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How I fixed an infuriating printer problem

Windows 7 and my HP Laserjet 4100 weren’t getting along. And I was pretty livid about it. I paid $125 for my Windows 7 upgrade, and for that money, I got to mess around for 4 days trying to get better-than-1997 functionality out of what’s supposed to be the latest and greatest. I was about ready to trade it even up for a copy of Windows ME and Microsoft Bob. Because at least then I’d be able to print.

I finally fixed the problem, but finding the solution wasn’t easy. So I’ll present the symptoms and the ultimate solution here.

Read More »How I fixed an infuriating printer problem

I sure hope Windows 7 SP1 gets here fast

So I’ve been running Windows 7 for about a day on an Intel motherboard. And I don’t know for certain if it’s the shoddy Intel hardware, or Windows 7, but I don’t think I’ve been this un-impressed since the first time I laid eyes on Windows ME.

Yeah, it’s that bad. I’m sure the Microsoft fanboys will jump in and chew me up, but let’s see if they can explain this away.

Read More »I sure hope Windows 7 SP1 gets here fast

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.

How I became interested in system optimization

I’ve talked system optimization a lot over the past week. I think I’m done for now, so I’ll talk about why you would want to do these things, and how I got interested in it.My first computer was a Commodore 64. With Commodores, all optimization was software. The hardware was all finely tuned and the timing was precise, so you couldn’t just ramp up the clock speed of the CPU to make the system go faster. But there were lots of things you could do in software to do things like improve the speed of the disk drive.

I moved to an Amiga in the early 1990s and I became interested in a project called ARP, short for AmigaDOS Replacement Project. The Amiga had a command line, and its command line tools were mostly ports of old tools from an obsolete operating system called Tripos, written in BCPL, a predecessor of C. ARP tools were written in either C or 68K assembler and gave the functionality of the originals, but they were smaller, so they loaded and ran faster. I always looked for ways to make my Amiga run faster and use less memory.

In 1994 I took a job selling PCs. My boss talked about how his 16 MHz 386sx felt more responsive than the 33 MHz 486s we sold so many of. So I started learning about PC optimization too. There was a lot you could do just in software.

So I’ve remained interested in this idea for probably 20 years.

Just this week I put an old Windows ME box through the regimen, and it’s definitely a lot peppier now.

I talked about registry optimization and file cleanup, defragmentation, antivirus, firewalls, and defragmentation again.

Do these things, and in most cases you can squeeze at least an extra year out of the life of a system. I squeeze more like five.

How to defrag when defrag just keeps starting over and over

I’ve seen many spyware-infested Windows 95/98 boxes that just won’t defrag no matter what you do. Defrag starts, gets part of the way through, then the disk changes and it starts over again. Leave the system alone for dozens of hours and it might finish, but probably not.Microsoft has some remedies, starting with hitting ctrl-alt-del and killing everything except explorer and systray, and disabling your quick launch bar (right-click on the gray bar on the bottom of the screen, select Toolbars, and de-select Quick Launch). That can help, but not always.

I’ve also heard of downloading the Windows ME version of Defrag.exe and running that instead of the older version if you’re running an older version of Windows 9x, since Windows ME’s defrag is supposed to work better. I guess that and the USB support were the only things in Windows ME that worked better.

Disabling your antivirus realtime scanning also helps, since it’s always accessing the disk.

But sometimes even doing those things won’t work. The system in my living room is a prime example. It’s clean, has no spyware or anything else but still won’t defrag. I could blow it away and reinstall, but I’m too lazy. For the most part the system works well enough for what I need it to do, so I’d rather not mess with it too much.

One thing you can do is reboot the system into safe mode, and run Defrag from there. The performance won’t be stellar since Windows will be using generic drivers rather than the optimized drivers for your particular computer, but Windows won’t be running anything else special, so the process will be able to finish without interference. Boot in safe mode, give your computer a few hours, and it will at least have a chance to finish.

Another option is to boot off a live CD, such as BartPE, and run JKDefrag on it. This would give you the advantage of a fully 32-bit environment with better drivers than Windows 9x safe mode, so the defragment will finish more quickly.

