Columns (Continued from the Previous Week)

Another column re SCSI and Digital Video machines

Connections and Cases : 3D software from a new perspective : Political and Personal

Backpack CD Rewriter

I have a new Micro-Solutions Backpack external CD-ROM burner, called the Backpack CD Rewriter, which runs at 32x. As always, it works just fine, right out of the box: I have got such great expectations of Backpack equipment that I have been known to take a new unit, still shrink-wrapped, down to the beach house fully expecting it to work, and it always does. Hardware, software, installation instructions: There's just not much to improve here. If you want reliable external CD Read/Write and Rewrite, you can depend on the Backpack products every time.

Highly recommended.

USB 2

The new Backpack will work with a Parallel, USB 1.1, or USB 2 connection, and once your system is set up that's all automatic. The interesting connection is USB 2, which is 40 times faster than USB 1.1 (480 Mbits/second), and will, in my judgment, slowly replace Apple's FireWire (aka IEEE 1394) as the serial connection to external devices such as camcorders as well as external disk drives.

New motherboards are coming out with USB 2 connections built on. These will be backward compatible with USB; you can use both simultaneously. You can convert your present system to USB 2 with a PCI bus card, or with a PCMCIA card. I have both from Orange Micro and they just work. Install the software, then the hardware. Windows detects the new hardware, and since you have already installed the drivers everything goes automagically. The PCI card has four external and one internal USB ports; the PCMCIA card has four external ports and comes with a small line lump power supply.

I've already replaced my travel pack USB card with the Orange Micro USB 2 system. I also found a short 3-wire power extension cord with three power outlets. The USB brick goes into one, the power connection for my laptop into the second, and I have a third for use with either the Olympus camera battery charger or the charger for my cell phone. I wish they made extension cords with four power outlets on the end. When I travel by car I can throw a surge suppressor power distribution thing into the back, but that's a bit much to carry in the laptop bag. I suppose one can go in checked luggage. I put a bunch of stuff in checked luggage, sometimes including a Backpack CD Rewriter wrapped up in my pajamas if I think I'll need that kind of backup capability.

The Orange Micro USB systems just work. So, for that matter, do its FireWire upgrade kits, and of course if you need FireWire you will pretty well have to add that: Intel has sworn never to support FireWire.

FireWire vs. USB 2

Technically, they are both Good Enough. They are both fast, and there are a heck of a lot more FireWire devices particularly consumer items like camcorders and cameras than USB 2 devices out in the real world. For the moment, if you're after fast connections, FireWire is what there is.

That's changing. Intel will have USB 2 on a new series of motherboards, and you can bet that with Intel's clout you'll start to see USB 2 connections appear on external devices. The Micro-Solutions Backpack CD Rewriter is the first one I have, but I have seen Maxtor USB 2 external disk drives for sale at Fry's alongside similar FireWire devices. There will surely be more.

USB 2 is convenient in that it's backward compatible with USB, and can be used for all kinds of things. There are already computer systems like the Compaq iPAQ Legacy Free desktop that have no serial ports at all: The mouse and keyboard are connected by USB, and everything works just fine. I've used one of those small machines in a number of settings, and it's solid enough, even if I do connect my mice and keyboards through those little PS/2 ports on most of the machines here. Almost all good mice, and most new keyboards, come with USB connectors; mice have a little USB/PS2 adaptor. Some keyboards have a forked cable with PS/2 and USB. All those will work with both USB and USB 2.

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, and it's, well, serial, meaning that if you load that bus up with a lot of devices you can slow things down a lot. It certainly wasn't very useful for external disk drives, and it didn't turn out to be the right way to connect speakers either; it was just too slow. USB 2, at 480 Mbits/sec., won't run into that speed wall as quickly. Like earlier versions of USB it's hot swappable you can plug and unplug USB and USB 2 devices without restarting your computer or even shutting down running programs. This makes it ideal for connecting up cameras, Compact Flash card readers, and the like to your laptop. I use USB to transfer photographs from my Olympus digital cameras, and from the little Dragon electronic speech recorder I carry as a voice notebook. USB 2 will be even more useful.

