Computers, Software, Technology, Windows 10

Windows 10 – To Update or Not to Update

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As the 29 July 2015 release date for Windows 10 approaches Microsoft has been releasing security updates in fairly rapid succession. These appear to be bug fixes as well as patches for security issues. Think of it as a kind of fix everything at once update. Unfortunately, there has been some device drivers updated as well, most notably NVidia graphics drivers. These appear to adversely impact people who are using SLI (multiple graphics cards) and multiple monitor configurations. In essence this is the serious gamer community that use Windows as a platform because, lets face it, Mac OS X has never been a great gaming platform and developer support for game development in Linux is primitive at best. In other words, Windows is the only significant platform for serious, cutting edge PC gaming.

Upgrading to Windows 10 may make a lot of sense for the gamer. It supports Direct X 12, which will not be released for any previous of Windows. So, even though there aren’t a lot of games out there that use Direct X 12, there certainly will be and their releases dates could come fast and furious with Christmas only five months away. What else would you get the gamer on your shopping list but a the latest and greatest game?

The problem with NVidia and Microsoft is that there appears to be two different version of drivers for the graphics cards. Now, normally you’d think the hardware manufacturer’s drivers would take precedence. But from past experience I have not always trusted the hardware manufacturer’s versions of any software to work out of the box. I’m not saying Microsoft has a great track record for releasing stable software but when it comes to drivers that work with Windows, usually the Microsoft version has been tested on a variety of systems. Gamers, however, want the fasted drivers for their machines and that is usually whatever the hardware maker has just posted. It may be barely better than a beta version of a driver.

Apparently what has happened in the past couple of days is kind of the reserve situation. You see Microsoft wants to increase its control, over the upgrade and update process to ensure stability of the installed base for Windows 10. That means they will release software updates and force them to be installed. Once released Windows will update on either a fast ring – immediately – or a slow ring – within a month of an updates release. The Windows 10  Beta Testers, aka Windows Insiders, are receiving these security updates that at present include display drivers and a number of other pieces of software that probably wouldn’t normally come in a security patch.  It may be to save time on execution of the patches, but it has cause some serious problems for some people out there with rather exotic configuration. I would point out that they should not be running Windows 10 in the first place but, being of a gamer mentality and wanting the latest and greatest…well, that’s why they are running Windows 10 and having problems with the upgrades. and updates. They want what’s cutting edge technology, even if it is a little buggy at times.

The bugs in these drivers range from not being able to boot a system normally to losing multiple monitor support, to having the driver attempting to install multiple times, once for each graphics card installed,  to having a system unable to boot at all.

I’m not a gamer, though I share the mentality of a gamer in wanting to run the latest updates and being at the cutting edge of things. My graphics driver is for the Intel chip on a Surface Pro 3. That driver works in all but a few feature functions that were supported with the original driver under Windows 8 and 8.1, namely being able to rotate the Surface while in tablet mode and have the chip change from landscape to portrait automatically. This may be something that needed to be ironed out between the touch screen LCD display manufacturer, Intel and Microsoft. And the way Windows 10 is made to default to desktop verse tablet mode (unless specified otherwise) I’m not too sure there will be a driver written that does support the feature. For me that is not a deal breaker in upgrading to Windows 10. As a writer I use the Surface almost always with either the portable keyboard or a Bluetooth keyboard while it is connected to a Surface Pro 3 docking station. In the latter configuration, I have an external monitor that allows pivoting to portrait mode for editing pages. This I have to tell the driver to do that, though supposedly the device supports the function with its software (on some operating system out there, perhaps Mac OS X). For the most part, that works for me, doing it manually at needed. There are a couple of minor glitches with the monitor when exiting from sleep mode and that requires me to cycle the power on the monitor, but it is a livable situation at this point.

I guess my point about whether to upgrade or not depends on how interested you are in running the latest software. You have to be ready for glitches and some inconvenience. So I’m not sure what all the online whining is about. Microsoft is sprinting to the finish line for the Wednesday deadline for the release of Windows 10. They are pumping out fixes for this, that and the other. But technically it is still beta software, regardless of whether this was the RTM version the OEM’s receive a couple of weeks ago. All things considered, I think this is remarkably stable as an operating system that is receiving new updates every few hours.

If you use your computer daily and need it to be as stable as possible and don’t really have the time to manage updating it and learning new features, DON’T upgrade to Windows 10 right away. If you are like me and see things as a challenge, like solving a puzzle, and don’t mind some inconvenience in the process just to be able to play with the newest technology, then DO upgrade. For all of those somewhere between those extremes, it’s your choice. If you hate Windows 8.1 and want to have something more like Windows 7’s desktop, then give Windows 10 a whirl. For everyone else, including those with some exotic configurations of hardware, give it a few weeks to a month for Microsoft to get all the driver support stabilized.

Computers, Software, Technology, Windows 10

Windows 10: Rethinking The Operating System

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Windows 10 is about a week away from being available to the world. In truth it has been available to everyone for a very long time, just they needed to sign off on having a potentially buggy beta version of software running on one of their machines. Yes, I realize most people do not have multiple personal computers. So does Microsoft. That’s why they disclaim the heck out of everything necessary for a user to get into the Windows Insider’s Program. Once opted in users may play with a new, experimental version of an operating system that may or may not end up looking like what you get. AT least that was the case up to about a month ago, when Microsoft stopped adding on new features and shifted the focus on removing bugs and optimizing performance.

