User-contributed essays on diverse topics
Sunday, June 17, 2001
I'd build two machines. You can do good ones for under $1000 including not too great monitors, and you'd know what's in there. Hard drives are about $10 a gigabyte with maybe 10 gigs minimum. As a generic answer for everyone: A good Intel board with built-in video and sound, and a decent Celeron, a Bay Networking 10/100 Card, an IO Magic DVD drive for the CDROM, and an internal ZIP 100 for about $70 or one of the larger ones off the parallel port, and Bob's your uncle. The Microsoft Internet Keyboard is about $20 on sale and $30 regular, and wheel mice are cheap. Monitor keeping the price down doesn't get you a wonderful monitor, but they're Good Enough. Be sure to put the whole mess in a GOOD case and power supply, and pay extra for 128 megs of premium memory (Kingston or Crucial are the ones I use) and all will be well. You would be under $2000 for two machines that way. Incidentally, it's worth investing in an UPS for each. APC makes good ones.
Case: Antec KS288 (~$65 with 250W power supply)
That totals $1,000, and actually would run a bit more with shipping, taxes, and so on. These aren't the lowest prices you can find on the web, but I think they're realistic ones. If there's a bit more room in the budget, the next thing I'd add would be an APC Back-UPS/500 for about $125. Also, the Hitachi is a very nice 17" monitor, but if a 19" is worth paying an extra $200 for, I can recommend the Hitachi SS751, which is what I use.
I wouldn't bother with the ZIP drive. It's a waste of money. For not much more money than the ZIP plus the DVD-ROM drive, the Plextor PlexWriter 8/4/32A gives a lot more flexibility, and the gentleman says that it's no problem to read CD-R(W) discs in the computer lab. A $2.50 CD-RW disc stores a lot more than a ZIP disk, costs a lot less, is more robust, and offers an acceptable--albeit not optimum--backup solution. And, of course, college students love to knock off pirate copies of CDs, which one can't do either with a ZIP drive or a DVD-ROM drive.
Although it isn't an ideal Quake machine, this system should do fine for a student for at least a couple of years without any upgrades or adds, unless that student is in a major that requires some really serious number crunching. With minor upgrades, this system should be able to carry most students through all four years of college. The CA810EAL motherboard can take FC-PGA Pentium III and "Celeron II" processors as well as the PPGA Celerons. That means that in a couple of years, when 1000 MHz Pentium IIIs are cheap, he can upgrade the system with one of those, and perhaps add another 128 MB stick of RAM. If hard drive space becomes a problem, it's easy and cheap to install a huge hard drive later. I expect that in a couple of years we'll see 100 GB ATA drives selling for $100.
-- Robert Bruce Thompson email@example.com
Well, we disagree on ZIP, in that I find the convenience of being able to carry a rugged cartridge with a lot of data to be worth the cost. When I write I make a copy onto a Zip in addition to anything else and carry it; it's quicker than burning a CD and by a lot, and thus I am more likely to DO it. Backups are important, and you must make it easy to back up creative work. Or else.
Completely agree about the upgrade path.
I think DVD drives are becoming increasingly important; and I'd rather have a DVD and a ZIP than the CD/RW although I admit the CD/RW is tempting.
- Roland Dobbins <firstname.lastname@example.org> // 818.535.5024 voice
Null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane and empty of meaning for all time.
-- Pope Innocent X, on the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648
My son starts at a Big Ten school in the Fall, and they actively discourage laptops, for security reasons. The school's enrollment is large, and significant numbers of laptops have been inadvertently forgotten and left somewhere--"like umbrellas" as they put it--never to be found or returned again.
Not so with desktops, which remain intact even when doors are left unlocked.
Size of the school probably makes a significant difference on this issue, but the replacement cost of losing that umbrella is too much for me to even contemplate in this situation.
Dear Dr. Pournelle;
While I understand the fact that college age children can cost parents 10% more than the parents earn, I would think long and hard about the laptop vs. desktop decision. Other than the ease of use in class to take notes (which in truth can also be done with a Palm and a good stylus) one thing that has not been discussed is the "bump and thump" issue. I know of at least 2 kids in my church that I am helping to find affordable laptops because their desktops did not make it back alive, and can't be revived. Unless your college bound child is living at home, a desktop setup will be moved at least 8 times, and quite possibly even more, as some schools require students to completely vacate a dorm room during Christmas break. This might not be much of an issue if you are not afraid to get under the hood if the computer dies, but it can take time and in the meantime, the system is down. You can get a "good enough" laptop for less than $1,500.00 that could carry you at least 2 years and if you are not doing serious number crunching, you could go the distance.
