Computer Developments of 1999-2001

Chapter 4

Dateline June 1999.

Chapter 3 was generated in the fall of 1998, and it is now June 1999. I am a little older and a little wiser. Some things never happened. I got an ISDN account and some routers, but have yet to ever get ISDN to work. I've so far only benefited by making use of the routers as analog converters and using the circuits as conventional analog lines. I spent the spring building some new computers. Finally got around to build one for myself. My formerly leading edge Pentium 133 simply wasn't leading edge any more. It was the slowest computer in the family, and I couldn't have that. I also wanted to replace my old full tower case which was the sole surviving part of my very first Gateway computer ( a 1989---386-25). It was a 3 foot high steel monster, but was made primarily for full high 5.25" drives. It contained only 6 of the 5.25" half high slots and no 3.5" slots. Worse, some years ago when I had replaced the power supply, I had not been able to get one with a power cable long enough to reach the front of the case so it had no external power shut down. Besides, the ATX form factor for cases is in and the AT form factor is joining the S100 Bus for a ride out of town.
I stripped out my old AT case and got rid of most of the parts by using them up upgrade yet another 486 system which had a nice AT case, but aging 486 style insides. It seems that now the 486 computer is pretty worthless. They often have a BIOS that won't work with a hard drive over 500 megabytes, and frequently have only 16 (or less) megabytes of RAM. I"ve built 3 ATX configured computers now based on the Enlight 7237 case. This Mid-Tower case features 3 of the 3.5" drive slots and 4 of the 5.25" variety which I believe is adequate for most purposes. My preferred configuration uses 4 drives--a CDROM, an internal Zip, a Floppy, and a Hard drive. Of the 3, the first one I built utilized an Pentium II 350 installed in an ABIT BX6 Revision 1 motherboard, initially only with 64M of memory. The Next 2 got the ABIT BX6 Revision 2 motherboard, a Celeron 400 CPU and 128M of RAM. RAM it seems has been dropping in price every week. When I bought this RAM in February it was around $125 for 128M generic PC100 RAM. (The June 1999 price is $75). Since I have a couple 32m SIMMS around that I bought for my old system for over $1000 for 32M, even the $125 felt good.

At the moment I have standardized on 128M for Windows 98 systems. They work a lot better than 64M systems, (profoundly so if you like to load multiple applications). Otherwise the insides of computers are changing a lot from the old days. Jumperless motherboards are coming into fashion which eases the assembly difficulties. Additionally the old ISA slot which has been around since the days of the IBM PC is finally on the way out, and a good riddance, I say. It is bulky, runs at 6 MHz, and is not plug and play. PCI slots dominate the ABIT board with an AGP slot for a superduper video card (hopefully AGP will be around longer than the VLB). Although legacy ISA slots are also present, I have made a point of not using them. The next generation computer will not contain ISA slots which is fine with me. I have never been a good enough computer mechanic to keep my ISA cards from walking on each other.

I also bought a USB scanner and have quickly become a USB fan, though I have found the USB not quite as plug and play as it is hyped. I like the well enough that I am giving preference to USB products over traditional serial and parallel port products. This preference extends to printers, scanners, UPS software connections, and the like. The classic serial port shares technology with the door bell on my house and the parallel port isn't much better. The USB actually works, and since I never turn my computer off, I do like 'legal' hot plugging.

ZIP 250's have sprouted this spring to replace the classic ZIP 100. The capacity gain here is enough that I have resisted the close out sales on the ZIP 100, and have been accumulating my pennies for the new ZIP 250 drives. They haven't taken over the world as yet however. I put my money where my mouth is and bought some Iomega stock too, and have been losing my shirt on it so far. The other thing that happened this spring is that the price point on 17" monitors broke will through the $200 price point and with my 15" NEC monitor bearing a June 1992 manufacture date, I was ready for one of those FRY's first quality no brand 17" monitors for $179.

CPU Choice

I spent a bit of time scratching my head over what CPU to install, but ultimately the choice became fairly easy. I chose an upscale motherboard which would take either the Celeron or the Pentium II / 3 family. The Celeron 400 could be purchased for around a $100 while the Pentium 450/550 are as of this writing several hundreds of dollars higher and falling at $10 a week in price. I figure I can give the systems I am building a quick retrofit to a Pentium 3 500 several months from now and save major dollars. Indeed, I have already won on this. The high priced CPU's dropped more than $100 in price while I was assembling and shaking down my new systems. Given that I have a jumperless motherboard and am using the slot based Celerons, a CPU upgrade is no more than a plug and pray and a visit to the BIOS.