For a lot of techie people, like me, playing with new stuff is fun. Even the bugs and finding a work-around for them become an adventure. It’s kind of like taking a dare as a kid. You know? But for most people, playing with really buggy software that you use everyday on a machine would be frustrating and is ill advised. Having said all that, Insiders have the option of continuing to receive regular updates and experimental versions of Windows 10 even after it is officially released. You see, the version that was released a little over a week ago to the Insider community, Build 10240, is called TH 1 Threshold 1. Microsoft is already working on TH2, the next version of Windows 10 which may make it as a released update later this year.

The overall idea behind the perpetual beta testing is sound for a company like Microsoft that has always been in the business of making applications that work for the mainstream on a variety of platforms. Granted, they are probably best at writing code that works on their own operating systems but they develop stuff for other OSes as well. Most people are unaware, for example, that MS is one of the largest software developers for Mac OS.

The Redmond, Washington tech giant has always been focused on applications. That is where most of their money is made, licensing software to businesses and consumers of such programs as MS Office.

How did MS get into the operating system business? One day in the distant past IBM approached them with the idea of creating a disc OS that would work on a personal computer that would compete head-to-head with what Apple was making. The result was PC-DOS and, a little while thereafter later, MS-DOS that worked on brands of personal computers other than IBM.

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IBM and MS continued in a development partnership for a while in an attempt to create a more user-friendly Interface. Most people think this came in response to the first iteration of Mac OS, but in fact OS2 was in the works even as Apple was developing “Lisa”, which was the precursor to Mac OS. When MS and IBM had a falling out over the direction of the new operating system, OS2 emerged from IBM’s portion of the code and Windows was released from what MS took. The two systems were mutually compatible with DOS and, up to Windows 3.1 and OS2 Warp 3.0, could actually run programs cross platform. Sometimes new drivers needed to be loaded in order to get full support from things like sound cards and graphics accelerators, but you could actually run Windows in OS2. After all, up to that time Windows was really an application that rode on the backbone of DOS.

Apple introduced the personal computer world to using a mouse and a graphical user interface years ahead of the IBM-MS world. Although there were functions created for a mouse that worked in DOS-based applications, quite honestly, they felt primitive when compared to what was happening from the folks in Cupertino, California. Apple was driving innovation – sometimes, even often, in strange and unexpected directions that ended in failure. But that is the essence of living on the frontier. You fail more often than you succeed and, if you are smart, you end up figuring out how to market your failures, repackaging the idea under a fresh disguise. Apple has been good at doing that. I would dare to say that the ill-fated Newton of the 90’s was the conceptual precursor to the iPhone, iPad and iOS. Certainly, it was the first hand-held personal computing device, years ahead of those somewhat less clunky things Compaq, HP, Sony and others foisted in the early part of this century as handheld devices.

The evolutionary step, the innovation all others lacked in gaining mass appeal, came when Apple integrated a cellphone into the device. Remember the lambasting Apple received in the tech press for the first iPhone? “This is not the best cellphone out there” one reviewer said after completely missing the point of the device.  The access to the cellphone network made the iPhone a truly portable, handheld computer able to access the Internet from virtually anywhere and fit into your pocket. Oh, by the way, because it could access the Internet through the cellphone network, here’s a phone application and a text messaging application just in case you want to use those.  What’s more the keyboard for text messaging was integrated into the operating system! in 2007 those were major tech coups for Apple.

It’s easy to forget  – or perhaps we would like to forget – where we have been and what we have been through with recent operating system development.  Following the rollicking success of MS Windows XP, which was the first OS to integrate the nifty feature set and hardware support of Windows 95/98 into an operating system for the mainstream that shared the business OS, Windows NT, core, Microsoft decided to explore the possibilities of a really pretty and sometimes functional graphical user interface with the ill-fated Windows Vista. I can tell you, from personal experience, Windows Vista was so bad that it drove me to playing with various flavors of Linux as my home computer interface and eventually prompted me to cross-over to the dark side – using Mac OS X.

As a computer tech I had experience with Apple products over the years and had, on occasion, needed to use that knowledge to fix this or that for an Apple aficionado. It was just that I had never previously made the leap on my own home system until 2007. I switched to a Mac and, although there is a saying that once you go Mac you never go back, I have bucked the system by returned to using Windows earlier this year.

Here’s why I jumped off the Apple platform. Despite loving Mac OS and the Apple universe of things, I’ve been seeing some chinks in Apple’s shining armor. Maybe it’s just me but after Steve Job’s tragic death I think the vision in Cupertino is a lot more like it was in the mid 1990’s – when Apple ousted Jobs for a while and began a period of struggle that nearly ended the company. Yeah, I could be wrong. Apple is a giant in the industry right now and the most valuable company in the world. It is still doing a lot of things right. But I think its relative gain in PC market share over the past few years has been due to MS’s failings. Also the entire pie is shrinking as more and more people discover that their tablet and/or phone does most everything they used to do on their PC. More and more people don’t need at PC at home. With Windows 10 that trend may be ready to reverse to some extent.

Not only does Windows 10 do whatever you can do on Mac OS, but it also ups the ante a bit here and there along the way. In other words, the folks in Redmond, Washington are back to innovating things that people like as well as things people want to do with their computers, such as using them as virtual assistants and automating everything in a home or business with one shared interface. Overall, for consumers, the immediate future could be a lot of fun as Apple and Microsoft strive to outdo one another again – like in the old days.

