Notes From The 90s

Monday, August 25, 2014 at 9:44 pm

muI’m writing this in early January, and it will be in editorial offices from Istanbul to Tokyo by the 8th. The first part of this column will be online in the United States before the end of the month. That’s progress. It gets the awards information out faster. More importantly, I don’t have to guess each month what’s going to be interesting three months later.

The User’s Choice Awards are subjective and my own, and generally follow from what I have found useful here. I can’t pretend to have looked at everything, so when I use phrases like “Best of the Year” please understand there are some restrictions here, and perhaps I ought to say “Best I have looked at and used.” That’s truthful, but overly restrictive. I hear about a lot of stuff from readers, from associates, from Byte.Com’s excellent editorial staff, and even from press releases, particularly if they come from press people I know and respect.

Incidentally, there are a lot of respectable public relations people in this business: people who will put the best face on their products, but won’t lie about them, and don’t try to waste my time getting me to look at something that would be, well, a waste of time for me. My thanks to all of them. And once I decide I will probably like something, it’s not all that hard for me to get it. So, while I haven’t seen everything, I do see and use a lot of the best hardware and software around. It’s nice work if you can get it.

The User’s Choice Systems AwardsWe have Wintel PC Systems, Macs, and Linux boxes. Of those, the most useful systems to me are:

The Compaq SP 750 Dual Pentium III Professional Workstation running Windows 2000 Professional. This machine does all my Net cruising, e-mail, accounting and books, expense reports, most artwork, and generally everything except creative writing. It would do that, too, but I generally employ a different “main machine” for writing, because I like to have a workstation nailed online to get e-mail and such like, and it can be distracting when important mail comes in. It’s simpler to have two machines. Regina, the Compaq SP 750, gets the User’s Choice Award as most useful workstation for the year.

The best all-around system I have found is an Intel D815EEAL motherboard and an Intel Pentium III of 800 MHz or greater. I’m fond of the new 1-GHz chips, but they cost significantly more than the 933 for no great performance improvement. Put in at least 128 megs of either Kingston or Crucial memory, add a Seagate Barracuda ATA III 40 gigabyte hard drive and a BTC 8x DVD drive as the CD drive, put it into a PC Power and Cooling Personal Mid-Tower case, and the result will be a splendid all-purpose machine, with video and sound good enough for office work and most games. It assembles easily and without problems from Intel’s Good Enough documentation. This combination gets my User’s Choice Award for Best All Around System for the year 2000.

The D815EEAL just got better. Analog Devices and Intel have got together, and the drivers will be available to make use of all the features of SoundMAX that are built into the board. You need the SoundMAX 2.0 drivers, which you can get from Analog Devices. Big orchids to both Intel and Analog Devices. You can now have excellent sound built onto your motherboard.

If you want to turn that D815EEAL with 1-GHz P III into a screaming games machine, add an Nvidia GeForce2 AGP board (which will displace the AGP video built onto the motherboard). Those come in several flavors, and they’re all good. The Ultra is the fastest, but quite expensive. The GeForce2 MX is a lot of bang for the buck. The GeForce2 GTS is a good compromise.

Whichever flavor you get, you will now have as good a game machine as anyone you’re likely to know, and that combination gets my User’s Choice Award for Games Machine, and the Nvidia GeForce2 series of video cards are hands down the winner of the User’s Choice Award for Best Graphics Board. The Hercules version of the Nvidia has a slight edge over the Elsa version, but they are both excellent. One thing, whichever implementation of the board you buy, check the Nvidia website for drivers. You’ll be glad you did. Incidentally, this system with Nvidia video board will also make a crackerjack video-editing system, although for serious video work you’ll want more and larger hard drives.

I built my own copies of the above systems without problems. It’s of course possible to buy off-the-shelf systems with those components.

Finally, a medium orchid to Compaq for the iPac “legacy free” workstation (see December 18, 2000 column). This is designed to run Windows 2000 Professional, and has a drive bay with components identical to those in the Armada series of portables. There are no slots. Sound, video, and Ethernet are built in and are good enough. If you want other peripherals, add them with USB. All told, it’s hard to beat these for simple, cost-effective off-the-shelf workstations, so long as you are satisfied with the built-in graphics.

Operating Systems The Users Choice Award for operating systems goes to Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional, which is to say, Workstation. This is the OS to use for most SOHO applications, either for stand-alone ops or as workstations to a network or, in my case, both.

I not only have Windows 2000 Professional on my laptop, but I routinely disconnect an Intel Pentium III Windows 2000 Professional system from the network, stuff it into the Explorer, and carry it down to the beach house to use for communications and writing. It works very well for both.

I have used Windows 2000 Professional as stand-alone, in peer-to-peer networks, in a Windows NT 4 Domain, and now in a Windows 2000 Server domain environment. It has worked well in all those cases. With a minor exception I can run all my legacy software other than games. The exception has to do with certain DOS programs I wrote in compiled BASIC in 1986. I find I have to keep a Windows 98 system to use that because, for reasons not entirely clear, I can’t make it print properly under 2000, although it does under Windows 98. I can live with that.

