Gerber fellow hast zum goot ideas but you schould be careful not
to let him zpend all your money. Not takes ein genius to know
zis komputer ztuff costs un pretty penny, I'm gonna betcha!
What Albert Einstein couldn't
know is how relatively inexpensive computer products have become, and, of
course, how wealthy all of us are.
In this topic I'll be
addressing 10 different aspects of computer system hardware and present some
considerations in selecting your next computer system, or perhaps upgrading
your current system. Obviously this is somewhat optional reading as it
relates only indirectly to web design, but you'll likely find some useful
information here. If you decide to skip this entire
topic, I still would like you to read the section on Ports. I get a lot of
great feedback on that sub-topic.
If any of you 'feel' you need
a new computer, then trust your instinct; you probably do. If you believe
you can manage by upgrading a certain feature (like a modem or hard drive),
you 'may' be right, but be careful because it may not provide the 'overall'
relief you expected, and ... that money could have gone toward a new system.
There is a concept of
'balanced performance' which basically attests to the strong degree of
interaction among a computer system's components. It's something like not
buying a stronger engine for your Taurus to tow your new boat, realizing
that the transmission can't handle it, your brakes would be underpowered and
your gas tank isn't large enough. A well designed computer system takes this
The new computers sold today
are rarely out of balance ... at least not seriously so. Systems have gotten
so inexpensive that they're being loaded with higher end features in order
to maintain higher revenue flow. Upgrading an older system poses greater
risk of having an unbalanced system and perhaps your money would be better
spent on a new system.
An example of imbalance is
adding a 20GB 7200 RPM hard drive to a 90 MHz Pentium with 16MB memory and a
512K video adapter. That throws it more out of balance than it was. However,
adding 32MB of memory would likely be a better move, unless web design is
important to you. The system would then need a stronger video adapter, and
in all likelihood more than 48MB of total memory. So, back to my earlier
point. If you think you need a stronger system, you probably do ...
especially if you have a serious interest in web design.
My one piece of advice to
those of you contemplating a new system is to not shortchange yourself for
only a couple hundred dollars. If that amount of money makes the difference
between a Celeron processor and a Pentium III, consider it. Using Dell as an
example, what you'll frequently find is that a higher end system may cost
say $500 or so more than the one you were looking at. However, Dell is very
skilled at balanced performance and typically the higher priced system will
not only upgrade the processor but will likely have stronger video support,
a faster hard drive, and other components that balance well against a
Also, please shy away from
those super compact cases called 'micro-towers'. They are generally not too
upgradable and also tend to have a smaller number of internal adapters
Finally we have Sam's
'bleeding edge' rule. Don't buy the absolute top of the line processor (e.g.
the latest and greatest) unless you're a true aficionado and have deep
pockets. You will see striking price differences between the highest-end
machine on the market and the model that's 1 or 2 levels down. That's due to
many reasons not the least of which is that people are willing to pay for
scarcity. It won't take more than 6 months for today's behemoth computer to
become somewhat a footnote to the next 'latest and greatest'.
Have a look at these 10
sub-topics below and see if any interest you. I think you'll come away from
many of them with a few new ideas and a little insight you didn't have
The 'system' is the first thing
we see. It's the outer shell which attracts us. That sleek black case
with the rounded contours that 'would go so well next to the stereo'.
If this is what appeals to you, be sure that the cosmetics don't come
at the expense of performance, growth, and expandability. Direct your
focus to what's inside. As with people, beauty is only skin deep.
The most important
things you should care about are the microprocessor,
motherboard, main memory, graphics performance, hard drive size and
speed, case size, and adapter slots available.
Today's choices on
the market are Pentium 'Celeron', Pentium III, and Pentium IV.
There are non-Pentium (read, non-Intel) processors quite worthy of
consideration, most prominent of which is AMD (Advanced Micro
Devices). There is really no reason to opt for Intel's Pentium
if you trust the manufacturer who supplies the AMD system. The entry
level systems sold today are largely adequate for the web designer.
If I were to profile
a minimum system for web design activity, I would look for the
Pentium III processor or equivalent AMD processor
running at 800 MHz or more. That's not high-end
today, as technology has raced beyond the 'gigahertz' boundary,
but it is still very, very fast. My 400 MHz Pentium II is still
very adequate but I become impatient when I'm working with
Memory requirements seem boundless, so get as much
as you can afford. 64 megabytes is no
longer adequate for graphics programs, so probably 128MB would be
considered a good target to start with. All the new systems are
expandable beyond that. Parity checking memory, also called "ECC"
memory is a good thing to have but not widely available.
Graphics adapters should be configured for 16MB to
32MB for performance. I'd stay away from integrated graphics adapters since
they tend to be low-end and not expandable.
drives today are 7.5GB and up. I would want 10GB to 20GB to be comfortable. That's quite easy to achieve today since 40GB drives
are selling for $200. It's smart to have 2 large drives enabling
you to back up the main drive on the second. Tape backup systems
for drives of these capacities are more pricey than adding a large
slots are disappearing as cases are shrinking. I would want at least 4 adapter slots
available after the vendor's configuration requirements are met. That would
likely mean at least 7 adapter slots total, include the advance
Finally, I'd want a case that's as large as
possible. Seems like it's 'reaching today to find a case with
more than 2 3.5in external bays and more than 2 5.25in bays. I'd
never settle for those mini machines that can only take a CD-ROM
and a ZIP drive, in addition to the standard diskette. Things to
be added include additional CD drives like CD-RW and DVD and tape
backup drives. The power supply should be 200 watts or greater and
probably 2 cooling fans would be a minimum requirement.
