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What brand of hard drive should I buy?

LinuxWorld posted an article today on how to install another hard disk in Linux. The guide’s pretty good from the software side.
The advice is slightly questionable from the hardware side. Author Joe Barr states that it doesn’t matter which connector on the cable you use, as long as one drive is jumpered master and one drive is slave. For years that was true, but you’re actually supposed to put the master on the end and the slave in the middle. Usually it doesn’t matter. But the newer your drive is, and the newer your controller is, and the longer your cable is, the more likely it is to matter. You also shouldn’t attach a drive to the middle and leave the top connector hanging. Again, you can usually get away with it–and people have gotten away with it for more than a decade–but the likelihood of not getting away with it increases with every passing day, as hard drives get faster and faster, and thus more and more touchy.

What happens when you do it wrong? Usually it works anyway. Sometimes it’ll be flaky. And sometimes it won’t work at all. Don’t you love predictability? So it’s really best to follow the rules unless the layout of your case makes that impossible.

But the main reason I’m writing is because the usual expected flamewar erupted in the discussion thread. Barr bought a Western Digital drive. Predictably, someone responded that Western Digitals are junk. Then someone responded to the response and said Maxtors are junk but Seagates are good. Then someone responded to the response to the response and said Seagates used to be junk. Before you knew it, every brand of hard drive on the market–IBM, Samsung, Seagate, Maxtor, Western Digital–had been trashed. Curiously, except for Fujitsu. But Fujitsu recently had a big scandal with a failure rate on one particular model of drive higher than 90 percent. (Meanwhile, my own experience tells me Fujitsu SCSI drives are fantastic.) And lately, Samsung drives have been getting praise all over the place. So what gives?

The problem with these statements is there’s a degree of truth to all of them. There was a time when Maxtor hard drives were the worst thing you could buy. Ever heard this joke? Fast, reliable, and cheap: Pick two. Well, in the early to mid-’90s, Maxtors weren’t fast, they weren’t reliable, and they weren’t consistently any cheaper than any other brand. The only reason to buy them was because the familiar red boxes were everywhere. The only place you couldn’t buy them was the corner gas station. Well, in St. Louis at least.

During the same time frame, Seagate had similar troubles. Their drives were expensive, but they weren’t fast. I didn’t see enough of them to get any kind of handle on reliability because I was so turned off by their price and underachieving performance that I wouldn’t go near them, and neither would anyone else I knew.

In the mid to late ’90s, it was Western Digital’s turn to go 0 for 3 on fast, reliable, and cheap. From 1997 to about 2000, I saw more dead Western Digitals than every other brand, combined. And I saw a lot of drives come across my desk.

With its GXP series a couple of years ago, IBM had the fastest drives on the market, and they were also among the cheapest. But they were exceedingly touchy, and became notorious for premature failure.

I bought a handful of Samsung drives over the years, never willingly, because of their terrible reputation. They’ve been reliable. And when you look at reviews of their recent drives, they run cool and they’re reasonably fast. They’re not necessarily the fastest on the market at any given time, but they may very well be the best combination of fast, reliable, and cheap right now.

I’ve been around long enough and seen enough that every time I see unqualified statements like “Western Digital drives are junk,” or “Maxtor drives are junk,” or “Seagate and Maxtor drives are the best,” whether it’s from some end user in a discussion forum or a professional hardware reviewer, I get suspicious. The end user is probably basing those conclusions on a too-small sample size, and the professional reviewer probably isn’t doing the necessary homework.

Let me tell you why.

We know how to build a completely reliable hard drive, one that will run for 10 years and never have problems. But it would cost too much money, its capacity would be too small, and it would be too slow. The technology in hard drives changes with each generation, and the company with the best technology is generally the one that produces the most reliable drives. But the most advanced technology isn’t always the best technology, as IBM found out with its GXPs. The GXPs were too far ahead of their time.

It should come as no surprise that when Maxtor was producing junk drives, they weren’t in very good shape financially. There wasn’t much money for R&D. When Maxtor’s financial situation improved, its R&D improved, and its drives became faster and more reliable.

There was a time when someone could ask me what hard drive to buy and I could give them a brand and model number that would give them the best combination of fast, reliable and cheap. But my newest computer at home was built in the summer of 2001 and I very rarely work on desktop systems anymore–I’m a server guy these days, and I have been for the past 18 months. If I’m honest with myself and with the person asking the question, a lot can change in 18 months. In 2001, as far as I could tell, the best drive to buy was a Maxtor and the worst to buy was a Western Digital.

