Venturing into Vista, part 7: more hub, inventory, and 7

Disclaimer: what I write here is NOT in any way intended to endorse, advertise, promote, or put down any commercial or other products. Anything which might be construed as critical may be based on situations and circumstances which do not apply to anything or anyone else, so please don’t feel maligned or assume I’m looking for a fight. Opinions are mine alone and may be under/mis-informed, just like everyone else’s opinions, which is why I’m writing this on my blog and not the Computer Helpers blog.

This series is the result of a search for a Vista-based laptop in April and May of 2008 and what transpires after that. All this information is subject to being outdated, limited, or highly debatable.

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Another update to this series, just in case anyone is following:

USB HUB

As mentioned earlier, I got a USB hub to plug into my router.  This is a wired hub, so it has to be connected with wires to the printers, but I go through the wireless router for laptop access and wired access to the router for desktop access.  It’s a Belkin F5L009 (which may or may not be available now but still has drivers and such for it available on the Belkin site).

I’ve switched my freeware firewall from Comodo to Zone Alarm on the laptop.  While both of them allow for adding the hub’s address to automatically allow it, the performance is more erratic in permitting access to it with Comodo.  It’s not quite perfect on Zone Alarm (especially after a reboot) but it seems to work more often.

I’ve been able to use it with Canon printers and a Seiko label maker, on Vista 64-bit (laptop) and Windows XP (desktop).

Readerware

One of the few pieces of software that I’ve paid for on my laptop is Readerware, which allows you to catalog your books/audio/video (any or all, depending on the modules you buy.

This is an easy way to catalog your collection, and you can just use the ISBN or click-and-drag from a number of sites into Readerware and it copies all the data in.  Covers, songs listed for CDs, other information.  Very handy and in my case, worth the price.

The latest update had a problem with Vista 64-bit , as it didn’t let me drag a link from a resource such as Amazon into the product.  I got a quick response from the vendor, and installed the 32-bit version instead.  Apparently, the 64-bit version chokes on administrator privileges for your browser (if you’re not running your browser as an administrator — which I normally don’t, since it’s not as safe — you can’t drag the link from it).  So, the 32-bit version is a work-around until this is solved.  I’m back to using the program again.

Windows 7 upgrade?

Now that Windows 7 is out, I’m asking myself, do I want to upgrade to that on my laptop?  Some nice features are touted on 7, but how vital would they be now that I have Vista running decently?  7 is supposed to be faster, of course, which might be a reason in itself.

7 also has XP mode in the more expensive versions, but only if you have the proper type of CPU (which my laptop does not).  That means that I’d have to upgrade my CPU (which is possible in this laptop) to take advantage of that.

I may wait for at least the first service pack for 7 before thinking too hard about that.

 

Venturing into Vista, Part 6: more hardware

Disclaimer: what I write here is NOT in any way intended to endorse, advertise, promote, or put down any commercial or other products. Anything which might be construed as critical may be based on situations and circumstances which do not apply to anything or anyone else, so please don’t feel maligned or assume I’m looking for a fight. Opinions are mine alone and may be under/mis-informed, just like everyone else’s opinions, which is why I’m writing this on my blog and not the Computer Helpers blog.

This series is the result of a search for a Vista-based laptop in April and May of 2008 and what transpires after that. All this information is subject to being outdated, limited, or highly debatable.

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I’m just sticking with doing links if somebody wants to know the exact brand/model of hardware I got.  As the disclaimer above says, this blog is not for advertising commercial products, just reporting and passing along advice.

External Hard Drive

So, I added an external hard drive with 500GB and an eSATA connection, for backups.  So far, I’ve reformatted it to NTFS (since that is the only format Vista can boot from) and done some simple backups.  I’m still looking for a good imaging program, in hopes of creating a bootable external drive in case I need one, but Cobian Backup is managing for the time being to preserve data.

External hard drives are a challenge to buy, because you have a lot of consumer comments shown about failures.  In fact, I even considered buying a highly rated internal drive, then putting it in an external drive mounting, in hopes of getting something more reliable.  But, the external boxes didn’t seem to have much in the way of the eSATA connections, and USB/Firewire are reported to be slower.

Of course, to be fair to the hardware, you sometimes see somebody admit that the reason they might be having trouble is that they “dropped it just once” and their external drive failed.  Let’s face it, these are still delicate pieces of equipment, especially when they are running, and subject to a lot more vibration when in little cases than inside large CPU housings.

I did run a cord across the floor — much as I hate to — to run the external hard drive off my UPS power supply, since a power failure was sometimes reported to mess up such drives.  But, I don’t use it all the time, so I can pick up the cord when not in use.

USB network hub

While there are printer servers for home networks, they have a lot of compatibility problems reported.  I elected to go a different way by adding a USB hub that worked on a network.  The one I ended up with was touted by users as being compatible with Vista 64-bit and with multi-function printer/scanners, which was just what I needed.  The manufacturer’s info didn’t have as much on Vista 64-bit (at least, out front or on the packaging), so the comments helped.

Of course, the CD that came with it wouldn’t run on Vista 64-bit, reporting an incompatible version of Windows, but I went to the manufacturers site and got the updated driver, which installed nicely.  Shortly I was able to print through the network to my printer without shlepping a long USB cable across the floor from my laptop to the printer (well, okay, I draped it across a door and along a wall to the router instead…  got to work out something more esthetic than that).

As more and more 64-bit systems are out there, manufacturers are putting out updated drivers for downloading.  Anyone who can’t get the hardware to work from the included software (and how long ago was that CD made?  Was Vista even out at that point?) may still be able to get a download that will run on Vista 64-bit.

HDMI

I found a cheap source for a decent HDMI cable, and ran it across the floor, under the TV cabinet, and up into the TV.  What do you know — my laptop sends HDMI video very nicely to my TV.  I’ll have to use separate cables if I want to bother with sound, of course, but it came out very well, and very large.  Mind, I do not have an HDMI drive, so it’s just sending regular output, but it works through the cable.

Venturing into Vista 5: Tweaks, software, and 64 bits

Disclaimer: what I write here is NOT in any way intended to endorse, advertise, promote, or put down any commercial or other products. Anything which might be construed as critical may be based on situations and circumstances which do not apply to anything or anyone else, so please don’t feel maligned or assume I’m looking for a fight. Opinions are mine alone and may be under/mis-informed, just like everyone else’s opinions, which is why I’m writing this on my blog and not the Computer Helpers blog.

This series is the result of a search for a Vista-based laptop in April and May of 2008 and what transpires after that. All this information is subject to being outdated, limited, or highly debatable.

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Ed Bott blogs in Fixing Windows Vista, part 3:

I believe you have every right to expect excellent performance from Windows Vista, and I’m going to back that conclusion in today’s post, the latest in my Fixing Vista series, with details on how to use Vista’s built-in tools to find and fix the problems that stand between you and an excellent Vista experience. Specifically, I believe all of the following statements should be true:

  • On a new PC built with up-to-date hardware, Windows Vista should start up in a minute or less and shut down in 30 seconds or less.
  • Video performance and audio playback should be smooth and glitch-free.
  • Programs should open quickly and do their work without affecting your ability to perform other tasks.
  • File transfer speeds should be limited only by the capabilities of your hardware (disk, controller, and network).
  • System crashes should be nonexistent, and application crashes should hang the faulting program only, without affecting other programs.

If any of those conditions fail, you have a PC that needs fixing. Despite what you might read from self-proclaimed experts, there is no secret formula, magic bullet, or special MakeRocketShipGoFast registry hack that will suddenly send your system zooming into warp speed, nor do you need third-party diagnostic or repair software. Instead, the formula for getting excellent performance out of a Windows Vista PC is much more prosaic: start with quality components, make sure every piece of hardware has the right drivers and every piece of software is up to date, and fix any performance bottlenecks.”

