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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.

Why I generally buy AMD

I was talking to a new coworker today and of course the topic of our first PCs came up. It was Cyrix-based. I didn’t mention my first PC (it seems I’m about four years older–it was an Am486SX2/66).

With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve always bought non-Intel PCs. Most of the Intel PCs I have bought have been used. One boss once went so far as to call me anti-corporate.

I’m not so much anti-corporate as I am pro-competition.

Read More »Why I generally buy AMD

Run the right version of Windows for your PC

I said I was done writing about system optimization. I changed my mind. I have one more thing, and it seems appropriate, now that Vista upgrades are available.

Be very wary about upgrading your version of Windows.There are a few Vista-only titles out there, and there will be some more, but the majority of titles aren’t. Walk into a software aisle and you’ll still find a lot of software that will run on Windows 95 (or possibly 98), assuming the computer meets the hardware requirements.

I’m typing this on an 800 MHz HP Pavilion 6835. Sure, it’s outmoded–for around $125, I could swap in an Athlon 64 motherboard that would give me 4-5x the CPU power and that would be considered a low-end PC by today’s standards–but this one’s peppy. I run Windows ME on it. Windows 2000 would be more stable but I’m lazy. I wouldn’t try XP on it. When XP came out, this system was already old.

Technically, XP will install on a 133 MHz Pentium if it has enough RAM. I’ve seen it done, and I’ve seen it try to run on one. It’s not pretty. I really wouldn’t try running XP on anything less than a 1 GHz PC with 256 megs of RAM, because that was the standard PC at the time of XP’s release. But believe it or not, if you install Windows 95 and Office 95 on that Pentium-133, it’s a reasonably nice machine–because that was a high-end box in 1995 when Windows 95 and Office 95 came out.

So when you’re refurbishing an old machine, try to install whatever the current version of Windows was when it was new. The PC will run a lot better. Here’s a guide.

Windows 95: Released August 1995
Typical PC of the time: 486, 66 MHz
Hot PC of the time: Pentium, 133 MHz

Windows NT 4.0: Released July 1996
Typical PC of the time: Pentium, 75 MHz
Hot PC of the time: Pentium Pro, 200 MHz

Windows 98: Released June 1998
Typical PC of the time: Pentium, 233 MHz
Hot PC of the time: Pentium II, 333 MHz

Windows 2000: Released February 2000
Typical PC of the time: Pentium III or Athlon, 600 MHz
Hot PC of the time: Pentium III or Athlon, 1 GHz

Windows XP: Released October 2001
Typical PC of the time: Pentium 4, 1.5 GHz
Hot PC of the time: Pentium 4 or Athlon, 2+ GHz

Windows Vista: Released January 2007
From what I understand, even a hot PC of 2007 has difficulty running it. I haven’t seen Vista yet; my employer is still running XP for everything.

Of course, if you install as much memory as the system will take, you can push your limits, since Windows is often more memory-bound than CPU-bound. I also try to replace the hard drive with the fastest model I can budget for. Don’t worry if the drive has a faster DMA rate than the controller on the board; you’ll still benefit from the faster seek times and better throughput of a newer drive. If the new drive saturates the bus, it could be worse–I guarantee the old one didn’t.

The best defragmenter for Windows NT, 2000, XP and Vista

Want Diskeeper’s features without ponying up 50 bucks?

Sorry, I can’t help you. The combination of My Defrag, Scandefrag, and Pagedefrag is better and it’s free.

Scandefrag defragments your system during the boot process, as early as it can. It works better on NT-based systems like Windows 2000 and XP than it does on 98 or ME. All it does is launch the other tools.

Pagedefrag is, of course, a classic. It’s just convenient to bundle it up with these other tools. This tool defragments your registry and swap file(s) at boot time, which is the only time the system allows it.

My Defrag (actually Jerrod Kessels’ defrag) is, to put it simply, the best general purpose defragmenter for Windows NT, 2000 and XP that I’ve ever seen. Period.

If My Defrag can’t do an ideal job, it does the best it can do. Some defragmenters leave a file alone if they can’t defragment it, but this one will defragment as much as possible and move it as close to the front of the disk as possible, where performance is much better. On full disks, this is important. Since ideal conditions almost never exist (except when a system is first built), a defragmenter’s performance under less than ideal conditions is very important.

