Pretentious Pontifications: Finally, a respectable entry-level system

David is still messing around with that ancient 500-MHz Compaq Proliant server, so I am filling in for him today. I threw all of my Pentium III-based systems out for the swine to trample months ago and I suggested David do the same. But, as usual, David refuses to listen to reason.
I see the peasants over at Ars Technica have finally started to show signs of coming to their senses. They have finally designed a personal computer that would be good enough to put in my bathroom. You can read about it here, if you must.

You can tell the people at Ars Technica are peasants, since people with special relationships with Intel (or people who know people with special relatonships with Intel have been running 3.6 GHz Pentium IV systems for weeks. Like I said, the entry-level PC described at Ars Technica is suitable for use in my bathroom. I feel sorry for those who have to putt-putt along on slower equipment in their main PCs. As I have said many times in the past (I am not a revisionist unlike some people), it is incredibly hard to get any serious work done at less than 3.5 GHz.

However, I must salute Ars Technica for getting it correct by using Rambus memory. Rambus memory is demonstrably superior in all regards to the DDR memory used by tyros. Any simple-minded twit can come to that conclusion simply by reading the benchmarks of trustworthy Web sites and looking at the price tag. One does not have to have insider sources like I do to know that.

Unfortunately, I must take issue with their use of IBM hard drives. IBM hard drives are demonstrably inferior to Seagate and Maxtor drives. Everybody knows you cannot power on an IBM hard drive for more than 8 hours a day. Why hundreds of thousands of people use IBM drives in their mission-critical servers is beyond me.

Upgrading an eMachine

One of the most common search engine hits on this site involves the words “emachine” and “upgrade” or “upgrades.”
There are a number of things to keep in mind. Some of this advice also holds for low-end units from Compaq and Gateway and the like as well.

First things first: eMachines don’t have the best reputation. The majority of their problems are due to the power supply though. Aftermarket replacements are readily available, and I recommend them. Don’t buy a factory replacement; it’ll just fail again like the original. A quality replacement from Sparkle or PC Power & Cooling will run you less than $50. I’ve seen 180-watt Sparkles go for $35. The stock 145-watt unit isn’t very adequate and isn’t of the utmost quality. If I bought an eMachine, I’d buy an aftermarket power supply and install it as soon as I could. I wouldn’t wait for the factory unit to fail.

If I had an eMachine I wanted to upgrade, I’d track down a PCI video card. The problem with integrated video on a lot of motherboards is that the CPU and video chip have to share memory bandwidth. What’s that mean? Part of the time, your nice 64-bit memory bus is reduced to 32 bits, that’s what. Steve DeLassus told me a couple of years ago about putting a cheap PCI ATI video card in his wife’s Compaq, which had integrated video, and everything about the system sped up, dramatically. I made fun of him. But it wasn’t his imagination. I was wrong, and the explanation is simple: After he disabled the onboard video, he finally got the computing power they paid for.

Besides that, any add-on card is going to be faster than the integrated video in anything but an nVidia chipset anyway. Last I checked, eMachines weren’t using nVidia nForce chipsets for anything. If you’re into 3D gaming, you shouldn’t have bought an eMachine in the first place, but look for a PCI card with an nVidia chipset. If you’re just into word processing and e-mail, something like an ATI Xpert98 will do nicely. Yeah, it’s an old card, but it’s still more than adequate for 2D applications, and it’s cheap.

If you’re wondering if your system’s integrated video is holding you back, the best tell-tale sign to look for is called “shared memory.” Enter your PC’s setup program and look for an adjustable amount of shared memory. If you find that setting, you’ll almost certainly benefit from disabling it and plugging in a video card.

The next thing I’d look to do is replace the hard drive. Hard drive speed is significant, and sub-$500 PCs don’t come with blazing drives. Pick up a 7200-rpm drive of adequate capacity. They’re not expensive–you can be in business for under a hundred bucks. The performance difference is dramatic. Most retail-boxed drives even come with all the software you need to move all your data to the new drive. CompUSA frequently has something on sale. I prefer Maxtor drives over Western Digital because they’re faster and more reliable; CompUSA’s house-brand drives are just repackaged Maxtors, so those are fine as long as you can find a 7200-rpm model.

The modems that came in eMachines are worthless. If you don’t have broadband yet, replace it with a USRobotics 2977 modem immediately. That factory modem is costing you 35% of your CPU power. The USR will give that back, give you better throughput on top of it, and costs $40 at Good deal. But don’t settle for anything less than that–any modem that costs less than $40 is going to have the same problems as the factory modem.

Most eMachines can take more memory, but a lot of eMachines already shipped with adequate memory. There’s rarely any reason to put more than 256 MB in a PC. If your machine doesn’t have 256 megs, you can pick up a 256-meg stick pretty cheaply.

Most eMachines can take a faster processor, but I rarely bother. Unless you can increase your clock speed by 50%, you’re not likely to really notice the difference. Doubling is better. You’ll get better results from adding a video card and a faster hard drive.

Likewise, a high-end sound card from the likes of Creative or Turtle Beach can reduce the amount of work your CPU has to do and give you much better-sounding audio than what your eMachine has on the motherboard, but is it worth putting a $100 sound card in a computer you paid $399 for?

It’s easy to see you can very quickly spend $300 on upgrades for a computer that originally cost $399. That makes it hard to justify, when you could just get a new $399 computer. So should you do it? It depends. Don’t spend more than half the price of a new computer to upgrade an old one. But also keep in mind that a new computer won’t come with first-rate components, and the aftermarket parts you’re buying are first rate, or very close to it. If that PC you’re looking to upgrade has a 600 MHz processor or faster, it’s likely that when it’s upgraded, it’ll hold its own with a new computer. In that case, you should think about it.