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About a week ago, Microsoft released Build 10240 to Windows Insiders – aka beta testers. This was, in essence, the Release to Manufacturer (RTM) version of the OS. But, unlike what happened with every previous version of Windows, it did not receive the usual fanfare. Golden discs were not flown via helicopter to the major manufacturers that use Windows as the operating system for their lines of personal computers. Let’s face it, folks, the PC world has changed. It is not a growing industry anymore. It is actually in significant decline, near double digit decline on an annualized basis.

Despite how ubiquitous Windows has always been in the business world it’s market share in the home has been steadily eroded over the past few years. From personal experience I can attest that Mac OS is easier to learn. Also, it doesn’t require you to know how to build a clock in order to tell time – if you know what I mean. Windows has always had some maintenance issues like installing updates and running utilities in the background to correct things that don’t work right all the time. It has always been a huge target for viruses and malware not because it is inherently easier to attack than Mac OS but because there are more devices in the world running Windows. As Mac OS has become more prevalent viruses have begun to appear in that side of the universe as well.

Although there are updates and such in the Mac world the end-user does not have to do as much or as often as with a Windows-based machine. For the most part, the updates install in the background and many users aren’t even aware that it is happening until there is a prompt to accept the changes to the OS and/or reboot the system.

In defense of Microsoft, they have always had quite a load on their table -to write code that works over a broader spectrum of devices than does Apple. One of Apple’s strengths is that they control the hardware side of things and they do, at times, decide that certain machines are just too old to support with a new and improved OS. That happens about every seven to ten years.

Perhaps the innovation lag of late for MS products verses Apple was due to the amount of time and resources needed for MS to be all things to all users. But, in the past year or so there has been a subtle change in the PC industry. Microsoft is staging a come back in a huge way but has done so rather quietly compared to the fanfare, swagger and bluster of previous OS launches. I doubt anyone would have paid attention to such a campaign anyway. For the majority of people the launch of Windows 10 is receiving a group yawn. The people I know who are anxiously awaiting it are techies or people who hate the OS that came with their PC and want something that runs better and is more usable. The vast majority of the later group have machines that came with Windows 8.

Microsoft has taken some advantage of Apple’s stumbles, slips and falls over the course of history and these times may prove to have similar conditions. I’m not a harbinger or anything like that, but I switched to back to Windows in April for a reason. It was mostly a functional change because I liked the features of a Surface Pro 3 verses the best of the best (with a newer processor) that Apple was offering at about $200 more. Also I ended up replacing a iPhone 4 with a Windows Phone a while back. So a lot of the trouble others has getting used to Windows 8 was not something I experienced.

There is a lot a value to the integration of the Windows operating system across platforms, especially for gamers using Xbox but also for business users. Even if you need to keep your present iPhone or Android device, Windows 10 has a phone connection application that works, allowing you to easily transfer your files between devices. That may prove to be one of it’s most immediately ‘cool’ features that people enjoy.

Microsoft embraces the idea that an operating system should be usable for anyone, but they have also focused on creating an piece of software that is essentially the same across every computing device you use. Part of their failure with Windows 8 was trying to force a transition to a UI that was friendly to the mobile devices but also worked on non-touchscreen devices as well. That met with much resistance. Windows 8 and the somewhat corrected Windows 8.1 had many shortcomings for people who use mice and external keyboards. On a tablet like the Surface, Windows 8.1 may actually be the pinnacle achievement in functionality.

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Now we are at the cusp of change once more. Windows 10 is about to release and it promises to be an upgrade packed with a lot of fixes and some new features that merge the best of Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. Having never really used Windows 7 (I was living on the darkside by then) I can only say that Windows 10 returns the start button for those who may have missed it. By the way, do you recall the heat MS took in 1995 when they innovated the start button? How times have changed!

The start menu looks like Windows 8.1, Live tiles work to keep you up-to-date on the status of your news, weather, market and sports apps. And you can switch if you are using a tablet or use the OS in desktop mode.

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I’m using Windows 10 now to access the blogs interface on the Internet, and have a external monitor plugged into my Surface Pro 3’s docking station. Obviously it works. I’m also using Windows Edge, the new, faster browser.

Most of what is different in Windows 10 is how it bridges the gaps in function between Windows 7 and the attempted leap forward with the Windows 8, “Metro” GUI. There were a lot of things I liked about Windows 8 – like the “charms bar”. Many people hated that and I get the reasons why, but it was pretty easy to access with a touch interface the features usually found on top of any open window. I guess the average end-user couldn’t grasp that concept or perhaps it was just ahead of its time. I kind of hope MS brings the charms bar back as an option, but the settings for each application are now displayed across the top of the open Window. There is peace and harmony restored to the PC universe.

As for the rest of Windows 10, I like it. I recommend it. There are still some lingering things that need to be addressed, such as allowing the use of a PIN to log in while in Tablet mode and support for some email servers I use. If you are going to upgrade to Windows 10 you need to rethink things about your expectations of an operating system. As of July 29th, Windows is a service. That means, MS will be responsive – more so – to the feedback they receive from end users. Complain about something enough and, provided others are having a similar problem or need, things will change – hopefully for the better.

As a service, Windows is not really finished and it never will be. It has never been intended to be finished. It is not revolutionary but, instead, evolutionary. Like previous versions of Windows there is continuity with the past but, at the moment, the impending release of Windows is merely a snapshot due to go public next week. In time it will be upgraded whether it is “fast ring “or “slow ring” – terms beta testers understand and, as soon to be end users of Windows 10, you are about to learn all about. This OS will be an evolving entity for at least the next ten years that MS supports it. And it works on machines that support Windows 7 SP1 – so it runs on some pretty old hardware. That in itself is remarkable.