A few other thoughts:
Be wary of high-styled cases. Smoked
plastic, see-through pastels, and the like. Ask yourself whether
you'd be able to replace or upgrade the disk drive or cd-rom
supplied by the manufacturer, and at a fair price. Beige doesn't
look to good with translucent magenta, does it?
If you have dogs or cats, think about the fur in
your air, just waiting to clog your every computer orifice.
Consider placing your tower on your desk, away from the floor and
rug level. Consider, too, an optical mouse or trackball, unless
you enjoy taking the mechanical mouse apart daily and pulling out
hairs and other gook. A cover for the keyboard could be your best
friend if you have cats.
a case with a flat top. The
surface will frequently come in handy for a modem, external tape
or zip drive, cd-rom, or all of the above in a nice tidy stack. In
lieu of that, how about your morning coffee, a couple books ...
you name it. All these things are at risk on many of today's
forget a surge suppressor or two. Be sure it protects your
phone line as well. A favorite of mine is the APC Surge Arrest. It
is D-shaped with 8 outlets. 3 outlets are on the circular part of
the 'D' so 3 transformer can fit side by side. Also, 2 outlets
remain hot when the suppressor is turned off, great for lamps and
Cache memory (pronounced
'cash') is special memory used by the microprocessor, called Level 2
cache, or just L2. (OK, there's also a Level 1 cache but all Pentiums
have some and I won't talk about that here.) The processor can take
advantage of L2 cache to store data prior its being needed. This
ability to do two things at once, process current instructions and
data and get new data in advance can be very beneficial should that
new data be needed. It's already there! Access to this cache is
very, very fast compared to accessing the data from system memory.
(When needed data is already in the L2 cache, we have what's called a
'cache hit'.) By the way, the graphic on the left shows a
microprocessor. Can't show you just the L2 cache because it's
integrated and hidden away.
have shown most emphatically that this technique can improve
performance of many applications by as much as 20% or more. Too much
cache is not necessarily a good thing but no cache at all is certainly
a bad thing.
The older 486
processors had small amounts of Level 1 cache (8KB) but I don't
believe any Level 2 cache. Pentium processors and their non-Intel
equivalents introduced Level 2 cache, originally optional, and then up
to 256KB (usually standard), and the newer Pentiums have as much
as 512KB, except the 'Celeron' version. The original Celeron
Pentium had no L2 cache and suffered in the popular benchmarke.
Today's Celeron Pentiums generally have 128KB and they are pretty
Bottom line if
you're buying a used system, ask if it has Level 2 cache. If you're
buying a new system, see how much L2 cache it has.
Here's a link to a
related article in PC Magazine which you might find interesting. I hope its
location doesn't change for a while.
speaking, more memory is better than less memory, up to a point.
Any system with Windows 95/98 should have at least 32MB, a new system
at least 64MB. and most do except a few leftovers and low-end laptops.
What really drives
the need for more system memory is the larger programs being written
today, especially higher end graphics programs. I would say that today
32MB is marginal for most systems and if you're seriously involved
with web design, you should consider 128MB, if your budget can
withstand it. Memory has not come down in price as much as most other
things, making it less affordable than it was previously. Systems
today can support upwards of 512MB. (My first IBM PC in 1981 had 16KB
and 256KB was the maximum ... wow!) Hopefully the newer versions of
Windows will better utilize large memory than Win95/98 did, by
eliminating other resource bottlenecks.
There are many
different memory architectures like VRAM, DRAM, EDO, SDRAM, etc. You
can read about them on-line if you wish. Speed is a primary variable.
SDRAM running at 100MHz was recently state of the art, now being
replaced by RDRAM in vogue on the new high-end systems. If
you click the Kingston logo, look for the listing of Educational Tools on the left navigation
panel. There is some very good material there.
An explanation of
'parity checking memory' might be in order. Parity memory has the
ability to check itself for errors and would halt the computer if it
found a single error. This might sound a bit harsh, but otherwise, a
memory error could show up as lost data, a system crash, or other
unpleasantries. Older computers had parity checking memory but
manufacturers realized they could lower costs by eliminating it. So
... they pretty much all did. The exception has been PCs used for
corporate servers. They have had parity memory all along and the
function of that memory has been improved as well.
Finally we've gone
full circle and parity checking memory for the consumer is back,
albeit very quietly, from certain manufacturers only, and as a
cost option. When I saw that Dell offered it, and at a very fair
price, I grabbed it. This was a major reason I bought their system and
I thought it was such a shame that most people didn't have an
awareness of this type of memory.