But if you’ve got a four-year-old eMachine with a 300 MHz processor in it, you’re better off buying something new. When you can buy a 900-MHz PC without an operating system from for $299, it’s just not worth wasting your time. Load your eMachine’s copy of Windows on the new computer and stick the eMachine in a closet somewhere as a spare. Or pony up a couple hundred bucks more to pick up a brand-name PC with Windows and a monitor, then get a couple of network cards and network your computers together. Your family will appreciate being able to share a printer and an Internet connection. If you pay a little extra to get wireless cards, the computers don’t even have to be close to each other.

One last thing: A lot of people sniff at eMachines. Yes, they are cheaply made. But they’re not all that bad of a machine, aside from the skimpy power supply. Replace it, and you’ve got a lot of computer for the money. Packard Bell did a lot to ruin the reputation of cheap computers in the 1990s, but the problems they had were mostly due to skimpy power supplies that were odd sizes so there weren’t many aftermarket replacements, and due to junky integrated modems and/or combo modem/sound cards that did both jobs poorly, killing system performance and causing software incompatibilities. Today’s highly integrated motherboards have eliminated that combo sound/modem problem. I know I malign the company all the time, but in all honesty, once you put real modems and sound cards into Packard Bells, they did OK as long as the power supply held up. I’ve got an old Packard Bell P120 with Debian Linux loaded on it. I ripped out the sound card/modem combo. I left the power supply alone because it looked decent. The machine’s run several years for me without any problems. Of course I covered up the Packard Bell logos on it.

Today, the same holds true of an eMachine–it’s just the power supply and video card you have to worry about now.

First look: The Proliant DL320

I’ve had the opportunity the past two days to work with Compaq’s Proliant DL320, an impossibly thin 1U rack-mount server. All I can say is I’m impressed.
When I was in college, a couple of the nearby pizza joints sold oversized 20″ pizzas. The DL320 reminded me of the boxes these pizzas came in. The resemblance isn’t lost on IBM: In its early ads for a competing product, I remember IBM using an impossibly thin young female model holding a 1U server on a pizza-joint set.

HP announced last week that Compaq’s Proliant series will remain basically unchanged, it will just be re-branded with the HP name. HP had no product comparable to the DL320.

I evaluated the entry-level model. It’s a P3 1.13 GHz with 128 MB RAM, dual Intel 100-megabit NICs, and a single 40-gigabyte 7200-rpm Maxtor/Quantum IDE drive. It’s not a heavy-duty server, but it’s not designed to be. It’s designed for businesses that need to get a lot of CPU power into the smallest possible amount of rack space. And in that regard, the DL320 delivers.

Popping the hood reveals a well-designed layout. The P3 is near the front, with three small fans blowing right over it. Two more fans in the rear of the unit pull air out, and two fans in the power supply keep it cool. The unit has four DIMM sockets (one occupied). There’s room for one additional 3.5″ hard drive, and a single 64-bit PCI slot. Obvious applications for that slot include a gigabit Ethernet adapter or a high-end SCSI host adapter. The machine uses a ServerWorks chipset, augmented by a CMD 649 for UMDA-133 support. Compaq utilizes laptop-style floppy and CD-ROM drives to cram all of this into a 1U space.

The fit and finish is very good. The machine looks and feels solid, not flimsy, which is a bit surprising for a server in this price range. Looks-wise, it brings back memories of the old DEC Prioris line.

The rear of the machine has a fairly spartan number of ports: PS/2 keyboard and mouse, two RJ-45 jacks, VGA, one serial port, and two USB ports. There’s no room for luxuries, and such things as a parallel port are questionable in this type of server anyway.

Upon initial powerup, the DL320 asks a number of questions, including what OS you want to run. Directly supported are Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, Novell NetWare, and Linux.

Linux installs quickly and the 2.4.18 kernel directly supports the machine’s EtherExpress Pro/100 NICs, CMD 649 IDE, and ServerWorks chipset. A minimal installation of Debian 3.0 booted in 23 seconds, once the machine finished POST. After compiling and installing a kernel with support for all the hardware not in the DL320 removed, that boot time dropped to 15 seconds. That’s less time than it takes for the machine to POST.

Incidentally, that custom kernel was a scant 681K in size. It was befitting of a server with this kind of footprint.

As configured, the DL320 is more than up to the tasks asked of low-end servers, such as user authentication, DNS and DHCP, and mail, file and print services for small workgroups. It would also make a nice applications server, since the applications only need to load once. It would also be outstanding for clustering. For Web server duty or heavier-duty mail, file and print serving, it would be a good idea to upgrade to one of the higher-end DL320s that includes SCSI.

It’s hard to find fault with the DL320. At $1300 for an IDE configuration, it’s a steal. A SCSI-equipped version will run closer to $1900.

News analysis

Short takes. Yesterday was a newsworthy day in technology, and I’m sure there’s going to be a ton of misinformation about it eminating from both coasts, so we might as well set the record straight.
Poor quality control drives IBM from the hard drive business! Yeah, whatever. IBM makes one questionable model (and many GXP failures sounded more like power supply failures than hard drive failures), and suddenly everything they’ve ever made is crap. Guess what? Seven years ago you couldn’t give me a Seagate drive, because the drives they were making back then were so slow and unreliable. Maxtors were worse–and my boss at the time, who has a very long memory, nearly disciplined me a couple of years ago for specifying a Maxtor drive in an upgrade. But he’s a reasonable man and saw that the drive held up and performed well. Western Digital has been so hit and miss I still don’t want to buy any of their drives. Though their drives started to look better after they licensed some technology from… Old Big Black and Blue.