For now, FireWire has all the marketshare, but I don't expect that to last. Meanwhile, if you want USB 2, you don't need to look farther than Orange Micro.

The Linux Front

As we go to press figuratively speaking there are some exciting things happening in the Linux world, including one announcement with implications for the adoption of Linux as a viable desktop platform for business users.

This really big development is the release of Crossover Office from CodeWeavers. This amazing product uses WINE to allow Microsoft Office 2000 to be installed and run under Linux, without having to go to the trouble and expense of setting up a "virtual" Windows installation under VMware.

Mind you, VMware is a really neat product, and when you absolutely need access to a full copy of Windows on a Linux box, it's one of the best options around, the other being Citrix MetaFrame, which I've mentioned here in the past. But Crossover Office is quite a bit less expensive than either of those other solutions, and requires less in the way of processor and RAM.

This is a Good Thing, as it offers Microsoft Office capability to individual Linux users at an affordable price.

The second and third important announcements in the Linux world are, respectively, the availability of Slackware 8.10 Beta and Gentoo Linux 1.0. As I've mentioned before, Slackware is my friend Roland's choice of Linux implementations and is considered by many to be the most "UNIX-like" of all Linux distributions not to mention one of the most stable and secure. This new update (it really should be considered an 8.5 Version, in my opinion) contains a lot of improvements and enhancements, and I have reports that it's a very stable beta. I'll surely be glad when I can put the latest version of Slackware on another firewall box and use that to connect to the still-nascent Ricochet wireless network. Real Soon Now, we hope.

Gentoo is a brand-new distribution, with an interesting twist basically, you can tell it to compile itself almost completely from source on your hardware. This means that at the end of the installation process assuming you have the patience and bandwidth you'll have a Linux installation completely customized and optimized for your environment. Gentoo's Portage system of updates and dependency checking looks to make keeping the system up-to-date much less of a chore than many other *NIXes. This Linux distribution is definitely aimed at the more experienced user; I intend to keep an eye on how well it gains acceptance amongst the open-source user base.

Cases

I have more than once said that I prefer to start a new system with PC Power and Cooling cases and power supplies. Every now and then, though, I try something else. I often regret that.

For instance, there's one popular line of cases that works fairly well and comes with good power supplies, but has odd little doors that cover the 5 1/4" external drive bays. Recently, one of those doors managed to snag a DVD-RAM (that's read/write) drive in such a way that the drive won't work any more. I don't know precisely what it did, but that's a pretty expensive bit of equipment that I hope can be fixed.

I certainly can't recommend cute little doors to cover your computer drives. In fairness, those cases are really intended for servers where you might want a cheap lock to make it a bit harder for intruders to get at the system's 5 1/4" external drive bays. On the other hand, it would take about 10 seconds to open one without its key.

Another thing to avoid is aluminum cases. In a moment of weakness I bought a pretty little aluminum case it was quite expensive, costing more without a power supply than a good solid PC Cool costs with a very good one because it was very light, and looked very cool. Then I started working with it.

I wouldn't wish that case on an enemy.

To begin with, the backing plate for the motherboard is itself thin aluminum. It comes with some square holes in that mounting plate: Not the standard threaded holes for the little brass hex nuts we're all used to, but larger square ones into which you pop a U-shaped bracket. The solid side of the U is tapped for mounting screws to hold the motherboard down.

The result is flimsy. In my case, I built the machine, mumbling about the flimsiness of the system, and started it up. It all worked just fine for one wonderful moment, except there was no CD-ROM drive. (Actually a DVD drive: I never buy CD-ROM drives any more.) It was easy to see why: I hadn't plugged the data cable for the secondary IDE controller into the motherboard. Shut the machine down, push the cable in. Note as I pushed it in that the motherboard flexed a great deal more than I like.

Turn on the machine and it won't work. The video board was not properly seated. Worse, it was the ATI Radeon 8500, which is very difficult to seat properly anyway. Get out some Stabilant 22 (and if you don't know about this stuff, go find out; it's wonderful) and try again. Still no luck. In fact, I was never again able to get that video board to work with that system, although it works just fine with an nVidia GeForce 2 board, and the Radeon is happy in another identical motherboard. I don't know if I have damaged the motherboard or not.