The memory I
purchased is the more advanced type called 'ECC', like most servers
use today. Older parity checking memory could detect an error in a
single bit of data (there are 8 bits to store a single character, like
the letter 'A'), but it couldn't do anything about it other than stop
the computer and basically suggest you should buy some new memory. ECC
memory can actually detect 2 bits in error, and best of all, if only a
single bit error occurred, it has the smarts to correct that 'on the
fly' and let you keep on working. An important note to all this is
that the system's motherboard must be able to support ECC memory and
the Setup screen when you boot will ask whether you have ECC memory or
I hope I've raised
your level of awareness of this important memory feature and that
you'll consider it when making a new system purchase.
Hard disk drives
basically come in sizes and speeds, and the two are usually related
('balanced performance'?). The ways that they attach to computers
today are SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) and EIDE (Enhanced
SCSI drives can be
faster and are usually the province of network servers. They are quite
pricey even today and require their own adapter. They are the
'premium' technology and are rarely offered in sales to consumers.
SCSI technology also allows the additional connection of other SCSI
devices (hard drives, scanners, tape backup ...) without the need for
additional adapters and without consuming a very scarce system
resource called an IRQ (interrupt request line).
Most EIDE drives
available today are made by only a handful of companies. Price
competition in this area is most intense, causing considerable
financial stress and mergers among the companies. I hate to mention
names because they might not be here tomorrow but Western Digital,
Seagate, IBM and Maxtor come to mind readily.
It used to be
uncommon for a hard drive to be greater than 2GB (gigabytes, more on
that later). Now, a small drive is 8GB and some are as large as 80GB.
Most of you who do web design will benefit from 6GB or greater, but
that's what they're selling anyway so it's not a major decision for
you. (If you store a lot of graphic files or MP3 music files, their
requirement would be added to my 6GB recommendation.) Upgrade pricing
is really low, as you've seen if you shop the ads.
Speed of a hard
drive has 3 determinants: the speed of its rotation (called latency or
rotational delay), the time it takes for the read-write heads to
traverse the drive (called access time), and the transfer rate between
the drive and the system bus. Generally a drive with a faster rotation
will be faster in the other ways as well ('balanced performance'
Most offerings today
are still in the 5400 to 7200 RPM category. The drive I bought for my
new system was made by IBM, runs at 7200 RPM, and really flies.
10000 RPM drives are now becoming popular on the newer and more
To conclude this,
I'll treat you to an explanation of megabytes (MB). (From the ads, you
would think the drive manufacturers don't even understand this.) What
aroused my interest was the advertised capacity of my IBM drive as
10MB. Imagine my surprise to learn that it was really 9.4MB. I'm not
really that naive but I hadn't thought deeply about this until Windows
98 called it to my attention.
A kilobyte (1KB) is not 1000 bytes, but rather 1024 bytes!
Big deal you say? Well, a megabyte is not 1000 kilobytes, but rather a
'kilobyte of kilobytes' (1024x1024), or 1,048,576 bytes. See what's
happening; there is now a 48,576 byte 'bonus'. If you had a choice of
winning a lottery for a 'million bucks' or for a 'megabuck', by all
means take the megabuck.
The final extension
of this is that a gigabyte is not 1000 megabytes, but 1024 megabytes,
or 1,073,742,000 bytes. Therefore, my "advertised" 10GB disk
drive should have been 10 gigabytes in computerspeak and 10.73 billion
in decimal. Basically the ad misrepresented the capacity of my drive
by NOT saying 9.4GB in computerspeak. The difference was 730 million less than advertised.
Now that's a big number! If you've being following this discussion,
you're doing just great! Web design is so much easier than
understanding megabytes and gigabytes.
So, you've now
become an informed consumer and when you see a drive advertised as
20GB, you'll know the truth and that you're being "shorted" by almost 1.5GB. Some of
you with a mathematical bent probably appreciate this exercise, and
the others probably think I'm a bit strange, which of course I
When we discuss a display
(a.k.a. monitor) we don't tend to think of its adapter card, but we
must. No matter how capable the display in terms of, say, resolution
and refresh rates, it's not going to realize its potential unless we
have a fast and capable video adapter with adequate memory. Yes, video
adapters have their own memory and more of it means better performance and more
colors. Most of today's systems will provide an acceptable
adapter with 4MB or more of memory, but you should investigate this
aspect of the 'video' that comes with your system, or if you upgrade
The newest wave of
Pentium motherboards have a special 'slot' for the video adapter
called AGP (advanced graphics port). It's basically a PCI slot but
reserved just for video. It has a speed of 66MHz, which measures the
rate its data flows across the system bus. The previous speed was
33MHz, so it just doubled ... very good for performance.
As for the display
size itself, that's somewhat subjective, though bigger is better, up
to a point. 15" displays were the standard until relatively
recently, and 17" displays were quite pricey. Now, the 17"
display is the standard and 19" displays are being configured
with the higher end systems. 21" displays are still pricey and
are overkill for most people.
considerations with any display must include its dot
pitch (smaller is better here), and also its maximum refresh rate, which is its ability to sustain
its image, especially at higher resolutions, without flicker. The
higher the display's resolution, the higher must be the refresh rate
to avoid flicker.
resolution, along with the size of the screen, contribute to what you
think of as pleasing to the eye, fun to use, and ultimately
contributes to your productivity, especially when doing web page
Screen images are
composed of pixels (picture elements).
