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Tips Of The Day For November 1997

Tip Of The Day For November 29, 1997: I don't normally recommend specific products on this web site, but occasionally I find something really neat and useful enough that I want to tell others about it. One such product I have used recently is ZipMagic by Mijenix Corporation. What's unique about this utility is that it lets you use ZIP files directly, without unzipping them. It looks inside ZIP files and maps them as regular folders which show up under Windows Explorer and applications software, so you can read and write directly into ZIP files from programs! In effect this gives you the ability to selectively compress files and still have them readily usable, something that was previously available only to Windows NT users.

Tip Of The Day For November 27, 1997: While IDE/ATA is still the storage interface of choice for most computer users, SCSI is rapidly gaining in popularity. Often users will "take the plunge" and go to SCSI, purchasing a high-performance SCSI drive. Of course, they want to be able to boot from the faster SCSI drive instead of the slower IDE. The problem is that most BIOSes are programmed to boot from IDE drives if they are in the system, instead of SCSI. This is just a residue of the history of PCs. On most older systems the only option is to remove all the IDE drives from the system (you can leave non-hard-disk devices such as IDE/ATAPI CD-ROMs in). Fortunately, many newer BIOSes now include the ability to boot from SCSI even if IDE hard disks are in the PC. This is controlled using the boot sequence BIOS setting. You may want to check for this feature when shopping for a motherboard.

Tip Of The Day For November 26, 1997: If you are looking to perform a hard disk upgrade, you probably at some point will have to deal with a question many others have grappled with: how do I transfer the contents of my old hard disk to my new disk? With advanced operating systems like Windows 95, you cannot simply just do a file-by-file copy from the old disk to the new disk. The reason is that while Windows is running, it has certain files that are in use and cannot be moved. There are special third-party tools that can do the transfer for you; these work by moving the entire contents of the disk, sector by sector. There are also many people who claim that the use of the "XCOPY" utility will reliably transfer the contents of an entire hard disk volume from one disk to another, if invoked with the right combination of switches. However, I have received (and tested) information that shows that XCOPY will not properly do the job. It does copy the files pretty much intact, but the transfer can result in the short filename equivalents of some files with long filenames being changed. If these short filenames were referenced in the system registry, these programs might stop working correctly. The problems may not even be apparent for some time after the transfer. For this reason, I must recommend avoiding the use of XCOPY for duplicating hard disk partitions. I'll be posting more information about this on the site within the next month or so.

Tip Of The Day For November 25, 1997: The last time you purchased a hardware system or component, how much concern did you pay to the viability of the manufacturer of the device, and the vendor as well? Companies go out of business all the time in this industry, and when the manufacturer of a component in your PC goes belly-up, the results are never beneficial. The most common impact is an inability to get technical support, warranty coverage, and upgrades for drivers and software. (Ask the owners of products whose manufacturers went out of business right before Windows 95 came out how important this is!) Vendors going under can be similarly stressful, although usually less so. Either way, it makes sense to pay careful attention (to whatever extent possible) to the balance sheets of the companies you deal with.

Tip Of The Day For November 23, 1997: Looking for a simple, foolproof and totally free way to improve system performance? It's easy too: clean your hard disk. Over time, most people tend to accumulate a lot of extra files on their hard disk. These tend to bog the system down in several ways. Removing unneeded files and then defragmenting your hard disk will speed up your system by moving important files to the faster part of the hard disk, reducing the size of the file allocation tables on your disk volumes, and slowing down subsequent fragmentation.

Tip Of The Day For November 22, 1997: Are you confused about the difference between IDE, EIDE, ATA, ATA-2, Fast ATA, Fast ATA-2, ATAPI and Ultra ATA? You're certainly not alone (in fact, if you just read that and went "huh?" you're not alone there either). All of these acronyms are used to refer to hard disks and other devices that work on what is generically called the IDE hard disk / storage interface. They are in fact different interface standards within the IDE/ATA family; this page will explain the differences between them. In reality, the distinction between many of these standards is slight; the differentiation is often for marketing reasons only. You should certainly do your research, but for example, in most cases drives labelled IDE, EIDE, ATA, ATA-2, Fast ATA or Ultra ATA will operate on the same systems despite adhering to different "standards".