I can go with my old prejudices and continue to dispense that advice indefinitely. But there was a time when that was reversed. And what about Samsung? They’re quiet and they run cool, which is a good sign, they’re very affordable, and while they’re almost never the fastest, they never get blown out of the water by benchmarks.

The best thing to do is to talk with someone who actually works with the equipment on a regular basis, and in large volumes. I want the opinions of someone who speaks from recent knowledge and experience, not someone speaking from old prejudices or a gravy train of free hardware. That means I’d call up a couple of former coworkers who still do some desktop support, or who at least handle the RMAs for subordinates who do desktop support. I’d ask them whose drives have been failing the most lately, and if they notice much performance difference between brands. Benchmarks are more precise, but they can also be fooled. If you can’t notice the difference in the real world I really don’t care about it. If you do notice the difference, I don’t care much about percentages. It’s subjective, but as long as I trust the people whose opinions I’m soliciting, that doesn’t matter much to me.

And after talking to a couple of people who actually handle a few drives a week, I’d go plunk down my cash.

Upgrading an eMachine

One of the most common search engine hits on this site involves the words “emachine” and “upgrade” or “upgrades.”
There are a number of things to keep in mind. Some of this advice also holds for low-end units from Compaq and Gateway and the like as well.

First things first: eMachines don’t have the best reputation. The majority of their problems are due to the power supply though. Aftermarket replacements are readily available, and I recommend them. Don’t buy a factory replacement; it’ll just fail again like the original. A quality replacement from Sparkle or PC Power & Cooling will run you less than $50. I’ve seen 180-watt Sparkles go for $35. The stock 145-watt unit isn’t very adequate and isn’t of the utmost quality. If I bought an eMachine, I’d buy an aftermarket power supply and install it as soon as I could. I wouldn’t wait for the factory unit to fail.

If I had an eMachine I wanted to upgrade, I’d track down a PCI video card. The problem with integrated video on a lot of motherboards is that the CPU and video chip have to share memory bandwidth. What’s that mean? Part of the time, your nice 64-bit memory bus is reduced to 32 bits, that’s what. Steve DeLassus told me a couple of years ago about putting a cheap PCI ATI video card in his wife’s Compaq, which had integrated video, and everything about the system sped up, dramatically. I made fun of him. But it wasn’t his imagination. I was wrong, and the explanation is simple: After he disabled the onboard video, he finally got the computing power they paid for.

Besides that, any add-on card is going to be faster than the integrated video in anything but an nVidia chipset anyway. Last I checked, eMachines weren’t using nVidia nForce chipsets for anything. If you’re into 3D gaming, you shouldn’t have bought an eMachine in the first place, but look for a PCI card with an nVidia chipset. If you’re just into word processing and e-mail, something like an ATI Xpert98 will do nicely. Yeah, it’s an old card, but it’s still more than adequate for 2D applications, and it’s cheap.

If you’re wondering if your system’s integrated video is holding you back, the best tell-tale sign to look for is called “shared memory.” Enter your PC’s setup program and look for an adjustable amount of shared memory. If you find that setting, you’ll almost certainly benefit from disabling it and plugging in a video card.

The next thing I’d look to do is replace the hard drive. Hard drive speed is significant, and sub-$500 PCs don’t come with blazing drives. Pick up a 7200-rpm drive of adequate capacity. They’re not expensive–you can be in business for under a hundred bucks. The performance difference is dramatic. Most retail-boxed drives even come with all the software you need to move all your data to the new drive. CompUSA frequently has something on sale. I prefer Maxtor drives over Western Digital because they’re faster and more reliable; CompUSA’s house-brand drives are just repackaged Maxtors, so those are fine as long as you can find a 7200-rpm model.

The modems that came in eMachines are worthless. If you don’t have broadband yet, replace it with a USRobotics 2977 modem immediately. That factory modem is costing you 35% of your CPU power. The USR will give that back, give you better throughput on top of it, and costs $40 at newegg.com. Good deal. But don’t settle for anything less than that–any modem that costs less than $40 is going to have the same problems as the factory modem.

Most eMachines can take more memory, but a lot of eMachines already shipped with adequate memory. There’s rarely any reason to put more than 256 MB in a PC. If your machine doesn’t have 256 megs, you can pick up a 256-meg stick pretty cheaply.

