First impressions of a low-tier tablet, plus why I don’t shop at Best Buy

I received my Nook Color this week. I haven’t hacked it yet–I only just got an SDHC card for that, which is a story in itself–but to my pleasant surprise, I’m not certain everyone would need to. Yes, it’s marketed as an e-reader, but what I took out of the box is a viable entry-level tablet. It certainly wants you to read books on it, but aside from the e-reader, it also has a music player and a web browser. Out of the box, it does the basic things people buy tablets for.

I’ll hack mine, because supposedly it’s easy and virtually nothing can go wrong, and I like having maximum control over my devices. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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PC Magazine’s sub-$200 PC

PC Magazine has reprised its sub-$200 PC. I think it’s a good guide, and a savvy shopper can potentially do a little bit better with some care and some luck. At that price, it’s running Linux, but it also serves as a good guide for upgraders looking to upgrade an existing PC inexpensively. If you have a case and hard drive you can reuse, you can either buy better parts, or just pocket the savings.

Here’s my take on their selections.

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Thrift-store PCs

In the comments of a recent post I did, reader Glaurung Quena brought up a good topic: secondhand PCs, acquired cheaply, strictly as rebuild fodder.

I like the idea, of course, because I’ve been doing it for years. In the 1990s I built a lot of 486s and Pentiums into former IBM PC/ATs, basically until all the board makers relocated the memory slots into a position that wasn’t clear on the original PC/AT due to a beam that supported its drive bays. And of course the adoption of ATX and MicroATX killed that, at least for a while.

But now ATX has been around as long as the old AT architecture had been when ATX came along, and efforts to replace ATX haven’t been successful. So that trick makes more sense again. Buy a secondhand machine cheaply, intending to re-use the case, and regard anything else inside that happens to be reusable strictly as a bonus. Read more

Tribute to the Asus SP97-V

In need of an obsolete but reliable PC for a project, I searched a dark corner of my basement, a last stop for castoff PCs before being sent off for recycling. I found one. Predictably, it had an Asus motherboard in it. Specifically, it had an Asus SP97-V in it, a budget Socket 7 board from the late 1990s sporting a SiS chipset with integrated video that worked well with Cyrix and AMD CPUs.

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Letting go

I took a monitor to Best Buy today. They offer free recycling of most consumer electronics, with a $10 charge for things like monitors and TVs. In exchange, they give you a $10 gift card. So in essence, they’ll take a monitor or TV for free if you buy something.It seems like a lot of computer enthusiasts have a large collection of computer dinosaurs. Friends and relatives give us their cast-off parts in exchange for doing upgrades for them, and we put those parts to use for a while, and give some away, but ultimately an awful lot of them just pile up in storage–too good to throw away, but not good enough that we want to use it on a daily basis anymore.

In this case, it was a 15-inch monitor that had lost its red gun. Unlike a lot of stuff in the pile, I never intended to use it again except in case of emergency. I just didn’t throw it in the trash because you’re not supposed to do that.

I have more stuff, but since you’re technically limited to turning in two items per day, it’ll take a few trips. Somewhere I have a box of old motherboards taking up space. Those will have to go. Ten years ago, I could argue that a Pentium-75 was still useful to me. Not today. If I find myself in desperate need of a low-end motherboard, I can rest assured I can find something capable of running Windows XP at a garage sale for less than 20 bucks, even on a slow week like this week. So there’s no point in keeping Windows 95-era stuff around anymore.

But it’s hard to let go. I know what all this stuff cost originally. I remember paying $199 for 16 megs of RAM and thinking I robbed the place. In those days, it was extremely difficult to build a decent computer for less than $1,000. That was without a monitor. So in the mid 1990s, the pile of junk in my basement was probably worth $8,000.

And in those days, I was making $6-$8 an hour, so it took me more than a month to make a thousand dollars.

Now I’m happy that I can give it all away as long as I buy a couple of gift cards.

I’ll turn around and use those gift cards to buy a prepaid cellular phone. I need a new one, and those phones fit my usage pattern well. And that phone will have as much computing power, if not more, than any one of those old computers.

This isn\’t the weirdest thing I\’ve seen stolen

I heard about this on the radio yesterday: A Baltimore man was arrested when he was spotted driving with a 30-foot light pole belonging to Baltimore Gas and Electric sticking out of the front and rear windows of his station wagon.The DJs had some good questions, of course. Did the station wagon have fake wood paneling? How’d he get the pole into the wagon by himself? What was he going to do with the pole?

