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Archive for the ‘Computers’ Category

In fall of 2004, I was hired for my second post-doctoral position.  The new position came with some perks, including about a $12,000 per year bump in salary.  Flush with enough money to actually buy some luxury items, I decided to get myself a new desktop personal computer for video gaming as well as for doing work (but let me be honest: work was the secondary purpose).  With the help of a friend, I went to a site I’d used before and loved for customization: Cyberpower PC. I customized a machine with a 256 MB nVidia 6800 GT graphics card, 1 GB of RAM, and a nice new Pentium-4 3.1 GHz processor.  The friend kindly threw in a monitor on his own dime. At the time he claimed he had some sort of a “coupon” for it, but I’ve always suspected he just bought it for me as a gift. He did this because I had a price limit for computer + monitor, and his advice had caused me to spend the entire limit on just the computer.  When I started talking about backing down on the specs to afford a monitor, suddenly he mentioned this “coupon.” I have no doubt that he generously did this because he wanted me to have the better system.

The computer was amazing to me when it arrived. So much faster and slicker and better than my old 1 GHz, 512 MB RAM, 128 MB vid card system, this new system was 3x as fast, had twice as much memory, and twice as much video power.  The games I was playing at the time — Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes — looked so much better with the graphics cranked up, if not to max, at least to “pretty high.” (more…)

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My new Dell XPS M1530

I bought my last desktop computer from a house that was custom-building before full customization was popular, and ordered each component exactly to specifications.  That desktop computer is now almost 4 years old (it will turn 4 in March of 2009), and although it has aged well thanks to some optional and some repair-type upgrades, it is starting to reach the limit of what it can do.  The machine is a workhorse, and is still nice… A single-core P4 processor clocking in at 3.1 GHz, which is still pretty damn fast… 2 GB of RAM (doubled from the original 1 GB a year or two ago)… an upgraded power supply (the 425 Watt one that came with the case died and I replaced it with a 500 watt one)… and an upgraded AGP video card (the GeForce 6800 died, and I upgraded to a 7800 GS with 256 MB of RAM).  All in all, it’s not a bad machine, and it runs most of the games and other applications I use with it quite well.  However, I know it is getting older, and eventually some hardware piece or other is going to go, and I would rather have a new system in place and up and running before that happens and I find myself without a computer for weeks.

And so, it was time to look into a new dual-core machine, and my first decision was: laptop or desktop? Now, a desktop will always give you more power and performance for a given price, and you can get a smoking desktop for the same price as a decent (but nowhere near smoking) laptop.  On the other hand, laptops are portable, and it has been painful for the last few years going on trips or long winter breaks at the family home without any computer at all. Time spent in my mother’s retirement home for the holidays could be better spent if I had a PC with me, but she has no computer and doesn’t see the need for one.  And I don’t just mean gaming — I could also use it to prepare lecture materials for the coming semester, thus saving myself time during the year.  On the other hand, although gaming laptops exist, they can be expensive compared to gaming desktops, and they never can quite perform up to the same standard.

The deciding factor turned out to be my workplace — a small state university.  The school has an absolutely draconian administration policy for all computers bought through its purchasing department.  As a mere user, even the faculty cannot install software, or do any sort of problem-solving — we must simply call IT, who frequently take days, or weeks, to respond (if they respond at all!).  I understand the draconian standards for students, but for faculty, this is excessive.  Having to call IT every time I want to install open source software is completely ridiculous, and has harmed my ability to serve my students on more than one occasion.  I managed to get around this silliness a bit by installing linux on one of my lab machines, but it’s really not possible to go full linux on our campus, given its committment to Windows XP SP2-3, especially in the office.  However, getting my own laptop that I could connect to the network but still have outside the power of our IT office — one for which I was the head administrator — would solve that problem, and allow me to display presentations, video, or whatever else I wanted to my students without the university IT “bosses” interfering or preventing it.  And so, I decided to go with a laptop.

Having chosen a laptop, I went with Dell mainly because I know they make good laptops, and because the university contract with Dell (at least the past one — I have heard it is about to expire) gave us a small (6% or so) discount.  I went to their website and started comparing systems.  They offer a gaming variant of their performance laptop model (the XPS), but some features it offers are just not necessary to me.  After toying around with the sub-XPS models and finding that to bring them up to my desired specs, they would cost almost exactly as much as the XPS and still have a few less features, I decided to go with the regular XPS (not the gaming variant), and then add the features I desired (such as a better graphics card adatpor) to bring it up to snuff.  This ended up getting me to just under the base cost o the gaming laptop, missing a few “gamer” features I don’t need, but adding a few features that I thought would really make the laptop better, such as extra RAM.  I was able to save quite a lot by going with the 15″ laptop instead of the 17″. This was mildly disappointing, as I wanted the larger screen… but the increased cost was something I just could not justify.