I do know that in future I want a solid steel mounting board with small holes threaded for the standard little brass hex-shaped standoffs to mount the motherboard on, and this aluminum case is scrap metal. I won't take it back, because I ought to have known better in the first place.

 

Column 259 (Continued from the Previous Week) 3D Software from a New Perspective

The Bleeding Edge

I have now built two different Pentium 4 2-GHz (actually one 2.0 GHz and one 2.2 GHz) systems on Intel D845BG motherboards and I have had problems with each one.

I have also built a 2.0-GHz system on the Intel D845WNL motherboard and it is fast, stable, and reliable.

The difference between the BG and WN boards is memory: The BG systems use DDR-SDRAM, while the WN system uses ordinary PC-133 SDRAM. I expect I had better explain that. My thanks to Bob Thompson for much of the data: If you want to know more, get his O'Reilly book PC Hardware in a Nutshell.

First, SDR and DDR refer to "single" and "double" data transfer rates, respectively. Clumsy terms such as "SDR-SDRAM" have grown out of development history.

PC-133 SDR-SDRAM (commonly and hereafter called simply SDRAM) has a theoretical peak data transfer rate of 1066 Megabytes/second (MB/s). In use it gets about 60 percent of that, some 638 MB/s.

There are several speeds of DDR-SDRAM. One, PC1600 DDR-SDRAM, gets about 45 percent of the theoretical 1600 MB/s peak data transfer rate for a practical rate of 717 MB/s. PC1600 is legacy stuff: It's not really being made any longer. More common is PC2100, which gets practical data rates of about 37 percent for 798 MB/s. Thus PC1600 DDR-SDRAM is about 12 percent, PC2100 is some 25 percent faster, than PC-133 SDRAM. If your system is limited by memory speeds, this can be significant. Those with big compiles or large image files will welcome the faster memory. However, for many of us, memory transfer rates aren't the problem to begin with, and the only way you'll be able to tell which system is using DDR-SDRAM and which is using SDRAM is to run benchmarks.

The problem is that DDR-SDRAM is out at the bleeding edge: Everything needs to be right. This is particularly true if you're running Windows XP, which is very sensitive to memory timing problems, and sometimes won't install if it thinks it sees memory errors. Once you get XP installed the problems may vanish.

After working with several of these systems, I am pretty well decided that I'm going to stick with PC-133 SDRAM for a while, at least until the next generation of Intel DDR-SDRAM motherboards come out. It's good enough for anything I am likely to do with it. David Em, on the other hand, has to work with enormous image files, and needs all the memory speed he can get: More, in fact, that DDR-SDRAM can actually give.

If I were building a system for David, I'd be tempted to skip DDR-SDRAM altogether and go to the Intel D850 board, which uses RAMBUS (RDRAM).

RAMBUS PC800 provides sustained data transfer rates of 81 percent of the 1600 MB/s theoretical rate for 1,300 MB/s, while RAMBUS PC1066 achieves practical data transfer rates of 1,700 MB/s. Alas, PC1066 RDRAM isn't really a product yet, but it's coming out when Intel ships 533-MHz Front Side Bus motherboards. Meanwhile, we could build David a dual-channel RAMBUS with 2 PC800 channels at 1600 each, which equals 3200 megabytes per second, which by one of those strange coincidences is precisely the designed bandwidth of the Pentium 4.

Of course you pay for this. Not so much in money, because the price of RAMBUS memory has been falling for some time now and it doesn't cost that much more than DDR-SDRAM. Instead, you pay in latency: RAMBUS or RDRAM has quite significant latency. It's a little like my DirecPC satellite system: It takes longer to get the data flowing, but once it starts to flow, it flows fast.

However, design can be important here. RDRAM is a serial technology, and every single chip has latency: They're all cumulative. Using multiple RDRAM devices on a channel increases latency, so a fast RDRAM system should use one large high-density RIMM. RDRAM uses RIMMs, SDR and DDR systems use DIMMS; it doesn't much matter if your 512 MB of DDR-SDRAM is made up of one DIMM or two, but it matters a lot whether you use one RIMM or two.

