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Computing At Chaos Manor: September 18, 2006

The User's Column, September, 2006
Column 314, part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

Major Glitch in Word 2007

I was attempting to format the mailbag by eliminating extra newlines from mail. My usual means for that is to replace ^p^p^p with ^p^p and then do any further editing by hand. (^p is interpreted by Word as a paragraph marker.) My first attempt didn't work at all because I had ^P^p^p in the search string, and I got a message that ^P is not a valid search object.

I was a bit surprised by that, but it turns out that Word 2003 doesn't recognize ^P either. However, when I fixed that and told Word 2007 to replace all, the system went off into fairyland. Attempts to close it got a fatal error and crashed Word itself. I haven't experimented to see whether this was a problem with some odd characters in the mail I was editing or is inherent in searching for ^p^p^p; I have reported this to Microsoft and we can let them fix it, which I am sure they will. But fair warning, if you are experimenting with Word 2007, be sure to save early and often.

Vista

I have both 32 and 64 bit versions of the newest release candidate of Vista. It took longer to get them than I thought it would, most of that being my fault in that I didn't read the MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) instructions and titles closely enough. MSDN is invaluable, and if you do any kind of Microsoft software development work you simply must be an MSDN subscriber, but I sure would appreciate it if they spent a little more effort on explaining what's available.

In any event, I ended up downloading the SDK and WDK sets, mistaking them for the Vista OS itself. Then I wasted time trying to make bootable disks out of those, of course without success.

Each of those downloads took from one to four hours - they are big files - and fooling about trying to make them bootable ate more time. Then I discovered that one of my machines is haunted; at least the Gigabyte K8NS939 motherboard has some weird configuration requirements. We had Vista 64 (the February Beta) running on that machine, but Vista 64 wouldn't install because we couldn't find drivers that would let it recognize a perfectly ordinary Seagate SATA Barracuda, even though it clearly recognized it well enough to run Beta Vista 64.

I still haven't entirely solved that problem, but Ron Morse has found me a copy of a manual that will do the trick. He tells me that "Windows doesn't support SATA devices on motherboards that use the nVidia nForce 3 chipset (such as the Gigabyte K8NS939) unless you install a software driver during the setup process. The situation is more confusing because the driver is labeled a RAID driver, but you need it to support SATA drives whether you intend to use the RAID or not."

When I do get that board to recognize hard drives properly, I will probably put Windows XP on it and use the system that way. It's not fair to Vista to use a haunted machine for tests.

As an aside, I have never had weird driver problems with Intel CPU and motherboards. AMD's main problem has always been with support chip sets, and while Gigabyte offers a lot of features for overclocking and using RAID, it's not so easy to set it up as a plain vanilla system. I now use ASUS motherboards exclusively when building AMD systems - but it's not entirely likely that I will be doing much with AMD systems for a while.

We have one reliable and capable AMD system using AMD dual processors. That is Alexis, my main communications machine. She is fast and reliable and I like her, and I expect her to last for some time before replacement; but were I building a new communications system, I'd go to an Intel motherboard and a Core 2 Duo system.

Actually, the next system here will probably not be one we build at all: I'm really curious to see World of Warcraft running in Vista on an Intel Core 2 Duo Mac.

The bottom line here is that by the time I got clean copies of Vista Release Candidate One, I had run out of time for testing it. With luck, next week's column will be written on Word 2007 running in Vista.

Maybe. They have made Vista so secure that I can't figure out how to transfer files from one computer to another, no matter how I am logged in. XP asks for a user name and password with permissions. Vista just laughs at me, and I hate it already, but we'll see. Stay tuned.

Wireless Pre-N: our experience

Wireless gets faster and faster. I recall the first time I saw wireless transmission of a movie from one laptop to another. Everyone who saw it was amazed.

The newest wireless standard - and standards headache - is "n", to follow 802.11b and g. (Background:802.11a operates in the 5GHz band; 802.11b/g at 2.4Ghz, the same as a microwave oven. The full 802.11n standard covers both bands, but most current products, like the Belkin, only run on 2.4Ghz.)

The "n" standard was supposed to have been agreed to by now, but that didn't happen. There's a meeting set in January 2007 that could in theory adopt a new standard, but best guesses are that this will result in another proposal, and it will be January 2008 before a standard is finalized.

