PC building sanity check. I’m getting really tired of reading hardware forums because I keep seeing the same awful advice over and over again. One of the fairly big vendors, I forget who, is offering 128-meg DIMMs from some outfit called Zeus Components for $25, and 256-meg DIMMs for $57. One person who bought this wrote in talking about how it was a no-name PCB with no-name chips on it (a sure bad sign if there ever was one) and how great it is.

Reality check: Why would anyone spend good money on decent components, then cripple them by putting bottom-feeder memory on it? Stability will go down the toilet. Performance won’t be as good as it could be–memory performance is overrated, yes, but so is CPU performance and the same people who cry about how miniscule the gains from using quality memory are often the same ones who waste a weekend by trying to milk an extra 25 MHz out of their CPUs. Getting memory that runs at CAS2 instead of CAS3 makes about as much difference as that extra 25 MHz does, and it won’t burn out your system prematurely either.

Let’s consider all of this, and use numbers to back them up. I just priced a Gigabyte 7ZX-1 motherboard with a 700 MHz Duron CPU. This is the slowest, cheapest Duron that’s still available everywhere. Price, including fan: 165 bucks. The motherboard is respected as a stable board, priced nicely, and includes Creative audio onboard. A decent Enlight midtower case that won’t slice you up and a 300W power supply is $62. A 32-meg Guillemot GeForce256 card–not state of the art, but for mid-range gaming and anything I do, it’s drastic overkill–is $80. So you’ve got a foundation for a system that was absolutely unbelievable just 18 months ago, for 300 bucks.

Considering what you get for $300, I think you can afford to put something other than $25 128-meg DIMMs in them. Save those for some other sucker.

The same vendor had 256-meg CAS2 PC133 Corsair DIMMs for $129. Corsair’s not my first choice and Crucial is offering free shipping right now. A Crucial 256-meg CAS2 PC133 DIMM is $96. The highly regarded Mushkin high-performance DIMMs (latency of 2 all around, so they’re great if your motherboard allows you to adjust all your memory timings but admittedly they’d be overkill on some of the boards I have) are $150.

So we’re at $396 for an awfully nice PC that just lacks storage. CD, DVD, and floppy drives are pretty much commodity items these days. Buy Plextor, or buy whatever’s available at a decent price and doesn’t look like it cost $12 out of the back of a van parked at an abandoned gas station. That leaves hard drives.

Now that memory costs next to nothing, a lot of people think real computers have to have 768 megs of RAM. Really, you get diminishing returns above 128 megs. Two years ago I was ridiculed for suggesting people should get 128 megs of RAM. Now people are routinely buying six times that amount. Trends. (sigh.) Since a 256-meg stick costs around 100 bucks, fine, get 256 so you can run any OS you want and run it fast. But really we need to be thinking about hard drive speed. Sure, a hard drive doesn’t do anything for Quake frame rates, but for everything else it does, and if you’re like me and actually use your computer, you’ll appreciate a fast disk really quickly.

The IBM 75GXP is currently the fastest IDE drive on the market. At $135 for a 30-gig model, it makes absolutely no sense to buy anything else, period. If you need more storage than that, a 45-gig costs about $150, a 60-gig $215, and a 75-gig $275. The sweet spot seems to be 45 gigs.

But if you’re going to run Linux or NT or Windows 2000 and you were ready to buy 768 megs of RAM anyway, why not look at SCSI? An Adaptec controller will run you $200, while a Tekram will start at around $100. You can get a nice 10,000 RPM drive from IBM, Quantum or Seagate for around $235. Now we’re talking a 9-gig drive here, but speed’s more stem out with a $33 LG Electronics CD-ROM and a $14 Panasonic floppy drive. The damage? $844. That’s without a keyboard, mouse, or monitor, but seeing as everyone likes different things there, I always leave those out of base pricing. And of course you still have to buy an OS.

That’s an awful lot of computer for about $850. The components are high enough quality that they should be good for 4-5 years, and I suspect the system won’t be a slouch by then either. The specs will be laughable, but if someone sits down to use it, they’ll have difficulty believing it’s “only” a 700 MHz computer. And if you want to upgrade it down the line, it’ll continue to be worthy of your trouble for a long time to come.

I think I found my new hangout. Well, in about five weeks it’ll be my new hangout. I was going to give up using Windows for Lent–not that I enjoy using Windows, but not using it would be a terrible inconvenience, and the purpose of Lent is to give up something that reminds you of what Jesus gave up. Since Windows is an everyday part of life, it would suffice–I could use a Mac at work, and just run Linux on my PCs at home. But since my job is partly fixing PCs that run Windows, or writing about Windows, I can’t very well do that. So instead I gave up meat. All meat. If it used to be an animal, it’s meat–no using seafood as a loophole.

So, Penny’s BBQ, a little place I stumbled upon yesterday, won’t be my hangout until Lent’s over. I love BBQ–must be because I’m from Kansas City. My favorite R.E.M. song is “The One I Love,” which Michael Stipe wrote after his favorite BBQ joint burned down. Listen to the words really carefully sometime. He’s not talking about his prom date.