These pixels are horizontal and vertical. The display's 'mode' or
'resolution' determines how many pixels will be fitted to the screen
at one time; you choose the value when you configure the display
adapter settings. They are expressed as 640x480, 800x600, 1024x768,
and higher. The higher number of each pair is horizontal. Higher
resolution values mean more (and smaller) pixels. You'll find that
large screens actually look bad at low resolutions because the pixels
are so large that the characters become jagged. Conversely, small
screens at high resolutions require eagle-eye vision to avoid
discomfort. Fortunately, most video drivers supplied by the adapter
manufacturer will make it easy for you to change resolutions on the
fly, no reboot required.
The suggestion is
that experiment with the different modes on whatever size display you
have and pick the largest mode you're comfortable with. On average,
15" displays are good with 640x480 and 800x600. 17" displays
match up well with 800x600 and 1024x768. The bottom line here is that
you would want to use the highest resolution
mode your display is capable of, consistent with your eyes being
comfortable. That way, you can fit more windows on your screen
at once and more easily navigate between related applications,
multiple browser windows, and the like.
Regarding web design, that's a different story.
Here, you have to consider the display that your audience is using,
not your own as above. You should restrict your design to some
reasonable average like 800x600 so that a majority of users can read
your web pages with their present hardware and with a minimum of
scrolling. The same with colors. When you select your screen mode, you
have a choice of 16, 256 (8-bit), 64K ('16-bit' or 'high color') or
16M ('24-bit' or 'true color'). Pick 8-bit or 16-bit to appeal to the
greatest audience, and be sure to test your web pages early in their
development cycle so you can backtrack with a minimum of time loss. Be
sure to do your development work at the screen mode you are targeting.
A friend used a background color which was a pleasing tan on his own
system, set to 24-bit color, and came out a putrid pink on another
There's a nice
program I use called BrowserSizer which
lets me set my Netscape window for any of the above resolutions. This
enables me to see how my pages fit at the various resolutions. My own
monitor is 19" and I have it set at 1024x768 resolution. If I
target a web site to a design point of 640x480, BrowserSizer will
model that for me. Otherwise I would have to change my physical screen resolution to 640x480 and that
would be very ugly and unproductive.
One word of caution. Be careful about buying a
display based on its size alone. Some companies will entice you with a
cheap 17" or 19" display, trying to attract you to its size
alone. Definitely see a demonstration of the display set at 1024x768
and see if it's readable. A better display should have a dot pitch of
.25mm to .28mm, with .26mm being a good average. I've seen some cheap
displays with a dot pitch exceeding .40mm. You will certainly see the
difference and in fact, probably won't be able to use such a display
at higher resolutions, even if you have a good video adapter. The
characters will be muddy because the dot pitch is so wide that the
display hardware can't separate the pixels enough for the image or
text to be clear.
This is a pleasant topic to
discuss because printers have come down in price so much and there's a
great selection available. Just about everyone will want a color
printer because we're living in a world of color and the web is so
colorful. The utility value of color and the sheer fun it makes
available speaks for itself. A black and white greeting card???
manufacturers have color ink-jet printers in the $100-$300 range which
are excellent. The primary determinants of price are speed and
resolution, rather than quality and durability. If you do a lot of
photo-image printing, you will want a printer in the upper end of this
range because they can offer a special capability which uses smaller
ink droplets and can actually drop different ink colors on top of each
other (layering). This provides a colored image (even on plain paper)
which compares well against an actual photograph. The coloring and
resolution are superb. I've bought an several HPs with this technology
have been very happy with them. The best thing I can suggest is that
you see demonstrations of your favorite manufacturer, if you have a
favorite, and maybe compare their test sheets. There are
printers from these same companies priced considerably higher than
$300 and generally that is not because they're any better, but rather
they may be faster, accommodate large paper sizes, have larger ink
cartridges for network sharing among many users, etc.
Ink-jet printers are
not the only printers worth considering, despite their color
advantage. Laser printers have come down in price as well and their
resolutions can compare quite favorably to or exceed the ink-jet
printers I've discussed. However, they are black and white, with color
laser printers still very pricey. You'll find that the cost of
printing on a B&W laser is very much less than ink-jet, on the
order of maybe 2-3 cents a sheet compared to 15-20 cents. I have both
ink-jet and laser, and pretty much use the laser for personal
correspondence, business writing and documentation, and quick
snapshots of web pages. I use my ink-jet for labels, greeting cards,
and generally for fun.