Meanwhile, throughout the computer press world there is a lot of agonizing about what to do in the interim. I've read at least forty pages of advice and speculations on the subject, but I don't think I learned much from any of it.

My experience with the coming "n" standard has been simple. Well over a year ago we installed the Belkin Pre-n Wireless Router http://catalog.belkin.com/IWCatProductPage.process?Product_Id=184316 to replace our previous D-Link "g" router. The D-Link worked well, but it didn't cover anything like all of Chaos Manor. I couldn't, for example, take Lisabetta the TabletPC down to the breakfast table and have her connected to the Internet. We were told that the "n" might let us do that.

The Belkin wireless connects through the D-Link Gaming Router, which in turn connects to the Time Warner (formerly Adelphia) Cable modem.

We did nothing else. Although we have some Belkin Pre-n PC cards for laptops, we haven't used them beyond testing to see that they work. They work fine, and they probably expand the range of the Belkin Pre-n Wireless Router, but we haven't needed them because all our laptops work quite well all over Chaos Manor using nothing more than their built-in wireless systems. Lisabetta can connect at the breakfast table. Moreover, visitors to Chaos Manor can connect to our network without difficulty once we give them the net name and password.

All this not only works, it works seamlessly. I have no trouble with net connections, including playing on-line games. Alex and Dan often use the wireless connection rather than plugging in an Ethernet cable to one of the gigabit switches distributed about the Great Hall.

Belkin Pre-n Wireless unit
The Belkin Pre-n Wireless Router is carelessly placed in a window in the store room, where it provides Internet connection to laptops using their internal wireless systems in all parts of Chaos Manor.

Of course we don't load the system heavily. It's uncommon to have more than one system using the wireless connection, and quite rare to have more than two. I think the most we have had connected at once was four systems. At no time did anyone complain, but I suspect that if all four had attempted big downloads the experience wouldn't have been very satisfactory.

For normal use, though, the Belkin Pre-n Wireless Router has been a great deal better than Good Enough, and even if the final standard when adopted casts the Belkin system into the outer darkness, the convenience of having it for the intermediary years is more than worth what it cost. If you have special needs for a heavy duty wireless network, you should probably pay attention to some of those agonizing advice articles; but if all you want is wireless coverage of an average house and yard for normal Internet connections, get a Belkin Pre-n, install it, and enjoy using it. Recommended.

Peter Glaskowsky adds:

Belkin is apparently unusual in that its Pre-N features, such as the multiple antennae, may help it work better with older Wi-Fi networks than other pre-N products. Other products used in the pre-N mode have been observed to wipe out other 802.11b networks within their range of operation.

{ ZDNet blog link }

and

{ Tom's Networking link }

So my advice to potential customers is:

Choose pre-N hardware carefully, based on recently published tests by reputable magazines or other organizations.

If you don't need to use the pre-N mode to get satisfactory speed and range, don't use it.

Be mindful of the potential effects on your neighbors' Wi-Fi networks.

Which I am sure is good advice; in my case we don't seem to have had any effect on the neighbors at all (they continue to run wide open systems despite my neighborly warnings).

Hot and Dead Spots

I first heard about the Spotwave Zen 1900 (link) intelligent wireless cell phone improvement system around the first of the year. I was more than eager to get one, because in those times the only way I could get my Cingular cell phone to work at Chaos Manor was to get as close to the big window as possible and stay there. Wandering even a couple of feet would drop the call. When Dan Spisak visited Chaos Manor he had much the same experience, except that he could put the phone on the window sill and use the Bluetooth connection to his in-your-ear headset to take calls.

I chose Pacific Bell mobile telephone service because it worked in Chaos Manor when other services didn't. Of course, after a couple of years Pac Bell was sold to Cingular, and while I am told that overall service improved, you couldn't prove it by me: after the sale I could no longer use my phone inside my house. It still worked on the balcony outside, but then Cingular was sold to SBC, and after that I was left with crowding against one outside window if I wanted to use my phone in my house. SBC became AT&T, but there was no improvement.

Spotwave promised to fix all that. Put the Spotwave anywhere it could get signal - say on the window sill - and it would allow me to use my cell phone anywhere in the house; or so they promised. I couldn't wait to try that.

They hoped to have an early unit for me to try in April, but as with many new electronic marvels there was some slippage in the schedule. Then, in May, AT&T/Cingular did something about the situation. Perhaps they reactivated a tower that had been left unused since Pac Bell days. Whatever they did, suddenly I could use my cell phone all over my house.