If you do want to build systems on the Intel D845BG board with DDR-SDRAM, do it right: Make sure that everything memory, power supply, cables, chip fan every bit of that is robust and exceeds specs. Get a PC Power and Cooling power supply. Pay attention to details. You're out at the bleeding edge, and everything has to work just right. And as my mad friend Mac Lean used to say, the best of British luck to you.

Maya Changes the World

The other day I got a press release from AliasWavefront about Maya Software at the Oscars. Since graphics software is very much David Em's domain, he having been one of the inventors of computer methods in the fine arts, I asked him about it. Here's his response:

"We know a lot about Maya. Maya is widely regarded as the premiere 3D software, competitive with our friends at Softimage." [Aside from JEP: For a brief period, Softimage was owned by Microsoft. The corporate cultures were entirely incompatible, and Microsoft, to its credit, realized that and set Softimage free. The Borg doesn't always assimilate...]

David continues, "Yesterday, AliasWavefront (AW) did something that will change the 3D Universe forever.

"But first a brief anecdote: AW offered to set me up with it for 90 days, which I told them was useless, since the package is so deep (probably the deepest software in the world outside of scientific simulators), it takes a year to get a handle on, let alone write about coherently. They wouldn't budge on the license. This went on for many months. Then one day I had lunch in Santa Barbara with their founder, Mark Sylvester. He told me that many years ago, he was studying to be a chef. One day he was in the audience of a lecture on Computer Graphics I gave in Santa Monica that was broadcast by satellite to several colleges around the country. That talk led him to switch career tracks and found a company called Wavefront that later became AliasWavefront. I told him about the licensing problem, and soon after that we had Maya running in the studio.

"Maya costs $7,500 for Maya Complete, and $17,500 for Maya Unlimited (more complete than Complete). Until yesterday. In a web press conference, AW reduced the price of Complete 73 percent to $2,000 and Unlimited to $6,000. This changes everything in the 3D Universe. Unlimited is now half the cost of Softimage XSI, and Complete is virtually the same as Newtek's LightWave. It is much less than Discreet's 3D Max ($3,495 plus many expensive plug-ins to get it close to the level of Maya Complete). This will either kill the competition dead, or force them to drastically reduce their prices. Ultra-high-level 3D is very affordable for the first time ever. The only meaningful barrier now is the learning curve, which is dizzyingly steep.

"My Byte.com review of Maya 4 (the current version) is at http://www.byte.com/documents/s=709/byt20010614s0004/."

Which pretty well sums it up. Thank you, David.

The Senator from Disney

Adam Smith famously said that the greatest enemies of capitalism were successful capitalists. Whenever two competitors met they generally conspired to induce government to erect barriers to entry into their particular line of business. Thus we have government licensing and regulations that effectively see to it that there will be no new automobile companies. Other regulations impose fixed (and economically useless) costs on small companies: If compliance with government regulations requires you to have one person full time just to do that, then this is a much greater burden on a company with 9 employees than on one with 200.

All this is well known, and there's not a lot to be done about it. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, but alas, large interests can pay people to be vigilant for them; the rest of us have to do it on our own, and many can't be bothered.

It's time, though, that computer users thought a lot about what government is doing that directly affects us. In particular, we need to think about copy protection and intellectual property rights. The problem is, there's nothing simple about this. We have a real clash of rights and interests, and the issues are so fundamental they are literally Constitutional.

I am still drawing up my thoughts on these matters: Freedom of information vs. property rights of authors, performances and publishers, copy protection and its costs. I will have a great deal more on this in coming months. Meanwhile, I urge you all to inform yourselves on these issues. They will affect us all. Do not leave it all to Senator Hollings, who represents only the publishers' interests. At the moment he seems to have the field to himself and I don't think he is on your side. He's not on mine.