Wow, major encouragement from the ZDNet blogger.

I tried some of the tweaks suggested and they did help speed things up a bit.  What worked for me, however, might not apply to everyone, so people can take advantage of all the tips posted on Computer Helpers for Vista.  For example, a lot of people turn off the Vista Sidebar.  I decided to keep it up, especially for watching the CPU and memory gauges, to see how activities impact them — which may not interest some users.

So far, my personal experience with 64 bit Vista on this laptop has been a little mixed, but with some tweaking, it actually seems to be fairly decent, aside from one login problem.

Learning Logins the Hard Way

I do have one VERY strong suggestion for everybody: have more than one login with administrator privileges – on any Windows version. Somehow, less than a month and a half after getting this laptop, I found myself locked out when the only login I had created so far somehow had the password file corrupted.

All the built-in Vista helps for problems are based on the idea that you can at least log in!

I ended up interrupting the boot-up and going in through DOS (good ol’ text-based DOS). I saved off the crucial stuff and then re-installed Vista. I could have chosen 32 bit Vista instead of 64 bit at that point – the Vista CD included with my laptop allowed it — but I decided to stick with the 64 bit just to see how far I could go with it.  Not everyone will have that option, or feel confident in taking it.  Plus, 64-bit is supposed to be the future… or so some experts are saying.

The re-installation did not remove all the stuff I had, except the material in the existing login — that disappeared. Since that included the My Documents directory and such, which is the usual default location for programs to save to, I would have lost everything there if I hadn’t known to save that off beforehand.

Be assured that I now have several logins with administrator privileges, so I can get in through another if one gets the password messed up. I don’t know if that was a Vista thing or a hardware thing or what, so I’m not going to place blame at this point.

Software the Freeware Way

I wanted to see just how far I could go using freeware (legally free software). Actually, I’ve been doing pretty well.

There’s freeware (totally free, perhaps requiring only registration), and there’s open source (meaning lots of people work on it, and while it’s not necessarily free, it usually is), and there’s shareware (which is pay software you get to try out first, with varying levels of protection to encourage payment — time limits on functions, or limited functions, or just the honor system), and there are demos (usually time-limited, often function-limited, pay versions of commercial programs). I’m trying to see how far I can go with freeware.

Before anything else, I needed security software.  I didn’t want to spend any extra time online, or get any other software, until I had protection.

Anti-Virus

First, since it’s risky on the Internet, I went for Avira AntiVir Personal as my anti-virus. It comes very highly recommended, and it does updates just about every time I boot up online. There’s a nag screen about upgrading to the pay version while it does regular updates, but you can close it, and that’s all.

Now, there’s some talk on the Web about not using anti-virus, that it’s not perfect and doesn’t stop everything, that just being careful is enough…. but I get a flu shot every year and that’s not 100% guaranteed to protect me from every kind of flu, either. I just like all the protection I can reasonably get.

A computer just sitting can be infected within a few hours of being connected to the net, if not protected. There’s rogue software out there roaming around, looking for vulnerable computers. The original sender may never know I exist, but some software robot might attack me even during the relatively short periods I am online, so I want protection. Also, even some otherwise trustworthy big name web sites have found malware has been slipped onto their pages and infected customers, just because they didn’t take enough precautions — so customers need to take them instead. And there’s email, and the software I try out, and lots of other attack vectors.

Some people are worried about the “hit” in performance they might be taking by using anti-virus.  ZDNet blogger Adrian Kingsley-Hughes ran his own tests and the results were interesting:

“The results here are quite staggering. While the effect that VIPRE had on system performance was indeed minimal (in the region of 1.5% to 2.0% for the 32-bit system, and around 0.5% for the 64-bit system), Kaspersky AntiVirus 2007 had a much larger effect (in the region of 15% for the 32-bit system, and around 8% for the 64-bit system), while Norton AntiVirus 2008 hit the system even harder (about 19% for the 32-bit system, and 12% for the 64-bit system).”

In other words, it’s more a function of the specific program you’re using than just anti-virus protection in general.  Norton is a heavily-promoted, often pre-installed as shareware, kind of program, and it seems to have the hardest impact on performance.  No wonder people worry if they’re getting 12 to 19% penalties for using Norton.  No wonder I don’t use Norton (I mentioned earlier that old experience has soured me on it).  I have no idea what kind of penalty I am paying, but I doubt that it reaches that level!  I can easily stand the more normal half-a-percent on my 64-bit system (or whatever little bit Avira needs).

Firewall

A firewall keeps stuff from coming in, and more importantly, checks with you before letting anything go out (such as stuff that might be sent out by a virus or something to steal your credit card numbers or whatever).  Granted, firewalls constantly popping up for a while after a new program is installed (to check on giving it permission to access the web) can be a nuisance, but if you can put up with teaching your firewall what to trust, you can stay a lot safer.

I went with Comodo as my firewall, although I’d been using ZoneAlarm on my older XP desktop, and that had done well by me.  Comodo comes well recommended, however, and I allowd it to run a scan on my system after installation when it asked.

SURPRISE! I was ALREADY infected with malware! It found several files of a particular program, rpcnetp.exe and rpcnetp.dll, which a quick search on the Web confirmed that, indeed, it was malware intended to spy on me.  Maybe it was just to collect advertising statistics or something, but I don’t need it doing that (and I don’t care what some sneaky advertisers need) so Comodo got permission from me to wipe it out. Apparently, this was in one of the programs that came with the system (maybe some of the trial software). That’s a bit scary — maybe not unusual, but scary.

Having configured all this, I wanted to check my security before I went any further.

I used the ShieldsUp! web site which runs tests on your router, your security, and your firewall. Passed with solid protection on all tests, so I felt more confident going out for more software.

Malware Detection / Prevention

Vista comes with Windows Defender, which has been widely attacked as not being enough.  I wanted at least one other program for this.

There are lots of programs available, and some of them are actually malware in disguise. I stuck with a standard — Ad-Aware — and got from the site of the company that owns it. I took the freeware version, but there is a pay version offered on the same page.

Now, I needed some practical software.

WordPad or Else

I wanted something a little more powerful than the regular WordPad type of text editor, so I went to one that I’d already been using called Jarte. This has a freeware and a pay version, but the freeware version alone is powerful — you can get a 100,000-plus word document in it, but it loads fast and has a reasonable amount of features.

Office Suite

Of course, sometimes you just need something more powerful, in the form of some kind of Office suite of programs. I got the latest enhanced version of OpenOffice, which is called OxygenOffice Professional. This is OpenOffice but with more extras like templates, cliparts, samples, fonts and VBA support.

It boasts that it is compatible with all other major office suites like Microsoft Office and StarOffice, meaning that I can take a Microsoft Office document or spreadsheet and use it in OxygenOffice, and save it to a format that MS Office can read when I move it back.

More importantly, it has new and updated import filters like Office Open XML (Microsoft Office 2007), Works, WordPerfect, WordPerfect Graphic, T602 import filters. That means that I can use my old WordPerfect files with this, too (and I have a bunch of those), even the .wpg graphics. I included instructions on the proper file to download in the Computer Helpers blog.

I’ve seen some reports that in going back and forth, OpenOffice/OxygenOffice may not be perfect in holding to Microsoft Office formatting in some cases, but since I’m not doing anything too fancy, I expect I’ll be fairly safe. I have this for spreadsheets, presentations (read “PowerPoint”) and the like.

Browsers

The Vista came with the 64 bit version of Internet Explorer 7. Of course, preferring Firefox, I got that and soon upgraded it to the new Firefox 3 when it came out in the final release. I need my Firefox add-ons! I had to get new versions of many of them, compatible with the new release.

