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Technology Today - September 2001
by
Robert Sanborn

Ahhh, school season is upon us and time for more shopping for the kids, both young and old. Being watchful of the papers and journals, I really am surprised that I haven’t seen all that much that is interesting or new. We all wait for Microsoft Windows XP but with less excitement than I see watching grass grow. In fact today, the operating system of choice in the Windows world is still Windows98 Second Edition. People don’t really want ME on their computers and from what I hear, are not building up any demand for XP with the holes that I hear from people like Steve Gibson. Take a look at his web site at www.grc.com for some interesting comments about Windows XP. Something else that seems to be missing is any really new and exciting toys for the computer. I am sorry, I meant needed add ons and updates. I took a walk through Comp USA the other day and really didn’t see anything that really said “buy me”.  Maybe it is the lull before the fall buying season.

The good news is that Comdex is not all that far away and I will really be interested to see what the theme this year will be. Disappearing dot coms, the Pentium IV, Windows XP, and finally, really inexpensive flat screen monitors. I think that will be the next big purchases for most home computers. Speaking of purchases, I hope that no one is still signing up for any long term commitments to anything over the internet. As I said, too many dot coms vanishing, too many DSL companies going belly up, and a landscape that hopefully is on the verge of a change. Have you seen where estimates range from on 5 to 25 percent of all fiber optic cable laid down is not being used? Know something else interesting, with all the people signing up for broad band communications (including DSL, Cable Modems, ISDN, and the like), many are still keeping their AOL accounts. It mystifies me but people do like AOL and many of its features and I suspect a lot of it is the fact that it is familiar and it is a real pain having to change how you get things. If you do decide to keep your AOL, change your service plan. I forget exactly what it is but if you connect to AOL via another service, like broadband, you can get it for a reduced rate because you are not using their dial up lines. Save yourself some money.

Tis also the season for viruses and hoaxes as well and I am beginning to think that the season never ends. Yes, the threats are real and I am still amazed to see how many people have anti virus software on their computers but never get around to updating the programs. So let me be blunt. Are you slow, stupid, don’t have a clue, or all three? I realize that there are people out there that think an oil change in their car is something you do once in the lifetime of the car but you know, just like the car, it will catch up with you. Yes, the virus updates do cost money, yes, you have to spend some effort to get them downloaded, but you have to do it.

As to hoaxes, they seem to keep coming. My advise here is that no matter how well meaning you want to be, if you see an email that says to send it to all your friends, don’t. I receive more emails warning me of hoaxes than I do real viruses or worms and there are far and away many more of the real threats to our computers than the hoaxes so why do I keep getting so many?  I bet if you were to look back, you would receive probably 10 hoax warnings to every real virus threat from a “friend”.  The funny part is that most of the new worms and viruses today actually use your friends email accounts to forward the virus so if you include those emails in the mix, the related emails I get rank in order of viruses and worms, hoaxes, and finally, warnings of real viruses.

CD Media and the Like

As much as things are advancing in CD Media and the like, I am still surprised, well maybe not, with the amount of cheap junk still with us. Years ago I found this to be true in computer hardware. I would go to the Comdex computer show and see companies selling video cards from anything from $5 to $200. Now a video card for most of you is nothing more than what lies between your monitor and your computer. It makes sure that what you want displayed gets shown on the screen. In a nutshell, that is all it does. Granted to show more colors, you need more memory on the card and in fact, for the things that most people do, internet surf, word processing, and email, a video card with 1mb of ram is more than enough. But I have seen cards with 128mb of ram onboard and I suspect it will keep growing. It used to be you spent more money for more memory on the card to show more colors at a higher resolution and today, most people see things on their screen at a minimum of 800x600 and many at 1024x768. So what really separated the cheap video cards from the likes of those from companies like ATI? You get what you pay for in cheap equipment, poorly working drivers, and cards that can fail and take the rest of the computer with you.