The Spotwave people offered me an early test unit in August. I wasn't sure I needed it, since my cell phone worked just fine, but they said they'd promised me one, and they wanted me to give it a try. A week or so later Chaos Manor Associate Dan Spisak came over and saw the Spotwave. Indoor cellphone coverage at his house in Orange County was not very good, so I had him take the unit for testing. Here is his report:

One would think in this day and age that cellular communications would completely blanket the US. Alas, this is not the case. While cellular network providers tout how good their coverage is on ads in television and radio there are still plenty of people who have limited coverage in the areas they need it most. While you might have 4 or 5 bars on your phone outside of your house, once inside in your office you have one if you're lucky. If this sounds like your situation and you absolutely need working cellular coverage then the Spotwave Z1900 due out in October for $399 is worth your attention.

The Z1900 is a consumer oriented smart cellular repeater meant to help expand your signal coverage throughout your location. It works with a variety of standards including CDMA and GSM voice along with 1xRTT, GPRS, EDGE and EV-DO data services as well as UMTS for both voice and data. Being consumer oriented, the Z1900 has built-in intelligence to ensure that the unit will adapt to any changes in the RF environment so that it doesn't interfere with other RF users, and generally plays nice with others.

The Z1900 comes in two major pieces, a high-gain panel style antenna Spotwave calls the Network Access Unit and a smaller low power smart cellular repeater called the Coverage Unit. The two pieces are hooked together via a 35 foot long thin coaxial cable that comes in the box. It is powered by an AC power adapter that plugs into the smaller repeater component. The AC adapter only reaches 6 feet long however, so wherever you place the smart repeater inside of your house needs to be reasonably close to power. There are also some metal mounting brackets that come with the package for final mounting of the antenna and repeater.

Setting up the Z1900

The Z1900 comes with a fairly well written manual that isn't really needed. There is no programming or configuration to be done to either part of the unit, which is a welcome relief. Setup is about as difficult as installing a satellite dish, mainly because you will be mounting the antenna portion of the Z1900 into a wall somewhere either inside or outside of your home. Spotwave has you use your cellphone to walk around your home to find the area where you get the best signal as the antenna has no way to tell you how much signal it is receiving. Note that the Z1900 will only work for you if you can actually get a good signal somewhere that it can be mounted, since the Z1900 can't extend coverage where there is none to work with. If you have zero bars everywhere at your home, the Z1900 won't be able to help you.

While using your cellphone to find the point of best reception one has to keep in mind that wherever you place the Z1900's antenna, you will still need to run a coaxial cable from it to the smaller repeater somewhere inside where the signal is most needed. The unit's included 35 foot cable is probably long enough for most apartments and condos but in larger homes you may find yourself needing a longer cable. Once you've found the right spot for the antenna and run the cable from it to the repeater you have to power on the unit and check an LED indicator on the antenna unit. This LED is used to display how much RF separation exists between the Spotwave's antenna and its repeater. The more frequently the LED flashes the poorer the RF separation between the two units. Ideally you want enough separation between the two so the LED stays solid constantly, but Spotwave says the devices can work with as little as 10 feet of separation. Once you have your units hooked up and powered on with a good separation its best to test things before permanently mounting the units to a wall.

Come in good buddy!

Z1900 Antenna lounging by the pool
The Z1900 high gain antenna (Spotwave calls it the Network Access Unit) in its temporary setup by the pool. This was where I got the most bars, three, on the SE T610.

Once your setup is ready to test it couldn't be easier to use the Z1900. Simply turn on your phone and use it as you would normally. No complicated changes are required to your phone whatsoever. Making and receiving calls continues to work just as it did before, except now with 4-5 bars of coverage on the phone. At my home office I have notoriously bad coverage with my Sony Ericsson T610 GSM phone on T-Mobile, typically one bar at best. Colleagues and coworkers would know immediately if I was at home when they reached me on my cellphone due to the poor signal I would get. To even get that one bar of coverage I'd have to situate the phone in a predetermined spot where I knew the phone worked best.

