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August 2002 Archive
For a full list of all archived shows, see the Archives page.
August 28, 2002 Show RETURN TO TOP
The battle has begun for the next generation of read only DVDs using blue lasers (current DVDs use red lasers). Blue lasers have a shorter wavelength and therefore can support more data on a DVD. A new standard for blue laser DVDs was announced by Toshiba and NEC this week. This standard, called Blue Ray, competes against another standard that Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi, Pioneer, Sharp, Samsung, Philips and Thomson Multimedia announced in February 2002. The Sony/Panasonic system can fit 23.3 gigabytes on a DVD whereas the Toshiba/NEC system fits only 15 to 20 gigabytes. However, the big advantage for Toshiba/NEC is that their Blue Ray system can read existing DVDs, which the Sony/Panasonic system can not. It also allows manufacturers to use existing DVD-related plants and equipment, allowing sizable cost savings.
How much space is really needed on a read only DVD? It can already fit an entire movie and extras. CNet covered this story on August 25th.
Alfred said that recordable DVDs will be the new VHS to
which Hank noted that they have to priced correctly to really take off. Both
agreed they are not yet very popular and Alfred thinks the cost will be low
enough very soon.
It seems that Microsoft is charging too much money for their Works software.
Works is a stripped down version of Microsoft Office and typically is included
with low-end PCs. Dell announced this week that their low-end consumer machines
will now ship with the Corel WordPerfect Productivity Pack. This is a
combination of WordPerfect and the Quattro Pro spreadsheet and is a scaled-down version of
the Corel software that competes with Microsoft Office (WordPerfect Office
Hewlett-Packard has already made the same changeover away from Works.
Starting next month, every new HP Pavilion computer will
ship with the Corel software. IBM, of course, uses Lotus SmartSuite, software
they own outright. Toshiba too, ships computers with Lotus
Forbes Magazine covered this on August 26, 2002. The New York Times covered it on August 29th. (alternate link). The Forbes article said that in addition to price, the US Government anti-trust action against Microsoft is making it easier for computer companies to defy Microsoft. The Times article noted that Dell was a long standing staunch ally of Microsoft and reported that Corel expects five million copies of the software will be installed in the next year under these deals. The Corel products are compatible with Word and Excel.
More PC Makers Try Alternatives to Microsoft Suites
- eWeek magazine covered this on September 2, 2002. The articles notes that earlier this year, Sony
agreed to ship WordPerfect on a range of its PCs.
What to look for when buying a laptop for a college student: (continued from last week)
According to the college students we spoke to, they are all buying notebooks, no full sized PCs. Also, many want the security of having their own printer for middle of the night emergencies.
Students at commuter colleges are very sensitive to the weight of their computer. Hank suggested that a machine without a floppy disk drive would save weight, but floppies remain the least common denominator and are the easiest way to take a file to the computer lab. A light weight notebook computer may have an external floppy drive. If not, you may be able to find a USB based external floppy drive.
Hank noted that Microsoft is dropping support on Windows 98. Sending a student off to college with a computer running Windows 98 might make it harder to get support in the future.
Hank and Alfred agreed that you must have a USB port on any notebook computer. Alfred said that a lot of the inexpensive printers no longer have parallel port connections.
How fast a cpu do you need? Hank said that 400 Mhz should be fast enough for an entire 4 year college stay. Alfred said that his everyday computer, the one he uses for word processing and web browsing, is a Pentium 166. It still gets the job done for him and he said it would do more than 90% of what 90% of college students will use their computer for.
Buying a refurbished notebook: Alfred noted that a notebook computer can fall into one of several categories.
The right level for you depends on how much money you have available and your level of confidence in solving problems.
Hank's research on Dell, IBM, HP and Compaq notebooks revealed that reconditioned machines have a warranty of 90 days, new ones, one year. He said that new machines used to have 2 or 3 year warranties. After reviewing their web site, Hank called HP about their warranties. On reconditioned computers, HP will up the warranty to one year for $60, except in six states (New York is one of the six states). On new computers, HP will up the warranty from one to three years for $100 (a price Hank called very modest) except in New York.
