Category Archives: Hardware

Welcoming the new encumbrance

The bulk of my daily “work” is done on a 12-year-old Pentium 4 machine. I’ll save the gory details for later; suffice to say that it is a bit of a classic, and one I enjoy using immensely.

I have noticed though, that in spite of running svelte and light, as you would expect me to do, that there are some significant slowdowns.

Originally the machine came equipped with Windows XP, a meager 1.6Ghz processor and a lowly 1Gb of memory. Nothing to write home about.

I upped that to 2.6Ghz and 2Gb with Arch Linux, not so much because it needed it, but because it’s cheap now, and the machine itself is easy to upgrade.

And it handles most everything I need it for — surfing, online transactions, browser-based word processing or data analysis, and perhaps running VICE for a distraction or two. ;)

In fact, short of intrinsic hardware improvements — like more processor cores or finer screen resolutions or solid state drives — there’s not a whole lot that has really changed between this and most “modern” laptops. Sure, mine is a little slower by necessity, but all the same core parts are there: motherboard, drive, video adapter, display, and so forth. Twelve years have been rather patient with this machine.

But there are specific times when it’s definitely moving slower than, for example, the weatherbeaten Dell D830 I keep on the desk nearby. Not on the start, and not in file management or music playback or even 3D animation. Heck, I get something like 2000fps in glxgears. And that’s with a mid-market video card that was obsolete in 2004.

But there’s a lurch or a drag now that, to be honest, I don’t remember seeing even five or six years ago on a lowly 1Ghz Pentium III.

And the culprit is … the Internet. :shock:

Navigating the web is hands-down the biggest, densest chore, and at its worst, it’s almost spine-chilling. Long page redraws, fans at full tilt while rendering an image. Not just on this machine, but on others too.

And that’s where the cold sense of impending doom creeps in, because there’s not much remedy for it. It’s outside our control.

Six years ago I insisted those slap-happy lightbox effects were a drudge. More than once, in fact.

But six years ago I would have chalked up a slurred effect to the operating system — blame Windows, that was obviously the problem. If you couldn’t get tip-top performance out of a machine as powerful as a Pentium 4, then your bloated operating system was at fault.

And the core of that issue was easy to read: Microsoft makes no money unless you re-buy their product. It’s defective by design. It’s programmed obsolescence. Create a product that self-destructs over the course of two or three years, and you have a chance to glean a little more revenue, periodically. Just like light bulbs, or televisions. This is nothing new.

Only now I’m not sure that’s the source of the problem. Yes, Microsoft and Apple are still sticking it to the uneducated consumer. And yes, John Q. Public still thinks computers are like brake pads that have to be bought over and over again, over time.

But this new limiting factor — bogging down the web with clutter and flair — that’s the wave of the future.

It doesn’t matter any more what operating system you run, if it has two cores or four, if it has this much memory or more. If the new Web-based culture is the least bit impeded by Firefox’s degrading ability to show pictures of cats. … Well, then: Time for a new computer.

To me, this makes a lot of sense. The PC market is dying, a generation of smartphone users are reaching the age of majority, and the contract-and-renewal system embraced by the cell phone industry is far more appealing than the traditional slap-and-dash shiny-new-desktop re-buying gimmick.

So long as the content is dragged to a crawl by lightbox effects and worthless glitter, then declining performance in online applications and cloud-based computing become the new delimiter. Can’t get to your Facebook status quite so fast any more? Maybe it’s time for a new gizmo.

Personally, I welcome this new encumbrance with the same aplomb as I have in the past, when 800Mhz machines were called old, or hyper-threading P4s were castoffs. Your loss is my gain. I have bought Vista-era dual cores in perfect condition for less than $50, and received outstanding performance at the cost of no more effort than clicking a few buttons in Linux Mint. Albeit there was that same dragging effect, when rendering pictures of cats. :???:

It’s a little disconcerting that this new trend places the burden beyond the reach of the computer user, in a place where there’s not much they can do about it. But it’s a big world and we have a lot of time stretching out in front of us. I’m sure someone will come up with a solution. In the mean time, you can send your leftover core duo machines to me. :twisted:

The Weird Sisters

It’s definitely very strange having so many powerful computers in the house. In the space of about a week, I went from a low-end haven to a mid-range fleet.

To anyone else it probably looks a bit primitive still, but either of the two P4-era Celeron machines is capable of handling anything I’m used to doing, alone and by itself.