After about half an hour of walking around the house with the phone, I set up the Z1900 temporarily with the antenna outside of the house by our pool and the smart repeater inside my office. With this arrangement in place, even not properly mounted to a wall high up for better reception, I found the audio quality of my calls improved so much that when people called me at home they could no longer tell I was calling them from there. I now have 5 bars inside of my office and that signal extends to enough of the rest of the house to make the phone useable throughout most of it.

A five-bar cell phone in front of Z1900 repeater.
The Spotwave Z1900 Coverage Unit on its desktop stand and SE T610 phone with 5 bars now

At the end of the day the Spotwave Z1900 does deliver what it promises, and without too much hassle either. Of course, it's only going to help you if there is at least one location where you can get decent to good signal from your cellular provider. Secondly, the Z1900 functionality only works in the 1900MHz PCS band. If you have a cellular provider that works on other frequencies this will not work for you. Here in the US, Cingular still operates in some areas on the 850MHz GSM band along with 1900MHz. Other providers however like Sprint and T-Mobile work only within the PCS bands.

When the product ships in October you will be able to go to Spotwave's website at http://www.spotwave.com/ and enter your ZIP code to find out if the Z1900 will work with your cellular provider in your area. Overall the unit is very effective at what it does and it gets the job done. Highly Recommended.

Windows Problem

Robert Bruce Thompson (RBT) and Peter Glaskowsky are old friends who often help by doing sanity checks on my column.

Peter recently sent this:

You should examine the Windows problem RBT describes on his blog this week:

http://www.ttgnet.com/daynotes/2006/2006-37.html#Tue

Basically there's a system configuration option under My Computer that can cause serious data corruption under some circumstances, and it bit him. [Thompson describes losing data to the Windows: Delayed Write Failed error we've encountered before. Read his account for details.]

The error is documented in a couple of Microsoft KnowledgeBase entries, and it's pretty easy to check to see if your system(s) are vulnerable to the problem.

I think this is one of those things that you ought to mention to your readers.

The Knowledge Base entry mentions a "System cache" option:

http://support.microsoft.com/kb/330174

which gives the instructions for making sure this entry isn't set:

To avoid this problem ensure the System Cache option is NOT selected for Memory usage. To do this, follow these steps:

  1. Click Start, right-click "My Computer", and then click Properties to open the System Properties dialog box.
  2. Click the Advanced tab, and then under Performance click Settings.
  3. Under Performance Options, click the Advanced tab.
  4. Under Memory Usage, click to select Programs, if it is not already selected.
  5. Click OK.

I checked all the machines here that I maintain, and they all had the "Programs" option selected rather than "System cache."

The "System cache" option is apparently meant for servers, which is exactly the environment where data corruption is most dangerous.

Then I saw that the "System cache" option is disabled by default in Windows XP, but can be re-enabled by users:

http://support.microsoft.com/kb/895932

Why Microsoft allows this option to be selected by the user on XP, I can't fathom; if there's a problem associated with it, it should be impossible to select.

It's pretty clear that the "System cache" option on XP is highly dangerous, and users should make sure they don't have it selected.

To be fair, this problem appears to be resolved in Vista.

On the Vista RC1 machine I set up here, the "Memory usage" option has been completely removed from the "Performance Options, Advanced" window. The "SystemPages" registry key mentioned in KB entry 330174 is set to 0, unlike the default (safe) XP value of 0x000c3000, so the key is probably no longer used for anything. That suggests the size of the page table is no longer limited by a registry key, which is the root of the original problem.

. png

I looked at all my machines immediately after reading Peter's note. None of them had the dangerous "System Cache" option selected. Then I recalled that a year or so ago I tried some backup software that did in fact set that option - and that I got the dreaded Microsoft Delayed Write Failed error. That machine has since been retired so I can't look to see, but I suspect that uninstalling that backup software restored the default. It doesn't take long to check this, and it's worth doing.

One other thing: if the "My Computer" on your desktop is a shortcut, right clicking that and selecting properties won't work. You will have to go to the Start Menu and right click the "My Computer" entry there to set properties.

One Strange Movie

We went to the opening night of The Black Dahlia, and I cannot recall seeing a stranger movie. It wasn't a bad movie. We were never tempted to leave - indeed it was quite entertaining. It just didn't make sense. If you like film noir you will probably like this, but don't expect all the twists and turns to have logical explanations. Perhaps they do, and are just beyond my ken in my present condition, but Roberta can't figure out most of them either. I am not sure the Director knew what was going on; I'm quite certain no one else does.