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Beware the “flat screen” scam

I was just pricing out some parts for the pending Compaq Presario upgrade when I remembered the latest scam–well, it’s not technically a scam, but it’s definitely deceptive advertising. Many stores offer a bundle with a low-end PC and a 17-inch “flat screen” for an unbelievable deal, like $499. Chances are, if you read this site, some relative of yours is going to be asking about that, if they haven’t started asking already. And I’m pretty sure you know that right now $399 is a pretty good deal for a 17-inch LCD flat panel alone.
Needless to say, that 17-inch “flat screen” isn’t an LCD. It’s a CRT. Sometimes they even use camera tricks in the picture to try to make the CRT look like an LCD.

In all truthfulness, that 17-inch monitor being advertised as a bargain flat screen probably does have a flatter screen than whatever your relative is using right now. And CRTs continue to improve steadily. But it’s still a CRT, and it’s probably not what your relative is looking for.

Tell your relatives to read the fine print and look for an LCD. And tell them to keep in mind nobody’s giving away LCDs right now, because LCDs are one of the very few things in the computer field that have held steady demand for the past couple of years. At least one consumer electronics chain used a 14-inch Mag Innovision LCD as a Black Friday special, pricing it at $99 after rebates the day after Thanksgiving. I expect that deal will reappear once or twice in the coming year, but a 14-inch LCD gives the same screen real estate as a 15-inch CRT. It’d be great for a second computer–I’ll eventually buy one to keep in my study, where a small and quiet computer is ideal–but it’s probably not what LCD bargain hunters are looking for either.

Oh, and speaking of the Presario, if you’re looking for a replacement power supply for it on the cheap either for a motherboard upgrade or because one has failed, the product you want is the Foxconn Allied ATX200SFX, priced at $19 at Newegg.com. It’ll also fit an eMachine and the small-form Gateway and HP PCs. The trick to recognizing an SFX power supply is to look at how it’s bolted into the chasis. If it’s held in by three screws, with two on one side and a third on the other side towards the middle, it’s probably an SFX form factor. A lot of smaller ATX power supplies use four screws. So ask your vendor lots of questions, and buy as much wattage as you can get in whatever size you’re stuck with.

02/20/2001

Windows Me Too? I’ve read the allegations that Microsoft aped Mac OS X with the upcoming Windows XP. Maybe I’m dense, but I don’t see much resemblance beyond the resemblance between two cars made by different manufacturers. The Start menu has a new neon look, which is probably Apple-inspired to some degree. The Windows taskbar has had Dock-like functionality for several years now–it was added with IE4. The biggest change seems to be the Start menu–they’ve taken the Windows 2000 initiative, where only commonly used stuff is shown, to an extreme, and now the Start menu, at least in some screenshots, looks bigger. I don’t know if it really is or not–I saw another 1024×768 screenshot in which the Start menu actually takes a little less real estate than my current box at the same resolution. And they’ve re-drawn some icons.

As a whole there’s a more textured look now, but some of the Unixish Window managers have been doing that stuff since 1997. The login screen bears a definite resemblance to some of the Unixish login screens I’ve seen of late.

Microsoft is claiming this is the most significant user interface change since Windows 95. That’s true, but it’s not the big step that Windows 95 was from Windows 3.x. It’s an evolutionary step, and one that should have been expected, given that the Windows 9x Explorer interface is now older than the Program Manager interface was when it was replaced. Had 24-bit displays been common in 1995, Microsoft probably would have gone with a textured look then–they’ve always liked such superficialities.

Stress tests. New hardware, or suspect hardware, should always be stress-tested to make sure it’s up to snuff. Methods are difficult to find, however, especially under Windows. Running a benchmark repeatedly can be a good way to test a system–overclockers frequently complain that their newly overclocked systems can’t finish benchmark suites–but is it enough? And when the system can’t finish, the problem can be an OS or driver issue as well.

Stress testing with Linux would seem to be a good solution. Linux is pretty demanding anyway; run it hard and it’ll generally expose a system’s weaknesses. So I did some looking around. I found a stress test employed by VA-Linux at http://sourceforge.net/projects/va-ctcs/ that looked OK. And I found another approach at http://www.eskimo.com/~pygmy/stress.txt that just speaks of experience stress testing by repeatedly compiling the Linux kernel, which gives the entire system (except for the video card) a really good workout.

And the unbelievable… Someone at work mentioned an online President’s Day poll, asking who was the best president? Several obvious candidates are up on Mt. Rushmore: Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt. Most people would add FDR and possibly Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson to that list. I was talking with a good friend the other day about just this issue, and I argued in favor of Lincoln. Washington had a tough job of setting a standard, and he was great, but Lincoln had an even tougher job of holding a bitterly divided country together. So if I had to rank them, I’d probably say Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and then we have a mess. I don’t agree with their politics, but FDR and Woodrow Wilson probably belong in there. James Madison and James Monroe belong in there, the question is where. Then it starts to get really tough. Was Harry Truman in those guys’ league? Not really, but he’s worlds better than Warren G. Harding and Bill Clinton. Fine, pencil him in at 9. Now who gets #10? Some would give it to Ronald Reagan. It seems to me that Reagan is at once overappreciated and underappreciated. A lot of people put him at the very bottom, which I think is unfair. But then there was this poll  that put him at the very top, by a very wide margin. When I looked, Reagan had 44% of the vote, followed by George Washington at 29% and Abraham Lincoln a distant third at 14%.