For some of you this
might appear obvious, but here are two
cost-saving tips for those who only have ink-jet printers, or
who are considering buying one. If you check your printer driver's
settings, you should find an option to use 'grayscale'. This will save
you considerable drain on your somewhat more expensive color
cartridge, and is yet quite adequate for printing web pages which have
a thirst for color. You'll also find an option to lower the print
intensity, great for rough drafts or for printing web pages, whether
in color or not. I print lots of things at 50% ink intensity and am
quite satisfied with their clarity and contrast ... and they print so
Finally, here's a caveat! Before you buy any
vendor's ink-jet printer, investigate the cost of their ink cartridges
relative to its capacity. What some companies are doing is offering a
'choice' of an economy cartridge and a
larger size cartridge on their newer printers. They also may only offer the smaller cartridge. The economy
cartridge costs very close to what the larger cartridge sold
for. The bottom line here is that they're going to charge you
more for ink so they can recover the costs of selling you a heavily
discounted printer. (We're not talking small change here, either. The
economy size may have 21 ml. vs the full-size of 42 ml., and for $5
less.) Certainly reminds me of Polaroid almost giving their camera
away for $20 to sell you film for $12. If you're a careful shopper,
you'll find certain models which use the higher capacity
cost-effective cartridge, but the manufacturer is not going to be of
Just a few years
ago scanners were the province of the graphic artist and the
printing & publishing industry. With the popularity of the Web and
the birth all its 'budding' web publishers (that's you and me),
scanners have become an everyday tool. Their prices have come down
very dramatically as well, making them affordable to everyone. It's
hard to believe that there are so many quality scanners available for
under $100, like several Visioneer & Microtek models.
I can't imagine not
having a scanner just for convenience copying and faxing, let alone
its important contribution to web design. Having seen some of
the clip-art collections available, where there might be 100
worthwhile images in a collection of 125,000 pieces, there's a feeling
of power having my scanner at the ready. Now, web graphics are
available to me in every magazine, newspaper, and photo album.
In my topic Using
Text Fonts I needed a way to show an example of a font
manager's printout. It didn't take me long to realize that I should
just print it, scan it, and show it that way. That's the magic of
having a scanner. We let it sit idle, usually switched off for days on
end, until suddenly it calls to us to solve an immediate requirement.
Possibly the most
difficult thing about using a scanner is learning the software and
techniques essential to manipulate the scanned image and turn it into
something useful, even profound, to adorn our web page. Editing an
image was overwhelming to me. It had a jargon all of its own with its
lassos, histograms, bezier curves, unsharpening masks, color indexes,
and on and on, a language with which I was not familiar. I needed a
kickstart, a way to feel comfortable with the
different graphic formats (BMP, GIF, JPG, rasters and vectors, et
cetera) and gain an understanding of video and printer resolutions as
they applied to scanning requirements.
In my quest to get
my arms around this, I ran into a fellow on the web named Wayne
Fulton. He not only had expertise I needed, but he is an excellent
teacher and is very generous with his time. One of the biggest favors
I can do for you, worth the entire cost of admission to my own site,
is to pass you along to Wayne. I am providing his link here and again
in Sites to Visit. Wayne is also modest
and calls his site 'A Few Scanning Tips', a dramatic understatement of
what he offers us. He has his own domain now, ScanTips.Com. He's so
good that Microtek refers to him from their website. Do visit him, and
if you like the information on his site, he places all that tutorial
material in a book he prepares himself for something around $20.
I don't want to get
involved with product recommendations since I have only used a couple
of Microteks. Wayne Fulton liked them and that was enough for me. I
have since bought a couple more for my children and they took to it
quite easily. Their ScanWizard software driver is widely recognized in
the industry. Microtek shows a lot on their web site and you probably
would want to visit it, not just for their product information but for
the educational material and links they provide. So ... now that I
just lied and made a product recommendation, I'd like to share a few
opinions and tips.
a few features you want in a scanner while you're shopping.
Speed is very important and varies from
one scanner to another. Parallel port scanners were the most
prevalent until the USB port came along on the Pentium II
computers. Parallel port speed is very fast in the EPP or ECP
mode of the modern computers (since 1995). USB is possibly even
faster. Some scanners have both a parallel and USB connection
and all things being equal, I would opt for that.
characteristic called Optical Resolution
can be important as well. That's the 300-600 dpi or 600-1200 dpi
you read in the ads. 300-600 dpi is nearly obsolete now and
600-1200 is very adequate for most scanning requirements.
Scanners sold today should all have that resolution. As I
explain in other topics of this site, I scan most material at
the higher 600 resolution and then resample the image smaller
using PaintShop Pro. Web sites only use 75-92 resolution but I
would prefer to capture more data using the scanner and then
have PaintShop discard what it doesn't need when it resamples.
Be aware of
whether your scanner has an on/off switch.
Many do not and that's something you may not realize until it's
unboxed at your home. Since you will not be using your scanner
that often, it's nice to be able to leave the cord in the
electrical outlet and shut it off from the switch. Some scanners
will go into standby mode and turn their lamp off after say 15
minutes, but to me, it's still ON and I don't like that.
Parallel port crowding. USB ports take
some pressure off the single parallel port which comes with most
computers. It's common however to have a need for multiple
parallel ports for things like scanners, zip drives, tape
backups, and of course multiple printers. Parallel scanners
provide a 'pass-thru' port to connect your printer to the
scanner in order to connect it to the single parallel port. This
can be problematic, and with the setups I've seen require
your scanner to be on all the time for the printer to work. Look
at my item here called Ports
for my recommendation of a terrific space-age printer switch
from 'Belkin' I have three of them in my family and we all love
understand how the case comes apart so that you can clean the glass. My scanner had dust
under the glass when I bought it and when I asked Microtek how I
could clean it, their response was 'you don't, it will void your
warranty'. Well, for $50 or so, I'm not going to worry about
voiding my warranty. I found it to be very simple and safe to
remove the upper glass and clean both sides. 90% isopropyl
alcohol and a soft lint-free cloth is generally recommended.