The most exciting thing about My Defrag is its ability to sort files. I like Sort alphabetically.

Sorting alphabetically (the -a7 switch) helps because it uses the full pathname. This means all of your files that are part of, say, Mozilla Firefox will be put as close together on the disk as possible, so when you launch Firefox, all of those files are close together and the disk head doesn’t have to move around a lot. The result is an application that launches faster.

So how often should you defragment? Once a year, I would do a boot-time defragmentation with Scandefrag to whip the Registry and swap files into shape. When that finishes, I would run My Defrag in full optimization mode, with file sorting. If you make a major change to your system (say, upgrading your office suite), do a quick defragmentation after the install and a full defragmentation a month or so after.

As part of your routine system maintenance, a faster, automatic defrag with no options specified is a good idea on occasion. The author says to do it no more than once a day and I agree. In my experience, once a week or even once a month is almost always fine. The way My Defrag works, the system shouldn’t get terribly fragmented on a daily basis, even if you use your system heavily. Defragmenting too frequently can shorten a hard disk’s life expectancy, although the occasional defragmentation seems to help it. I defragment a few times a year (and always have), and I generally get five or six years out of a hard disk, which is a year or two longer than most experts say to expect.

Don’t waste your money on any other tools. Download this trio, install it, use it, and watch your system performance climb.

A better registry cleaner

Note: I wrote this back in the Windows XP days. It worked really well under XP, but if you’re going to run the registry cleaner portion in Windows 7 or Windows 10, be sure to create a restore point first.

I’ve been messing around with a registry cleaner called CCleaner. I like it a lot better than the commercial tools that used to come with Norton Utilities and the like, and I like it better than the freebies that we used to use like Microsoft’s Regclean.

And you’ll never beat the price.CCleaner runs on Windows 95, 98, 98SE, ME, NT4, 2000, XP, and Vista.

One thing that I liked about it is that the program is intelligent and relatively dummy-proof. If you click around and do all of the defaults, it’s not likely to harm your computer. I inadvertently wiped out my Firefox browser history (I wanted to keep that) but that’s not a showstopper. It will populate itself again in a few weeks. Unlike commercial utility suites, where I’ve written 20-page explanations how to use them safely, this program doesn’t really need any explanation.

CCleaner actually does more than just clean up the Registry, although it does a fine job of that. It also does a great job of weeding out useless temporary files. I ran it on my old laptop and it found 386 megabytes of junk on my crowded C drive. I’ve been manually cleaning it up by searching it by hand, and I think I do a pretty good job of finding a lot of stuff, but what can I say? The program found 386 megs of stuff that I didn’t.

There are three benefits to getting rid of that cruft. First, Windows needs quite a bit of free space just to function properly. When you start getting too little free space, the system just acts goofy. Second, large numbers of temp files in the system directory just seem to make the system act funny. This was a bigger problem in Windows 9x than in the newer NT-based Windows versions, but there’s still no reason to have hundreds of those laying around. In my desktop support days, just getting rid of temp files used to clear up all sorts of mysterious problems. And finally, not having all those large and useless files on the disk makes your defragmentation programs work better. Those programs need free space to work with, and they don’t have to work as hard when they don’t have hundreds of extra worthless files to move around.

Cleaning the Registry is another important job, since a lot of uninstallation programs don’t do a very thorough job of cleaning up after themselves. The extra bloat chews up memory and slows down searches for the legitimate data the programs you actually use need. Since I tend not to install many programs and I use most of the ones I do install, CCleaner didn’t find a whole lot in my Registry, but it found some stuff to clean up.

So what happened after I ran it? The most noticeable effects were that my Start menu was a lot peppier, and my Web browsers loaded and ran a little bit faster. I understand the Web browser speedup, but the Start menu puzzled me a bit. Not that I’m complaining–it’s irritating when you press Start and have to wait for your list of programs to come up.

CCleaner isn’t a miracle worker and it won’t turn my P3-700 into a Core Duo, but the two systems I’ve run it on do run noticeably faster afterward. It was certainly more than worth the 10 minutes it took for me to download it and run it on each.

So what about the commercial utilities suites? Skip them. In this day and age, there are better, free alternatives for everything those utilities suites could do. CCleaner is one of the superstars. In coming days, I’ll talk about free substitutes for the other most important components of the utility suites.