Winding Down

The game of the month is the online massively multiplayer game Dark Age of Camelot. Of the big three multiplayer fantasy games (EverQuest, Asheron's Call, and Dark Age of Camelot) I have less experience with this one than the others. There are things I like about it, and some I find incomprehensible. As an example, the Bard Minstrel in Dark Age if you are in England can't both fight and use musical magic at the same time, and the main advantage of the Bard in EverQuest, the ability to turn on the speed and run away from a sticky situation, doesn't really work in Camelot. Moreover, in an effort to keep you from inadvertently losing something by dropping it, they have made it impossible for you to drop anything that someone else can pick up. This is silly and is only one of the nanny-type restrictions they have in place.

On the other hand, many of the differences between EverQuest and Dark Age are cool. I'll do more experimenting. Meanwhile, if you buy the game, you get a 30-day free trial period, so the cost of experimenting with it is not all that high. Give it a try. You may like it.

The movie of the month is Snow Dogs. It's really the default movie: We didn't get to many pictures this month, and we didn't much care for two of those we did see. Snow Dogs is a Cuba Gooding Jr. broad farce. At times it rises to the level of comedy, but mostly it's farce. (The difference between farce and comedy is about that between fantasy and science fiction: You don't remotely believe that fantasy could happen, and you never believe that anyone in the real world would do the things they are easily persuaded to do in a farce. Comedy may be improbable, but you can persuade yourself that it's possible.) Moreover, Snow Dogs is farce for children more than adults, although the situations in the movie tend to be somewhat adult: There aren't any sex scenes, but the protagonist is definitely an illegitimate child. Having said that, I laughed my head off at the movie, and everyone in the theater I was in had a great time. The computer generated dream sequences were hilarious, and the dogs acted very much as Huskies act. Of course we own a Husky. But we liked this movie.

The first computer book of the month is Sergei Dunaev's, Advanced Internet Programming Technologies and Applications, A-List Charles River Media, 2002. The book assumes you know something about Active X and Java, and mostly it lives at the "advanced" level, but you don't have to be an expert to follow what's going on. If you're an intermediate-level programmer familiar with programming techniques, you can learn a lot from the examples in this book. For those trying to brush up on Internet programming skills, or learn some new ones, this is worth the time you'll spend on it.

The other two computer books this month are both from Microsoft Press. Greg Holden's E-Commerce Essentials came out in 2001 and I'm just getting to it, but it's still current. It assumes you'll use FrontPage to set up your web site, and then proceed to build a web store. There's a good bit about using wizards and such. The book wasn't a lot of help to me because its better features require FrontPage with the Server Extensions enabled, and due to my odd connectivity problems at Chaos Manor those don't work properly with my remote site, and I don't have the connectivity to host my own; but the book does show me what I can do as soon as I get the Extensions connected, and I can hardly wait. It's still worth getting this book if you're contemplating a commercial web site. Its companion book, Brenda Kienan's Managing Your E-Commerce Business, has some decent information, but is interesting in part because of the cheery optimism that was so prevalent before the dot bust. It's still an interesting introduction to web commerce and site design, but the basic assumption that anyone with a good idea and some time can go build a web business is now a bit questionable...

The book of the month is Sam Williams's Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software (O'Reilly). Get this book and read it. I'd be astonished if you agreed with all or even much of what Stallman believes, but you will be better off for understanding what he is saying. I first met Richard Stallman (he called himself RMS in those days) when he was a graduate student at MIT and I was just learning about the ARPANET. He was immensely helpful to me in those days, patiently showing me things about emacs his full-screen editor that he wrote in TECO, and the less said about TECO the better as well as adding some special code to take care of things I wanted to accomplish. I learned then that RMS and I have a common failing: We don't suffer fools gladly or indeed at all, and we are sometimes wrong about who is a fool. But that's another story for another time.

This book is part biography, part philosophical tirade, and part bemused observation. It's well worth the time you put into reading it.

