Thirty Years Ago Today

Today marks a milestone for me. 30 years ago today – March 3, 1979 – I got my first

computer. It was a life changing event – more than I imagined at the time.

My friend Peter Mokover sent me an email today about his thirtieth anniversary. I thought I’d share it with you.


Today marks a milestone for me. 30 years ago today – March 3, 1979 – I got my first computer. It was a life changing event – more than I imagined at the time.

It was an Apple II Plus. It was the first Apple computer ever sold in Rhode Island (where I lived at the time).

It came with 32KB of memory. I remember the sales person at the store said I could get an additional 16KB for around $400. I didn´t think I would need that much memory so I didn´t get it. Today that amount of memory is so small it would cost a fraction of one cent.

My Apple was considered advanced because it had two floppy disc drives and a modem. Most computers then had either one floppy drive or none and no modem. Many used audio cassette tapes to store programs and data.

I´m currently building a new PC for myself. To show how much technology has changed…

The Apple had 32,000 bytes of memory. My new PC has 6 billion bytes.

The Apple had 280,000 bytes of storage. The new PC has 2.3 trillion bytes.

The processor chip in the Apple (Motorola 6502) had a single core and a speed of around 1,000,000 instructions per second. The processor in the new PC (Intel Core i7) has four cores and a speed of around 3 billion instructions per second.

The Apple displayed up to 16 colors on a low resolution screen. The new PC displays more than 16 million colors with a resolution greater than a new HD television. (Who knew there were than many colors!)

The Apple had a modem that downloaded data at up to 30 characters per second. The new PC´s modem averages around 1.5 million characters per second. I recall paying around $8.95 per HOUR (off peak) back then to connect to the Internet. I now pay a little over $50 per month.

Over the past 30 years the power of computers has increased many thousands of times yet their price has dropped significantly. There aren´t many things other than technology for which that can be said.

Thirty years ago I already had my TRS-80 Model 1 with 16 Kb of RAM!

A Little Computing Advice

PCs aren’t as expensive as they once were, but for years they’ve been a whole lot faster than we need for most tasks. If you surf the web, read email and occasionally play with photos, a computer that’s a few years old is plenty fine.

If you’re thinking of buying a new computer and you don’t play games or use your machine for other really stressful things, save your money! Really.

This comes up, because I went to my friend Steve’s house last Sunday and, for an investment a little north of $100, refurbished his computer.

He says there’s a real difference. That makes me smile.

I increased the RAM from 512 mb to 2 gb. At the same time, we added a second hard drive. There he added 300 gb to his original 120 gb.

If the darned case wasn’t so anti-intuitive, the whole process would have taken five minutes. Unfortunately, it took closer to a half hour as I fiddled and fuddled, trying to get the hard drive in its bay.

I finally realized pulling the front panel off was the way to go. I’m an idiot.

Steve’s computer had slowed down. There are a few reasons for this. First, with most little utilities you install, programs like Real Play, Quicktime or Adobe Acrobat, small starter programs are also installed. They run every time you boot your PC.

These little programs sometimes check for updates and often pre-load helper files, making the programs start quicker. Each also ‘steals’ a little RAM. That makes the computer run slower!

None of these programs uses enough memory to be a problem on its own, but in the aggregate, they become leeches. Using MSCONFIG, I turned a bunch of these little applets off.

Most computers also run antivirus and spyware suites. These are real resource hogs. I personally choose not to run either. It’s the Internet equivalent of unsafe sex, but it works for me.

I’ve never cleaned a virus from a computer that didn’t have antivirus software! Most new viruses are designed to get around them anyway.

Steve’s computer was also running slower because he was doing more with it. He now loads larger image files from his digital camera and manipulates them with Photoshop. Those files are compressed on disk, but must be expanded to their real size when played with. There’s a lot of complex math involved with photos.

When the new drive formatted (a long and tedious process) and the machine rebooted, he looked at me as if I was a wizard. It was really pretty simple. I’ve yet to kill a machine while trying to upgrade it.

PCs aren’t as expensive as they once were, but for years they’ve been a whole lot faster than we need for most tasks. If you surf the web, read email and occasionally play with photos, a computer that’s a few years old is plenty fine.

Real hard core ‘big iron’ computing is the answer for video editors, heavy duty photo manipulators and gamers. For everyone else, save a few bucks and wait.

Oh – and if you really have your heart set on that quad core smoker with 4 gb of RAM and a terrabyte of hard drive space – I won’t rat you out.

Linux Matures

My desktop machine at work runs Linux as its operating system&#185. It has for years.

I’ve always used the excuse we run some applications on it that can’t be easily run on Windows. That’s true. It’s also my toy.

As part of my bargain with the technogods at work, I scrounge around the IT department, looking for PCs pulled from service. Over the past few years, my desktop has always been a generation or two behind state of the art.

That’s fine.

Recently, the station was ‘retiring’ a server. It no longer had a hard drive or any RAM. It was a dual core Pentium machine with an integrated Intel video system on the motherboard. It became mine.

I tried loading Linux on this machine a few months ago with limited results. In fact, I ended up going back to my Pentium III 800 mHz machine with 128 mb of RAM.

Now, with Ubuntu Linux v7.10 out, I tried again.

