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Title: Technology Today June  2003
by  Robert Sanborn

One of the more interesting things about watching the technology of personal computers is that you tend to forget how much trouble being a pioneer really is. Take the snags I ran into last month when I was hooked on building a new computer from the new superfast Pentium 4 3 gigahertz system from Intel. While Intel, and AMD also, try to put together ever faster processors, there are several other fronts where companies are speeding things up with your computer. While USB 2 has been out for well over a year, I am still seeing many new systems that only have USB 1 installed on them. When you buy a new computer, make sure it has the USB 2 standard on it so that you have the capability of running the faster devices like external CD writers, hard drives, and the faster scanners.  

Another component in your computer getting a speed boost is the hard drives and controllers. A hard drive has several components that determine how fast your computer pulls information from the drive whenever you start a program or get a file or document. The first component is the physical speed of the drive and the access time. Most older drives spin at a speed of 5400 rpm while newer drives go at 7200 rpm. That is a 33 percent bump in performance right there. The access time also determines how fast things go and today the access time down to around 9 miliseconds. This is the time it takes to find the data on your hard drive even before it starts to copy or access it. Every little bit helps. The final part of todayís hard drives are the buffer or cache size on the drive itself. This is how much data the drive reads ahead and stores in its own internal memory just incase you want that information again. A simple example is say you tell the computer to pull up a document, look at it, close it, and then decide you want to open it again. If the document is still in the hard drives buffer or cache, it should pull it up without having to go out to the drive and access the file. Newer drives have bigger cache files of around 8 megabytes while most older drives have only a 2mb cache. Again, more things to help speed things up. 

The next place to look is the controller that runs the hard drives on the mainboard on your computer. Not that long ago, the latest speed improvement in hard drives was an ATA-66 drive where the 66 noted how fast in megabits per second the computer would send the instructions to the drive to get the data and how fast it would be returned to us no matter how fast the drive really was. This was the maximum speed limit. Not long after, ATA-100 and ATA-133 drive controllers started to be seen and again, it was a good boost in performance. How fast your system pushes data around can be found probably in the specifications of your mainboard manual. This is one reason sometimes that when someone gets a newer faster system, they discover that the programs still take just as long to load.   While this doesnít get mentioned sometimes, this ATA interface is often called a parallel interface. Donít confuse it with a parallel port for printers on your computer but this is really the technology used for the IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics) hard drive controller on your computer.  

There is a newer interface for hard drives coming out this year you will hear about and it is called Serial ATA. Right now, the fastest a serial ATA controller can push data is 150mbps but the good news is that it is a very expandable standard with speeds hoped for of around 600mbps in the next few years. Look to pay a little more for the drives from the usual vendors like Seagate, Diamond, and Western Digital. You will also notice that the cables used for these drives are not like the standard 50 pin ribbon cable for IDE drives so you have to be sure the mainboard has the controller to support Serial ATA. If not built in, you will find controllers from companies like Addonics and others. From what I read, skip the converter cards, they just donít give you that much of a boost in performance over the IDE-133 drives but with most computers still using the older 66 or 100 drive controllers, upgrading to the new Serial ATA might be just the ticket. 

CD Copying 

One of the most fun things about doing research is that every once in a while, you stumble across something that someone else has done to save yourself a ton of time and effort. Another plus in searching is that you sometimes run into things that solve age old problems that when you run into them, you think, ďthere must be something wrong with my systemĒ.  This was the type of problem I was hearing about when someone was telling me that it appeared that jľ–random, when they were copying a CD (for personal backup purposes, of course), that every once in a while, it would not copy and the software would tell him that they had a bad CD. But the strange part was that more often than not, normally, things would copy just fine. Could it be the reader, the discs, or what? Well, the ďor whatĒ is probably the case. On one of the sites I visit, the conversation was around the problem of making backup copies of games. It seems that a huge number of games these days use copy protection schemes to keep you from copying the CD. They donít interfere with normal playing of the game but try to copy it, and you get all sorts of errors. So I found a web site that tracked the different copy protection schemes used on games (http://www.petemoore.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/), and really got an interesting look at behind what was a recurring problem for a lot of people. What led me to this site was the topic of how to copy these discs with some utilities and what you needed to know before you started was what type of scheme was protecting the disc.  

What started this whole discussion was the fact that many CD RW drives come with software bundled in them but often is just not good enough to do all the things you want to when burning your own CDs. My favorite for years was Adaptecís (now Roxio) Easy CD Creator. I really loved the part that included Spin Doctor to allow you to clean up music sources but over the years, had switched over to Nero Burning Room because they seemed to do a better job of keeping up with the changing technologies and times in drives.  One problem in using the CDRW software bundled with a drive is that it is often hard coded for that specific drive. Put a new CDRW in your computer and expect to use the old software and you can be in for a rude shock when it tells you sorry, you canít do that. This is one reason that I am getting irritated with Nero so might be going back to take a new look at Easy CD Creator.  

Short Takes 

Windows XP has for me been a very much welcome upgrade from Windows ME and 98. My computer just is so much more stable than before, program crashes havenít caused any real problems and at the pace that Microsoft has issued patches and fixes for the product, I feel that I can have more confidence in the computer and what I am running on it. That doesnít mean that I still donít back up everything at the drop of a hat and worry about viruses and the like, it is that for once, I donít see an endless stream of crashes to bother me. Now with that said, I canít believe how many patches there are out there. And I am only talking about the critical ones. It seems like at a minimum of once a week, I get the notice saying that there are new updates to install and as I type this, I see the little Microsoft icon in my active tray telling me that there are more waiting for me to install. I just looked at Add/Remove Programs in control panel and there are 14 listed there that relate to patches, hot fixes, and updates, including Service Pak 1 (or was it 1A) that has been installed. But as fast as they are coming, I know they donít list them all there otherwise we might see close to a hundred. Wow. The good news is that Microsoft has made a priority of correcting the problems in Windows, the bad news is that there are so many of them that need correcting. My advice is to install them. This is despite the fact that just last month (April), I received an email warning that the latest patch will considerably slow down your computer. Of course, it was fixed in a later patch but you know, you really should install them sooner or later. The later part reminds me of our mainframe days in that whenever a vendor (notably IBM) sent us an update, we would always hold onto it for about six months before installing it just to be sure the pioneers in our industry, those that install them as soon as they get them, didnít suffer too badly.  Might not be bad advise but then again, we didnít have the hordes of hackers trying to take over our computers that much either and when you look at it, a large number of these fixes relate to security issues. 

Found a great web site for keeping up with the changes in DVD formats at http://www.dvdirect.com/TSS/charts/DVDFormats.htm. Very clear explanations of the different types so if you get tempted to buy your own DVD burner, take a look. Many DVDs are copy protected so you might think twice if you are planning to copy your DVD collection. Either that or look for good copy software


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


Last Update:06/26/2007


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