I always get sidetracked when I’m talking about BBQ. Penny’s is about 10 minutes from home, depending on how obnoxious St. Louis traffic feels like being. It smelled good outside the place, which is always a good sign. It’s tough to find BBQ in St. Louis, let alone good BBQ. But Penny’s turns out to be comparable to the typical fare you find at every other stoplight in Kansas City, I’ll be a very happy camper. But that’s easier said than done. I’ve never really understood it, because there’s plenty of good BBQ in Chicago and in Kansas City and, frankly, throughout Missouri. If you’re ever driving through Missouri on I-70–my condolences if you are–in a tiny little town about an hour east of Kansas City named Concordia, there’s a BBQ joint called Biffle’s that’s nearly as good as the best places in KC, and it’s easier to get to and not as crowded. I plan my trips to KC so that I end up driving through Concordia around meal time.

The downside to giving up meat is I can’t really write about it, beyond that. Had I given up Windows, chances are a lot of people would have wanted to read about how it was going and what I was finding. Oh well.

Heh heh heh. Need a cheap computer for someone? How’s a Tekram Socket 370 microATX board with built-in audio and video sound? Promising? You bet, especially considering its $35 price tag here. Put it in an inexpensive microATX case, drop in a $50 Celeron-533 PPGA (this board only works with Celerons with the old Mendocino core, not a Coppermine) and a $50 Crucial 128-meg DIMM, add your favorite hard drive, and you can have a really nice system for $350 or so. Or if you’ve got parts laying around, you know the drill.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Slim pickings. There isn’t a whole lot of new content going up over the weekend, so I’ll hit two useful, if slightly flawed hardware articles. And I guess I’ve gotta come up with some of my own stuff.

Shopping. I went computer shopping Saturday for the first time in, oh, years probably. I build my own and have been doing so since 1996, so I normally take no interest in retail PCs. But a friend of a friend is in the market for a PC, and I didn’t want her to get ripped off, so I offered to go shopping with her to keep such a thing from happening. Note I didn’t offer to build her one–I’m trying to get out of the build-a-PC-for-a-friend business for the most part.

So we hit Office Depot. The superdupercheap trend seems to be abating a little; there’s a lot for under $1,000 still, but the $499-and-under market is waning. eMachines is playing there, but Compaq and HP seem to have retreated. I noticed plenty of Durons, which ought to make AMD happy.

We also hit Computer Renaissance. I’ve heard horror stories about the place, but figured I could probably handle the slimy salespeople. I can talk way over their heads when I want to (“I don’t care what anyone says, compared to Microchannel, PCI is rubbish. At least with Microchannel, I knew where the resources were going and I knew they’d stay put!”), and I can play intimidation by dropping OS/2 and Linux compatibility questions. They left us alone though, which was nice. I saw P200-based Compaq Deskpros for $199, including 15″ monitor. I wanted more power than that for her. HP Vectra PII266s were $399; PII233s were $379. Both included monitors. What caught my eye was a $299 Compaq Deskpro. It had a Pentium Pro-200, which was about as fast as the PII-233 due to its on-die, full-speed cache, and it had a SCSI hard drive. For productivity use, this Deskpro is fine. Its 32 MB RAM is awfully low, but that’s curable. DIMMs are cheap. The SCSI will be nice. And it’s hard to find a better-built machine than a Compaq Deskpro. Life expectancy of this machine will be much higher than that of a new Compaq Presario, eMachine, or HP Pavilion.

But if mail-order had been an option, I probably would have pushed her in the direction of a Compaq iPAQ. For about $399 (without monitor), you get Windows 2000 and a corporate-quality (as opposed to consumer-quality) PC. Expandability is nil, except for the memory, but for word processing and Internet use, it’s great, and that’s what she wants. And it’s got USB and Ethernet built-in. If I had to equip a small business with a fleet of PCs quickly, that’s probably the direction I’d go. And I like them for home use too.

On to the reviews.

ATA-66 vs. ATA-100 (Real World Tech)

Good methodology, at least as far as hardware selection goes, and he explains his methodology as well. Full disclosure is always good, as it shows confidence you have nothing to hide.

The testing is a little suspect though. Using three trials and taking the highest number isn’t the accepted method. It’s better to take 9 or 10 trials, discard the highest and lowest, and average the remaining scores. I say this because in my own tests, I sometimes get a string of two or three weird scores that are awfully high or low. Running more than that, then discarding the outliers gives scores more likely to reflect the real world.

For these purposes, the flawed method probably suffices; it shows the slight advantage of ATA-66 and ATA-100 over ATA-33, though it may be exaggerated. The tests show little or no advantage to using ATA-100 over ATA-66.

This isn’t the best online test I’ve seen, but it’s definitely not an atrocity either. There is carefully-planned research here, by someone whose experience shows.

Gigabyte GA-7ZXR review (BX Boards)

All I can say is this is a very unremarkable hardware review. They didn’t disclose the testbed setup other than the CPUs used. Benchmarks were limited to Winstone 99 and Quake 2, and then they didn’t list any competing boards, so you’ve got a bunch of numbers but nothing to directly compare them with!

Lots of pictures and a list of features, but frankly there’s nothing here that probably wouldn’t be on the manufacturer’s Web site.

The quality of writing is better than average, but this review’s usefulness is limited to introducing you to a board you may not be familiar with yet. Unfortunately to learn much of anything meaningful about it other than what it looks like, you’ll have to wait for one of the other sites to get their mitts on it.