And the truth about GXPs: Regardless of how true the quality control allegations are, the drives themselves are the most innovative and advanced IDE devices ever commercially marketed. The platters are made using different materials and processes than conventional discs, which was supposed to make them more reliable. Expect that technology to come of age in a generation or two. The drives even include SCSI-like command queueing (the newest version of Linux’s hdparm allows you to turn this feature on; I have no idea if Windows switches it on by default). The successor to the 60GXP is going to be worth a second and a third look.

Wanna know what’s really going on? Hard drives aren’t very profitable. IBM has a history of spinning off questionable divisions to see if they can survive as smaller, more independent entities. The most famous recent example of this is Lexmark. That’s what’s going on here. IBM and Hitachi spin off and merge their storage divisions, and each company takes a stake in it. If the company mops up the floor with the competition, IBM and Hitachi make lots of money. If the company continues to bleed cash, IBM and Hitachi get nice tax write-offs. Either way, the shareholders are happy.

A number of years ago, IBM was a large producer of memory chips as well. In fact, you can open up a Mac manufactured in the mid-1990s, and chances are you’ll find an IBM-manufactured PowerPC CPU, one or more IBM-manufactured DIMMs, and an IBM SCSI hard drive. Making memory had its ups and downs, and during one of the many downturns in the 90s, IBM got out of the business. There was a time when Intel and AMD were in that business too (I have some old AMD DRAM chips on an expansion card somewhere, and I’ve seen Intel DRAMs but I don’t know if I’ve ever owned any).

This news is a little bit surprising, but hardly shocking. IBM’s making tons of money selling software and services, they’re not making money selling hard drives, and they’ve got a new CEO and nervous investors. This is a way for them to hedge their bets.

And you can expect them to possibly start getting more aggressive about marketing their technologies to other drive manufacturers as well now. Seagate, Maxtor, Western Digital, Fujitsu and Samsung have just changed from competitors into potential customers. Expect disk performance to increase and price to continue to decrease as a result.

How to gauge hard drive reliability. This isn’t exactly news but it seems very relevant. Professional writers don’t see a lot of drives. They can recommend based on their own experience, but their recent experience is going to be limited to a few dozen drives. Message boards are very hit and miss. You have no way of knowing whether it’s a book author hiding behind that handle or a clueless 12-year-old kid. Find an experienced technician who’s still practicing as a technician (I’m not a very good example; at this stage of my career I no longer deal with large numbers of desktop systems–I deal with a handful of servers and my own desktop machine and that’s it) and ask what hard drives they’ve seen fail. When I was doing desktop support regularly, I could tell you almost the exact number of drives I’d seen fail in the past year, and I could tell you the brands. I’d prefer to talk to someone who fixes computers for a large company rather than a computer store tech (since his employer is in the business of selling things, he’s under pressure to recommend what’s in stock), but I’ll still trust a computer store tech over some anonymous user on Usenet or a message board, as well as over a published author. Myself included.

AMD withdraws from the consumer market! AMD mentioned in a conference call yesterday that it plans to discontinue the Duron processor line this year. It makes sense. Fab 25 in Austin is being re-tooled to make flash memory, leaving the Duron without a home. But beyond that, AMD’s new 64-bit Hammer chip is going to hit the market later this year. So they can sell a slightly crippled K7 core as their low-end chip, or they can make their high-end K7 core into the low-end chip and sell the Hammer as a high-end chip. This strategy makes more sense. Clock for clock, the Athlon is still a better chip than the P4. Hammer scales better and performs better. So AMD can pit the Athlon against the Celeron and give P4 performance at a Celeron price, and the Hammer against the P4, which will give P4 clock rates and deliver better performance for 32-bit apps, along with a 64-bit future. There’s not much room in that strategy for the Duron. AMD would rather cede the $35 CPU business to VIA.

Look for the Hammer to gain widespread use in the Linux server market, especially among smaller companies. The Athlon already has an audience there (in spite of some pundits calling AMD-based systems “toys,” you see far more ads for AMD-based servers in Linux Journal than you see for Intel boxes), but the Hammer will become the poor man’s Alpha.

Some video editing tips from the school of hard knocks

Hi. My name is Dave. I attended the best journalism school there is for broadcasting.
I paid almost zero attention in the television units, because, well, I hate TV. So I learned nothing that would be of use to me at this stage of life. Aside from how to go get a story and ask questions and gather footage, which is pretty much the same no matter what your medium is, whether it’s a newspaper, a magazine, a video documentary, a Web page, or a research paper. We all have a sense for what’s interesting and relevant. Develop that, and you can tell a story in any medium.

OK, that’s all I know about video editing theory. That was easy, wasn’t it? Aren’t you glad you didn’t pay $200 per credit hour for it?

Now let’s get practical. This is going to be most practical if you have equipment similar to mine. If you don’t, hopefully it’ll tell you something useful.

Here’s what I use to make magic happen on the boob tube:

IBM-compatible PC

  • AMD Duron 700 MHz CPU
  • 384 MB PC133 memory
  • Adaptec 19160 Ultra160 SCSI card
  • Maxtor Atlas III 10,000 RPM 18GB Ultra160 SCSI hard drive
  • Quantum Fireball 15 GB UDMA66 hard drive
  • Plextor UltraPlex 40max SCSI CD-ROM for audio capture
  • Pinnacle DV500 Plus editing/capture card
    JVC GR-DVL100 miniDV camcorder

    You can capture video with Adobe Premiere, but there’s a lot of overhead involved. It’s better to use the bundled Pinnacle DVTools app. I was in the habit of capturing with DVTools, then using the freeware VirtualDub (do a Google search) to convert those files to Indeo 5.1 format to save space. I saved a lot of disk space, but I wasted a lot of time. A PC equipped with a DV500 can do most things to DV-formatted files in realtime, whereas my setup has to render other file formats. You’re looking at 2-4 frames per second to do the initial conversion, and then Premiere renders them at a similar rate. Get monster hard drives so you can hold those larger DV files, and you’ll save lots of render time. You’ll also completely eliminate generation loss, which is the whole point of digital video in the first place, although the generation loss from rendering DV to Indeo back to DV isn’t something anyone’s likely to notice. Realistically, you’ll lose more as the signal is being transmitted from the camera to your screen than you will from three generations of conversion.

