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Computing At Chaos Manor:
November 13, 2007

The User's Column, November 2007
Column 328, part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


Orlando Comes Home Again

Orlando, my T42p IBM/Lenovo laptop, is still in warranty. A couple of months ago Orlando had a problem with the system fan and had to go to Memphis, Tennessee where Lenovo does warranty maintenance. The story had a happy ending, and except for a couple of day’s use of the machine it cost me nothing at all.

Alas, when Orlando came back he wasn’t quite his old self: that is, he ran Office and nearly all other programs just fine, but when he was asked to do something video intensive like play World of Warcraft, after a few minutes the screen would go blank. He also felt a lot hotter than I thought he should.

The screen would go blank, but Orlando was working fine: if I could fly blind I could even shut him down. (Otherwise I had to use the hardware power switch.) Once shut down he’d boot up again just fine. The problem was repeatable. This seemed worth fixing under warranty, and after a couple of weeks I called Lenovo’s 800 number. Once again the experience was pleasant and professional; within ten minutes the young man in Atlanta determined this was covered by warranty, and had set it up to send me a new box and prepaid DHL shipment label. That arrived the next morning. I packed up Orlando and wrote up the problem, including the write-up in the package with him, but didn’t get around to dropping him off at the DHL office (two blocks from here) until Saturday. The next Thursday morning Orlando arrived back here safe and sound.

I’ve put him through every test including running around in a crowded city in World of Warcraft, where there are hundreds of moving complex objects. No problems at all, and he no longer heats up. He plays movies (using PowerDVD; I’ll talk about that later). Note that Orlando is my computer: IBM/Lenovo has no idea who I am, and I don’t get treatment any different from anyone else – and I can’t say enough good things about their warranty service.

I remain very glad I bought the IBM T42p. That’s the good news. The bad news is they don’t make ThinkPads in that form factor any longer. The new ones are all wide screen. While Orlando was off being fixed (both times) I used Titan, the Lenovo Titanium Z61t Core 2 Duo ThinkPad. Titan works fine. I like everything about him – except that I really prefer the 15” (diagonal; 9” tall by 12” wide screen) T42p to the 14” (8” tall by 12” wide) z61t, and by quite a lot. Clearly I’m in a minority: surveys show that most people want wide screen form factors. It may well be that if I did much travel in coach class I’d prefer the less tall screen also – except that for travel I prefer a TabletPC that I can lay flat on the tray table and use a stylus for editing.

One caution regarding the wider form factor: if you intend to use it with an external monitor, get a wide screen monitor. Orlando the T42p works wonderfully well with a ViewSonic 17” monitor, but text looks pretty bad on that monitor when I connect the z61t to it. On the other hand, at the beach house I have a wide screen ViewSonic, the VA1930wm model, and text looks great on that, whether I am using Orlando or Titan. The moral of this story is that given the growing popularity of wide screen monitors, you probably want to go that way next time you buy one.

Drive Alert Master

Something like 10,000 accidents a year are caused in the United States by drowsiness: people nodding off at the wheel. It has happened to me, although not for more than fifty years.

The gadget of the month comes from Alexander Innovation Wizard: the Drive Alert Master, a small gizmo about the size of a Bluetooth in your ear phone, but lighter and a bit more comfortable. The Alert Master measures the angle of your head. Nod off, and it sounds loud beeps in your ear until you sit up straight again. It also scares the daylights out of you, which is no bad thing.

This isn’t going to work very well if you’re in the habit of violently nodding your head to music, and it can scare you if you look down at your feet, but for the most part you don’t notice it’s there, and it does work.

Network Storage: D-link DNS-323

When you replace your desktop computer, you will probably have one or more leftover SATA disk drives. I used to put those into a “box of drives” computer named Newton. Newton resides in the cable/server room and is networked into the Chaos Manor local net. He is still there and in operation, and in fact I use him as one of my storage devices. The Chaos Manor backup system consists of copying important work to half a dozen places, and Newton is one of those places. He’s also the remote site where OneNote files go so that they can be retrieved by any of the systems running OneNote.

Nowadays it’s not necessary to use a “box of drives” computer, and new drives are cheap. As Bob Thompson puts it, it makes no sense to install old, small drives in an appliance that will sit unnoticed off in a corner and work reliably for a long time. It’s far better to get new drives and use a dedicated networked storage device. I still keep Newton as a sort of tertiary backup system, but only because I already have him.

A number of companies make network storage enclosures that come complete with RAID and networking software. One of the best of these is the D-link DNS-323 2 Bay Network Storage Enclosure. You can insert one or two SATA internal drives of any size and connect to them through your router or other networking system. The DNS-323 doesn’t have its own wireless access point; you connect to your router with an Ethernet cable.