Wow! Linux is here.

The distribution installed easily and this computer sings. And, since it doesn’t run Windows programs, it won’t ‘run’ viruses and spyware aimed at a Windows audience.

Unless you really need Windows for a specific application, I’m pretty sure Linux will easily fill the bill.

Today, there are Linux office suites, graphics programs, multimedia players and pretty much everything else you’d find on a store bought PC. They, and Linux itself, are free.

Companies like Asus are selling off-the-shelf Linux loaded laptops and Wal*Mart is stocking Linux equipped desktop machines. The prices are hundreds of dollars less than comparable Windows boxes.

If I was Microsoft, I’d start worrying. There has been a loud cry of unhappiness from their users.

Their most recent operating system iteration, Vista, seems designed more to satisfy the RIAA and MPAA than its actual customers! Some features that existed on earlier operating systems have been removed or neutered on Vista. Meanwhile, Wal*Mart and Asus are legitimizing their free competitor.

Propeller heads like me aren’t what’s going to give Linux critical mass. It’s going to take exposure in retail outlets. And that’s what’s happening.

If you’re at all curious about computing… if you’ve got an older PC you want to play with… I recommend Ubuntu Linux. I’m very happy with it and I suspect you will be too.

&#185 – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

An operating system (OS) is the software that manages the sharing of the resources of a computer and provides programmers with an interface used to access those resources. An operating system processes system data and user input, and responds by allocating and managing tasks and internal system resources as a service to users and programs of the system. At the foundation of all system software, an operating system performs basic tasks such as controlling and allocating memory, prioritizing system requests, controlling input and output devices, facilitating networking and managing file systems. Most operating systems come with an application that provides a user interface for managing the operating system, such as a command line interpreter or graphical user interface. The operating system forms a platform for other system software and for application software.

The most commonly-used contemporary desktop and laptop (notebook) OS is Microsoft Windows. More powerful servers often employ Linux, FreeBSD, and other Unix-like systems. However, these operating systems, especially Mac OS X, are also used on personal computers.

Making The Switch At Work

I decided it was time to get a faster computer at work. No problem. I enjoy re-working older machines, so I just went to our IT guy and asked for the next machine they were cycling out.

Wow – what a find. It’s a beefy IBM with a dual core 2.8 GHz Pentium 4. It lived a previous life as a server. There was no hard drive and only 256 mb RAM. That was fine. I had some hardware at home which was never going to be used. It’s in this IBM box now.

I downloaded, burned and installed Ubuntu Version 7.04. It went in seamlessly. This is very impressive. Linux is never easy. In this case at least, Ubuntu was every bit as simple to install as Windows.

In order to have some time to do it right, I brought the computer home and did my installation there. I guess this is the true definition of bringing your work home with you!

Today I brought it in with the intention of swapping it for the old one – true plug and play. I should be so lucky.

Between the version of Ubuntu I had been using and this one small things had changed. Files which were in one directory were now in another. Stuff like that.

The video wasn’t right for my monitor. That’s always perplexing, but a quick check (on another machine) online found the solution (control-alt-backspace).

It might take a day or two to get this puppy up and running, but no more than that. In the meantime, a computer which was probably destined for the the trash or storage is making my life a little easier. How sweet is that?

A little nerd love, please.

Help Me Buy A Laptop

It’s time to buy a new laptop. I don’t want to spend a lot. I want everything. Are they necessarily mutually exclusive?

Let me throw this out now – your advice is solicited and will be appreciated. Where to buy? What to buy? Any tidbit!

I might not do what you suggest, but I can assure you, right now I don’t know what to do!

Helaine and Stef both have Dell laptops, which they’re happy with. I am using a very old (PII 300 128 mb RAM) Dell laptop which is built like a tank! I had a Sony and it always seemed fragile.

With all that experience, Dell seems logical. I’m willing to consider anything.

I want a small laptop with a high resolution screen. I’ve looked at the Dell Inspiron E1405 with a 14.1″ screen and the WXGA+ upgrade (1440×900 pixels). Maybe a 12″ screen would be OK too, though I’m not sure I want to give up the pixels (though I’d gladly give up the pounds).

Dell offers loads of choices for the CPU (the ‘brains’ in the package), but there’s very little documentation to actually explain the difference between any two. What’s the difference between a Core Duo, Core 2 Duo and Pentium dual core?

The same goes with the new four flavored Windows Vista. How ‘deep’ into their marketing must I plunge to know which is which? I think Vista Home Premium will be fine – though I’d just as soon use Windows XP (or Linux, if I could get away with it… which I can’t).

Since I do a lot of photo editing, I suppose more memory is better – maybe 2Gb? I really don’t know. I’ve heard varying things on how memory intensive and efficient Vista is.

I am extremely disappointed with Dell’s website. No matter what I enter, I am unsure if I’m getting the best deal! There are always coupon codes listed on websites like FatWallet and Techbargains, but I’ve never seen them really bring the price down. If you add those online discounts, you lose Dell’s seemingly automatic discounts. And, it would seem, no one really pays the posted price.

Also, Dell’s site does a terrible job in explaining the differences in the CPUs that are available. The site has links that promise this info, but fall terribly short.