In the end I went with the Dell XPS M1530, which is a 15.4″ widescreen laptop having lots of nice features.  I upgraded to the best graphics card possible on this model, the nVidia GeForce 8600 GMT, which is roughly equivalent to the older 7800 GS in my desktop, and went with 4 GB of RAM, which I think is important — it ensures that each of the two processors has 2 GB to work with. Any less than that and you’re really wasting the extra processor.  I considered trying to fight for XP instead of Vista, but finally decided that it was time to give up the fight and accept that Vista is the new OS, and that I might as well start getting used to it.  Thanks to my discount, I saved about $90 on the price, which coincidentally is just about the same price as Office Home/Student edition, so I had them tack that on for me — since the university is fully invested in the older version of office (2003), and since I wanted to use this machine to present things to my class, and build presentations for use on the other school computers, office really is a must.  Oh, sure, I could have gone with Star Office (and in fact did, on my older desktop, for nearly a fully year), but since this amounted to a free copy thanks to the discount, I went with it.  I also decided to spring for the bluetooth keyboard (which I’m typing on right now) and mouse.

All in all, I have been relatively pleased with my new acquisition.  It took Dell about 2 weeks to build and ship the thing — so in my view, that means there is no point to springing for the much more expensive overnight delivery option (what’s another couple of days when you have to wait two weeks anyway?).  When the machine arrived, it was completely, and exactly, what I had ordered.  Everything was in order, and ready to go.  I opened up the boxes, plugged in the laptop, turned it on, and was off to the races with Vista and my setup.   All the software came pre-installed, which I am of two minds about. On the one hand it’s nice not to have to deal with installing. On the other, I would’ve done some different things with the installation, such as dual-partitioning the drives so that I could keep one as a “gaming and applications” partition, allowing me to separate my own personally loaded apps from the more systemic or generic apps like Word or things like Trend Micro Anti-virus.  However, since it was all loaded up in a not-too-objectionable way, and since I really was not in the mood to spend several days in a long and annoying reinstall process, I’ve just gone with their initial setup, and tweaked a few things (like turning off some things in the startup menu, such as Google Desktop, which I never use).

There is a lot to like about this XPS laptop.  One of the first things I did was download the current version of the City of Heroes client and take the game for a spin.  For those who have not tried it, COH is a very graphically and performance-intensive game.  With 2 GB of RAM and the 7800 GS, my desktop system can handle it relatively smoothly, though with 1 GB of RAM it struggled slightly.  I wasn’t sure how the laptop would fare, but it actually did extremely well.  The gameplay was completely smooth, perhaps even slightly better than on the older desktop.  It was not really playable with the touchpad, but heck that’s what the bluetooth mouse and keyboard are for, right?  I also loaded up and played a bit of Galactic Civilizations II, which is not nearly the performance hog, and of course played just fine too.

I’m not going to make this a formal review… really it’s just a blog entry about my new machine and what I like and dislike. But I will list the pros and cons for those who might be considering this laptop.

Pros

Case design: The XPS M1530 has a great, sleek, stylish design.

Performance: It gives the user solid performance, and excellent graphics and game performance, provided one springs for the appropriate upgrades (such as the better graphics card, more RAM).  With 4 GB of RAM and the 256 MB nVidia card, it’s on par with my single-core Desktop at least, and possibly superior (it’s hard to tell since they both handle COH equally, and I have not yet tried the one game my desktop couldn’t handle — Mass Effect — on the laptop).

Bundled software: Even without Office there is a nice array of bundled software on the Dell XPS. You get Adobe Photoshope and Premeire Elements for free, and a full install of a complete security suite of your choosing (options include Norton, McAffee, and Trend Micro… I chose Trend due to bad experiences with the other two over the years).

Hardware extras: The XPS automatically comes with a built-in mini-web-cam and a fingerprint reader.  Since I don’t use either I would’ve stripped them out if I could have to save some money, but there was no option to do so.  These could be cons if you really don’t want them, but for most people I suspect they’re pros.

Bluetooth keyboard: Having a full Dell keyboard without a wire to connect to my laptop is wonderful.  In the past with older laptops I have used a regular mouse but the laptop keyboard, but I always find those to be uncomfortable.  The Dell laptop keyboard is typical, which is to say neither good nor bad… it’s usable and on trips I will use it, but at home, I prefer the bluetooth… and I may get an additional one for my office.