It is offered as free to upgrade from Windows 7 SP1 or Windows 8.1 – for the first full year after official release. So, if you decide to wait and see whether it is worth the time and effort to upgrade, you can. As a continually evolving system it will always be as new as the latest update you download and just as fresh. This will allow the OS to have security features and new integrated applications offered on-the-fly to address changing consumer needs and desires. Yes, in lieu of all that, you give up some of the nice, comforting feel you get from having just installed an operating system from a DVD that you can store on a shelf just in case things go haywire and you need to do a clean install. You can certainly purchase a disc or flash-drive version of Windows 10 but be warned, as soon as you complete an install you will be on the Internet downloading updates. The longer between the creation of the version on your disc and the present, the more updates.

A lot of people, some of them at Microsoft, have called Windows 10 the last version of Windows. With change coming every couple of seconds (if not faster) in the PC world there are always new demands and Windows as a service addresses the critical need for an operating system on your personal computing devices that is agile enough to rapidly adapt. The benefit is that your system will always be up-to-date and more secure than ever before. The downside is that you lose a modicum of control, feeling that you own something when, in fact, you never really did own previous versions of Windows but purchased a license to use software for whatever length of time MS supported it. In essence, nothing has changed except the wording in the End User’s Licensing agreement. From now on, once you upgrade to Windows 10, you will receive periodic updates for the duration of the product’s support period on your machine. You have only the option to select whether it will be done immediately upon receiving the update (fast ring) or sometime within a month of the update’s release (slow ring).

Windows will run on your machine and receive periodic updates for security and additional features you may or may not use. Microsoft is only going to support systems with the latest version of the operating system and despite the blowback they are receiving from some circles of end users, this is actually necessary for all concerned. People with unsecured operating systems threaten to infect everyone else’s computers. Not only that, but they create a lot of headaches for MS customer support.

Operating systems have come and gone but Windows 10 is here to stay for the next ten or so years. I’m excited about where the PC world could be heading. But time will tell, just as it always does, whether the latest and greatest operating system lives up to its potential. Microsoft has disappointed us in the past. My hope is that Windows 10 fulfills all expectations. So far, having used several early variants of it, I like it a lot.

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Yesterday And Today

There are a lot of things going on in my life but only a few of them are about making money. The majority of my time I spend writing or revising things I wrote years ago but never published. No immediate income in any of that. I work part time as a publicist and also at a retail store to help pay bills. When I am home I use a computer for nearly everything I do. Whether it is writing or publicity related to my writing or the other authors who I work with, the speed of my computer – or lack thereof – influences the amount of time I spend sitting at a desk starting at a screen.

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My computer is a 2007 vintage MacBook Pro. Yes, it still works and I have periodically upgraded it to keep the most current operating system on it, though each upgrade had degraded the overall performance of the computer a bit. I think the upgrade to Mountain Lion a couple of years ago was the first time the computer appeared to struggle. When I did that upgrade I needed to upgrade MS Office as well. Office 2011 for Mac is considerably slower than the 2004 version I had been using but MS had stopped supporting it and MAC OS would no longer support the install. Anyway, the combination of the two program upgrades severely slowed my computer’s performance in doing what I do every day.

The computer has a Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 2GB of RAM and a 120GB Hard Drive. All those design features have become limiting for what I do. There have been times that I sit waiting for the words of two sentences to finish typing on the open Word Document. Despite typing every day I do not type fast (maybe 50 or 60 wpm, tops). Also, whenever I launch MS Word it takes over a minute to load and once loaded it is iffy whether I can run any other program (multitasking) without slowing down the typing and editing. Whenever I upload something to the Internet the computer age, speed and local lag delays things. I’m using a 105+ Mbps Internet Connection (sometimes it reaches 130Mbps) so that is not the bottleneck. I did an unscientific study for the past couple of weeks keeping track of how much time it took for me to do certain things with my computer. The determination was that I needed a beefier computer. The trouble is I have a gross absence of funds in my bank account so getting something new or even newer was out of the question. Some of the slowness could be remedied with upgrading the memory to 4 or 6 GB but that would cost around $100 that I just don’t have a don’t feel like investing into a computer that is going on 8 years old.

Sometime ago my son spilled a drink on his 2011 vintage MacBook Pro. It messed up the interconnect not he logic board between the graphics accelerator and the laptop screen. In other words it became unusable as a laptop. However it would still drive a monitor.

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Around that time my son decided he needed something more portable and he migrated to a MS Surface Pro. So his laptop sat around collecting dust. Yesterday I spent a few hours resurrecting it. Although the repair to it would cost well over $600 it works find with a monitor and it is considerably faster than my laptop. It has a Intel I-7 core at 2.2GHZ with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. It’s driving a 24 inch Samsung monitor. So, for the present I am migrating my stuff from my old laptop to the new configuration with my son’s old laptop. I figure this runs as well as a new Mac Mini, perhaps better in some ways.

Anyway, until I get MS office up and running not he new machine, I won’t be editing or revising anything. My license on the other machine has to be deactivated before I can install it on the new machine and the download takes some time…etc. So my immediate plans for the day are to take Rocco, my son’s American bulldog,  for a walk down to the dog park so he can play with his friends. And then I will work on migrating the document files I need from my laptop of the external storage device I’ve been using to supplement the small hard drive on the old laptop. I figure it will take most of the rest of the day. I work tomorrow at my outside job so it will be Monday before I return to revising book one of The Wolfcat Chronicles.

