IBM dumping its PC business?

John C. Dvorak comes full circle in his column about IBM possibly dumping its PC business. He starts off saying it makes little sense, but by the end of the editorial, he has his mind made up that IBM should have done it years ago.

Of course, this was probably written before word got out that its talks are more of a joint venture or spinoff than a complete sellout.

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Laptop or desktop?

All this talk today about cheap notebooks like the Sotec 3120x begs another question: Who should buy one?
Nearly six years ago, I published a column in the Columbia Missourian newspaper. My working title was 101 Reasons NOT to Buy a Laptop but a cooler-headed editor toned it down. I pointed out that you can buy twice the computer for the same amount of money, and laptops are hard to upgrade and they break a lot and you shouldn’t buy one without an extended warranty. (I was shocked to read that I’d said that way back then.)

All of that’s still true today. Except for the twice as much computer for the same amount of money bit. Thank goodness that’s changed.

Now you can buy twice as much computer for half the money.

Back then my job was to set up and fix laptops. I didn’t actually use one very much. I’ve been using one nearly every day for the past year and I’ve found some things to like about laptops now.

Portability. Duh. But this means not only can you take it with you, but you can stash it easily when company’s coming over.

Small size. A desktop computer’s going to take up most of the desk. My current computer desk has more usable space on it than my kitchen counter, which is nice because that gives me some room to work. Or put more computers on it. Guess which I do? But anyway, I can set up a laptop on a small desk and still have space to work.

Quiet. A lot of desktop PCs have three, even four fans in them. They make a lot of noise. Laptops have one fan and it doesn’t always even go all the time. Go back to a desktop and you’ll discover you’ve forgotten how much you like quiet. (Apologies to Charlie for stealing one of his lines.)

Gorgeous display. Another coworker came in today to work on my laptop (more on that in a bit) and to complain about another coworker. He was griping about how his laptop display looked when he hooked it up to an external monitor. I asked why anyone would hook up a laptop to a CRT. I guess it makes you look important.

Flat-panel LCD displays are gorgeous. No flicker, great color saturation, perfect focus, really easy on the eyes. They don’t update fast enough to be good for 120-fps 3D gaming, but for everything else, they’re fabulous. Staring at a CRT for 8 hours wears me out. Staring at an LCD for 8 hours has no effect on me. I’ve got a nice 19-inch CRT–an NEC, and it’s one of the professional line, not the consumer line–and it’s great. But I’ll take my laptop’s 13″ LCD.

You can get a similar effect by connecting an LCD to a desktop, but you’ll get digital converted to analog and back on an inexpensive one, which will affect display quality ever so slightly. A laptop is all digital, from video chip to screen.

The downside. After living with one, I’ve changed my tune a little. It used to be when someone said they were getting a laptop, I’d cringe the same way I would if they told me they were getting a sex change. I don’t do that anymore.

But there are still issues. I’ve broken my laptop twice in the past four months. And I treat mine well. The first was a hard drive. The second was the power connector–a piece of plastic snapped off. You’re looking at a motherboard swap to fix that one, in this age of people not knowing how to solder.

Laptop keyboards and mice take getting used to. Every time my girlfriend comes over and needs to use a computer, she sits down at the laptop and asks me for a “real mouse.”

And I miss my IBM clackety keyboards when I’m using a laptop. (I suspect Charlie would get really annoyed if I used one of those at work though, since he’s in the cube next to me, and the way I type, those keyboards can overpower fan noise. Or phone conversations. Or earthquakes.)

Upgrades remain a problem. I’ve got an IBM Thinkpad 600. Great display, great keyboard, and it’s small and light. But it’s slow. The memory tops out at some weird amount–I don’t think I can put 256 megs in it. CPU upgrades are all but out of the question. I can put a faster hard drive in it, but desktops give a lot more options. Even in my old original IBM AT case I can shoehorn a newer motherboard with an 800 MHz VIA C3 processor, and I can put in a 15K SCSI hard drive if I really want to. And that’s a 17-year-old case. I’ve got better upgrade options with a 17-year-old IBM PC/AT than I do with a four-year-old IBM Thinkpad!

So should anyone buy this new generation of cheap laptops? Well, remember, “cheap” is relative. Even when you can finagle into buying one for $800 through creative use of coupons, that’s still a pretty serious chunk of change.

And because they break as much as ever, I have trouble recommending a laptop as an only computer. If you’ve already got a desktop and plan to keep it and can afford a cheap snazzy laptop, then by all means go for it. You’ll love the freedom to move around. If you can’t afford $800 plus the extended warranty, wait a month or six. They’ll come down. I believe you’ll be able to buy a budget laptop for $599 by this time next year. Possibly even $499.