I admit freely that I prefer Firefox. It’s more secure than IE (yes, yes, yes — I know that Microsoft trumpets loudly every time one bug or security hole is found — but Mozilla gets Firefox fixed within a week to a week-and-a-half, while Microsoft has problems dating back months sometimes). It follows web standards (although Microsoft finally is going to start doing that better in the coming IE 8, they say). And it doesn’t get broken every month by the latest batch of patches, so it doesn’t suddenly stop printing or displaying or whatever for a given website.

Firefox, it seems, can have a lot more people working on it and fixing it (interested part-timers in addition to the full-time Mozilla staff) than Microsoft is paying to do just Internet Explorer, which is a big advantage right there.

Firefox has become popular among a lot of IT (Information Technology) professionals, not to mention libraries and other educational institutions.

Yes, I have tried IE (early on, and continued through version 7). Naturally I keep it updated and available, since Microsoft has gotten some websites to set up only for IE use (although I can often use IE Tab plugin for Firefox to see them).  I used Netscape in preference over IE before Firefox came along.

I still prefer Firefox for everyday use, in large part because it gives me control instead of assuming things for me and not letting me do things differently if I prefer, and because it has a growing list of potential add-ons.

E-Mail

Popular as Microsoft Outlook is, it is also the target of a lot of illicit attacks, and it is a pay program for the full version.

I stayed with Mozilla’s Thunderbird, which is useful for my UA Fort Smith e-mail via LionsLink, my Google Gmail, and my cable company email. I use it at work, too. Again, very functional and has a number of add-ons for it to increase abilities.

I could have gone to Gmail alone, but frankly, I prefer folders to Gmail’s tag system. Folders are much neater if you retain a lot of email, and I like to retain email from a long way back: online orders, software information, and all sorts of regular personal and professional correspondence.

Also, an email program on my own computer, unlike something always online, is harder to attack during the relatively short periods that I am connected with my laptop.

Graphics

Vista has a Snipping Tool in the Accessories, which can be added to the Quick Launch toolbar (the left side of the toolbar, just right of the Windows Start button). This lets you select part of the screen, add lines, save as a file or paste into an application. That’s a nice upgrade to the old PrintScreen function.  I might not need an additional program as I did in the past, at least for a while.  I set it to have it handy in the Sidebar and in the Vista toolbar.

I’ve been using Google’s SketchUp program a lot on the laptop, which works fine on Vista 64 bit (although you do need your video card drivers pretty up-to-date). This is a very useful 3-D modeling program. I notice that as I add detail, the redrawing function slows down some, but that’s probably to be expected.

So far, I haven’t had a need for a more general program, but there are plenty of them out there, so I’m not too worried about that.

PDF viewer

Adobe Acrobat Reader is free, but it’s increasingly large and slower to load. I decided to try an alternate program called PDF XChange Viewer, also freeware. Since I’m just viewing, not creating, PDF files, this seems to be doing just fine and loads quickly.

Financial

I’ve used Microsoft Money, I’m currently using a paid-for Quicken on my XP desktop, because I’m printing my checks from the computer (saves me from most mistakes, helps keep a balance and reconcile my statements, etc.).  I’m looking for freeware that will allow the same thing.  The answer might be GnuCash, but I’ll have to test it out.  It says it can handle the Quicken check-printing format, so that looks promising.

Utilities

I also used one of the Computer Helpers posts to create a more convenient Restore Point icon since Vista buries the Restore Point several menus down (which is odd, since Microsoft recommends using Restore Points often to get back to past conditions, in case new upgrades or software messes something up).  I stuck it in the Vista Sidebar to keep it handy.

Backup

I’m still looking for an imaging program that works reliably on Vista.  Acronis True Image seemed to have a lot of complaints on the forums about misbehaving at this point (either a latest version thing or a Vista thing, it’s hard to tell).   Freeware DriveImage XML is not available yet, as far as I can tell, for the 64-bit Vista (although it is for the 32-bit).  Drive imagers reportedly need some tweaking to clone Vista anyway.

Meanwhile, I’ll probably add the latest version 9 of Cobian Backup and handle the crucial files that way, at least.

Pay Programs

Okay, sometimes you pay for software just because it works better with what you have (such as 64 bit Vista), or because it is easier, or whatever.

Here’s what I’ve been willing to pay for, that still works on 64 bit Vista so far.

Readerware

I’ve used some other software for cataloging books/audio/video, but I switched to this and aside from minor quibbles, I’m doing well.  I had it on my XP desktop, and now I’ve moved it to the laptop.

Readerware is a powerful but flexible database for keeping track of your books, your sound media, and your video media (CDs, cassettes, records, VHS, DVD, etc.).

It even has a checkout feature if you loan stuff.

You can buy modules for books, for audio, and for video separately, or as a package. There’s a forum and the creator is open for suggestions.

You can get a one-person version for well under $100, and also a version that works with Palm handhelds so you can carry the data with you. The client/server version costs more, but still not bad.

Since my favorite database software (filePro Plus, if you must know) dropped behind the times (in my opinion) by staying largely text-based, I decided to find something cheaper to upgrade that would do the job while letting me easily import data such as covers, reviews, and other details. Readerware lets you import from Amazon, IMDB, and a number of other sources so you don’t have to copy everything over by hand, including the covers.  Amazon often provides the song listing for CDs, and IMDB has cast lists for videos, and they import (although you might lose a little detail in the process, it’s a good starting point).

Virtual CD

I wanted to be able to copy games and DVDs to my laptop hard drive to take with me, or use anytime without having to haul around the discs. That meant a virtual CD program, but I needed it to run on 64 bit Vista. Virtual CD was advertising that it had a Vista-certified driver for 64 bit, but I didn’t find a virtual cd freeware program that advertised the same, or seemed to be as easy to use.

Virtual CD allows you 30 days to try it out, and then pay for it. Load the crucial CD that your game or whatever demands using Virtual CD, then click on the program’s regular icon, and it should — usually — act as if the proper CD was loaded in your regular CD drive.

Of course, a number of things don’t like the 64 bit system (or is it that the 64 bit system doesn’t like them?). That’s when you go searching around the Web to see if somebody else found a solution. Sometimes there is one, and sometimes it’s one you can use. My games tend to be antiques from the cheap display shelves, so not all of them are going to work, or work well, but I didn’t lose too many.

I still haven’t tried out much with this one, and some of the software I loaded Virtual CD reported as having bad sectors on the CDs, so I might get some crashes. I’ll have to experiment.

That’s the starting lineup on software.

Venturing into Vista 4: Home Network

Disclaimer: what I write here is NOT in any way intended to endorse, advertise, promote, or put down any commercial or other products. Anything which might be construed as critical may be based on situations and circumstances which do not apply to anything or anyone else, so please don’t feel maligned or assume I’m looking for a fight. Opinions are mine alone and may be under/mis-informed, just like everyone else’s opinions, which is why I’m writing this on my blog and not the Computer Helpers blog.

This series is the result of a search for a Vista-based laptop in April and May of 2008. All this information is subject to being outdated, limited, or highly debatable.

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I matched the laptop’s networking abilities to a wireless router.

Now, I wanted a router that had both wired (for my old desktop PC) and wireless (for the laptop) abilities.

I ended up with a well-known brand model, based on several reasons. You might prefer something else, and that’s fine. Some people won’t have this or that brand as a gift, due to bad experiences, and swear by something else — and person A and person B can have absolutely opposite opinions on that basis. This makes it hard to choose going by reviews and customer feedback, so I figured out my own method.

First: The one I chose had the two methods (wired and wireless).