I suspect he was going to sell the pole for scrap. I thought they said it was made of aluminum (the story I found online didn’t say). At 40 cents a pound, a 30-foot aluminum light pole would be worth more than a few bucks. But I would think the people at the recycling center might get a little bit suspicious when someone brought in a pole that looks just like the one across the street. But maybe that’s just me.

Another possible explanation is just that there was alcohol involved.

The weirdest thing I’ve ever seen stolen was a 12-foot fiberglass chicken valued at approximately $1,500 (in the early 1990s). The chicken had been standing in front of a trailer park (where else?) in Columbia, Mo. When I did a search in the newspaper morgue, I found two other instances of chicken theft since the mid-1980s before the owner put an end to it by erecting a tall pole for the chicken to stand on.

The last theft turned into a media frenzy–hey, not much else happens in Columbia on Mondays–with people calling in to radio stations reporting chicken sightings all over town and people getting teary-eyed on the 6 o’clock news, bawling that the chicken meant so many things to so many people and they couldn’t believe it was gone, and wondering who’d steal a chicken.

I guess they forgot about the other two times the chicken had been recovered. People have short memories, I guess. After they put the chicken on a pole, reports of thefts ceased. (I have spies who keep an eye on Columbia for me, although, come to think of it, I do have much more important things going on.)

Hey, maybe the guy who stole the Baltimore Gas & Electric pole had a fiberglass chicken?

What’s an aluminum can worth?

I saw someone out scrounging for aluminum cans recently. That made me wonder, what’s an aluminum can worth?

I remember my Dad telling me once that as he drove to one of the many remote hospitals in southern Missouri that he used to cover, he got used to seeing a couple on a riding lawnmower, driving along the shoulder of the road, picking up cans. He commented that he didn’t realize aluminum was worth enough to make that worthwhile.

Being a notorious cheapskate–so much so that the indigenous people of the Himalayas have a folk song about me–I decided to find out.

There’s a recycling place between home and work that I drive past whenever I’m hitting the grocery store on the way home. It posts its aluminum prices where they’re highly visible from the roadside. Price varies; I’ve seen it as high as 39 cents a pound and probably as low as 33 cents a pound.

Lacking a scale with enough precision to weigh a can, I did a Web search and found someplace saying that a pound of aluminum makes about 36 cans.

So, in south St. Louis in 2004, an aluminum can is worth about a penny. But I’ll grant that it has the advantage of being more likely to be sitting on the side of the road, and being far more visible.

Why that high? Aluminum isn’t a rare element by any means but it’s more expensive to process than iron or copper or tin. I’ve heard it said that you can estimate the amount of energy required to process an aluminum can by filling the can with gasoline. So a gallon of gasoline produces enough energy to refine enough bauxite into aluminum to make 10.75 cans.

At a penny a can, it’s certainly not worth my time to go out hunting them, as I’m sure I can’t find 500 of them in an hour. And I save a lot more money by not drinking soda than I’d save by saving the cans. (If you don’t want to give up soda, try cutting back and/or changing to generics. How much you save will amaze you.)

But is it worth my while to save the cans I do inevitably end up with? Sure. Also remember, a lot of other food containers are made partially of aluminum. We use aluminum foil all the time in our kitchens. Pie pans and other disposable food containers are often made of aluminum. My yogurt and applesauce containers have an aluminum foil lining under the lid.

Ten pounds of aluminum yields enough cash to pay for lunch at the cafeteria at work. I don’t know yet if I can accumulate 10 pounds in a month, or if it’ll take all year. But there’s only one way to find out.

Maybe I’ll find that it takes too long. But if that’s the case, my church saves cans. If everyone who goes to my church donated a pound of aluminum a month, we’d be talking $300-$400. And that’s enough money to do something at least semi-serious.

What’s an aluminum can worth? If you guessed a penny a can, you have my congratulations.

How to get rich–the Biblical way

Money is a controversial topic in Christian circles. On the one hand you’ve got people who say money is the root of all evil. The other extreme says if you do the right things, God will reward you with health and wealth and who knows what else.(This was the topic of my Bible study last night, in case you’re wondering. And I’m short of material, so I’m recycling. I’m also mixing in some insights people shared.)

For the record, 1 Timothy 6:10 says money is a root–not the root–of all kinds of evil. That’s somewhat less of a strong statement than saying it’s the root of all evil. So, money causes problems, yes, but it’s not the cause of every problem in this world.