Hey hey! It works! The server was down all day yesterday, which was a shame. I wanted to try a new experiment. So I’ll try it today.

I saw criticism over at Storage Review on Wednesday morning for their critiques of other hardware sites’ reviews. I disagree with this criticism; many of the reviews out there are atrocities, with poor methodology, hearsay, reviewer ignorance, and other shortcomings. Sometimes these reviews are more misleading than the information in the products’ advertising or packaging! I believe Storage Review is well within professional bounds to point out these shortcomings when they find them.

The mainstream media does this all the time. Columnists and editors will criticize the reporting done in other publications. Most newspapers also employ one person, known as the ombudsman, whose job it is to criticize and/or defend, as appropriate, the publication’s own work.

Seeing as the hardware sites out there often do very sloppy work, even compared to the mainstream media, some policing of it is a very good thing.

Then, over lunch, the idea hit me. Why not do some critiquing myself? I’m trained in editorial writing and editing. I have some experience as a reviewer. And I’ve published a fair bit of my own work in the arena of technology journalism–newspaper columns, a book, individual magazine articles, a series… So I’m qualified to do it, even though I’m not the biggest name out there. And that kind of content is certainly more useful than the “this is how my day went” stuff I’ve been posting way too often.

I’m not so arrogant as to assume that the webmasters of these large sites are in my readership and would take my advice. I don’t expect to change them directly. What I do expect to do is to raise people’s expectations a little. By pointing out what’s good and what’s not so good, hopefully I can raise the public consciousness a little, and indirectly influence some of these sites. If not, then at least my readers are better informed than they otherwise would be, and that’s definitely a good thing.

KT-133A roundup (Tom’s Hardware Guide)

This is a roundup of six VIA KT133a boards. Good review overall. It doesn’t get bogged down in three pages of history that tend to look like a cut-and-paste job from the last similar review, unlike some sites. But it does give just enough history to give proper perspective, though it would have been nice to have mentioned it took EDO and SDRAM some time to show their advantages as well–DDR is no more a failure than the technologies that came before. Unusual for Tom’s, this review isn’t obsessed with overclocking either. Lots of useful information, such as the memory modules tested successfully with each board. Inclusion of the DFI AK74-AC, which will never be released, is questionable. I can see including a reference design, but a cancelled commercial board doesn’t seem to make much sense. You can get an idea from its scores why it got the axe; it was consistently one of the bottom two boards in the roundup.

Emphasis was on performance, not stability, but Pabst and Schmid noted they had no compatibility or stability problems with these boards. Stability in benchmarks doesn’t guarantee stability in the real world, but it’s usually a good indication. As tight as the race is between these boards, stability is more important than speed anyway, and since the majority of people don’t overclock, the attempt to at at least mention compatibility and stability is refreshing.

Socket 7 Upgrade Advice (AnandTech)

This is a collection of upgrade advice for Socket 7 owners. This review, too, doesn’t get too bogged down in history, but the mention of fake cache is noteworthy. This was a PC Chips dirty trick, dating back to 1995 or so, before the K6 series. It wasn’t a very common practice and didn’t last very long–certainly not as long as the article suggests.

Lots of good upgrade advice, including a short compatibility list and pitfalls you can expect. Also included are some benchmarks, but it would have been nice if they’d included more vintage chips. The oldest chip included was the K6-2/450, and AMD sold plenty of slower chips. You can’t extrapolate the performance of a K6-2/300 under the same conditions based on the 450’s score.

Also, the rest of the hardware used is hardly vintage–you’re not likely to find an IBM 75GXP drive and a GeForce 2 video card in an old Socket 7 system. Using vintage hardware would have given more useful results, plus it would have given the opportunity to show what difference upgrading the video card and/or CPU makes, which no doubt some Socket 7 owners are wondering about. Testing these chips with a GeForce does demonstrate that a more modern architecture will give better peformance–it exposes the weaknesses of the CPU–but indication of how much a new CPU would improve a three-year-old PC would be more useful to most people. Few people have the delusion that a K6-3+ is going to challenge an Athlon or P3. They just want to know the best way to spend their money.

No deceiving graphics or lack of knowledge here; what’s in this article is good stuff and well written. It’s just too bad the testing didn’t more closely resemble the real world, which would have made it infinitely more useful.

Memory Tweaking Guide (Sharky Extreme)

This is a nice introduction to the art of memory tweaking, and it explains all those weird acronyms we hear about all the time but rarely see explained. Good advice on how to tweak, and good advice on how to spend your memory money wisely. They disclosed their testbed and included the disclaimer that your results will vary from theirs–their benchmarks are for examples only. The only real gripe I have is that the benchmark graphs, like all too many on the Web, don’t start at zero. From looking at the graph, it would seem that Quake 3 runs six times as fast at 640x480x16 than at 1600x1200x16, when in reality it runs about twice as fast. Graphing this way, as any statistics professor will tell you, is a no-no because it exaggerates the differences way too much.

