Monday, November 21, 2011

Windows XP is not dead

While you can't buy a Windows XP PC anymore, the 9-year old operating system is far from dead.  Microsoft still supports it, as far as keeping the Windows Update site running.  Also, on non-hyperthreaded/single CPU systems, it is probably the fastest OS.  However, that could still be quite slow, if your PC is exactly as it was when you bought it (256mb ram, 20gb hard drive).  When you first brought that computer home, it probably would've been quite snappy, but 9 years of Windows Updates and memory-hungry browsers have also bogged down the OS.  With all the latest updates, you'll need more hardware.
I had enough parts to rebuild a PC for a friend, and put XP Pro on it.  The original hardware was an Athlon 1600+ (1.4ghz), 512mb ram, 20gb 5200 rpm hard drive.  It worked, but after any kind of extended use, it started madly thrashing to disk.  I decided to put in a few upgrades to see what kind of impact it would have.
Startup time (from Windows logo until the red shield appeared to indicate a lack of antivirus): 1:03 minute
IE startup: 22 seconds
Chrome startup: 42 seconds
Power off: 43 seconds

Let's bump that up to 1gb of ram to reduce the thrashing:
Startup time: 47 seconds
IE startup: 37 seconds
Chrome: 31 seconds
Power off: 19 seconds

Ok, that's better, but let's substitute for a 7200rpm 40gb drive:
Startup: 36 s
IE: 33 s
chrome: 8.8 s
Power Off: 12 s

So, if you (or possibly your parents) are running XP on anything less than 512 mb of ram on a 5400 rpm drive, you could more than double the performance of the computer just by throwing more ram and upgrading the hard drive.  Of course, sourcing the parts may be a problem (stores stopped carrying IDE drives about 4 years ago), but if you have another dead PC somewhere, you may be able to combine the parts to make something usuable, for free.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

PCI TV tuner card review

TV tuner cards
My father requested me to digitally record a tv show for him recently.  I don't have a PVR, so my only option was to use an analog TV tuner card on the analog RCA-outs of the digital Telus Optik tuner box.

I used an ATI TV Wonder PCI card extensively about five to fifteen years ago, and it worked well.  However, my brother left me two other tuner cards, both newer than my ATI card.  I did try them in the past, but had the bare cards only, without any drivers or identification on the cards themselves (other than the chipset).  I had no success in getting them to work.

Over the years, I eventually found the boxing and drivers, but didn't have a chance to try it out till now.  Here are my findings (which won't be too useful to anybody out there now, unless someone is trying to get old hardware to work)
Manufactured: 1999
Software: MMC, version 7.9 (newer versions would not properly redraw the video overlay if, for instance, the window were resized).  Also, there'd be odd problems with the record button not showing up.  7.9 is the newest stable version I could get to work.  Features like video-shifting, while present, do not work or could cause the computer to crash.
Driver: tvw-pci-ve-driver-1-11-0-0.exe
Scheduling: Scheduling programs to either watch or record has always been reliable.
Recording options: Once recording, can set a time or duration when it will stop

Manufactured: 2000
Software: a barebones tv watching and recording software.  No keyboard support.
Driver: On the driver CD are Win2k drivers, which will work with XP.  Caveats: it will greedily use the ATI drivers, which will only provide composite (RCA) and svideo inputs; the tuner itself will be unavailable.  I was using a Windows XP box that I'm going to reghost after this testing, so I made frequent use of System Restore to roll back the system state to prior my ATI driver installations.  Only then could I point the driver search to the CD.
I searched all around the internet for actual working drivers.  It uses a bt878 chipset, which is also what ATI uses, but the generic bt878 drivers I found online don't seem to do the job.
Even after I got the device manager to stop showing yellow exclamation marks, however, I still couldn't get any audio out of this card.  Most PCI tv cards don't provide audio directly to the system; rather, they pass it to the sound card.  With the ATI card, audio passed in through the CD input to the system.  With this card, there's no internal connector, so one must use a 3.5" audio cable to connect the audio-out jack to the line-in jack of the video card.  A bit clumsy, and in this case, not working at all.  There was simply no audio-out, regardless of the drivers I used, regardless of whether I used the 3DeMON TV software or the ATI software (which worked as well since the chipset is similar).
Scheduling: none
Recording options: the TV viewing software sucked so much I didn't bother trying to record.