RAM choices

The RAM specifications keep changing. For 20 years I have been trying to select RAM that could be moved over to my next computer. It has almost never happened. RAM density and speed have had to follow the CPU changes, and every motherboard generation has required a new RAM configuration. The BX class motherboards now in fashion are no exception. The BX boards introduced the 100 Mhrz FSB (Front Side Bus) but accordingly required faster RAM to produce the enhanced performance. Gains in density have also lead to more compact modules. But alas, just because large modules are made doesn't mean they will work. My BX6 version 1 motherboard balks at 128M memory modules. It is happy with 2 64M modules. At todays prices I see no point in not buying the PC100 type memory even if it is to be used in the celeron boards which do not require it. The price is virtually the same. Later this year when even faster CPU speeds appear along with new chipsets, it seems likely that we will get something else, (RAMBUS, 133 FSB) etc., but it won't be too soon. CPU clock speeds have been out running the rest of the computer for a long time, and the multiples are getting a bit absurd. You will recall that when the PC and then the AT first came out the bus speed and the CPU speed were the same. As the speed of the CPU increased, the bus speed was held back for compatibility reasons. Remember the turbo buttons? Anyhow you get the drift of the uselessness of have a GigaHz CPU in a 100 MHz mother board.

Dateline August 1999.

Two Months Later

It has only been a couple of months since I wrote the top part of this page and how things have changed. AMD is on the verge of introducing the Althon and Intel is paniced or paranoid. Anyhow CPU prices are still dropping with the bleeding edge being 600 mhz at the moment. By Winter the numbers will be well beyond that and the now famous BX chipset for motherboards will be mostly history as well. the last of the dot matrix printers in the family were retired this summer with the addition of a small personal laserjet (6L) for my daughter and the acquisition of a Deskjet 880C for me. HP really gets you on the ink but these little color dudes to print color nicely.

The AT class motherboards are becoming even more rare and my previous judgment that they should be dumped in favor of ATX style cases on upgrade is being confirmed. Cooling fans seem to be an issue on P233 MMX systems. The CPU fan is a necessity, but seems to die after a year or so. I've got enough of those things around that I am stocking a spare fan now. I know when to change them--the computer won't run all day without crashing. Newer motherboards are beginning to feature temperature monitoring facilities. The CPU makers are preparing to make the jump to .18 micron technology from .25. Hopefully the smaller ones will be less of an egg cooker than these things are. Anyone remember the Pentium 60 and Pentium 75 (made before they shrunk the mask last time? That should have been in the summer of 1994?

The quality control on CDROM drives appears to be on the decline. I sometimes have to buy 2 or 3 before I get one that will work for more than a few weeks (even if I don't use it). I'm keeping one of those in stock too. I handle the maintenance on about a dozen computers and even when I buy them 2 at a time I haven't had one get much dust on the shelf yet. The speed / brand don't seem to make much difference. Just over a year ago, I made the big jump to a Windows NT network. This summer, I am trying to complete the transition to state of the art software. This is a moving target of course. The cheap workstations of last year have kept me jumping to keep them in service. CPU fans and dying hard drives drives seem to be the worst. I'll never let another SAMSUNG hard drive in the door.

This summer brought us Corel Perfect Office 2000 ( version 9 ) as an upgrade to Version 8 of last year. I deployed early and regretfully. I really hope the first service Pak comes out soon (it is promised any day now). The product has improvements but is chronically unstable. Ther eis some rule about not buying the first release of anything, and boy have I been burned, but there are some features worth the upgrade. Tables in Corel Perfect seem to be stronger, and include more and more features of of a spreadsheet. I never did like the purple splash screen of Version 8. The big deal of the summer is that I have Timeslips in and am going to deploy it along with Business Works to handled the AP and GL functions of the accounting. Business Works is kind of spendy, but fully integrated with Timeslips and is multi-user capable. It is clearly a class above the Quick books accounting. This will allow me to finally retire the code base for accounting that I wrote for this purpose beginning in the spring of 1980. I have been looking for a satisfactory replacement for several years, and am satisfied that I have finally found it. Once I complete this deployment, I will be able to retire PARADOX for DOS in favor of Paradox for Windows, as I have some PDX scripts running on Paradox for DOS for gathering time charges as well.