Defragmenting this way is terribly inconvenient of course, but like I’ve said before, it’s something you don’t have to do very often. Once a year will probably keep your computer running acceptably.

Heading back to Way Back When for a day

Someone I know house-sat this weekend for a couple who are slightly older than my parents. Their youngest daughter, from what I could tell, is about my age, and they have two older daughters. All are out of the house.
It was like walking into a time warp in a lot of ways. There’s an old Zenith console TV in the living room. My aunt and uncle had one very similar to it when I was in grade school, and it spent several years in the basement after it lost its job in the family room. First there was an Atari 2600 connected to it, and later a Nintendo Entertainment System. My cousin and I used to spend hours playing Pole Position and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and various baseball games down there.

The living room housed a modern JVC TV, armed with a modern Sony DVD player and RCA VCR. But in the other corner was a stereo. The Radio Shack Special 8-track player was the stereotypical 1970s/early 1980s brushed metal look, as was the graphic equalizer. The tuner was also a Radio Shack special, styled in that mid-1980s wanna-be futuristic style. If you lived through that time period, you probably know what I’m talking about. But if you’re much younger than me, you’re probably shrugging your shoulders. Beneath it was a Panasonic single-disc CD player in that same style, and a Pioneer dual tape deck. A very nice pair of Fisher speakers finished it off. It was definitely a setup that would have turned heads 17 years ago. (I have to wonder if the Fishers might not have been added later.)

It seems like there are only two genres of music capable of being emitted by an 8-track player. Once genre includes Led Zeppelin and Rush. The other includes John Denver, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow and The Carpenters. Their collection was on the latter side, which sent my curiosity scurrying off elsewhere.

But I had to try out that stereo. I kind of like The Carpenters, but I have to be in the mood for them, and I’ve heard enough John Denver and Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow to last me forever. So I checked out the CDs. Their CD collection was an interesting mix, but with a good selection of contemporary Christian (albeit mostly pretty conservative contemporary Christian). I popped in a CD from Big Tent Revival. I don’t remember the title, but the disc was from 1995 and featured the song “Two Sets of Joneses,” which I still hear occasionally on contemporary Christian radio today.

About three measures into the disc, I understood why they hadn’t replaced that setup with something newer. It blew my mind. I heard a stereo that sounded like that once. In 1983, we moved to Farmington, Mo., which was at the time a small town of probably around 6,000. We lived on one side of the street. Our neighbor across the street owned the other side of the street. Any of you who’ve lived in small midwestern towns know what I mean when I say he owned the town.

Well, in addition to owning the biggest restaurant and catering business and tool rental business in town and a gas station, he also owned a mind-blowing stereo system. Hearing this one took me back.

I almost said they don’t make them like that anymore. Actually they do still make stereo equipment like that, and it costs every bit as much today as it cost in 1985.

And Big Tent Revival sounded good. If I’m ever out and see that disc, it’s mine.

Upstairs in one of the bedrooms, I spied a bookshelf. It was stocked with books of Peanuts cartoons, but also tons and tons of books I remember reading in grade school. Books by the likes of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, and books by other people that I remember reading 15 or even 20 years ago. The only things I didn’t remember seeing were S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindel, but as I recall, those books hit me so hard at such a period in my life that I didn’t leave those books at home. Or maybe Hinton and Zindel were a guy thing. I’m not sure. But seeing some of the names that made me want to be a writer, and being reminded of some of the others, well, it really took me back.

Next to that bookshelf was a lamp. Normally there’s nothing special about a lamp, but this lamp was made from a phone. This reminded me of my dad, because Dad went through a phase in life where there were exactly two kinds of things in this world: Things you could make a lamp from, and things you couldn’t make a lamp from. Well, this was a standard-issue wall-mount rotary phone from the pre-breakup AT&T Monopoly days. One just like it hung in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen well into the 1980s.

The computer was modern; a Gateway Pentium 4 running Windows Me. It desperately needed optimizing, as my Celeron-400 running Win98 runs circles around it. Note to self: The people who think Optimizing Windows was unnecessary have never seriously used a computer. But I behaved.

I don’t even know why I’m writing about this stuff. I just thought it was so cool.

