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Dude… I put a CD-RW drive in a Dell!

Dude… Putting an aftermarket CD-RW drive in a Dell is a bigger deal than it should be.
I tried to put a Plextor 40X CD-RW in the Dell workstation at church we use for video editing like a month ago, and it scarred me for life. I can put a CD-RW in a Micron in five minutes in my sleep with one hand tied behind my back. And it’ll work.

I can do the same thing in an IBM or any whitebox PC.

As for my sleeping habits, don’t put it past me. I’ve done stranger things. One night at my aunt and uncle’s house, I woke up standing in the corner. And one morning this summer I woke up in my hallway. I’d gone to the closet, gotten out clean sheets and a pillow, and made myself a nice bed there. For me, that’s harder than installing a CD-RW drive.

But that Dell drove me sane. I think it’s an Optiplex 530, but I’m not sure. I’d say Dells are all the same, but they’re not, which makes for even bigger adventure sometimes.

This week, I revisited the revolting thing. And I conquered. It now has a working, living, breathing CD-RW drive.

Anyway, the first thing I did was remove the factory CD-ROM drive and look at its jumper settings. It was set to Cable Select, not master, not slave. I think Dell’s the only manufacturer who does that. OK, fine. I set the Plextor to Cable Select, plugged it into the other IDE connector on the chain, fired it up, hit F2 to go into Setup (and mutterred about why they can’t use F1 or delete like normal people), set the secondary slave drive to Auto, and… Unknown device. I let the system boot. Secondary slave failure. Oh bippity boppity.

So I ripped out the Plextor, set the settings to master, and connected the cable up to the empty, unused, primary IDE controller. I fired it back up, hit F2, set secondary slave to none, set primary master to auto, and… Unknown device.

Double plus ungood, and they weren’t even nice enough to put ice cream on top. But whatever it was they did put on top smelled rank.

Then I got an idea, and it didn’t involve a roof, or a pond, heavy blunt objects, explosives, or even any obscene words.

I powered the machine down. I waited 10 seconds. Then I powered back up. I hit F2 to go into Setup, and, boom-shakalaka, there it was! Primary master: CD-ROM Reader! I cursored over to it and hit Enter. Indeed, it was a Plextor 40-something device!

Theoretically, I could have switched the drive back to cable select, put it on the other chain, done that power-down-and-back-up thang, and it would have worked. I decided to just hang on to that theory and let it remain a theory. I had something that worked and I wasn’t gonna mess with it any more. So I made it all look pretty, put the system back together, and installed Easy CD Creator. And it worked.


I know better

I went to polish up my video last night–it needed a soundtrack and some title screens, and a couple of scenes flickered so I needed to fix that–and I found a nice black Plextor 40X CD burner sitting on the Darth Vader-colored Dell workstation we use to edit tape.
I’ll bet you already know how this story ends.Read More »I know better

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.

    Priorities (Or: How to spend Valentine’s night on the couch)

    It’s that special time of year, when a man’s thoughts turn to…
    Computers. Or other gadgets. Just like they always do. Men don’t need a Hallmark holiday to think about what they really want.

    Steve DeLassus called me up the other night. He wanted to talk about tape drives and CD-RWs. He wanted to know if it was safe to buy an ATAPI CD-RW drive, or if he should buy SCSI. He knew about my terrible experiences with first-generation ATAPI CD-RWs. I burned as many coasters as I did successful discs, and in those days, a coaster was an expensive mistake.

    I told him where to get Plextor CD-RWs for next to nothing ( Steve checked yesterday morning, but they were out of them, as it turns out. So Steve looked at Hyper Microsystems and found some good prices on Plextor units. Not earth-shattering like the deal I saw at New Egg a couple of weeks ago, but good. We had initially talked about 12X units. But the 16X unit was $4 more, and the 24X unit was $20 more than that. “You can ride that train all the way up to the $179 40X burner,” I said.

    Steve hasn’t responded to that as I write this. Considering what I paid for my 2X burner in 1998, that $179 Plextor 40X unit is a steal.

    But there’s something else to consider: The overhead in burning a disc. It takes the computer a little time to figure out the disc layout, and that speed is dependent on the host computer (and the software it’s running), not the burner. It didn’t seem like much time in the days of 2X burners, but compared to the three minutes it takes to lay down a mountain of data on the disc with a modern burner, it’s started to look significant. Secondly, it takes some time to close a disc. I haven’t taken a stopwatch to it, but the 12X unit I use in one of my offices at work seems to take about the same amount of time to close a disc as the 2X unit I use in another office. The 12X unit doesn’t burn a disc 6 times as fast as the clunky 2X unit. And the 24X unit definitely won’t be twice as fast as a 12X.