    I find playback off my UDMA drive less than adequate. It doesn’t drop frames but the video has too many artifacts. It’s fine as a holding bin for clips I might use, or for editing, but before I do my final output to tape, I move the files over to my high-speed SCSI drive.

    On some platforms, you really want to have your OS and apps on one drive, your video on another, and your audio on yet another. I find the Atlas III is more than fast enough to hold all three and get away with it. If I had to do it all again though, I’d probably still get the Atlas, and I’d get another very large but slower SCSI drive.

    When you’re editing with Premiere, you may find your hard drives fill up at an alarming rate. Before starting a project, search for directories called Adobe Premiere Preview Files and clear their contents. I found a missing 4 gigs that way. Also defragment your drives before starting on a project. You want big, contiguous blocks to hold your huge video files.

    You can’t just plug a camcorder into your firewire port and go to File, Export Timeline, Print to Tape and expect it to work. You have to put your camcorder into VTR mode first, an operation that isn’t always obvious from looking at the camera. Check your manual. On my DVL100, turning the mode knob to Play does the trick.

    Also, you can’t plug a camcorder in hot. At least not any of the JVC cameras I’ve tried. The computer will see them, but it won’t be able to control them. Shut down the computer and turn off the camera, plug in, then power both up, and they’re happy.

    Although Pinnacle’s DVTools can export DV to tape, it’s faster to do it from Premiere. It takes Premiere forever to export a video to disk in DV format, and then of course the export to tape happens in real-time. Doing it from Premiere in the first place cuts the time required by 3/4.

    And here’s a principle I learned at a seminar earlier this year at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Dayton, OH: There’s no such thing as junk video. Ginghamsburg’s video director actually advocates leaving your camera on at all times, even when you’re moving the camera, because a lot of times you’ll shoot good video unintentionally. I don’t have the battery life to be able to leave it on all the time, but I leave it on more than I normally would. I found in my last project, where I was filming fire, that the smoke and heat waves coming off the fire confused my camera’s autofocus, so the camera was trying to find what it was supposed to focus on, which futher accentuated the heat waves and produced a really haunting effect. People asked me how I did it, what it was, where I shot it. It was pretty anticlimatic, I’m sure, to hear it was just a tree off in the distance. And I got the shot strictly because I wasn’t paying attention. The fire had died down and I hadn’t noticed.

    All cameras have particular nuances. That scene probably would have looked different with another camera. I discovered later how to confuse my autofocus when I was trying to set the camera up for playback. The only way you’ll learn your camera’s nuances is to play with it. And be sure to try things with it you wouldn’t normally try. I discovered the autofocus thing when the camera was pointed at my desk at extremely close range. Believe me, there’s absolutely nothing compelling about that desk. It’s 18-year-old particle board.

    And a principle I learned myself: There are a couple of ways I find my best footage. One way is just to fast-forward through it and watch. If it’s compelling at 20x normal speed with fuzzy detail, it’s likely to be compelling when played the way it was shot. The other thing I’ll do is play the footage in my monitor, and watch out of my peripheral vision while I do something else. If it’s good enough to grab my attention, chances are it’s worth using. It’s a brutal way to edit, but if you have to condense several hours’ worth of footage into three minutes, it’s the fastest way I’ve found.

    How to build a reliable PC.

    We touched on the topic of reliability last week. I figure I might as well give a more thorough discussion of what makes a PC reliable.
    1. Power supply. I see more power supply failures than any other single component. Good power supplies fail without a whimper and don’t damage the rest of your equipment. Bad power supplies take other stuff with ’em when they die. Antec and Sparkle are examples of good basic power supplies. The power supplies that come in InWin and other brand-name cases tend to be fine as well. A notch above that is Enermax, maker of the ultimate in show-off power supplies, with plated finger guards and odd colors. Top-tier is PC Power and Cooling. If I wanted to build a computer and have absolute assurance it would still work in five years, I’d start with a PCP&C or at the very least, an Enermax.

    Buy more wattage than you think you need. The power supply will run cooler and last longer if you do. Besides, you never know what you’ll want to stick in the case down the road.

    2. Memory. Last time I checked, you could get 64-meg PC133 sticks for under $5. I wouldn’t trust ’em with my archenemy’s work though. Cheap memory may be untested, the PCB may not be a good design, or even worse, it may have chips that were tested and deemed unsuitable for use in PCs (but fine in other less-demanding devices). Unscrupulous makers sometimes buy up these chips and take their chances. It may seem foolhardy to pay $100 for a 256-meg stick from Crucial, but I haven’t just heard horror stories about commodity memory. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve had more than 1,000 brand-name modules cross my desk. Three were defective. I’ve had fewer than 50 commodity modules cross my desk. More than half proved defective. Some wouldn’t even work–the system would just beep at you. The worse ones appeared to work for a while, but the system was always crashing. Don’t take chances on your memory. I tend to buy my memory over-spec as well. Even if a motherboard takes PC100 memory, I go ahead and buy PC133 CAS2 memory. The chips will run just fine at a lower speed, so I have an overengineered system for a while, and if I ever upgrade I’m more likely to be able to take the memory with me.