I know that last month I promised a summary of Personal Information Management software. It turned out to be harder to do than I thought: There are a lot of candidates out there, and I'm still fooling around with them. After all, I do these silly things so you won't have to. Maybe next month I'll know more. I'll also have been to WinHEC to find out what's happening in hardware. We still live in interesting times

Column 260  The Political and the Personal

I will begin with a correction. Last month I said that Wi-Fi was FHSS, and DSSS was obsolete. I had those reversed: 802.11b, aka Wi-Fi, uses DSSS (Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum) technology, and FHSS (Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum) is an older scheme no longer much in use. I can't think it makes much difference to anyone, but my apologies.

Connectivity at Chaos Manor: There is now DSL on the other side of my street. It is about 200 feet closer than I am to the new relay point. We spoke with the technician, and she said the phone lines in this area are old, and I still may not be able to get DSL, but she'd look into it. I probably won't know by the time I file this column, but there's hope: DSL is now a lot closer to Chaos Manor.

I sure won't be sorry. The DirecPC (Now "DirecWay," still by Hughes) satellite connection works in the sense that it's better to have it than not, particularly if we need big downloads like the latest updates to Windows XP; but it works sometimes and sort of, when it feels like working. It's frustrating, liable to cease working at critical times for no reason, and clearly subject to influences such as ghosts rising from the local cemetery. If I can get either cable modem or DSL then I may have a fighting chance at spam control.

Spam Spam Spam Spam

It has gotten beyond all reason. I get hundreds of spams a day now, much of it ingeniously designed to get around my mail filters. That raises a question: If it requires the kind of ingenuity spammers are employing now to get it onto user screens, who is the targeted customer? Would anyone employing mail filters be interested in participating in schemes to rip off the Nigerian Government (I am told that the Nigerian Oil Scam is the third largest industry in Nigeria now)? Surely the spammers cannot believe that there is anyone smart enough to employ the kinds of filters the spammers are so ingeniously defeating, yet stupid enough to fall for these schemes? Or what about Mr. Gordon Levy who owns a domain that keeps sending me information on what to do about my septic tank, only of course I don't have a septic tank (if I did and I could get hold of Mr. Levy I would be glad to let him have a personal tour of my septic tank)? Do these people really believe that even if I had a septic tank I'd employ their services because they sent me 471 messages telling me they can handle my septic tank problem?

It makes me wonder whether there's something else going on here. Could some of this spam be coded messages to long dormant sleepers, and this is a clever way to hide a leaf in the forest? Or is the goal simply to annoy as many people as possible, because Mr. Levy and his ilk know they won't be getting any real customers?

There are two possible solutions to this. One is The Godfather Corporation, which will send large rough men to see the spammers. Enough broken bones and perhaps the life of a spammer won't seem so attractive. Another possibility: A tax on quantity e-mail, say 1/10 of a cent per e-mail, but you need not pay unless you send more than 4,000 in a day. Of course The Direct Mail Association has the lobbyist clout to keep Congress from imposing fees or otherwise hampering the spammers who feel free to waste our time and our computer resources. My guess is that it's going to take direct action by consumers, because the lobbyists have too much clout with Congress.

Three Years of the DMCA

You will find the Electronic Freedom Foundation report at http://www.eff.org/IP/DMCA/20020503_dmca_consequences.pdf. It's depressing. The Digital Millennium Communications Act has been expensive, and most of its effects have been unintended. It didn't accomplish what it said it was intended to do, and it has harmed commerce and the growth of the industry. So what else is new?

Bob Thompson says the purpose of the DMCA was to get us used to prior restraint censorship, and it has done that well: Look at the fear generated by the act.

And every month the movie studios and the music publishers come up with another mad scheme to make copy protection more obtrusive, with heavier criminal penalties for getting around even stupid copy protection, and no concern whatever for matters such as free speech, fair use, or for that matter, the protection of the rights of authors and artists. All the new bills in Congress seem aimed at extending the rights of corporations to Mickey Mouse and similar creations of authors already dead, and none at making the corporations renegotiate often brutally confiscatory contracts that leave the actual creators and their families with little to nothing.

The Constitution allows for the creation of monopolies as a means of encouraging creative activity. I don't see how anyone is given an incentive to do more creating by having a copyright extended long after the artist's death particularly when the artist is already dead, and the copyright is held by a corporation. But once again, corporate interests are represented by big law and lobby firms. The public doesn't have such assets.