It\’s that time of month again, time to Slashdot the Wikipedia

Slashdot published an interview today with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. I found it entertaining reading. Even though I’m a semi-regular contributor over at Wikipedia, I’ve never encountered its founder, possibly because I do my best these days to stay under the radar over there.The discussion on Slashdot was interesting. As always, someone questioned Wikipedia’s accuracy, wondering how anything but chaos can come from something that anyone can edit at any time. A few people read two articles and came back with the usual “99.9% of Wikipedia articles cite no sources and have inaccuracies in them.” Someone else came back and said he’d made a change to the M1A1 Abrams article and was corrected by an Army mechanic. I always like comments like that. It shows who actually has experience and who’s talking out his butt.

Wales was incredibly idealistic, with a vision of free textbooks educating the world and ridding the world of places where people have no sanitation. Free access to the sum of all human knowledge will solve all the world’s problems.

I wish I could be so idealistic.

Oh well, shoot for the stars and maybe you have a chance of hitting the moon, right?

I found the discussion on credibility more interesting. Someone asked how an encyclopedia produced by anarchy could have more credibility than the mighty Encyclopedia Britannica or even World Book. Linux Kernel hacker Alan Cox weighed in, pointing out that there’s plenty of bias in academia too, that academia is a tyranny of the day’s popular ideas and that generally ideas change by one generation dying out and a new generation with different ideas taking over. At least with Wikipedia, the divergent ideas get a chance to be heard. He had a point.

I disagree with Wales that his project will drive Britannica out of business, but I agree with Cox about credibility. I had an argument with a college professor over using the Internet as a primary source of information. This was in 1995 or 1996. I wrote a short paper on the Irish Republican Army, and I wanted to find out what people sympathetic to the IRA were saying. So I went to Alta Vista, did some searching, and cited what I found. I wanted to know what the people who made the bombs were thinking, and figured the people who made the bombs were more likely to have Web pages than they were to write books that would be in the University of Missouri library. But my professor wanted me to look for books. I decided he was a pompous, arrogant ass and maybe I didn’t want to minor in political science after all, especially if that meant I’d have to deal with him again.

I forgot what my point was. Oh yes. In journalism we have a sort of unwritten rule. You can cite as many sources as you want. In fact, the more sources the better. If a story doesn’t have three sources, it really ought not to be printed. That rule gets selectively enforced at times, but it’s there. Your sources can spout off all they want. That’s opinion. When three sources’ stories match independently, then it’s fact.

So what if Wikipedia is never the Britannica or even the World Book? It’s a source. It’s much more in touch with popular culture than either of those institutions ever will be. Most people will think you’re a bit odd if you sit down with a volume or two of the Britannica or World Book and read it like you would a novel. I know people who claim to have done it, but that doesn’t make the behavior unusual. Hitting random pages of Wikipedia can be entertaining reading, however. As long as you don’t get stuck in a rut of geography articles. But that’s become less and less likely.

So I don’t think it matters if the Wikipedia ever attains the status of the paper encyclopedias. You’ve got what the academics are saying. Wikipedia gives you the word on the street or in the coffee shop. Neither is necessarily a substitute for the other.

I’ve appealed to this before, but I’ll do it again. Visit Wikipedia. See what it has to say about your areas of interest. If it doesn’t say enough, take a few minutes to add to it. Resist the temptation to go to the articles on controversial people like Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler. It’s a good way to get into an edit war and get frustrated. Find something obscure. I mostly write about old computers, old baseball players and old trains. Not too many Wikipedians are interested in those things. Especially the trains, so that’s what I write about most. (Other people seem to be; when I troll the ‘net for more information on those old companies, I frequently find copies of what I’ve already written and put in Wikipedia. It’s flattering.)

I look at it as a way of giving back. It’s relaxing to me. But there’s a community who’s written a ton of software, including an operating system, a web server, and a blogging system, and they’ve given it to me and never asked for a dime in return. I can’t program so I can’t give anything back in that way. But I have interests and I have knowledge in my head that doesn’t seem to be out there on the ‘net, and I have the ability to communicate it. So I give back that way.

It won’t change the world. Maybe all it’ll accomplish is me seeing fewer “Mar” trains on eBay and more Marx trains. But isn’t that something?