But if you’re buying your first computer, I think you’re better off with a low-end desktop and a nice flat-panel LCD display. The LCD will outlive the desktop PC, and the desktop PC will give you a lot more upgrade options. And as someone who’s been playing with these things for 20 years, trust me: You’ll want upgrade options.

Cheap laptops from Sotec

David Huff e-mailed me this morning about a Sotec 3120X laptop that sells at Office Depot, Wal-Mart, Sam’s, Bestbuy.com, and possibly other places, for around $900 and asked if I knew anything about it.
It would appear not many people do. I found a handful of discussions on Usenet, including a couple of people who claim to have bought one. They described it as quiet, cool-running, and fast. One user said it was faster than his Dell 1.4 GHz P4 at work. (Which I don’t doubt, because the P4 is a horribly inefficient chip–the Tualatin-based Celeron is the better processor, and with its 100 MHz FSB and 256K onboard cache, it’s very nearly a P3. Its specs aren’t far off from the last P3s, the chip Intel didn’t want to sell because it made the P4 look so bad.)

One user complained about the keyboard. The itty-bitty spacebar would drive me nuts. But the only laptop keyboards I’ve ever used and halfway liked were Thinkpads. You definitely pay for the privelige–the keyboards had better be good, considering the price.

Back to the Sotec. One user reported it’s less than an inch and a half thick. It has a mobile Celeron 1.2 GHz, a SiS 630T chipset (with integrated video), a 20 GB HD, 256 MB of SDRAM, 12.1″ LCD screen, LAN and modem built in, a combo DVD/CD-RW drive, and a PCMCIA slot for expansion. It weighs 4.4 pounds, and its lithium ion battery specifies a life expectancy of about 2.5 hours. It runs Windows XP Home.

What it doesn’t have: serial or parallel ports, floppy drive, or PS/2 ports. Definitely legacy-free here. Depending on your intentions, that may or may not matter to you. (I find myself dealing with floppies a lot more often than I’d like, but part of that is because of my job.) No Firewire either, so this isn’t an instant portable video-editing machine. One user reports its memory maxes out at 384 megs. Apparently there’s 128 megs non-replaceable, and another 128-meg stick you can replace with a 256 to get to 384.

So what about Sotec? A Usenet suggests they’re not a newcomer. A post from 1995 asked for parts for a 386sx notebook manufactured by the company. There are suggestions that Sotec has made notebooks for Gateway, Dell, and Winbook in the past.

The price is definitely right, and the feature set is definitely right. It’s not a performance laptop, but most people don’t need performance laptops. It’ll read e-mail and run a word processor and presentation graphics and browse the Web just fine.

Is it a risk? Absolutely. Any laptop is. But having all the stuff integrated minimizes compatibility concerns. One of my biggest gripes about laptops has always been getting them onto networks. Usually it’s easy. When it’s not, you can just about forget it. Or you can count on networking breaking something else.

That leaves reliability. The part that most often fails is the hard drive. That’s luck of the draw. I’ve seen a lot more dead Hitachi laptop drives than IBMs. Some of my readers agree with me. At least one tells me he sees lots of dead IBMs and never sees a dead Hitachi. But I know you can’t count on getting an IBM laptop drive even in an IBM Thinkpad–occasionally those ship with Hitachi drives.

All I can say is, keep a backup of any important data you’ll keep on this or any laptop. And be ready to buy a replacement hard drive in a year or two. At least they’re not terribly expensive.

Can I recommend it? Not without seeing it and spending some time with it. From looking at the picture, I think they tried to cram way too many keys into too small of a space and they’d have been much better off without some of them.

But the price is definitely right. It’s powerful enough to be useful until it dies. With 1.2 GHz of CPU muscle and 256 megs of RAM, it’ll always run Windows XP well, and if some future version of Windows manages to outgrow it, there’ll always be a Linux that’ll run very nicely on it. It’ll give much better battery life than a P4, and it’ll outrun any low-end P4 as well. (P4-based laptops aren’t a good buy right now.)

And it’s small and light, which I know matters a lot to some people. (I’m old enough to have serviced one of the old Compaq luggables. I never had to carry one with me, but since I know and remember those, I have a hard time listening to anyone complain about the size and weight of any modern laptop.) Don’t buy one sight unseen. But don’t write it off sight unseen either.

