with the naked eye. However, it’s impossible to tell the difference between power, ground, and signal layers with the naked eye.

Name-brand vendors use high-quality PCBs. Some even proudly proclaim it when they use 6-layer boards. Again, the best way to get a poorly designed 4-layer board is to buy the cheapest memory you can find.

The third factor is assembly. When soldering chips to PCBs, things can go wrong. Trust me. I’m very good at demonstrating. While no one puts together memory modules by hand (I hope), my plumber-like soldering skills make me appreciate good equipment. Quality solder joints are bright and shiny, and they’re applied very quickly. Intermittent solder joints cause problems, and they’re maddening.

Kingston puts every module through rigorous testing. Other name-brand manufacturers test as well. When you don’t even know who made your module, it’s impossible to know whether it’s had the proper testing. Putting it in a PC and watching the BIOS check is not proper testing. Memory has to be very far gone to fail that test.

Miscellaneous computer memory.

The module on the right has Samsung chips on it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was made by Samsung. I’d be fine with putting the HP module directly below it in a PC, though. The same goes for the Kingston module at the top of the image.

Frequently vendors will advertise Micron memory or NEC memory. A Micron or NEC stamp on the chips doesn’t necessarily mean they manufactured the module! Be sure to find out who assembled the module–they usually stamp the PCB, or they put a sticker on the module itself. If you find a so-called Micron module on Pricewatch for half the price that Crucial is asking (Crucial is a division of Micron), chances are it’s a no-name module that just happens to have Micron chips on it.

So, does it really make a difference?

As an IT professional by day, I work on a large network–roughly 700 PCs. I’ll conservatively estimate that farm of PCs has 1,000 memory modules collectively. We buy name-brand memory (Crucial, Kingston, Viking or Simple) exclusively. We buy PCs from Micron, so they have Crucial modules in them. Macintoshes generally come with Crucial or IBM modules.

A typical memory module has 8 chips on it, and it only takes one bad chip to make the whole module bad. I’ve seen two bad memory modules cross my desk–so we’re talking two bad chips out of a batch of 8,000. So if you’re buying a single module for a home PC, your chances of getting a lemon are pretty slim if you get a good name brand.

For my own use, I buy name-brand memory modules. Usually this means Crucial; I got a great deal over the summer on some PNY memory so I bought a couple of sticks. I use high-quality memory, I don’t overclock, and I generally don’t run experimental software. I almost never get a BSOD or an illegal operation error, even when running Windows 95 or 98. I reboot my Windows 9x boxes about once a month on average, and half the time that’s because I installed or uninstalled something and it requires me to reboot. To give you an idea how I use PCs, at the moment I have seven applications running, with 11 windows open between them, and two TSRs running. That’s my idea of moderate use.

I’d rather have 64 megs of Crucial memory than a gig of the cheap stuff. Hopefully now you see why.