    3. Motherboards. Buy brand-name boards. I’ve never had an Asus board fail. (Watch one fail next week now that I’ve said that. But I’m happy with the reliability and longevity of Asus boards.) I’ve done well with other brands too, like AOpen, Abit, FIC, and Tyan. I know MSI boards are popular but I don’t have any personal experience with them. Asus has impressed me with their farsighted engineering–in my experience, you’re more likely to be able to upgrade an Asus board in three or four years than others.

    Most people know to check the hardware enthusiast sites when researching a board. I urge you to also check the Usenet newsgroups. You’ll find some good advice. Finding very little on a board can be a good sign too-it’s an indication that a board doesn’t have many problems. Years ago, I was researching the Asus SP97V motherboard, because it was dirt cheap, but it was an Asus. I searched on Usenet and found very little about it–maybe a half-dozen messages. Most of it was just idle chatter. One message was talking about various boards, including the offhanded comment, “The SP97V is a good board for the money, BTW. I’ve used three of them.” That clinched it. Nobody was talking bad about the thing. I had one positive, and very little talk overall, which generally indicates satisfaction. Satisfied people rarely talk about stuff unless its quality blows them away.

    4. CPU fans. Never go cheap on CPU fans. There’s a humongous roundup of currently available fans. Get a heavy-duty fan, even if you don’t overclock. Remember, the CPU you’re protecting is a lot more valuable than the fan. A good fan will keep your CPU well within its specified operating temperature range, and I’d like to think that the pricier fans will have a longer life. Get a ball-bearing fan rather than a sleeve-bearing fan; a cheap sleeve-bearing fan is quieter but it’s also likely to conk out on you in a couple of years if you leave your systems on 24/7.

    Bookmark that site, by the way. Dan’s one of the better technology writers out there today, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s an entertaining read, explains things well, knows what he’s doing (and he’s pretty open about his methodology), and he’s probably a certifiable genius, but he’s not pretentious. In fact, he seems to enjoy making people think he’s not quite sane. I make sure I pay that site a visit at least twice a week.

    5. Case fans. It’s a good idea to put a supplemental fan in the machine. Two is usually overkill unless you’ve got some really hot hard drives, and it’ll make your computer louder. You can quiet them by manipulating the voltage. Dan’s Data talks a lot about them too, including how to slow them down. For typical users, a simple ball-bearing case fan is sufficient.

    6. Hard drives. IBM currently recommends you not run their drives more than 8 hours a day. So that eliminates IBM from the running. That’s a shame, because they used to make spectacular drives. (I still like their laptop drives better than any others I’ve seen though, and I’m not the only one.) I’ve seen fewer dead Quantum and Maxtor drives than any other brand, although Samsung really has surprised me with their reliability, and the drives are cheap. Seagate has a good reputation but I have very limited experience with their recent drives. Maxtor’s a safe choice at the mid range and high end, while Samsung is tough to beat for the low end.

    7. Cabling. The cables that come with brand-name PC motherboards seem to be of good quality, as are the cables I’ve seen bundled in Maxtor retail kits. If an IDE cable looks flimsy, don’t buy it. Problematic cables slow you down due to the need to retransmit data. Also never buy an IDE cable that’s longer than 18 inches. Longer cables are available, but IDE specs state 18 inches as the maximum. Longer cables may work, but it’s questionable. If you have to reach the top bays in a tall tower case, you’ll have to go SCSI. Sorry.

    Rounded cables will improve airflow, but be careful. Rounding shortens cables, so the wires inside a long rounded cable are even longer than stated. While a relatively new practice on the desktop, I saw rounded SCSI cables in IBM servers and workstations as long ago as 1995.

    Is Windows optimization obsolete?

    I read a statement on Bob Thompson’s website about Windows optimization, where he basically told a reader not to bother trying to squeeze more speed out of his Pentium-200, to spend a few hundred bucks on a hardware upgrade instead.
    That’s flawed thinking. One of the site’s more regular readers responded and mentioned my book (thanks, Clark E. Myers). I remember talking at work after upgrading a hard drive in one of the servers last week. I said I ought to put my 10,000-rpm SCSI hard drive in a Pentium-133, then go find someone. “You think your Pentium 4 is pretty hot stuff, huh? Wanna race? Let’s see who can load Word faster.” And I’d win by a large margin. For that matter, if I were a betting man I’d be willing to bet a Pentium-200 or 233 with that drive would be faster than a typical P4 for everything but encoding MP3 audio and MP4 video.

    Granted, I’ve just played into Thompson’s argument that a hardware upgrade is the best way to get more performance. An 18-gig 10K drive will run at least $180 at Hyper Microsystems, and the cheapest SCSI controller that will do it justice will run you $110 (don’t plug it into anything less than an Ultra Wide SCSI controller or the controller will be the bottleneck), so that’s not exactly a cheap upgrade. It might be marginally cheaper than buying a new case, motherboard, CPU and memory. Marginally. And even if you do that, you’re still stuck with a cruddy old hard drive and video card (unless the board has integrated video).

    On the other hand, just a couple weekends ago I ripped out a 5400-rpm drive from a friend’s GW2K P2-350 and replaced it with a $149 Maxtor 7200-rpm IDE drive and it felt like a new computer. So you can cheaply increase a computer’s performance as well, without the pain of a new motherboard.

    But I completely and totally reject the hypothesis that there’s nothing you can do in software to speed up a computer.

    I was working on a computer at church on Sunday, trying to quickly burn the sermon onto CD. We’re going to start recording the sermon at the 8:00 service so that people can buy a CD after the 10:45 service if they want a copy of it. Since quality CDs can be had for a buck in quantity, we’ll probably sell discs for $2, considering the inevitable wear and tear on the drives. Today was the pilot day. The gain was set too high on the audio at 8:00, so I gave it another go at 10:45.

