Archive for the ‘hardware’ Category

Like many people who spend their working hours with computers, I’m often asked by friends and neighbors for help. I’m an ex-teacher, and I volunteer at the free clinics held weekly by Free Geek Vancouver, so I don’t mind; teaching is close to a reflex with me. But one thing I do mind – very much – is when I ask the person I’m helping for some information about their computers or what caused the problem and they reply, “I don’t know. I’m just a techno-peasant” or say that they leave such technical matters to their pre-teens.

What irks me is not just the little giggle or the helpless shrug that accompanies such statements, regardless of whether a man or a woman is making themt. Nor is it the fact that the term is at least twenty years out of date. Instead, it’s the fact that the people who make these responses seem more proud than ashamed of their ignorance.

Why anyone would choose to boast about their ignorance is beyond me. Of course, nobody can be an all-round expert. Moreover, if you don’t mentally bark your shins against your own ignorance from time to time, you’re probably leading too shallow a life. But why boast about your shortcomings? Personally, I consider the fact that I am not fluent in another language, and know little about wines or central European history to be defects, and hope to correct them some day. Meanwhile, if I have to admit to my ignorance, I do so shamefacedly, and quickly change the subject.

As for computer skills, surely computers have been around so long that an average middle class North American should know their way around a computer. I don’t expect them to be able to write a “Hello, world” script if threatened at gun point, but how could they help not learning some basic system administration and hardware care?

I mean, I’m an English major with no formal background in computing whatsoever. If I can learn enough to write about computers, then surely most people can learn basic maintenance. After thirty years of the personal computer, defragging a hard drive or plugging in the cords to your computer should be as much a part of everybody’s basic skill set as cooking a meal or changing the oil in their car. Yet, as I continually find when asked for help, most people still haven’t learned these skills.

What’s worse, the implication of these reactions is that those who make them have no intention of correcting their ignorance. It doesn’t seem to be a reflection of class, an implication that they’re too important to bother themselves with details, as though they’re a high-powered CEO and I’m the janitor. Rather, it’s as if, having reached some landmark of adulthood – turning 21, perhaps, or receiving their master’s degree – they’ve decided they’ve done all the learning they need for this life time, and nobody can trick them into doing any more.

As someone who’s always believed in learning, this attitude horrifies me. So far as I’m concerned, the only time you stop learning is when you die. The idea that anyone would want to anticipate this end to learning is hard for me to understand. If nothing else, what are they going to do with the next fifty or sixty years?

Just as importantly, this refusal to learn undermines the whole idea of teaching. To me, the point of teaching is give students the skills they need to function on their own. But when people describe themselves as techno-peasants, what they’re telling me is that they have no intention of learning to function independently. They’re calling me in, not to help them learn to cope for themselves, but as a convenience that allows them to keep from learning.

And, considering they’re asking me to do the sort of things in my spare time that I do in my working hours – and for free — the request is a high-handed imposition. They’re asking me to waste my time for their convenience – frequently not just once, but often for the same problem, over and over.

Despite these lines of thought, I almost never turn down the requests for help. Some people are making a genuine effort to learn, and there’s always a chance that the rest will learn despite themselves. Yet I wonder if any of them guess that I think less of them once I understand that the only thing they’re willing to learn is how to excuse their own helplessness.

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Tomorrow, the last computer in the house with a floppy drive goes to Free Geek for recycling. An era in computing is officially over for me.

Actually, the era was over several years ago. Even four years ago, when I bought my last computer, I thought twice about bothering with a floppy drive. Nor do I think that I’ve use the drive any time in the last two years, nor even more than once or twice in the year before that. I’d already converted to flash drives, and only the free-spending, why-not attitude that comes when you’re making a large purchase made me get a floppy drive in the first place, on the remote chance that I might need it.

I didn’t, really. When I looked through the nearly two decades’ worth of floppies that I’d accumulated, I found all of them working — unsurprisingly, since I take good care of my storage media. But I hadn’t used them for anything except a quick means of transferring files with older computers for eight or nine years, and they had nothing that I couldn’t do without.

Back when I got my first computer, getting three and a half inch floppies had seemed like a cutting edge idea. Even the person from whom I bought thought that five and a quarter floppies would be more sensible. But I figured that disks that were not only smaller and more rugged but boasted twice the capacity — a whole 720k! — was the wave of the future.

