Maybe this is the sales tactic computer stores use these days

So, Dr. A’s computer is going to get the full Farquhar treatment. I told him I’m pretty confident I can get it running better than it ever has.

He said one of the salesmen told him it’s overdue for a crash, because it’s a Dell.

I really don’t like that kind of a generalization. I told him yes, all other things being equal, I think HP has better engineers than Dell. But would I discard an old machine just because it’s a Dell? Well, I ran this web site on an old Dell computer from about 2003 until October 2010. Actions speak louder than words. But there are a lot more problems with that argument. So I think it’s a sales tactic. I think if he’d come in and said he had an HP and he thinks it’s due, the salesman would have said, “Oh, it’s overdue for a crash because it’s an HP. Here, let me show you this Dell….”

Here’s why.

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Android modding gets just a little more mainstream

Infoworld published a piece on using Cyanogenmod to upgrade an orphan Android phone, the Motorola Cliq XT, beyond the officially supported Android 1.4.

It’s not a detailed how-to and has a lot of generalities, and someone wanting to do the same thing will still have to do a lot of Google searching, but we’re talking a short-ish (I’m guessing 1,500 words or less) Infoworld piece here. It’s a magazine that’s always been more about trends than details.
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Run DD-WRT on an old PC

DD-WRT is an extremely popular firmware upgrade for wireless routers, and for good reason. It’s extremely powerful, and allows you to use a cheap wireless router to perform the function of costlier hardware.

A commercial wireless router takes up a lot less space and consumes a lot less power than a PC, but sometimes you might find yourself needing a router for a short period of time. You could go spend $50 on a router, but if you have an obsolete PC and a pile of NICs laying around, why not just press that pile of junk into duty to get the job done and save 50 bucks?

That’s what DD-WRT x86 lets you do.
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How CPU multipliers came to be locked

It was 1996. I was a senior in college, and I went to the computer store in the student commons to get a cable or something. I ran into an old classmate working in the store, who went on to work as an engineer for Boeing. We talked for a few minutes, and he told me about a web site that I just had to visit. I still remember the URL for some reason. He grabbed a piece of paper and scrawled “http://sysdoc.pair.com” on it.

It was my introduction to the world of PC hardware enthusiast sites. That mysterious URL was the early address of Tom’s Hardware Guide. The front page mostly consisted of links to articles telling you how to overclock Pentium CPUs using undocumented jumper settings on Asus motherboards, and the ads were largely mail-order houses offering specials on Asus motherboards and low-end Pentium CPUs.
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Weekly roundup: 6 Oct 2010

I used to do a weekly roundup every so often, just doing short takes on stuff that interested me as I found it. I haven’t done that in years; I thought I’d give it a whirl again. I don’t know how often I’ll do it, but it was fun.

Ars Technica says Intel’s neutral stance on Atom in servers is a mistake. Absolutely. A dual-core Atom gives plenty of power for infrastructure servers like Active Directory DCs, print servers, and other similar roles. Atoms could even handle many web server tasks.

Xeons are appropriate for database servers and application servers, but throwing them at everything is severe overkill. A lot of server tasks are more disk-bound or network-bound than CPU-bound.

I worked in a datacenter facility for several years that was literally at half capacity, physically. But they didn’t have enough power or cooling capacity to add much more to it.

The only way anything can be added there is to take something away first. Right-sizing servers is the only way to fix that. If they would yank a Xeon, they’d be able to replace it with several Atom-based servers and get a net gain in functionality per square foot and BTU.

Virtualization, a la VMWare, is an option, but one isn’t necessarily a drop-in replacement for the other.

Or, of course, Intel can sit back and wait for ARM to come in and save the day. ARM provides even more functionality per watt. And even though ARM doesn’t run Windows, it does run Linux, and Samba has reached the point where it can stand in for an Active Directory domain controller.