As a Dell stockholder (minor position in my retirement account) I am disappointed that their website makes the buying process more, not less, confusing! If it’s baffling to me, a knowledgeable power user, how do neophytes know what they’re looking at?

Anyway, advice is being sought. Let the games begin. Aloha.

Tech Support Times Three

I have three tech support stories to tell. Two are brief, the third is not. They all have relatively happy endings.

The first concerns a phone call I received yesterday from the company that provides much of the on-air weather equipment we use at work. We’d had a terrible problem, which they fixed. Now they wanted some log files.

The logs were needed because they fixed the problem, but weren’t sure how!

That sounds terrible, though it’s not as unusual as it seems. Points to them for asking me to send the files. These log will help them understand what they did for us, so they can do it for everyone.

The second story concerns my laptop. It is, in computer time, ancient. There’s a sticker on the front attesting to the fact that it was designed for Windows 98!

If you’re technically inclined, it’s a PII-300 with 128 mb of RAM for memory and 2 mb more for video.

If that was a meaningless blur, it’s got about the same horsepower as a tricycle.

A while ago, I upgraded it to a heavily customized version Windows XP. I carefully turned off as much as I could to preserve as much of this machine’s minimal power as was possible. It’s still a hog.

This has been a hacker machine for me. I’ve experimented with it by swapping hard drives in and out. Until today it had a tiny 8 gb drive.

With a weekend trip coming up, I wanted more storage, so I swapped in a 20 gb drive last night. Windows XP was on the drive, so I freshened some programs with newer versions and then went to reboot.

Before the power went off, Windows told me it had to install some updates… 57 updates!

Are they serious? Sure, this drive had been out of service for a while, but were there really that many updates (mostly security related) to XP? And this version had already been inoculated with SP2 and other fixes.

I took a shower while the laptop did its thing.

Tech support story three is a little more troubling. It started with phone calls from Matt Scott, one of our meteorologists at the TV station.

When he went to fire up his Dell desktop machine, it quickly crashed into a Blue Screen of Death or BSOD! The BSOD screen is cryptic, but it hinted at problems with the boot sector. That’s serious.

Before Matt got to me, he had spoken with Dell tech support. Their solution, after a few tests, was to send the drive to a forensic computer lab where, for $1,800, it could be resurrected!

He brought the PC in to work and Jeff Bailey, our webuy, began to work on it. I did some scouting around Google and found what typically causes this particular BSOD.

HINT: If you ever have a computer problem, write down exactly what’s on the screen and search for it on Google. You are not the first person with this problem. You can often find solutions just by looking. It’s very important to search for the exact words you see.

“Matt, do you have any disks that came with the PC,” I asked. My suspicion was, Dells don’t come with disks… and it hadn’t.

I went through the station looking for a Windows XP CD. Yes, what I was doing probably violates some stipulation in the end user licensing agreement – sue me.

By the time I returned with the disk, Bailey had the machine on its side. A panel had been removed from the case, exposing the innards to the world. As it turns out, that wasn’t necessary, though it makes Jeff and me look like &#252ber Geeks (as if knowing how to make a “&#252” on the screen isn’t enough).

Computer repair is modern day sorcery. You must follow a number of steps, none actually documented, before you begin to fix the trouble. We started by reconfiguring the BIOS to boot from a CD instead of the hard drive and loading XP’s recovery console.

Matt looked sheepish – fearful his pictures, video and documents were about to get trashed.

We lucked out. Matt’s problem was the same as most of the others I’d read about. It took a few hours, but slowly but surely, his computer fixed itself, rebuilding files and reconstructing the recalcitrant boot sector.

Why couldn’t the Dell tech fix this? No clue. They should be ashamed of themselves for the solution they recommended. That’s totally unacceptable.

Why doesn’t Windows XP do this on its own without demanding a disk most users don’t have? Again, no clue. Microsoft should be ashamed of that and for its often meaningless BSODs.

Bottom line – always have a geek at the ready… preferably two!

Viruses – Never Say Never

Viruses are the scourge of the Internet.

Earlier this week, I told my friend Farrell (always searching for better, more vigorous virus protection) how I use none and had never been hit by a virus!

Oops. Somehow I got two at once!

I turned on my old laptop&#185 when I came home last night and there they were. I’d probably picked them up the night before, but they needed a reboot to activate. They didn’t come via email, because I don’t get mail on that machine. They must have come through Firefox or (more likely) Windows Media Player.

They were both sitting in the system toolbar at the lower right of my screen and one was popping up dialog boxes ever few seconds. The sentence structure hinted of slightly broken English. That was my cue it wasn’t what it claimed to be – a warning from Microsoft that I’d been infected and needed to download protection.

The first of the virii cleaned up with no trouble. In fact, it had an entry in the add/remove programs dialog, as if it were legit. The second wasn’t quite as easy.

I can’t tell you its name except to say its toolbar signature is a red circle with an “X” in the middle.

A little sleuthing turned up some older entries, but none seemed to exactly match my poison. What I caught was probably an adaptation of an earlier virus.

We’re talking about crooks and thieves here. They’re not buying their software at CompUSA.