    That computer was a Pentium 4, but that Pentium 4 made my Celeron-400 look like a pretty hot machine. I’m serious. And my Celeron-400 has a three-year-old 5400-rpm hard drive in it, and a six-year-old Diamond video card of some sort, maybe with the S3 ViRGE chipset? Whatever it is, it was one of the very first cards to advertise 3D acceleration, but the card originally sold for $149. In 1996, for 149 bucks you weren’t getting much 3D acceleration. As for its 2D performance, well, it was better than the Trident card it replaced.

    There’s nothing in that Celeron-400 worth bragging about. Well, maybe the 256 megs of RAM. Except all the l337 h4xx0r5 bought 1.5 gigs of memory back in the summer when they were giving away 512-meg sticks in cereal boxes because they were cheaper than mini-frisbees and baseball cards (then they wondered why Windows wouldn’t load anymore), so 256 megs makes me look pretty lame these days. Forget I mentioned it.

    So. My cruddy three-year-old Celeron-400, which was the cheapest computer on the market when I bought it, was outperforming this brand-new HP Pentium 4. Hmm.

    Thompson says if there were any settings you could tweak to make Windows run faster, they’d be defaults.

    Bull puckey.

    Microsoft doesn’t give a rip about performance. Microsoft cares about selling operating systems. It’s in Microsoft’s best interest to sell slow operating systems. People go buy the latest and worst greatest, find it runs like a 1986 Yugo on their year-old PC, so then they go buy a Pentium 4 and Microsoft sells the operating system twice. Nice, isn’t it? After doing something like that once, people just buy a new computer when Microsoft releases a new operating system. Or, more likely, they buy a new computer every second time Microsoft releases a new operating system.

    Microsoft counts on this. Intel counts on this. PC makers count on this. Best Bait-n-Switch counts on this. You should have seen those guys salivating over the Windows 95 launch. (It was pretty gross, really, and I didn’t just think that because I was running OS/2 at the time and wasn’t interested in downgrading.)

    I’ve never had the privilege of working for an employer who had any money. Everywhere I’ve worked, we’ve bought equipment, then run it until it breaks, then re-treaded it and run it until it breaks again. Some of the people I work with have 486s on their desks. Not many (fortunately), but there are some. I’ve had to learn how to squeeze the last drop of performance out of some computers that never really had anything to offer in the first place. And I haven’t learned much in the past since I started my professional career in Feb. 1997, but I have learned one thing.

    There’s a lot you can do to increase performance without changing any hardware. Even on an old Pentium.

    First things first. Clean up that root directory. You’ve probably got dozens of backup copies of autoexec.bat and config.sys there. Get them gone. If you (or someone else) saved a bunch of stuff in the root directory, move it into C:My Documents where it belongs. Then defrag the drive, so the computer gets rid of the phantom directory entries. You’ll think you’ve got a new computer. I know, it’s stupid. Microsoft doesn’t know how to write a decent filesystem, and that’s why that trick works. Cleaning up a crowded root directory has a bigger effect on system performance than anything else you can do. Including changing your motherboard.

    2. Uninstall any ancient programs you’re not running. Defrag afterward.

    3. Right-click your desktop. See that Active Desktop crap? Turn it off. You’ll think you’ve got a new computer.

    4. I am not making this up. (This trick isn’t in the book. Bonus.) Double-click My Computer. Go to Tools, Folder Options. Go to Web View. Select “Use Windows Classic Folders.” This makes a huge difference.

    5. Turn off the custom mouse pointers you’re using. They’re slowing you down. Terribly.

    6. Download and run Ad Aware. Spyware DLLs kill your system stability and speed. If you’ve got some spyware (you never know until you run it), Ad Aware could speed you up considerably. I’ve seen it make no difference. And I’ve seen it make all the difference in the world. It won’t cost you anything to find out.

    7. Remove Internet Explorer. It’s a security risk. It slows down your computer something fierce. It’s not even the best browser on the market. You’re much better off without it. Download IEradicator from It’ll remove IE from Win95, 98, ME, NT, and 2K SP1 or lower. If you run Windows 2000, reinstall, then run IEradicator, then install SP2 (or SP3 if it’s out by the time you read this). Then install Mozilla, or the lightweight, Mozilla-based K-Meleon instead. Need a lightweight mail client to replace Outlook Express? Give these a look. Run Defrag after you remove IE. You won’t believe how much faster your computer runs. Trust me. An Infoworld article several years back found that removing IE sped up the OS by as much as 15 percent. That’s more than you gain by moving your CPU up one speed grade, folks.

    8. Reinstall your OS. OSs accumulate a lot of gunk, and sometimes the best thing to do is to back up your My Documents folder, format your hard drive, and reinstall your OS and the current versions of the apps you use. Then do all this other stuff. Sure, it takes a while. But you’ll have to do it anyway if you upgrade your motherboard.

    9. Get a utilities suite. Norton Speed Disk does a much better job of defragmenting your hard drive than Windows’ built-in tool. It’s worth the price of Norton Utilities. Good thing too, because 90% of the stuff Norton Utilities installs is crap. Speed Disk, properly run, increases your disk performance enough to make your head spin. (The tricks are in the book. Sorry, I can’t give away everything.)

