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Tips Of The Day For October 1997

Tip Of The Day For October 31, 1997: One of the most common causes of system problems is resource conflicts between hardware devices. There are a limited number of devices in the PC such as interrupt lines, direct memory access channels, and I/O addresses, and when more than one device tries to use one, a problem will normally result. If you have a strange problem with your system when trying to use two devices simultaneously, or after adding hardware, this may be the problem. Read more about resource conflicts here.

Tip Of The Day For October 30, 1997: I think that for many PC components, buying mail order simply cannot be beat. However, the one exception I generally make is for monitors. Actually, I should clarify--it really is not a bad idea to buy monitors mail order when you have seen the monitor before, but you have to be very careful the first time. Monitor quality is to some extent a very personal thing, and while there are definite quality levels, there are individual preferences that come into play even at the high end. I recommend that you check out any monitor in person first before you buy it.

Tip Of The Day For October 29, 1997: When looking to perform an upgrade, change or addition to your system, be sure to keep an open mind and consider all of your options. You may find another answer that is more cost effective or provides better performance than the solution that appears on the surface. As an example, the other day I was trying to get a variety of different SCSI devices to work on a PC. They used different SCSI variants, so I would have been required to purchase several special cables or adapters. As it turned out, it was actually cheaper to purchase a second SCSI host adapter, and there were performance and expandability advantages to doing this as well. In the past I have also found that sometimes it costs so much more to upgrade the memory or processor on an older PC that replacing the motherboard, CPU and memory is a better option when both cost and performance are taken into account.

Tip Of The Day For October 28, 1997: One of the great things about the Internet is the way it has revolutionized technical support, particularly with regard to software updates. It used to be that you bought a piece of software, and when problems resulted you just lived with them. Today, virtually everyone has a web site and there you can find patches and corrections to software that has been corrected and updated, sometimes only a few weeks after release. I would encourage you to regularly check the web sites of those products you use regularly, especially utility software. Getting back to the hardware theme, most hardware manufacturers keep updated drivers on their sites, which often correct problems with the default Windows 95 drivers or the ones that come on disks with the hardware.

Tip Of The Day For October 27, 1997: One of the "leftovers" from the computers of the 1980s is the turbo LED. At that time, many computers could run at either of two speeds, the slower one being used primarily for compatibility with older software. The turbo LED was used to indicate which speed the system was using. Today's machines don't generally have two speeds, but most system cases still have the LED. It can be very handy however still, if used for other purposes. One way I have used it is as an activity LED for internal SCSI hard disks; then you have one LED to show IDE activity and a separate one to show SCSI activity. Another use is to separate the activity signals from two IDE hard disks, and use the conventional hard disk LED and the turbo LED to show what is happening on each disk individually. Unfortunately many hard disks today no longer have a place to connect an activity LED directly to them, so this is becoming harder to do.

Tip Of The Day For October 26, 1997: Since I usually run at the mouth too much, I'm going to make this one short and sweet: any time you buy a new product, keep the box for it around for at least 30 days. (Yes, even the big ugly ones.) If you can possibly keep them around longer, do so. The reason is simple: most companies will let you return a product for exchange or refund within 30 days, but only if you have the original packaging. Beyond the return/exchange period, having the boxes is just useful if you ever need to move or ship the product. This is especially true of monitors.

Tip Of The Day For October 25, 1997: This one is from the "ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure" file. When you build a system, or buy a system new, make sure that you configure the system so that your CD-ROM's drive letter is not adjacent to your hard disk drive letters. If you do not, then if you ever add another hard disk volume, your CD-ROM's drive letter will shift and break most of your CD-ROM-based software. I see this happen to people all the time, and there's no easy solution for this after the fact, but it's very easy to avoid. See here for specific instructions on what to do.

Tip Of The Day For October 24, 1997: "Know Thy Vendor". I want to take today's tip to emphasize the extreme importance of always buying from a reputable vendor. As competition continues to be extremely fierce on the Internet and in the retail world, more and more vendors are resorting to all sorts of trickery in an attempt to get you to buy from them. Bait and switch, false advertising, intentionally incorrect pricing, and even more, are all seen far too easily and are responsible for a lot of people getting ripped off, especially those that buy solely on the basis of price. But even worse than this, there is a growing problem with gray market and even stolen goods appearing for resale, especially at computer shows and by fly-by-night mail order firms. The best tip I can give you is to buy only from a firm that you know, or that has been recommended by someone you know or trust. Take a look at their store or web site. Do they have prices that are "too good to be true"? Are they willing to be upfront about whether or not their products are gray market? Remember, when you visit a vendor, if you look just at the prices then you are playing right into the hands of those who will do whatever they must to give you the lowest price. Instead, if you find an article like this one located at my sponsor's site, this may give you some idea of what the company's principles are, and in the long run, trust is far more important than saving a few dollars up front. (You'll find out when you need service or support.) Also, see the article in the news update below about stolen hard disks, which is what prompted this Tip Of The Day subject.