Cons

Bluetooth mouse: Unlike the keyboard, which works perfectly, the mouse is very unreliable.  Sometimes it works like a regular, plugged-in mouse, but much of the time it is extremely unresponsive, or else it’s over-responsive.  The response is poor enough that even though I am an expert at COH and was not doing anything I would normally consider hard, or dangerous for my character, I had one character die repeatedly because of the mouse response time. I would move it to hover over, say, a “healing” inspiration and click, only to find the mouse had gone less than half the distance I had anticipated, leading me to be clicking in the wrong place, missing the needed healing, and watch the character die ignominiously.  You might say, “this is just poor game performance,” but it also did this when surfing the web, and so on.  I checked the batteries but clealry, this is just a performance issue.  It doesn’t matter all that much surfing the web, but is totally unacceptable for any sort of gaming or Photoshop work, both of which require precision.  I dumped the bluetooth mouse in a drawer two days after receiving it, and swapped to an old USB mouse, which works just fine.  I would not waste money on the bluetooth mouse… although they usually bundle it with the keyboard.  If so, just order a regular, wired mouse (not wireless!) in case you get this problem. It’s not expensive.

Battery life: I did not spring for the more expensive battery, but went with the default one. I know the default one would not have the most juice in the world — they never do. But this one is really not very good at all.  Its life of course depends on the application, but even under very minor use it gives no more than 3 hours of use, and if you do anything substantial, like, oh, say, playing “Hearts” (not a high-performance-demand game) you’ll be lucky to get much more than 2 hours out of it.  I’m not sure the battery alone would let you watch an entire feature-length (2 hour) movie on DVD, what with the DVD motor having to turn the whole time and all.  Again, I realize that I did not spring for the better battery, but given that these machines are being marketed and sold as high-end portable multimedia systems, it seems to me the minimum standard of battery life should be at least two hours of continuous DVD playback.  Otherwise, they’re forcing you to plug in during the middle of a movie… and good luck trying to watch just a 2 hour movie on your laptop during a long plane ride.

Overall

Other than the lousy bluetooth mouse and the weak battery life — both of which are easy enough to rectify by laying out a bit of money — I am very pleased with my Dell XPS laptop.  It performs well, and is a solid machine, enough that I am toying with just completely retiring my desktop and switching out completely to the laptop as my main machine, even for gaming.  I would definitely recommend the Dell to a friend, but I would also definitely recommend a regular (wired) mouse and especially the larger battery.

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Today, we had no classes at my university (it’s a sort of holiday) and I stayed home this morning rather than driving in to work.
Anyway, early in the morning I decide I will do some computer stuff and maybe play some COH. I recall that ZoneAlarm has been nagging me for the last week to update it, and I kept putting it off, so I decide since I have time, I’ll go ahead and update. I download the update from the link they provide, and I go ahead and shut down ZA and start the install process. Halfway through, the install tells me that I “Need administrative access” to continue. Now on this older machine, there is only ONE user, and it’s me, and I have full power/admin rights. Yes I know, not secure, but XP is such a pain in the ass about such things that I do it like that. Plus, I am the only person ever able to physically access my machine.

Anyway, I decide this is an odd message but try again… with the same result, along with getting error messages about the “true vector” monitor, which is connected to/part of ZA. So I check around and people recommend doing a clean uninstall/reinstall. I try that… same junk.

After mucking around with this for over an hour, I finally decide it’s easiest to just do a system restore. I’ve got a restore point from last night — great! I’ll just do that. Windows tries… but now it tells me that it can’t restore from that point, try another. I then go back… and back… and back… for over a week, apparently without any restore points being able to succeed.

So… somehow trying to install ZA broke it, then UN-installing ZA broke system restore (apparently) and now I can neither re-install ZA, nor restore the system from backup… so I am without ZoneAlarm. Right now that machine (which is not the one I am using — the one I am using right now is a laptop) only has Windows Firewall on it.

Everything else seems to be working, but once again ZA and Windows are not playing nicely with each other. My subscription to ZA is almost up (late Nov), and I supposedly get up to 2 more computers to protect via the new Trend Micro 1.5 year license I got with this new Dell laptop… so I am probably going to just give up on ZA, install Trend on the old machine, and make a new system restore point so in case I need to restore, I can.

Meanwhile, it’s now after 2 PM, and I have not YET had a chance to do either (a) any work, or (b) any gaming, thanks to both ZA and Microsoft.

Gotta love these people.