The six states are Florida, New York, Oklahoma, Wyoming, South Carolina and Utah. If either the ship to address or the bill to address is in one of these states then the warranty can not be extended.
Why is this? Hank reported there were numerous complaints about extended warranties on electronic equipment. The New York State Insurance Department eventually ruled that extended warranties are really a form of insurance and therefore governed by their regulations. This took effect May 31, 2002. Hank noted that better stores don't have service contracts any more because they must apply for a license to sell insurance. He also mentioned that this only applies to consumer sales, not to businesses. HP is in the process of applying for an insurance license.
Alfred recommended against an extended warranty saying that anything that goes wrong will probably happen in the first 90 days. Hank agreed, but only in regard to non-mechanical parts. Notebook computers have mechanical parts, such as the hard disk drive and the latches that are used every time you open and close the lid.
Where to buy a refurbished notebook computer? Hank had a hard time locating machines in the $600 to $700 range that Alfred had recommended last week. Alfred suggested Compu-mart and Processor as excellent sources for new, new-old-stock, remanufactured, refurbished, and used notebooks (as well as other types of equipment). They are both "shopper" magazines, that is, they are just advertising. At Compu-Mart, search for the type of product you want in the Search box.
Alfred warns however, that you have to be a cautious and prepared consumer to buy at this (low) end of the market. The standard caveats for buying from any source apply more strongly here: pay only with a credit card, get all warranties and promises in writing, and know exactly what's included -- and what's not. The up side is that you can buy two serviceable laptops for the cost of one new one from the store. If your budget is particularly tight, this can be the best way to get computing equipment.
A Visual Basic programmer asked about anti-virus programs. He noted that his VB program, which he sent to a friend, could do what a virus does and asked what good anti-virus programs are. Alfred responded that all anti-virus programs have to be kept up to date with the latest and greatest virus definitions. If his program did something bad, the anti-virus program would not detect it because his program was not a known virus.
The same person then asked for a recommendation on how to learn Visual Basic without going to a school. Hank said a book with lots of examples and a CD-ROM was a great way to learn it. The NYPC User Group has a Visual Basic SIG run by David Kulick. Hank suggested looking at www.objdev.org/metro/ for a list of user groups.
A caller asked about a PC that keeps re-booting itself. Hank suggested booting from a floppy disk. If the computer stays up afterwards, then it is not a thermal problem. The machine is running Windows Me and when the user boots to safe mode, it also stays up. The suggestion was to re-install the operating system on top of itself, after backing up any important data files.
John is looking to buy a CD-RW drive and wanted a recommendation. Alfred said not to buy the fasted ones on the market. He said you won't notice the speed increase they offer and you will save money. Although Alfred buys name brand models himself, he noted that the mechanisms are all pretty much the same inside. He suggested choosing a CD-RW based on the included software. Roxio Easy CD Creator and Nero are the top two programs. John also wondered about software and cpu compatibility. He has Celeron running at 800 Mhz and noted that all software requirements are stated in terms of the various flavors of Pentiums. No software says it works with a Celeron. Hank and Alfred said that any software that works with a Pentium will work with the Celeron.
Another John asked why his home DVD recorder can only get 2 hours on a DVD whereas Hollywood movies on DVD are longer. Alfred said this is due to compression. One trick you can do is to lower the quality. Just like a VCR that has 2 , 4 or 6 hour mode, a DVD burner can lower the resolution of the picture to record longer. Alfred said the reason professional movies fit more time at high quality on a DVD is that they use professional compression which is done manually. They chose key frames intelligently and after a key frame, only record data that changes. This is very labor intensive but you end up with great compression. In contrast, software that runs on a home PC does on-the-fly compression. It typically uses every 20th frame as a key frame, no matter what.