Dinner and network troubleshooting

Dinner with Gatermann last night. It’s almost become a ritual: Slingers at the Courtesy Diner, then off to Ted Drewes’ for frozen custard. We didn’t waste any time at Courtesy because the jukebox was especially bad last night. Backstreet Boys or ‘NSync or 98 Degrees were playing when we got in, followed by another one of the boy bands (they all sound the same), followed by Brittney Spears, followed by that really stupid “It Wasn’t Me” song–I’ve forgotten the name of the so-called artist, which is just as well. That was followed up by “All Star” by Smashmouth. Now, when I’m in my car and Smashmouth comes on the radio, I change the station, because that song was really overplayed when it came out, and it never was all that good to begin with. It’s really sad when that band is the best thing you hear all night when you go somewhere. I said something to Gatermann about buying a place like that, then putting nothing but goth on the jukebox. Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Cult, The Cure, The Mission… What else do you need? We could call the place “Death’s Diner” or something. Since diner fare lowers your life expectancy anyway, why not, right?
But back to really overplayed songs… “All Star” was followed with “Cowboy” by Kid Rock. “Well I’ll pack up my bags and then I’ll head out west,” rapped the trash-mouth white boy from the trailer park. I looked at Gatermann. “Whaddya say we head out west and get outta here?” He agreed.

Drewes’ wasn’t especially crowded. There wasn’t much room in the parking lot, but once the weather warms up you normally can’t find a parking spot at all and have to park in the neighborhood.

We went back over to Gatermann’s, planning to play some Railroad Tycoon, since neither of us have played in months, if not over a year. Since he doesn’t have two Windows boxes anymore, I brought my IBM ThinkPad. I configured the network (I use a 192-net with DHCP; Tom uses a 10-net without DHCP),
then I plugged in using the cable from his Linux box, and I got lights on my Xircom PCMCIA NIC, but Tom noticed there weren’t any lights on the hub. I checked my network statistics. It had sent out a bunch of packets but never received any. I tried pinging out and just got timeouts. I re-seated the cable on both sides, then I re-seated the NIC’s dongle. Nothing changed. I wondered if I had a bad port or a bad cable. So I switched ports, to no avail. I powered the hub down and back up, thinking maybe it was confused. Nothing. We didn’t have any extra cables, so I plugged the cable I was using back into his Linux box. The lights on the card lit right up, as did the ports on the hub. I was able to ping too.

At one point I even stopped the card, ejected it, and plugged it back in. That didn’t help either. Tom’s network just didn’t seem to like my Xircom card, though it works great on my LAN.

Then I asked Tom if his hub was a straight 100-megabit hub or a dual-speed 10/100 hub. He said it was straight 100-megabit. That was the problem. My Xircom is a 10-megabit card. I started off with a 10-megabit LAN, then later upgraded to a dual-speed 10/100 hub so I wouldn’t have to replace all my cards. Later I added a four-port switch in the form of a Linksys cable/DSL router.

All of Tom’s cards are dual 10/100 (with the exception of a Kingston PCI NE2000 clone, but that card sits in his Linux router and runs to his DSL modem), so we could have solved the problem with a crossover cable. We’d lose Internet connectivity but that’s not necessary for two-player Railroad Tycoon. Tom has a crossover cable… in Kansas City. I have a crossover cable… at church. Neither was doing us any good.

So we didn’t play any Railroad Tycoon. We went through Tom’s files, found a few old pictures of me, and scanned one of them. The picture on my site right now is me in southern Illinois in May or June 1998. Some day I might even put up a current photo… Tom’s thinking I need to put on a pair of black jeans and a Joy Division t-shirt, then we can go find someplace with a shadowy, industrial feel to it and snap some pictures. He thinks it’d go well with the atmosphere I’ve got here. I tend to agree.

More Like This: Personal Networking

01/22/2001

When I was 10, it was a very good year. Well, not really, but I can’t pass up the obvious Sinatra reference. Bear with me.

I had a conversation the other day with Gatermann that I thought was pretty funny. Tom sells cameras, and he’s got this Mac-o-phile who comes in and always talks about how great his Mac is. But his Mac is really a five-year-old Power Computing Mac clone, and he does all his day-to-day work on PCs. He always talks about how much better his Mac is than a PC, but he never uses it.

At any rate, Tom’s got another regular who’s in the market for a computer. This guy’s trying to talk him into an iMac or a Cube or something, but he’s torn. It just seems a PC gives you more bang for the buck, he thinks. Tom told him to look into an Athlon-based system.

I told Tom to tell him to go to micronpc.com and configure a Micron Millenia with an Athlon, since Micron does the best job of any direct build-to-order vendor I know of not giving you cut-down components, and their prices are generally really good. Tom snickered. I asked if he had a computer.

“He has a PCjr.”

I hit the table with both hands and nearly stood up. “He’s got what?” Tom didn’t even really know what a PCjr is, other than it’s really old.