Forget the big monitor. College age kids are young and have good vision. They don't have to walk to school barefoot in the snow, or look at MDA or CGA monitors, like WE did. (Sorry, I had to meet with some college age folks, and I got way too may "sir" and "Mister Cartwright's" statements-made me a little down on anyone under 20)
From: Steve Setzer <email@example.com> Subject: Computers to take to college
Mr. Holsinger's letter, and your response, dealt primarily with desktops. Having just graduated (again) from BYU, I endorse the Zip drive recommendation and otherwise have nothing to add to Mr. Holsinger. For those interested in a laptop, however, I suggest the Apple iBook. I got to borrow one during law school finals, and I wish I'd bought earlier.
Technically, it's about on par with other $1500 laptops; built-in 10/100 Ethernet is key for colleges. The best feature, however, is the toughness. It's made of near-bullet-proof plastic, with sweeping, rounded corners and over an inch of space between the LCD edge and the case edge. The primary design goal was "something you could throw in a backpack", and Apple met it. I had no qualms about carrying my friend's iBook in a bag with two 1000-page law texts.
That said, $1500 for one machine is pricy compared to building a desktop. But if a student wants to take notes in class on a computer, print in on-campus labs, and write papers in the dorm room, the iBook is darned near perfect.
I am a bit concerned about compatibilities, but Apple makes a good laptop. Now. I had one of the lead acid battery models that had no off switch and that soured me for years (you could only hard reset it by taking the batteries out!) But of course modern Powerbooks are neat. And Office 98 for the Mac solves most compatibility problems.
I read the recommendations about computers for college students, and I agree with most of the suggestions offered.
However, I don't know about the necessity of Zip drives on campus. We started buying machines with Zip drives two years ago, but the Zip drives are rarely used. As most of your letters suggest, most campuses (including ours) are now wired for 10/100 networks, and here at the University of Alabama, all students have an account on our Sun mainframe. I recommend to students that they FTP their work to their mainframe space and then FTP it to the machine they use in the lab.
I've also recommended to a few computer-challenged students that they e-mail their work to themselves at their campus account, then save the attachment and modify/print it in the lab.
I've seen too many Zip disks (and drives) suffer from the Click of Death to trust them completely. I hope Iomega has fixed this problem. Just in case, backing up files to a server makes great sense. Using a CD-RW drive is just as good. Just leave the CD at a friend's place, and you have an excellent off-site backup.
As for the PC/Mac (iBook) issue: the compatibility issue is way overblown. I actively support faculty and students with Macs, even though our network here is Novell/Win9x. I've never met a compatibility issue I couldn't lick. When I move to my new position on Monday, I'll move into a Mac environment. I'll probably have Virtual PC installed on my Mac, but I doubt I'll use it much.
JA -- John Alexander Manager, Area Computing Services Capstone College of Nursing The University of Alabama firstname.lastname@example.org
I have never had a problem with a ZIp Drive other than the inability of an internal IDE Zip to format disks that the externals could read, and that problem went away with new releases of the Zip software. I have used Zip drives for years, and although I keep hearing these stories, I have never had any data losses of any kind and all my Zip drives work; and I am pretty hard on them. I consider a Zip 100 Plus (which does SCSI or parallel) a good investment, although if you are going to be in an thoroughly modern environment an external USB Zip is probably better given the new legacy-free systems. But Zip works for me, and it's a backup that will be USED, as opposed to more complicated backup systems.
This practice of putting an ethernet RJ-45 in each dorm room and allowing students to jack anything into the network is the norm these days; alas. From poorly configured Linux boxes to Windows machines with their NetBIOS ports open to the world, these targets of opportunity are scanned 24/7 by automated exploit scripts that are aware of the class of IP addresses used by universities. It's gotten so bad that academic departments firewall themselves from their own WANs. The DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) miscreants especially make use of these machines for loading up their attack zombies. Vulnerable, big pipes, and always on. Ouch.
If you are equipping your children for college, get them some form of firewall software. Check http://www.grc.com for recommendations. On Windows boxes try BlackICE or ZoneAlarm. Linux boxes are probably too complex for newbies to keep fully patched and properly configured.
When the lawyers start suing Victim State University for running an attractive nuisance that was used to bring down MegaBank's E-Commerce site, then you'll see changes.