Not that that’s saying much though. I have made the same claim against 120Mhz Pentium machines. :roll:

But with two high-end (to me) machines around the house, and with a flaky wireless router which is invisible to some machines and blatantly obvious to others, and with one or two with very good networking jacks, an unusual arrangement has unfolded.

One Celeron, the VersaPro, is sitting in the other room, at close range to the router, and connected by cable. That one is catching torrents, and using its connection to download and seed at better speeds than PCMCIA wireless usually offers.

Of course, this is not the first time I’ve allowed the full Ubuntu desktop to take over that role.

The other, the Satellite, is on my desktop, and is working as an entertainment station, hooked into these speakers and showing my meager collection of DVD rips on its Big Fat Screen. Quite nice, really.

Which means the only other two — the Mebius, which is command central for all practical purposes, and the X60s, which is guinea pig — are standing by, waiting for action.

The oddest part of this entire arrangement is that both Celerons are using Ubuntu 11.04. I know: Crazy, isn’t it?

I can’t offer any rationale for that, other than it was the way things panned out, when I decided to put them to work together. The VersaPro has a large drive in it, seeds ISOs with Transmission and serves up the web UI to anybody listening.

The Satellite is hooked into it via nfs, and I can stash music or ripped DVD files there, and stream them over the wireless connection.

Ordinarily, Ubuntu’s desktop is the less-than-ideal choice for either of these roles, in my opinion.

Both machines can run it, but not the Unity desktop (thank goodness). Logging in with the traditional desktop with no effects makes them quite perky though.

And while the tools are there (meaning, in the repositories) for these machines, it’s a wee bit odd to be using a behemoth desktop like that, and relying on only a few small tools on either one to do the job.

I don’t think this arrangement will last much longer; I find it a little unnerving to use Ubuntu on either machine, even if it seems to be working. Every day, something new, I guess. …

The ebb and flow

Lots of changes are afoot in this tiny corner of the planet, which accounts in part for the silence over the past few days.

First of all, one of the computers I was expecting to inherit has arrived on my doorstep. I can properly introduce the NEC VersaPro VY22X/RX-M, or just vy22x, as I like to call it.

This is the 2.2Ghz Celeron I mentioned oh-so-many times over the past year or two. It’s not at all a bad computer — ATI graphics, 512Mb and more is possible, 1024×768 in a nice big size. …

It’s of very similar dimensions and specifications as the Toshiba, although it is obviously a completely different computer.

The hard drive is another ancient creaking wheel though — 20Gb 4200rpm, the omnipresent Hitachi MK2023GAS I keep finding — and will be the first thing to go.

The chassis needs a cleaning, and the previous owner liked to slather stickers on everything in the house. So I’ll need to scrape away some glue and goo.

Otherwise it’s in pretty good shape, and should be fun to experiment with.

But where there is an ebb, there must be a flow … so the 120Mhz and 133Mhz Fujitsu laptops are out of the house now, having moved on to a new owner.

It felt a little sad to see them go — particularly the slower of the two, given as many adventures as I had with it.

I was tempted to convert one or the other into some sort of photo frame or wall clock, but their value was in their completeness and good condition, not their Frankenstein factor.

I did not, however, include the CF cards. Those I intend to use in future machines.

I should also mention, though it’s a lesser point, that I’ve moved everything back to Arch Linux on the fastest machine.

That noisy romp through the Ubuntu betas was instructive, but not particularly productive. It was nice to see how some of those distros do things, but it reinforced where my preferences lie.

So all of this means there needs to be a few updates around this site. A couple of machines are new, a couple more are gone … life goes on. :)

Changes in the air

Now that the lurch of console programs are out of the way, I have two minor changes to report.

First, I am considering options for reducing the number of computers in the house by one, perhaps two. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

Spring is the season for relocating, and as a result a number of expatriates in my area are pulling up stakes and shifting to new locations.

So I am expecting to be the beneficiary of at least one computer, and maybe more. And so I need to think about thinning the herd. And to be honest, it would be nice to have a change or two.

I am a little attached to some of these computers though, so it’s going to be hard to decide. I have three sub-150Mhz Pentiums though, which is probably about two too many.

So some might go. And really, having a 120Mhz, a 133Mhz and a 150Mhz system in the house is only a curiosity to me. To anyone else, it’s a little bizarre.

The other news of note is a random string of misbehavior coming out of the laptop-turned-wall-clock. I had seen it acting strangely even during teardown and buildup, but the problems haven’t magically gone away.

For the record, it freezes during almost any attempt to use aptitude. I am not sure why that alone is the trouble, but it’s the only common thread.