I was right, of course, and smug about it. At first, I did have difficulties when buying programs (this was back when free software consisted of emacs and not much else). At least once, I carried disks to Kwantlen College where I was a sessional instructor, so I could take advantage of the different size drives in my office to copy programs into a format that my computer at home could use. Yet, before I’d had the computer a year, the larger sized floppies started to disappear.

Then for years, floppies were my main source of backup. I remember how strange it seemed when floppies started coming in black, and then even colors. And, while at first the differences in quality between name brands like Sony and cheaper brands were obvious, it soon disappeared.

After a few years, too, 720k no longer seemed as large. In rapid succession, I switched to syquest drives, then CDs. Eventually, I moved to DVDs and an external hard drive for backup. The prices started falling on floppies, and so did the amount of shelf space they took up. The last time I happened to notice, floppies were selling ten for six dollars. Yet I remember a time when thirty dollars seemed a good price for a name brand collection of ten.

In a way, I suppose the fact that you can buy floppies at all is a testimony to the force of habit. Even my smallest flashdrive has over three hundred times the capacity of a standard floppy — the 1.44 megabytes ones having never really caught on. They’ve been yesterday’s technology for a lot of yesterdays.

I don’t get nostalgic for hardware, although it’s a good piece of historical trivia for fiction to recall that a single floppy was once considered the storage necessary for the average popular novel. Even when I name our cars, it’s more a joke than any sign of affection. Still, the end of my personal floppy era is another milestone in the passage of time, just as the moment when I realized that the IBM Selectric that I bought with a small inheritance from my grandfather was obsolete.

Come to think of it, I still have that squirreled away on the top shelf of the closet in the spare room. My reasoning, I think, was that I’d have a backup if the computer failed. Of course, exactly how I thought an electric typewriter would be of any use when I couldn’t use a computer is a mystery, considering that most of those circumstances would involve a loss of power. So, I suppose the next bit of housecleaning is to haul that piece of scrap iron away.

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Having barely recovered from getting my new laptop set up, I spent this weekend setting up my new workstation. Since I only buy a new computer every three or four years, it’s a labor-intensive job – a real busman’s holiday, since I do a dozen or more installations of operating systems each year as a reviewer. It’s also a chance to learn first hand the recent changes to hardware.

Because I’ve used alternative operating systems as long as I’ve had a computer, I always buy my workstation from a shop that does custom work. That way, I can be sure that I buy both quality parts and ones that will work with my preferred operating system. The shop I’ve dealt with for my last purchases is Sprite Computers, a Surrey store that I recommend unreservedly to anyone in the Lower Mainland.

This year, buying a custom machine backfired unexpectedly: My Debian GNU/Linux system worked perfectly because I had checked everything I bought, but I had to download drivers for the ethernet, sound, and video cards for Windows. Apparently, GNU/Linux hardware support may have finally surpassed that on Windows, as some pundits have been saying. But it’s been ten months since I’ve had a Windows installation about the house, and the added bother makes me feel that I haven’t been missing anything (aside from some games, which I never have time to play any more, anyway). I keep a small Windows partition because I sometimes need to check a reference to the operating system in a review, but for personal use, I wouldn’t miss it (nor the twinge of guilt I feel as a free software advocate for having a copy of Windows in the first place).

Another advantage of getting a custom computer is that, in placing my order, I always hear the latest trends in the business. Talking over my order with a sales rep, I learned that Windows XP was outselling Vista by a ration of fifty to one. Furthermore, Windows XP is expected to stop selling next Febuary, but computer businesses are already stockpiling copies. So much for claims about Vista’s sales.

I also learned that LightScribe, the DVD-etching technology I tried for the first time on my new laptop, is in no greater demand, either. The drives and DVDs cost more for LightScribe, and it’s a slow, currently monochromatic technology that isn’t essential.

Similarly, the store sells video cards from NVIDIA than from ATI. That trend was already obvious the last time I bought, but it seems to have accelerated, perhaps because of NVIDIA’s aggressive marketing of other hardware products makes a bundle deal attractive. ATI’s sale to AMD may also make a difference, since manufacturers might be waiting to see what happens.

Of course, those who order custom computers are a small percentage of the public, but the comments I heard are interesting, all the same, since they are some of the few available from an unbiased source (that is, not from the manufacturer or a fan-boy review).

I infer other buying trends by the point at which increases in size or functionality suddenly take a jump in price. Sometime, this point is obvious from sales flyers that come to the door, but not always. For video cards, that point is 256 gigabytes of RAM. For hard drivers, it’s 500 gigabytes. For flat screen monitors, it’s 22 inches. Total system RAM is stalled at two gigabytes, apparently because Windows, which is the largest market, can’t handle more without an adjustment that most lay users don’t know. Generally, I find that ordering a system according to this point means that, three or four years in the future, I still have an adequate system, if no longer a cutting edge one.