    Since I don’t have all those burners and don’t have the time to make a scientific test, I went to to get some figures. Their testbed has changed over time–they keep it constant across drive generations, but the 12x unit was tested in a different system than the 40x unit, and they overclock. Storage Review’s methodology is much better. But the numbers are good enough to illustrate the point.

    Results of burning 651 MB of data, along with the cost of the drive:
    12x: 6:43 ($124)
    16x: 5:11 ($129)
    24x: 3:54 ($149)
    40x: 3:26 ($175)

    Even given the advantage of a faster computer and newer software, the 40x unit still can’t double the speed of the venerable 12x unit.

    Why the diminishing returns? Constant Angular Velocity. Very high-speed burners use the same technique as high-speed readers, so you don’t get a constant 40x. The 40x drive starts out at 20x and steps up to 40x as it reaches the outside of the disc. The average writing speed is closer to 30x. Obviously, the less data you burn, the less the 40x drive will help you.

    I also pointed out to Steve that there’s more to this than the hard dollar cost. It’s Valentine’s Day time, and there’s the wrath of the wife to deal with. There’s always a hidden cost involved, no matter what you’re buying, and sometimes it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what you’re buying.

    I could quote Proverbs 31:10 and say that a wife is a treasure and therefore you should always treat her as such, and therefore you should buy the $59 refurbished 8x drive for you, a $39 dozen roses for her, and–here’s the kicker–then spend $80 filling her car with flowers the week after Valentine’s Day, when your money buys three times as much. See? I’m a thinking man.

    Then again, you can go for bragging rights and find yourself singing along with Dave:

    That’s okay, hey hey hey, love songs bite anyway!

    (In which case, you’ll probably find yourself spending Valentine’s night on the couch. Or on the porch. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced this, but I don’t think it would be very pleasant to be stuck out on the porch wearing something skimpy in Missouri in February.)

    So, to recap, for those of you taking notes: Spending $179 on a 40x CD-RW drive for you and giving a home-made Valentine’s Day card to your wife will lead to very bad things.

    Burning a CD full of sappy love songs and then bragging about how it only took four minutes to burn (the 40x drive doesn’t burn audio at full speed) won’t make it any better. Sorry.

    But I seem to have gotten off the subject somehow.

    As far as tape drives go, I can tell you that Quantum DLT tape drives rock because that’s all we use at work. They’re built like tanks and last forever. The tapes are cheap and take a lot of punishment. They back up at a rate of about 5 MB/sec, which makes them faster than the hard drives of 10 years ago. And they work fabulously with Seagate Backup Exec, which severely reduces headaches when people want stuff restored. Considering they start at about $3995, they’d better have something going for them.

    Steve’s needs are a bit more modest. An 8-gig IDE Travan drive from the likes of Seagate is cheap. The tapes run about $30, but for the quantities of data Steve will be backing up (he and I both rely on CD-Rs for backups now) and the frequency at which he’ll be doing so, a drive and tapes designed for light duty ought to do fine. When it comes to tape drives, you can buy a cheap drive that uses expensive tapes, or an expensive drive that uses cheap tapes. A lesson most people have to learn quickly is that it’s much easier to get a cheaper drive past the glare of your wife or boss and then buy the more-costly media as you need them. Media’s an OK purchase. Hardware is bad.

    That’s why Zip drives have been so successful, and why Iomega is still in business.

    I think if Steve wants to spend Valentine’s night on the porch, he needs to buy a DLT drive, then take out a cash advance to make his first minimum payment.

    Then he can gloat about how much money he’s saving on tapes.

    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.

    More perspective on video editing

    I read Bill Machrone’s current PC Magazine column on PC non-linear video editing with a bit of bemusement. He talked about the difficulty he and his son have editing video on their PCs, and he concluded with the question: “How do normal people do this stuff?” and the misguided answer: “They buy a Mac.”
    You don’t have to do that. In fact, you can do pretty well on a PC if you just play by the same rules the Mac forces you to play by.

    Consider this for a minute: With the Mac, you have one motherboard manufacturer. Apple tends to revise its boards once a year, maybe twice. Apple makes, at most, four different boards: one for the G4 tower systems, one for the iMac, one for the iBook, and one for the PowerBook. Frequently different lines will share the same board–the first iMacs were just a PowerBook board in an all-in-one case.