The DNS-323 can be configured as two independent drives, or in a RAID configuration; it comes with RAID software and hardware. Installation and replacement of drives is simple and requires no tools: push pull, click click to insert or remove either drive. With two 500 GB drives you’ll have a terabyte of storage on line and ready to use. There’s backup software similar to the Mirra software: it will back up files in real time, if that’s what you want. I’ve found that real time backup works fine when working with Microsoft Word, but if you use it to backup Outlook PST files it will noticeably slow down your system; I gave up real time backup for Outlook, and back up the pst files at night after I go to bed. If you have smaller PST files, this may not be a problem.

The DNS-323 comes with ftp server software so that you can use it to share files across the internet. Like all the other D-Link equipment I’ve used, the DNS-323 Just Works. Recommended.

Plextor PX-608CU

Most TabletPC computers do not have a DVD drive and must use an external drive for their input or to show movies. The one I use is the Plextor PX-608CU, which works as an 8X DVD +-R, 4X DVD +-R DL, 5X DVD-RAM, and 24X CD-R/RW/ROM. It comes with two USB cables, one for data and the other for power. There’s also an external power supply if you want to plug it into the wall.

Whether you can run with power from the USB ports depends on what you’re doing. There’s no problem playing CD’s and CD ROM. Playing a movie from DVD is another matter. Depending on the machine, but even more so depending on the DVD player software, using USB power alone either the movie won’t play at all, or it’s jerky and unwatchable, or it may be satisfactory. A story goes with this.

Plextor External DVD drive, Saitek A-200 speaker
Ronin playing on the Plextor external drive powered by USB, on the T60 TabletPC. Note the Saitek A-200.

Using the wall plug I managed to get Ronin, the DVD movie I generally use to test DVD performance, to play well enough that it is worth watching on Leonardo the Lenovo X60 TabletPC; but it wasn’t very good. That’s using the built-in Vista DVD player software (Leonardo runs with Windows Business Vista). Fortunately, changing DVD software will change that.

The Plextor PX-608CU is at least as good as any other portable USB-connected DVD player I’ve tried, and I don’t know of a better one. If you need a combination DVD / CDROM reader/writer for your portable, this is the right one to get. For many uses it will run on USB power, but be prepared to find that you’ll have to plug it into the wall; that is, if you’re going to install software using this, you’ll be wise to get it installed while you have wall power; and don’t expect to play DVD movies on an airplane with the usual DVD software.

DVD Player Software

Windows Vista comes with media player software. On the X60 Tablet PC that just works, and the test movie, Ronin, plays acceptably using the Plextor PX-608CU when the Plextor is powered by wall power; but only acceptably. When I installed Cyberlink’s PowerDVD player, it moved past acceptable to very good. I found that DVD movie performance using the built-in DVD player in the Z61T is no better than acceptable, either.

The remedy is to install better DVD player software. I recommend PowerDVD.

I have in general found that of all the DVD movie player software, Cyberlink PowerDVD is the easiest to use and gives the best movie viewing experience. I have found that to be the case on both laptop and desktop machines, and I use PowerDVD in preference to anything else. PowerDVD is included with many DVD drives, and I’ve heard some say that since it’s free it must not be very good. That has not been my experience.

Interestingly, using Windows Vista DVD player on the X60 TabletPC to play Ronin, our test movie, with the Plextor PX-608CU requires that the Plextor be plugged into the wall, and even then the movie experience isn’t very good: it’s jerky. With PowerDVD, though, I can play the movie powering the Plextor PX-608CU with USB power. I’m not sure I understand what’s going on, but this is repeatable on the z61t as well. My recommendation is that you get PowerDVD if you intend to watch movies on airplanes, and particularly so if you’re going to do that powering an external DVD drive from the USB port.

Saitek iVenture A-200 Travel Speaker

One problem I have with movies on laptop computers is that I can’t hear them. I found this to be the case on nearly every laptop I have tried, and that includes my Mac PowerBook. It just isn’t loud enough.

One remedy to that is a good pair of earphones, but if you want to have someone watch the movie with you, you need an external speaker. The best one of these I have found is the Saitek A-200.

Pinnacle Studio MovieBox Ultimate

I just got this, so the real review will be next month: but you ought to know about the Pinnacle Studio MovieBox Ultimate. Capture video, import it from any source, mix and edit it, then burn it to disk. The hardware, software, and manual comes with a 6 foot square green screen.

More another time, but if you’re planning on video podcasting, you will want to look into this.