On the inside, my virus was programmed to hide in plain site, creating a new, randomly named, program each time it ran. Find the virus, stop the program – it creates another.

I found what I think is the ‘seed,’ a program called winstall.exe, as a new entry in my registry. It was scheduled to run each time the computer rebooted.

I did some manual pruning, removing a line from the registry, then allowed AOL’s new virus scanner&#178 (actually the very highly rated Kaspersky anti-virus) do its thing. As is my custom in these cases, I ran it in ‘safe mode,’ then ran it again.

I’ll keep an eye on the little laptop to make sure it hasn’t been permanently compromised. I’ve heard of cases where the virus goes dormant for a while only to return when your defenses are down.

I’d hate to have my computer responsible for sending out thousands of spam emails (as compromised computers often do) or interrupting my surfing with pop-up messages.

I’m upset I allowed this to happen to me! I’m supposed to be the guy who fixes other people’s computers and then, disapprovingly, shakes my head.

It wasn’t a virus as much as it was an injection of humility.

&#185 – This is a really old machine – a Dell PII 300 laptop with 256 mb RAM. It is ploddingly slow for many things, but easily handles web surfing and poker while I’m in the family room.

&#178 – AOL’s virus scanner is free, and you don’t have to join AOL to get it. I suppose its in their best interest to clean up the Internet as best they can.

The Challenge of Computing

For the past few months I’ve been blogging, emailing, and computing in general on my backup machine. Somehow, my main computer had become unstable, rebooting at any or no occasion.

I’m not sure what made it go nuts. I only know it did. I suspect it wasn’t a virus or spyware. I’m very careful about that, but something was bugging it and it was relentless.

At one point I wondered if the problem wasn’t caused by the power supply? Considering all the crap I’ve got shoved in my computer case, it might have been overtaxed. A few weeks ago I ordered a new, quieter, more powerful power supply and a few extra sticks of memory.

This weekend I pulled the old supply and hooked up the new one. Though it looks complex with lots of wires and plugs connected to it, it’s really pretty straightforward.

I fired up the computer and – well, it was the same garbage. Right in the middle of nothing the computer would reboot. Maybe the original power supply was bad and a spike of electricity from its strained regulators had put bad data on my hard drives?

I decided to start from the very beginning.

My C:\ drive didn’t contain much other than installed programs. All my important data was squirreled elsewhere. I re-formatted the drive.

Next came my copy of Windows XP. In the drive it went and the install process was underway… until it stopped. Randomly, files weren’t being copied properly and Windows wasn’t shy about telling me.

The message was something like, “Press Enter to try again, skip this file at your peril.” I pressed Enter… and Enter… and Enter. Sometimes on the second or third try a recalcitrant file would load, only to hit the another pothole a few seconds later.

Finally there was a file that wouldn’t copy, no matter what I did! Was it the CD drive, my hard drive, the Windows CD itself or something I hadn’t thought of yet? I kept trying, but never got any further.

Finally, tonight at work while reading through an old Usenet message, I found something that might be the culprit… though it sounded off the wall. Sometimes when mixing and matching memory chips, Windows balks. It just refuses to install.

That, in a nutshell, was what had happened to me.

I’m guessing – actually, it’s more like hoping, I’ll be able to stick the memory into the PC once Windows is loaded and running. It will run much faster with 1 Gb of RAM than it does with 512 Mb.

As I type this Windows is updating, installing all the security patches that have come out since XP hit the scene. I still have a few more drivers and utilities to throw on before it’s time to reinstall my programs.

What a royal pain!

In the long run, all of this anguish and angst will go away. The computer will run like a top. I will be happy.

It’s a machine I designed and built myself. Unless something goes wrong from time-to-time I feel I just haven’t pushed the envelope.

Another Computer Repair

I went to dinner by myself last night. Helaine and Steffie are away. At work all the usual suspects were otherwise engaged. I headed to the Greek Olive.

After my omelet, I schmoozed a little with Tony, the owner. Somehow we got to talking about computers and he showed me an old laptop he had which he had been told was incapable of going on the Internet.

Sheesh! This is such a big crock. The amount of money spent on new hardware for little purpose amazes me. Usually it’s a machine that has slowed down. The owner figures it’s worn out. It doesn’t work that way.

There’s no doubt, in today’s environment this machine is slow. But, for Internet surfing and reading email, it’s fine. Well, it’s nearly fine. It needs about $20 in additional memory. I’ll get to that in a minute.

To me, seeing an unused computer is like having a puppy follow me home. I am unable to help myself.

The first thing I normally do is look for the computer online to see if anyone else has any advice which will make my job easier. A label on the cover says “Viva Book Hand Technologies.” That was worthless. Nothing showed up on Google.

Imagine how obscure a laptop must be to not even show on Google! After all, this is Google, where even typos can bring thousands of hits.

The bottom panel of the laptop had a little more info, including the FCC ID number. That wasn’t much help, but it was some. The manufacturer, long since gone, was located in Taiwan. The laptop had been sold under a few names including ILUFA and Chaplet as the M175.

It has an AMD K6 processor running at 300 mHz. There is 32 mb of RAM. That’s very little (which is why I’ll order Tony some more). The hard drive is 3 GB. That’s tiny, but only if this machine is going to be loaded with programs. As a barebones mail and web machine, 3 GB will suffice.