When I speak of the hard right in the media, that’s what I’m referring to: blind allegiance to an icon, however flawed. Don’t get me wrong, Reagan was no Warren G. Harding–he did win the Cold War after all. Conservatives say his economic policies saved the country, while liberals say it very nearly wrecked it. All I can tell you is my college economics professor taught that Reagan at the very least had the right idea–the big problem with the theory behind Reagan’s policies is the impossibility of knowing whether you’d gone too far or not far enough. Fine. FDR played a similar game. Both are revered by their parties and hated by the other party. But as president, neither Ronald Reagan nor FDR are in the Washington and Lincoln league. As a man, FDR probably was in that league, and if he was not the last, he was very close to it. But with the truly great presidents, there is very little doubt about them–and in the cases of Lincoln and Jefferson, their greatest critics were the voices inside their own heads.

Great people just don’t run for president anymore, and they rarely run for political office, period. It’s easy to see why. Anyone truly qualified to be President of the United States is also qualified to be en executive at a large multinational corporation, and that’s a far more profitable and less frustrating job. And the truly great generally aren’t willing to compromise as much as a politician must in order to get the job.

Early on, we had no shortage whatsoever of great minds in politics: Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe certainly. Plus men who never were president, like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. We had, in effect, from Washington to Monroe, a string of men who met Socrates’ qualifications to be Philosopher-King. (Yes, John Adams was single-term, but he was a cut above most of those who were to follow.)

But as our country developed, so many better things for a great mind to do sprung up. Today you can be an executive at a large company, or you can be a researcher, or a pundit, or the president of a large and prestigious university. In 1789, there weren’t as many things to aspire to.

If we’ve got any Benjamin Franklins and Thomas Jeffersons and George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns out there today (and I believe we do), they’ve got better things to do than waste time in Washington, D.C.

No, our greatest president wasn’t Ronald Reagan, just as it wasn’t Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy. That’s nostalgia talking.

02/11/2001

Mailbag:

Innovation

Steve DeLassus asked me for some ideas of where I see innovation, since I said Microsoft isn’t it. That’s a tough question. On the end-user side, it’s definitely not Microsoft. They’ve refined some old ideas, but most of their idea of Innovation is taking utilities that were once separate products from companies Microsoft wants to drive out of business, then grafting them onto the OS in such a way as to make them appear integrated. What purpose does making the Explorer interface look like a Web browser serve? Doesn’t everyone who’s used a real file manager (e.g. Norton Commander or Directory Opus) agree that the consumer would have been better served by replicating something along those lines? Not that that’s particularly innovative either, but at least it’s improving. The only innovation Microsoft does outside of the software development arena (and that makes sense; Microsoft is first and foremost a languages company and always has been) seems to be to try to find ways to drive other companies out of business or to extract more money out of their customers.

Richard Stallman’s GNU movement has very rarely been innovative; it’s been all about cloning software they like and making their versions free all along. It’s probably fair to call Emacs innovative; it was a text editor with a built-in programming environment long before MS Word had that capability. But I don’t see a whole lot of innovation coming out of the Open Source arena–they’re just trying to do the same thing cheaper, and in some cases, shorter and faster, than everyone else.

So, where is there innovation? I was thinking there was more innovation on the hardware side of things, but then I realized that a lot of those “innovations” are just refinements that most people think should have been there in the first place–drives capable of writing to both DVD-R and CD-R media, for instance. Hardware acceleration of sound and network cards is another. Amiga had hardware acceleration of its sound in 1985, so it’s hard to call that innovation. It’s an obvious idea.

A lot of people think Apple and Microsoft are being really innovative with their optical mice, but optical mice were around for years and years before either of those companies “invented” them. The optical mice of 2000 are much better than the optical mice of 1991–no longer requiring a gridded mouse pad and providing smoother movement–but remember, in 1991, the mainstream CPUs were the Intel 80286 and the 80386sx. That’s a far, far cry from the Thunderbird-core AMD Athlon. You would expect a certain degree of improvement.

I’d say the PalmPilot is innovative, but all they really did was take a failed product, Apple’s Newton, and figure out what went wrong and make it better. So I guess you could say Apple innovated there, but that was a long time ago.

So I guess the only big innovation I’ve seen recently from the end-user side of things has been in the software arena after all. I’m still not sold on Ray Ozzie’s Groove, but have to admit it’s much more forward-thinking than most of the things I’ve seen. Sure, it looks like he’s aping Napster, but he started working on Groove in 1997, long before Napster. Napster’s just file sharing, which has been going on since the 1960s at least, but in a new way. There again, I’m not sure that it’s quite right to call it true innovation, but I think it’s more innovative than most of the things I’ve seen come out of Microsoft and Apple, who are mostly content to just copy each other and SGI and Amiga and Xerox. If they’re going to steal, they should at least steal the best ideas SGI and Amiga had. Amiga hid its menu bars to save screen space. Maybe that shouldn’t be the default behavior, but it would be nice to make that an option. SGI went one further, making the pull-down menus accessible anywhere onscreen by right-clicking. This isn’t the same as the context menu–the program’s main menu came up this way. This saved real estate and mouse movements.

I’m sure I could think of some others but I’m out of time this morning. I’d like to hear what some other people think is innovative. And yes, I’m going to try to catch up on e-mail, either this afternoon or this evening. I’ve got a pretty big backlog now.

Mailbag:

Innovation