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My poor-man’s SSD boots DOS really fast

So, my no-name compact flash adapters arrived today. I ripped one open like a kid at Christmas, pulled a PC off the scrap heap, yanked my 128 MB compact flash card out of my PDA, and went to town.Unfortunately I couldn’t get Xubuntu to boot, let alone install a minimal configuration, because my CD was corrupt. I wasn’t sure if I could install anything in 128 MB, but my last Debian 3.0 install was smaller than that, so I held out hope.

So I grabbed a Windows 98 SE CD. Surely that would fit in 128 megs if I left out all of the optional components, right? And if not, there’s always Doublespace, right? Wrong. The installation bombed out, saying I needed 205 megs.

The original Win98 was smaller though, right? So I grabbed that CD. It wouldn’t play either. It repeated that same 205 meg line. I’ll bet it says that to all the guys.

So I grabbed my Win95B CD. I’m pretty sure I once crammed Win95B and Office 97 onto a 170 MB hard drive. It wasn’t pretty, but hey, it was an emergency. But no joy there either. The CD wouldn’t even read. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since it’s a CD-R that I last touched sometime in 1999. I have no idea where the original CD is, but I know where the manual and COA are, not that that helps any.

I dug around for a Debian CD. I come across those fairly often when I’m looking for something else, but tonight I couldn’t find one.

I found my OS/2 3.0 sleeve, which got me thinking, but I couldn’t find the disc. I know I could make that fit in 128 megs and it would really scream–as in, it would complain loudly about the ATI video, and it would run really fast–but I never found the CD.

So for lack of anything else to put on it, I reinserted the Win98SE disc, rebooted, picked the Command Prompt with CD-ROM option, and dropped into DOS for perhaps the first time since the Clinton administration. I ran FDISK, blew away the partition table and repartitioned it, rebooted, found FORMAT.COM hidden in the WIN98 directory on the CD, formatted the drive, remembered I had to use the /S option, reformatted the drive, copied over himem.sys, oakcdrom.sys, mscdex.exe, and whatever else I could find, and built up config.sys and autoexec.bat files by hand using copy con, since I couldn’t find edit.com anywhere on the CD. I removed the CD, rebooted, and it booted fast–into an error message saying I’d neglected the /d parameter. Considering the last time I used the /d parameter was in 1999, that shouldn’t be surprising. What is surprising is that I remembered the syntax. So I deleted config.sys and autoexec.bat, built up new ones with copy con, and rebooted again.

The Win98 splash screen flashed, then I got a familiar DOS prompt, including indicators that the CD-ROM driver was working. It took about as long to boot as it did for the BIOS to do its thing–probably 1-2 seconds. Not bad for $7 worth of hardware ($5 for the adapter from Compgeeks, and $2 for the CF card from a garage sale).

Supposedly Windows 2000 can shrink down to 60MB if you get really aggressive with nLite. I’d really like to see that, but that means I’ll have to find my Windows 2000 CD. I’m sure it’s hiding somewhere in Argentina, playing cards with my OS/2 3.0 and Debian CDs.

I also ought to download Debian 3.0 again. I’m thinking 60-120 megs of Debian is probably more useful than 60 megs of Windows, but I really want to see how quickly Windows 2000 boots off flash.

Supposedly these cards support UDMA, so I probably ought to order some larger CF cards so I can do something really useful with them. Seeing DOS boot instantly is enough to convince me that these things can be useful. Who knows, I might be insane enough to try running my webserver off flash (the memory, not the obnoxious Macromedia/Adobe product).

My SSD experiment, coming soon

SSDs are the first technology to excite me in a very long time. Next-generation drives with ultralow seek times and transfer rates around 100mb/s are finally available from Crucial and OCZ, but at a price of $600-$700 for a 32gb drive.

I’m going to wait for prices to come down and experiment with a cheaper alternative.Intel and Toshiba are promising 120mb/s rates later this year, and analysts are expecting prices to drop as manufacturing capacity increases. Competition can’t hurt either.

What I’m going to do in the meantime is use the old compact flash trick. The key is to get an adapter and a card that are both capable of UDMA. Addonics is the manufacturer of the best adapters. For cards, get something at least rated at 233X. A 300X card would be better. A 233X card will give transfer rates of 30-35mb/s, which is unspectacular but reasonable.