Don McArthur http://www.mcarthurweb.com "The best years are the forties; after fifty a man begins to deteriorate, but in the forties he is at the maximum of his villany." H.L. Mencken
Dear Dr. Pournelle, Realizing the $1000 each limit placed on the two systems. But still. If the two young men are going to be English/History/other fuzzy subject majors then the systems you described would certainly be Good Enough for 4 years.
But if one or both of them is going to major (or minor) in Math, Computer Science, Art, or Business then the systems as described will be insufficient. Mainly in the video arena. I am a professional programmer and I am doing quite well on a PII 350, 96Mb ram, and a pair of 8Gb hard drives (one Windows, one Linux) .
For video, however, I am running an ATI All In Wonder with 16 megs vram. Not a great games card, but TV tuner, TV out, DVD software, and fast enough graphics. Most of the on-board video uses system ram for its video, and this slows down compiles, spreadsheet calculations, image rendering, etc, something awful. Unload the overhead from the CPU and system memory and things speed up wonderfully. Also, for the CS majors out there, Linux and the BSDs often don't get along all that well with the integrated video solutions. Finally, monitors rarely die, my local store (Mountain West Office Supply, Cedar City UT) has many very good used monitors in the 15" range for $75 to $100. Your correspondent should not be afraid of used equipment if he is technically qualified to test it. Sound cards, network cards, entire systems that were high-end last year are available cheap if you look.
Sincerely Kit Case email@example.com
Agreed on used monitors if bought from a reliable source. And the All In Wonder is a very good board indeed, and not all that expensive any more. Thanks for reminding me of it.
I have some comments on the discussion so far (Thursday 10:30 AM PST).
1) Someone suggested DVD and someone else suggested buying stuff used. Beware of old DVD players. Mine is good enough at playing DVDs and manufactured CDR but cannot play any CDR I have ever tried in it. Apparently the laser used to detect the smaller holes in a DVD cannot respond to the colour changes in a CDR. I'm told that all current DVDs use a SECOND laser at the frequency that normal CDs and CDRs use. Therefore this won't be an issue for someone buying stuff new, but if you pick up a used DVD, beware of CDRs.
2) You and a correspondent are happy with an ATI All-in-Wonder 16 MB. I use one (OEM? came boxless). I bought it in September. I run Win98, and have updated everything (other than schemes and "things") via the Windows Update feature. The CD that came with the card works OK, but I upgraded to the November drivers, and worked successfully until April. Starting in April, I started to get artifacts returning from a 3D game (Re-Volt) and occasionally during game play in Civ II. So I upgraded to the current drivers. Big mistake. Safe mode would not let me change my video card settings to VGA and normal boot would end up with a black screen with an arrow on it. Eventually I reinstalled Win98. Went OK for a week, with weird colours coming out of my 3D game. Re-upgraded to the current drivers and stared at the black screen. Added a spare vid card and re-installed Win98 with the Virge as the primary card. Win98 tells the monitor on the ATI that it can initialize the card, but it refuses to put windows screen onto it. And the 3D games don't find it.
ATI has a reputation for making great hardware and lousy drivers. I currently have no real 3D card because of those drivers. Based on this and my previous experiences trying to share a multimonitor machine between two ATI cards, I wouldn't even call their drivers competent. Until my C$250 card works, I am reluctant to recommend any ATI card to anyone.
3) I have a ZIP that I never use anymore. Pretty much everything I transfer fits into email. I'm told that email servers usually have a 5 MB limit.
4) Someone said that CDR is slow for a "toss it in" usage. I like the advertising for Adaptec's "Direct-CD" that turns a CDR or CDRW into just another drive letter. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be quite compatible with my burner on their compatibility charts. (Mine has all the features they say that they need, but their compatibility charts only list this model under other software). Perhaps someone in your readership can say whether direct-CD works well for zip-disk type operational needs. Direct-CD says it can work with CDR or CDRW. (most non-burners don't like CDRW)
I have never been a big fan of CD-RW, although I can't say why precisely. It's a lot of trouble for not much storage. CD-R is fine, and a fairly permanent archive, and cheap. I remain unrepentant about ZIP: it's convenient, fast, easy to install, and an external Zip drive makes an instant sneakernet to almost any other machine. I use Zip routinely to make a copy of anything I write.