Second: It handled all the standard specifications:

  • Delivers up to 14x faster speeds* and 6x farther range* than 802.11g means Greater Coverage for Your Entire Home or Office [this is hype for the n wireless standard]
  • Ideal for streaming HD video or streaming multiple applications simultaneously
  • Intelligent QoS technology prioritizes both wired and wireless Internet traffic to enable enhanced gaming and phone calling (VoIP) experience
  • Gigabit Ports for Incredible Wired Network Speeds
  • Dual active firewall protection (SPI & NAT) helps block malicious attacks on networks from the Internet.

Technical Details

  • Device Type: Wireless Router
  • Form Factor: Desktop
  • Wireless Network Standards: IEEE 802.11g
  • Wireless Network Standards: IEEE 802.11b
  • Wireless Network Standards: IEEE 802.11n [actually a “draft” version, which we all hope will match this in the final version]
  • Wireless Data Transfer Rates: 300 Mbps
  • Security Protocols: WPA
  • Security Protocols: 128-bit WEP
  • Security Protocols: 64-bit WEP
  • Security Protocols: WPA2 [and this is VITAL, as it is the highest current standard of security available for home networks, and I would not settle for less — WEP is weak and outdated, WPA is outdated]
  • Networking Standards: IEEE 802.3ab Gigabit Ethernet [the Gigabit is faster, but not essential]
  • Networking Standards: IEEE 802.3 Ethernet 10Base-T
  • Routing / Firewall Protoccols: DHCP

I kept finding reviews by users that said this or that model of router had died on them. Not encouraging. Of course, it might also mean they forgot to protect their router with surge protection on both the electrical power and the incoming signal (in my case, cable).

So, Third: I used both the store’s owner reviews and Amazon’s owner reviews, until I found a router that met my requirements and had the highest owner approval level I could get on both sites. Amazon is tougher than the store (wider range of users, perhaps, as well as more of them), plus I think Amazon may carry some models longer than some stores, so accumulates more feedback.  You might prefer to use a more specialized source of feedback.

Result was the router I picked, which had the best customer feedback for the ones which I could buy locally. Not perfect (nobody was perfect) but best overall. If everybody’s whatever was bad, then everybody was equal on that aspect.  Bear in mind that the people most likely to post may often be the ones who are unhappy, in some respect. Consider the other factors.

Routers don’t have service plans (at least at this store) so I might have saved some money waiting for a router to ship, but I wanted to get to using the system right away.

I had to replace the wires that came with the router (the router is not the newest model, and came with Category 5 wiring — today you need to use at least 5e or 6 for quality and speed). TV/Internet cable goes to my cable modem, Cat 6 wire to the router, and Cat 5e to my old desktop (that Cat6 is pricey!). There are 3 antennae, and you twist them to stick out at whatever turns out to be the optimum angles for your house.

I was thinking that configuring this setup would be the tough part, and I’d read differing stories about that. Here, however, I got a fairly pleasant experience.

The router came with a freeware program called Network Magic, which includes a trial version of the pay product upgrade. Not only can I recommend it as a freeware product, but the next upgrade version (“Essentials”) isn’t too expensive, and you might get all you need from it in during the 7 days period. It set me up pretty quickly and painlessly, using my old XP system. This software is designed for a lot of different brands and models, so if you have something else, it still might be useful if you’re having a hard time getting set up.

Then I used the same software for the laptop, and since I’d already set up a lot of the basics, I could concentrate on doing the wireless security.

I also used a freeware (for personal use) product called NetSetMan which lets you save network settings for different networks and lets you switch to the one you need. I saved my home network configuration in that.

I set up for WPA2 security, and made sure my passwords were nice and long and nonsensical, which I preserved in my KeePass file. KeePass, of course, could generate long nonsense passwords for me quite easily. (Check my tutorial on it.)

I noticed that I have some other networks in the neighborhood which are not secured as well, since they showed up that way in my list of available networks. Wonder how I appear to them? Relatively impregnable, I hope. My laptop keeps offering to have me join one of them when I boot up, and it’s tempting, but I resist. I might consider notifying the neighbors that I can see them. First, though, I’ll make sure I’m secure before I start warning anybody else.

There’s a practice called wardriving, which involves driving around trying to find other people’s networks. Sometimes this is done just to steal the service, and sometimes it’s to break into those networks and steal or damage data. I don’t want to leave any opening for that kind of thing if somebody comes past my house.

I wanted to share printers via the network, and that gets more complicated. For one thing, I need to have those Vista 64-bit compatible drivers on my laptop, and I have to go to manufacturer’s sites to get those. Some of the advice on getting them to work gets rather complex, too. More on that later.

Venturing into Vista 3: Hardware

Disclaimer: what I write here is NOT in any way intended to endorse, advertise, promote, or put down any commercial or other product. Anything which might be construed as critical may be based on situations and circumstances which do not apply to anything or anyone else, so please don’t feel maligned or assume I’m looking for a fight. Opinions are mine alone and may be under/mis-informed, just like everyone else’s opinions, which is why I’m writing this on my blog and not the Computer Helpers blog.

This series is the result of a search for a Vista-based laptop in April and May of 2008. All this information is subject to being outdated, limited, or highly debatable.

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Okay, I made the final decision and bought a laptop, and a wireless router. I will have to figure out an external backup drive later — that’s another research project in itself, but important.

I used a store offer that allows me 18 months interest-free to pay it off, before all the interest comes crashing back down on me. That should be a practical period of time. I did this by applying on the same day for a credit card for the store.  This is a nice incentive by the store, but you have to be careful that you can pay everything before the deadline.

The important thing to remember (aside from paying this off before the deadline) is that if I charge anything else, I may find that any payment goes to pay off the 18-month stuff first, before it pays off the new stuff for which I’m being charged normal interest. That means that I would have to pay off the big bill while paying interest on later purchases.  So, no using the card again for 18 months, at least. It depends on the details of the offer, so read the fine print, people, whomever you deal with.

The Winning Choice (for me, anyway)

I finally settled on a laptop of a famous brand which is actually a surprise for me, since this brand of desktops have had their ups and downs on campus (they started up, and went down, and we haven’t used them for some years).  I won’t name it up front here, as this is not a promotional site, but the basis for choosing it is covered hereafter.

I found a review from ZDNet which is pretty favorable. A little condescending, but favorable.  A few others were around, but it was a very recent release so it didn’t have a lot of coverage yet.  I also went by the reviews of the model just before it, and what people wanted improved in that older model — did the new one deal with those complaints?

WARNING: this is not intended as an endorsement or recommendation for anybody else to use in deciding. Maybe I’ll decide it’s a mistake later, but I’ve listed my deciding points here. Use the points to think about what would suit your needs, if they help.

Service, Anyone?

Service for just about anything from anybody seems to be bad: HP, Toshiba, Dell, Gateway — everyone complains about tech help. Like most people, I expect somebody that’s supposed to help me to at least know what they’re doing, and that wasn’t the case for a lot of owners, according to their comments.

Let me emphasize that the telephone service problem seems to be not as often a language difference, as much as it is the lack of help received. That sounds like the company’s fault in training more than the employees, wherever they are actually located. We have domestic and foreign-born student assistants in the library here, and we still expect them all to be able to help or to go get somebody higher up to come help.

So I picked out a store that (along with the 18 month deal) has in-store help and it’s own service center. I got the 3-year contract that works at any store in this chain.