    And the Mac (officially) supports two operating systems: the OS 9 series and the OS X series. You keep your OS at the current or next-most-recent level (always wait about a month before you download any OS update from Apple), and you keep your apps at current level, and you minimize compatibility problems. Notice I said minimize. PageMaker 7 has problems exporting PDF documents that I can’t track down yet, and I see from Adobe’s forums that I’m not the only one. So the Mac’s not always the bed of roses Machrone’s making it out to be.

    Now consider the PC market for a minute. You’ve got two major CPU architectures, plus also-ran VIA; 4-6 (depending on who you ask) major suppliers of chipsets; at least four big suppliers of video chipsets; and literally dozens of motherboard manufacturers. Oh, you want an operating system with that? For all the FUD of Linux fragmentation, Microsoft’s in no better shape: Even if you only consider currently available offerings, you’ve got Windows 98, ME, NT4, 2000, and two flavors of XP.

    So we go and we buy a video capture card and expect to put it in any old PC and expect it to work. Well, it probably ought to work, but let’s consider something. Assuming two CPU architectures, four chipset manufacturers, four video architectures, and twelve motherboard manufacturers, the chances of your PC being functionally identical to any other PC purchased right around the same time are 1 in 384. The comparable Mac odds: 1 in 4. But realistically, if you’re doing video editing, 1 in 1, because to do serious video work you need a desktop unit for its expandability. No Blue Dalmation browsing for you!

    So you can rest assured that if you have a Mac, your vendor tested the equipment with hardware functionally identical to yours. On a PC you just can’t make that assumption, even if you buy a big brand name like Dell.

    But you want the best of both worlds, don’t you? You want to play it safe and you want the economy of using inexpensive commodity PC hardware? It’s easy enough to do it. First things first, pick the video editing board you want. Next, visit the manufacturer’s Web site. Pinnacle has a list of motherboards and systems they’ve tested with the DV500, for instance. You can buy one of the Dell models they’ve tested. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer like me, you buy one of the motherboards they’ve tested. If you want to be really safe, buy the same video card, NIC, and SCSI card they tested as well, and plug them into the same slots Pinnacle did. Don’t worry about the drives Pinnacle used; buy the best-available SCSI drive you can afford, or better yet, two of them.

    Video capture cards are cranky. You want a configuration the manufacturer tested and figured out how to make work. Otherwise you get the pleasure. Or the un-pleasure, in some cases.

    As far as operating systems go, Windows 2000 is the safe choice. XP is too new, so you may not have drivers for everything. 98 and ME will work, but they’re not especially stable. If I can bluescreen Windows 2000 during long editing sessions, I don’t want to think about what I could do to 9x.

    And the editing software is a no-brainer. You use what comes with the card. The software that comes with the card should be a prime consideration in getting the card. Sure, maybe an $89 CompUSA special will do what you want. But it won’t come with Premiere 6, that’s for certain. If I were looking for an entry-level card, I’d probably get a Pinnacle DV200. It’s cheap, it’s backed by a company that’ll be around for a while, and it comes with a nice software bundle. If you want to work with a variety of video sources and output to plain old VHS as well as firewire-equipped camcorders, the DV500 is nice, and at $500, it won’t break the bank. In fact, when my church went to go buy some editing equipment, we grabbed a Dell workstation for a DV500, and we got a DV200 to use on another PC in the office. The DV200-equipped system will be fine for proof of concept and a fair bit of editing. The DV500 system will be the heavy lifter, and all the projects will go to that system for eventual output. I expect great things from that setup.

    The most difficult part of my last video editing project (which is almost wrapped up now; it’s good enough for use but I’m a perfectionist and we still have almost a week before it’ll be used) was getting the DV500’s video inputs and outputs working. It turned out my problem was a little checkbox in the Pinnacle control panel. I’d ticked the Test Video box to make sure the composite output worked, back when I first set the board up. Then I didn’t uncheck it. When I finally unchecked it, both the video inputs and outputs started working from inside Premiere. I outputted the project directly to VHS so it could be passed around, and then for grins, I put in an old tape and captured video directly from it. It worked. Flawlessly.

    One more cavaet: Spend some of the money you saved by not buying a Mac on memory. Lots of memory. I’m using 384 MB of RAM, which should be considered minimal. I caught myself going to Crucial’s Web site and pricing out three 512-meg DIMMs. Why three? My board only has three slots. Yes, I’d put two gigs of RAM in my video editing station if I could.