I copied the license information down and reloaded the operating system from scratch. Then I went to Microsoft and ran all the updates.

Though the laptop is the computing equivalent of one of my Dell laptops, it was very sluggish. I ‘borrowed’ a 64 MB memory stick and threw it in. Still sluggish.

When I scrolled the screen it was painfully slow. Text rippled from top to bottom instead of smooth motion. That is a warning sign that the video driver is no good. I went to the Device Manager in the Control Panel and, sure enough, a generic video driver was being used and a warning was posted.

I installed Belarc adviser, an excellent program that scans and reports on your hardware and software. It could identify the video system. Then I looked at what was being reported to Windows. Just some gibberish and coded data that I couldn’t uncode.

If the manufacturer were still alive… or if this had been a popular model, I’d be able to go to school based on other people’s queries. There was nothing.

I went to Drivershq, loaded up their Driver Detective and hoped for the best. Bingo! The video system was an old Chips and Technologies device. C&T doesn’t exist anymore, but their drivers live on.

Before long I had the drivers going and the screen responding pretty quickly. Make no mistake. This is not a speedy machine. It’s an ‘it will do’ machine.

Right now, I’m finishing up by installing Flash, Java, Adobe Reader and a few other things Tony will need. Then I’ll go back and ‘strip’ the operating system, turning off programs and services he doesn’t really need which only serve to make a system like this more slovenly than it needs to be.

This will never be a P4 3.8 gHz machine – but it doesn’t need to be. On the Information Superhighway it’s a 1996 Chevy Cavalier – and most of the time that’s plenty.

Blood and Guts Tech Support

Matt Scott, who I work with at the TV station, was having problems with his computer. It was running slowly and popping ads. It sounded like a typical adware/spyware/malware infestation. So, I offered to help and he took me up on it.

I brought it home and hooked it up, borrowing all the connections from my Linux machine. Almost immediately, it hung while calling a webpage. My suspicions seemed well founded.

Since I couldn’t operate on the web with a browser that was stuck, I burned a CD with Spybot, moved it to Matt’s machine and ran it. It found some cookies, and a few other minor annoyances, but nothing that would cause all this trouble.

My friend Peter Mokover (who has asked me to mention his name and put it in bold letters) suggested I clear the browser cache (which was set ridiculously high at 550 MB). Bingo. The browser opened perfectly, but the machine was still pretty slovenly.

I attempted to do a scan disk, but the computer kept writing to the hard disk – each time aborting the scan. I rebooted into ‘safe mode’ and tried again. There were a bunch of bad sectors – but again, nothing I hadn’t seen in the past. As long as I was here, I defragged the system and prepared to ‘declare’ virtual memory (as opposed to letting Windows 98 do it for you).

I have heard, and I believe, that contiguous virtual memory works better. He had the space, so why not.

As I was entering the system tab within control panel I noticed something that was very strange. The computer was reporting only 32 MB of RAM. I couldn’t believe HP would ship a Windows 98 PC with that little RAM, so I went online and looked. It should have had 64 MB. OK – we’re getting somewhere.

I opened up the machine and went to look at the 2-RAM sticks inside. If he only had 32 MB, I could throw some old memory I had (and which doesn’t work in any of my current machines) to boost it up. I took out the first stick – 256 MB. Uh oh. What’s up here? Obviously, it wasn’t being seen.

Back on the HP website, I noticed this model, HP Pavilion 8655-C, could only take 256 MB of RAM total, with no stick over 128 MB. Oops. That 256 MB stick, probably an ‘upgrade’ was taking up a socket and doing nothing.

I pulled both memory sticks and went to install 2 – 128 MB sticks. Oh my God! The memory was under the CDROM drives, squeezed where only part was partially visible and much was hidden. I had to snake my fingers through while balancing a small flashlight on some cables. I wasn’t able to reach far enough in to release the far side latch. I would hope it opened, as it should, when I attempted to insert the stick, then close when I applied pressure.

This was a whole lot easier said than done. The RAM didn’t want to properly seat. I must have worked on getting the first stick in for a half hour until I looked down and saw red. I had sliced into my knuckle. In fact, by the time I finished getting the RAM installed, I had 6 or 7 little cuts on my fingers and hand.

I’m not sure what HP was thinking when they put this machine on the shelf, but they certainly didn’t expect anyone to work on it. The computer must have been assembled from modules, meaning screws holding the CDROM drives were facing down, toward the motherboard, where I couldn’t get at them! If I could have moved the drives, the job would have been a snap.

Matt has picked up the machine and hopefully by now it’s back on the web and faster than ever. It’s just another case of a computer slowing with age – they all do. Luckily, it’s always curable.

Building a New PC – Almost

Why would anyone want three PCs at home? I’m not talking about the machines shared with my family. These are my computers. Granted, two of them are discards; computers deemed too slow by others.

I have done most of what I could to optimize these older machines. They’re loaded with memory and unnecessary processes are shut down. You still can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but you can get a lot closer than most people expect.

The laptop, a Pentium II 300 MHz model, is my road machine. It’s got a wireless card and is often downstairs in the family room (especially if I’m watching TV and playing poker). It is sometimes sluggish, but never enough to be a bother.