Asus CUSL2C Review (Trainwrecker)

This is a review of the Asus CUSL2C, an i815-based board intended for the average user. This review has lots of good sources for further information, but unfortunately it also has a little too much hearsay and speculation. Some examples:

“Of course, Asus won’t support this [cable] mod and we’re pretty sure that doing it will void your warranty.” Of course modifying the cable on an Asus product, or any other manufacturer’s product, will void your warranty. So will overclocking, which they didn’t mention. Overclockers are either unaware or apathetic of this. In matters like this, assertiveness is your friend–it gives a review credibility. One who is assertive and wrong than is more believable than one who is wishy-washy and right.

“Arguably, Asus provides the best BIOS support in the business. We believe Asus develops their BIOS’s at their facility in Germany.” Indeed, Asus claims to have re-written over half the code in their BIOSes, which is one reason why Asus boards perform well historically. Most motherboard manufacturers make at least minor modifications to the Award, AMI, or Phoenix BIOS when they license it, but Asus generally makes more changes than most. This claim is fairly well known.

I was also disappointed to see a section heading labeled “Windows 2000,” which simply consisted of a statement that they didn’t have time to test under Windows 2000, followed by lots of hearsay, but at least they included workarounds for the alleged problems. Including hearsay is fine, and some would say even beneficial, as long as you test the claims yourself. This review would have been much more useful if they had delayed the review another day and tested some of the claims they’ve heard.

There’s some good information here, particularly the links to additional resources for this board, but this review is definitely not up to par with the typical reviews on the better-known sites.

DDR Analysis (RealWorldTech)

Good perspective here, in that DDR is an incremental upgrade, just like PC133, PC100, PC66 SDRAM, and EDO DRAM were before it. But I don’t like the assertion that faster clock speeds would make DDR stand out. Why not actually test it with higher-speed processors to show how each of the technologies scale? Testing each chipset at least at 1 GHz in addition to 800 MHz would have been nice; you can’t get a P3 faster than 1 GHz but testing the Athlon chipsets at 1.2 would add to the enlightenment. Why settle for assertions alone when you can have hard numbers?

Also, the assertion “And don’t forget, even though things like DDR, AGP, ATA/100 and other advancements don’t amount to a significant gain all on their own, using all of latest technology may add up to a significant gain,” is interesting, but it’s better if backed up with an example. It’s possible to build two otherwise similar systems, one utilizing AGP, ATA-100 and DDR and another utilizing a PCI version of the same video card, a UDMA-33 controller, and PC133 SDRAM, and see the difference. Unfortuantely you can’t totally isolate the chipsets, so minor differences in the two motherboards will keep this from being totally scientific, but they’ll suffice for demonstrating the trend. Ideally, you’d use two boards from the same manufacturer, using chipsets of like vintage from the same manufacturer. That pretty much limits us to the VIA Apollo Pro series and a Pentium III CPU.

And if you’re ambitious, you can test each possible combination of parts. It’s a nice theory that the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts, and chances are a lot of people will buy it at face value. Why not test it?

This reminds me of a quote from Don Tapscott, in a Communication World interview from Dec. 1999, where he spelled out a sort of communication pecking order. He said, “If you provide structure to data, you get information. And if you provide context to information, you get knowledge. And if you provide human judgment and trans-historical insights, perhaps we can get wisdom.”

This analysis has good human judgment and trans-historical insights. It has context. It has structure. The problem is it doesn’t have enough data, and that’s what keeps this from being a landmark piece. Built on a stronger foundation, this had the potential to be quoted for years to come.



More Networking

What’s going on with memory prices? Every time I say they’re stable, they drop again. I’m not going to say anything about current prices, except they’re low. Face it: I remember five years ago, paying $48 for an 8-meg stick, and I felt like I was stealing it. Kingston memory for $6 a meg! Unbelievable!

I told Dan Bowman on Sunday that you can get a 128-meg PC133 Kingston module at Outpost.com for $59 with a $20 mail-in rebate. Then yesterday he sends me word that I can get a 128-meg PNY PC133 stick from globalcomputer.com for $49. No rebate hassles whatsoever, and plenty of stock. So $6/meg has become $.31/meg. Prices may stabilize there, or they may free-fall some more.

What happened? Overproduction. Millions of chips were produced for millions of computers that didn’t sell over Christmas, which is supposed to be the heaviest buying period of the year. Not a whole lot of upgrades were bought either. And now, with demand for Rambus increasing a little and DDR looming overhead like the Enola Gay, they’re stuck with a bunch of inventory that’s living on borrowed time. Gotta move it, because demand’s moving elsewhere. There’ll be demand for SDRAM for many years to come (just as there’s still some demand for EDO DRAM today), but its days as the memory everybody wants are about to come to a close.

So as long as you have some use for SDRAM, this is a great time to buy. But keep in mind that the stuff you buy now probably won’t move with you to your next PC. A current PC with 384 MB of PC133 SDRAM will be useful for many years to come, true, but next year when you buy a motherboard that takes DDR or Rambus, you’ll have to buy new memory again, so it makes absolutely no sense to hoard this stuff.

So should you buy? Windows 9x sees diminishing returns beyond 128 MB of RAM, unless you’re playing with RAM disks. Windows 2000 really likes 256 MB of RAM, but for the things most people do, there’s little point in going past that. Of all the OSs I use right now, Linux does the best job of finding a use for such a large amount of memory. So if you’re below any of those thresholds, sure, buy. But if you’re there already, you’re better off banking that money until the time comes for your next major upgrade.