The run to keep up never seems to stop. Lotus has announced a soon to be released Version 6 of Organizer. Palm pilots are the thing these days and they keep adding to the integration of the internet and the Palm Pilot. I haven't gone there yet. The migration of the accounting system to a completely new set of software will keep my plate full this fall. I really should have started the migration a year ago because of personell changes in the office, but I simply hadn't found the software that suited me. The real attraction to Timeslips now is that it is Paradox Engine based and full 32 bit whihc are features that attract me. Never mind that they have had teething problems and have had to release 10 service paks in as many months.

PRINT SERVERS

I've had an EIO internal print server card in my HP 4000 printer now since last summer when I set up the network. Until Late I have driven my other main printer (an aging HP 4si ) out of a 'shared port' on one of my workstations, effectively using a workstation as a print server. I had been resistent to the high price for MIO cards for the older style HP laserjet, but I finally located a source of second hand cards and bought one. It is only a tBase 10 card and not a tBase 100 card like the one for my HP 4000TN printer, but it still solves some problems. I had previously bought a dual speed hub to accomodate a tbase 10 router so I had the hub. The good news is that this took some pressure off of that workstation that had been doubling as a print server. That station simply had to be up and 'on line' or printing didn't work. Given the much higher reliability factor of my main server, printing through it is a better deal. Faster too. The maddening delay until printing starts is reduced (particularly with DOS printing which seems slower anyway.)

ISDN Deployed

Another accomplishment of the summer was to get ISDN going at least to the extent that I have a workstation at home of one of the partners which is alive and well. With the help of my daughter we got the routers configured on each end and the work at home computer is its own little subnet which calls up when needed to check in with mama. We had a go around getting the configuration right, but I enabled WINS on the main server, and on the remote workstation, and this made a connection, but also resulted in the remote station calling every 15 seconds to see if the server was still there. I solved this by using LMHOSTS on the remote subnet. This hard codes the relationship between the server name and the IP address of the server so the remote station doesn't call every 15 seconds to see if the relationship has changed. This ISDN circuit is not as fast as one would wish but it works. I still don't have the ISDN working to the internet, but in the meantime have deployed another solution to provide internet service to the whole office. I installed a virtual router and everyone can get to the internet via an analog modem (which uses one of the ISDN circuits in the POTS mode. I know, I need to get on top of this real soon now, but haven't gotten there.

Later:I finally determined that my ISP had not enabled ISDN which is why I could not connect. I did a set up another network on a consulting basis and deployed a Netgear 328 Router as a connection to the internet for a peer to peer network and it works nicely. I used the built in DHCP server to manage 6 windows 98 computers on a Peer to Peer basis and everyone gets the internet just as they should--by loading the browser or email client.

September 1999:
It seems that the the computer world continues to spin faster than I can keep up. I have Timeslips and Business Works accounting up, but this added another enormous bandwith hog on my system. Clearly I need to schedule an upgrade to my NT server. It is a cow box with a Pentium 350 in it and 64 megs of RAM. That was pretty hot stuff a 18 months ago, but Intel doesn't even make the 350 any more now. My present thinking is to stick some more RAM in the system and hope it runs for another 6 months. When I do an upgrade I like to have the new machine produce a bit of a bang, so an upgrade needs to be noticably faster than that which is replaces. I shouldn't have a problem finding a 700 mhz system 6 months from now. Meanwhile, I am trying to give my workstations some attention. My challenge is using the PC66 RAM that I have in inventory. Each of my present P233 systems has 2 each PC66 DIMMS in it (32 megs each). They also only have 2 DIMM slots.

Love that Tyan Tsunami AT MOBO

I can get my present systems to 128M by removing the 32M DIMMS and replacing them with 64M DIMMS. This works but then I have perfectly good PC66 RAM left over. I disposed of 4 sticks of it the other night by putting a TYAN Tsunami AT style motherboard in one of my minitower AT cases, and mating that with a Celeron 400. That motherboard has 4 slots for memory so I can put 4 of the 32M sticks in it, and since the Celeron uses a 66 Mhrz FSB all is well. Chainging the motherboard and CPU isn't that much more expensive than changing the RAM, so by remotherboarding some and re ramming others I can make use of the takeout RAM. The Tyan Tsunami motherborad is a BX motherboard which will run with all the current Penitium processors as well, so if I decide that a Celeron 400 doesn't cut it some day, The motherboard will support a Pentium III CPU at up to 500 mhrz, but, of course I would have to change the RAM.