Tip Of The Day For November 21, 1997: I had a PC today that I was trying to set up to install Windows on. I partitioned and formatted the hard disk and tried to install the CD-ROM drivers, but the floppy disk gave me an error. Tried another, same thing. Tried a third, the same. However, the floppy had just previously worked when I booted from it not moments before--how weird! Put a new floppy drive in, and the same thing happened. So I take one of the floppy disks and pop it into another PC of mine to try transferring the contents to a different floppy, and boom, up pops my antivirus software telling me that the disk has a boot sector infector. This is why the floppy would boot from the floppy but wouldn't read floppies after booting from the hard disk. I hadn't thought to check for viruses because the person whose PC this was should know better; that was a bad presumption on my part as the boot disk he gave me had the virus on it. Always check for viruses; this section of the site contains a great deal of information on the subject. And remember that even when the evidence presented to you seems to make no sense, there is usually a reason for what you are seeing.

Tip Of The Day For November 20, 1997: Are you in the market for a motherboard? Trying to figure out which one has the best performance? Well stop it! :^) Too many people spend far too much effort determining which motherboard is the "fastest" while ignoring much more important issues. The fact of the matter is that two boards that use the same chipset and are of roughly the same quality, in most cases will produce systems that are comparable in performance. Instead of worrying about which one yields a Winblah score a half point higher than the other, consider some of these: How is the compatibility of the board? Are other users reporting problems? Does it have any bugs? Are there any standard chipset features it doesn't support? How many SIMM/DIMM sockets does it have? What kind of capacitors does it use? How readily available is the board? Is the motherboard manual readable? Does the manufacturer have a decent web site for support? How much control over the board does its BIOS give you? How long is the warranty? Does the manufacturer have a phone number you can call for help? Are BIOS upgrades available? ... These are just some of the issues you should consider in buying a motherboard. Do your homework and buy quality, you won't regret it. Leave the performance concerns for the big three: CPU, memory and hard disk.

Tip Of The Day For November 19, 1997: Looking to keep unauthorized eyes from the information on your PC? There are a number of security devices on the market that you can use to prevent others from accessing your PC, but in fact it is easy to make a PC reasonably secure using tools that are built in. Putting a password on your Windows 95 screen saver will prevent anyone from looking at what you are working on unless they reset the system, and setting a BIOS password will stop them when they reset. The combination is easy to use, free, works on most systems and is quite secure (you can get around this by opening the PC and clearing the system CMOS, but that's about it). If you set a BIOS password, make sure you don't lose it!

Tip Of The Day For November 18, 1997: Always make sure you get enough sleep. Otherwise you too may someday end up writing an incredibly lame tip like "Always make sure you get enough sleep." (OK, OK, I'll write a real one.) I got a nice piece of email today from someone telling me that the information on the site had helped him resolve a long-standing problem with his PC. He made the point of mentioning that it wasn't anything specific on the site that helped him deal with the issue, but rather a change of mindset on his part that occurred after reading the general material on how to troubleshoot. I highly recommend reading this section if you are not an experienced troubleshooter. The information there can save you a lot of time at the "school of hard knocks".

Tip Of The Day For November 17, 1997: If you have a slow CD-ROM drive that is making it difficult for you to play games or use other software that relies a great deal on CD-ROM access, now may be a good time to consider an upgrade. IDE/ATAPI CD-ROMs are dirt cheap, with high-speed 24X models going for well under $100. If you get one, make sure you check to ensure that the model you are looking at has the advanced capabilities that many newer drives now have. In particular, you should be sure that the drive supports multi-session disks such as those created by CD-R and CD-RW drives. You may also want to check to see if the drive has the ability to read lower-reflectivity CD-RW media, in case you end up with a CD-RW drive in the future.