Most eMachines can take a faster processor, but I rarely bother. Unless you can increase your clock speed by 50%, you’re not likely to really notice the difference. Doubling is better. You’ll get better results from adding a video card and a faster hard drive.

Likewise, a high-end sound card from the likes of Creative or Turtle Beach can reduce the amount of work your CPU has to do and give you much better-sounding audio than what your eMachine has on the motherboard, but is it worth putting a $100 sound card in a computer you paid $399 for?

It’s easy to see you can very quickly spend $300 on upgrades for a computer that originally cost $399. That makes it hard to justify, when you could just get a new $399 computer. So should you do it? It depends. Don’t spend more than half the price of a new computer to upgrade an old one. But also keep in mind that a new computer won’t come with first-rate components, and the aftermarket parts you’re buying are first rate, or very close to it. If that PC you’re looking to upgrade has a 600 MHz processor or faster, it’s likely that when it’s upgraded, it’ll hold its own with a new computer. In that case, you should think about it.

But if you’ve got a four-year-old eMachine with a 300 MHz processor in it, you’re better off buying something new. When you can buy a 900-MHz PC without an operating system from walmart.com for $299, it’s just not worth wasting your time. Load your eMachine’s copy of Windows on the new computer and stick the eMachine in a closet somewhere as a spare. Or pony up a couple hundred bucks more to pick up a brand-name PC with Windows and a monitor, then get a couple of network cards and network your computers together. Your family will appreciate being able to share a printer and an Internet connection. If you pay a little extra to get wireless cards, the computers don’t even have to be close to each other.

One last thing: A lot of people sniff at eMachines. Yes, they are cheaply made. But they’re not all that bad of a machine, aside from the skimpy power supply. Replace it, and you’ve got a lot of computer for the money. Packard Bell did a lot to ruin the reputation of cheap computers in the 1990s, but the problems they had were mostly due to skimpy power supplies that were odd sizes so there weren’t many aftermarket replacements, and due to junky integrated modems and/or combo modem/sound cards that did both jobs poorly, killing system performance and causing software incompatibilities. Today’s highly integrated motherboards have eliminated that combo sound/modem problem. I know I malign the company all the time, but in all honesty, once you put real modems and sound cards into Packard Bells, they did OK as long as the power supply held up. I’ve got an old Packard Bell P120 with Debian Linux loaded on it. I ripped out the sound card/modem combo. I left the power supply alone because it looked decent. The machine’s run several years for me without any problems. Of course I covered up the Packard Bell logos on it.

Today, the same holds true of an eMachine–it’s just the power supply and video card you have to worry about now.

News analysis

Short takes. Yesterday was a newsworthy day in technology, and I’m sure there’s going to be a ton of misinformation about it eminating from both coasts, so we might as well set the record straight.
Poor quality control drives IBM from the hard drive business! Yeah, whatever. IBM makes one questionable model (and many GXP failures sounded more like power supply failures than hard drive failures), and suddenly everything they’ve ever made is crap. Guess what? Seven years ago you couldn’t give me a Seagate drive, because the drives they were making back then were so slow and unreliable. Maxtors were worse–and my boss at the time, who has a very long memory, nearly disciplined me a couple of years ago for specifying a Maxtor drive in an upgrade. But he’s a reasonable man and saw that the drive held up and performed well. Western Digital has been so hit and miss I still don’t want to buy any of their drives. Though their drives started to look better after they licensed some technology from… Old Big Black and Blue.

And the truth about GXPs: Regardless of how true the quality control allegations are, the drives themselves are the most innovative and advanced IDE devices ever commercially marketed. The platters are made using different materials and processes than conventional discs, which was supposed to make them more reliable. Expect that technology to come of age in a generation or two. The drives even include SCSI-like command queueing (the newest version of Linux’s hdparm allows you to turn this feature on; I have no idea if Windows switches it on by default). The successor to the 60GXP is going to be worth a second and a third look.

Wanna know what’s really going on? Hard drives aren’t very profitable. IBM has a history of spinning off questionable divisions to see if they can survive as smaller, more independent entities. The most famous recent example of this is Lexmark. That’s what’s going on here. IBM and Hitachi spin off and merge their storage divisions, and each company takes a stake in it. If the company mops up the floor with the competition, IBM and Hitachi make lots of money. If the company continues to bleed cash, IBM and Hitachi get nice tax write-offs. Either way, the shareholders are happy.