My goal is twofold. One, I want quiet. Two, it’ll reduce power consumption by about 20 watts. The you’ll-burn-the-drive-up-in-a-week myth is pretty well disproven now, so I’m not worried about that. Eliminating the possibility of a head crash means flash will be more reliable than a conventional drive, not less. For some of what I do, the low seek times will make a flash drive faster, rather than slower.

I have a couple of adapters on order. I haven’t ordered cards yet but that’s next. I need to decide what size I need first. With 233X 4gb cards selling for $25 at Newegg, I can get in the SSD game really cheaply, assuming I can live with 4 gigs (which is a possibility). Initially I’ll mess with this 128mb card I picked up at a yard sale for $2. I can’t do much with 128 megs anymore but I can build a Linux server in less than 100, just to prove the concept.

I think the CF trick is a good way to get in the game while waiting for prices to come down. And if you’re fixing up an old system for someone, a 4-8gb card may well give performance comparable to what was in the computer to begin with, and provides enough capacity for Windows 2000 or XP, office software, and a web browser, while eliminating the danger of a disk crash. In that situation, the compact flash is a viable permanent replacement.

Identifying what processes are talking on your Windows box

If you’re curious whether a particular piece of software might be spyware, or you have some other reason to believe your computer might have been compromised and might be talking to something it shouldn’t be, there’s a quick and easy way to find out besides using the standard netstat -an command.

Windows XP and 2003 (and, presumably, Vista) have the netstat -o command, which tells you what IP addresses your computer is talking to and on what ports, plus it adds the process IDs that have those ports open. There’s a hotfix to add that functionality to Windows 2000, but it appears you have to demonstrate a need for it in order for Microsoft to provide it.

Regardless, I like the Sysinternals tool TCPview better. The most important thing it does is give you the names of the application, instead of the process ID, using each port. That saves you from having to run task manager and figure it out yourself. It puts everything in a GUI window, making it a little bit easier to scroll around, and it also tries to resolve the IP addresses, which can be nice. So if all you have open is a web browser pointing at Google and you see processes talking to web addresses you’ve never heard of, you have reason to be suspicious.

The next time someone complains to me that a computer is running slow, once I think I’ve cleaned off the spyware I think I’ll run this utility just to see if there might be anything left.

A big time test for Nlite

I saw an XP Myths page this weekend, and although I don’t agree with its assessment of XP’s security, most of it seemed credible. It said XP can do fine on as little as a 233 MHz Pentium with 128 MB of RAM.

I whipped out a P2-266 with 192 MB of RAM to see.The specs are humble, to say the least: P2-266, 192 MB RAM (upgraded from 96 because XP kicks into some kind of "reduced functionality" mode with less than 128), and a very old Seagate 1.2 GB hard drive.

I installed XP with lots of pieces, like Media Player and the Internet Connection Wizard, removed, although I did leave in Internet Explorer.

Initially I formatted the drive FAT, since FAT does perform about 20% better than NTFS on limited hardware. The problem was the cluster size got me. Formatted FAT, I had about 100 MB free when the installation was complete, which is dangerously low. Converting to NTFS brought that up to 170 MB, and gives the option to compress some items to get some more space.

Performance wise, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Windows boots in 1 minute, 15 seconds after defragmenting the drive. Considering this 1.2 GB drive probably dates to 1996 at the latest, that’s awfully good. Memory usage was 96 MB, so you’d be able to run an application or two on it, although a modern web browser would feel claustrophobic after a while.

If I were actually going to try to use this computer, I’d put a decent hard drive in it–the newer the better, of course.

I would also want to upgrade the memory to 384 MB, which is the maximum this one supports. A cut-down XP seems to do just fine in 192 MB of RAM, but it wouldn’t do so fine with antivirus software loaded.

I still think a cut-down Windows 2000 is a better choice for this type of machine, but it’s certainly possible to run XP on it. With either OS, though, I would use Nlite to remove as much of the fluff as possible, to give yourself some space for whatever it is you really want to do with the machine. I think it would make a good PC to run educational software for kids, for example. And it’s nice to have a choice of something other than Windows 98 for that.