But I remember long ago I wrote a column in my student newspaper (I’d link to it but it’s not in the Wayback Machine), which was titled simply “Retro-Inactive.” Basically it blasted retro night, calling it something that people use to evoke their past because their present is too miserable to be bearable.

Then I considered the present. Then I thought about the 1980s. We had problems in the 1980s, but they were all overshadowed by one big one–the Soviet Union–that kept most of us from even noticing the others. We had one big problem and by George, we solved it.

So I conceded that given the choice between living in the ’90s or living in the ’80s, well, the ’80s sure were a nice place to visit. Just don’t expect me to live there.

I’m sure people older than me have similar feelings about the ’70s, the ’60s, the ’50s, and every other previous decade.

And I guess I was just due for a visit.

Cinelerra 1.1.6: An open-source video editor for Linux

I noticed today that Cinelerra, possibly the best-known video editor for Linux, has hit version 1.1.6.
I’ve played around with Cinelerra a bit, and found it competent, but not intuitive. While it’ll do things that Adobe Premiere won’t do, or that Premiere makes exceedingly difficult, there are an awful lot of things that Premiere will do that Cinelerra won’t. Want to mix stills with your video clips? You’ll have to convert those stills to single-frame MPEGs first. (That means becoming good friends with ImageMagick.) Want to pan and zoom? Forget it.

Now, if you’re trying to make the next Blair Witch Project, Cinelerra is more than up to the task, feature-wise. The only question is stability, but that can even be a question with Premiere or with Final Cut Pro. And Cinelerra gets minor point releases a lot more frequently than the commercial big boys.

But if you’re wanting to make documentaries, or, more likely, edit your home movies, Cinelerra will probably frustrate you. Kino will be easier to learn and possibly more feature complete. If you’re willing to pay some money, you’d be better suited with one of MainConcept’s offerings. (MainActor is included in the purchase price of SuSE Linux 8.2.) Or, assuming you run Windows some of the time, you can mess around with the video editor included with Windows Me and XP.

What to do when Windows breaks

Every once in a while I get a question like this one, which showed up Thursday night on this page:
I did a stupid thing last night. A friend thought I might need to upgrade my Windows 98SE to Windows ME, but didnt get me an upgrade version, but the full version. Through the installation process, I did not copy the unistall files to my hard drive as I didnt think I would need to uninstall, plus I wanted to get rid of all elements of any old system files, as they were the ones causing me problems (errors in cd-rom line 2, 3 4 etc)…
Now, my computer stays in dos mode, and says that windows cannot run on ms dos version 8.00!?
Please help!? I need to wipe my hard drive and start again. How do I do that?

Please help

This question opens up a huge can of worms, like whether Windows ME really was an upgrade over 98SE, but in this case it sounds like it’s too late for that argument. How do you install Windows cleanly?

Here’s what I do. At a DOS prompt, I enter this command:

REN WINDOWS WINBAK

This gets your old Windows directory out of the way, but without deleting it. This is important because you might want to harvest stuff out of there: IE bookmarks and fonts are the two most likely things.

Next, because these files under any 32-bit Windows cause nothing but problems:

DEL C:\CONFIG.SYS
DEL C:\AUTOEXEC.BAT

If you’re really paranoid, rename them instead:

REN C:\CONFIG.SYS C:\CONFIG.BAK
REN C:\AUTOEXEC.BAT C:\AUTOEXEC.BAK

Next, start Windows setup. Run it off a CD–grab a boot floppy from bootdisk.com if you don’t have one–or the CAB files might, if you’re lucky, be on your hard drive. The standard place OEMs put it is C:\Windows\Options\Cabs. We just renamed Windows, so you can try these commands:

CD \WINBAK\OPTIONS\CABS
SETUP

That’ll start up Windows Setup for whatever version came with your computer.

If the directory’s not there, or Setup.exe isn’t there, you’re stuck using the CD. Boot off the CD, or use the bootdisk if the CD isn’t bootable.

Run Windows setup, and setup will say it found an installation in C:\WINBAK and ask if you want to upgrade it. SAY NO!!!!! (I feel so strongly about this that I’m tempted to use the dreaded blink tag, but I’ll spare you.) It’ll ask where you want to install. Say good ol’ C:\WINDOWS, and you’re on your way to a fresh, clean build.