    OK, two more cavaets: Most people just throw any old CD-ROM drive into a computer and use it to rip audio. You’ll usually get away with that, but if you want high-quality samples off CD to mix into your video production, get a Plextor drive. Their readers are only available in SCSI and they aren’t cheap–a 40X drive will run you close to $100, whereas no-name 52X drives sometimes go for $20-$30–but you’ll get the best possible samples from it. I have my Plextor set to rip at whatever it determines the maximum reliable speed may be. On a badly scratched CD sometimes that turns out to be 1X. But the WAV files it captures are always pristine, even if my audio CD players won’t play the disc anymore.

    Bringing the Duron forward

    And my Duron is alive. Right now it’s an all-SCSI system, with a Plextor UltraPlex 40max and a 4.3 GB Seagate Medalist SCSI HD. It smokes. Any time I can turn on Show Window Contents While Dragging and play back full-motion video in Media Player while violently moving the window around the screen and the playback remains smooth, I’m impressed.
    The floppy drives don’t work right because I somehow managed to mangle the cable, but I’ll replace it. One of these days. I’ve got a few spare floppy cables hanging around somewhere.

    It’s running Windows 2000. I wanted a fast, reliable office suite, so I installed Office 95. Yes, five. It’s nice, stays out of my way, loads really fast, doesn’t crash much, and has some semblence of an idea of distinction between an OS and an application.

    I dual-booted it with Mandrake 7.2 (I haven’t downloaded 8 yet). It’s nice. It’s quick. I made this post from Konqueror under Mandrake 7.2.



    File Name;Resume; CS; Ad Blocking; 602 Suite; Scary; Plextor

    Three days down… The server was down while administrators removed dead sites, in hopes of increasing performance. Performance does seem better, but time will tell… Let’s get on to some serious business.

    More memory alphabet soup. JHR wrote in with a good question that I realized I haven’t answered: Can you use your existing plain, cheap old SDRAM on a new DDR-capable motherboard?

    The answer, unfortunately, is usually no. DDR comes on 184-pin modules. SDRAM usually comes on 168-pin modules. A few companies, like Fujitsu and Apacer, have talked about putting SDRAM on 184-pin modules. It’s been mostly talk. The price difference between DDR and SDRAM isn’t enough to justify it.

    There are a few boards, like the Asus A7A266 (reviewed at ), with both types of sockets for both types of memory. But the A7A266 isn’t the best performer out there, so you pay the price of convenience by buying speed instead. It’s a mediocre DDR performer and a terrible SDRAM performer.

    It’s a shame to throw away memory, but this isn’t the first time. As recently as 1997, 72-pin EDO memory cost less than SDRAM. The 72-pin SIMM replaced the 30-pin SIMM as the type of memory to have in 1994, though 30-pin-capable boards remained available for upgraders through 1996. Before 30-pin SIMMs, there were all sorts of weird memory technologies, like 30-pin SIPPs, and different types of individual chips, which generally were a huge pain.

    Usually when memory was replaced, adapters came out. There were SIMMs with sockets to plug old chips into. There were adapters to plug a SIPP into a SIMM socket. There were riser cards to allow you to plug 30-pin SIMMs into 72-pin slots. The problem was, they tended to hurt speed and stability, and in many cases they were nearly as expensive as new memory.

    History’s repeating itself. There are adapters to let you plug DIMMs into RIMM sockets, and 168-to-184 sockets, though they’re expensive and hurt speed and stability, especially in the case of those RIMM adapters. There’s no point in using them.

    I really should have been shouting louder that PC133’s time in the sun is over. The problem is, nobody knows for sure what will replace it. There’s DDR and Rambus, both of which perform really well in certain benchmarks, neither of which seem to make much difference in the real world yet. DDR’s pricing is very close to PC133, assuming you’re buying Crucial. Rambus is still priced way too high. I suspect DDR will win, but there’s no way to know.

    It’s a shame to throw out memory, but there usually isn’t much we can do about it. If it makes you feel any better, PCs using SDRAM should be useful for a number of years. I’ve still got two systems with 72-pin SIMMs in them doing useful work for me. One’s a Compaq 486 I bought back in 1994 that just finished a tour of duty as a DSL router; its next incarnation will be as a file/print server if I can find an ISA SCSI card to put in it. I’ll probably also have it automate some parts of my network, courtesy of cron. The other one is a Pentium-120, which has done time as a file server and also as a testbed.