The second desktop is also a P-II 300. Well, it was until a few days ago.

I wondered if it would be possible to bring this machine into the 21st century without spending much cash. TigerDirect was having a sale where the net cost (after rebates) of a motherboard, fast processor chip with fan, and memory was only $99.99. I decided to give it a try.

It took about three days for UPS to deliver my package. Looking in the box, everything was there, in its original packaging. So far, so good.

Fearing the 256MB RAM stick that came with the kit wasn’t enough, I went to Staples and bought another 256MB. It was $30, after rebate, bringing me to $130.

What is missing in a deal like this is a great deal of documentation. There were no instructions with either the CPU chip (an AMD XP 2400) or the fan. There was a sticky label on the chip’s packaging saying, in essence, “you break it, too bad.”

Instructions don’t seem like a big deal, but mounting the fan isn’t totally intuitive and a thermal compound paste (included) has to be applied between the fan and chip.

My first step was unplugging the old motherboard, unscrewing and removing it from the case. No problem. It came out really easily.

Since the computer industry standardized motherboard sizes, my new ATX board should fit exactly where the old board sat. It did. A new plate fit between the case and motherboard, allowing the external plugs for video, audio, mouse and keyboard to be accessible. So far, so good.

Each individual peripheral, like a disk drive, has to be wired for both data and power. It sounds tougher than it is. There are distinctly sized plugs for each operation. It’s tough to go wrong, though it is possible if you’re not looking, to put some plugs in backwards.

The manual for the Soyo motherboard was well illustrated and easily led me to the right sockets on the board for all these cables. I did have to call AMD to try and figure out how to set an on-board jumper. I was on and off the phone in two minutes.

AMD, if you’re listening, I’m impressed.

It took a bit over an hour on the kitchen table before I was ready to plug it in. I lugged the case upstairs and plugged it into my KVM switch. KVM stands for keyboard, video, mouse. All it means is I can run two computers from one set of devices. Hitting the scroll lock key twice toggles my keyboard, mouse and monitor from one machine to the other. It’s pretty simple, saves space and lots of money.

The system started to power up, but the normal beep as it’s getting ready to go was replaced by a continuous tone for a few seconds and then… silence. The machine shut itself down.

Uh oh. I took a look at everything under the hood. Something had to be wrong. I didn’t see anything out of place. So, I went to Soyo’s website and searched out my problem.

Someone had described a similar outcome for another motherboard. It hinged on the safety circuitry not sensing the cooling fan on the computer chip. Sure enough, my fan was plugged into the wrong socket.

Though the fan was spinning, keeping things cool, the motherboard’s circuitry though it was just an extra fan, not the one necessary to keep the chip operating. I moved the plug and bingo, it booted.

I spent the next few hours going through a bunch of different operating systems, trying to decide what I wanted. I loaded Windows XP and two different flavors of Linux.

Since I was aiming to keep the cost down, I went with Linux. Specifically, it’s “Mandrake Linux 10 Community,” a close-to-production release. It’s free! I actually downloaded the installation disks the night before and burned them onto Cd’s. Unless you play games or run some very specific applications, Linux is fine. There are browsers, email programs, graphic design software, etc. Most of it them are free.

I find it a little more difficult to get answers to Linux questions, because I know fewer people who run it than Windows. But, I am constantly ‘mitchering’ with my machine, and that brings up situations most users wouldn’t get into.

I went to bed a happy man. My machine was humming along. This ugly duckling was now the fastest machine in the house. Life was good. And then, I woke up.

Hitting the power button brought nothing. No noise, no lights, nothing.

I had built this system in an old case with an older, weaker power supply. I can’t be sure, but my best estimation is the power supply was stressed with this new configuration. As it cooled, it broke down. A digital multimeter across the power pins showed no voltage anywhere.

My goal here was to keep costs down. Now, with the extra RAM, I was already $30 over my original cost. I could have spent $60 at CompUSA or Circuit City to get a new supply, but decided to log onto eBay and see what was available.

For $20, including shipping, I bought a 420 watt supply to replace the 230 watt model I’ve surely fried. It’s coming from California, so I’ll be without this machine for most of – maybe all – of the next week. My $100 machine is now $150.

Still, if the power supply is the problem, and if it boots up right away, this will be a great investment. For $150, a computer someone wanted to throw away, will be a screamer. And, I did it myself. It’s no big deal.

Two Computer Related Problems

Things are supposed to go smoothly, but they never do. I’ve just suffered through two computer related problems – one taking a full ten hours of time without a solution.

First things first. I notice earlier today that I had only received a few emails all day. Normally, I get 100-200 emails a day, the vast majority of which are spam.

I went to my webhost’s site (not Comcast, my ISP, but who runs the server you’re getting on and also my mail server) and used their tech support chat. It didn’t take more than a few minutes for Fred to tell me something had hung and all mail sent to me (or at least the vast majority of it) had be sent packing.

As best I can tell this had been going on for 24-36 hours. Oh well. There’s really nothing I can do. I’m not sure about he actual bounce message returned, so some might be re-queued and re-sent.