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#computers #MacbookPro #Upgrading

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Geek Week Special: Twenty Years On A Computer, Part 3

As I continued to attend the monthly computer fairs and watch some of the vendors build machines from parts, I was gaining confidence that I could actually do this myself. All I needed to know was what went where and why. Asking a lot of questions of computer savvy people, reading everything I could about PC’s and doing some searching of the forums on Compuserve helped.

Somewhere in that process I actually reconnected with a couple of people I hadn’t spoken to since high school. I learned that since I moved away and pretty much dropped off the face of the earth as far as my classmates were concerned, some people thought I might have died. We exchanged emails for a while and brought one another up to date about life events. Obviously I hadn’t attended any class reunions and that continued into the future as between a father of three, living far enough away that it would require taking time off from work and working for retailer who refused to give me more than one week off at a time combined to making the idea nearly impossible. But I was using the computer in different ways and finding that it was useful.

Also my kids, especially my son, were beginning to take a more active interest in it. So I began to consider upgrading to a new computer and letting my son and daughters have the existing computer. My wife and I discussed it a few times. She suggested saving the money to buy a new one at the store but I was adamantly set on building my own because I believed I could save money and have a much better machine.

For one thing, I wanted to get a bigger monitor. In order to drive that to full color at a high resolution I would need a graphics accelerator with its own memory. I knew what kind of sound card I wanted as well as the processor and amount of RAM. I was looking at the future, running the new operating system everyone at the computer fairs was talking about, so I needed to build a machine that would be designed to run Windows 95.

In April of 1995 my son and I flew down to Florida to visit my parents. While there we spent some time at the amusement parks and went to the beach. It was a father son trip intended to be a bonding experience as my son was approaching nine years old.

When I returned to work I felt as if I were coming down with the flu. The symptoms were so severe that I actually called out sick – which was something I never did before. I had a extremely high fever and couldn’t get out of bed all weekend.

Since I had a heart murmur that was diagnosed when I was in the military my primary care physician was a cardiologist. I knew of the dangers of bacterial infections and always pre-medicated prior to dentist visits. I was very careful. However, while I had been in Florida, I had cut my foot on a sharp rock while at the beach. Through that wound, whether it was while I was in the ocean or in the shower after coming back from the beach, bacteria entered my bloodstream and began attacking my heart valve. After suffering through a weekend, with my elevated fever, at times approaching 104 F, my wife insisted I go to the doctor. They ran some blood tests and immediately sent me to the hospital where I would be treated for a month and eventually have open-heart surgery to replace my defective heart valve. Scary times.

While I was in the hospital there was little else to do than sleep, watch the O.J. Simpson trail on TV or read. Everyone brought magazines and books on computers to the hospital. Quite possibly I learned more about PC’s in that month than at any other period of my life.

When I was finally released I was recovering for a couple of months and had even more time to learn about computers. Once I was allowed to drive again, I attended a computer fair with every intention of buying the components to build my dream computer except when I had someone price that out for me it seemed it was going to cost a lot more than just having someone build a computer for me with the same specifications. I opted for the latter.

When I returned home with the new computer and a 15” monitor I was excited but my wife was less than enthusiastic. She thought it was stupid to have bought a computer the way I had. I should have waited and bought a ‘real’ one, meaning a name brand machine, certainly not a no name clone. Still I was happy for a while. The machine was much faster, sporting a Pentium 100 MHz and 16MB of 66MHz memory and graphic card with 1MB of RAM onboard. It was running Windows 3.11, which was designed for workgroups, something to do with networking which I didn’t intend to do but otherwise the operating system worked the same way.

That machine became my playground for learning everything about repairing, upgrading and replacing components. Systematically I changed out everything on that computer over the next year, except for the motherboard and processor. Always wanting a faster machine, I added memory, switched graphics cards, upgraded the sound card and eventually ordered a 17 inch monitor online that was delivered to my door a few days before Christmas. The kids’ computer received the 15” monitor.

I didn’t upgrade to Windows 95 right away, although I did stand in line outside at CompUSA the night it was released to get my upgrade copy. I had heard it was always wise of wait until the bugs were identified and fixes made. So, I waited a couple of months and read everything I could about the upgrade process and the experiences, good and bad, that people were having with it. Finally, when I felt comfortable that everything would work fine, and that I had the necessary drivers for everything on my computer, I inserted the install disc in my CD-ROM drive and began the process.

At first it went smoothly. After an hour or so my computer was running Windows 95. But not every program I used with Windows 3.11 was functioning properly. Some of the programs that ran in DOS didn’t like the new version of DOS that supported Windows 95. Other programs needed to be upgraded. So it took a few weekends to address the problems. At times I needed to call Microsoft tech support. I took notes. Some of the problems I was experiencing baffled the first level support people so I talked to second level techs at times. Some of the problems were so unique that they called me back when they figured out a work around or a solution.

Microsoft tech support walked me through editing the system registry, exiting out into DOS to use the text editor to rewrite certain system files and even showed me a couple of back doors that I wasn’t supposed to remember – but of course did. Problem-by-problem I received a crash course in computer software troubleshooting and an education directly from Microsoft experts. Eventually, from having so much experience reinstalling everything from a clean format of my hard drive I became something of a Windows 95 guru.