Tip Of The Day For October 23, 1997: The motherboard is one of the most important components in the PC, yet one of the components that receives the least attention by those who are shopping for a new PC. How often do you see a PC for sale, and they don't say anything at all about the motherboard, not even what chipset it uses? Make sure you find out what the motherboard is, and who makes it, if you really want to make a smart buy. The motherboard is key to performance, features, and future upgradeability. Read all about the motherboard and its related components here.

Tip Of The Day For October 22, 1997: The hard disk activity LED is one of the most underrated status and diagnostic tools on the PC. This underappreciated device will tell you a lot about your system if you pay attention to it--and it's free. Just a few of the uses of the LED: it will tell you when your system has finished booting Windows so you know when you can start doing things without that "lag" that the system has when the system is still starting up; it shows you when the system is really shut down so you know when you can turn the PC off; you can use it to judge whether your system is using virtual memory by seeing if the hard disk light flashes when switching between tasks; and you can monitor background tasks that access the disk and see when they have completed, without having to swap back and forth all the time. Just how useful is the hard disk activity LED? When I installed my home machine's tower case under my desk I couldn't see the hard drive LED any more. It bothered me so much that I ended up running an external activity LED up from the back of the case to my desktop, so I can see what is going on in the machine.

Tip Of The Day For October 21, 1997: One of my biggest pet peeves regarding the computer industry is the deceptive way that many technologies and products are promoted. One of the most common ways that some companies use to over-hype a new product or technology is to talk a lot about the theoretical performance benefits while totally ignoring the real-world factors that truly influence the only thing that matters: how the new technology affects the way you use your PC. My current "pick" for most over-hyped technology is Ultra ATA. In theory, it doubles the IDE/ATA interface transfer rate to 33.3 MB/s, instead of the older 16.6 MB/s of PIO mode 4 or DMA mode 2. In the real world, however, the real bottleneck to hard disk performance is the hard disk itself; there are no standard PC hard drives that can even exceed 16.6 MB/s except in short bursts. This means of course that the extra bandwidth is mostly wasted. Meanwhile, there are companies out there trying very hard to sell you new Ultra ATA controllers to "take advantage of the 100% bandwidth improvement", when in the real world, the difference in performance is minor at best, typicaly only a few percentage points. When you read about a new technology, do the homework and find out what it really is going to mean to you. Be careful about overly optimistic claims from people whose primary interest is your wallet. I will be writing more about this in an editorial piece in the future; I cover some of the important considerations regarding hard disk performance measurement here.

Tip Of The Day For October 20, 1997: One of the endless arguments in the PC world centers on this question: "Which is better, IDE or SCSI?" The short answer is: "neither". If one of these were clearly superior to the other in every way, then the inferior one would have been eliminated from the market. The fact that both are thriving in the PC world (and in the case of SCSI, many other places) shows that they both have situations where they make sense. My contribution to the eternal debate is my IDE/ATA vs. SCSI Interface Comparison, which looks at how the two interfaces rates in nine different performance and quality categories.

Tip Of The Day For October 19, 1997: On the 10th anniversary of the infamous stock market crash of 1987, what better subject to talk about than system crashes? :^) I probably get inquiries asking for help with systems that crash, lock up or produce general protection faults, more often than any other type of problem. Here's a quickie checklist of the most common causes of these problems: bad memory; overheating; resource conflicts; incorrect BIOS settings; bus mastering drivers; viruses; bad power. For a more structured troubleshooting section covering this problem, look in this area of the Troubleshooting Expert. It also includes links to other relevant troubleshooting sections.

Tip Of The Day For October 18, 1997: When assembling a new system or performing a CPU upgrade, it's important to remember to use heat sink compound between the heat sink and the CPU. This improves heat transfer dramatically and this keeps the processor running smoothly. You must make sure not to use too much or too little of this compound. Too much and it will ooze out and make a big mess. Too little and good contact will not be made. Here's a trick I figured out to getting this right: Spread a thin amount on the processor and then clamp the heat sink onto it the way it will be during operation. Then lift the heat sink straight off the processor--don't slide it, just pull it straight off (surface tension from the compound may make this slightly difficult). Look at the surface of the processor. Where the sink was making good contact, you will see a stippled effect in the compound, like a stucco ceiling. Where the sink wasn't making good contact (because the bottom of the heat sink is not perfectly flat) the compound will still be smooth. Add a little more compound to these areas and repeat the process until you get good contact over the whole surface. Note that some processors have a raised area in the middle--you can't make contact over the whole surface area of these CPUs and you're not supposed to, so don't try! :^)