For now, I appreciate a number of features in my new workstation. I can appreciate the increase speed, especially on GNU/Linux, which now zips along quite nicely. The dual-core processor, now standard on all new machines, makes multi-tasking smoother, too.

As for the wide screen monitor, which barely fits on the desk, that’s a practical change that I took to at once.

Yet I think the most welcome innovation is the cube case. Its dimensions – – 9 x 10 x 14 inches — small enough that I plan to put both my main and test computers under the same desk and use a KVM switch to move between them. Its blue light, although garish, means that I can crawl around under the desk chasing wires without carrying a flashlight. But, best of all, both sides are so well-ventilated that the overheating problems I’ve had in the hot weather may be a thing of the past.

These aren’t dramatic changes. Their relative modesty compared to changes in previous buying cycles suggests that the computer market is largely saturated and likely to remain so unless a breakthrough technology emerges. So, probably sooner than later, I will take the changes for granted. Just now, I shake my head when I realize that I now have flash drives with more memory than my first computer, but, on the whole, I don’t have a hardware fetish. Model numbers and stats seep through my head faster than they enter, and, so long as hardware works as advertised, I’m content. And I’m happier still to stop thinking of hardware, and get back to the business of writing.

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Lately, I’ve been learning about the ewaste problem. I’ve written an article on the subject, and, last night, I attended Free Geek Vancouver’s airing and discussion of the Basel Action Network’s (BAN) two films on the problem: Exporting Harm and The Digital Dump. Knowledge of the situation is so alarming and depressing that I’m almost afraid to turn my computer on and add to the problem. Instead, though, I’ve been considering about what I could do in my own life to improve the situation.

Most people, if they stop to think, wouldn’t be surprised that the problem of discarded high-tech hardware is growing. These days, many households have not only multiple computers, but also multiple televisions, cell phones and mp3 players.

However, what people don’t know is that most hardware is full of toxic substances, including lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants. Nor do they know that North American countries routinely ship the junk to developing nations like China, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan against the wishes of those country’s governments, using loopholes to get around the Basel Convention, the international treaty that is supposed to prevent such trade. There, the waste is stripped of any valuables under dangerously unsafe conditions and the remnant is burned, releasing toxic fumes.

And if all that isn’t enough, even supposed recyclers are shipping ewaste overseas. That’s right: even when you think you’re doing the proper thing, you may be adding to the problem. Many recyclers won’t tell you what they’re doing, either, citing trade secrets as a reason for keeping you uninformed. Even those recyclers who would prefer not to ship overseas often have no choice, because local means of dealing with the waste don’t exist.

BAN advocates legislation that makes manufacturers responsible for the disposal of their own products. Such laws already exist in many European countries. As part of this effort, it is also working with other environmental groups to encourage manufacturers to reduce the toxins in their hardware.

Besides supporting these efforts, and trying to deal only with true recyclers, what else can one person do? I found myself considering this question last week when I bought a new laptop.
Mindful of the ewaste problem, last week I decided that I would use Greenpeace’s assessment of the leading hardware manufacturers as a guide when I went to buy a new laptop. I chose to buy a Hewlett-Packard product, since Hewlett-Packard has one of the better records in removing toxic substances from its products.
I give nothing up by making this decision, since Hewlett-Packard’s laptops have a good record for reliability. In fact, I might have bought a Hewlett-Packard machine purely on its own merits. As things were, the company’s record on the ewaste problem was one of the deciding factors between buying from Hewlett-Packard rather than Acer or Toshiba.
Still, no company’s record is especially strong, so I still felt a few twinges of uneasiness. Never mind that my last laptop was bought eight years ago, and was used until it became unreliable.
During last night’s discussion, I suddenly realized that I could do more. As soon as I finish this blog entry, I’m going to write a letter to Hewlett-Packard, congratulating them on their awareness of the problem, and adding that it was one of the reasons I bought one of the company’s products. I’m also going to urge everyone I know to shop in the same way, and let whatever company they buy from know what they are doing.
Of course, I don’t deceive myself that a couple of dozen letters will have a huge influence on manufacturing decisions. Yet one of the common arguments you hear from manufacturers is that there is no demand for greener products, so enough letters of this sort might just help them decide to change their practices.
That’s why I’m also urging anyone who reads this blog to do the same. The effort is minimal, and can’t hurt – and just might do a small piece of good.