A number of years ago, IBM was a large producer of memory chips as well. In fact, you can open up a Mac manufactured in the mid-1990s, and chances are you’ll find an IBM-manufactured PowerPC CPU, one or more IBM-manufactured DIMMs, and an IBM SCSI hard drive. Making memory had its ups and downs, and during one of the many downturns in the 90s, IBM got out of the business. There was a time when Intel and AMD were in that business too (I have some old AMD DRAM chips on an expansion card somewhere, and I’ve seen Intel DRAMs but I don’t know if I’ve ever owned any).

This news is a little bit surprising, but hardly shocking. IBM’s making tons of money selling software and services, they’re not making money selling hard drives, and they’ve got a new CEO and nervous investors. This is a way for them to hedge their bets.

And you can expect them to possibly start getting more aggressive about marketing their technologies to other drive manufacturers as well now. Seagate, Maxtor, Western Digital, Fujitsu and Samsung have just changed from competitors into potential customers. Expect disk performance to increase and price to continue to decrease as a result.

How to gauge hard drive reliability. This isn’t exactly news but it seems very relevant. Professional writers don’t see a lot of drives. They can recommend based on their own experience, but their recent experience is going to be limited to a few dozen drives. Message boards are very hit and miss. You have no way of knowing whether it’s a book author hiding behind that handle or a clueless 12-year-old kid. Find an experienced technician who’s still practicing as a technician (I’m not a very good example; at this stage of my career I no longer deal with large numbers of desktop systems–I deal with a handful of servers and my own desktop machine and that’s it) and ask what hard drives they’ve seen fail. When I was doing desktop support regularly, I could tell you almost the exact number of drives I’d seen fail in the past year, and I could tell you the brands. I’d prefer to talk to someone who fixes computers for a large company rather than a computer store tech (since his employer is in the business of selling things, he’s under pressure to recommend what’s in stock), but I’ll still trust a computer store tech over some anonymous user on Usenet or a message board, as well as over a published author. Myself included.

AMD withdraws from the consumer market! AMD mentioned in a conference call yesterday that it plans to discontinue the Duron processor line this year. It makes sense. Fab 25 in Austin is being re-tooled to make flash memory, leaving the Duron without a home. But beyond that, AMD’s new 64-bit Hammer chip is going to hit the market later this year. So they can sell a slightly crippled K7 core as their low-end chip, or they can make their high-end K7 core into the low-end chip and sell the Hammer as a high-end chip. This strategy makes more sense. Clock for clock, the Athlon is still a better chip than the P4. Hammer scales better and performs better. So AMD can pit the Athlon against the Celeron and give P4 performance at a Celeron price, and the Hammer against the P4, which will give P4 clock rates and deliver better performance for 32-bit apps, along with a 64-bit future. There’s not much room in that strategy for the Duron. AMD would rather cede the $35 CPU business to VIA.

Look for the Hammer to gain widespread use in the Linux server market, especially among smaller companies. The Athlon already has an audience there (in spite of some pundits calling AMD-based systems “toys,” you see far more ads for AMD-based servers in Linux Journal than you see for Intel boxes), but the Hammer will become the poor man’s Alpha.

Minesweeper is murder.

Minesweeper is murder. An activist group is asserting that the Windows game Minesweeper is disrespectful of victims of land mines and should be removed and replaced with a game about flowers. I have no idea if these guys are serious or not. I never liked the game anyway and just always wanted an excuse to say “Minesweeper is murder.” So now I’ve said it three times. I’m happy.
Mail servers. I started building my mail server last night. I spied an old Adaptec 1542C adapter on a coworker’s shelf and asked if I could borrow it. Then, on the way home, I remembered that Laclede Computer Trading Company, a local used computer store, had opened up a branch (actually it turned out they moved) a few miles from where I live. So I stopped there and picked up an Adaptec 1542CF (1994 vintage) and a clackety IBM PS/2 keyboard.

I got home, installed the 1542CF, and had problems. I installed the 1542C and did better. It turned out my DEC Etherworks 3 NIC was conflicting with the 1542CF. That may have been the problem with the other adapters I tried. The important thing is, I got TurboLinux down and it runs decently on my Frankensteined 486.