Rick has a Windows 98 computer that freezes every time he minimizes or restores a window. Alfred suggested going to the display adapter properties and changing the driver to standard VGA. This will not provide as many colors or as high a resolution. However, it may be that the existing video driver is corrupted or has a problem. If the standard driver works, then download and install the latest driver for the display card from the manufacturers web site.
August 21, 2002 Show RETURN TO TOP
Hank mentioned the web site Zazona that lists applications for H-1B visas. These visas were supposed to let companies fill jobs that they could not find anyone in the USA to do. The database has over a million jobs that were filled since 1998 and you can search it to see the H-1B visa jobs and their salaries at different companies. Critics of the H-1B program claim that it is simply a source of cheap labor for technology companies; that foreign workers are being hired because they are willing to work for lower wages and fewer benefits. The INS studied the program in 1999 and 2000 and found that 54% of H-1B visa holders were working in computer related occupations. Bloomberg, the New York based company founded by the Mayor of New York City, has 381 H-1B employees according to the Zazona web site. Joe suggested that if you are laid off from a company that has a significant number of H-1B visa employees, you should write to your representatives in Congress and let them know that you will be watching how they vote. The law is coming up for an extension.
For more on this read Congress May Bear Brunt of H-1B Anger in Computer World Magazine, August 19, 2002. The articles says that Rob Sanchez, the person behind Zazona is an unemployed programmer who lost his job because of the H-1B visa program. Computer World also has a page dedicated to H1B and Immigration with many links to assorted resources.
Update: This subject also came up on the September 18, 2002 show.
What to look for when buying a laptop for a college student:
Alfred has put a number of children through college and said the most important first step is to call the school to see the software is used most widely and the applications that are installed in the computer lab. Whatever it is, that is what your student should come to school with. Alfred also suggested asking the school what kind of Ethernet they have in the dorms, if any, and what Network Interface Cards (NIC) they support. He sent a child to a college that only supported one brand of NIC card.
Hank noted that there has been a major drop in laptop prices since May. How much money should you expect to spend?
Software: Hank noted that some laptops come with Microsoft Works, some with Corel Suite (a competitor to Microsoft Office) and some with Lotus Millennium Suite (also a competitor to Microsoft Office). There is a student version of Microsoft Office for about $150. Then there is the very cheap, if not free, Star Office and Open Office. The only problem with Star Office might be getting technical support. No student wants to be late handing in a paper because of a computer problem.
Printers: It was suggested that the important factor was not the price of printer, but the price of the ink cartridges. Joe paid $79 for an HP printer a couple years ago, but replacing the ink cartridges was $55 to $60. Hank said that an Epson C80 printer that sells for about $80, has ink cartridges that cost only $7 to $9 by mail order. Alfred noted that on printers with cheap ink, the print head is separate from the ink cartridge and it will eventually need to be replaced at a cost of $40 to $60. Alfred's son is going back to school and not taking a printer at all this year. He found that printing in the computer lab or the library was sufficient. His advice was not to buy a printer until there is a clear need for it. My two cents: printers are relatively large for transporting and being mechanical devices may not travel well. It may also be advantageous to buy a printer near the school in case there is a problem with it.
Warranty: Hank said that three year warranties on new laptops range from $300 to $450. Alfred said not to buy them as it is unlikely the new computer will break. Joe said that if its going to break, it will do so in the first 90 days. He said you can expect to pay about $90 an hour for computer repair plus parts (and the parts can be brutally expensive). Hank thinks the three year warranty is a good idea. My two cents: my last three laptops, all IBM ThinkPads, have each needed hardware repair and having it done by the manufacturer is preferable.
Ports: Hank suggested getting a machine with FireWire capability, but Alfred suggested that it can be added later via a PC card (a.k.a. PCMCIA card). As for USB 2.0, the opinion was that college students don't need it now.
WiFi: It was suggested not to spend extra money on a laptop that has built-in WiFi capability.
This topic was continued on next weeks show.