Tip Of The Day For November 16, 1997: When purchasing mail order, always be sure to ask about the company's return policy before you give them your credit card number. I called a company last week that I had never ordered from before and didn't know well (something I rarely do, but I needed a specific part and I needed it ASAP) and they had the part. The person on the other end of the phone started to take my order, and I asked if they had any policies related to the sale that I should know about. She responded by telling me that their company had no return policy. She even said straight out that if I had a compatibility problem with using the device in my PC, then "I was stuck"! Most salespeople won't be this forthright, so make sure you find out about all the relevant policies (return terms, restocking fees, etc.) before completing the sale. (Needless to say, I didn't buy the part from these people, and I will not call on them again. I do not buy from companies with such unfriendly customer service policies, regardless of cost.)

Tip Of The Day For November 12, 1997: Be careful when using the manual that comes with a new motherboard. While the manual itself is essential to setting up a new system or performing a motherboard upgrade, for example, it often will contain inaccuracies. This happens occasionally due to error, but more often just because motherboard manufacturers change their designs so frequently that it is not economical to keep the manual perfectly up to date. Therefore, always double-check anything the manual says about what is on your board by examining the hardware itself.

Tip Of The Day For November 11, 1997: I ran into a weird one today assembling a new PC. The system would not respond to the keyboard when I tried to press "Del" to enter the system BIOS, no matter what I did, but also was not giving me a keyboard error at boot time! It would always just boot and would not enter BIOS setup, even after switching keyboards. It turned out that the keylock on the case was locked, and the motherboard had been shipped with the "Halt On" BIOS parameter set to ignore keyboard errors... I finally figured this out by looking closely and seeing that the case was locked, then unlocking it and enter the BIOS setup. Not much of a moral to the story (which I'm sure none of you found nearly as interesting as I thought you might when I wrote it) other than to always be open-minded when trying to figure out something strange that you've never encountered before. The first thing that ran through my mind was "bad motherboard", but this is rarely what the problem actually is.

Tip Of The Day For November 10, 1997: You can sometimes find excellent deals on media and hardware by taking advantage of mail-in rebates. However, be aware that these are often a trap for the unwary. Have you ever wondered how companies can afford to sell floppy disks all the time for $20 with a $20 rebate? The reason is that a large percentage of people never send the rebate form in! They buy the item because they are excited about getting it for free, but then they lose the rebate form, or simply forget about it. Don't buy anything with a rebate unless you are either sure you will send the form in, or you are satisfied with the price before the rebate. Also, keep track of rebates and when you sent them in so you know when the rebate check should arrive.

Tip Of The Day For November 8, 1997: I added some hardware to my machine yesterday, and at that time took the opportunity to perform some preventive maintenance on my machine. I cleaned out the inside of the box, blew the dust off the power supply vents, checked the CPU's temperature and fan, and did some other work to help ensure that my PC will keep running well into the future. I highly recommend you check out this section on preventive maintenance, and set up a PM schedule of your own.

Tip Of The Day For November 7, 1997: Due to the use of zoned bit recording, modern hard disks have more sectors per track along their outer edge than their inner edge. This means that more data spins past the heads in a given unit of time when the disk is reading the outside edge than the inside edge, so data in this part of the disk reads more quickly--in some cases, twice as fast as data on the very inside of the disk. What does all of this mean to you? It means that the applications and data that you put on your disk first will run the fastest. It also means that if you partition a single disk into two volumes, the data and apps on the first volume will be accessed more quickly overall than the ones on the second volume. Read more about hard disk internal performance factors in this section.