Leadtek WinFast 2000
Manufactured: 2003
Software: probably the best looking software.  The best feature was the ability to record in whatever aspect ratio was specified.  For instance, if 16:9 was specified, the resulting video would appear in 16:9 (as viewed in VLC).  ATI's would insist on recording the video letterboxed.  The software seems generic enough to work with the ATI hardware.
Driver: I found this on the internet years ago.  I don't know where you'd find it now.
Recording options: When recording, also has ability to specify how much longer to record for, and whether to shut down the computer when down recording.  The other big plus is time-shifting, which allows you to pause the live program you might be watching, and return to it later (and skip commercials)

The one caveat when recording from the Optik box (from any of these inputs) is that Optik will reset the aspect ratio to 4:3 when it detects an HDMI connection (which happens when you switch your TV to the HDMI input).  This isn't terrible - it's just that the picture quality would be squished in sending to the TV card.  One needs to navigate the Optik menus to switch back to 16:9 aspect ratio.

Phantom power - should we care?

I wanted measure the relative electricity consumption of various devices around the home, especially with regards to the so-called phantom power.  Phantom power is a power draw used by devices that are plugged in, even when they are not actively turned on (like televisions, VCRs which do nothing except for display the time, and computers). You've probably heard the occasional reminder from your power company about the significance of phantom power.  I've wondered just how significant this is to our power usage, so I bought a power metering device from Zellers.  It provides the real-time power usage of any device plugged in.  Here's some data:
Compact fluorescent lamp: 19w
My Windows Mobile PDA on, and charging: 12w
Same, only charging and not on: 1w
24" LCD monitor, on: 22w
same monitor, off: 0w

Yamaha 67 key musical keyboard (on): 7w
Same, off: 3w
PC: 9w when off, 112w when on
laptop (on): 53w

Phone charger (microUSB), nothing plugged in: 0w

Phone charger (microUSB), phone plugged in: 3w

The phantom power of a bunch of devices plugged into my computer power bar 17w
Phantom power of a bunch of devices plugged into my media centre: 22w

BC Hydro charges our home a basic fee, and a variable fee.  The variable is $0.0667 per kWh.  A kWh is the amount of energy used by 1000W for one hour, or 100W for 10 hours.

As far as phantom power on all my devices goes, that's about 40w * 720h = 28.8 kwh , or less than $2, which is basically not all that significant, costwise.

D complains whenever I need to leave the computer on overnight, so I calculated that for 8 hours:
112/1000 * 8 * 0.0667 = $0.06.  For those who leave your computers on 24/7 for the the entire month, this is $5.38.

Where is most of our power going then?
lighting - incandescent bulbs are notoriously inefficient
cooking - there's a reason they're plugged into 240v outlets

We don't use the drier, and seldom use the dishwasher, so none of our power is going there.

As an experiment this month, we've refrained from switching on our home heating (forced air) and will only use  electrical heating (portable space heaters) for our home.  When our next bill comes, we will compare it with the same period last year where we used our home's gas heating (which doesn't work very efficiently anyways in our home) and will compare costs.  I suspect the cost difference will be less than $10 since our regular variable rate for gas is also quite low.  If so, the savings won't be worth the inconvenience of lugging our space heaters around and the temporary pain with leaving our localized warming areas.

**all costs are minus HST**

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hard drive reliability

The problem with modern day reliability tests of hard drives is that it is difficult to test how time affects drives.  Running a drive for five years is not the same as reading and writing terabytes of data to a drive for a month.  Voltage spikes on booting up a computer and vibrations from removing a drive from a case can't be mimicked in a lab.

Brand reputation doesn't mean a whole lot either.  No brand that I've owned has been immune to the click of death or the high pitched wheeze that accompanies a dying or dead drive.

I've gone through lots of hard drives in my time.  Thankfully, most have died after being decommissioned, or I was able to recover the data from them before putting them out to pasture.  As a service to someone out there (and for my own record), here are the hard drives that have died on me.

Western Digital 2.1 gb.  This is the first ever drive that died on me.  The motor spinning it just got weak, and I'd have to give it a quick twirl in my wrist to get it in motion.  Once in motion, it was fine for a short while.  Eventually, I got write errors, so I put this drive out to pasture.  I was glad for the excuse--it was by far the loudest drive I've ever owned.