Specs

Here are the specs (with vendor hype), with my comments:

  • 4GB PC2-5300 DDR2 memory for multitasking power [and it takes 64 bit Vista to properly use more than 3 GB of memory anyway.]
  • Multiformat DVD±RW/CD-RW drive with double-layer support records up to 8.5GB of data or 4 hours of video using compatible DVD-R DL media; supports DVD-RAM; also supports Labelflash direct-disc labels using compatible Labelflash media. Double-layer DVD±RW/CD-RW Speeds 2x DVD-R DL; 8x8x8 DVD+RW; 8x6x8 DVD-RW; 5x DVD-RAM; 24x16x24 CD-RW. [I said I wanted DVD-R to be compatible with my existing DVD recorder and media. I don’t know if I’ll bother paying twice as much per disc just to burn a nice label onto it with Labelflash, though.]
  • The next-generation Intel® Core™2 Duo processor is based on the innovative Intel® Core™ microarchitecture, so it runs faster and is more energy-efficient for cooler, quieter operation, 667MHz frontside bus, 2MB L2 cache and 1.83GHz processor speed. [Not fast,compared to a lot of systems out there, but this model might be easily upgraded to a faster processor in this model if it turns out to be too slow. Energy-efficient is good in a laptop, especially.]
  • 17″ WXGA+ TFT-LCD widescreen display with Ultrabright technology and 1440 x 900 resolution [and the average17″ screen eats battery power like mad, so I lose on energy there. Ah, well.]
  • 320GB Serial ATA hard drive (5400 rpm) [slower drive but nice and big.]
  • NVIDIA GeForce Go 8800M GTS graphics with up to 512MB discrete GDDR3 video memory; HDMI connection; high-definition audio (2-channel support) [I compared the speed of laptops with slower graphics — 8600 chip, for example– and this was noticeably faster in reaction. The HDMI port should let me plug into a HDTV system for large display, if I want to buy a cable.]
  • Illuminated metal precision-touch multimedia control panel provides easy access to and control of your media and applications at the touch of a button [and everyone complained about the hard-to-read numbers on the keyboard — 1 through 0 are in dark red. I used a silver Sharpie to make mine more readable in low light conditions, and have to repeat every so often.]
  • Built-in 1.3-megapixel Web cam [and the light from the screen creates so much glare on my glasses that you can’t see my eyes anyway… but it’s a decent camera, I guess.]
  • 5-in-1 digital media manager supports Secure Digital, MultiMediaCard, Memory Stick, Memory Stick PRO and xD-Picture Card [well, might come in handy… at least it uses the Fuji xD cards from my camera]
  • One IEEE 1394 (FireWire) interface and 3 high-speed USB 2.0 ports for fast digital video, audio and data transfer; eSATA interface [More USB ports are always good these days, and the FireWire can be a fast port for an external hard drive for backups and such. The eSATA port might also work for an external backup drive, although people have been having problems getting it to work with Vista due to drivers]
  • Built-in Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR technology [wondered what I’d use this for, and then thought of a wireless barcode reader we have that uses Bluetooth — wonder if it would work?]
  • 10/100/1000 Mbps Gigabit Ethernet LAN with RJ-45 connector [the Gigabit is only for the wired connection to my old XP desktop, but this is standard stuff]
  • Intel® Wireless Wi-Fi Link 4965 network connection (802.11a/b/g/n) [the key ones are g and n, which I’ll cover with the router later]
  • V.92 high-speed modem [never know when you’ll need to plug into your hotel room]
  • Premium case design with brushed metal keyboard surround and high-impact composite finish (which picks up fingerprints and attracts cat fur like nobody’s business, which is about average]
  • Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium Edition (64 bit) operating system with Service Pack 1 (SP1) preinstalled; software package included with Microsoft Works 9.0 [which I won’t use], Microsoft Money Essentials [which I’ve tried before and now don’t use], a trial version of Microsoft Student Office Suite [which I won’t use], CyberLink Power2Go and more.
  • Warranty Terms – Parts 1 year limited Warranty Terms – Labor 1 year limited [I’ve got the store’s 3 year policy to depend on instead.]
  • Product Height 1.7″ Width 15.75″ Depth 11.75″ Weight 9.2 lbs. + AC adapter = about 14 lbs. [this is considered quite heavy these days, but that’s a 17″ system for you. The big battery on this particular laptop is an odd extra bulge at the back of the unit.]
  • Pointing Device Synaptics touchpad with vertical scroll [I’m already used to a touchpad, so this is no problem for me. Other people might consider a Bluetooth wireless mouse, perhaps.]

Do NOT rush out and buy this or any system because I “recommended” it. This appears to be the closest that I can get to my preferences for the money I’m willing to spend right now. Your needs might be very different. I checked a lot of opinions, which wasn’t easy since this only came out a month or so before I bought it, but there were some fairly objective reviews on this and the model right before it.

I tend to NOT depend SOLELY on the “professional” reviews by magazines, etc. Using something for a few days or a week is not the same as continuing to use it for months and years. (We’ve had a printer at the library that had good reviews, but it stopped behaving at the end of the 90 day warranty period — something not mentioned in the magazine reviews since they didn’t use it that long.) Users sometimes have some very revealing things to say, or have different priorities for things, or try different software than the standard test stuff.

Then I had to match it up with a wireless router.

Venturing into Vista 2: Vista?

Disclaimer: what I write here is NOT in any way intended to endorse, advertise, promote, or put down any commercial or other product. Anything which might be construed as critical may be based on situations and circumstances which do not apply to anything or anyone else, so please don’t feel maligned or assume I’m looking for a fight. Opinions are mine alone and may be under/mis-informed, just like everyone else’s opinions, which is why I’m writing this on my blog and not the Computer Helpers blog.

This series is the result of a search for a Vista-based laptop in April and May of 2008. All this information is subject to being outdated, limited, or highly debatable.

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Windows Vista has been — and still is — a big topic of debate.

At this point, Windows Vista is (according to some sources) suspected of being a miscalculation, in that Microsoft expected computing power to continue to increase (due to the famous Moore’s Law), and created software to run on more powerful PCs. Manufacturers, on the other hand, seem to have looked for ways to cut costs, and that often meant reducing or limiting the power, at least in terms of the demands of Vista. At least that seems to explain why Vista, according to a lot of user complaints, runs like a tortoise on a lot of PCs that were supposed to do better with it.

A lot of voices are now saying, wait for the next version of Windows and just skip Vista entirely. That assumes that Microsoft will take a different direction.

On the other hand — and a very authoritative one — are bloggers like ZDNet’s Ed Bott, who believes that with SP1, Vista has come of age and should be not just a decent but a good and fast operating system, as he has stated and offered detailed instructions to make possible.

However, whichever view one takes, right now we have students and faculty on campus who are getting computers and dealing with Vista, like it or not, and it’s hard to just sit smugly and say “I’m waiting for the next version; I’ll be able to help you once I learn about that.” That’s not much of an attitude for a service-oriented library professional, IMHO.

So, Vista.

Vista Home Basic came out early, and is still around here and there. You find it on the computers that sell with only 1 GB of RAM. This is what a lot of the class action lawsuits are about: Vista was supposed to be this and that, and people bought computers that were labeled as “Vista Ready” or “Vista Capable” or whatever, and got what amounted to a dumbed-down version of Vista that didn’t do what they expected from all the hype.

You can find Vista Home Premium on a few 1 GB computers, but that’s not enough to run it decently. You need at least 2 GB of RAM, according to Microsoft and everybody else, to run it at tolerable speeds.

Now, pick a real working version. You have Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate. Business leaves out some Premium things, adds some Business things. Vice versa on Premium. Ultimate has all the features (but Microsoft considers Vista Ultimate, an upgrade from Vista Home Premium and Vista Business, to be a “consumer product,” reducing the company’s support for Ultimate to a maximum of 5 years rather than 10. Bummer.)

Home Premium has Media Center, DVD Maker, Movie Maker, and the usual games. Business has Backup, Fax and Scan, and Remote Desktop. Ultimate has all of those plus disk encryption. That’s pretty much it. If you need both the media stuff and the fax, you get Ultimate.

I considered the Remote Desktop, since it might help with testing access to our services without having to drive home. Otherwise, not much reason for me to bother upgrading to Ultimate.

Outside the U.S., there are other variations, but I’m going to leave that to some librarian who blogs in Europe or somewhere to cover, and good luck.