On the hardware side of everything, the only way to make my computer any faster was to upgrade the level two cache memory on the motherboard. It was a minor tweak to the speed but, in addition to upgrading to a 120MHz process – which was the fastest my motherboard would support, I wanted to maximize the performance. So I ordered the computer memory chips for my board along with a tool to extract the old memory chips and install the new ones to take my system from 256 kB to 512 kB.

That upgrade worked well for about an hour before I experienced a system failure from which my computer never recovered. Obviously I had performed the work properly, otherwise the computer would have never rebooted after installing the new cache memory. But something failed. Perhaps the motherboard was never intended to run the things I had installed. Maybe it was just overworked or I caused a hairline stress crack in one of the silicon layers in the process of removing the old cache and installing the new. At any rate, it was pretty clear that I needed to replace my motherboard. So I went to a computer shop with my tower and had them verify that the motherboard was fried. They recommended a new motherboard that would support everything I had already installed but also it would support up to a 200 MHz processor – one that did not yet exist using something called MMX technology.

Although I considered having a go at installing the board myself, I opted to allow professionals do it. It took them less than a hour.

I couldn’t believe how much faster my computer was after changing the motherboard. The memory and processor were the same as was all the component cards. Still it booted up faster and the execution of everything seemed crisper. I used that computer, upgrading the graphics card and sound card again and upgraded the hard drive. But of course when the new MMX enabled processors came out up to speeds of 200MHz, I had to have one of those. And it sort of worked in my motherboard except that the system kept crashing. A phone call to the motherboard manufacturer’s tech support confirmed that although the design supports a 200 MHz processor, it was made prior to Intel actually finalizing the processor design. I was now the proud owner of a processor that didn’t work with my motherboard.

#computers #upgrades #processors #motherboards #technology

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Geek Week Special: Twenty Years On A Computer – Part 2

The computer I’d purchased a few months before became a puzzle to me. When that happened it became an irresistible source of fascination. I’m like that about solving problems. It’s my sort of OCD.

The next time I went to The Wiz to look other games for the kids that would work I decided to hang out and eavesdrop on the conversations between the sales persons and the customers, figuring I might learn something. Whether anyone knew what he or she was talking about was immaterial at that point. If they knew anything about computers they knew more than I did.

At work, when there was a chance, I picked the brains of everyone who owned a personal computer. They told me I needed to defragment my hard drive from time to time and that there was a program in DOS for doing that. Who knew that was important? Also I learned about how HIMEM.SYS, the magical file that loaded at the DOS level during the boot process, would allow Windows to load into upper memory. You see, it was a kind of shell game, actually. Everything had to fit into DOS memory for the computer to be happy, but Windows needed far more than the 640 kBs of room allocated. HIMEM.SYS performed a trick loading a 10 kB flag into DOS memory to redirect Windows into upper memory where it could find enough room but in the profess DOS believed all of it fit neatly into DOS memory. Nice trick.

Around that time was also the first occasion I heard the infamous quote attributed to Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, that he could not conceive of anyone every needing more than 512 kb of memory. Some of that philosophy was related to the laws of the legacy architecture of the first IBM PC.

Yes, it sounds silly, doesn’t it? But that was exactly what was going on. Beneath which shell is the pea hiding? Later on, as Microsoft persisted in their attempts to make a better operating system, this little trick resulted in what became termed a memory leak that necessitated periodic rebooting of the operating system to clear out the flags resident in DOS memory.

There were problems with DOS memory beyond how Windows loaded, though. Because of HIMEM.SYS, loading a DOS game from Windows didn’t work. The program could not access the sound card, for example. So, with games like the Disney one my daughter wanted to use I needed to exit to DOS and load the game there. However, the reason he game was telling me I didn’t have enough memory was because I had to boot up the computer into DOS from the start.

My friends explained that playing with the order of execution of all those strange 8.3 files names that displayed on the screen while booting up in DOS could remedy the problem with my daughter DOS game.

As 1994 wore on, started buying copies of PC Magazine and other publications in more effort to learn everything there is to know about PCs. Also, my wife at the time invited her Korean friend and her American ex-GI husband over to dinner. He was reportedly a computer guru of some kind. If he knew anything at all about DOS he knew more than I did.

He helped me edit the order of execution in AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS and the result gave my daughters game enough memory to play properly. He resolved several other mysteries about how everything worked together as far as the computer was concerned. He invited me to attend a computer fair with him the first weekend of the upcoming month. It was held at a nearby hotel. He promised that I would learn more than I could ever want to know about computer if I went there, watched and learned.

Often since, I’ve wondered if that was the real beginning of my quest for more knowledge, that if I had not gone to the computer fair would I have continued to pursue learning everything I eventually would about computers? I might have found the answers to all my questions in a different way. But the fact was that going there excited me to learn more about building PC’s. That became one of my objectives, actually building my own system from component parts. Still, I knew I had a long way to go before being at that level of skill or understanding.

Also, it was while I was at the show I first learned or other operating systems besides Windows 3.1. There was Windows NT 3.51, OS/2 Warp 3.0 and I heard some talk about a rumored revolutionary new version of Windows that was to-be-released sometime in 1995.

Most of my free time I was converting pages of text into digital files. The scanner worked, sort of. The OCR program was not very accurate, so I ended up editing the ext. So I wants sure how much time it was actually saving me. Eventually I ended up manually transcribing the pages, typing them into a digital format because, in doing so, I could revise what I’d written years ago. I very long and involved process of converting thousands of pages of notes, stores and journals began that would take the next three years or weekends and some vacations.