But if you are buying, let me reiterate: Get the good stuff. I had a conversation with someone on a message board today. He asked why, if 95% of all memory chips are fine, it makes sense to pay more for a brand name. I pointed out to him that with 8-16 chips per module, a 95% rate means you have a 25-50 percent chance of a bad module, since it just takes one bad cell in one chip to make the module unreliable. It’s much better to get A-grade chips, which have a .1% defect rate, and buy from a name brand vendor, who will in all likelihood do their own testing and lower the defect rate another order of magnitude. To me, knowing that I won’t have problems attributable to bad memory is definitely worth the few bucks. Even the bottom-feeders aren’t beating that Kingston price by much, and the shipping will make the cheap, nearly worthless memory cost more than the good stuff.

Tracking down memory problems is a real pain, unless you’ve got a professional-quality memory tester. I do. Still, verifying a memory problem and then isolating it to a single stick can take hours. I have all the facilities necessary to let me get away with buying the cheap stuff and I won’t do it. That should tell you something. Buying generic memory isn’t like buying generic socks or generic spaghetti. In memory, brand is a lot more than status.

Partition Magic. I tried unsuccessfully last night to track down a copy of Partition Magic 6 so I can revise the article on multi-booting Windows 98 and Windows Me that won’t go in the March issue of Computer Shopper UK. It’ll be in the April issue instead. I also had to deal with some personal issues. It’s not like my whole world’s upside down–it’s not–but a pretty important part of it is right now.


More Networking



Commodore; Relocating My Docs Folder

Bottom fishing. I was over at my church’s sister congregation Monday night, looking over their computer situation. They just got a grant to build a lab, so they asked me to come assess what they have and tell them how to most wisely spend the money they got.

If I were buying all new, I’d be torn. I like the idea of the Compaq iPAQ. It’s $499, it’s all integrated, it’s powerful enough (once you up the memory), comes with Windows 2000, and someone else built it. I can just get seven of them, plug them into a hub, set one up properly, clone it to the rest, and be done with it. It’s a business-class machine from a proven maker.

On the other hand, Compaq Presarios start at $399 and include all the software they need. I’d have to get NICs for them, but that’s $40. Memory’s another $60. So for the cost of the iPAQ, I get similar hardware plus Win98, Word, and Works. But it’s consumer-grade hardware and I’m not impressed with Presarios. I’d really rather have iPAQs with Windows 2000 and StarOffice, frankly. I think they’re better machines. (And there’s probably money to buy the software we need.)

But what about what they have? It’s truly a mixed bag. Mostly a mixed bag of junk. There’s an XT in their room, along with one of the first Compaq 386s. The Compaq is junk. I’m trying to find an appropriate word for the XT. There are a whole bunch of LPX form-factor 386SXs, some Dell and Compaq, others Packard Bell. Junk. There are three Compaq Proliant servers, 486-based, decked out with SCSI drives. Rugged and reliable, I could turn one of them into a Linux gateway, and put Samba on another for use for file serving and authentication. I thought I saw a Compaq Deskpro 486/33. Reliable, but not very useful these days. And there are three ATs: one a 386 and two Pentium-75s, one of which works. The other gives beep codes, so probably either the memory or video’s shot. All in all, 90% of it’s useless, and none of it’s even worthy of being called a museum piece.

Normally I’d say junk it all, maybe keep one of the Proliants and the working Pentium-75. But in light of those $29 Soyo BAT Celeron motherboards… Do the math. The board’s $29. A Celeron is $50. A 128-meg stick is $60. I can probably salvage the video cards, except for the one in the 386. So add a video card, say, $35. Of course I can salvage everything else I need from that big stack of obsolete stuff. So for about $150 each after shipping, I can have two Celerons. For another $180, I could have a third.

Sounds good on paper, but a new Presario costs $399, has more than $220 worth of software, and is covered under warranty. Compaq’s not my favorite computer company, but I don’t really want to be their computer company.

Those $29 Soyo boards are good enough for me. That’s why I ordered two. So I’ll get one final tour of duty out of my souped-up IBM PC/AT, which has done time as a 286 of course, a 386DX-40, a Pentium-75, and a Cyrix 6×86-166. Sick thought: If I end up putting a Celeron-500 in it (I haven’t decided what CPU it gets yet), that AT could be my fastest computer again.

But what makes sense for me often doesn’t make sense elsewhere. And I guess that’s why I write books and magazine articles–sometimes I can figure out when and why that is.

A disk tool that could save your bacon someday. You find all kinds of cool stuff in online forums, let me tell you. I probably find one or two gems a week, but for me, that’s worth it. MBRWORK allows you to play around with partitions, and can even allow you to restore deleted partitions. It’ll also remove those disk overlay programs for you, which is great–the only sure way I could ever get rid of them was to low-level format the drive, which takes forever and is destructive, of course. You can find it at www.terabyteunlimited.com . You can find some brief documentation and screenshots online at www.webdev.net/orca/mbrwork.htm . Download this and keep it in a safe place.

I don’t think do-it-yourself data recovery is something anyone wants to get good at, but it’s usually better than paying someone to do it.


Commodore; Relocating My Docs Folder



My docs; Apple; Lost cd rom drive

It’s that time of year again. MacWorld time. I work with Macs way too much, so of course I have opinions. If you expect me to withhold them, you don’t know me very well.

