When to call it quits and get a new(er) computer

Mom’s computer is fading fast. I built it in 2002 or so, but I used stuff from her old computer, including the operating system, which dated to more like 1998.

I’m tired of fixing it. There was a time that I might have enjoyed it, but she needs something reliable, and I don’t have that kind of time anymore. Windows 98 was anything but rock solid when it was new, and this is a 10-year-old build. And do I know for certain that all the hardware is perfect?

It’s cheaper and easier to just start over.I didn’t find any earth-shattering deals at Compgeeks.com, although I did find some stuff that would have been usable. I wandered over to Craigslist and found the usual myriad of people selling their old home PCs. I decided to just do a search for something I knew would work. My wife and I have had a Compaq Evo 510 for about two months now and everything about it impresses me. So I went looking for another one.

I found one. It’s a 2 GHz P4 with 256 MB RAM (I quickly upgraded it to 512) and a CD burner. It even had a fresh install of Windows XP Pro on it, and a certificate of authenticity so it’s legal. I paid less for it than I charged the last time I had to fix someone’s computer. Actually, I paid less for it than a copy of XP Pro sells for. So it really was like getting the hardware for free.

XP isn’t perfect but it’s a lot more stable and reliable than Windows 98 ever was or will be. While this hardware isn’t new, it’s newer than what Mom has, and it’s built with quality components. It’s a business-class machine, and in my experience, business-grade hardware isn’t flashy but it’s very reliable. As long as you feed clean electricity into it, the only thing that’s likely to go wrong is a hard drive crash, and those can happen no matter what you buy.

There is a ton of former office equipment on the market now that’s perfectly usable, replaced only because corporate policy mandates that computers get replaced every three or four years. As long as the hard drive gets replaced, or at the very least reformatted and Windows is freshly reinstalled, these PCs will make very good home computers for a very long time.

They make terrible gaming rigs, although with a better video card you can do some light gaming with them (my Evo 510 runs Railroad Tycoon 3 and Baseball Mogul 2008 just fine).
For word processing, e-mail, and web browsing, they’re all you need.

I put a better video card in it anyway, to free up the memory that the onboard video was using. I put in a $10 Nvidia TNT2 card in it that came out of an old IBM. I got it off Craigslist too.

If anything, I’m more comfortable with Mom having something like this than I would be with her buying a new Compaq Presario or HP Pavilion because it’s made with better components.

If you have an aging Windows 98 computer, this is a good time to upgrade to something a little bit newer. You should be able to get a former business computer with a 2 GHz Pentium 4 running Windows XP for less than $200. It will be money well spent, in any case.

Mom will be happier because she’ll have a much faster and more reliable computer. I’ll be happier because if I play my cards right, I’ll never see Windows 98 again.

Fixing choppy audio in Windows XP SP2

So I’m sitting at this 2 GHz PC with 2 GB of RAM and a reasonably fast video card, and the audio in Railroad Tycoon 3 skips and sounds a little bit distorted.

It’s maddening when the game played fine on 400 MHz systems. I did some digging, and bad audio seems to be a common problem in XP SP2, but solutions are rare.I’ll cut to the chase: A little-known hotfix, KB920872, fixed the problem for me. This isn’t the specific problem this hotfix addresses, but since it does affect the audio subsystem, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

It worked for me when all of the conventional fixes didn’t, and I haven’t seen this hotfix mentioned anywhere. So if your new computer can’t play MP3s or stream online video or audio as well as a Pentium-166 running Windows 98, try the hotfix.

The usual advice is to update or reinstall your sound drivers, and if possible, to use drivers from the manufacturer of the computer or of the sound board, rather than drivers that Microsoft provides.

In my case, I already had the newest manufacturer-supplied drivers, so that didn’t help. Utilizing the newest drivers from the manufacturer is usually a very good idea anyway, of course.

Another piece of advice was to install Windows and all the service packs and hotfixes before installing drivers and software. That’s a good practice–and I like to use something like nlite to slipstream all of those updates so the system doesn’t accumulate too much cruft. But I didn’t want to rebuild this system, partly because the vendor didn’t provide an XP CD or installation files on the hard drive, only a certificate of authenticity. (Doesn’t it stink when you have to pirate software you already legally own?) So that wasn’t a very practical option in this case.