As the document files grew I noticed how slow my computer really was. Repaginating changes to existing large document files took seconds to complete. So I ended up creating multiple documents, one for each chapter, in an effort to minimize the lag when the document needed to update with any changes I made. Still, it was considerably faster to editing things on the computer than it was to retype a page or cut and paste thing together using scissors and tape. I could already see the potential benefit of a computer for creating a book.

In the next installment, I go from knowing enough about computers to be dangerous to actually learning to build one from scratch, the essential step to becoming a computer technician.

#nostalgic #computers #PC’s #DOS #Windows #computertech

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Geek Week Special: Twenty Years On A Computer – Part 1

As a computer geek I have officially proclaimed this a Geek Week and as such I’ll be posting a nostalgic story about my personal evolution with computers. Some may find the references to older hardware quaint. Others may empathize with my quest for knowledge as I recount going from computer novice to computer guru. But I think anyone who has ever used a personal computer will be able to relate to a lot of this.

Actually, it was twenty and a half years ago that I started to use a personal computer. It’s just that except for playing solitaire most of the time I sat at my desk staring at the Windows 3.1 screen filled with icons wondering why I ever paid $1600 for a machine that substituted for a deck of cards.

I worked in retail management, so I didn’t have a lot of free time anyway. The computer was something I resisted buying for as a long as possible because I’d heard they become obsolete really fast. It was January when my now ex-wife decided we needed to look for a computer, ostensibly for the kids because our son was seven going on eight and our oldest daughter was in kindergarten while my youngest was in preschool. I suppose it sort of made sense. We could foresee that the kids were going to grow up in a world of computers and we wanted them to have every possible advantage in life.

We went to the nearest Nobody Beats The Wiz store in Meriden, CT. It was just a few miles from where we lived in Wallingford. They were having a sale on some things, as always and were offering special financing on their store credit card. We had one of those too. I’d heard about PC’s and Macs, of course. The store carried both platforms. I didn’t have a side in that battle because I never thought I needed a computer. The store carried both so I figured we’d get the story and make a choice.

I liked the way the Macs looked as opposed the variety of PC’s but in my wife’s logic PC’s were better because there was more software titles available. As we perused aisle after aisle of boxes of PC software she continued to make her point. Then she stopped at the section for Mac and pointed out how few the options were, with a waving gesture and a vocalized, “See.”

I shook my head. “It looks to me like everything you need to do on a computer is pretty much covered right here, though.” I pointed out that the couple of software vendors representative supported the Apple platform very well. “I mean how many different word processors do you need for a computer?”

“We need PC. It does Windows.” She explained in her customary truncated way with a Korean accent.  She didn’t see my point.  Neither did she want to acknowledge that Microsoft, the maker of Windows for the PC, was one of the software developers for Macs. Her mind was made up and I knew form experience there wasn’t a point in debating the matter further. The number of software titles available was the only reason we ended up looking at PC’s as opposed to Macs.

ibm_ps1_1s

The salesperson was helpful enough in supporting her cause. Personally he owned a PC and claimed that everyone he knew who had a Mac complained about having compatibility issues with PCs. Then he went over the differences between IBM’s line of computers and the various ‘clones’. “We buy the real thing,” my wife said. So we opted for the IBM Consultant line of computers. There were essentially two models we were deciding between. One sported a zippy new Intel Pentium running at a blistering 60Mhz. The price for the latest system including a 14 inch monitor was $2400. The other was last years state of the art checking in at $1600. I was thinking along the lines of getting the best available because it would have at least a year less obsolescence, but the salesperson said there was a error in the Pentium’s math co-processor. Not that it was really going to cause any problems for anyone using it for a home computer but that soured my wife on the Pentium. Also she saw the Intel 486 25MHz model as a viable alternative, kind of ‘on sale’. It looked almost exactly like the Pentium model, ran all the same software and it could be upgraded with a chip to run at 50 MHz. In fact, the salesperson explained we could upgrade the modem from 300 baud to the lasted thing which was a 28,800 bps deluxe modem – except that he said the fasted online services available used either 9,600 or 14,400. The system came with 4MB of RAM and a 170MB hard drive. The RAM could be upgraded as could the hard drive, the salesperson explained, but the system used something called disc compression to more efficiently use its space so it was like having 240 MB of room.

All those numbers and options swirled around in my head. At the time I barely knew anything about computers. When I was in college we used mainframes to write batch programs on punch cards. Right before I graduated the upperclassmen in computer science were allowed to use the CRT terminals to process their programs. I had been pretty good at writing programs, though. So I sort of fancied the idea of maybe buying the software for writing programs for a PC and selling them on the side.

We got the system home, unpacked, hooked up and I turned it on. It booted up successfully to the Windows screen. Success! Now what?

“You figure out,” my wife said. “You show kids.”

Six months after the purchase, I was still trying to figure out a lot of things about the computer. For one, why did I needed AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve? Couldn’t I just use one or the other of them for connecting to this thing called The Internet so I could start sending and receiving emails? Oh, and by the way, who was I supposed to be sending emails to anyway? Except for a few guys at work, I didn’t know anyone who had a computer. Which one of the online services was better? That was the essence of my dilemma. The few times I had been online using Prodigy, I noticed how slow things seemed. I tired AOL but couldn’t figure out how to use it. And Compuserve had all these things called Forums that I didn’t understand.