Aaron asked about batteries in a laptop computer. He was told that taking the battery out of the machine when using it on AC power can extend the lifespan of the computer. This is because the battery produces heat which might damage the machine. Alfred and Hank agreed that it was an O.K. thing to do but said it will only work with some notebooks, not all. Some laptops always run off the battery and constantly charge them, others do not.
Scot uninstalled a game on a Windows 95C machine and lost the ability to use the CD-ROM drive. He said the CMOS recognizes it on boot-up and that the power is on for the drive. However, in diagnostic tests it fails the seek and read tests. Hank at first suggested using a Windows 95 boot up floppy disk because it has CD-ROM support. You can boot from the floppy and then reinstall the OS. However, the caller then added that mscdex thinks the CD-ROM is the wrong drive letter. Somehow it got remapped. Alfred said that in the config.sys file there is a line for mscdex that specifies the drive letter. He said to edit config.sys and change this drive letter from the wrong one to the right one.
David called to complain that in our laptop for school discussion we never mentioned Apple iBooks. Alfred said that most schools are "Wintel" and that the most important point is to get a machine that is compatible with the computing environment at the school.
August 14, 2002 Show RETURN TO TOP
Kudos to Motorola for their tech support of a Surfboard cable modem for a new user with installation questions.
Symantec has warned of a firewall flaw with Internet Explorer. The bug has to do with random numbers used by TCP/IP as initial sequence numbers. Microsoft has not confirmed the problem. It effects a number of Symantec firewall products. Symantec's web site has more information: Symantec Enterprise Firewall TCP Initial Sequence Number Randomization (August 5, 2002). Joe called this a serious flaw.
Microsoft reached an agreement this week with the FTC. Under the guise of running a secure identity service called Passport, Microsoft collected a lot of information from their customers (credit card numbers, birth dates, addresses, etc) and did not protect it. Hackers had access to this data through a variety of bugs in assorted Microsoft software. The Microsoft attitude about this was characterized by Joe as "aw gee". For the next twenty years the government can oversee the operation of Passport. Our hosts however, were skeptical about this 20 year review. Hank mentioned that It is scheduled for every two years rather than randomly. Joe speculated on how the Microsoft lawyers work and predicted that as soon as they change the name from Passport to dot-Passport, the agreement will fall apart. For more on this, see the Microsoft Computer Gripes.
AOL has announced that they will start distributing their Netscape browser with the Apple Macintosh version of their software. Web sites look different viewed with Netscape than with IE. Joe noted that neither adheres to the standards. Web sites developed to look a certain way when viewed with IE, will not display the same under Netscape.
Ziff Davis Media has announced a re-structuring. While this does not insure that they will continue as a viable business entity, Alfred said that the company had little chance of continuing without the re-structuring. Regardless of the fate of Ziff Davis Media, Alfred said that PC Magazine was profitable and would continue to be published. Magazine readers should not worry about subscribing for three years.
The market in the US for point and shoot digital cameras is dominated by 3 manufacturers. Sony has a 25% share, Canon is at 12% and HP has 10%. Hank was surprised that Olympus is not among the market leaders. Alfred and Joe said that Olympus makes some of the best cameras.
How long will electronic media last?
Hank told a story about trying to get data from tapes stored in Iron Mountain. While Iron Mountain is a secure storage facility, it is not a controlled environment. The tapes flaked, came apart. The magnetic media delaminated off the plastic backing rendering the data unrecoverable. Joe told of trying to read data recently from a 5.25 inch floppy disk he created in 1992 or 1993. It was full of bad sectors.