A long time ago I thought it was an issue of faulty memory, but I’ve tried three different sticks now, and it happens all the same. I’m leaning toward a problematic hard drive now.

Not that it means a whole lot anyway. The clock runs, the map updates, the system is fine … it just itches a little bit, to not be able to properly update the system.

Oh, if only all my systems were so lucky. :roll:

Less one … and a half

I should probably mention, just as a side note, that I’ve managed to reduce the number of junk computers in the house by one and a half.

The one is the Dynabook, which I knew from the start just wasn’t a keeper. Too many physical shortcomings, too many esoteric hardware points, and while the screen was beautiful, I couldn’t get anything to show on it except a low-grade flashing cursor.

So it has gone the way of all flesh, which is to say, the recycling shop. It seemed to run Windows fine and I got Slitaz working once or twice, so perhaps someone with more patience or more expertise than me will find a way to put it to use.

I know I should be a little more appreciative of gifts, and at the same time make my best effort to keep a machine in use for as long as I can, but even from the first moment, it was obviously not going to stay around long.

Discarded hardware is a fact of modern culture, and the predominance of machines I see are in tip-top shape. I feel guilty saying it, but I can afford to discriminate.

So a beaten and battered 700Mhz Celeron, while technically usable if I lower my standards, just doesn’t appeal. There are too many near-perfect ones at hand.

And the half? Well, that one is now a clock, of course. So it doesn’t count as a whole computer, just a half. :twisted:

Poor man’s SSD: No news is no news

I haven’t mentioned it, because there wasn’t really anything to report. But since Anton Eliasson noted the six-month anniversary of the CF card installation, I suppose I should acknowledge it.

That’s right, six months with CF cards in two different machines, and a third one ordered a couple of weeks ago. Nothing wrong. Nothing broken. Nothing lost to hardware faults.

In sum, nothing to report. Even on the card that was “stress-tested” for the better part of a month.

For the most part I am overjoyed that the experiment has gone so well. After all, this is one of my personal triumphs, even if it wasn’t altogether my idea. ;)

But to be honest, there is a tiny part of me that’s just a little itty-bitty bit angry. I think it’s the same sense of frustration I had when I finally jumped ship from Windows, years ago.

Seeing through the veil of misinformation — in this case, all the advertising dreck and forum posts railing against the idea as a disaster waiting to happen — is both liberating … and irritating, to a much lesser degree.

So yes, I am happy that I have installed CF cards and adapters in three pre-1998 machines and seen nary a one cough up a fault.

But at the same time, I have to wonder now and again … who else is lying to me about what is possible, and what is not, with my computers?

I guess that’s for me to discover.

P.S.: Total spent to outfit three machines: Roughly US$100. Put that in your newfangled SSD and smoke it. :evil:

What’s a warranty worth?

It’s been almost three years now since Mom went online and bought a laptop preinstalled with Ubuntu. That in and of itself was a momentous occasion, although the magnitude is an issue of debate. ;)

Given the chance, she said she would get another one, but said she wouldn’t buy an extended warranty this time.

Her reason was that the value of the laptop was outstripped by the warranty price. True, it was a good machine and hasn’t given her many problems, but the full service warranty was expensive, and wasn’t often necessary.

I would agree. There was a time when I bought computers with full service plans, and occasionally I was very glad I did. But sometimes the cost of the computer is less than the cost of “maintaining” it.

And that’s when Moore’s law kicks in as well. The value of the machine doesn’t hold up over time, and the price of a comparative new machine is invariably lower.

Why strain through four years of a warranty, milking a computer for all the money you paid, when a new machine — even an underpowered one by cutting edge standards — can do the same for dirt cheap?

Save the money, expect to buy a new computer sooner, and if something breaks, take it in stride. That is her attitude now, and I would agree. For her, newer is better.

It might sound odd to hear me saying these things, and I admit it sounds odd saying them. I’m trying to take on the mindset of a casual computer user this time — not a die-hard zealot of outdated machines.

But it’s not that odd either. I’ve set free computers that were finicky or unreliable or just without merit, and never batted an eye.

There are thousands upon thousands of others, in as-good or even-better condition, waiting in line for attention.

But more importantly, I would never endorse out-of-date hardware as a solution for everyone. I endorse it as a solution for me, and anyone else who finds the challenge appealing.

Your way is the best way, and that is the mantra I shall repeat until the last post to this site, some dark day in the future.

Do what you like with your computer, exercise the freedoms you should be enjoying, and if you need a new one, don’t feel you have to rationalize it to anyone.

After all, that’s what freedom means. :)