Incidentally, this is the ultimate Frankenstein box. I had an old IBM PS/1 486SX/20 in a 5-bay case. That motherboard’s been flaky for years. Meanwhile I’ve got this Compaq 486SX2/66 in working order whose case uses those awful Compaq drive rails, the case is ugly as sin, and it only has three bays. So I ripped out the PS/1 board and dropped in the Compaq board. Yes, it fits great. LPX is LPX–truly proprietary motherboards actually are really rare. Old Compaq 386s did it, some mid-90s Compaq midtowers did it, and IBM PS/2s did it, but normally what appears to be proprietary is really LPX. Anyway… I added a DEC Etherworks 3 NIC. So we’ve got IBM, DEC, and Compaq fraternizing. Then I connected an NEC 12X SCSI CD-ROM to the Adaptec card and installed TurboLinux.

It smokes. Well, as much as a 486 can smoke at least. It’s surprisingly quick. TurboLinux boots in 60 seconds, once the PC finishes with POST and scanning all the SCSI ports.

And what can I do with a mail server? Well, for one, I can run a cool package called MHonArc. What’s that do? It archives e-mail in HTML form. I could create a mail account, CC it on all my correspondence I want to post, set up a daily cron job on that account, and it’ll post all my mail to the Web for me, formatted nicely and threaded and sorted by the month and even using a template so I can keep my unified look. That’ll save me a ton of work.

Learning Unix takes time, but man can it ever pay off in the time and effort it saves you.

The only problem is, this system’s got a flaky Western Digital hard drive in it. I’ll probably replace it with a better quality drive in pretty short order. This’ll be fine for messing around with, but when a Western Digital drive failed on me 600 miles from home last July during a convention, I decided on the spot I’d depended on a Western Digital drive for the last time. It hadn’t been the first time a WD had let me down, but I wanted it to be the last.


A great hardware site. I found this yesterday when I was searching in hopes of remembering a long-departed name of a hard drive manufacturer. The name I couldn’t put my finger on was Miniscribe. The great site, http://www.redhill.net.au/ig.html , is a hardware guide, written by an experienced Australian clone shop, that’s unusually straight-shooting. It’s the only mention I’ve seen on a hardware site of the Gigabyte 7IXE4, a low-end Duron/Athlon board that sells for about 80 bucks.

Especially interesting to me is the history. They discuss drives in detail, and though it’s hardly a complete memoir of every drive that was ever on the market, it hits the common ones. Want to know where Western Digital got its sterling (and not very deserved) reputation? Read on. I’m not so sure of their statement that Maxtor was bought out by Hyundai (Maxtor certainly never mentions that), but their history seems about as complete and accurate as any other I’ve seen, and it’s interesting to read the reviews of ancient hard drives. At least to me.

Motherboards and CPUs get a similar treatment. Good stuff.

Monitors. My NEC FE950 finally came in yesterday. It’s gorgeous, and takes up the same amount of desk space that early 17-inchers took. Mine looks like it got pretty banged up either in manufacturing or shipping though, so I’ll have to arrange an RMA. I hate to be picky, but after spending $400 on a monitor, I don’t want something with a beat-up case. It could be a cosmetic flaw, or it could be an indication that this monitor had an incident with a forklift. I’m not taking that chance.

The vendor will advance me a replacement, which is good. I’ll probably opt for that. I hope I don’t get nailed for shipping, but I suspect I probably will. Lesson learned: Order from Staples.

As for the monitor, I can’t tell much difference between it and a Trinitron. I’m not sure if it’s using a Mitsubishi DiamondTron tube or something of NEC’s design (NEC and Mitsubishi merged their monitor operations last year), but whatever it is, I like it. Fabulous monitor, and great value for the money. As far as I can tell, it’s indistinguishable from the FP series other than the FP’s higher maximum resolution, which isn’t comfortable for the monitor’s size anyway. The only fault I can find with this FE is what appears to be an incident with a forklift or some other heavy machinery.

Once again I should emphasize this point: never ever scrimp on a monitor. It might be tempting to get a no-name monitor so you can afford more memory or a faster CPU, but memory and CPU prices drop much faster than monitor prices, and they always have. Plus, their useful life is much shorter. A good monitor can outlive two or three computers, so in the long run, you save money with a premium monitor.