Is there a market out there for a domain controller that fits in a package the size of a CD/DVD drive and consumes less than 20 watts? I’m sure there is. And if Intel doesn’t want to deliver it, ARM and its partners can.

There may be some resistance to ARM, since some decision makers are nervous of things they haven’t heard of, but it should be possible to overcome that. Maybe you haven’t heard of ARM, but guess what? Do you have a smartphone? It has an ARM CPU in it. That PDA you carried before you had a smartphone? It had an ARM CPU in it. It’s entirely possible that your consumer-grade network switch at home has one in it too. Not your router, though. That’s probably MIPS-based. (MIPS is another one of those scary RISC CPU architectures.)

Put a solid operating system on an ARM CPU, and it can run with anything. I have ARM devices that only reboot when the power goes out. If it weren’t for tornado and thunderstorm season causing the power to hiccup, those devices could run for years without a reboot or power-down.

And speaking of ARM, I have seen the future.

Pogoplug is an ARM-based appliance for sharing files. You plug it in, plug USB drives into it, and share files on your home network and the Internet with it. At least, that’s how it’s marketed. But you can hack it into a general purpose Linux box.

Inside, there’s a 1.2 GHz ARM CPU, 256 MB of RAM, and another 256MB of flash memory. Not a supercomputer, but that’s enough power to be useful. And it’s tiny, silent, and sips power. You can plug it in, stash it somewhere, and it’ll never remind you that it’s there.
I’ve actually considered picking up a Pogoplug or two (they go on sale for $45 occasionally, and the slightly less powerful Seagate Dockstar is available for about $30 when you can find them) to run this web site on. Considering how surprisingly well WordPress runs on a 450 MHz Pentium II with 128 MB of RAM (don’t ask me how I know), I think a Pogoplug could handle the workload.

What stops me? I can build an Atom-based PC for less than $150, depending on what I put in it, and run Turnkey Linux on it. Under a worst-case scenario, Turnkey Linux installs in 15 minutes, and it doesn’t take me any longer than that to drop a motherboard and hard drive into a case. So I can knock together an Atom-based webserver in 30 minutes, which is a lot less time than it would take me to get the LAMP stack running on an ARM system.

But if I had more time than money, I’d be all over this.

A device similar to this with an operating LAMP stack on it ready to go is probably too much to ask for. A ready-to-go image running the LAMP stack, similar in form to the DD-WRT or Tomato packages that people use to soup up their routers, might not be. I think it’s a good idea but it isn’t something I have time to head up.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned Turnkey Linux before. I’ve played with it a little, and I’m dead serious that it installs in 15 minutes or less. Installing off a USB flash drive, it might very well install in five.

And it’ll run pretty happily on any PC manufactured this century. More recent is better, of course, but the base requirements are so modest they aren’t worth mentioning.

I’ve built dozens of Linux servers, but this is fantastic. Spend a few minutes downloading an image, copying it onto installation media, and chances are the installation process will take less time than all of that does.

It’s based on Ubuntu LTS, and comes in literally 38 flavors, with more to come after the next refresh is done.

They haven’t built their collection based on the current version of Ubuntu LTS yet because they’ve been distracted with building a backup service. But that’s OK. Ubuntu 8.04.3 still has a little life left in it, and you can either do a distribution upgrade after the initial install, or build a new appliance when the new version comes out and move the data over.

And if Ubuntu isn’t your thing, or you really want 10.04 and you want it now, or worse yet, Linux isn’t your thing, there’s always Bitnami (bitnami.org).

Linux appliances took a little while to get here, but they’re here now, and they work.

First impressions: HP Mini 110

I spent a few hours last night with an HP Mini 110 1012NR. It’s a model with a 16 GB solid state drive (no spinning mechanical hard drive) and Windows XP.

My biggest beef is the keyboard. It’s undersized, and I can’t touch type on it. Try it out before you buy one.