Let’s face it: Apple’s in serious trouble. Serious trouble. They can’t move inventory. The Cube is a bust–unexpandable, defect-ridden, and overpriced. The low-end G4 tower costs less than the Cube but offers better expandability.  Buying a Cube is like marrying a gorgeous airhead. After the looks fade in a few years, you’re permanently attached to an airhead. So people buy a G4 tower, which has better expandability, or they get an iMac, which costs less.

Unfortunately, that gorgeous airhead metaphor goes a long way with Apple. The Mac’s current product line is more about aesthetics than anything else. So they’ve got glitzy, glamorous cases (not everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, I hear some people lust after Britney Spears too), but they’re saddled with underpowered processors dragged down by an operating system less sophisticated under the hood than the OS Commodore shipped with the first Amiga in 1985. I don’t care if your PowerPC is more efficient than an equivalently-clocked Pentium IV (so’s a VIA Cyrix III but no one’s talking about it), because if your OS can’t keep that CPU fed with a steady stream of tasks, it just lost its real-world advantage.

But let’s set technical merit aside. Let’s just look at pure practicalities. You can buy an iMac for $799. Or, if you’re content with a low-end computer, for the same amount of money you can buy a low-end eMachine and pair it up with a 19-inch NEC monitor and still have a hundred bucks left over to put towards your printer. Yeah, so the eMachine doesn’t have the iMac’s glitzy looks. I’ll trade glitz for a 19-inch monitor. Try working with a 19-inch and then switch to a 15-inch like the iMac has. You’ll notice a difference.

So the eMachine will be obsolete in a year? So will the iMac. You can spend $399 for an accelerator board for your iMac. Or you can spend $399 for a replacement eMachine (the 19-inch monitor will still be nice for several years) and get a hard drive and memory upgrade while you’re at it.

On the high end, you’ve got the PowerMac G4 tower. For $3499, you get a 733 MHz CPU, 256 MB RAM, 60 GB HD, a DVD-R/CD-R combo drive, internal 56K modem, gigabit Ethernet you won’t use, and an nVidia GeForce 2 MX card. And no monitor. Software? Just the OS and iMovie, which is a fun toy. You can order one of these glitzy new Macs today, but Apple won’t ship it for a couple of months.

Still, nice specs. For thirty-five hundred bucks they’d better be nice! Gimme thirty-five hundred smackers and I can build you something fantabulous.

But I’m not in the PC biz, so let’s see what Micron might give me for $3500. For $3514, I configured a Micron ClientPro DX5000. It has dual 800 MHz Pentium III CPUs (and an operating system that actually uses both CPUs!), 256 MB of RDRAM, a 7200 RPM 60 GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM and CD-RW (Micron doesn’t offer DVD-R, but you can get it third-party if you must have one), a fabulous Sound Blaster Live! card, a 64 MB nVidia GeForce 2 MX, and in keeping with Apple tradition, no monitor. I skipped the modem because Micron lets me do that. If you must have a modem and stay under budget, you can throttle back to dual 766 MHz CPUs and add a 56K modem for $79. The computer also includes Intel 10/100 Ethernet, Windows 2000, and Office 2000.

And you can have it next week, if not sooner.

I went back to try to configure a 1.2 GHz AMD Athlon-based system, and I couldn’t get it over $2500. So just figure you can get a machine with about the same specs, plus a 19-inch monitor and a bunch more memory.

Cut-throat competition in PC land means you get a whole lot more bang for your buck with a PC. And PC upgrades are cheap. A Mac upgrade typically costs $400. With PCs you can often just replace a CPU for one or two hundred bucks down the road. And switching out a motherboard is no ordeal–they’re pretty much standardized at this point, and PC motherboards are cheap. No matter what you want, you’re looking at $100-$150. Apple makes it really hard to get motherboard upgrades before the machines are obsolete.

It’s no surprise at all to me that the Mac OS is now the third most-common OS on the desktop (fourth if you count Windows 9x and Windows NT/2000 as separate platforms), behind Microsoft’s offerings and Linux. The hardware is more powerful (don’t talk to me about the Pentium 4–we all know it’s a dog, that’s why only one percent of us are buying it), if only by brute force, and it’s cheaper to buy and far cheaper to maintain.

Apple’s just gonna have to abandon the glitz and get their prices down. Or go back to multiple product lines–one glitzy line for people who like that kind of thing, and one back-to-basics line that uses standard ATX cases and costs $100 less off the top just because of it. Apple will never get its motherboard price down to Intel’s range, unless they can get Motorola to license the Alpha processor bus so they can use the same chipsets AMD uses. I seriously doubt they’ll do any of those things.

OS X will finally start to address the technical deficiencies, but an awful lot of Mac veterans aren’t happy with X.

Frankly, it’s going to take a lot to turn Apple around and make it the force it once was. I don’t think Steve Jobs has it in him, and I’m not sure the rest of the company does either, even if they were to get new leadership overnight. (There’s pressure to bring back the legendary Steve Wozniak, the mastermind behind the Apple II who made Apple great in the 1970s and 1980s.)

