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Title: Technology Today -  February 2003 
by  Robert Sanborn


Ah, the joys of Windows. The video card had to be replaced in my test system this week and so I went in, uninstalled all the drivers and software for the old video card like I should, and then when the new one came in, installed it. Windows (XP of course), decided that it didn’t like the way things looked on my computer as it started up the first time after putting the card in, and proceeded to tell me that we need to Activate Windows one more time. It doesn’t matter that I had already activated windows twice on that computer (at least two times I know of…), and that before I swapped out the video card, the computer was running just fine. In fact, all of the bad things that had happened to the test computer had all gone away, it was running wonderfully well with nary a beep or glitch. I was beginning to really think good things about this computer. And now, Windows XP decides it is not good enough. It wants to activate. Did you know that when Windows decides it wants to re-activate itself, it refuses to load any drivers for the network card or modem? You know what that means. You have to do it over the telephone. So I call the number, painstakingly enter in the 42 digits on my key pad and then hear from the automated attendant, that it doesn’t like my computer and we must talk to someone before activating windows. I was having, shall we say, unpleasant thoughts to the persons that came up with this silly scheme. This business of having to enter in 20 to 50 digits and letters to activate or allow any piece of software to work is just plain stupid. It doesn’t prevent hackers from stealing and duplicating these stupid id keys. It doesn’t prevent people from copying CDs and copying down all the registration digits and key codes. It only affects people that inadvertently separate the key code from the CD when putting things away and forcing them to face the specter of big brother. Anyways… sorry about that. So, where was I? Oh yes, a very, obviously to me, bored young lady, unhappy with her lot in life at being condemned to the gulag of giving out key codes came on the line and guess what ? I had to give her the 42 digits again. She proceeded to put me on hold for less than a minute and come back with 42 digits of her own which I then painstakingly again entered into the computer to bring me back in the graces of Microsoft.  How long will this last? I am not sure, Will the next drive or memory upgrade or processor change in this computer kill Windows again like it did last time? And will I have to call them again and wait for the Activation police to knock on my door? For the record, every copy of Windows on all my computers are legal, legitimate, honestly acquired, and complete with individual CDs and key codes. Hah, let them come. 

More Comdex Fall 2002 

A lot of interesting things were actually at Comdex this year and so as I dig through the piles, I unearthed a few more things worth taking a look at.  Pricing of equipment is getting better all the time so the good news is that as you put computers together, you should see some price reductions.  

Samsung has come out with a new CD RW drive that also includes a DVD reader as well so you might now think about a single drive for both. The CDRW portion is a very quick  48x24x48 writer so zipping out those copies will just a few minutes any more. The DVD portion is a standard 16X and with a price around $129, it makes sense to look at these combination drives. This model is the SM-348. www.Samsung.com If you really want to be the big power user on your block, Samsung has the monster monitor for you. How about a 40 inch LCD monitor. Wow, big ! Don’t ask the price. Finally, they do have a monitor for the rest of us in the 17 inch Syncmaster 172W. It is bright at 450 nits and has a contrast ratio of 450 to one. Look for it around $699. 

The DVD wars get more confusing all the time and a couple of companies are trying to bridge the gap rather than push us to one side or the other. TDK, for example, came out with a DVD burner that does both the +RW format and the –RW format. So if you are not sure which format to go with, get both says TDK, www.tdk.com. Available soon with no price yet listed.  To go with this new technology, TDK is also coming out with their line of Armour coated DVD discs. Using a hard coating technology, they claim the discs will be 100 times better protected than traditional discs against the usual problems of scratches, spills, and dirt. 

The upper range of digital cameras is filling out nicely in the 5 megapixel range with the addition of several models. Minolta has released their DiMage 7Hi SLR type model that has several features that should be attractive to buyers including 7x optical zoom, and 5 megapixels. It is like the other type 7 models but does have faster shutter, better image control, and more options on image type. It is still expensive at $1299 but the good news is that the pricing is moving in the right direction as these new models come out. 

Panasonic is now using Lica lenses in their Lumix line of digital cameras hoping to blend a great lens with similar technology. The top model, DMC-LC5 is a nice looking point and shoot type of camera with 4 megapixels and a 3X optical zoom lens. Around $699 

Another camera I took a look at was from Fujitsu, www.fujifilm.com. They have a Finepix 3800 SLR type of camera that gives you 3 megapixels, a Through the lens electric viewfinder, and a 6X optical zoom lens. It comes with a great price of $349, Feels good to use and uses 4 AA batteries. Down side to the camera though is the use of XD Picture cards and for me, the electronic view finder. You need to try those to see if they are a problem for you.  