The second problem was much more time consuming and sinister. My friend John has an old Compaq Armada laptop and a pristine copy of Windows 98 from a desktop machine that’s no longer in service. All I had to do was load it up and he’d take it back. This is something I’m glad to do for a friend.

The Armada 1590 is a Pentium 166 laptop that was loaded with Windows 95 and originally came with 16 MB of RAM. Today, that’s a ridiculously small amount of memory. Windows 98 might have run, but it would have run ponderously slow.

I reformatted the hard drive, checked for and installed a BIOS update and then set out to load Windows 98. This is a task I’ve done dozens of times… and never with a problem.

Windows loaded fine, but as soon as I got to the first screen after the installation and the computer began to play it’s little “I’m Ready” music, it locked up tight as could be. It would neither respond to keystrokes or the mouse/touchpad. Rebooting brought me back to the same problem.

I went on Google’s Usenet site which often has great tech support ideas, only to read a series of unhappy Armada owners who tried and never quite got Windows 98 to work.

I reformatted and tried again from scratch. Each time you do that, figure an hour or so until you’re at the first workable screen. I loaded Windows 98 totally at least four times.

After a while, and after staring at those cryptic Microsoft error messages (never had so many words and numbers given so little insight into what’s going wrong), I decided the problem might be with the audio driver on the Windows 98 disk. For some reason it didn’t seem to get along with the hardware which was, after all, designed long before Windows 98. I turned off the audio hardware from the control panel and booted again.

Success – but not for long.

Even a freshly loaded Windows 98 (or XP for that matter) PC needs loads of updates, patches and fixes. The more I downloaded and fixed, the more unstable the laptop became. BSODs (“Blue Screen of Death”) came fast and furiously.

Finally, I got to load DirectX 9. I have no idea what DirectX does, other than to say loading this update into the laptop brought it to its knees! Not only did the laptop crash but the Registry (which tells the computer where and what all the programs on it’s drive are) was now corrupted. Windows 98 was more than glad to restore a prior version of the Registry, which of course brought me back to square one.

I played this game twice.

Finally I called John on the phone and said, “No mas.” OK, actually it was Roberto Duran who said that, and neither John nor I speak Spanish, but you get the point.

Can this laptop be made to play nicely with Windows 98? Maybe. But, is it worth it? Probably not – I’m not really sure – oh who knows. I’m just so frustrated at this point.

The few fleeting moments I did have it running, it seemed reasonably nimble with web browsing. And, in that there’s some Internet wisdom that needs to be shared. This computer is only a Pentium I at 166 MHz. Lots of people throw machines of that speed out as too slow. With enough RAM – and John had boosted the 16 to 82 MB – even a slower Pentium is plenty fast for working the web.

Would I play games with it or edit video or run Photoshop or other high end multimedia programs? Hell no. But, most of what everyone does on the web demands much less horsepower. The laptop I use most is a Pentium II 300 MHz and it kills.

As for John’s laptop, before I attempt any more software loading, I am going to bring it near the sink with the water running full blast and explain what we do to computers that don’t cooperate. That trick always works.

The End of the Hobby Era In Computing?

The lead story on Extreme Tech is all about building a computer. Build It: A Speedy PC For $800

I’m certainly not adverse to building a computer. The PC this is being typed on was assembled right here on my office floor from parts I specified. It does everything I designed it to do (though it has incredibly noisy fans to remove its internal heat, and I wish I would have designed that out). And, as a bonus, it actually worked when I plugged it in!

The question is why build… and even if you want to, how much longer will that be possible?

My computer was built to edit video. To that end, I threw in the ATI All-In-Wonder 8500DV video card (on which the DV “Firewire” connection never did work) and a Soyo motherboard with built-in RAID (two disk drives act as one for the faster service necessary for video). The on-board audio conflicts with the video card, meaning I then had to go get another audio card.

It was a great learning experience, but today you can buy machines off the shelf that do the same thing. And, increases in processor speed cover a variety of sins. So a machine not totally optimized for video will still do fine because everything else is so much faster and the disk drives are so much larger.

As I was passing by Home Shopping Network earlier today, they were selling a Gateway PC (I am not a fan of any particular brand. All major computer manufactures are just putting together other people’s parts.) with 17″ monitor and printer for under $1200. The CPU on their machine is better than twice as fast as mine! If you’re interested, here are the specs.

It’s tough to build when a speedy machine, pre-assembled, sells for a price like that.

For hobbyists, like me, there will always be the allure of building the ‘perfect’ screaming machine. But, I suspect within the next few years that won’t be possible either.

I remember in high school, a friend of mine bough a Model “A” Ford and restored it to running condition by hand. What he couldn’t get, he modified. Now, there’s hardly anything on a car you can fix or modify on your own.

Computers are going in that same direction. There are a number of reasons, but the most significant seems to be intellectual property rights. My computer is capable of copying DVDs… even copy protected DVDs. I can do all sorts of other things that upsets other rights holders too!

Just as printer manufacturers have added chips to try and thwart aftermarket ink cartridge manufacturers, PCs will be ‘smarter’ (really more restrictive) in what they let you do. The quaint concept of ‘fair use’ will go out the window, because manufacturers now understand how easily their hard work is ripped off.