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Last week, my trusty Lexmark Optra R+ laser printer expired after eleven years of hard service. In a couple of days, I made myself an expert on alternatives, and bought a replacement. This effort at responsible consumerism emphasized to me how much and how little has changed in printers over the past decade.

Eleven years may seem like a long time to keep a printer, so I should explain that, while I’m a tech-journalist. I’m not a technophile. Nor am I a technophobe. I keep current on new technology, but, for personal use, I try to avoid the two extreme approaches by evaluating new hardware carefully according to its features and my needs before I introduce it into my life. By the time I accept a new piece of technology, I’ve researched it thoroughly and I’m prepared to pay for what I want.

That was the case with the old printer. Having installed it, I forgot about aside from occasionally cartridge replacements – until, years later, to my dismay and amazement , it commanded my attention again by failing to work.

What I bought was state-of-the-art for 1996: with true 1200 x 1200 dpi resolution and 16 megabytes of RAM. I might have topped it off with more RAM, but, today, it still compares favorably to new laser printers in its price range. In fact, many comparable laser printers still do only 600 x 600 dpi. Considering how much the clock speeds and caches of motherboards have increased in the last decade, this lack of change in something as basic as printer resolution is surprising. Apparently, 600 x 600 dpi is good enough for most people, and the industry has largely stagnated.

Most of the innovation in printers is in low end inkjets and color laser printers, both have which have dropped dramatically in price. There are even low end lasers for less than $100. But,on average, the main differences between today’s printers and those of a decade ago are that today’s printers carry more memory, and cost a quarter of their early counterparts. For example, I paid $1200 for my older printer, plus another couple of hundred for extra RAM. To buy the same functionality with four times the RAM cost me $320. Other differences, like built in support for more languages and perhaps a twenty percent reduction in size also exist, but these are relatively trivial differences.

Overall, things have changed so little in printer hardware that the largest innovation is probably the all-in-one machines that combine printing, scanning, copying, and faxing. But even these are a mixed blessing; because I have a color inkjet and a black and white laser printer, I now have three scanners, two of which are inferior to my dedicated scanner and that I never wanted.

That’s the difference, I suppose, between technology driven by the demands of the gaming industry and the demands of business. If video card development were driven by business’ needs, we’d probably still think that two megabyte cards were blazingly fast.

However, one area where great changes have occurred is in installing a printer under GNU/Linux. When I first installed GNU/Linux, printing support was via the lprng command and the painfully basic printtool, and I had to run dozens of tests before I found a driver that supported my printer. Had I been buying a printer for GNU/Linux, the only real advice would have been to get one that supported the postscript printing language.

By contrast, my first stop last week was LinuxPrinting.org, Till Kamppeter’s database that divides printers into four categories, based on how they work under GNU/Linux: Perfectly, Mostly, Partially, and Paperweight. My first stop was the Suggested Printers page to look for ideal models and manufacturers. Then, I went through the websites of half a dozen local hardware vendors, keeping an eye out for recommended manufacturers and checking the available models against the database and my requirements. After several hours’ work, I had produced a shopping list of half a dozen possible printers.

The next day, I located my first choice. Thanks to the foomatic database and the Common UNIX Printing System (CUPS), it was installed and running twenty minutes after I lugged it home. And most of that time was unpacking and assembling, and crawling around under the computer desk.

Clearly, then, some progress has been made in printers over the last decade – but it has been by the free software communities as much as the manufacturers or the marketplace. Admittedly, LinuxPrinting.org is part of The Linux Foundation, which many manufacturers support. Also, many of the advances in GNU/Linux printing are due directly to Hewlett-Packard’s free tools and drivers; because many of HP’s printers are postscript, they also run many of the printers made by other manufacturers. But the point is that, together, the community and the manufacturers have taken so much of the pain out of installing a printer under GNU/Linux that all I had to do was be a responsible consumer and shop around – and I would have done that regardless.

Still, I admit that I am disappointed to realize how little the basic specs have changed. A decade ago, I expected that 4800 dpi laser printers would be available by now – the equivalent quality of a fine book. So, while I’m pleased by the ugly but functional HP 3050 that I bought, I’m also a little disappointed that it is such a small improvement over my old printer.

Not for the first time, I’m left reflecting that, for an industry that once thought of itself as being composed of mavericks, the tech sector has grown awfully conservative.

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