People heavily into older games will not want Windows 2000 Professional. Very few of the old DOS full-screen games will run properly (if at all), and some early Windows games don’t work either. On the other hand, most modern Windows games run just fine, and so do a few older WIN-G games that won’t run under 98.

If there’s a game or some other DOS legacy program you just have to have, you might want to test it on someone else’s Windows 2000 Professional system before making the change. Otherwise, go with 2000 Pro. It’s more stable than Windows 98, it’s FAR more stable than Windows Me, and it’s just a great deal easier to work with than Windows NT Workstation. Windows 2000 Professional is plug and play with most hardware you’re likely to have. Once again, if you have some special legacy hardware you can’t live without you’d better test before you commit. And installation of new hardware is infinitely easier than it was with NT 4.

While we are on operating systems, Microsoft gets a tiny orchid and a very large onion for Windows Me. The orchid is for fixing some legacy problems. Most of those legacy games that would not work with Windows 98 work just fine with Windows Me.

The onion is for the general instability and kludginess of Windows Me, which was rushed out before it was ready. Microsoft clearly hoped to come up with a single operating system based on NT technology, with a “home” and a “professional” flavor. It didn’t achieve that in time, and Me was a stopgap, designed to capture a new revenue stream and fill the gap for those who just had to have something new. It is not compatible with all modern games, including Microsoft’s own Crimson Skies. It is prone to odd failures for inexplicable reasons. It does have the virtue of running a number of older DOS programs — mostly games — that Windows 98 won’t run, but it also breaks some older DOS programs (including my accounting program that will run under Windows 98, runs but won’t print under Windows 2000 Professional, and won’t run at all under Windows Me). I don’t think of many reasons to “upgrade” to Windows Me from Windows 98, and I know of a number of reasons not to. Stay with 98 or go to 2000 Professional and give Windows Me a miss.

CD-R And CD-RW A Chaos Manor User’s Choice Award to Plextor’s PlexWriter, which reliably burns CD-R and CD-RW disks without problems or concerns. These come in different speeds, and they all work. Mine is the 12-10-32A. Plextor also gets a big orchid for building “Burn-Proof” into the hardware. This long-needed technology turns off the laser if, due to underflow, there’s nothing to write. It’s astonishing that it took so long for someone to think of doing that, but I’m sure glad Plextor did.

A second User’s Choice Award goes to Ahead Software’s Nero Burning ROM, a program that, in combination with a PlexWriter, has been 100 percent effective in making CDs rather than coasters. Everyone needs the capability to burn CDs. In my case, I periodically make a copy of every word I ever wrote, along with all the editors required to read the files. I store copies of this “Full Monty” in various places, including at Niven’s house so even if Chaos Manor burns to the ground I’ll have all my creative work.

Another use is file transfer. The other day, Roland wanted to reconfigure our Linux boxes. He needed a number of files available only online. Chaos Manor still has only a 56K modem connection (with luck that will change soon), while Roland has a T-1 connection at home. It was a great deal faster to have him take home a Backpack CD-Rewriter, download the files, burn them onto CDs, and bring them back here. The Backpack CD-Rewriter isn’t anything as fast as an internal Plextor PlexWriter, but it’s external, portable, and works off either the parallel or the USB port. It’s worth taking one along in checked luggage if you are on assignment where backup is important. The User’s Choice Award for portable CD-R, CD-RW drives goes to the Backpack.

A rather grudging Chaos Manor orchid to Roxio DirectCD. As I said last month, this is the latest edition of what was one of the most hated programs around, Adaptec’s DirectCD. The latest version, though, actually works with all flavors of Windows including 2000 and Me, and works invisibly and well. It took Adaptec six years and having to spin the product off to another company to do it, but once done, they did it well. If you have Nero Burning ROM, you don’t absolutely have to have Direct CD, but if you use your CD-RW for incremental backups and as a file safe, you’ll want it. With DirectCD, your system sees a CD-RW drive as just another drive and you can read, write, and rewrite files the same as you would to any other drive. That’s very convenient, and Roxio gets an orchid.

DVD-RAM An orchid to the Hitachi/Panasonic-led coalition that is bringing out DVD-RAM. I don’t have an award for a system yet because I don’t have one of the new versions with double (4.7 GB/side) capacity; I expect I will be giving a User’s Choice next year. DVD-RAM will eventually replace DVD, Magneto-Optical, CD-R, and CD-RW drives as the removable read and storage device of choice. CD-ROM drives may stay around in about the same way that 3.5 inch floppies have survived, but since you can read an ordinary CD-ROM in a DVD-RAM drive, they’ll slowly vanish as will DVD-ROM (read only) drives as DVD-RAM prices fall.

DVD-RAM is permanent read/write storage, and while the cartridges are expensive now, their prices will fall as more drives are installed and demand rises. At 4.7 gigabytes a side on those cartridges, DVD-RAM can do many backup jobs now done by tape. They’re faster and far more convenient than tape, more permanent, and more reliable. You may still want tape to do enormous comprehensive backups, but for small establishments doing a weekly incremental update, DVD-RAM will be good enough and more convenient. I think this will be the year DVD-RAM begins to take off.

Categories: Platforms

Post a Comment