You may have
realized that I never mentioned "single
sheet vs flatbed". I'm a flatbed bigot and don't
want a scanner that has to move the document perfectly in
defiance of gravity, and I don't want a scanner that limits me
to single sheets of paper, and not books and other 3D objects.
Also, they're not very convenient for repeated scans of the same
item and they're not really less expensive any longer. They do
take up considerably less space, however.
Obviously all of
you have modems, but perhaps some are considering an upgrade to a
newer and faster one. I'll share some opinions I have on this subject,
and a few tips.
If you can avoid it,
don't buy a Winmodem. I believe this is
U.S. Robotics primarily, but anything advertised as a Winmodem or Windows modem is not 'pure'. It requires
Windows software support in order to operate. This is not a good thing
since performance may be impaired based on other things taking place
in your computer. Other programs in your computer can more easily
break your connection as well. It is always
better to have hardware do as much as possible without assistance from
the computer. Finally, some software won't work with such a
modem when it's written to interface directly to the hardware modem.
An example of this is 'ModemShare 32' by Artisoft.
If you're on the
market for a new modem, 56K is the only option these days. But if you can pick up a 33k modem from a friend,
consider taking it. In many cases you won't notice the
difference between it and a 56K modem. Actually the 56K is really 53K
and it applies to downloading, not uploading. If you already own a
28.8 or 33.6 modem, I don't see a compelling case to scrap it for a
new 56K one, since the speed of the internet is so variable anyway.
Don't buy an internal modem, unless you have a good
reason! The only valid reason which comes to mind is the
situation where you have an older 486 PC, say from around 1993 or so.
These systems may have a slow serial port, designated UART8250, which
doesn't support the newer fast external modems reliably (28.8K and
up). All internal 56K modems have their own serial port built-in
and of course it's the fast one, called UART16550. If you want to
check the speed of your serial port, go the Control Panel of WIN95/98,
click on the Modem icon, click the Diagnostics tab, select or
highlight your modem and click the button for 'More Info'. It will
tell you the UART level, among other things.
Why don't I like internal modems? That's a fair
question. I can provide six reasons from my experiences.
Well, they're harder to use. You can't see what
they're doing, what speed they're running at, whether they've
got the telephone line 'off hook', etc. Indicator lights can be
most comforting when you have a problem. It's extremely
reassuring for a user to see the lights when things aren't going
sometimes you can't disconnect your modem
from the line, and the only surefire way to reset or
reinitialize your modem is to reboot your computer. With an
external modem, just turn it off and back on.
disadvantage is that they generate some
heat, and for my money any way I can keep additional heat
out of my system, I'm for it.
If you live in
an area prone to power surges from storms,
you're much safer having a modem connected to your external
port, rather than sitting right there on your motherboard where
it can fry your whole system. I suffered damage to my I/O
adapter on my old Gateway from a nasty storm where it jumped
from the external modem to the adapter card. I shudder to
think what would have happened to the system if my modem were
installed internally. (Whichever type of modem you use, you
should have a surge suppressor with RJ11 phone protection.)
reason, perhaps a critical one, is that an internal
modem takes one of your limited adapter slots. Why give
up such a scarce resource when every computer has a serial port
sticking out the back, just begging to be used for something?
Finally, an external modem is quite portable. You can
share it with other computers you may have, easily migrate it to
your next new computer, use it on your laptop if you have one,
or in the case of troubleshooting a problem, you can take it to
a friend's computer and see if it works OK there.
We've talked a bit about
serial ports in the modem section, but what about parallel ports? Talk
about scarce resources, this can be a real problem if you've bought a
scanner, tape backup system, Zip drive, Jazz drive, a second printer,
and so on. I have 2 printers, a Zip drive, and a scanner, all
clamoring for attention from my one measly parallel port. Do I see
some of you smiling in acknowledgment?
Well, there are 4
ways to get some relief. 1) Use the
'pass-thru' port on your scanner or zip drive to support your printer,
2) Install a small network and put a
printer or Zip/Jazz drive on another system and share it, 3) Buy a parallel printer switch and place it
on your LPT1 port. 4) Buy a dual printer
adapter (ISA or PCI) and add 2 more ports to your system.
Obviously, if any of
this was a no-brainer, I wouldn't be writing this section on Ports. Let's look at the alternatives and see
what may be best for you. By the way, I have implemented all 4
approaches and can give you the benefit of my direct experiences.
1. This the easy, low cost solution, but it
comes at the price of limited application and inconvenience. It only
applies if you have 2 devices, one of them has a pass-thru parallel
port, the other device is a printer, and that pass-thru port works
properly with the printer. It may not work fully, if at all, in
support of a bi-directional device built to the IEEE 1284 standard,
like many ink-jet printers. Also, the device doing the pass-thru may
have to be switched on, like my Microtek scanner, and I definitely did
not want to turn my scanner on every day, all day, just so I could
print from time to time.