But — that wasn’t all.

Vista is lately available in 32 bit and 64 bit versions, too. What is that all about?

Technical details aside, the idea seems to be that a 64-bit version is more powerful, and some people seem to find it runs faster on more powerful PCs (than the 32 bit version of Vista). Certainly, it is closer to the theoretical “state of the art” than a 32 bit operating system. So, apparently in order to get around the complaints of Vista being slow, manufacturers started putting out their latest, more powerful computers with the 64-bit version of Vista so they’d run faster.

But there’s a couple of catches.

Catch 1: not all software is compatible with 64 bit Vista, even if it works on 32 bit Vista. While there is a “compatibility” function in Vista, it doesn’t always help with running 32 bit software on 64 bit systems.  You can forget (usually) about running anything older without a lot of extra hassle.  That favorite software that worked on Windows 95 or even 98 may not be accepted on 64 bit Vista without a convoluted workaround.

Catch 2: 64 bit Vista versions require that all the software drivers be digitally signed by the developer. You can’t install them at all unless they meet that requirement. Meaning, a lot of drivers for one thing or another are not going to install — legitimately, that is. (There is already at least one third-party program available to get around this limitation, which is one reason I was willing to consider 64 bit anyway.)

This limitation is intended to make the system more stable and reliable, but it could be a problem if you can’t find a signed driver for what you want. It would seem that a lot of people don’t want to bother with signing their drivers when they create software, or more often the driver came out before Microsoft put out this requirement. And like me, a lot of people don’t want to buy new peripherals like printers, scanners, etc., just to get something that might have 64 bit drivers available at some point.

64 bit drivers means that older printer you (or I) own may not work with a new Vista 64 bit system. Or that camera, or scanner, or whatever. Or that favorite program, or game, or — et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I had to research ahead of time on what I had and see what might — or might not — still work.

Innovative Interfaces’ Millennium software is supposed to work on it, according to a reply I got on the Innovative Users Group e-list. Cross my fingers and hope, I guess. It will be an early test.

I also wanted to try out, for example, the Xitel INPort system for converting audio cassettes and phonograph record from stereo directly into digital files. Will this work on a 64 bit system? The manufacturer’s site just says “Vista” but no other details…. which is pretty common.

And what about the other software? I’m a bit fan of open-source and freeware software, but how much of what I want — and recommend to others — is going to be available in Vista, and in Vista 64 bit?

Of course, I could just change the operating system to something else. While some newer computers are optimized so that they can’t even run Windows XP very well, I could change to 32 bit Vista.

The thing is, a lot of the computers I’m most interested in are equipped with 64 bit Vista, and the stores are not enabled to change that (at least, not without extra charges and work). And, a lot of the students are going to end up with 64 bit Vista without even realizing it.

So, I have to seriously think about all that.

Plus, there are all the articles about Vista. The fact that Microsoft admitted that the User Account Control was created to “annoy users” into encouraging 3rd-party vendors to make more secure software seems like a rather odd attitude.

But a lot of people haven’t enough background to make a choice other than what the stores carry. Maybe I should act the same, just to be in the same situation so I can try to work around the problems? Or would I actually be better off with 64 bit?

These days, a lot of manufacturers don’t provide a Windows disk with their system.  You just make your own backup which essentially re-creates the same original setup, and you have to supply your own blank disc for that.  If you can find a system that actually gives you a Windows disk with both 32 bit and 64 bit on it, so you can change if you want, that would be as close to ideal as possible.  But can I find that?

Venturing into Vista 1: What to buy?

Disclaimer: what I write here is NOT in any way intended to endorse, advertise, promote, or put down any commercial or other product. Anything which might be construed as critical may be based on situations and circumstances which do not apply to anything or anyone else, so please don’t feel maligned or assume I’m looking for a fight. Opinions are mine alone and may be under/mis-informed, just like everyone else’s opinions, which is why I’m writing this on my blog and not the Computer Helpers blog.

This series is the result of a search for a Vista-based laptop in April and May of 2008. All this information is subject to being outdated, limited, or highly debatable.

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Why?

Some people have children in order to buy toys. I feel it’s cheaper and more dignified to cut out the middleman and buy toys for myself.” — bumper sticker

So, I decided I needed to buy a laptop. Why? (Always make the decision that gets you the new toy first, then figure out your justifications. That’s the American way, after all…)

1. I needed to become familiar with Windows Vista, warts and all, so I could have some understanding of what was going on and how I might be able to help others with it. A lot of our students were buying new PCs for college, and had no idea how to deal with them. I was the one who got a lot of referrals in the library, and I was stumped far more often lately due to Vista.

2. I wanted a portable computer, because I wanted to be able to move to different parts of my home and do some recording from my stereo in another room, or do inventory in my library room (hey, I’m a librarian — of course I have a library room at home!).

3. I wanted a portable computer, because there are times when I would like to do demonstrations elsewhere and putting my software on the Library’s laptops or those available from the campus may or may not work out (based on previous experience). It would also be interesting to see what I needed to do to be able to do something like that, if it’s possible at all.

4. I was starting to run into more and more limits, even after upgrading the memory, on my old XP desktop, and the hard drive was filling up rapidly now that I was getting buying music or ripping it from my CDs.

5. I could learn about setting up a home network by using the old desktop and the new laptop, and share that experience. Also, I could learn how to switch between my home network and the campus network, and any tips for doing that.

All those good reasons, and I get a new toy. What more could a guy want?

Wellllll….. there’s the matter of enough money to buy it, and that’s a factor that many students and faculty have to deal with, too.

So, this is how I went about it, and what happened. And if it goes well or badly, I’ll put it down here.

What?

First, I checked for the requirements for our library automation software and the client software. If there’s something you have to use for anything, be sure you can get it to run on the computer you buy.

In my case, Innovative Interfaces Inc. has a listing for the latest release:

  • An Intel Pentium 4, Pentium D, Xeon, Core or similar processor running at 3 Ghz or faster (2 Ghz or faster for the Core 2 Duo), or an equivalent processor such as the AMD Athlon 64, Opteron 64, or Turion processors with comparable performance. (They said that it would work on slower processors but not as fast. I’m running it at work on a Core 2 desktop at 1.86 MHz without difficulty.)
  • At least 1 GB of RAM (they said if you run anything more at the same time, you’re going to need more RAM memory. With Vista, my reading had already established that anything less than 2 GB of RAM was useless for Vista Home Premium version and up.)
  • At least 500 MB of free disk space (I wanted better than 200 GB, at least)
  • Sound card for audible system warnings and notices
  • A mouse or other pointing device (in this case, a touchpad as laptops usually have)
  • 800 x 600 resolution or better (I wanted much better)
  • A browser (specifically “a modern browser capable of supporting current Web standards” meaning IE 7 and Firefox 2 — which I already was using — or better would be fine)
  • III’s client software

They stated that these “workstation requirements listed are neither “optimum” nor “minimum” requirements. These requirements are realistic recommendations intended to guide a typical library in workstation selection.” They have other requirements if you have a Mac, or run Linux, or whatever, of course.

The operating systems included Windows® NT 4.0 (service pack 6a or later), Windows® 2000 (service pack 2 or later), Windows® ME, Windows® XP, or Windows® Vista (Business or Home). (They did not, however, specify Vista 32 or 64 bit, which came up later.)

So, any really decent laptop that ran Vista well should suffice. What else did I need to look at?

Oh, sure — I considered the possibility of buying a Mac (very seriously considered, in fact) and having a dual boot of Vista and the Mac operating software. Then I looked at what it would cost just for the laptop, and that was that. Nice operating system, expensive hardware. Some people have hacked desktop PCs so Mac software would run, but I didn’t want to get into trying to make a laptop do that.