Tip Of The Day for October 17, 1997: Do you still use Windows 3.x? Many people, especially those who are used to using only modern equipment or who don't use a PC at work, think that Windows 3.x is dead, having been replaced by Windows 95. In fact, there are still tens of millions of PCs that use Windows 3.1 or 3.11, or Windows for Workgroups 3.11. A common problem with this older operating system is its very limited system resources, small memory areas that are shared by open applications. When system resources get low, strange problems can result. The best way to reduce the chance of this happening is to shut down and restart Windows 3.x at least once per day. For more ideas on dealing with Windows 3.x system resource problems, try looking here. And if you use Windows 95, you can benefit from this tip as well: Windows 95 doesn't have nearly the same resource problems that Windows 3.x does, but still benefits from the occasional reboot. I try to reboot mine at least once every few days to keep things running smoothly.

Tip Of The Day for October 16, 1997: Are you having a problem with a product you have purchased? It can be quite frustrating to buy a new piece of hardware or software and then encounter problems with it. However, there are many different ways that you can get help. I explore this in detail in a special part of the Troubleshooting and Repair Guide, dedicated to Obtaining Technical Support. The number one tip I can give to my net-savvy readers looking for support: do not use email. While a great idea in theory, it seems that many companies do a very poor job of responding to email. I see a lot of people who complain about individual companies in this regard, but it is endemic to the computer industry. Try using the phone; it's a pain sometimes but at least you will usually get a response. Also see the link above for other ideas.

Tip Of The Day for October 15, 1997: There are three major versions of Windows 95. The original Windows 95 is just called "Windows 95". The second is called "Windows 95a" and includes some small improvements over the original. The third has several names, including "Windows 95b", "Windows 95 OEM SR2" and "Windows 95 OSR2". It was introduced in the summer of 1996 and is officially available only with the purchase of a new system, motherboard or hard drive. The chief benefit of OSR2 is the ability to use the FAT32 file system enhancement to reduce disk space waste due to large cluster sizes. OSR2 is intended only to be installed on new systems and will not allow you to install it over an older version of Windows 95--unless you know the trick. The trick is to rename every instance of the file "WIN.COM", everywhere on your system. This tricks the setup program into thinking you do not have Windows 95 installed. For much more on Windows 95 OSR2, check out the OSR2 FAQ.

Tip Of The Day for October 14, 1997: In general, more memory on your video card does not improve the overall performance of your video card. More memory allows you to use higher resolutions and color depths, but does not make the card itself run faster. There is one exception however: 64-bit video accelerators that have only 1 MB of video memory can realize an improvement in performance when they are expanded to 2 MB. This is because doing so allows the video chip to access the memory 64 bits at a time; with only 1 MB it can only access the memory 32 bits at a time. Many PCs come with 1 MB video cards but can be expanded to 2 MB for only a few dollars. This is often a very sensible and simple upgrade, and you also get the benefit of being able to run at higher resolution in most cases. See this section for much more on video card performance.

Tip Of The Day for October 13, 1997: One of the maxims of the PC industry is that if you wait two years you can get today's hardware for 1/3 of today's cost--at which time you won't want it any more. :^) People often ask "should I wait before buying X?", and the answer is usually that they shouldn't bother because you can wait forever and prices always go down. While this is true, the prices do tend to drop in "spurts", and you can take advantage of this. In particular, if you are looking to buy a new CPU, you can sometimes save a significant amount of money by timing your purchase to coincide with planned price cuts by Intel and its competitors AMD and Cyrix. Traditionally, Intel cuts its price at the beginning of February, May, August and November, and the other companies follow suit to match. Note that these price cuts are to wholesale dealers, so it can sometimes take a couple of weeks for the reduction to pass through to the retail level. However, if you are looking at buying a processor today, you may save yourself some money if you can wait one month. Oh, and one more thing: if Christmas sales are going well, you can sometimes get a better deal by waiting for January. There's less of an incentive to discount if sales are brisk.

Tip Of The Day for October 12, 1997: Do you find memory module terminology confusing? It can be hard to figure out how many megabytes a module is because they are often called something like "8x36-60", and none of those numbers is the actual size of the module. To figure out the size of a module from a specification like this, start with the middle number. If it is divisible by 9, divide it by 9 (you now know that this is a parity module if this is the case). Otherwise, divide it by 8 (this is a non-parity module). Then multiply by the first number; the result is the size in megabytes (or kilobytes if the first number is 256 or higher.) The last number is the speed of the module in nanoseconds. So, an 8x36-60 module is 32 MB in size.(36 divided by 9, times 8) and its speed is 60 nanoseconds. See the discussion of memory packaging for much more on this and related issues.


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