2. Unless you're running a home office and need
several networked computers on at all times, this is a higher cost,
inconvenient solution. Also, some devices like scanners cannot
be shared on a network and the bi-directional capabilities of
sophisticated printers (like page duplexing) won't work across the
network. By the way, the Zip drive and devices like it can be
shared since they're seen as hard drives.
3. This is the choice which makes the most
sense, but it is not without its problems. The most important
consideration is that most switches on the market used to attach 1
computer to multiple parallel devices, just don't work with devices
like bi-directional ink-jet printers, Zip drives, scanners, and
similar devices which require bi-directional capability. They were
largely used to support a couple simple printers, like older model
laser printers and dot matrix printers, or they were intended to share
a single printer with multiple computers
which is much easier to do.
So, you need to buy
a switch, be it manual or automatic, which can support the IEEE 1284
bi-directional standard. I am going to make a suggestion here of a
specific product from Belkin which has worked great for me. I have
tried different switches and they did not work, including a different
one from Belkin.
Belkin has 2
products called Bitronics Autoswitch Kit.
The first supports 2 devices from 1 computer, their part no.
F1U125-KIT. The second is a follow-on product which supports 4
devices, their part no. F1U126-KIT. Both come with a 6-foot IEEE 1284
'straight-thru' cable to connect the switch to the parallel port. They are
NOT automatic like their names imply, when connecting 1 computer to 2
or 4 devices. They are automatic
when connecting 1 device to 2 or 4 computers.
The switch is extremely easy to use and works
with probably all parallel devices. On the 2-port model, the ports are
A and B and
are quickly selectable by software. They supply a handy utility
program which sits on your desktop to do the switching. If you prefer,
there's a pushbutton on the switch you can use, if it's within
reach. Their literature can have you believe that no power need
be applied to the switch in "most cases", although there's
an AC input jack. Trust me that "most cases" will likely
apply to you, so plan to buy yourself a 9V Power Adapter (min 500mA).
A good one I'll recommend is Radio Shack's 9V
800mA Power Adapter (#273-1770). The Belkin switch uses Radio
Shack's Adaptaplug "M" ( 273-1716),
included in the $14 price of the adapter. By the way, I have since
bought this switch for each of my children and a neighbor (to share a
scanner with an HP DeskJet) and everyone is happy. Here are links to
Belkin and Radio Shack for your convenience.
4. This is also a very good choice because it
eliminates the extra cable from the switch to the computer, as well as
the power supply. It is also a lower cost solution than the switch. I
purchased a SIIG Dual Parallel Pro (ISA), model IO1828. It's a great
product, supports the IEEE 1284 devices, not just printers, and
supports a very wide range of IRQs, DMA channels, and I/O port
addresses. The downside here is that you must give up a motherboard
expansion slot, in this case ISA, and to install the second of its 2
ports, you must give up an additional bracket opening on the back of
your computer case. This is a bit nebulous, but scanners and zip
drives can be real fussy about the I/O addresses they use, so you may
have to diddle with the addresses to get everything working. Here's SIIG's website.
There's a PCI adapter available also.
Finally, I want to
address the subject of IRQs. Your system will have a very, very
limited number of these available, possibly none at all. Your
computer's CMOS (Setup) has probably reserved IRQ 7 for the built-in
printer port and normally you'd have to dedicate IRQ 5 for LPT2, and
even another IRQ for LPT3 (if you need an LPT3). This requirement will
be impossible for most of you to manage, so let me give you a tip.
From what I've been
reading and this is reflected in my actual experience, Windows 95 and
98 do NOT use IRQs to support the printers. And indeed, the Iomega Zip
and Microtek scanner did not seem to require an IRQ either. I set my
jumpers on the SIIG card to IRQ 7 for both LPT2 and LPT3, and my
system CMOS was also setting LPT1 to IRQ 7, and everything works
without conflict. Even though I had LPT2 and LPT3 jumpered for IRQ7,
no IRQ shows up in device manager.
recently, my environment used both implementations 3) and 4),
because I had 4 parallel devices. I had my scanner and laser printer
on the Belkin switch on LPT2, my zip drive on LPT3, and my ink-jet on
LPT1. Recently I bought a USB Zip Drive and didn't need the switch any
longer, so I gave it to my son. This means that my next computer,
which won't have any ISA slots will require me to buy the SIIG PCI
Parallel Adapter. I will probably buy the 4 port Belkin switch instead
since I never use my scanner and printers simultaneously.
I hope that some of
you will find these tips and revelations as interesting and
informative as I did while I experienced the discomfort of setting up
my own system.
A primary transgression
committed by many computer users is not backing up their computers.
'Backup' implies 2 things: the system and
the data, and these are often treated
individually because of their relative importance.