Fortunately, in the world of CD Media, the risk of damage and crashes are much less with cheap media but one thing I found with my old HP CDRW drive is that it was really picky with the media I used. For my old drive, the only media that would work reliably was HP, Verbatim, and Sony and I think Ricoh. So what would happen and probably you have seen the same problems with your CDRW drives. First of all, you start getting the spurious error messages that you really can’t find in the help files. Then you find that the process finishes ok but then you can’t read the CD or you can’t stick it into another computer and read it. And did I mention that the life span of a CD after you have burned one can be anywhere from 5 years to 100 depending on the material used. Again, you get what you pay for. Most CDs today use a thin metallic aluminum film that is bonded to a plastic disc. Sandwiched between those two pieces is a chemical bath primarily of Cyanide.  Where the problem comes in is in the thin metal foil. Quite often, there is nothing separating you from that foil and the dye bath below. If you are lucky, the manufacturer has bonded a paper or plastic cover to that metal so that you can then either write on the surface or glue a label to the CD. I have seen with the cheaper media how sensitive that is so that when they tell you not to write on it with a ball point pen or any other sharp object, they are not kidding, it doesn’t take much to score a groove into the top of the CD which unfortunately, makes it unreadable. We spend so much time protecting the underside which is the hard polycarbonate plastic disc that we forget that the real danger is on the top of the CD. One CD I purchased on a trip was so cheaply made that when I played it, the label started to come off and guess what, so did the foil underneath. Ruined.

RAM Wars

It has started all over again. Remember when you went from a 486 to a Pentium and discovered that the ram that was in it would not work on the new computer? Well, it is starting all over again and in case you haven’t noticed, finding RAM for older 486 computers is very difficult these days. Today’s Intel’s Celeron and Pentium III and AMD Duron and Athlon/Thunderbird processor based computers use 168 pin SDRAM memory and boy is it cheap. 256mb memory modules for less than $40 is incredible compared to what we were paying for ram not that long ago. The new buzzword in memory is the RDRAM (Rambus DRAM) and DDR (Double Data Rate) SDRAM which are 184 pin memory modules running in computers with bus speeds, not cpu speeds, of 200 and 266mhz or higher. These are mostly Pentium IV class systems and unfortunately, these memory modules are expensive. The 256mb Rambus Micro PC800 module for instance sells for around $135 or so. These will come down but don’t be surprised that the Pentium IV computer you are looking at is quite a bit more money than the comparable P3.

Short Takes

One of the things I used to do years ago was listen to the Red Sox games on the radio. Today with the marvel of the internet, I can do that again and what surprises me even more is the number of stations, programs, and amount of entertainment that is available on internet radio. In fact, many radio stations broadcast their programs over the internet. But what used to be free now costs you money as in order to listen to my Red Sox, I have to buy the rights through Major League Baseball. Fortunately, it only cost me $10 this season but I suspect the rates might be going up and from what I hear, it now costs you even more to listen to NBA games as well. You can get Major League baseball games at www.mlb.com.  Something else that I often listened to while traveling was the BBC World Service on my shortwave radio. Unfortunately, this is going the way of the internet as well as they have decided to stop their broadcasts to the new world. The problem is that I really like listening to it without having to have my computer setup and turned on. (no, it doesn’t matter that my computer is never turned off). I wanted to listen to it in the living room or in my car, or when out camping.

Password Protection

Ever really think about the number of passwords and accounts you have accumulated at this point in your life and wonder how to keep track of it all. I have found a great product from Ilium software, www.iliumsoft.com called the software eWallet. It is a 128 bit encrypted file program that keeps track of all your passwords and accounts and user ids for you and keeps them from prying eyes. I first got this for my Pocket PC to keep track of the accounts I needed for it while on the road but have found it to be wonderful for my home computer as well. Of course, you need to keep track of the password used to open the program but other than that, it works great. I use it all the time.

Robert Sanborn
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Robert Sanborn is an Independent Personal Computer Consultant, and the Program Chairman for the Indianapolis Computer Society. Reach him through the net at robert@sanbornsoftware.com

 

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