I am buying PC 100 or better RAM for my upgrades so I will have some of that around for my next shuffle. Things are getting some complicated that I am beginning to put an inventory on a label on the computer and put the driver disks inside the case on the floor so I can keep track of what is what. I had to flash the bios on the Tsunami board to get it to accept a Celeron 400, but I found that wasn't all bad, or difficult. This Tyan has an AMI bios, and you can accomplish the flash by simply putting the new bios on a floppy disk and turning on the computer with the Control Home keys held down. You then need to reset the CMOS and put the date and time back in and you are in business. For some reason I have always liked the AMI bios better than the Award Bios, though the latter seems more common.

Just say no to Samsung

The system I upgraded also had a flaky Samsung HD on it, so I replaced it at the same time I changed the motherboard. I pledge to never let a Samsung drive on the place again. I've had a 50% failure rate after a year. This one had a spinup problem. If you left it running it seemed to be ok but if you shut it off half the time it wouldn't spin up unless you slapped the side of the computer firmly. Who says that kicking the computer doesn't help? It sometimes does. I bought a Quantum ATA 66 drive with a 7200 rpm speed. Of course I don't have an ATA 66 controller, but I still get the advantange of the 7200 RPM, and that does make a difference. NO more 5400 RPM drives for me, thankyou. Intel is in a total state of panic over the Athlon which AMD released in the last few weeks, and they have really butchered the prices of their CPU family, with the P3-500 now availabe for around $228--about half what it was 3 weeks ago. Intel should be releasing the Camino chipset in the next 60 days as well as new copper min processors based on the .18 micron die size (down from .25). Rumor mills are predicting 1 gig cpu speeds in the first half of 2k.

What about ZIP Drives?

A year ago I thought the ZIP drive was the best thing since sliced bread. I put internals in everything, and when the ZIP 250 came out I bought several of those and began converting. Now I almost have cold feet. True the ZIP is a nice drive, and is great for moving files around. But now there is the Castlewood ORB drive wich features a 2.2 Gig removable media. The media is $29, and the drive is $199.00. NO wonder that I am losing my buttocks on the stock I bought in Iomega. The Iomega Jazz isn't competive, and the ZIP 250 remains overpriced. I haven't bought an ORB yet, but with harddrive sizes exploding, even the ZIP 250 is a joke at handling backups. I had expected to see theZIP 250 quickly replace the ZIP 100 and the price drop to the Zip 100 levels, but that has not happened.

Dateline: June 2000

How things change! Corel, now the owner of WordPerfect has announced a big layoff, and speaks of running out of cash in the next 60 days if something doesn't happen to change the course of events. Too bad they may not live to see the effects of the antitrust judgment just entered against Microsoft. Intel seems to be working real hard at becoming roadkill also. They have stumbled badly in producing a successor to their very successful BS motherboard chipset. AMD which prior to the Athlon had just hassled Intel on the low end has given Intel a real run for its money on the high end. Production and performance issues at Intel have lead almos every major computer producer to offer Athlon based systems which are available in speeds up to a Gigahertz (but which are most common at the moment in the 7-800 mhrz range.)

Meanwhile, back at the farm, 20 to 40 gigabyte hard drives seem common and seemingly have out grown the need for greater capacity. My 10 Gig hard drive hasn't filled yet. Just this week, the second generation Athlon's were announced which will be a socketed chip with the L2 cache in the CPU. This will make for a 3rd generation motherboard for the Athlon which ought to mean something. The real technology stuggle at the moment is trying to get the motherboards and memory up to speed to match the CPU's. Back in the days of the IBM AT, both the MOBO and the CPU ran at the same speed (8 mhz). Having a CPU running at a million miles per hour doesn't do a whole lot unless the rest of the system can work faster too. Efforts to establish a faster communication rate with the RAM has been the source of the big stumble at Intel, and AMD is not immune from the need for a faster MOBO (motherboard). All of this means, however, that the upgrade path I thought I had with my BX motherboards is lost now. Any state of the art upgrade to my BX based systems will require a new motherboard, RAM as well as a CPU. At some point everyone is going to decide that the computer they have is 'fast enough', and the retirement of old ones for new ones every year or two is going to stop.