Will future versions of Windows be built so it only works with ‘trusted’ hardware and software that can be more closely controlled? My opinion is, yes. Sure, a computer could be run on Linux or some yet-to-be-designed operating system, but that would deprive you of much of what’s available today.

I’m not sure where the ‘sweet spot’ is, balancing the rights of those who produce with the rights of those who use. I suspect that PC’s wouldn’t be where they are today… capable of doing what they do… if the restrictions to come had existed earlier.

Continue reading “The End of the Hobby Era In Computing?”

I Am Tech Support

To many friends and a large portion of my family, I am tech support. They know, and I’m glad they do, that a call to me can sometimes solve their PC problem.

It’s not that I’m smart… I’m experienced. I’ve reinstalled operating systems, configured disk drives, modems and network cards and made dead machines come to life.

My own computer, the one I do most of my work for this site on, was designed and then built by me, on the floor in my upstairs office.

I love the challenge. There are so many ways to bust a system and so many ways to fix it (though only one or two work in any given situation).

Today, I received a call from some very good friends. They have a Gateway PC (Brand is actually quite inconsequential. Most systems are built from a finite set of motherboards and components) which went part way through its boot and then stopped. No icons on the desktop. No taskbar below. No reply to ctl-alt-del (which should bring up the task manager in Windows 98).

I assumed it was a corrupted registry. The registry is a list of customizations which tie programs to the operating system. Without the registry on a Windows machine, there is nothing.

I went to the Windows program which restores an old, non-corrupted registry, only to find it didn’t have enough memory to run. Gateway let this box leave the store with only 32 MB of RAM. Small then, ridiculous now.

I had a few memory sticks in my drawer and threw them in, raising the total from 32 to 160 MB. The registry program ran and I turned back the hands of time with an older, working version.

Reboot – a Windows tradition.

The machine came up, showed its icons and task bar and then a succession of programs began to load. What was in this machine?

It seems the owners had downloaded dozens of programs, each carrying spyware, malware or adware. Boxes were opening on the screen by themselves with ads. At one point, a full screen ad, full of links to other sites, appeared. There was no way to close it that a casual user would ever discover.

I quickly tried to download Adaware, a program made for dealing with this stuff, but the computer locked. I rebooted and tried again. Adaware ran for 3 hours while I went back to work and then returned. But, it wasn’t doing its job. The computer reported Adaware was not responding.

There have been reports of these rogue programs looking for Adaware and its siblings and shutting them down. That could be what happened here.

I switched to Spybot Search and Destroy. So far, it seems to have worked.

Still, there might be so much garbage embedded in this computer that, in the end, the only prudent decision will be to reformat the hard drive and start again.

I have never seen or even heard of a computer so infected with stuff that the owners never intended to put in… and I haven’t even done a virus scan yet!

Were there licenses and releases that were clicked but never read? Probably. Was some of this done by teenagers, who really don’t have the authority to enter into a contract? Probably there too.

The bottom line is, these programs are invasive in nearly every way and well hidden from the computer’s owners. They are probably legal, which is a shame. That means, these folks are going to have to get a lot more savvy and wary when dealing with their own computer.

DSL – Damned Slow Loading

This should be a Sunday entry… but installing DSL on my friend Steve’s computer took 4 hours, including a few on the line with tech support (using up my entire cell phone battery in the process).

I went over,after the end of another vicious round of thunderstorms, at about 8:00 pm. It was wet, but the air was starting to have the feel of lowered dew points.

Steve is running Windows 98SE on a somewhat older Pentium. He has plenty of RAM. I know, because I put it in (and RAM is usually the best, cheapest way to speed up and rejuvinate an older PC). Because he has sensistive information, and because (like most users) he’s a bit petrified, he has Norton Anti-Virus, Disk Washer, and other stuff strewn around.

I’m sure they have a purpose, but I have never seen any of this stuff be anything but trouble. And, an unwary or un-savvy user can still bring viral infection right in.

Doing any installation, such as DSL, pits your installer versus the Norton’s of this world, who are trying to keep new programs from getting in!

The installer CD crashed, or more accurately, locked up twice. Each time it was re-run, it went a little further. Then, well into the process, Windows complained that we had too many tcp/ip devices (a sure sign something was screwy, since we certainly didn’t have more than the modem and NIC installed).

By the time Earrick at SBC tech support in Houston was on the line, the install program had become unresponsive, even from a restart. All of Earick’s suggestions brought new and different error messages, many of which he had never seen before.

We finally uninstalled the NIC and tcp/ip protocol entirely. Then rebooted. Then manually reinstalled the PPP software. We must have rebooted 25 times tonight; no exaggeration.

Finally, success. Steve will send a nice note to SBC because Errick was excellent and patient. But, this is further roadkill on the information superhighway. A DSL installation should be totally painless, quick and easy.

Why isn’t all the intelligence needed built into the DSL modem? The most you should need is an ethernet connection… not all this passwording and configuring.

Anyway, bottom line was, it’s fine now.

As soon as we were done, Steve wanted to check his mail. So, he clicked to connect via modem. Old habits die hard. But, he’s probably not alone is not understanding how all of this is routed and connected, and that the phone pop he normally goes in on is no closer to his mail than this new DSL connection.