The rest of the system isn’t bad, but there are some things you’ll want to do with it.The system acted weird until I removed Norton Antivirus 2009. By weird, I’m talking not staying on the network, filesystem errors, chkdsk running on reboot, and enough other goofiness that I was ready to take the thing back as defective. The system stabilized as soon as I removed Norton Antivirus, and stayed stable after I installed ESET NOD32.

The system also ran a lot faster.

Don’t believe the hype about Norton Antivirus 2009. Use ESET NOD32. This is the second HP laptop in a month that’s given me Norton Antivirus-related problems.

McAfee is better, but only sufficiently better to use if your ISP is giving it to you for free. I still think NOD32 is worth the $40 it costs. The Atom CPU in the Mini 110 feels like a Pentium 4 with NOD32 installed. It feels like a Pentium II or 3 with something else installed.

The SSD isn’t a barn burner. I have OCZ Vertex drives in my other PCs, and this one doesn’t measure up the Vertex. Reads are pretty quick, but writes can be a bit slow. Windows boots in about 30 seconds. Firefox loads in about five. Word and Excel 2000 load in about a second.

So it’s not bad. But an OCZ Vertex would be a nice upgrade. Drop it in, use it for the OS and applications, and use the stock 16 GB drive for data.

A memory upgrade would also be worthwhile. With the stock 1 GB, it’s hitting the pagefile to the tune of 400 MB.

Unfortunately, to really make the computer sing, you’re looking at spending $200 in upgrades ($40 for NOD32, $40 for 2 GB of RAM, and $120 for an OCZ Vertex). Spread it out over the life of the machine and it wouldn’t be so bad though. And you’ll be paying $40 a year for antivirus no matter what you use.

The build quality is typical HP. I have lots of aged HP and Compaq equipment that’s still going strong. I don’t get rid of HP stuff because it breaks, I get rid of it because it’s so hopelessly obsolete as to be useless. I hesitate to buy from anyone else, except Asus. And Asus, of course, is HP’s main motherboard supplier.

If you can get used to the keyboard, I think the Mini 110 is a good machine. It weighs 2 pounds and is scarcely larger than a standard hardcover book, so it fits almost anywhere. And having an SSD, there isn’t much that can fail. The battery will eventually fail, and probably the AC adapter will too, but I think other than that, one of these computers could last 20 years, assuming it would still be useful for anything then.

Cheap upgrades

Yesterday, during my weekly garage sale adventures, I bought some computer equipment. Among the haul: a Biostar Socket A motherboard with an AMD Sempron 2200+ CPU and 512MB of RAM. It’s not state of the art, but can hold its own against some of the stuff still on the market, and it’s a big upgrade over the 450 MHz Pentium II that’s been powering this web site since July 2002.I swapped the board into my 266 MHz Pentium II. That first-generation P2 was a useful machine for me for a while, but mostly it’s just been taking up space. I had to do some slight modifications to get the newer board to bolt in, but it fit without too much trouble and now some of the 11-year-old hardware is useful again. It reminded me a lot of my college days, when I used to drop 486 and Pentium boards into IBM PC/ATs.

Debian installed on the upgraded system with no complaints, but I quickly found my Linux command line skills are rusty. And there have been enough changes in the last six years that I can’t just copy over /var/www and /var/lib/mysql and expect it to run like it used to.

So I’ll apply my 15 minutes per day principle. My chances of finding a block of 2-3 hours to get it all done are near zero, but I should be able to find a few minutes each day. So one day I can move the databases, then I can move the HTML and PHP another day, convert to WordPress still another day, and maybe, just maybe, have a vastly improved site in about a week if it all goes well.

DOS nostalgia?

I’ve been getting nostalgic for DOS lately. Well, certain DOS games *cough* Railroad Tycoon *cough*.