Of course, everyone now burns data to a CD, either a CD-R or CD-RW for long term storage. How long will CDs last? It depends. For one thing, there are at least three different technologies used in CD-Rs. Joe said they should last from 5 to 55 years. Alfred quoted the manufacturers. TDK now guarantees their CD-Rs for over 100 years. Kodak research indicates theirs should last over 217 years. Mitsui says their silver reflecting CD-Rs should be good for 100 years, their gold layer based CDs should last 300 years. Will there be CD-ROM drives in 300 years to read the discs? These figures assume the discs are stored in perfect conditions, one of which is darkness. As for the air, Kodak says CDs should be stored in an area with 40% relative humidity and 25 degrees Celsius. Don't store them on a southern exposure window sill.
What should small businesses and individual users do? Regardless of the storage media, if the data is important, you should make more than one copy. Alfred suggested every few years making a fresh copy of the data.
The question was raised about the life span of a CD-ROM disc vs. CD-R and CD-RW discs. Joe said in the early 1980s, they did not last very long. Now they are stamped rather than burned and they last longer.
Alfred said that no matter how well you take care of it, a CD-ROM will not last nearly as long as a CD-R. The reflective layer in a CD-R is either Gold or Silver, both relatively inert metals. In contrast, mass produced CD-ROMs have a shiny layer made of Aluminum which will corrode. The polycarbonate plastic used in making CD-ROMs is slightly porous to water. Water vapor and gas will inevitably get at the Aluminum and ruin the disc. Alfred cited estimates of 10 to 20 years. Both CD-Rs and CD-ROMs have the same polycarbonate plastic. CD-R and CD-RW discs should have the same lifespan.
John C. Dvorak wrote about the life span of CDs in PC Magazine on August 6, 2002. Fred Langa wrote about this a year ago in Information Week magazine Is Your Data Disappearing? (July 23, 2001). His article will make you an informed CDR consumer and show you how to identify the most common types of CDs on sight. You might also want to read The State of Optical Storage (August 14, 2002) on ExtremeTech.
A caller asked about Serial ATA hard drives and whether he should wait for them to become available before buying a new computer. Serial ATA hard drives communicate with computer much faster than standard parallel ATA/IDE drives. Rather than wait, it was suggested to buy what you need now. Alfred said that an end user on a single machine would not notice the speed difference between Serial and parallel ATA. The technology is intended for servers with a much higher rate of hard disk I/O. For more, read "Your Next Hard Drive Serial ATA drives debut, drive capacities to reach 200GB" from the September 2002 issue of PC World magazine.
A caller asked about recovering data lost due to a hard drive failure: Hank
said not to write anything onto the drive. Although a number of companies can
help, Joe has had experience with Ontrack
and recommended them. They have a remote service to examine your dead drive and
determine if they can help you and provide an estimate. It would be best to
install the damaged hard disk as the second disk in another computer. Ontrack
also makes a program called Easy Recovery that you run on your computer. A free
demo version can be downloaded from their web site. A competing program is GetDataBack
from Runtime Software. Advanced data retrieval is
also possible but very expensive. This is needed when the hard drive has
suffered a major physical problem and is your last resort. Ontrack's Advanced Data
Solutions provide this service as does DriveSavers.
In this case, you have to send the company your hard disk. The service will cost
anywhere from $95 to $5000, but is often $400 to $1200.
A caller asked about repairing the scratches in CDs. There are products on the market to do this and sometimes they will fix the problem and sometimes not. The most popular products polish the CD and Alfred said they are remarkable and will pretty much clear up anything. The product Alfred mentioned on the air was Quick Shield from CD Playright (800-800-8879). Alfred has an article on this very subject called CD Scratch Prevention Products on ExtremeTech (April 9, 2002).
After a caller installed some new software, he found that a computer game on
his machine no longer works as before. The game introduction plays, but then the
computer re-boots. He tried uninstalling and re-installing both the game and the
new software, but the problem persisted. Fortunately he was running Windows XP
Home Edition which includes a restore facility for Windows system related files
(Windows Me did too). In XP you can access the System Restore by either:
August 7, 2002 Show RETURN TO TOP
This show starts the 19th year for the Personal Computer Show on WBAI. The first show was on Thursday August 6, 1984 at 1:00 PM after the Gary Null show.