Plus, while I do not consider myself a Windows “loyalist”, Macs aren’t perfect either. And Linux versions are still limited in what can be run on them for my personal purposes, and required more setup to get the full benefits, from everything I’d seen. I’d like the option to also boot a Linux “distro” to try it out, but not as a primary operating system at this point.

Price: I started out thinking under $1,000, but ended up thinking under $1,500 for the graphics and hard drive size I wanted, along with other wants. I still had to add the service plan costs to that, plus a good wireless router. Oh, yeah — I’ll have to research routers for this project, too.

Screens

Did I want lightest weight, or go for big screen? The way I expected to use it, a big screen would be better. I wear full-lense glasses for use with computer screens (which saves me from that notorious crook-neck you get from trying to use bifocals with a computer). Okay, look for 17″ screens.

That narrowed the field quite a bit right there. Yes, I could have gone larger, but I wanted to be able to carry it myself…. so under 10 pounds would be a good idea (17″ laptops seemed to run 9 plus pounds), especially inside a carry-on case with other stuff, running through the airport to make a connecting flight (based on experience, of course) and then (I hoped) fitting under an airliner seat in a suitcase (a little commuter jet).

A higher resolution would be nice, but not that vital for me. I’m not trying to cram a detailed wide-angle view of a photo editing session or a game battlefield on the screen all that often, so I could go with a lower number here compared to what artists or gamers want. I’m using 1024×768 normally on a 19″ desktop monitor, and that is about as high as I usually want it. Higher than that, and I might even reduce the resolution if I needed to.

Brightness is a factor, especially in varying light conditions. Having some fancy name for it, however, didn’t really tell me much. Most of them seem to be “Brightview” or “Ultrabright” or “Eye-blinding” or something. Most reviewers just checked to see how it looked in direct sunlight, or something like that. I tended to pull the screen out into the bright store lights to check for things like glare, since most stores frown on you hauling their display items out into the parking lot.

Yes, a larger screen does use up battery power faster. But after spending a conference trying not to trip over the extension cords of laptop users sitting on the ends of rows by the wall, so they could plug in…. it didn’t seem to be as big a factor. Get a big battery, and/or get a spare battery and charge it. Plus, there are ways to reduce the power use somewhat even with the screen.

Oh, yeah — be sure you can get a spare battery for it, too. The battery is absolutely guaranteed to die, even if the rest of the gear holds up, so be able to replace it. Laptop battery life can be measured in time span, whether you use it on battery power much or not, so once it gets old enough, it won’t hold a charge even if you didn’t depend on it much.

RAM

RAM? Random Access Memory, nowadays expressed mostly as “SDRAM” for the latest type commonly available, is part of the intelligence of the computer. As I explained to an elderly lady who asked the difference, “I GB of RAM is just barely thinking, and 2 GB of RAM is twice as smart”. (Hey, I do analogies people can understand, if they are not interested in high-tech explanations.) Usually comes on a “card” or pair of cards, and preferably should be balanced on each card if you have it on two cards (2 GB on one, 2 GB on the other, say).

So, Vista Basic (which is described by many people as “no better than XP” can run on 1 GB, but to run Vista as recommended, with all bells and whistles, you need at least 2 GB. An extra GB could help, especially when running several programs at once (which I sometimes tend to do). Then there’s the 32 bit/64bit difference…. Anyway, I would probably prefer at least 3 GB, even if the cards aren’t balanced. If I get the 64 bit Vista — which can handle 4 GB — I might as well go for the 4 GB.

Hard drive storage

Hard drive? In the future, you’ll start getting a choice between a spinning hard drive and a solid state (which would be less vulnerable, especially in a laptop), but not yet in my price range. So, two considerations right now: capacity and speed.

Most of the newer PCs are Serial ATA drives, a.k.a. “SATA” drives. They start at a speed of about 5400 rpm and go up to about 7200 rpm, for regular purchases.  I figured I could stand a slower drive if I exchanged it for capacity — more room. I wanted at least 200 GB of storage space, and more if I could get it. A lot of laptops may be fast and have great components otherwise, but have only 160 GB. A few combine a couple of 160 GB drives for a total of 320 GB, which would be fine. Or, if there was space (which may or may not be the case in a laptop), perhaps I could add a second drive. Or just replace the drive entirely. Be able to do that kind of replacement easily — that’s a good qualification, if you can find it.

Can you run something from it, say a video or movie you copied to it? If so, that’s probably fast enough for me.

Graphics, graphics, who’s got the best graphics?

The graphics card turned out to be a big deal, and a major turning point. I had to read up on those from a number of sources to get the latest information. I got a lot of different opinions.

I finally decided that getting a card that did a half-way decent job of running games (according to some reasonably well-researched sources) was important, and it was probably the best way to judge graphics. Well, at least one way… at least it let somebody else do all the testing for me, so I could read their reviews.

One tendency now is for PC manufacturers to combine the graphics card with the rest of the system by sharing memory, and maybe even combine it with the rest of the system. Lighter weight, lower price — and it tended, from the reports I saw, to slow down the graphics. A lot, in fact, by comparison with the better cards that were dedicated solely to graphics with their own graphics memory.

Okay, so a separate company making the graphics card would result in better performance. I did a lot of comparisons, and staying away from the ultra-high-end cards that true fanatics drooled over, I narrowed it down. And, I went to the stores and checked out the PCs that used each kind, when possible.

Example: NVIDIA has a group of cards called “GeForce” and then a number, and then a letter code, such as NVIDIA GeForce Go 8800M GTS. Generally speaking, a higher number = better card on this brand. Now, in the store, just for an example, I compared a laptop with an 8600 card and one with an 8800 card, one right after the other. The 8600 had a slight perceptable delay in responding to the touchpad, while the 8800 moved immediately. Of course, experts will say there’s a lot of other factors involved, but I wasn’t going to use these cards in isolation, or try them out in different computers — I wanted a setup where everything together did what I wanted, as fast as I needed (within my price limits, of course!).

Laptops often had that hesitation (at least in my price range!), and I suspected that it would start to bother me in time.

I Googled a lot of graphics card names, and read evaluations of them, and I learned one thing: gamers always think there’s a faster card out there than whatever you’re asking about. I wasn’t trying to meet their high standards, however — just use them as a way to find a card they could barely tolerate (at least) for the latest graphics-heavy games, which should mean I would probably do great with it. Anything I would use, even if I played a few games or did some Google SketchUp design with this laptop, would be much less rigorous (any games I get tend to come from the bargain bin, so they’re not that demanding!). Even on the 8800 card, though, I found two different versions, one of which was not as good as the other (according to the gaming fanatics). Making a choice here would be difficult.

It helped if the card had its own memory on it, rather than borrowing too much — or all, which would be worse — from the system.

I did, however, want it to handle DVDs and movie downloads well, and watched for that. It seemed that was an easier standard to meet for most cards, so it wasn’t as much of a problem.

DVD/CD/Whatever

I wanted a DVD read and write drive, too. It had to handle DVDs and CDs, and I preferred to have it use DVD-R format, since I already had a DVD-R recorder and I wouldn’t need different discs. These days, rather than have multiple CDs, more PCs have DVD-something drives anyway. I wasn’t into editing, but if I got into it, that would be useful. If it printed a label directly on the disc, that would be nice, but it wasn’t vital — you have to buy special discs for that to work.  Best would be DVD plus-and-minus R and RW, as well as CD-R and CD-RW designations.  Of course, the CD capability is almost assumed now, but it doesn’t hurt to double-check.

There are still some laptops around with the HD DVD format… and how long you’ll be able to buy DVDs for that is not worth guessing, IMHO. Blu-Ray? Prices on that pushed the total well above what I could spend, plus — I don’t even have Blu-Ray on my television yet. Wait for prices to come down, and stick with the more standard original DVD format. After all, HDTV doesn’t really impress most people until it is on a large enough screen, which certainly is not on a laptop.