Why was I stumbling over the name Miniscribe? I was recalling my first-ever building of a PC. I was salvaging parts from a 286 with a blown power supply. I couldn’t get a replacement power supply because it was a Samsung PC, largely proprietary. The power supply had cooked itself because a poorly placed IDE cable totally blocked its vents, so it never had proper cooling. This was 1993, my first year of college. The PC was owned by my fraternity. We went and bought a barebones 386DX-25–just a motherboard in a case–and went to work. The video card and floppy drives and I/O cards moved without a hitch. But the Miniscribe 40-meg IDE drive gave us problems. I couldn’t get it to work, and I doubted I had much future building PCs. I took it into the shop, and they couldn’t make any sense of it either. Their most experienced tech remembered that Miniscribe had been bought out by Maxtor, so he called a contact at Maxtor. The drive turned out to be an 8-bit IDE drive that worked on some 286s but would never work in a 386 or better. They took the drive in trade for a used 40-meg IDE drive using the more conventional 16-bit interface and transferred the data for us. We got a couple of years out of that PC, though it was never a speed demon. But it was functional and cheap.

Of course I recovered from those early stumbles. Within a couple months I was selling PCs, and a couple of months after that I was working as a tech myself.

The wages of spam. And finally, I saw yesterday that Nasdaq suspended trading of PSInet and the company is considering bankruptcy. Excellent. During its not-troubled-enough life, PSInet was frequently accused of operating a safe harbor for spammers, and back in the days when I bothered to try tracking down spammers, I traced large percentages of it to PSInet.

I do not like green eggs and spam. I do not like them, Sam I am.

Hopefully this is the start of a trend. I’ve seen estimates that the traffic generated by spammers increases the costs you and I pay for Internet service by a full $2 per month. That’s just the infrastructure costs our ISPs have to bear and pass on to us. And of course it’s a huge waste of time.

Secrets about hard drive recovery and wiping

Recovery. I found this link while messing around: 200 ways to revive a dead hard drive. I’ve used some of these methods myself in the past. I imagine I’ll get to use more of them in the future.

Wiping. I needed a program yesterday to securely wipe out a hard drive. I was just going to low-level format it, but Western Digital’s drive suite, whatever it’s called, refused to do anything to the drive because it was returning an error code of 0207. The drive still worked, but according to my Web search, an 0207 means imminent failure. Hey, that’s why I needed to low-level the drive–we got a replacement for it and had to send this one back, but the drive was in an executive’s computer and probably had sensitive data on it.

Incidentally, if you’re getting an 0207 and you’re here because you want to know what to do about it, back up your data immediately and get it replaced under warranty. No, it’s not practical to fix it. If it’s out of warranty, I’m sorry. Sadly, it happens.

But I digress. How do you wipe the drive to ensure no one’s reading your sensitive data? I found some DOS freeware to do it at my usual sources, but one of them wouldn’t run under Win9x’s DOS, and the drive is too big to be recognized under 6.22. Another one wouldn’t handle drives bigger than 2 gig. Another one seemed to work, but seemed awfully fast.

Disk wiping isn’t a terribly complicated thing, so maybe I should just write a program myself to do it. It’s been forever since I programmed, and I do kind of enjoy doing that… once a year. Or every couple of years.


Fixing a troublesome hard drive. Some time ago, one of my church’s staffers handed me a 10-gig Western Digital hard drive he couldn’t get working. “When you have time,” he said. I took it home, set it on my desk and promptly forgot about it, until yesterday, when I was helping someone out with setting jumpers a WD drive and I remembered I had a recent WD drive…

So I threw it in my Dual Celeron-366, which has sort of become my testbed system, to see what I could get from it. The system detected it fine. Good. Try booting… I find that EZ-Drive utility that everyone installs, even though with a plug-in UDMA card (and I know they use those) there’s no need for it. With a recent BIOS there shouldn’t be any need for it, unless you’ve got flaky BIOSes like me. But we won’t go there. But it doesn’t boot. Boot off a floppy, run FDISK, and I find a 9.7 GB non-DOS partition.

I call to verify whether the drive has any valuable data on it. None? Low-level format time.  I download Western Digital’s utility suite and run its quick test. It passes with flying colors. WD doesn’t offer a true low-level format, but the utilities can zero out the drive. Close enough. That’ll get rid of EZ-Drive.

And now, an editorial statement, if I may. Western Digital makes the most overrated hard drives in existance. I’ll daresay Western Digital hard drives are the most overrated piece of computer hardware, period. In my experience, I’ve found Quantums and Maxtors and IBMs to be faster, and I’ve had less trouble with them.