“A single-floppy wannabe IBM XT, with 128K of RAM,” I told him. “Vintage 1984.”

Still snickering, Tom said he told this guy that if he did decide to upgrade, he knew of a guy (me) who might be interested in buying the PCjr.

I laughed. Well, let’s see. I’ve got this PC/AT I’ll be fixing up. I’ve got a PS/1 I can rebuild. And I’ve got a still-useful IBM computer that also happens to be unmodified, a ThinkPad. So since this is IBM Central anyway, why not? Then I remembered why not: I don’t have that kind of space. I’d have to put it in my kitchen, but there’s not really any room for it there either. Any computers I bring in at this point have to serve some function, and making people wonder aloud, “Why on earth do you have one of those!?” doesn’t count.

I did ask Tom a question. If this guy had a PCjr, why’s there any question what to get? He got 16 years out of a wannabe PC, so why not just get a PC again? Besides, I can give him a 5.25″ drive and install it so he can read his existing disks if he wants.

And yes, that’s all I’ve got. Hopefully I’ll have some energy for tomorrow.

Sounds cards, hard drives, and initial dual G4 impressions

The underwhelming dual G4. I had a conversation Tuesday with someone who was thinking about ditching his PII to get a dual G4 because he thought it would be faster. I guess he thought if he got VirtualPC or SoftWindows, a dual G4/500 would run like a dual PIII/500 or something, plus give him access to all the Mac software. Nice try.
I’m sure one of these dual G4s would make an outstanding Linux box, but the loss of binary compatibility with all the x86 software is something. Sure you can recompile, but there are those instances where that isn’t an option. And under Mac OS 9, that second CPU sits idle most of the time. Photoshop and a couple of other apps use it, but the OS doesn’t–certainly not to the extent that Windows NT or a Unix variant will use a second CPU.

I’m also very disappointed with the hardware. The dual G4 I’m setting up right now has a 124-watt power supply in it. Yes, 124 watts! Now, the PPC chips use less power than an Intel or AMD CPU, and the G4 uses a microATX-like architecture, but they know full well that graphics professionals are going to buy these things and stick four internal hard drives, a Zip, a DVD-RAM, and a gigabyte of RAM inside. Do that, and you don’t have much punch left to power such “non-essentials” as the video card, extra disk controller, and CPUs… This will cause problems down the line. It would seem they’re paying for the extra CPU without increasing the price dramatically by cutting corners elsewhere.

The G4 remains an excellent example of marketing. IBM could invent sushi, but they’d market it as raw, dead fish (which is why they’ve become a non-contender in the PC arena that they created, with the possible exception of the ThinkPad line) while Apple continues to sell sand in the desert. Remarkable.

AMD pricing. The Duron-600 is a great buy right now; according to Sharky Extreme’s CPU pricing, it’s as low as $51. My motherboard vendor of choice, mwave.com, has the Duron-600 with a Gigabyte 7ZX-1 and fan for $191. Outstanding deal. I’d get a PC Power and Cooling fan for it to replace whatever cheapie they’re bundling.

I prefer Asus motherboards to everything else, but the performance difference between the Gigabyte and Asus offerings is really close (Asus wins some benchmarks by a hair, Gigabyte wins others, with Asus being a bit better overall but we’re talking differences of under 1-4 percent, barely noticeable). The Gigabyte boards cost about $30 less than the Asus. I’m thinking if I were getting a Duron for a value system, I’d go Gigabyte; if I were looking for a Thunderbird-based performance system, I’d go Asus.

I plan to see how Naturally Speaking fares on my Celeron; if it’s not quick enough for me I’ll probably retire my trusty K6-2/350 and replace the board with a Duron or Thunderbird.

Voice recognition. I got my Andrea ANC-600 mic on Monday. Since Naturally Speaking and the SB Live! card hadn’t even shipped yet, I went ahead and put the ANC-600 on my Celeron-400 (still equipped with an ESS sound card) and fired up ViaVoice. The ANC-600 eliminated the background noise and increased accuracy noticeably. ViaVoice still tended to mess up a word per sentence, but at least it was in the neighborhood (it had real problems with past/present tense) and its speed was a little better, though it still tended to drag behind me. The SB Live! should help that; as should the newer software’s reliance on newer processor architecture (ViaVoice 97 was designed with the Pentium-MMX in mind, rather than the PII/Celeron or something newer). I await Naturally Speaking’s arrival with much, much greater confidence now.

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From: Dan Bowman

Maxtor HDDs

And the CompUSA down the street always has a good deal on them…

This week, Office Depot is selling Maxtor 15gig drives for $99. That’s a “Warlock’s Mirror” for a little over $200 with tax.

dan

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Thanks.

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