CPU

The CPU would most likely be a dual core, preferably one designed for use in a laptop so the power requirements would be low. Dual cores (two CPUs in one, basically) really weren’t being properly used that much at present since the software hadn’t caught up to take advantage of it, but predictions were that more software would have this option or requirement in the future. Something at least 1.83 GHz seemed like a minimum, 2 GHz better, and so on. III’s requirements seemed to prefer 2 GHz but didn’t rule out something slower.

My old XP system, a Hewlett-Packard, was based on an AMD CPU, and I noted that the new SP3 (Service Pack 3) just out for XP was having problems with those. So, I became a little wary of HPs with non-Intel CPUs just because of that. Otherwise, my old AMD-based desktop had done fine by me up to now and was a bit cheaper than the same thing with an Intel CPU chip. I just wouldn’t be in a big hurry to get SP3 for it.

Networking and the router connnection

I would need to buy a wireless router (that also handled wired connections, for my older XP system) in order to make the laptop portable, and to share files with the older computer. (More on that in a later post.)

So, I needed to coordinate the wireless in the laptop (which would be the higher standard) with the capabilities of the router — if the laptop I ended up with didn’t do something, there was no use buying a router that did, since the laptop would be the more demanding computer.

And that led to the wonders of the cryptic “802.11a/b/g/n” code and what I needed my wireless to use.

The standard for networking is set by the IEEE 802.11 code for wireless local area networks (in my case, what I would be connecting to at home or at work). Not leaving well enough alone, the code was revised to allow for an “a” standard, and then a “b” standard, and then a “g” standard.

(Why the gap between “b” and “g”? Why do we never hear about Preparation A through G — only Preparation H is advertised….?) Even that’s not enough, because at this point, a draft version of a new standard designated “n” is available. (And no idea what happened to standards “h” through “m”, either.)

So, if you get the latest and fastest — that would be “n” — you might get a version that wouldn’t quite match the final non-draft version of “n”.

Fortunately, this stuff can be set up to use “g” or “n”, whichever is available.

On the down side, one reason “n” was developed is because “n” can use the radio frequency range of 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz. “b” and “g” can only use 2.4 GHz, which is the same as a lot of cordless phones, baby monitors, Bluetooth devices, and microwave ovens. “a” could only use 5 GHz, but that didn’t travel as far.

So, use “a” to avoid interference, but “b” or “g” to move further away but risk being scrambled by somebody microwaving lunch or making a phone call. “n” gives the advantages and disadvantages of both frequencies, but it’s faster than any of them — provided that the manufacturers of both the laptop and the router didn’t have different ideas from each other, or the final “n” standard, about how it should work.

(Apparently there’s some reason why they can’t just use another frequency that goes further and isn’t as heavily used, but I didn’t bother with it — I had to accept the choices offered. Maybe the baby monitor makers grab up all the good frequencies before anybody else….)

Draft “n” would give me the fastest connection, if I was willing to risk it. Since I can always change my phone if it argues with the laptop (phones are much cheaper), I don’t have a baby monitor (I’ve never hooked up a monitor to a baby, but I understand finding compatible plugs can be tough if the baby isn’t VGA or RCA-equipped), and I can adjust my use of the microwave to allow for my computing needs, it didn’t seem like an insurmountable problem.

Also, with hard-wired connections, a “Gigabit” router would send data faster, although I doubted that was going to be a major factor in my network, since my old XP system wasn’t all that fast to begin with. Still, the speed of the data was usually a bigger factor than the speed of the computer.

I would have to come back to this stuff later, once I selected a laptop, in order to pick a router.

Goodies

Okay, what else?

  • USB ports — as many as possible, but I could multiply them with a separate router hub that plugged into one of them.
  • a output port for a monitor, so I could connect one if I wanted it. It might also let me use a dual monitor setup, which would at least look cool even if I didn’t really have a need for it. There were two basic standards in the past, VGA and the DVI, but the DVI was dying out due to the introduction of the television HDMI connection, so VGA would be okay.
  • HDMI, come to think of it — once I had a digital TV, with an HDMI port, so I could play anything from my computer to my TV, if I wanted to. Either that, or S-Video (not quite as good but more versatile for TVs at this time).
  • A card reader might be nice, but not vital. I have a digital camera that uses xD cards.
  • A modem might be nice, but not that vital except in hotel rooms, these days.
  • A Firewire connection would be optional, but handy. Officially known as IEEE 1394 ports, these were (I read) originally intended for Macs but show up on PCs. Since they’re faster than USB, it’s a good place to connect an external hard drive.  There are two speeds, but the slower one is more likely to be useful at present for connecting.
  • Speaking of hard drives, if the laptop has a SATA hard drive, an eSATA port would be nice as an alternative to Firewire.
  • Webcam? Not such a must. Some of the separate ones have more features. Still, would save buying one.
  • Comfortable keyboard layout. Not all laptops have this. I prefer a split ergonomic keyboard, normally, but I could make do with a decent keyboard alone on the laptop. I wanted to try it out, first, if I could. Some laptops have weird placements on keys to get used to — I have no idea why. The touchpad (which I was used to already) had to be decent, and responsive.

Software

These days, manufacturers put a lot of “free” software on for you. There are two kinds: manufacturer software, to help you use the PC in a manner they hope won’t allow you to mess it up too quickly, and the other kind, often referred to as “bloatware.”

Bloatware is stuff that is usually advertised as “free” but is really “free trial period” stuff. You can actually pay some store’s tech people to remove it (or at least get it off the desktop and out of the menus), or get a program that will remove it.

I’m not impressed by a program that refuses to be uninstalled unless you install it first (and maybe not even then…. ) such as the Symantec Norton products.

(Admitted opinion here: I had a bad experience with Norton way waaayyy back in Windows 3.1, and haven’t heard too much in favor of them since then. They are often reported to have a lot of compatibility problems with other programs, seem to frequently conflict with Microsoft’s updates — more than most programs, anyway — right up through Vista, and I tend to avoid Norton software in general. Your mileage may vary, however — if so, I’m happy for you and don’t worry about me.  Norton is often recommended by magazine reviewers.)

And “Adobe Acrobat Reader” is free, so come on, manufactureres, listing that is not a big deal.

Microsoft Works? Librarians here hate Microsoft Works, for the reason that students would show up with stuff in the proprietary and unique Works format and find they couldn’t print it anyplace on campus. “Go home and save it in another format” is not good advice when it’s 5 minutes before the class when the paper is due. We finally managed to get a copy of Works on one PC here in the library so we could convert those, but it caused years of headaches and frustration for students before that.

(Admitted opinion here: Microsoft deliberately, In My Humble Opinion, made the default format in Works incompatible with everything else so they could tell people who complained of that very problem that “you should just buy our (more expensive) Microsoft Office Suite instead, like you use at the office/university, and not have that problem”. No wonder a lot of manufacturers ended up putting the WordPerfect Suite on instead. Another admission: I much prefer WordPerfect over MS Word, like it or not, if they’re going to put a suite on the computer for me.)

I’m thinking I might stay with Jarte and OxygenOffice (the upgraded OpenOffice), however, for small and suite software instead of Microsoft Office.  They’re both free and quite functional for what I usually need, and OxygenOffice can import Office Open XML (Microsoft Office 2007), Works, my old WordPerfect files and  WordPerfect Graphics graphical files too.

And whether they use Microsoft Money or Quicken, they always seem to put on whichever one you don’t use to balance your checkbook.  Maybe I can find something free for that, too.

I was hoping to use mostly freeware and open source software on this, when practical, as a demonstration of how to save money (as if I needed another reason for that!).

And of course, the big software question comes down to Windows Vista, in the next part of this.

So, off I go….