Windows XP and ClearType

I still have been unable to get EverQuest to work properly with an ATI Radeon 8500 board. A few people who wrote to tell me they had it working just fine turned out not to actually have done that; they were merely sure it would work if only I did certain things. I did and it didn't. If there are drivers for the ATI that work with EverQuest I can't find them, and it turns out I have not heard from anyone who has managed to make it work.

It's not of earthshaking importance. I find that one can tire of EverQuest, and that's happening to me: The game can be severely addictive for a while, but eventually the excitement is gone. Even so, I have a look in on the EverQuest world once in a while, and I can't do that with the ATI Radeon 8500, although in general I prefer that board for everything else.

Consequently, when I built my latest machines, I used an nVidia GeForce 4 Titanium video board. GeForce boards have wonderful 3D capabilities, but they aren't up to the ATI Radeon in 2D, including text appearance, unless you use ClearType. With ClearType, though, text becomes much nicer, really easy to read gorgeous, if you will. Of course, if you want ClearType you must be running Windows XP.

ClearType, for those who don't know, is a way of font smoothing that makes text look better on screen or at least on most screens, both flat and conventional CRT monitors. With flat screens it is a near necessity, but if it works at all, it will generally improve text appearance. Do understand, it may not work at all: ClearType is a hack, what we used to call a kludge. It doesn't model your display. Instead, it takes advantage of the fact that most screens employ pixels laid out RGB in a horizontal line. For those it works; for other display systems, such as a triangular pattern (with the R, G, and B dots at the apexes), or the IBM large LCDs that are actually 4 smaller LCDs laid together with two of the screens oriented horizontally, ClearType makes things look worse. Mostly, though, it's a well-behaved and clever hack that makes things look better.

ClearType comes with XP, and it makes text such as Word 2000 (which I am using to write this on a GeForce 3 Video board) look very good indeed, and is a major reason for installing Windows XP. To turn it on, right click on the desktop, properties, appearance (tab), effects (button), and you are there. To tune ClearType you need to go to the Microsoft web site, http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/, and do a search for ClearType. That brings up a page that lets you turn on, then tune, ClearType for your system.

The interesting thing is that if you do that with a Windows 2000 system, and go to the tuning page, you will get to download a small ActiveX control. Once you have done that, check the "turn on ClearType" box, then choose the text that looks best, and click the Apply button. You will now have ClearType running on a Windows 2000 system. It doesn't, to me at least, look as good as it does in Windows XP, but I've tested several times now, and it's sure better than without it. (It's easy to turn it off if you decide that you hate it.) The interesting thing is that Microsoft says ClearType doesn't work at all on Windows 2000. I agree that it's better on Windows XP.

So, to get ClearType you don't have to have Windows XP, but it works a lot better (and it's easier to control) if you do. I am no fan of Windows XP, but I have to say that so far on every comparison of Windows 2000 Professional vs. XP Professional, XP wins. On everything but activation, anyway. Activation has never been a problem for me, but then I have MSDN (Microsoft Developers Network), which gives me multiple licenses (and is a very good deal for anyone doing software development).

New Machines

Intel sent me its new D850EMV2 motherboard. This is a Rambus-based board with support for the 522-MHz Front Side Bus (FSB) used by the new Intel Pentium 4 chips. This is considerably faster than the SDR- and DDR-SDRAM boards in general use. Of course, Rambus memory has latency that eats up some of this improvement in memory access speed, but once you get over the latency the memory transfer rate is very high.

We haven't had a lot of experience with the D850E board and chip sets: The board was officially released on May 6 (although we saw some for sale at Fry's on Sunday, May 5). The new board has on-board USB 2.0, but no Ethernet. There's a CNR riser slot, but I don't have anything to put in it, and I don't know anyone who does, although OEMs will probably take advantage of it. Since Ethernet boards are so cheap now it hardly matters; and of course gigabit Ethernet cards are $60 and falling, so perhaps built-in Ethernet isn't so clever after all. I'll have a lot more to say about the system I build with this board; indeed, since I believe that the D850E 533-MHz FSB system with a 2.53-GHz Pentium/4 and a gigabyte of Rambus will become my new "main" system, you'll probably be hearing about it for the rest of the year.