And speaking of EZ-Drive, do the manuals that come with new retail-packaged hard drives tell you you have to install it? I confess, I usually buy bare OEM drives since they’re cheaper, and the last couple of times I’ve bought retail kits for work, I did the stereotypical male thing and didn’t read the instructions. Seeing as I could have written the instructions, I didn’t see the need. Come to think of it, I almost never read the instructions unless I’m just totally out of my league (like when I was learning Linux). I learn more that way.

As I was writing this, the zeroing finished, no bad sectors, and I partitioned the drive and SYSed it. Good deal.

Optimizing Windows. Curtis Horn writes in that Amazon’s selling it (to him at least) for $7.50. No one’s making any money at that price, but hey. It might be Amazon experimenting with supply and demand again, who knows. But if you’ve been putting it off, now’s a good time to get it (assuming the price is still good and shipping doesn’t end up being 20 bucks). The link’s to the left, as always.

Computer Shopper UK. Chris Miller warns me that features don’t stay up there forever, so if you want the first installment of the “Optimise Your PC” series, I suggest you get over there quickly and print yourself a copy.

Sound card and hard drive troubleshooting

Sound card woes. Gatermann recently ran into some problems with sound cards forcing his Internet connection to drop. It had literally been six years since I’ve seen a problem like that before, but he kept running into it. Finally, it dawned on me: Try changing slots to force it to use a different interrupt. Therein was the silver bullet. The problem didn’t go away completely, but the culprit arose: the Sound Blaster 16 emulation. So I had him go into Device Manager and put the SB16 emulation on a different interrupt, and the problem went away.
It’s been forever since I’ve seen an honest-to-goodness interrupt conflict. This particular PC has every expansion slot filled with something or other, which is why he ran up against it. Keep that in mind: Just because we have PCI and plug and play these days, doesn’t mean you won’t ever see an interrupt conflict. On a well-expanded system, this ancient problem can occasionally rear its ugly head (while Microchannel required their cards to be capable of interrupt sharing; PCI only *recommends* it–so not every PCI device can share an interrupt, particularly if an ISA device has grabbed it. Alas, Microchannel fell victim to IBM’s greedy overly restrictive licensing terms and raw-dead-fish marketing, so as a result we have cheap PCs today but more headaches than we necessarily need. Speaking of raw-dead-fish marketing, I could mention that the Amiga’s Zorro bus had true plug and play and hundreds of interrupts from Day One in 1985, but nobody wants to hear that. Oops, I said it anyway.)

This problem used to happen all the time when people would put their modems on COM4 and a serial mouse on COM2 (or COM1 and 3). Since those ports by default shared interrupts with one another, you got goofy symptoms like your Internet connection dropping whenever you moved the mouse. People don’t configure their COM ports that way anymore, which is what’s made that problem so rare.

I think I finally got that G4 deployed. Wednesday it decided it didn’t want to shut down, and I had to reinstall the OS to fix it. Then on Thursday, it decided it didn’t want to recognize the mouse button anymore. I still don’t know what exactly I did to fix that–I booted off a spare MacOS 9 partition, ran a battery of disk repair tools and a defragmenter, and the problem went away. So while Mac users can snicker about interrupt problems, their machines aren’t exactly immune to weird problems either.


From: “Gialluca, Tony”

question: RE Optimizing Windows and Temp files

Hi Mr. Farquhar,

In you book on page 112 you discuss placing temp files on a ramdisk. On this page you show an example where:

Set temp=ram disk letter:\temp Set tmp=ram disk letter:\temp

Shouldn’t you also include changing

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\explorer\Volum eCaches\Temporary files\folder] to “ram disk letter:\temp” also ??

Per the description

([HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\explorer\Volu meCaches\Temporary files\description]) says: “Programs sometimes store temporary information in a TEMP folder. Before a program closes, it usually deletes this information.\r\n\r\nYou can safely delete temporary files that have not been modified in over a week.” The only potential pitfall that I can think of is if windows or programs (say during installations) need this area to remain persistant through reboots, even though the files may be of
a temporary nature…

Your thoughts would be appreciated …




To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know that registry key existed (nor did the book’s technical reviewers, evidently). That registry key, too, should be changed, yes. Thanks!