Samsung 20g (SV2002H).  I've always liked Samsung as the maker of the quietest drives.  Unfortunately, they do have a reputation as unreliable drives.  I'm 1 for 2 as far as reliability is concerned for this brand.

IBM Deskstar (IC35L040AVER07).  I chose this one mainly for the performance reports from some online source.  They were commonly referred to in the hardware community as Deathstars.  This is the only IBM drive I've ever owned.

Western Digital (WD1200).  I didn't buy this drive; it was part of a RAID config when it failed, so no big loss.

Quite a few Maxtor drives have passed through my possession, but surprisingly none have died.

The moral of the story is that all drives will die.  Even you fans of Solid State Drive might one day be disappointed that your drive is dying (though I'd expect them to be more reliable).  Run a back up system.  For a while, I was running a file mirroring software over network shares, but that required me to be diligent about running it.  Currently, I use a software package that backs up the folders on your computer to another computer on the network, which takes care of the two most likely reasons to need a backup - drive failure, and theft.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Switching inputs on HDTV to PC not picking up signal

I'm now using my Optiplex 620 as my media PC rather than D's PC for a few reasons:
- it doesn't supply any USB power when turned off, so our USB printer (Epson Stylus 520) goes nuts for about 30 seconds with a cleaning cycle when the PC is shut down
- The Windows install that I thought was fixed was still really wonky after that repair I talked about in the prior post: the NetGear drivers would crash every once in a while, a particular Windows Update simply wouldn't work, and I fudged up some of the NTFS permissions on some key folders preventing the Windows Firewall Service from starting up correctly

Because of this, the Optiplex is now on our LCD TV (Samsung).  I soon realized that there was a problem of sorts.  When I switched inputs to the TV from the PC HDMI to anything else and back, the signal would not return to the TV.  I had to unplug the cable, and replug.  I figured it might be a driver problem, so I switched from Dell's driver to ATI's driver for the video card, a Radeon X600.  No cigar.

Then I started reading about similar stories for which the out-of-reach fix would be a mythical ATI Catalyst driver that would solve the problems.

The source of the problem is that some video cards (or their drivers) will stop sending a signal when the output is lost connection (in the case of the LCD TV, that happens when you switch modes and it is no longer "listening" on the HDMI PC connection).  When you switch back to that mode, the TV starts listening, but the video card does not resume sending the signal.  When you unplug and plug the cable, a HDMI handshaking happens communicating the output parameters, fixing the problem

Unplugging the cable is not a viable permanent solution.

I eventually found this tool, which effectively resets the display to force a handshake:

I assigned it to a hotkey on my keyboard, so I can now manually reset the display.  Not quite as good as automatically, but until I upgrade my TVPC to Win7, this will have to do.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Able to browse to shares, unable to enumerate them

I've struggled with this problem on one of my WINXP Home boxes for years, and have simply resigned myself to jumping directly to the \\machinename\share rather than being able to conveniently browsing it from \\machinename.  Finally, tonight, I figured it out (with the help of

start | Run | type 'Regedit' in the box.

On the left hand pane, navigate to:

In the LSA folder, look in the right-hand pane.
look for the value 'RestrictAnonymous'.

It needs to be zero.
If it is not, double-click it and set it to zero.

( The value of RestrictAnonymousSam can be left at 1. )

Close regedit, and re-boot the server machine.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Migration of XP in IDE drive to SATA in a Dell Optiplex

Moving one XP installation to another drive typically will take several days.  Basically, it is

  1. prepping your old drive
  2. imaging your old drive to the other drive
  3. booting up the other drive
  4. fixing all the problems that come up.
With that in mind, I still thought it would be better to migrate my wife's WinXP home installation to the Optiplex than installing Windows from scratch (which, if I did, would be with Win7) which would require me to source the various software packages that she uses.

This took about 3 days, but it's finally (mostly) working.  Here it is in detail.  Read through it before following the steps, as not all steps are necessary, or you may be able to adjust the steps more efficiently.