To see some other causes and symptoms of evil, see 2 Timothy 3:2.

Isaiah 55:2 asks why we spend our money on what is not bread (when the Bible says “bread,” it’s frequently referring to the necessities of life such as basic food, clothing, and shelter) and on things that don’t satisfy. The main reason we do it is because we’re surrounded by messages that say this product or that product will change our lives. And while some products have changed lives, let’s think about it for a minute: Those kinds of things tend to come along once a generation, if that. I’m talking about things like the airplane, the automobile, and before those things, the railroad. Computers belong in that category. But the soda we drink is not going to change our lives, at least not for the better. Drink soda instead of water and it could make your life worse–regardless of what that 7up commercial with the bear says.

The American Dream is to give the next generation things the previous generation doesn’t have. Some have said that dream is dead, because we’ve become so affluent that we can’t think of what the next generation can possibly get that we didn’t have.

But it’s not working. Our kids have entertainment centers in their room that give a more life-like experience than the movie theaters of 20 years ago. They’ve got videogame machines that play better games than you could find in an arcade a couple of years ago. They have everything imaginable, and yet they’re all on ritalin and prozac. Meanwhile, their parents are both working, to pay for those two luxury SUVs and the next big home improvement project and all the toys and all the drugs that are necessary to keep themselves and their kids afloat in the miserable life they’ve built together.

My dad wasn’t always there for me. It seemed like most of the time he wasn’t. But it’s safe to say that when we ate dinner together 5 or 6 times a week, it was unusual. Most weeks we ate dinner together 7 times a week.

My American Dream is for my kids to have two full-time parents. Screw the luxury SUVs and the $300,000 house in the suburbs. My Honda Civic has more ameneties than I need. I’ll drive it for 15 years so I can have more money when things that matter crop up.

I told you how the Bible says to get rich. And maybe you’d argue I haven’t answered that question yet. I think Isaiah 55:2 can lead one to wealth that’s very enviable, but, yes, the Bible also tells how to gain material wealth. Check Proverbs 13:11. It’s especially relevant in the era of dotcom billionaires.

You’ve seen stories of wealty people who nickeled and dimed themselves to the poorhouse. What Proverbs 13:11 says is that you can nickel and dime your way to prosperity as well.

What the Bible doesn’t say is how, so I’ll share the concept of opportunity cost, which is one of two things I remember from Macroeconomics. I don’t know how many other people in my class picked this up from the dear departed Dr. Walter Johnson at Mizzou, so I’ll do my best to make my examples clear.

Opportunity cost says a 13-inch TV does not cost $99. That’s the amount written on the sticker, but that’s not the price. The price is about 30 lunches at my company cafeteria.

The monthtly cost of driving a new car every three years is about half my mortgage payment. But my mortgage will be paid off in 28 or 29 years and my house will be worth more then than it is now. In the year 2031, I will have absolutely nothing to show for the car I’m driving today. Those people who buy a $2,000 used Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla every few years and drive it until it dies have more money than you think they do.

Assuming you work about 240 days a year, two cans of soda every workday from the soda machine at my employer will cost you $240. But not really. What happens if you invest that money in what’s called an index mutual fund, which follows one of the major indices, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Historically, you’ll gain about 10% per year on your investment, which means you’ll double your money every 7 years investing that way. (That’s taking into account times of bad economy, like today, or worse.) Anyway, I just grabbed my calculator. If you take that $240 and dump it into an index fund, in 35 years you can reasonably expect it to be worth $7,680.

The real cost of a can of soda is sixteen dollars. Unless you’re not going to live 35 more years. But unless you’re going to die tomorrow, the real price is considerably more than 50 cents.

There are a total of 118 verses in the NIV translation that use the word “money,” and considerably more talk about the concept without using the word. Of those, Matthew 6:24-34 is poignant, as is Ecclesiastes 5:10-20. What I take from them is this: If you build your empire 50 cents at a time, you’ll never be as wealthy as Bill Gates. But you’ll have more than you need, and you’ll be happier than Bill Gates, and you’ll sleep a lot better.

And if your name is Jackie Harrington, I suggest you start selling autographed 8×10 glossy photos of yourself. Sign them, “Bill Gates just stiffed me for 6 bucks! Jackie Harrington.” Sell then for $10 apiece to people like me. Then put the money in an index fund. Then in 35 years, when you’re a millionaire, write a thank-you letter to Bill Gates.

04/06/2001

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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 http://www.dansdata.com/a7a266.htm ), 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.

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