Consider what would
happen, in the extreme case, should your hard drive fail. You've just lost everything! Out come the
stacks of CD-ROMs, diskettes and manuals as you try to reinstall
everything you 'used to have'. Of course you have to remember what you
had, and you will not remember everything until you try to use it and
it's not there. Once you've reinstalled all your software, you'll now
find that many do not work properly because they're not customized
with your various preferences. You've also lost your browser
bookmarks, e-mail logs and address books, and many other valuables. It
can literally take weeks to put humpty-dumpty back together again. And
by the way, it doesn't take a disaster to cause you to have to
reformat your hard drive. Many software vendors who are trying to
support you with some problem or another just love to tell you to
reformat your hard drive. In just about every case, that's
unreasonable of them to insist on this but nonetheless, they're under
'orders' to ask you to do it. And generally if you don't listen to
them they won't help you further.
As for backing up
your data, need I say more? I'm sure each of us has lost something we
sure wish we hadn't. Won't make that mistake again, will we? So what
do we do about this?
My inclination is to
buy a tape backup system, one that's as fast as possible for the money
you can afford. Tape backup is slow but it is comprehensive. These
tape backup systems may take hours to backup a hard drive which
contains 2 or 3 gigabytes of data. And then again almost as much
additional time to have it verify what it just wrote to the tape. As a
consequence of this, we generally backup everything around once a week
and then maybe every few days, we do an 'incremental' backup which
just backs up files which have changed or been added, which takes
little time at all. Tape backup systems cost very little these days
but make sure you get a good one and absolutely test its software to
make sure it does work thoroughly and that it backs up Windows'
Registry and any files that are marked as 'hidden' or 'used by
alternatives to tape but few really good ones. High capacity removable
hard disks, like Iomega Jazz, are costly and have limited capacity
compared to tape. CD-ROM drives have come down in price, as has the
CD-ROM media, but 700MB capacity will likely not help much, except for
your data. With hard drives so inexpensive now, it's not foolish at
all to have a second one to backup the first. There are programs
available (e.g. from PowerQuest) that specialize in hard drive to hard
drive backups. Consider theft and fire damage here, however. That's
why the best idea is always a tape that you take with you, far away
from the computer, maybe to the office or a friend's house. My
computer has a Seagate 20GB tape drive attached to the secondary hard
disk controller. It can back up at 60 or so MB per minute. This works
well for me since I only back up around 3GB of system and data
combined ... takes a little over an hour and a half, including a
drives of 45MB or so, are not going to be backed up regularly,
unfortunately. They would take too long and the tape systems to handle
that quantity would exhaust your budget. However, very few people are
using those capacities unless they're accumulating large numbers of
graphic files or MP3 files. If that's your case, just place those
files in a separate disk partition (drive letter?) and back them up
separately, say once a month or less often.
So ... enough
already ... I've probably made some of you feel a bit nervous. If you
only use 5 or 6 applications, write some notes about their
customizations (or backup just their customization files if you know
what they're called), make sure that you have the original
installation CDs and diskettes (and any updates to them), along with
your Windows 95/98 CDs, and perhaps you can just take your chances.
Regarding your data, of course we're not going to take
any chances! I've seen much pain, grown people cry, and workers
fired. 'Data' is defined as 'your stuff'. All the stuff that's no
longer there if your hard drive gets replaced, or your computer has a
major accident, a program misfires (and Windows is not beyond
misfiring), or you just plain make a mistake and delete something you
should not have. Remember now that "data" includes your
browser bookmarks and especially your e-mail files and address books.
And, if you're into web design, you surely want your site(s) backed
Until recently, I
was getting away with backing up my data on diskettes every time an
important file changed. And to be honest with you, I wasn't faithfully
backing up everything on tape every week ... I've gone as long as a
couple months until my conscience bothered me. In some cases my data
from just a single application had grown too large for a diskette or
2. Finally, I grew tired of changing labels on diskettes and having
them scattered all over the place, spreadsheets on this one, tax forms
on that one, letters on those two, etc.
For me, the Iomega Zip drive
was the cure, especially since I already owned a couple from my
consulting activity. Its 100MB capacity was very adequate for all my
data and all my websites. Because it operates like a disk drive,
rather than a complicated backup program with all its startup options,
it is so easy to drag and drop my data from my hard drive to my zip
drive. It's a good idea to keep several 'generations' of zip disks in
case the last one goes bad, you'll still have the one before it. And
naturally if any of your data is extremely precious, you can easily
keep a zip diskette away from your home or office in case of theft,
fire, vandalism and other unpleasant events.
systems today come with an option for an internal zip drive at 100MB
capacity or 250 MB. It's also quite easy and inexpensive to buy a
100MB USB connected Zip drive for around $80. There's no reason why
you should ever have to suffer a loss of your personal files, and I
don't need to describe to you the feeling of losing the tax return you
labored 20 hours on, or the digital pictures of your European
I'll wrap this up
now with a tip for you. If you can't see your way clear to make an
additional purchase just now, at least use the Windows 95/98 'Backup'
program or the WinZip program. They're both quite good and support
diskette drives. They can compress your data so that you can get maybe
50 to 100% more on a diskette and it can also span diskettes
automatically if a single diskette can't hold everything. At the
least, you can go to sleep tonight with some of your important files
protected. Believe me, you'll sleep so much better.