  1. Backup your essential info on your IDE drive with your old pc
  2. Download the optiplex network, chipset and display drivers and save it - this will save you time later when you need these drivers but have no network connection with which to get them
  3. Prior to the last time you shut down the source install of Windows, go into the Device Manager and remove the IDE controller.  This step was required for switching to a different IDE controller (or else your machine wouldn't be able to boot past the low-res Windows logo), but I'm not sure if this is necessary anymore since we're moving to SATA.  It doesn't hurt though, since Windows will auto-install the controller on bootup.
  4. Create a UBCD4WIN bootable CD
  5. Move your IDE drive into the Optiplex (which already has a SATA drive)
  6. Ensure that your IDE drive is accessible by pressing F2 at bootup to enter the BIOS setup and making sure the PATA connections are set to ON.  Also make sure you can boot to the CD while you're here.
  7. After booting up UBCD4WIN, use a tool to create partitions that will at least hold the data of your old drive.  I just used the Disk Management tool that comes with Windows (r-click on Windows Explorer and choose Manage).
  8. Run DriveBackupXML to copy your IDE partitions to the SATA partitions.  In my case, my IDE drive was drive 0, and SATA was drive 1, but DriveBackupXML will at least show drive labels to help you confirm this.
  9. Go back into the Disk Management Tool of step 6 to set the main partition as Active.
  10. Shut down your computer, and disconnect your IDE drive.
  11. Boot up, making sure that your are booting up to your SATA drive and not your cdrom drive (in case your UBCD4WIN is still in the drive)
  12. See how far Windows gets in its bootup. (once Windows can boot up, you can put your old IDE drive back into your old machine, in case you still need it to access the internet and look up problems)
  13. If you are able to see the mouse cursor, then you know that the drive is accessible through Windows.  If not, boot back into UBCD4WIN and run FIX_HDC.  Then try booting back into Windows.
  14. In my case, it seemed everything was working except for mouse and keyboard.  Normally, those would autodetect properly.  However, the network drivers weren't installed for the onboard ethernet, and its Yes/No dialog  prevented any further drivers from being installed. There is no way to install drivers from within a UBCD4WIN environment, nor is there a way to do it from the Recovery Console. My only recourse was to do a repair, also known as an in-place upgrade: . Note that you'll need your original XP install CD to do this.  I had made an XP SP3 slipstreamed CD a few yrs back, so this did the trick...sorta.
  15. While I was now able to use the mouse and keyboard, there were a few new problems:
    1. the Network Connections showing up no connections despite the network adapter drivers having been installed correctly (as reported in Device Manager).  I followed all the steps here, to no avail:
    2. The second issue was that ATI Control Centre (which I no longer needed in the optiplex) which ran on startup was complaining that it didn't have security settings to change anything. "You Do Not Have Permission to Change The Catalyst Control Centre Settings"
    3. The third issue was that running any sort of installer (such as the drivers) would display an error that Windows Installer wasn't working.
  16. My SP3 slipstream cd has always given me some amount of trouble, so I thought I'd try my RTM copy of WinXP for the repair.  After repairing for an hour, the results were even worse, as upon bootup, the mouse cursor would appear momentarily, a messagebox would appear for a brief instant, then the machine would immediately reboot.  After trying this several times, I finally got a glimpse of the error - something about the virtual memory.  Having never seen that before, and also not too excited to debug a problem for which there isn't a clear error message, I returned back to the SP3 slipstream repair.
  17. I tried addressing each problem in #15 individually, but no solution seemed to work.  Eventually, I took a look in the event viewer and looked up an error message, which pointed me to this: and Bingo!  A single problem which describes all the symptoms I was seeing.  To change security permissions on XP home folders, you need to boot into Safe Mode, then turn off Simple File Sharing.  I didn't end up acting on the second KB article, but include it for reference.
  18. I rebooted into normal mode, and finally, all of those symptoms disappeared, revealing new problems.  Since the repair moved my IE back about 8 years to IE6, a lot of dependent services were failing.  I downloaded and installed IE8.
  19. My wireless network adapter would occasionally crash.  I figured that my base install sans Windows Updates has a little to do with that.  I proceeded to run a Windows Update. However, IE would enter its "not responding" state as soon as I tried to download the ActiveX control.  I booted up into Safe Mode, and tried again.  This time, the ActiveX control installed, but Windows Update then gave me the 8007043C error, indicating that Windows Update can't run in Safe Mode.  I booted back into normal mode, and Windows Update then worked.
  20. Windows Update will barf when it tries to install IE8 again, causing all subsequent steps to fail. You'll need to choose Advanced and unselect the IE8 install to get the rest of the updates installed.  Later on, you'll be able to tell Windows Update to ignore the IE8 install.