I move back and forth between a Pentium 233 and a Celeron 400 and frankly I can't tell one from the other. I sort of suspended my upgrading a year ago and am going to let the whole thing slide for a while. Most of my computer hours are spent checking email and on the world wide wait, and the extra CPU cycles don't help much.

Dateline February 2001

Well my ISP sold out for the second or third time and this time they are closing access points in my local area. This means I have to move my web site. Drat the hard links. Anyhow this time I got a domain domain so I shouldn't have that grief again. Also I have converted the site to relative links so the problems should be less severe if this ever occurred again.

I'm now shopping for a two way satellite system to bring in broadband internet. I've built up several AMD 800 systems but their performance is only marginally better than the 233 and 400 systems.

Dateline November 2001:

The last year has not been kind to the computer industry. Memory prices have fallen and fallen----256 megabytes I bought the other day for $23.00. Mostly I am no installing 512megs of ram in systems I am assembling. Wasn't long ago that you couldn't buy a hard drive that large.

My premonition that ZIP drives were going to become history seems to have been accurate. The first of the year will bring the "Mt. Rainier" CD drive that is fully drag and drop writeable. The CD has almost 3 times the capacity of a ZIP drive and the media is only pennies instead of $12.00. I think I have bought my last ZIP drive, and from reading the financial reports on Iomega, I'm not the only one.

There is no upgrade path for computers with the old style "AT CASE". The newer style 'ATX' case has been around since 1999, and no motherboard makers are supporting the old style and with good cause. The ATX configuration allows all common ports to be directly annexed to the motherboard eliminating a lot of cabling. It also has a place for the USB port which was unknown on an 'AT' system. I've been building computers for family members for several years now. My preferred case is an Enlight 7237 mid-tower model. The Mid tower is the right size for a computer. The case is big enough that the power supply is above the motherboard making easy access to everything. There just doesn't seem to be a need for the 'full tower' computers any more. When 'full high' 5.25 drives were around you needed the height for drive capacity, but the mid tower will take 4 half high 5.25" and 3 of the 3.5" drives. Unless you have a Raid motherboard, the board will only support in theory 6 drives (2 floppies) and 4 of the IDE drives (some combination of CD's, Zips and Harddrives)

Floppies, however, are on the way out and I haven't seen a system with more than one floppy for quite a while.

The real bug-a-boo with computers at the present time are power supplies and cooling. The Athlon (AMD) CPU's and even the Pentium 4's need large power supplies and lots of cooling. A couple of years ago a 250 watt power supply was plenty, but now a 300 watt power supply is marginal (and won't run the latest and greatest AMD Cpu's which are now up to 1.6 mghrz. I"ve been buying the 300 watt power supplies and cases on the cheap over Ebay and can make low end systems (up to 1.2 gigahrz) out of them. Even at those speeds massive cooling has to be engineered in. The Enlight case has a bottom front fan as well as the fan in the power supply. I'm adding an optional 80mm fan in the back just below the power supply, and have some slot fans for those cases that won't take the extra rear fan. The slot fan mounts in a card slot (but does not plug into the motherboard), and exhausts out through the card slot hole.

The sweet spot on hard drives is 40 gigs, with 60's, 80's and even 100's available. Ones less than 40 cost just as much as a 40.

just did an upgrade on my BX board based Celeon 400. I flashed the BIOS for the latest Bios(still a couple years old), but it got me 2 things.--- support for hard drives larger than the 8 gig limit and support for Pentium III CPU's up to 700 mghrz. With that flash I replaced the 8 gig drive that died on me, goosed the RAM up to about 512 megs and installed a Pentium III 700, and reset the front side bus from 66 mhrz to 100 mhrz. I'm not sure all this really made a difference but oh well. I had to change the hard drive, and the fan was dead on the celeron so it just made sense to take it to the limit. That is the upper end of the BX board system so the next time someone puts something in that case it will be a new power supply (to replace the 250 watt one), and a new motherboard.

The BX motherboards were classics for quality, but were designed to take the slot mount CPU which are now history. I only built 3 of the BX systems on Celerons so I won't have to deal with many of those. I have a herd of Athlon Thunderbirds around with 850 CPU's up to 1.2 CPU's however.

- - Updated 12/16/2012
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- - Updated 11/13/2001
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