    10. Get my book. Hey, I had to plug it somewhere, didn’t I? There are 3,000 unsold copies sitting in a warehouse in Tennessee. (O’Reilly’s going to get mad at me for saying that, so I’ll say it again.) Since there are 3,000 unsold copies sitting in a warehouse in Tennessee, that means there are about 3,000 people who don’t need to buy a new computer and may not know it. I don’t like that. Will there be an updated version? If those 3,000 copies sell and I can go to a publisher and tell them there’s a market for this kind of book based on the 2002 sales figures for my last one, maybe. Yes, there are things that book doesn’t tell you. I just told you those things. There are plenty of things that book tells you that this doesn’t. It’s 260 pages long for a reason.

    Recent Microsoft OSs are high on marketing and low on substance. If Microsoft can use your computing resources to promote Internet Explorer, MSN, or anything else, they’ll do it. Yes, Optimizing Windows is dated. Spyware wasn’t known to exist when I wrote it, for instance. Will it help? Absolutely. I stated in that book that no computer made in 1996 or later is truly obsolete. I stand by that statement, even though I wrote it nearly three years ago. Unless gaming is your thang, you can make any older PC run better, and probably make it adequate for the apps you want to run. Maybe even for the OS you want to run. And even if you have a brand-new PC, there’s a lot you can do.

    Like I said, I’d rather use my crusty old Celeron-400 than that brand-new P4. It’s a pile of junk, but it’s the better computer. And that’s entirely because I was willing to spend an hour or two cleaning it up.

    Building an inexpensive PC

    Building an inexpensive PC. An old out-of-town friend I don’t hear from often called the other day. He wants to buy a computer and dabble in audio production. Some local guy quoted him $2,500 to build a system. He read me the specs, and all I can say is this guy had better be using Lian-Li cases and PC Power and Cooling power supplies (or I guess I’d settle for high-end Enermax), but I doubt it. I do know he’s using a top-end Athlon XP processor and an Abit motherboard, but he wasn’t pairing it with DDR, so he was totally killing the chip’s performance anyway. For two and a half grand, you’d better be getting DDR, and lots of it.
    “You need a 32-meg video card because when the computer is drawing the waveforms, it has to be dead-on. You can’t afford for it to lag,” he said.

    I got news for this idiot. When it comes to drawing simple line graphics like a waveform, the ancient ET4000 chipset in my 486 will have no problem keeping up with it. Even if you use a fill to make the waveform look pretty. And that video “card” (it was integrated into my motherboard) had 512K (K, as in kilobytes) of memory. Although anyone who wasn’t born yesterday knows that the amount of memory on a video card has nothing to do with its speed, outside of the realm of 3D gaming. Knowing kids these days, some of them may even know that at birth.

    In other words, the guy’s a moron. Either he knows nothing about computers, or he knows how to skimp but he’s not a convincing salesman.

    I know for a fact that audio editing doesn’t need a supercomputer. If I can do video editing on a 700 MHz Duron, I know a Duron CPU, paired with a decent supporting cast, is going to be adequate for multitrack audio recording and editing as well.

    I asked him how much he could spend. He told me $800, not counting a monitor and the editing card/package. I squirmed. I spent way too much time shopping around. Here’s what I came up with (not counting the operating system):

    1 GHz AMD Duron
    FIC AZ11 motherboard (on closeout, so it was cheap)
    ATI Xpert 2000 Pro AGP video card (with a blazing 32 megs–ahem)
    Maxtor D740 20-gig 7200 RPM IDE hard drive
    Maxtor D740 60-gig 7200 RPM IDE hard drive
    512 MB Crucial PC133 SDRAM
    Mitsumi 3.5″ floppy drive
    Sony 52X ATAPI CD-ROM
    Plextor Plexwriter 12/10/32A CD-RW
    Enermax A1QX-6 mid-tower case with Enermax 300W power supply
    US Robotics 2977 controller-based PCI modem
    Closeout Dell-branded Logitech mouse and Dell-branded keyboard

    I told him there are two brands of CD-RW I trust, especially for audio work: re-labeled Plextor, and Plextor. In all honesty, I would have much prefered to build an all-SCSI system, but for this kind of budget, that’s impossible. All-SCSI would have given much better disk performance, and it would have given access to the Plextor UltraPlex 40max CD-ROM, which is the only drive I trust for extracting digital audio. I imagine he’ll be doing a little of that. The Sony drive will do a decent job, but I’ve seen the Plextor work miracles. But the Plextor is $100, while the Sony cost around $25. I’ll definitely take a Sony over a Cyberdrive or Lite-On (which probably would have run $19).

    I couldn’t get PC Power and Cooling on this budget. The price on the Enermax combo was good (less than a PCP&C 300W power supply alone) and the quality is respectable. The Japanese steel is a little lighter gauge than I prefer, but I didn’t cut myself on it. The fit is good, and it’s a good-looking case. Not show-off good like Lian-Li, but better-looking than most of the stuff in its price range. The cobalt blue trim compliments the lettering on the Plextor drive.

    Finding a place to put the hard drives is a bit of a challenge. Modern 7200-rpm drives don’t run very hot, but I still don’t want them running directly above one another. I finally settled on putting a drive in the lowest 3.5″ bay and the other in the lowest 5.25″ bay.

    The USR 2977 is the secret weapon here. A $20 no-name Winmodem would be a royal pain to set up, and chew up lots of CPU cycles. The 2977 was under $50 and won’t be a load on the system. That’s a speed trick I’m sure that local guy doesn’t know.

    The 1 GHz Duron is still overkill, but that’s the slowest chip I could talk him into. I was starting to get annoyed with him. I don’t just know about computer speed, I literally wrote the book on computer speed, and my friend didn’t know what I was talking about when I said something about a boot floppy. And this year’s hot chip is next year’s budget chip, so if the budget chip is enough to get the job done this year, you can go buy more CPU next year. Besides, there was no way to cram any more CPU power into this tiny budget, other than sacrificing disk speed, which is more important unless he’s running Windows XP, which he won’t be. (I’ll drive 200 miles and take his computer away from him if he does.)