I mentioned to one of my computer savvy friends at work how slow my computer seemed when it was connected online. He told me to upgrade to a 14,400 bps modem. He said 28,800 was wasting my money since no one used that yet. And the best thing about the faster modems was that they could be used for faxing things in a snap. I could create faxes on the computer and send them out. Oh, and I could buy a scanner and use that along with a printer and my PC would act just like a fax machine.

So, I paid $1600 for a deck of cards and a fax machine. What else could this thing do that was useful?

Somewhere along the line I noticed a word processor was included in a program called Microsoft Works. My friend at work told me Works was an office program for homeowners. He said businesses use programs like Lotus 1,2,3 or Office. The idea occurred to me that something I could do with my computer was take those boxes of typed pages that I had produced in my effort to write the great American novel and somehow convert them into files stored on the computer. That way I edit them without literally cutting and pasting paper. Yeah, that was how editing was done back in the day, you know? Finally, there was something sort of useful I can do with this $1600 machine.

The kids for whom the PC was originally purchased had watched me use it a couple of times. My son played solitaire on it. The girls weren’t very interested in sitting in one place long enough to learn much about it. None of them were yet using computers int he classroom. My boy expressed interest in playing some video games if I’d install them. The ones he wanted said they’d work on the computer.

I took a vacation week in the middle of the summer. It was a slower time of year for my departments, so they wouldn’t miss me much at the store. I decided to return to The Wiz and ask a bunch of questions and make my computer useful. First order of business was upgrading the hardware as much as possible. Second was buying some software to entice the kids to using it. Third was getting a printer and maybe a scanner because my wife was thinking about starting a business and she could use the computer for sending and receiving faxes.Also someone at work said there was a way of scanning a page of text and having the computer convert it into a digital file using optical character recognition. I wanted to do that to all those typewritten pages.

When I arrived at The Wiz I looked for my salesperson from months ago, but it was his day off. His boss was there, though. We talked about modems first. His take on it made some sense. Eventually everyone will be using 28,800 and it wasn’t that much more expensive Also adding in the extra memory would make the computer faster as well as dropping in the DX2 math coprocessor that make my machine purr at 50MHz. Oh and there was a 540MB hard drive available. I could have plenty of room for storing all the files I’d be creating with my scanner as well as the new ones I’d be writing. There would even be enough room for storing all my wife’s business stuff for whenever she decided what sort of business she wanted to start.

Oh yes, I bought some games. I needed to get the kids using the computer. After all, wasn’t that why we bought the thing int he first place?

After spending a lot of money that first day of my vacation I had a whole week to get all that stuff installed and working. The memory turned out to be a snap, literally. With the system restoration disks that came with my computer the manager at The Wiz assured me that installing the larger hard drive would be a breeze, especially since I had next to nothing stored on my original hard drive. He suggested I keep it in a drawer just in case the new hard drive ever crashed. I could boot up the system with that. Although it took a while to feed in all those floppy disks in the proper order the hard drive install proved to be simple as well. Getting the printer installed wasn’t that hard either. The scanner, however, took a phone call to IBM tech support. They walked me through doing it, for a fee, of course. It required adjusting some things in what they called BIOS and to do that I had to enter the dreaded Setup Menu that they warned me never to enter unless I was talking to someone in tech support.

After all that, I figured I was pretty savvy. I was ready to tackle the modem install. It said int he instruction that it should be pretty easy. Just set it up the same way as the existing modem. Well, it wasn’t that simple. It urned into a major pain in the butt.

Adamantly I refused to call IBM tech support again because paying for them to explain how to do something that should be user friendly seemed absurd. After all, once they explained about the serial and parallel ports on my machine and something about the COM Port in BIOS, I was able to get the scanner working along with the printer.

My stubbornness persisted for much of the rest of the week as each day I’d wake up and wrestle with different ideas of how to get the modem working. It seemed so simple in the instructions but what it said in the manual wasn’t working at all. I resorted to calling the modem manufacture’s tech support, seeing as it was their product I was installing and tech support for that should be free fir the first month, right? After trying a few things, changing some jumper settings not he card, they gave up, punting to IBM because, according to the the guy on the phone, everything should be working so there much be some conflict, maybe between IRQ’s – whatever those were.

Well, after a week of frustration with this faster modem thing and getting it to plug into properly to what I now considered a made-for-adults puzzle, I was ready to pay the money to learn the secret. IBM tech support confirmed it was an IRQ (Interrupt Request) setting that needed to be adjusted. Also, they explained that since we had changed settings to install the scanner and printer I needed to reassign the COM ports on the modem. It sounded complicated, but tech support told me how to get into the system setup menu in BIOS again make some changes and, once I did that, everything worked.

You’d think that I’d never want to crack open the case again, just leave good enough alone. But after learning how to tweak things a bit I was hooked. I had made my machine significantly faster while upgrading its storage capacity and made it more functional – even if a month after all the expensive upgrades no one but me was using anything I’d installed – except my oldest daughter had tried using the Disney software in DOS that, despite my having installed more memory continued to tell her she was out of memory. Every time she wanted to play the game I had to close out of Windows and reboot into DOS. Sometimes it would play fine but other times it would not.

After asking my friend at work about it he explained how DOS memory worked and that I needed to edit my AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS to free up memory. Just when I thought I’d figured out everything about my computer, now there was this new wrinkle. Pursuing the solution would take me on an adventure that continued for years. Ever in pursuit of a more powerful computer to do this or that better than my old one, at the end of the journey I became a self-taught computer technician…and that’s another story for next time.

#personalcomputers #computers #geeks #Windows #DOS #upgrades