Another suggestion I’ve seen is to go into the control panel and either increase or decrease the sound acceleration. I don’t like this option; you always want to use whatever hardware acceleration you can. You paid extra for it, after all.

Using discrete hardware as opposed to built-in sound doesn’t make a difference. I was using onboard, but I found people using Creative’s highest-end cards experiencing the same problem, which must have been maddening.

Finally, I found some people saying they had the problem go away when they upgraded to Vista. I don’t like that option either, because I found just as many people saying their audio skips in Vista but worked fine under XP SP2.

And no, I don’t know how to fix skipping audio in Vista. I haven’t seen it yet and have no plans to mess with it. Maybe in five years. Maybe.

So now I just have to figure out how to get XP SP2 to get along with my Firewire card. It seems to be a common problem.

Upgrade diary: Compaq Evo D51S

Compaq Evo D51S
The Compaq Evo D51S is a well-built, small computer and it offers a few upgrade options

I upgraded a Compaq Evo D51S today. This was also sold under the name D510, and may have also been sold under the HP or Hewlett Packard brand. It was intended to be a low-profile, relatively affordable business computer.

Upgrading it poses some challenges, but there are some things you can do with it.This one has a 2.0 GHz Celeron in it. It will support a 2.4 GHz P4 without any issues (and a lot of them were sold with that chip), but I think that’s as high as you can go with the CPU.

The 2.0 GHz Celeron that came in this system will bog down with a heavy Photoshop filter and I’m sure some of the things I do in Adobe Premiere would bring it to its knees at times, but if your primary use of the machine is word processing, spreadsheets, web browsing and e-mail, it’s plenty fast. I would max out the system RAM before I replaced the CPU.

You can forget about motherboard replacements in this machine. Everything about the motherboard inside is odd, to get everything to fit in a smaller case. Compaq used to be criticized (sometimes unfairly) for using proprietary motherboards, but this one’s definitely proprietary.

Inside, you’re limited to two DIMM slots. I pulled the memory and replaced it with a pair of PC2100 DDR 1 GB DIMMs, which is the maximum the system supports. According to Crucial, PC3200 memory is compatible. Of course if you’re buying new memory, it makes sense to buy the faster stuff, in case you ever want to put the memory in another system.

In late 2010, 2 GB of PC3200 RAM sells for about $90. That’s close to the price of the computer itself, but more memory is probably the best thing you can buy for one of these machines, especially if it came with 256 MB of RAM.

The onboard video is the Intel 845G integrated video. It was better than I expected, but it steals system memory and, at least theoretically, it reduces memory bandwidth. The AGP slot is oriented vertically, so there’s only room for a low-profile card. That limits your choices somewhat. I had a low-profile ATI card with an early Radeon chipset on it. It’s not the most exciting card in the world, and may not even be better than the integrated Intel video, but it freed up some system memory for me. For what I want to do with this system, it will be fine. I’m not sure that Sid Meier’s Railroads! will run on it, but Railroad Tycoon 3 will, and from what I understand that’s the better game anyway.

There are a number of low-profile AGP video cards on the market that would be a suitable upgrade for this machine. None of them are cutting edge, but there are a few that are DirectX 9-capable, and prices range from $20 to $40. The built-in video is adequate, and while my first impression of it was that it didn’t bog the system down nearly as badly as the integrated video in the P3 days did, I’m still not a big fan of it. I think adding a discrete video card is a good move.

The stock Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 is a pretty good performer. At 40 GB it’s relatively small, and it won’t keep up with a brand-new drive, but for a lot of uses it’s plenty fast. From what I understand it will support hard drives larger than 137 GB but you may have to mess with IDE modes in the BIOS to make it happen. The trick appears to be to set the BIOS to use bit shift instead of LBA. Additionally, you have to be running Windows 2000 SP4 or XP SP2 to see the full capacity of the drive. I don’t have a large drive to put in it, so I haven’t tested that.