    Anything new enough to have SDRAM is new enough to make a very useful Linux box, and it can also make a good Windows box, particularly if you scale it back to just do a handful of things very well. If I ever get around to retiring my K6-2/350, my sister would love to have it because it’d make a great word processing/web browsing/e-mail box–better than the Cyrix 233 she’s using right now, though she doesn’t complain much about that computer. That computer was built out of a bunch of stuff Tom Gatermann and I pulled out of our spare parts bins. And if I did make that switch for her, I know who’d get that Cyrix 233, and that person won’t be complaining either.

    The key to responsible upgrading, I think, is to buy stuff that you’ll be able to recycle whenever possible. A good SCSI card and hard drive, though expensive, will be good enough to be worth recycling when you make your next motherboard upgrade. The same goes for a good monitor, and unless you’re a 3D gaming freak, the same goes for a good video card as well. My STB Velocity 128 video card, even though it has an ancient nVidia Riva128 chipset in it, is still fast for the games I play and frankly, it’s overkill for business use. I’ve had that card for three and a half years. I expect I’ll still be using it in three years. Heck, my Diamond Stealth 3D card is still useful. It won’t do justice for my 19-inch display, but it’s fast enough for routine work and it’ll drive a 17-inch monitor at 1024×768 at refresh rates and color depths that won’t embarrass you. And that card’s five years old. It cost me $119 at a time when low-end cards cost $59, and it’s still better for most things than the $40 cards of today. The $25 cards of today will give you higher color depth and sometimes better refresh rates, but they’re not as fast. So that card saved me money. My STB Velocity 128 and my Diamond Viper 770 haven’t been recycled yet, but I’ll get at least three more years’ use out of both of those, even if I turn into a flight simulator fiend. The 770 would be decent for flight sims, and both of them are outstanding for what I do now.

    Everyone I know recycles good keyboards and mice, when they think to buy them.

    You’ll generally replace motherboards and CPUs on every upgrade cycle. Depending on how often you upgrade, you can expect to replace memory every other cycle.

    A lot of people are recommending you buy a motherboard capable of either type of memory, then buy cheap PC133 and upgrade later. But the performance difference isn’t great enough to justify that. If you think you’re going to want DDR, I recommend you just bite the bullet and get DDR. Crucial’s now selling 128 MB PC2100 DDR modules for under $65, so 256 MB of PC2100 costs slightly more than a mid-range video card.


    File Name;Resume; CS; Ad Blocking; 602 Suite; Scary; Plextor


    PC building sanity check. I’m getting really tired of reading hardware forums because I keep seeing the same awful advice over and over again. One of the fairly big vendors, I forget who, is offering 128-meg DIMMs from some outfit called Zeus Components for $25, and 256-meg DIMMs for $57. One person who bought this wrote in talking about how it was a no-name PCB with no-name chips on it (a sure bad sign if there ever was one) and how great it is.

    Reality check: Why would anyone spend good money on decent components, then cripple them by putting bottom-feeder memory on it? Stability will go down the toilet. Performance won’t be as good as it could be–memory performance is overrated, yes, but so is CPU performance and the same people who cry about how miniscule the gains from using quality memory are often the same ones who waste a weekend by trying to milk an extra 25 MHz out of their CPUs. Getting memory that runs at CAS2 instead of CAS3 makes about as much difference as that extra 25 MHz does, and it won’t burn out your system prematurely either.

    Let’s consider all of this, and use numbers to back them up. I just priced a Gigabyte 7ZX-1 motherboard with a 700 MHz Duron CPU. This is the slowest, cheapest Duron that’s still available everywhere. Price, including fan: 165 bucks. The motherboard is respected as a stable board, priced nicely, and includes Creative audio onboard. A decent Enlight midtower case that won’t slice you up and a 300W power supply is $62. A 32-meg Guillemot GeForce256 card–not state of the art, but for mid-range gaming and anything I do, it’s drastic overkill–is $80. So you’ve got a foundation for a system that was absolutely unbelievable just 18 months ago, for 300 bucks.

    Considering what you get for $300, I think you can afford to put something other than $25 128-meg DIMMs in them. Save those for some other sucker.

    The same vendor had 256-meg CAS2 PC133 Corsair DIMMs for $129. Corsair’s not my first choice and Crucial is offering free shipping right now. A Crucial 256-meg CAS2 PC133 DIMM is $96. The highly regarded Mushkin high-performance DIMMs (latency of 2 all around, so they’re great if your motherboard allows you to adjust all your memory timings but admittedly they’d be overkill on some of the boards I have) are $150.