This was a mini fund raising show, part of the WBAI membership drive. The only way the show remains on the air is if you help to pay for it. The phone number to call the station and become a member is (212) 209-2950. A number of premiums were offered as incentives for becoming a member of WBAI. These premiums were only available while the show was on the air.
Hank mentioned that there are new functions in the Google search engine. You can read about these at the Google Advanced Search page. One new feature is the ability to enter a persons name and zip code to find a person. Another allows you to enter a URL and other search terms and Google will search just the web site you requested. Google calls this domain restrict. For example, to buy a refurbished computer from HP, you could search just the HP web site for the word "refurbished".
Joe uses this new Google feature
on a daily basis. He said it was the best way to search the Microsoft Knowledge
Base. Google has a better index than Microsoft and their search is faster. For
information on Windows XP, Joe suggests this Google search:
said that AOL version 8 is version 7 combined with these new Google features.
Dave noted that AOL had been a very tight lipped company. You could not get information from them that was not in a press release and they had few press releases. Now however, Time Warner people are in charge. A reporter for the New York Times recently interviewed AOL employees at their headquarters indicative of a change of heart. AOL is aware that their customers were so annoyed with their ads that they were leaving. Version 8 is supposed to have fewer ads.
Speaking of AOL, canceling an AOL account has never been easy. There is a phone number, but you can not cancel using customer service and you can not cancel online. You can get information about canceling however from keyword CANCEL. The phone number to cancel your account is 888-265-8008. Be aware that the people who answer the phone are paid to persuade you to stay. If they fail, it takes 72 hours for the cancel to take effect. Therefore, new AOL users wishing to cancel before their free month expires, should take care to call four or more days prior to the end of the free month. If you cancel prior to end of a billing cycle but nonetheless get charged for the next month, try to call the AOL billing department at 888-265-8003 and have the charge reversed. Also, do not use your AOL account after you call to cancel.
Hank noted that a question from a reporter caused the AOL stock price to drop. AOL claims to have 35 million subscribers. The question was how many are paid subscribers. Dave said this came out a year ago. AOL gives away 6 month memberships in combination with many other companies, such as CompUSA. They also have many customers on a $5 a month deal from CompuServe.
Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) and Carpel Tunnel Syndrome
After 30 plus years of working on a computer, Joe experienced Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. In his case, it was the combination of using the keyboard with a sudden increase in driving. The way we hold a car steering wheel causes stress on the wrists. Stress in the carpel tunnel creates swelling which puts pressure on the nerves. Joe was also a big user of macros. Being left-handed, he set up all his macros for the left hand.
To avoid RSI, your forearms should be parallel to the ground when typing on a keyboard. You should also sit square, that is, your body should not be twisted while using a keyboard. Every 50 minutes you should take a 10 minute break from using the keyboard. Suffolk county has a law that you have to have a 10 minutes break every hour when using a computer.
Joe recommended using Snopes to debunk email based hoaxes. It is the official site of the Urban Legends. Yours truly was briefly interviewed (does everyone hate the way their voice sounds?). Be sure to check out my hobby web site Computer Gripes (opens in a new window).
Web Searches for Health Problems
Joe said that he read some statistics that three out of four publicly available health oriented web pages had bad advice on them.
Dave said the basic authority on health is MEDLINE. It is a database of journal articles published by the National Library of Medicine. It has abstracts of essentially every medical article published anywhere and is the world's largest medical library. On any particular subject, MEDLINE often returns hundreds of articles. Joe felt that he was not competent enough to judge which articles are the most important.
This was a fund raising show and, as such, there were no caller questions. However, we did receive the following inquiry from Jon-Paul via email about buying a new computer. The questions pertain to a computer for games, DVD movies and digital cameras. Alfred Poor provided the answers.
1. Is a 32x CD-RW/DVD combo drive good enough for maximum performance on games or are there drives that go at a higher speed?
3. Do CD-RW's go higher than 32x?
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