One of my coworkers’ wives is nostalgic for ’80s boy bands whose name I refuse to mention, so there certainly are worse things for me to be nostalgic about. Sure, DOS is terrible, but not that terrible.I’m using an old 128MB compact flash card in a cheap CF-IDE adapter. While 128 megs isn’t a lot, it’s adequate if you’re not going to have Windows and Windows apps loaded. After all, you can get all the DOS you’ll ever need for game playing in less than 1.5 megs. Even still, I’ll probably pick up a bigger card the next time I order stuff from Newegg. A 4 gig card is cheap, and to DOS, 4 gigs is huge.

DOS boots to a C prompt in about five seconds off the CF card, and a good chunk of that is the CD-ROM driver scanning the IDE channels for drives. The system takes a lot longer to POST than it does to boot.

The system itself is an old Micron Pentium II-266. Severe overkill, but I hear Railroad Tycoon Deluxe really wants a fast CPU. Plus, my 486 is missing in action right now anyway.

Now that I have the system running, I need to hunt down drivers for the system’s Sound Blaster card. Then I’ll get Railroad Tycoon Deluxe loaded, and then all I’ll have to do is find a little time to play it. That last step will probably be the hardest part.

If the games I want to play don’t like the P2 (unlikely but possible), I’ll just dig out a Pentium 75 or a 486 from somewhere. That won’t be a huge setback, since I’ll have everything I need gathered up to build the system at that point.

Run the right version of Windows for your PC

I said I was done writing about system optimization. I changed my mind. I have one more thing, and it seems appropriate, now that Vista upgrades are available.

Be very wary about upgrading your version of Windows.There are a few Vista-only titles out there, and there will be some more, but the majority of titles aren’t. Walk into a software aisle and you’ll still find a lot of software that will run on Windows 95 (or possibly 98), assuming the computer meets the hardware requirements.

I’m typing this on an 800 MHz HP Pavilion 6835. Sure, it’s outmoded–for around $125, I could swap in an Athlon 64 motherboard that would give me 4-5x the CPU power and that would be considered a low-end PC by today’s standards–but this one’s peppy. I run Windows ME on it. Windows 2000 would be more stable but I’m lazy. I wouldn’t try XP on it. When XP came out, this system was already old.

Technically, XP will install on a 133 MHz Pentium if it has enough RAM. I’ve seen it done, and I’ve seen it try to run on one. It’s not pretty. I really wouldn’t try running XP on anything less than a 1 GHz PC with 256 megs of RAM, because that was the standard PC at the time of XP’s release. But believe it or not, if you install Windows 95 and Office 95 on that Pentium-133, it’s a reasonably nice machine–because that was a high-end box in 1995 when Windows 95 and Office 95 came out.

So when you’re refurbishing an old machine, try to install whatever the current version of Windows was when it was new. The PC will run a lot better. Here’s a guide.

Windows 95: Released August 1995
Typical PC of the time: 486, 66 MHz
Hot PC of the time: Pentium, 133 MHz

Windows NT 4.0: Released July 1996
Typical PC of the time: Pentium, 75 MHz
Hot PC of the time: Pentium Pro, 200 MHz

Windows 98: Released June 1998
Typical PC of the time: Pentium, 233 MHz
Hot PC of the time: Pentium II, 333 MHz

Windows 2000: Released February 2000
Typical PC of the time: Pentium III or Athlon, 600 MHz
Hot PC of the time: Pentium III or Athlon, 1 GHz

Windows XP: Released October 2001
Typical PC of the time: Pentium 4, 1.5 GHz
Hot PC of the time: Pentium 4 or Athlon, 2+ GHz

Windows Vista: Released January 2007
From what I understand, even a hot PC of 2007 has difficulty running it. I haven’t seen Vista yet; my employer is still running XP for everything.

Of course, if you install as much memory as the system will take, you can push your limits, since Windows is often more memory-bound than CPU-bound. I also try to replace the hard drive with the fastest model I can budget for. Don’t worry if the drive has a faster DMA rate than the controller on the board; you’ll still benefit from the faster seek times and better throughput of a newer drive. If the new drive saturates the bus, it could be worse–I guarantee the old one didn’t.

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