    So we’re at $396 for an awfully nice PC that just lacks storage. CD, DVD, and floppy drives are pretty much commodity items these days. Buy Plextor, or buy whatever’s available at a decent price and doesn’t look like it cost $12 out of the back of a van parked at an abandoned gas station. That leaves hard drives.

    Now that memory costs next to nothing, a lot of people think real computers have to have 768 megs of RAM. Really, you get diminishing returns above 128 megs. Two years ago I was ridiculed for suggesting people should get 128 megs of RAM. Now people are routinely buying six times that amount. Trends. (sigh.) Since a 256-meg stick costs around 100 bucks, fine, get 256 so you can run any OS you want and run it fast. But really we need to be thinking about hard drive speed. Sure, a hard drive doesn’t do anything for Quake frame rates, but for everything else it does, and if you’re like me and actually use your computer, you’ll appreciate a fast disk really quickly.

    The IBM 75GXP is currently the fastest IDE drive on the market. At $135 for a 30-gig model, it makes absolutely no sense to buy anything else, period. If you need more storage than that, a 45-gig costs about $150, a 60-gig $215, and a 75-gig $275. The sweet spot seems to be 45 gigs.

    But if you’re going to run Linux or NT or Windows 2000 and you were ready to buy 768 megs of RAM anyway, why not look at SCSI? An Adaptec controller will run you $200, while a Tekram will start at around $100. You can get a nice 10,000 RPM drive from IBM, Quantum or Seagate for around $235. Now we’re talking a 9-gig drive here, but speed’s more stem out with a $33 LG Electronics CD-ROM and a $14 Panasonic floppy drive. The damage? $844. That’s without a keyboard, mouse, or monitor, but seeing as everyone likes different things there, I always leave those out of base pricing. And of course you still have to buy an OS.

    That’s an awful lot of computer for about $850. The components are high enough quality that they should be good for 4-5 years, and I suspect the system won’t be a slouch by then either. The specs will be laughable, but if someone sits down to use it, they’ll have difficulty believing it’s “only” a 700 MHz computer. And if you want to upgrade it down the line, it’ll continue to be worthy of your trouble for a long time to come.

    I think I found my new hangout. Well, in about five weeks it’ll be my new hangout. I was going to give up using Windows for Lent–not that I enjoy using Windows, but not using it would be a terrible inconvenience, and the purpose of Lent is to give up something that reminds you of what Jesus gave up. Since Windows is an everyday part of life, it would suffice–I could use a Mac at work, and just run Linux on my PCs at home. But since my job is partly fixing PCs that run Windows, or writing about Windows, I can’t very well do that. So instead I gave up meat. All meat. If it used to be an animal, it’s meat–no using seafood as a loophole.

    So, Penny’s BBQ, a little place I stumbled upon yesterday, won’t be my hangout until Lent’s over. I love BBQ–must be because I’m from Kansas City. My favorite R.E.M. song is “The One I Love,” which Michael Stipe wrote after his favorite BBQ joint burned down. Listen to the words really carefully sometime. He’s not talking about his prom date.

    I always get sidetracked when I’m talking about BBQ. Penny’s is about 10 minutes from home, depending on how obnoxious St. Louis traffic feels like being. It smelled good outside the place, which is always a good sign. It’s tough to find BBQ in St. Louis, let alone good BBQ. But Penny’s turns out to be comparable to the typical fare you find at every other stoplight in Kansas City, I’ll be a very happy camper. But that’s easier said than done. I’ve never really understood it, because there’s plenty of good BBQ in Chicago and in Kansas City and, frankly, throughout Missouri. If you’re ever driving through Missouri on I-70–my condolences if you are–in a tiny little town about an hour east of Kansas City named Concordia, there’s a BBQ joint called Biffle’s that’s nearly as good as the best places in KC, and it’s easier to get to and not as crowded. I plan my trips to KC so that I end up driving through Concordia around meal time.

    The downside to giving up meat is I can’t really write about it, beyond that. Had I given up Windows, chances are a lot of people would have wanted to read about how it was going and what I was finding. Oh well.

    Heh heh heh. Need a cheap computer for someone? How’s a Tekram Socket 370 microATX board with built-in audio and video sound? Promising? You bet, especially considering its $35 price tag here. Put it in an inexpensive microATX case, drop in a $50 Celeron-533 PPGA (this board only works with Celerons with the old Mendocino core, not a Coppermine) and a $50 Crucial 128-meg DIMM, add your favorite hard drive, and you can have a really nice system for $350 or so. Or if you’ve got parts laying around, you know the drill.