A Readyboost alternative for XP

I found a reference today to Eboostr, a product that adds Readyboost-like capability to XP. Essentially it uses a USB 2.0 flash drive to speed up your system, although it’s unclear whether it’s using it for virtual memory, a disk cache, or both.

I found a review.I don’t have a machine that’s an ideal candidate for this. The product, from everyone else’s comments on the blog, works best on machines that have less than 1 GB of RAM. If you’ve maxxed out the memory on an aging laptop, this product will extend its usefulness.

My ancient Micron Transport laptop would be a good candidate, since it maxes out at 320MB of RAM and none of the 256 MB sticks I’ve tried in it work, so I’m stuck at 192 MB. But there are two problems: It’s running Windows 2000, and it doesn’t have USB 2.0 slots. Any machine that came with USB 2.0 slots and Windows XP probably can be upgraded pretty cheaply to 1 GB of RAM or more.

I could put XP on the laptop, get a PCMCIA USB 2.0 card for it, and a $20 USB stick so I can use a $29 product to give me Readyboost. But by the time I bought all that, I’d be more than halfway down the road to a newer laptop.

I think a better solution for me would be to replace the hard drive with a solid-state drive. It would cost less than $200, boost the reliability (the latest I’ve heard is that solid state IDE drives will last about 10 years, which is about double the expectancy of a conventional drive), and then everything is on a device with a fast seek time. Plus the drive in that machine is getting old anyway and probably ought to be replaced. I could probably get a solid state drive for about the cost of a conventional hard drive, a USB stick, and this software.

I’m not going to dismiss the software entirely, since it clearly is helping some of the people using it. If you run lots of heavy applications side by side and you’re running up against your memory limits, it can probably help you. And if you can get a good deal on a flash drive (either you have one, or grab one on sale for $20), then there’s little harm in downloading the demo and trying it out for 4 hours. Make sure you stress the system before and after installing to see if you can notice a difference.

If you don’t see much difference, you’re not out much. USB flash drives are incredibly useful anyway. Use it as a cheap and fast backup device. If you do see a difference, then you’ve extended the useful life of your machine.

The mixed results don’t surprise me, frankly. Vista’s Readyboost gives mixed results too. It really helps some people. It has no effect on others. And in rare cases it may actually make things worse.

If you want to try to get some of the benefit for free, you might experiment with redirecting your browser cache, Photoshop scratch disk, and temp files to a USB flash drive. It almost certainly won’t hurt, and could help a lot.

Updating Windows without a network connection

Problem: I have to get three Windows servers patched up to date tomorrow. I found this out about 3 this afternoon.

Second problem: No network connection to the outside world, under any circumstances.

Third problem: Any rewritable media used on said servers must be destroyed after use.

Impossible? Believe it or not, no.Normally we keep a copy of Hfnetchk Pro in this environment for pushing out patches (copied from an Hfnetchk Pro server that does have a connection to the outside world), but someone saw fit to blow that server away. Ahem. Someone can expect a thank-you letter from me. And perhaps a thank-you present from my dog.

As for why servers with no connection to the outside world need patches to protect them from the outside world, well, I don’t make the rules.

So the answer in this case is to get my grubby mitts on ctupdate, a tool written by the wonderful German IT magazine c’t (their few English-translated articles are so brilliant, I wonder sometimes if I should learn German just so I can read the magazine).

Ctupdate will go download your updates, make an ISO image for you to burn to CD or DVD, and the result includes a nice menu so brain-dead easy that even a CIO could use it. (Oh, did I say that out loud?)

The catch? At present, a full collection of Windows XP or 2003 updates is nearly 800 MB in size, so make sure you have a fast network connection and either a DVD burner or a big USB disk if you plan to use it.

With a ctupdate-created DVD in hand, I can walk up to those isolated servers, pop in the disc, click a couple of buttons, have a cup or two of coffee, and then move on to the next one. Or better yet, copy the DVD to a network share, run the executable, click those buttons, have some coffee, and get on with the day. Problem solved.

This works for some slightly less convoluted situations too. If you expect to be asked to fix Windows PCs for a relative or twelve while you’re on Christmas vacation, prepare by downloading ctupdate, downloading all the updates, and either burning them to DVD or copying them over to a USB device. It works with Windows 2000, XP, and 2003 updates.