Iolo Technologies System Mechanic 

Because I run into a lot of computer that need help, I am always on the lookout for a new tool or product that helps in keeping personal computers up and running. Iolo is such a product in their System Mechanic. Installing it is very straight forward, The first thing it does is to ask you whether to back up files that it may replace which is a good sign. Once installed, and not needing to reboot the computer, it is ready to run. Once it starts, there are three main buttons: Files, System, and Internet. Each one has a variety of tools that you can run to help clean up your computer. For instance, I went into Files and told it to delete the junk files on the computer and while you can start with the defaults, you can also customize it and tell it to add or skip certain files, folders, and types of files. For most users, this can be a problem as you often have no clue as to what to really look for when telling it to delete junk files and the like. Some are obvious but as it showed when you tell it to look for duplicates; you better know what you are doing when you tell it to delete something it finds. Each of the optional clean up areas as quite a few of customization options available to you and if you are a long time power user, hacker, or tinkerer, you might know that there are more files and registry values to tell it to clean up but again, as they often tell you, be sure you have a good backup before diving into something like this. 

It has a different approach to a couple of things that I do like about this program. One is the Windows Startup Manager button.  This is a great place to easily see what programs are starting in Windows and allows you to make all sorts of changes to it. I like working with it much better than Microsoft’s own msconfig tool though msconfig gives you more things to look at, the Windows Startup Manager button allows you to go directly to those programs that could be causing you startup problems. 

Because I had run the Norton Win Doctor recently on a test system, I didn’t find that much to clean up but because this program has such a wide range of utilities in it, it was still worthwhile to run. Things that I didn’t have in the other programs were the ability to remove invalid uninstaller information that happens when you go to uninstall a program and it says it can’t. So in the past, what you did was to delete the programs folder, hope the registry entries don’t cause problems, and leave the remains in the add remove program area. This program takes care of that by cleaning up the registry entries, removing the uninstaller information that is corrupted, and also cleans up the shortcuts left over. One other tool in the package I like is the internet booster that gives your system a few tweaks to help boost internet speeds.  

One thing it did not catch was the invalid video driver that had been installed on the computer. Or did it? The computer then started and said the video driver was bad after running System Mechanic. It had not noticed that the driver was the incorrect one before installing the product. So was it the clean up that finally noticed the drivers were wrong or was it coincidence? 

This program has been around for a while and a couple of things that pop to mind could be improved. One is the ridiculous notion that I have to enter in a total of 36 characters for the user id and serial number. Even Microsoft doesn’t take it to that extreme.  The second is that it would be nice if it would have an automated feature to run the most common tasks. I realize you can schedule individual items, but to be able to just say run a system wide range of tests when things start to look ugly would be nice. The current version is 3.7 and sells for $59.95 on their web site or $49.99 at CompUSA. All in all, it seems like a very good program to help keep things cleaned up on your computer. 

Disk On Key 

This has got to be one of those technologies that when you first see it, you wonder if someone had too much time on their hands. In my case, I really first thought it was a useless technology when a good friend tells me that he lost his especially after transferring important files to it. To believe it you have to see it. It is a flash memory device that to me first looked like one of those short stubby highlighter pens. It is about 4 inches long, an inch wide, and half an inch thick and weighs next to nothing. With a key ring and a clip, you can carry it anywhere. Take a look at on their web site at www.diskonkey.com. What it does is give you 8 to 512MB of flash memory that you connect via USB port to any capable computer. With that, you can then transfer any files or data to the device and then carry it to another computer and use it there. When you plug it into the computer, it comes up as a ready to go storage device and the best part about that is that you don’t have to load any drivers or software for it. Because of the onboard ARM-7 CPU, it takes care of any need for drivers if you have Windows ME or higher operating system or Mac OS 9+. For Windows98 or Windows NT, you will need a driver file downloaded from their web site. This then becomes a really handy device for transferring files between computers. The units come with LED lights on them to let you know when you are writing files to or from the device and when it is safe to remove it from the computer. The unit I have is not a very speedy device and it took it just over two minutes to transfer 100 mb of data files to it. There is a newer version 2 out with three times the transfer rate but again, depending on how you use it or how much data you need to transfer at a time, you may not need the faster units. For quickly transferring document files or presentations, it does just fine and is as easy to use as a floppy diskette. 

To keep your data safe, the device comes with a KeySafe application that allows you to password protect your data files and keep them from prying eyes. What it does is to reformat the key unit and allow you to set aside a privacy zone for your private files, and to get in, you have to log in using your password. If you just look at the device, it then appears to be at what ever size you left open so my DiskOnKey 128MB device now looks like a 100MB Device. What is interesting about it is that if you log in, all you can see is the protected area of the drive, and if I check the properties of the “removable disk” drive, all I see is the space I set aside for the partition. If you want to see the original files in the “unprotected area”, you have to log out of the protected area. If you have further need, there is also a software developer’s kit (SDK) available for the units to create your own applications. One such application already done is to turn the unit into a locking key to lock and unlock a computer. What I also like about the unit is that that it is a completely sharable device. For instance, it is set to shared on my test system and I can access the device directly from my main system like any other drive and from my older networked computer that doesn’t have the drivers installed. On my Windows98 notebook, I just download the driver file from their web site, go through the easy installation, and then it works on the notebook just like it does on the other computers. 