You are correct that if a program does a hard reboot (rather than just exiting to real mode and reloading Windows), you’ll lose the contents of the ramdisk and thus the temp folder. Fortunately, most programs seem to use the temp directory the way they’re supposed to–for temporary, fleeting things. Now if they’d just learn to clean up after themselves…

Of course, this also applies to my advice on creating a temp partition, on page 62.

Thanks much; this is very good information.


From: “Gary M. Berg”

Subject: Maxtor hard drives

Since you’ve been talking about WD and Maxtor hard drives…

I heard rumors just after Win2K SP1 came out that the service pack had problems with machines with Maxtor hard drives. I’ve not been able to find much of anything else on this. What have you heard?


That’s a new one to me. Maybe another reader has heard something, but it sure seems odd. I can’t imagine Microsoft didn’t test SP1 on the major drive manufactuers’ drives (Fujitsu, IBM, Maxtor, Quantum, Samsung, Seagate, and Western Digital), and with Maxtor being one of the Big Two in retail….

Once I get my current big project off my back this weekend, I’m half-tempted to try it just to see. Unless someone already has…

Western Digital hard drives

Apparently it’s possible right now to get WD hard drives dirt cheap at certain warehouse clubs in St. Louis. How cheap? One person wrote in and told me $30 after rebates for a 10-gig drive. He asked me what I thought of the deal. It’s a great price, sure. My problem is, if I bought one, I’d be tempted to actually use it.
I’m very down on Western Digital. At my previous employer, we had about 600 PCs, with a variety of drives: a small number of Seagates, and roughly equal representation of IBM, Maxtor, Western Digital, and Quantum. We had maybe a drive a month go bad on us (ours was an aging fleet). I saw about as many Western Digitals go bad as all the rest–combined. I’ll buy an IBM, Maxtor, or Quantum drive without flinching, but I stay away from WD.

At my current employer, we have fewer problems (newer equipment), but I still see about as many WDs go down as anything else. Here we have mostly WD, Samsung, IBM, and Seagate drives, since that’s what Micron tends to use. Again, I see about as many WDs go as all the others. The last WD to go out happened when I took a half-dozen PCs to a convention in New Orleans. It was the middle of registration, with tired travelers all around, and the machine kept locking up. Finally, one time the drive just didn’t come back. I located a computer store, paid an outrageous price for a drive (unfortunately, another WD because it was all they had), and managed to get the drive in with only a couple hours’ downtime. But after failing me when I most needed dependability, I vowed to never buy another WD. Whenever I spec a drive for work, I get a Maxtor. I find them more reliable, faster, and they’re just as easy to find as WDs. And the CompUSA down the street always has a good deal on them.

eMachine upgrade advice

I got some mail some time back about eMachine upgrades that I never got around to posting. I’ll just summarize because that’s easier (it keeps me off the mouse).
First off, definitely look into a new hard drive. You can pick up a 7200-rpm drive of decent size (10-15 gig) for under $100 these days. I’ve had trouble getting Western Digital drives to work with older disk controllers, but no problems with Maxtors, and I get better performance and reliability from Maxtors anyway.

Next, eMachines tend to have problems with their power supplies. Get a replacement from PC Power & Cooling. It’s $45. Cheap insurance. And chances are the hard drive will perform better, since the PCP&C box will actually be supplying the wattage it claims to supply (which may or may not be true of the factory box). And remember: low-cost PCs have always had skimpy power supplies. Commodore and Atari made great low-cost computers 20 years ago, but they had horrendous power supplies. Given a properly made third-party power supply, a Commodore or Atari could run for 10-15 years or more (and often did).

Finally, get 128 megs of RAM in the system somehow. If you’ve got 32, just go buy a 128-meg stick. If you’ve got 64, get a 64-meg stick or, if you can afford it, get a 128.

Since eMachines have pretty wimpy integrated video, you might also look into a PCI video card with a Matrox, nVidia or 3Dfx chipset. Matrox gives slightly better 2D display quality, while nVidia and 3Dfx give better speed with 3D games. If you’re into gaming, definitely look into a new card.

That’s the strategy I follow with any upgrade. Get a modern disk in there, then get more memory, and replace anything else that seems underpowered. Do the disk first, then deal with memory, then possibly the video. Then, and only then, do I start looking at CPU upgrades. I’ve turned 200-MHz junkers into very useful machines again just by adding memory and a fast disk. The CPU isn’t the bottleneck in most systems.