Upgrade diary: Compaq Evo D51S

Compaq Evo D51S

The Compaq Evo D51S is a well-built, small computer and it offers a few upgrade options

I upgraded a Compaq Evo D51S today. This was also sold under the name D510, and may have also been sold under the HP or Hewlett Packard brand. It was intended to be a low-profile, relatively affordable business computer.

Upgrading it poses some challenges, but there are some things you can do with it.This one has a 2.0 GHz Celeron in it. It will support a 2.4 GHz P4 without any issues (and a lot of them were sold with that chip), but I think that’s as high as you can go with the CPU.

The 2.0 GHz Celeron that came in this system will bog down with a heavy Photoshop filter and I’m sure some of the things I do in Adobe Premiere would bring it to its knees at times, but if your primary use of the machine is word processing, spreadsheets, web browsing and e-mail, it’s plenty fast. I would max out the system RAM before I replaced the CPU.

You can forget about motherboard replacements in this machine. Everything about the motherboard inside is odd, to get everything to fit in a smaller case. Compaq used to be criticized (sometimes unfairly) for using proprietary motherboards, but this one’s definitely proprietary.

Inside, you’re limited to two DIMM slots. I pulled the memory and replaced it with a pair of PC2100 DDR 1 GB DIMMs, which is the maximum the system supports. According to Crucial, PC3200 memory is compatible. Of course if you’re buying new memory, it makes sense to buy the faster stuff, in case you ever want to put the memory in another system.

In late 2010, 2 GB of PC3200 RAM sells for about $90. That’s close to the price of the computer itself, but more memory is probably the best thing you can buy for one of these machines, especially if it came with 256 MB of RAM.

The onboard video is the Intel 845G integrated video. It was better than I expected, but it steals system memory and, at least theoretically, it reduces memory bandwidth. The AGP slot is oriented vertically, so there’s only room for a low-profile card. That limits your choices somewhat. I had a low-profile ATI card with an early Radeon chipset on it. It’s not the most exciting card in the world, and may not even be better than the integrated Intel video, but it freed up some system memory for me. For what I want to do with this system, it will be fine. I’m not sure that Sid Meier’s Railroads! will run on it, but Railroad Tycoon 3 will, and from what I understand that’s the better game anyway.

There are a number of low-profile AGP video cards on the market that would be a suitable upgrade for this machine. None of them are cutting edge, but there are a few that are DirectX 9-capable, and prices range from $20 to $40. The built-in video is adequate, and while my first impression of it was that it didn’t bog the system down nearly as badly as the integrated video in the P3 days did, I’m still not a big fan of it. I think adding a discrete video card is a good move.

The stock Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 is a pretty good performer. At 40 GB it’s relatively small, and it won’t keep up with a brand-new drive, but for a lot of uses it’s plenty fast. From what I understand it will support hard drives larger than 137 GB but you may have to mess with IDE modes in the BIOS to make it happen. The trick appears to be to set the BIOS to use bit shift instead of LBA. Additionally, you have to be running Windows 2000 SP4 or XP SP2 to see the full capacity of the drive. I don’t have a large drive to put in it, so I haven’t tested that.

There’s no room for a second drive in there, so if you want additional storage beyond what’s already there, it will have to be external. Or you can jettison the floppy drive, but then you’ll have a goofy-looking hole in the front of the computer. That’s the price you pay for a low-profile system.

The CD-ROM drive in my particular unit was pretty balky. I’m going to replace it with a CD-R/RW drive for the short term, and eventually (probably early next year) put a DVD burner in it. I’m primarily interested in putting home movies on DVD. For backup and data transfer, I pretty much use USB flash drives exclusively now. They’re a lot faster and more convenient than messing around with CD/DVD burning software. Any drive with an old-school 40-pin IDE connector will work.

Speaking of USB, the USB ports all seem to be USB 2.0, which is nice (installing software off a USB 2.0-based flash drive makes you want to swear off optical media forever), but the ports on the front are recessed far enough that only a standard cable or a very low-profile flash drive can plug into them. My SD reader would only plug into the back, which is inconvenient.

The system has two full-size PCI slots for expansion. I put an IEEE 1394 (Firewire) card in one of the slots, since I want to do some light video work with it. The other slot will probably get an 802.11b wireless card. If I needed that PCI slot for something else, I could plug in a USB adapter for wireless networking.

I used to be in the habit of buying the biggest case I could afford or find (they weren’t always the same thing), so a really low-profile desktop like this Evo 510 feels a little strange. But a lot of things are different now. I could put a 1 TB hard drive in this system if I needed an obscene amount of storage. USB ports eliminate the need for Zip or Jaz or Syquest drives and even, to a large extent, for CD or DVD burners. If it weren’t for my interest in video, I wouldn’t bother with a burner in this machine at all. And since sound and networking are built in, there’s no need for a lot of expansion slots. It would be nice to have three PCI slots instead of just two, but I would imagine a lot of people never even fill two.

As it is, this computer fits on a small desk, and if you put an LCD monitor on top of it, the combination will take less real estate than a 17-inch CRT monitor does.

There are a lot of these machines on the market now, either coming off lease or being replaced due to business upgrade policy. They’re cheap ($75-$150 depending on configuration) and I think they make an excellent home PC. They’re cheap, unobtrusive, and surprisingly expandable.

A decked-out 510 probably won’t run Vista all that well, but a lot of new PCs don’t run it very well either. I think a 510 running Windows XP or Linux can be a very useful computer for a good number of years.

Why I generally buy AMD

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

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

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

Read More »Why I generally buy AMD

Why I like MS Office better than OpenOffice

I saw a story on Digg talking about why MS Office is so much better than OpenOffice. The argument was pretty shallow–pretty much everything it said was either untrue or could be simplified to "because it is" or "because it costs money."

I’ve used both. I have both installed on a couple of machines. I generally use MS Office. Here’s why.For virtually everything I do, OpenOffice is fine. There’s no feature in Office 2000 that I actually use that isn’t in recent builds of OpenOffice. None. I wrote a book in Office 97, and the only thing that would keep me from writing the same book again in OpenOffice might be the template I used. If OpenOffice could interpret my old publisher’s template and save it in a format my editor’s copy of Word could understand, I’d be OK.

And honestly, I think during the process of writing that book, I pushed my system a lot harder than most people do. Word 97 would crash hard on me once or twice a month, and I don’t think anyone else has ever done that.

I’ve never crashed Word 2000. I don’t know if it’s because Word 2000 is more stable or if it’s because Windows 2000 is a lot more stable than Windows 98 was. I never ran Office 97 on Windows 2000.

My complaint with OpenOffice is speed. Word launches in five seconds or less, even if I don’t have its quick-launch application in memory. Usually less. OpenOffice components load slowly, sometimes taking 30 seconds to load. If I wanted to wait 30 seconds for my word processor to load, I’d use my Commodore 128.

And while I can’t quantify it, once Word is loaded, it’s faster and more responsive. OpenOffice Writer seems to hesitate just a fraction of a second longer when I pull down a menu or hit a hotkey. There’s not a lot of difference, but it drives me nuts.

I’m spoiled, I know. I used to use a word processor called TransWrite on my Amiga. There were a lot of things TransWrite wouldn’t do, but it was lightning fast. Even on a 7 MHz Amiga, it did everything instantly.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but what I want is something that gives me all the features of, say, Word 95, and runs as fast as TransWrite did. Given that 1 GHz is considered a slow computer nowadays, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Neither OpenOffice nor Microsoft totally deliver, but Microsoft’s product comes a lot closer.

I absolutely, positively do not buy the argument that MS Office is more capable. Microsoft’s eternal struggle has been figuring out how to get people to upgrade their old versions of Office, because frankly when I started working in desktop support in August 1995, the existing Windows 3.1 versions of Word and Excel did everything that the people I supported wanted, even then. When I became a full-time IT worker in March 1997, one of my first jobs was rolling out Office 97. Its draw was that it was 32-bit and crashed less. It had some new features but aside from the real-time spelling and grammar checking, nobody really talked about them. Some people loved the real-time checks, and other people fell all over themselves turning them off.

Two years later, Office 2000 came out. A hotshot in the accounting department told me how much better it was, but when we really talked about the new features, his opinion was mostly due to the excitement of being the first to have the new version. Outlook was considerably better in Office 2000 than it had been in previous versions, but outside of that the only new feature I ever heard anyone mention was that the font menu displayed font names in the actual font. Access was better, but not a lot of people used it.

I’ve used Office XP and 2003. Outlook was incrementally better in both versions. But aside from Word’s booklet printing capabilities, I’ve never found anything in the newer versions of Office that I miss when I come home and use Office 2000 on my now-ancient computers.

And whenever I shift gears from Office 2000 over into OpenOffice, a few obscure features might be in a different place in the menu structure but I’ve always found what I needed.

But if for some reason I had to ditch MS Office tomorrow, I wouldn’t switch to OpenOffice. I’d load the Windows versions of AbiWord and Gnumeric.

In some regards, AbiWord and Gnumeric are closer to the 1992 versions of Word and Excel when it comes to capabilities. But they’re fast. And I’ve always been willing to sacrifice a few capabilities for a program that can operate as quickly as I can think. My only complaint about those two programs is that I never figured out how to make .doc and .xls the default file format for them.

Optimizing Firefox

Firefox is a better browser than Internet Explorer by a long shot, but at times it’s made me wonder if it’s strayed from its original mission of being a lean, quick, simple browser based on the Mozilla engine.

I’ve seen several “Optimizing Firefox” guides and most of them talk very little about performance, and the ones I did find were not only disappointing, they also appear to be widely copied verbatim without attribution. So here’s what I do to shaq-fu Firefox into shape.Try out Firetune. Firetune is a wizard-like program that configures most of the common Firefox tweaks based on criteria you select. In my case, since I have a P3-700 with 192 megs of RAM, I selected Slow computer/Fast connection on the Performance tab, and Optimize Firefox memory usage on the tab labeled Other useful settings. For me, the payoff was immediate.

Install PDF Download. If you view a PDF file online, Firefox keeps Acrobat in memory essentially forever, where it does nothing but chew up precious memory until the next time you view a PDF, which might be in a minute, or it might be next month. Take control over this behavior by installing PDF Download.

By default, after installing PDF Download, you’ll get a dialog box asking what you want to do when confronted with a PDF file. If you click the View PDF button, it loads it in your OS default PDF viewer. This behavior is less seamless than viewing the PDF directly in your browser, but it’s much better for performance because after you close the file, the viewer unloads from memory. For even better performance, forget about Adobe’s Acrobat Reader and install Foxit Reader, which is much smaller and faster. By default, when you install Foxit Reader, it will make itself your OS default PDF viewer. Trust me, this is what you’ll want.

On my 700 MHz P3 running Windows 2000, PDF documents display in one second with PDF Download and Foxit Reader installed. That’s faster than Acrobat ever was, even if it was already in memory.

I like the combination so much, I went to Tools, PDF Download Options, and set the default action to Open PDF, rather than displaying the dialog box. Now I no longer dread downloading PDFs from the Web.

Optimize memory usage a bit more. Type about:config into a browser window and scroll down to browser.sessionhistory.max_total_viewers. The default value is -1, which will determine the number of pages in your browser history to cache based on the amount of memory you have. I set it to 1, since I do tend to use my browser’s back button a lot. If you almost never find yourself clicking the back button, or you have a very low-memory machine, set this to 0. Each page it stores takes up about 4 megs of RAM.

Clear your downloads. Hit ctrl-j to bring up the download manager and clear it out. Too many entries slows Firefox down, partly because it increases memory usage.

Keep your version current. Often newer versions of software are slower and fatter than the old versions, but newer versions of Firefox are often faster than older versions because memory leaks and performance problems tend to get fixed in newer versions. I don’t recommend running beta or preview release versions, and I’m not all that crazy about .0 versions either (when Firefox 3.0 is released, I’ll wait until version 3.0.0.1 comes out). I just upgraded an old computer that had been running a very early Firefox 1.0 to 2.0.0.4, and the difference is incredible.

For what it’s worth, version 2.0.0.4 (the current version) running with these changes feels very zippy on a P3-700 with 192 megs of RAM.