To buy the unit, you can get it direct from Disk On Key or buy the Fuji Film equivalent for around $80 for 128mb and $150 for 256mb of storage. Their parent company has been entering into several deals so that you will find these with other names on them including Verbatim, Compaq, and Iomega. There are a number of web sites that sell them and you will also see several different versions of them coming out. The DiskOnKey Pro unit is smaller by about an inch long, and the DiskOnKey 2.0 version is compatible with the USB 2 specifications and will offer a higher speed when it comes out.  I find it to be a very handy unit to have around and use and I like the hard plastic housing for it to give it much more reliability and protection. These are great memory alternatives you should take a look at.  

Belkin’s External Drive Enclosure 

Having been convinced some time ago that tape is becoming one of the most suspect backup devices around for the home and small business user, I went to Comdex looking for alternatives and was quite surprised to find some interesting options. There were several options from external hard drives and CD Rom Drives, to even external tape drives which I thought was interesting. What Belkin, www.belkin.com has done is to come up with the means of rolling your own. They have an USB 2.0 External Drive Enclosure kit (part P56804) that sells for around $99. that is a very well built, easy to assemble, and easy to connect unit. I really like the way this unit is put together and am impressed with the quality of the unit. I suppose then I shouldn’t be surprised with the lifetime warranty. What it does is give you a USB 2.0 device that is IDE compliant. In other words, you can stick any IDE device you like in it from a full sized CD or DVD drive to a standard 3.5 inch disk drive inside the case. It comes with its own built in fan and so you need to plug it into an AC Outlet as well for drive power so don’t forget to turn it off when you turn off your computer. 

The package comes pre-assembled (without any drive in it of course), so that as you take it apart to install a drive, you get a real good sense of how things go together. So well in fact, that you really don’t need the directions. Basically two things you need to watch out for when installing it is to set the IDE setting to Master on what ever drive you are installing, and to use the correctly threaded screws in fastening the drive to the case. It was really easy to set things up. On my test system, I had installed a USB 2.0 controller to test USB 2 devices, and on Windows XP, it found the drive as soon as I plugged it in and did not need any drivers at all. I decided to test it out with a high speed CDRW drive that will write up to 48X speeds to see how it would do on the USB 2 system.  My first snag is that the CDRW Software I was using, Nero Burning Room 5.5, would not allow itself to recognize the Burner. Windows XP’s My Computer sees it as a CD RW Drive attached to the USB port just fine. A quick stop at Nero’s web site, www.ahead.de and I downloaded the latest version, ran the update, and it now sees the CDRW drive just fine. The first test was to copy a CD and while it ran through just fine, it only copied it at 12x speed. So what gives, is all this speed talk just hype? The CD-R I used was one of the new Verbatim Vinyl CDs which are really cool to look at but you know what, when I looked at the packaging, there is no speed anywhere listed. So, out to the web to track this down. When I look at their web site to get more information, all it tells me is that they are “Multi-speed” CDs. No speed limit. No where is it listed. So, I thought, let’s try again. This time I took out a 48X Memorex CD-R I had and guess what, Nero said it would burn it at 48x. It makes me wonder if there is some encoding on the CDs that tell the burners at what speed they will work at. Incredible, in 2 and a half minutes, it made a copy of a music CD I had. While the music CD only had 40 minutes of music, I was still impressed by the speed.  

Having tested it on the Test system, I kind of wished I had tried it before installing the Nero software to see if Windows XP CD Writing software would have also handled the CD as well. I suspect it probably would because it immediately recognized it as a CDRW Drive. 

I am really impressed with this Drive Enclosure package. It assembled very quickly, was easy to setup, and connected at a high speed like a champ. Over the next few months, I will test it with different hard drives and backup systems and think it will become a great alternative to the stand alone units available. 

Short Takes 

Another interesting thing I picked up at Comdex was some hands free kits for my mobile phone. I wanted to see how well they worked and to see if I would prefer to use them instead of using the phone by itself. The unit I got was from Logitech, the Mobile Earbud Miniboom model which sells for around $40. The good news is that it is a very high quality unit. The sound from the speaker piece in my ear and through the microphone at the end of the mini boom does very well and the people I talked to via the unit told me that it came in just fine. The problem is that I hated to have the Earbud piece in my ear. It just didn’t feel comfortable even after trying it several different times. Oh well, back to the drawing board.


Robert Sanborn is an Independent Personal Computer Consultant and a contributing editor for the Indy PC News. Reach him through the net at indypcnews@indy.rr.com

Last Update:12/20/2011


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