Tip Of The Day For November 6, 1997: New hard disk drives are coming out almost every month, and to some extent, picking the fastest hard disk is impossible. Usually, the better companies slightly leapfrog each other with new technology. At any given time, the offerings from the top brands will usually (but not always) be within a hair of each other in terms of performance. Therefore, I urge you to shop around carefully. Also, do not underestimate the importance of warranty service on hard disk drives, because they do fail, it's just a matter of luck and time. Some hard disk manufacturers replace failed drives in the warranty period with new drives in a matter of days, while others will send you a refurbished unit (possibly after a considerable wait). So far, I know that the following companies replace drives with new models: Maxtor and Western Digital. These companies replace failed drives with refurbs: IBM, Quantum and Seagate. It may not seem important to you now, but it will if and when you are sitting there with a machine that is dead in the water. (By the way, if you know definitively what the policy is for any other manufacturers of hard disks that I haven't listed here, please let me know.)

Tip Of The Day For November 5, 1997: The Internet has made it much easier to find help resolving technical problems. Obviously, this is a much better situation than how things used to be! If there is any drawback to this, however, it may be that the availability of easy and free technical support has tended to dull hardware users' ingenuity and resourcefulness in solving their own problems. I cannot emphasize this enough: some time spent developing your own problem solving skills will pay off many times over as you encounter other problems down the road. I want to encourage everyone to take a look at the section I have written on general troubleshooting techniques, which will help you to improve your abilities in this important area.

Tip Of The Day For November 4, 1997: Mini-tip today: when you buy a new system case in order to perform a build of a new PC, or a major system upgrade, make sure you check it out thoroughly. In particular, check the back of the case to make sure the input voltage is set correctly (110V vs. 220V). Also, check the power switch to make sure it is off, so you won't get a nasty surprise when you plug the system in for the first time.

Tip Of The Day For November 3, 1997: Continuing on my "buying tips" theme of the last few days, I want to remind my readers about one of the biggest "gotchas" in the mail order component game: not paying attention to the cost of shipping the product. While you may think you can get the best deal on your new system by buying each component from the vendor that has it advertised at the lowest price, you will end up paying much more for shipping than if you bought all the components from one company. I usually find a happy medium is to keep purchases to no more than two or three vendors when getting components for a new system. (This also saves you time compared to dealing with so many companies and orders.) Also, watch out for excessive shipping and handling charges. There are some companies that try to hook buyers with very low nominal prices, only to then slap on ludicrous S&H costs to the order. Often, these can be high enough that another company would have a better overall price. (When I say "ludicrous", I mean a company charging $20 or more to send a single hard disk drive by UPS ground from two states over, which does happen, believe it or not.)

Tip Of The Day For November 2, 1997: When you are looking to buy a new PC, think very carefully not only about what you are buying today, but also what you may want to buy in the future. It's hard to predict, isn't it? This is why you want to very carefully consider two often neglected factors: expandability, and standardization. Expandability refers to the capability of the system to handle additions, such as a newer, faster CPU, more memory, or additional peripherals. Standardization refers to whether the system uses industry standard components, as opposed to proprietary ones. Many of the larger PC vendors make very nice machines, but they use special designs that make them more difficult to upgrade or find repair parts that match. Be sure to ask about these issues when talking to your salesperson.

Tip Of The Day For November 1, 1997: I recently read an announcement that there will apparently be new 32X CD-ROM drives hitting the market... Manufacturers continue to increase the spin speed of CD-ROMs to improve performance. However, as usual, the performance promised here is in many ways more than what you actually get. For starters, since these drives use constant angular velocity (CAV), the 32X rating is only for transfers at the outside edge of the disk; on the inside of the disk the transfers are far slower, probably more on the order of 12X. Also, for most people, the real-world difference between one of these drives and say, a 16X drive, is not very great. It may make sense to get a 24X or 32X drive new if it's only a few dollars more than a slower drive, but it's rarely actually worthwhile to bother with an upgrade. I discuss some of the issues related to understanding CD-ROM performance specifications (and myths) on this page.


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