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The incompetence of the Microsoft Corporation never ceases to amaze me.

I use Windows XP, because Vista after all this time is still not really “there” yet as an operating system (though it’s getting closer). Also, I have an older machine so I’d rather not over-stress it with the resource hog that is Vista. Furthermore, because Windows XP has horrible security, I have had to add my own scanners and sweepers, including Webroot Spysweeper to catch ad-ware and spyware, and ZoneAlarm Pro, which I use as my firewall (it’s far superior to “Windows Firewall,” the default, utterly useless security program that comes with Microsoft’s Windows XP system).

This week, because I had it set up to automatically find out about updates, download, and install them, WIndows XP automatically downloaded the latest security update for Windows, hotfix KB951748. This hotfix required a reboot, so what happened (as the default behavior of the system) was that on Tuesday night, as I went to shut down the machine, it notified me that new updates were installing, and I allowed it to do so. From that point on, I was utterly unable to get onto the internet.

Thank you very much Microsoft!

The first day, I thought it was some problem with BellSouth. I didn’t have a lot of time to get onto the net anyway that night, so I just ignored it and assumed that (as usually happens) by the next day the problem would resolve. When it did not, I finally called BellSouth’s customer support line, and their technician immediately told me that the hotfix was probably to blame, “especially if I used ZoneAlarm.” Her solution was to use System Restore to restore to an earlier system configuration, and just make sure not to re-install that hotfix.

Now, here is where the problem comes in. I set the system restore back a few days, to before the hotfix had been downloaded, but I knew that Windows was set to auto-update. So the instant it came up, I went into the security menu and told it to ask me before downloading or installing updates. Note the emphasis. It has to ask me before it can either download or install, right?

And here is why I hate Microsoft. Within minutes, Windows XP notified me of 4 updates pending, including this hotfix, and asked if I wanted to download them. I said “NO” to all of them (by un-checking them). Windows then, in response to me telling it NOT to download those hotfixes and patches, promptly proceeded to download them anyway. And then, even though I had it set to ask before installing any hotfixes, it automatically, without asking, installed the hotfix. This, of course, meant that I once again lost internet access!

Thank you very much Microsoft!

Once I realized what was happening, I went into the security menu once again, and completely turned off all updates. Windows XP, of course, yelled at me and inserted a red shield with an “X” into my system tray that would not go away, because it thought this was inadvisable. Meanwhile, I then went and, by hand, un-installed the four updates that had been installed without my permission by Windows after I told it that it needed my permission to do such a thing. Once those were gone, and Windows XP could no longer perform any updates whatsoever (and I had rebooted), I was again able to get onto the internet.

At this point I recalled that ZoneAlarm had bugged me recently about an update, which I had at the time ignored, and it struck me that they, being a competent company (unlike Microsoft Corporation) might have figured out a  fix for this. So I went to their website, and immediately found that they had a solution. The fix was in the new update, so I was able to download that update to ZoneAlarm. I then turned automatic updates back on, let Windows XP update itself (and once more kill my internet connection via its new clash with ZoneAlarm), and then I updated ZoneAlarm and all was well.

Now, it’s really not the loss of internet via the clash with ZoneAlarm that bothers me. Microsoft can’t know what will clash with every software package out there, and clearly something had changed in Windows XP that was not agreeing with ZoneAlarm. This is made clear by the fact that people were reporting that turning off ZoneAlarm or even lowering its security was a temporary fix to the problem. I can’t even say I expected Microsoft to have bothered about this, since ZoneAlarm is not the only other security program their system interacts with. This was ZoneAlarm’s problem to fix.

However, what I do blame them for is the fact that, after I had specifically told Windows “Do not download updates unless I tell you,” and then told it “Do not download this hotfix,” Windows proceeded to ignore my instructions and do exactly what it damn well pleased. And on top of that, even though I had issued the instruction “Do not install downloaded updates without my say-so,” Windows again ignored that instruction and did just what it wanted. What is the point of having these checkable options if Windows XP is just going to ignore them? This is an excellent example of incompetent programming at its worst. It is utterly typical of the Microsoft Corporation… to include a bunch of options for the user, none of which actually work as advertised. And I’m quite sure their answer to my problem, should I call them up and complain, would be to stop using third-party security suites and just use theirs.

Of course, that would miss the point that this is not about ZoneAlarm at all. Whatever security suite I am using, if I, as the owner of the computer, want to verify every single download before Windows executes it, and I tell it “no” to one of the downloads, then Windows XP needs to obey those instructions.

And Bill Gates wonders why so many people prefer Linux…

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