I don’t think they’ll turn around because I don’t think they care. They’ll probably always exist as a niche player, selling high-priced overdesigned machines to people who like that sort of thing, just as Jaguar exists as a niche player, selling high-priced swanky cars to people who like that sort of thing. And I think the company as a whole realizes that and is content with it. But Jaguar’s not an independent company anymore, nor is it a dominant force in the auto industry. I think the same fate is waiting for Apple.


My docs; Apple; Lost cd rom drive


New adventures in SCSI. I was digging around this week and I found an old SCSI card. The PCB identified it as an Initio INI-9100A. I seem to recall I got it with my CD burner a few years back, and that I ditched it when it wouldn’t work with Windows 2000 RC2. Curious to see if drivers were ever released for it, I checked Initio’s Web site, and lo and behold, the release version of Windows 2000 was supposed to support the card. Since I’ve got a couple of decent SCSI CD-ROM drives laying around, I figured, why not try it?

I was unhappy to see Windows 2000 failed to bring up the Add New Hardware wizard after installation, but when I looked in Device Manager, the card was there. So I powered down, connected an old NEC 12X SCSI CD-ROM to it, powered back up, and bingo! I even got activity during boot. A quick verification by reading the disc, and I’m happy. So I powered down again. What else can I throw at it…? I spied an ancient, ancient Quantum 52 MB SCSI drive. (Don’t ask me why I keep this stuff.) I knew the card wouldn’t boot off it, since it lacks an onboard BIOS, but would the drive still work, I wondered? So I powered down, plugged the ancient thing in there, power back up, and I thought I saw the drive’s LED flicker during boot. Yes, back in this drive’s day, hard drives had LEDs on the front of them. They even had faceplates! I watched Windows finish booting, opened My Computer, and sure enough, I had an extra hard drive up there. But what on Earth could be on it? I opened up the drive, and hit gold. I must have used the drive sometime within the past five years, because it contained a copy of Caldera OpenDOS. That, believe it or not, is extremely useful. OpenDOS’ FDISK will delete any partition, unlike Microsoft’s. So I’m very glad I tried the drive.

So now I’ve got two SCSI-equipped systems, one of which is bootable. I’ve got an excuse to go buy a $220 IBM or Quantum 10,000 RPM SCSI drive… Uh oh. Good thing I got some overtime at work this week and will get some more this weekend.

And it looks like it’s unplanned upgrade time. Tom Gatermann called me up yesterday. He was replacing our friend Tim Coleman’s hard drive and the system just wouldn’t come back up. He futzed around with it for an hour, trying everything he could think of, then called me. I had him try putting the hard drive on auto detect, reset all the PnP/ESCD data, and of course, check all the cables. Nothing. The board would POST, then die. Well, without having a POST card (I know how to make one except I don’t have an EPROM burner) I can’t diagnose it any further.

Come to think of it, I should have had him disable L2 cache and see if that brought it back to life. It’d be slow as can be, but that’s a good way to troubleshoot a Socket 7 system, or a 386 or 486 for that matter. Strip the system down to just motherboard, CPU, video, a boot device, and a single bank of memory (a single DIMM or one pair of SIMMs). Disable L2 cache. If it works with L2 cache disabled, it’s a motherboard problem of some sort. Check all jumpers, re-seat anything that’s re-seatable, and try again. If it still doesn’t work, it has to be a CPU, video, or memory problem. Then you’ve got a few more steps to try, including disabling L1 cache and switching out the video and memory.

Tom took the system home with him, so I’ll be giving it a look today.

At any rate, it looks like we’re dealing with a blown board, and every time Tom or I do anything with that system, something goes. Tim’s on power supply #2, motherboard #2, sound card #2… Tim’s got an army of cats, and the system’s on the floor, which gives me concern. The system can pull in cat hair, and with it, static electricity. And I don’t know how good Tim’s wiring is. It’s a very maddening problem. Had anyone else built the system, I’d be cursing them, but Tom and I built it ourselves, and we used the same calibre parts we use in our own systems. So we think it’s an environmental problem.

I’m thinking I’ll go ahead and pick up a Gigabyte motherboard with a Duron chip on it, then give Tim my two-year-old AOpen AX59Pro board. I normally run systems much longer than that, but I want to help Tim, and I really ought to try to stay somewhat current.

Linux 2.4 again. I was right. Within 4 hours of 2.4’s release, Alan Cox released Linux2.4-ac1. A few hours after that, Linux2.4-ac2 followed. When does he sleep, I wonder?



IE shortcut; Optimizing WinME; Partition; 10/100 NIC; Mobos

Trimming down Windows 2000.┬áSomeone else observed last week that, among other things, Windows’ included games are now critical system components. That’s messed up. Fortunately, it’s fixable.

Open the file C:WinntInfsysoc.inf in your favorite text editor, after making a backup copy of course. Search for the string “HIDE,” (without quotes, but including the comma). Delete all references to this string. Save the file. Reboot. Now open Control Panel, Add/Remove Programs, and go down to Windows System Components. You can now cleanly uninstall the Windows components that may not be useful to you, such as the Space Cadet Pinball game, or the Accessibility Options. I’m in the habit of just banging on the shift key several times to turn off my screen blanker. Why shift? Because it won’t send weird keystrokes to whatver application I left running in the foreground. Unfortunately, hitting shift five times usually pops up the Accessibility options, much to my annoyance. So I was very glad to finally be able to uninstall that feature.