    As for the two drives, any time you do multimedia work, you want to make sure your application and swap file are located on one drive, and the audio you’re working with is on a second drive. I probably could have gotten by with a 5400-rpm drive to hold the OS, but there isn’t much price difference between a 5400 RPM 20-gig drive and a 7200.

    As for how the system runs, I’m sure it’ll smoke. The motherboard isn’t here yet. In all fairness, I ordered it Monday and it was shipped UPS Ground from California on Tuesday.

    I ordered the motherboard from Just Deals and the memory came from Crucial. The rest of the stuff came from Directron and New Egg, who as always gave me great prices and fast delivery.

    But that’s just my opinion.

    Free PR advice. I see the Taliban hunted down and assassinated four journalists. Well, OK, it’s not proven that they did it, but it looks like that’s what happened. Now, I know journalists are pretty low on the slimeball scale. I have a journalism degree from the oldest school of journalism in the world, after all. But terrorists and third-world dictators are such a completely different league of low that even a journalist-turned-lawyer-turned-politican who put himself through college selling used cars wouldn’t begin to approach it.
    Bad move, guys. There’s anti-war sentiment brewing in Europe, but killing four unarmed civilians will do very little to fuel that. Reminding the people that the enemy they face is irrational and unrelentless and unmerciful isn’t a good way to end wars. You lose points in the court of public opinion, and it doesn’t put you in a good negotiating position either.

    But even beyond all that, you should never kill that which you can manipulate–unless you’ve lost so much belief in your cause that you’re no longer confident of being able to put the right spin on things to convince anyone else that you’re right.

    So we have further evidence that our enemy is mind-numbingly stupid. We have indication that their belief in themselves, or at least in their ability to escape from this alive, is wavering–instead of feeding information to journalists they’ve resorted to suppressing information by killing them. And we have indication of growing desperation. See above.

    This is no time for protesting. This is exactly the time to start squeezing harder. Much harder.

    I want to believe this. I mean I really, really want to believe…

    Incidentally, if Gator isn’t uninstalling for you, Ad-Aware seems to do a nice job of eradicating it.

    New toys. My 10,000 RPM Quantum/Maxtor Atlas 10K3 arrived yesterday. It takes the drive a while to initialize (upwards of 30 seconds) but once it gets rolling, it’s incredible. A completely unacceptable 37 seconds passes between the time Windows 2000’s “Starting Windows” screen appears and the time the login prompt appears. The thing’s amazing. Just to be obnoxious, I defragmented the drive while other things were running. They didn’t interfere with each other much–that’s the magic of SCSI command reordering.

    I installed MS Office 2000 just to see how that would run. Word launches from a dead stop in three seconds. Kill the Office Assistant and it loads in less than two.

    I know SCSI drives don’t benchmark much faster than high-end IDE drives, but the difference I see between a high-end SCSI drive like this one and a fast IDE drive is significant. Everything that ever has to touch the disk runs faster. This includes Web browsers pulling data out of the local cache.

    Users who don’t do much multitasking probably won’t see much difference, but for a multitasking freak like me–I’ve only got 8 windows open on this machine as I type this, and I’m wondering what’s wrong with me–it’s unbelievable. I haven’t been this overwhelmed since my days playing with an Amiga (which, come to think of it, had a SCSI drive in it).

    Witness the birth of a SCSI bigot.

    Next up for my dining room… A TV studio.

    I did it. I finally did it. I’ve been threatening for a long time to do it. I’ve finally, completely, totally gone off the deep end. And I like it.
    I just ordered an 18-gig, 10,000-RPM Maxtor (formerly Quantum) Atlas III hard drive. I ordered an Adaptec Ultra160 host adapter to go with it, since this drive would pretty much saturate my old Adaptec 2940UW. And of course since I’m spending this obnoxious amount of money on a drive–around $200, when a mainstream drive of this size would go for 50 bucks–I’m protecting the investment with a $25 drive cooler. The cooler also deadens the drive’s sound, which is good. I’m a bit nervous about having a 10,000-rpm helicopter in my dining room-turned-office. Hey, where else was I going to put my desk?

    I didn’t just get this drive so I could play Civ 3 or compile Linux kernels at blazing speed. I had another reason for this purchase. I also bought a Pinnacle DV500+ video capture/editing card. It’s not a cheap toy, but considering the capabilities it gives you, it’s a steal for the money. I could edit full-length movies with this thing. Well, I could with a capable hard drive. It needs a 25 MB/sec stream to spit out video, and, well, the fastest drive I have won’t do that. Ramdisks? Nice idea, but you can assume a minute of video will chew up a gig of disk, so I’d need 4 GB RAM for most of the projects I have in mind. None of my motherboards will take that much memory.

    So my Duron-750 is going to become a video editing workstation. I’ll have to buy or scrounge a bit more memory–Pinnacle recommends 256 MB; I might as well do them a little better and go 384–but then I’ll have the ability to edit video in my dining room. A Duron-750 isn’t much CPU by today’s standards, but Pinnacle lists a P3-500 as the minimum, and the reviews I’ve read do fine with a 500 or 550 MHz CPU. You can assume a Duron runs at a similar speed to a P3 or an Athlon that runs 100 MHz slower, so my Duron-750 should perform like a P3-650. If that proves inadequate, hey, a 1.1 GHz Duron runs $89 these days.

    The DV500+ is supposed to be a real bear to set up. We’ll see how it likes my FIC AZ11. I’ve made tricky hardware play before, so I’m not too afraid of this. Every review I’ve read complained about the setup, but once the reviewer got it running, each raved about its abilities.

    I can’t wait.