Taming Office 2013’s appearance

A couple of months ago I upgraded to Office 2013 at work. I liked it, but around the same time, my eyes started burning. I never made the connection, but then last week, when a coworker upgraded, he mentioned his eyes were burning, and he made the connection.

He found this guide for toning down Office. We both recommend the dark gray scheme, which is much easier on the eyes than the default harsh white scheme.

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Buy as much computer as you need

Veteran IT journalist Guy Wright advises not to buy any more computer than you need. Wright was a prominent Commodore journalist, so he’s been thinking this way for literally decades. I grew up reading the magazines he edited in the 1980s and 1990s–yes, really–so it’s not surprising that I would agree with him.

I saw a couple of points worth clarifying.

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Tips on buying used stuff

I just found a Lifehacker piece on buying used stuff without getting ripped off. I have plenty of experience in this area.

The key, I think, is to deal in person, and test as much functionality as you can before handing over the cash. Read more

Review: Insignia NS20EM50A13 monitor

My 15-inch Dell LCD died this weekend. Its date of manufacture was October 2001, so I can’t complain. I bought it used a number of years ago and paid a pittance for it. It had been acting up for more than a year, and at least it had the decency to wait until a potential replacement was on sale before dying completely.

Best Buy had its house-brand 20″ LED monitor on sale for $90, and I had a gift card with a few dollars on it, so I braved Best Buy again, and found a good low-end monitor for the money. Read more

How to clean your LCD monitor or TV cheaply and safely

I found a nice trick this week. If those microfiber cloths that came with your LCD monitors and TV(s) have all wandered off, you can use a dry eraser instead to clean your LCD. They’re bigger, so they’re easier to keep track of, and easier to use too. Just wipe the screen with the eraser like you would if you were erasing a whiteboard.

If you have fingerprints or other gunk on the screen that a microfiber cloth or dry eraser can’t remove, dilute some white vinegar 1:1 with distilled water and apply it to a soft cloth to clean the screen.

SSDs come of age?

Intel released its first-generation SSDs this week. I haven’t seen one and I don’t plan on rushing out to buy one just yet, but what I’ve read makes it sound like this is going to be big. Not big like the release of Windows 95 was, but frankly if what people are saying is true, it should be as big of a deal. This is the first disruptive technology I’ve seen in years.The best analysis of this drive and other SSDs is this Anandtech article. It doesn’t just discuss the Intel SSD; it also goes into detail talking about earlier SSDs, and, to my amazement, it talks about what’s wrong with them and does in-depth analysis as to why.

Frankly it’s been years since I’ve seen this kind of objective analysis from a hardware site. I’m used to hardware sites being shills for vendors, so this is exceptional.

The problem with inexpensive SSDs like the Supertalent Masterdrive and OCZ Core is that they’re usually fast. Blazing fast. But under certain circumstances, they just sit there and hang. Not for milliseconds, but a full second or more. Usually the problem happens when writing small files.

So when you go to Newegg and see the customer reviews of these drives and you see people giving them either 5 stars or 0, this explains it. The people who are just using them to load game levels or Photoshop CS3 love them because they mop up the floor with even a 15K conventional drive, so they give them five stars. The people who can’t get Windows to install on them because it hangs when writing some small but critical system file give zero.

Intel seems to have solved most of these problems, mostly with buffering and command queuing. The result is a drive that beats conventional disks in performance almost all the time, and when it doesn’t win, it’s close.

The problem is price: about $600 for 80 gigs. Some enthusiasts will pay that for their video subsystems, but that’s a lot of money considering one can build an awfully nice computer these days for around $200 (using a $70 Intel Atom motherboard, 2 GB of Kingston or Crucial memory for $30, a $40 hard drive, a $40 case, and a $20 optical drive).

But I think Intel made the right bet. The people who won’t pay $159 for a 32 GB drive from OCZ won’t pay $159 for one from Intel either. So crank up the capacity to 80 GB (pretty much the minimum for any enthusiast to take seriously), crank up the performance, and market it as an enthusiast product at an enthusiast price and wait for the technology to make it cheaper. It’s the same strategy Intel has been using for CPUs for nearly 25 years (since the 80286), and it’s worked.

I see a lot of criticism about the capacity, but it’s pretty much unfounded. The people who need capacity are the people who have large collections of JPEGs, MP3s and movies. None of these uses of a computer benefits at all from the SSD. Pretty much any conventional hard drive made in the last decade can stream that kind of data faster than the software needs it. So store that mountain of data on a cheap conventional hard drive (500 GB costs $70). Meanwhile, 80 GB is enough SSD capacity to hold an operating system and a nice selection of software, which is where SSDs excel.

Before I saw this review, I was pretty much ready to pull the trigger on a first-generation OCZ Core. Newegg has the 32 GB model for $159 with a $60 rebate. But now I know precisely what’s wrong with the Core and similar SSDs (and pretty much all of the similarly priced SSDs are based on the same Samsung reference design and have nearly identical characteristics). I know what I do tends to generate small files from time to time, and I know those 1-second delays would be maddening because avoiding delays is precisely the reason I want an SSD in the first place.

Intel has fired its first shot. Now Samsung and anyone else who wants to play in this arena is going to have to answer. Once that happens, prices will come down. Meanwhile, performance-minded people will buy the Intel drives, and increased demand will mean increased production, and therefore driving prices down.

It’s going to take a little while for SSDs to gain mainstream acceptance, kind of like LCD monitors. But I really think in five years, we’ll wonder how we lived without them.

Caveats with LCD flat-panel monitors

I just took a phone call from someone who bought an LCD flat-panel and couldn’t figure out why it looked so great in the store but was purely horrible on his PC at home.

He ran into a bunch of problems that some might instinctively avoid but to others would be much less than obvious.Native resolution. LCD monitors have a native resolution, unlike CRTs. What that means is while a CRT can produce a range of pixels (dots) horizontally and vertically, an LCD has a fixed number of them. So if you buy a monitor whose native resolution is 1152×864 and you set it to 800×600, the display is going to be chunky and pixelated.

Refresh rate. We’ve been conditioned to look for high numbers for refresh rate, and to set it as high as possible. LCDs don’t refresh, so you’re supposed to set the refresh rate to 60 Hz. Feed a flat panel something other than a 60 Hz signal, and who knows what will happen? Some cope, some don’t. Keep it at 60 to be safe.

Video memory. This was the real problem-causer. What happens when you buy a new 19-inch LCD and plug it into a aged Pentium II-400? Well, the video card didn’t have enough memory to do any better than a 256-color display. When you’re used to 16-bit color, the loss of color depth is enough to offset the sharpness.

So when buying an LCD for an aged system, it makes sense to go ahead and pick up a new video card while you’re at it. An ATi Radeon 7000-based card has plenty of memory to do high-color displays at resolutions like 1280×1024 and higher, and at Newegg.com’s $27 price, they’re a cheap upgrade. Newegg has several other cards in that price range as well. Radeons have 32 megs; they also have a SiS-based card with 64. The Radeon is probably a bit better for games, while the SiS will give you higher-color displays at high resolutions. Frankly, for a low-end system I’d probably buy whichever card happens to be cheapest to ship.

DVI or traditional VGA? DVI gives a straight digital signal, as opposed to translating to and from analog. A DVI port on the monitor and on the video card usually costs extra, but if you want the best possible display, it may be worth the extra money to you.

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