And a bargain NIC. This week only, Circuit City is selling the D-Link DFE-530TX+ 10/100 NIC for $14.99 with a $9.99 mail-in rebate. While I prefer the DEC Tulip chipset for inexpensive 10/100 NICs, the Realtek chipset in this D-Link works with Linux and Windows, and that’s an absolute giveaway price. I mean, come on, most of us spend that much every week on soda.

I’ve got a D-Link laying around as a spare, but I had a Circuit City gift card with about $7 left on it, so I picked one up. Besides, I needed a stereo miniplug-to-dual-RCA cable, so suddenly I had two semi-compelling reasons to go to the shark-infested cave. It’s good to have some spare parts, and the D-Links have much better compatibility than the NDC card with the obscure Macronix 98715 chipset I still have in at least one of my systems.

I’ve seen some ludicrous claims that D-Link gives you 3Com and Intel quality at a Linksys price. I don’t buy it for a minute. But for a small home-based network, why pay $40-$60 for a NIC if you don’t have to?

And somehow I managed to avoid the sharks as well. I guess I just didn’t have Pentium 4 tattooed across my forehead.

Amazon now seems to be selling Optimizing Windows at its full retail price of $24.95. Obviously sales are slower now than when it was selling at (sometimes deeply) discounted prices, but still much better than November levels. If you’ve bought it, my heartfelt thanks go out to you. If you’ve posted a review, another thank you.

If you’ve read it and like it and feel like writing a review, either at Amazon or another online bookseller such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, Bookpool or Fatbrain, please feel free to do so. I appreciate it greatly. And if you have comments or questions on the book, feel free to e-mail me.

If you’re wanting to do a price compare on Optimizing Windows, visit www2.bestbookbuys.com/cgi-bin/bbb.cgi?ISBN=1565926773.


IE shortcut; Optimizing WinME; Partition; 10/100 NIC; Mobos

Plextor bargains, and Year 2000 in review

A bargain Plextor CD-RW. I just spotted this great tip in a link to a link to a link in the StorageReview forums. The Iomega ZipCD 12x10x32 appears to be a relabeled Plextor drive, and it sometimes sells for around $100. So if you’re looking for the best CD-R on the market at a great price, go get it.
Details are at www.roundsparrow.com/comp/iomega1 if you want to have a look-see.

The $99 price seems to be a CompUSA special sale. Check local availability at www.compusa.com/products/product_info.asp?product_code=280095 if you’re interested.

Incidentally, the IDE 12x10x32 drives from TDK and Creative are also reported to be re-branded Plextors. Regular retail price on these four “twin” drives is similar, around $300. The TDK and Creative drives come with Nero Burning ROM, however, making them more desirable than the Plextor model. Iomega bundles Adaptec’s CD suite.

Happy New Year. An ancient Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” Well, 2000 certainly was interesting. So, my toast to you this year is this: May 2001 be less interesting than 2000. Boring isn’t always bad. Just usually.

Linux 2.4 almost made it. Yesterday, Linus Torvalds released linux2.4-prerelease and vowed there won’t be a prerelease1, prerelease2, etc.–this is it. Bugs get fixed in this one, then the final 2.4 comes out (to be immediately followed by linux2.4ac1, no doubt–Alan Cox always releases a patched kernel swatting a couple of bugs within hours of Linus releasing the new kernel. It happened with 2.0 and with 2.2, and history repeats itself).

Anyway, the 2.2 prerelease turned into a series in spite of Linus’ vows, so Linus isn’t always right, but I expect 2.4 will be out this month, if not this week.

Linux 2.4 will increase performance, especially on high-memory and SMP machines, but I ran a 2.3 series kernel (basically the Linux equivalent of an alpha release of 2.4) on my P120 for a long time and found it to be faster than 2.2, even on a machine that humble. I also found it to be more stable than Microsoft’s final releases, but hey.

I ought to download 2.4prerelease and put it on my dual Celeron box to see how far it’s come, but I doubt I get around to it today.

Other lowlights of 2000. Windows 2000 flopped. It’s not a total disaster, but sales aren’t meeting Microsoft’s expectations. PC sales flopped, and that was a disaster. The Pentium 4 was released to awful reviews. Nvidia bought the mortal remains of 3dfx for a song. Similarly, Aureal departed from this mortal coil, purchased by longtime archrival Creative Labs after bankruptcy. (In a former incarnation, before bankruptcy and being run into the ground, Aureal was known as MediaVision. PC veterans probably remember them.) A federal judge ordered the breakup of Microsoft, but the appeals process promises to at least delay it, if not prevent it. We’ll hear a lot about that in 2001, but 2001 probably won’t bring any closure.

Hmm, other highlights. Apple failed to release OS X this year, and saw its new product line flop. Dotcom after dotcom shuttered its doors, much to Wall Street’s dismay. Linux companies didn’t topple MS, much to Wall Street’s dismay. And speaking of Wall Street, Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) flip-flopped in the rankings of richest man in the world several times.

And two of my favorite pundits, Bob Metcalfe and G. Burgess Alison, called it quits last year. They are sorely missed.

And once again, 2000 wasn’t the year of the NC.

I know I missed a few. But those were the highlights, as I see them.