I have also built a new 2.2-GHz system based on the Intel D845BG DDRAM motherboard. This is the second of those I have built. The first one had a quirk: No matter how hard we tried, we could never get that machine to come up with any video board other than a GeForce 2. This may well be due to the aluminum case we built the system in. The problem isn't booting, it's getting the AGP card to seat properly; and except with the GeForce 2 card, there's just no video at all. We tried ATI RADEON, a RADEON All In Wonder, GeForce 3, and GeForce 4 boards, and not one gave any output at all. The GeForce 2 works just fine, and since the machine is extremely fast, and Roberta doesn't need 3D graphics, it will end up in her office to replace her older systems.

Darth

Of course, the question was whether the problem was with the D845BG board itself, or merely with the way it fit into the aluminum case. I had tried various adjustments (including with a hammer) of the spacing between the motherboard and the place where the video card is anchored with screws to the case itself, and I had the feeling this was the problem; but I wanted to be sure. Eventually, this annoyed me enough that I went to Fry's and bought a D845BG board to insert into an Antec Performance 400 Watt case. This case is all black, hence the name "Darth" for the new computer.

Note that if I hadn't been pretty frustrated I wouldn't have done that: Intel is about to release the D845EBG2 board, based on the D845E chipset, and that will run at the 533-MHz FSB speed as opposed to the 400-MHz D845BG, and I really ought to have waited for the new board. The speed difference is significant, and you won't want the current model if the new model is available (unless there's a significant price difference, and I haven't seen figures on that).

Anyway, I bought the D845BG on Sunday afternoon. It was a pretty standard assembly. Fry's had a sale on Seagate 80-GB IDE drives for $100. They also had Zip 250 internal IDE drives for about $60. Both those were too good to pass up, so in they went. The Antec Performance case has some nice features for mounting hardware, and the whole assembly took about an hour. Installing Windows XP took about as long as the construction. I had the GeForce 4 Ti 4600 (128-MB RAM on the video card. 128 megs!) installed when I turned the system on. It came up fine. It booted the XP installation CD off the DVD drive fine.

In fact, I never had an easier installation. The only incident was that I noticed that the HDD light wasn't blinking. This is generally because you have it connected backwards. Since the case was open already, it was easy to lay the system on its side (while it was running; and no, I do NOT advise you to do this), then reverse the HDD connector on the motherboard. That worked fine and the light began blinking furiously. Then I lifted the machine to stand it back up again and the machine stopped. Dead. I realized what I had done. There is a rocker switch on the power supply. I'd hit that in lifting the box. Nothing for it but to turn it back on. Windows XP, bless it, said "restarting setup" and went on as if nothing had ever happened. This comes under the category of silly things I do so you don't have to.

A couple of nights ago we brought up a new machine in XP, but neglected to connect the Ethernet connection to the Chaos Manor network. When it came time to make that installation, Windows XP didn't tell me it wasn't connected to the network: It asked me various questions including who was authorized to add this machine to the Net, trundled, and said it couldn't do it. Once we saw that it wasn't connected and plugged in the Ethernet cable it was too late for the automatic network installation. Recovery from that mistake isn't difficult but it is tedious.

This time I had Darth plugged into the network from the beginning, and XP took care of the details without much help.

Microsoft XP doesn't have fast disk drivers: You install those from the "Express Setup" CD Intel packs with the board. That also has sound drivers that make the on-board sound about as good as you can get without going to really expensive third-party sound boards.

The bottom line is that it took about an hour to build this machine, and a bit longer to install the operating system and software. The result is one heck of a system.


Jerry Pournelle, Ph.D., is a science-fiction writer and Byte.com's senior contributing editor. Contact him at jerryp@jerrypournelle.com. Visit Jerry's Chaos Manor at www.jerrypournelle.com. Reader letters can be found at Jerry's letters page.

For more of Jerry's columns, visit Byte.com's ChaosManor Index page