There’s no room for a second drive in there, so if you want additional storage beyond what’s already there, it will have to be external. Or you can jettison the floppy drive, but then you’ll have a goofy-looking hole in the front of the computer. That’s the price you pay for a low-profile system.

The CD-ROM drive in my particular unit was pretty balky. I’m going to replace it with a CD-R/RW drive for the short term, and eventually (probably early next year) put a DVD burner in it. I’m primarily interested in putting home movies on DVD. For backup and data transfer, I pretty much use USB flash drives exclusively now. They’re a lot faster and more convenient than messing around with CD/DVD burning software. Any drive with an old-school 40-pin IDE connector will work.

Speaking of USB, the USB ports all seem to be USB 2.0, which is nice (installing software off a USB 2.0-based flash drive makes you want to swear off optical media forever), but the ports on the front are recessed far enough that only a standard cable or a very low-profile flash drive can plug into them. My SD reader would only plug into the back, which is inconvenient.

The system has two full-size PCI slots for expansion. I put an IEEE 1394 (Firewire) card in one of the slots, since I want to do some light video work with it. The other slot will probably get an 802.11b wireless card. If I needed that PCI slot for something else, I could plug in a USB adapter for wireless networking.

I used to be in the habit of buying the biggest case I could afford or find (they weren’t always the same thing), so a really low-profile desktop like this Evo 510 feels a little strange. But a lot of things are different now. I could put a 1 TB hard drive in this system if I needed an obscene amount of storage. USB ports eliminate the need for Zip or Jaz or Syquest drives and even, to a large extent, for CD or DVD burners. If it weren’t for my interest in video, I wouldn’t bother with a burner in this machine at all. And since sound and networking are built in, there’s no need for a lot of expansion slots. It would be nice to have three PCI slots instead of just two, but I would imagine a lot of people never even fill two.

As it is, this computer fits on a small desk, and if you put an LCD monitor on top of it, the combination will take less real estate than a 17-inch CRT monitor does.

There are a lot of these machines on the market now, either coming off lease or being replaced due to business upgrade policy. They’re cheap ($75-$150 depending on configuration) and I think they make an excellent home PC. They’re cheap, unobtrusive, and surprisingly expandable.

A decked-out 510 probably won’t run Vista all that well, but a lot of new PCs don’t run it very well either. I think a 510 running Windows XP or Linux can be a very useful computer for a good number of years.

What to expect around here

I’m still not recovered, but I expect to be on my way. The doc put me on some prescription meds. Which reminds me: The mafia My health insurance company seems to have changed prescription providers YET AGAIN, and I missed my card in the mail. What is this, flavor-of-the-week?
It’s incredibly messed up when it’s easier to get your new license plates than it is to get a bottle of Amoxicillin.

So I’m torqued off right now.

As far as the recurring problems with spammy comments and trolls, I’m fed up with it. I appreciate the people like Dustin Cook and, yes, that arrogant French aristocrat, for telling the most recent one to shove off. But that’s not a permanent solution.

I’m looking at another piece of software that can be set to require commenters to be registered users–if you want to comment, you’ve got to give a username and password. I hate that. I really do. I don’t want people to have to go through the hassle. I don’t want people wondering what else will happen with their e-mail addresses, which I will require. (The answer is, nothing, because I hate spam more than I hate taxes, but the general public doesn’t know that.) Unfortunately, it seems to be the only way to reduce the trolls and stop the spam.

As far as Railroad Tycoon 3, due to my recent sickness I’ve only been able to play two short games. It’s not a radical departure from Railtycoon 2. The economics are a bit different (and far more realistic) and the graphics are a whole lot better, and overall the game is a lot more realistic now. I can safely say I recommend it. They set the requirements at 400 MHz, 128 MB of RAM, and a 16-meg AGP video card. I played on a 366 with 128 megs and a 16-meg Radeon 7000 video card. It was acceptable. You could probably get by with a 300 MHz machine with the same memory and video card, but there’ll be times when you’ll want more horsepower. 500-600 MHz would definitely be more comfortable.

WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux