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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.

When to call it quits and get a new(er) computer

Mom’s computer is fading fast. I built it in 2002 or so, but I used stuff from her old computer, including the operating system, which dated to more like 1998.

I’m tired of fixing it. There was a time that I might have enjoyed it, but she needs something reliable, and I don’t have that kind of time anymore. Windows 98 was anything but rock solid when it was new, and this is a 10-year-old build. And do I know for certain that all the hardware is perfect?

It’s cheaper and easier to just start over.I didn’t find any earth-shattering deals at Compgeeks.com, although I did find some stuff that would have been usable. I wandered over to Craigslist and found the usual myriad of people selling their old home PCs. I decided to just do a search for something I knew would work. My wife and I have had a Compaq Evo 510 for about two months now and everything about it impresses me. So I went looking for another one.

I found one. It’s a 2 GHz P4 with 256 MB RAM (I quickly upgraded it to 512) and a CD burner. It even had a fresh install of Windows XP Pro on it, and a certificate of authenticity so it’s legal. I paid less for it than I charged the last time I had to fix someone’s computer. Actually, I paid less for it than a copy of XP Pro sells for. So it really was like getting the hardware for free.

XP isn’t perfect but it’s a lot more stable and reliable than Windows 98 ever was or will be. While this hardware isn’t new, it’s newer than what Mom has, and it’s built with quality components. It’s a business-class machine, and in my experience, business-grade hardware isn’t flashy but it’s very reliable. As long as you feed clean electricity into it, the only thing that’s likely to go wrong is a hard drive crash, and those can happen no matter what you buy.

There is a ton of former office equipment on the market now that’s perfectly usable, replaced only because corporate policy mandates that computers get replaced every three or four years. As long as the hard drive gets replaced, or at the very least reformatted and Windows is freshly reinstalled, these PCs will make very good home computers for a very long time.

They make terrible gaming rigs, although with a better video card you can do some light gaming with them (my Evo 510 runs Railroad Tycoon 3 and Baseball Mogul 2008 just fine).
For word processing, e-mail, and web browsing, they’re all you need.

I put a better video card in it anyway, to free up the memory that the onboard video was using. I put in a $10 Nvidia TNT2 card in it that came out of an old IBM. I got it off Craigslist too.

If anything, I’m more comfortable with Mom having something like this than I would be with her buying a new Compaq Presario or HP Pavilion because it’s made with better components.

If you have an aging Windows 98 computer, this is a good time to upgrade to something a little bit newer. You should be able to get a former business computer with a 2 GHz Pentium 4 running Windows XP for less than $200. It will be money well spent, in any case.

Mom will be happier because she’ll have a much faster and more reliable computer. I’ll be happier because if I play my cards right, I’ll never see Windows 98 again.

Fixing choppy audio in Windows XP SP2

So I’m sitting at this 2 GHz PC with 2 GB of RAM and a reasonably fast video card, and the audio in Railroad Tycoon 3 skips and sounds a little bit distorted.

It’s maddening when the game played fine on 400 MHz systems. I did some digging, and bad audio seems to be a common problem in XP SP2, but solutions are rare.I’ll cut to the chase: A little-known hotfix, KB920872, fixed the problem for me. This isn’t the specific problem this hotfix addresses, but since it does affect the audio subsystem, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

It worked for me when all of the conventional fixes didn’t, and I haven’t seen this hotfix mentioned anywhere. So if your new computer can’t play MP3s or stream online video or audio as well as a Pentium-166 running Windows 98, try the hotfix.

The usual advice is to update or reinstall your sound drivers, and if possible, to use drivers from the manufacturer of the computer or of the sound board, rather than drivers that Microsoft provides.

In my case, I already had the newest manufacturer-supplied drivers, so that didn’t help. Utilizing the newest drivers from the manufacturer is usually a very good idea anyway, of course.

Another piece of advice was to install Windows and all the service packs and hotfixes before installing drivers and software. That’s a good practice–and I like to use something like nlite to slipstream all of those updates so the system doesn’t accumulate too much cruft. But I didn’t want to rebuild this system, partly because the vendor didn’t provide an XP CD or installation files on the hard drive, only a certificate of authenticity. (Doesn’t it stink when you have to pirate software you already legally own?) So that wasn’t a very practical option in this case.

Another suggestion I’ve seen is to go into the control panel and either increase or decrease the sound acceleration. I don’t like this option; you always want to use whatever hardware acceleration you can. You paid extra for it, after all.

Using discrete hardware as opposed to built-in sound doesn’t make a difference. I was using onboard, but I found people using Creative’s highest-end cards experiencing the same problem, which must have been maddening.

Finally, I found some people saying they had the problem go away when they upgraded to Vista. I don’t like that option either, because I found just as many people saying their audio skips in Vista but worked fine under XP SP2.

And no, I don’t know how to fix skipping audio in Vista. I haven’t seen it yet and have no plans to mess with it. Maybe in five years. Maybe.

So now I just have to figure out how to get XP SP2 to get along with my Firewire card. It seems to be a common problem.

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.

Run the right version of Windows for your PC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t overlook thrift stores when looking for software

Need a cheap copy of Windows or Office? Don’t need the newest, buggiest, clunkiest version?

Visit your local Salvation Army Thrift Store.I was flipping through CDs at a Salvation Army store over the weekend. The software was mixed in with the music. I found several copies of Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0, and numerous copies of Office 97, all marked at $3.

Windows 98 is probably more useful, which is probably why I didn’t find any copies of it. But NT4 is reasonably fast and stable (by Microsoft standards) as long as your hardware is supported.

Office 97, on the other hand, had all the major functionality of later versions but is a lot less CPU- and memory-intensive. Remember, when it came out, 133 MHz PCs were above average, and 32 MB of RAM was usually considered excessive.

Just make sure the disc is original, the right disc is in the case, and it includes the CD key. I found a number of odd things in Windows 95 CD cases–some more useful than Win95 and some a whole lot less. None of it would have mattered since they would have required a different CD key from the one on the jewel case.

And make sure that if you’re going to run this stuff and connect the computer to the Internet that you’re sitting behind a reasonably good firewall. A Linksys router or wireless access point is perfectly adequate. Microsoft no longer provides security fixes for this old software, so you could be more susceptible to attacks than someone running the latest and worst.

I was definitely glad to stumble across a source of legal and useful commercial software. I know it’s just a matter of time before I’ll need it, and I’d much rather pay $3 for Office 97 than $300 for a newer version that didn’t really add anything useful besides ribbon toolbars, new Clippy animations, and a soundtrack by Robert Fripp.

Operating System Not Found, Missing Operating System, and friends

So the PC that stored my resume got kicked (as in the foot of a passer-by hitting it) and died, and the backup that I thought I had… Well, it wasn’t where I thought it was.

Time for some amateur home data recovery. Here’s how I brought it back.This machine ran Windows 2000. The first trick to try on any machine running any flavor of Windows is to boot from a DOS boot disk containing FDISK.EXE and issue the command FDISK /MBR. This replaces the master boot record. A corrupt MBR is the most common malady that causes these dreaded error messages, and this is the easiest fix for it.

That didn’t work for me.

The second trick is to use MBRWork. Have it back up the first sector, then have it delete the boot record. Then it gives you an option to recover partitions. Run that, then run the option that installs the standard MBR code. I can’t tell you how many times this tool has made me look like I can walk on water.

No dice this time either.

Next I tried grabbing the Windows 2000 CD and doing a recovery install. This has brought systems back to life for me too. Not this time. As happens all too often, it couldn’t find the Windows 2000, so it couldn’t repair it.

The drive seemed to work, yet it couldn’t boot or anything. I could have and probably should have put it in another PC to make sure it was readable. But I didn’t have a suitable donor handy. Had there been such a system, I would have put the drive in, checked to see if it was readable, and probably would have run CHKDSK against it.

Lacking a suitable donor, instead I located an unused hard drive and put it in the system. I booted off the drive just to make sure it wasn’t a hardware problem. It wasn’t–an old copy of Windows 98 booted and dutifully spent 20 minutes installing device drivers for the new motherboard hardware. So I powered down, installed both drives, and broke out a copy of Ghost.

Ghost, as I have said before, doesn’t exactly copy data–what it does is better described as reinterpreting the data. This allows you to use Ghost to lay down an image on dissimilar hard drives. It also makes Ghost a fabulous data recovery tool. Ghost complained that the NTFS log needed to be flushed. Well, that requires booting into Windows (and I think that’s all that’s necessary), but I couldn’t do that. It offered to try the copy anyway, so I chose that. So it cranked for about 15 minutes. I exited Ghost, powered down, and disconnected the bad drive. I powered back up, and it booted. Fabulous.

Now I can use Ghost to copy the now-good drive back over to the drive that was bad in the first place. I’ll do that, but sending out the resume takes much higher priority.

Things to look for in a flatbed scanner

David Huff asked today about scanners, and I started to reply as a comment but decided it was too long-winded and ought to be a separate discussion.

So, how does one cut through the hype and get a really good scanner for not a lot of money?The short answer to David’s question is that I like the Canon Canoscan LIDE series. Both my mom and my girlfriend have the LIDE 80 and have been happy with it.

For the long answer to the question, let’s step through several things that I look for when choosing a scanner.

Manufacurer. There are lots of makers of cheap and cheerful scanners out there. Chances are there are some cheap and nasty ones too. Today’s cheap and nasty scanners will be a lot better than 1995’s crop of cheap and nasties, since the PC parallel port was a huge source of incompatibilities, but I want a scanner from a company with some experience making scanners and with good chances of still being around in five years.

Driver support. Much is made of this issue. But past track record isn’t much of an indicator of future results. HP and Umax infamously began charging for updated drivers, for example. But at least I could get a driver from HP or Umax, even if it costs money. My Acer scanner is forever tethered to a Windows 98 box because I can’t get a working driver for Windows 2000 or XP for it.

Umax used to have a stellar track record for providing scanner drivers, which was why I started buying and recommending them several years ago. I don’t know what their current policy is but I know some people have sworn them off because they have charged for drivers, at least for some scanners, in the recent past. But you can get newer drivers, in many cases, from Umax UK.

But that’s why I like to stick with someone like Canon, HP, Umax, or Epson, who’ve been making scanners for several years and are likely to continue doing so. Even if I have to pay for a driver, I’d rather pay for one than not be able to get one. Keep in mind that you’ll be running Windows XP until at least 2006 anyway.

Optical resolution. Resolution is overrated, like megahertz. It’s what everyone plays up. It’s also a source of confusion. Sometimes manufacturers play up interpolated resolution or somesuch nonsense. This is where the scanner fakes it. It’s nice to have, but there are better ways to artificially increase resolution if that’s what you’re seeking.

Look for hardware or optical resolution. Ignore interpolated resolution.

Back to that overrated comment… Few of us need more than 1200dpi optical resolution. For one thing, not so long ago, nobody had enough memory to hold a decent-sized 4800dpi image in memory in order to edit it. If you’re scanning images to put them on the Web, remember, computer screen resolution ranges from 75 to 96dpi, generally speaking. Anything more than that just slows download speed. For printing, higher resolution is useful, but there’s little to no point in your scanner having a higher resolution than your printer.

I just did a search, and while I was able to find inkjet printers with a horizontal resolution of up to 5760dpi, I found exactly one printer with a vertical resolution of 2400dpi. The overwhelming majority were 1200dpi max, going up and down.

Your inkjet printer and your glossy magazines use different measurements for printing, but a true 1200dpi is going to be comparable to National Geographic quality. If your photography isn’t up to National Geographic standards, megaresolution isn’t going to help it.

Bit depth. If resolution is the most overrated factor, bit depth is the most underrated. Generally speaking, the better the bit depth, the more accurate the color recognition. While even 24 bits gives more colors than the human eye can distinguish, there is a noticeable difference in accuracy between scans done on a 24-bit scanner and scans from a 36-bit scanner.

If you have to choose between resolution and bit depth, go for bit depth every time. Even if you intend to print magazines out of your spare bedroom or basement. After all, if the color on the photograph is off, nobody is going to pay any attention to how clear it is.

Size and weight. Some flatbed scanners are smaller and lighter than a laptop. If they can draw their power from the USB port, so much the better. You might not plan to take one with you, but it’s funny how unplanned things seem to happen.

Floppies, meet your replacement

I must be the next-to-last person in the world to spend significant lengths of time experimenting with these, but for the benefit of the last person in the world, I’d like to talk about USB flash drives, also known as thumb drives (for a brand name), pen drives, or keychain drives, because they’re small enough to fit on a keychain.They are, as that popular brand name suggests, about the size of your thumb. It’s possible to buy one that holds as little as 64 megabytes of data, which is still a lot of Word and Excel files, but currently the sweet spot seems to be 512 megabytes or 1 GB. This is, of course, always a moving target, but as I write, it’s entirely possible to find a 512-meg drive for around $40, although sometimes you have to deal with rebates to get the price that low. It’s harder, but still possible, to get a 1 GB drive for under $90. That will change. Currently a 2 GB drive is more than $200.

I remember when people went ga-ga over a 1 GB hard drive priced at an astounding $399. That price was astoundingly low, and that was only 10 years ago. Progress marches on, and sometimes progress really is an improvement.

The drives are so small because they use flash memory–a type of readable/writable memory chip that doesn’t lose its contents when it loses power. It’s not as fast as RAM, and it’s a lot more expensive, and its lifespan is much more finite, so you won’t see flash memory replacing your computer’s RAM any time soon. But as a replacement for the floppy disk, it’s ideal. It’s fast, it’s compatible, and unlike writable CDs and DVDs, they require no special software or hardware to write.

The drive plugs into a USB port, which is present on nearly every computer made since about 1997. Use with Windows 98 will almost certainly require the installation of a driver (hopefully your drive comes with either a driver or a web site you can use to download a driver–check compatibility before you buy one for Win98), but with Windows 2000, XP, and Mac OS X, these devices should just plug in and work, for the most part. With one Windows 2000 box, I had to reboot after plugging the drive in the first time.

From then on, it just looks like a hard drive. You can edit files from it, or drag files onto it. If the computer has USB 2.0 ports, its speed rivals that of a hard drive. It’s pokier on the older, more common USB 1.1 ports, but still very tolerable.

The only thing you have to remember is to stop the device before you yank it out of the USB port, to avoid data loss. Windows 2000 and XP provide an icon in the system tray for this.

These are great as a personal backup device. They’re small enough to carry with you anywhere–the small flashlight I keep on my keychain is bigger than most of these drives–and it only take a few minutes to copy, so you can copy those files to computers belonging to friends or relatives for safekeeping.

If your only interest in a laptop is carrying work with you–as opposed to being able to cruise the net in trendy coffee shops while you drink a $5 cup of coffee–a pen drive makes a very affordable alternative to a laptop. Plug one into your work computer, copy your files, and take work home with you. Take it on the road and you can plug it into any available computer to do work. It’s not the same as having your computer with you all the time, but for many people, it’s more than good enough, and the drives make a Palm Pilot look portly, let alone a laptop.

So how do you maximize the usable space on these devices? The ubiquitous Zip and Unzip work well, and you can download small command-line versions from info-zip.org. If you want something more transparent, there’s an old PC Magazine utility from 1997, confusingly named UnFrag, that reduces the size of many Word and Excel files. Saving in older file formats can also reduce the size, and it increases the possibility of being able to work elsewhere. Some computers still only have Office 97.

You may be tempted to reformat the drive as NTFS and turn on compression. Don’t. Some drives respond well to NTFS and others stop working. But beyond that, NTFS’s overhead makes it impractical for drives smaller than a couple of gigs (like most flash drives), and you probably want your drive to be readable in as many computers as possible. So FAT is the best option, being the lowest common denominator.

To maximize the lifespan of these drives, reduce the number of times you write to it. It’s better to copy your files to a local hard drive, edit them there, then copy them back to the flash drive. But in practice, their life expectancy is much longer than that of a Zip or floppy drive or a CD-RW. Most people are going to find the device is obsolete before it fails.

The technologically savvy can even install Linux on one of these drives. As long as a computer is capable of booting off a USB device, then these drives can be used either as a data recovery tool, or as a means to run Linux on any available computer. 512 megabytes is enough to hold a very usable Linux distribution and still leave some space for data.