Clearly buying used commercial equipment wasn't want we meant, and I wouldn't think a DVD player to be a part of a computer anyway. IO Magic makes a good cheap DVD drive that acts as a fast CDROM and that's what I recommend, since it will not only read things like encyclopedias that are coming out on DVD, but also will play movies...
From: Pat Stakem
Subject: computers for college
Here's some comments from a long time reader. Followed you in the cp/m days. I also live in a chaos manor - I'm just not organized enuf to write about it.
Daughter_sub_one went to Case Western last year. I put her together a modest high end system. Case has each dorm room wired for optical. Fore Systems, 155 mbps to the desktop. In fact, each room has two outlet boxes - each box has one optical cable coming in, and 3 jacks - tv, phone, and 'puter. Each dorm tends to have a switch, and a bunch of networked printers.
(subnote, when she got home, she come out with an optical cable in her hand and asks me when the junction box is in her room. I had to break her heart, and tell her she was dial up, like the rest of us.)
15" versus 17" monitor. Actually with the size of most dorm rooms, and the weight of those monitors, a 15" is a better bet. Dorm desktops are small. Consensus among students reinforces this.
Zip is definitely a good idea. Read/write cr rom also good.
When one arrives at Case, one takes one's 'puter down to registration, and they install the optical card. With all the Dells and Gateways, my daughter's homebrew system in a pink case stood out. Add to this the fact that she likes the Win 3.1 gui so much she uses it with the Win-98 operating system. I tried to raise her properly, I swear.
Ok, picture this. A big room with tables around 3 walls. Bunch of sophmore CompSci dudes. A main dude doing triage at the front of the line. I explain her system to him. He pauses and thinks for a bit, then says, "I know who I'll assign this to!." In addition to previously described scenario, the AlphaGeek resides in a back room, and never comes out. The weenies go to consult with the AlphaGeek now &; then. Think about it. In a week, these guys get 10 years of experience, and see more diverse 'puters than most of us touch in a lifetime. Way cool.
Anyway, we all learned a lot. We learned when you use the Win 3.1 gui under Win-98, there is no network neighborhood icon. Interesting. Well, they got it working anyway. We taught the cs guys a couple of things. We learned a few things. I suspect her system (AMD-450, 128 meg) will last another year, then we'll upgrade. FYI, Case specifically recommends against Celerons, and does not allow Win-2000.
They are doing work there with Beowulf clusters. Another topic of interest. later,
Hey, I enjoy your books as well.
-- "Sometimes, it does take a rocket scientist..."
Pat Stakem, Senior Staff Engineer QSS Group, Inc. 301-867-0052
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Code 586 Greenbelt, MD. 20770 USA - Earth
Professor of Engineering Science Graduate School, Loyola College firstname.lastname@example.org
Why would they warn against Celerons? Thanks for the stories. To which Bob Thompson replies:.
Because they're morons?
Against the Pentium II or Katmai-core Pentium III (both of which run L2 cache at half CPU speed), a Celeron typically runs about even. On some applications, the Celeron full-speed L2 cache gives it a small advantage, although it's only 128 KB versus 512 KB on the PII/Katmai. On applications which are large enough to saturate the L2 cache, the PII/Katmai *may* have a small advantage, if the application is too big for the Celeron's 128 KB but small enough to fit in the 512 KB L2 cache of the PII/Katmai. If you let me pick the benchmark, I can make either the Celeron or the PII/Katmai win, but it won't be by much in either case.
The Coppermine-core Pentium III runs a 256 KB full-speed L2 cache, so the story changes a bit. Relative to the Mendocino-core Celeron, the Coppermine has twice as big an L2 cache running at the same speed (full CPU speed) and also has a better schema (8-way Set Associative). That means that a Pentium III Coppermine is always going to outperform a Mendocino Celeron, although again the difference will typically be relatively small clock for clock. The Coppermine128-based "Celeron II" is essentially a Coppermine PIII, but with only 128 KB of L2 cache, which uses the older Celeron-style schema rather than the 8-way Set Associative method of the PIII CuMine. That means that a Celeron II will always be marginally slower than a PIII CuMine, although the Celeron II may in fact be faster than a Katmai-based PIII.
As far as the AMD 450, it probably matches the Celeron clock-for-clock on integer operations, but the AMD FPU is pathetic. AMD never made a processor with decent floating point performance until the Athlon, which in fact has an FPU that's marginally better than Intel's.
On another note, the gentleman who mentioned that students in hard majors need better video has a point, which I made in passing in my original message when I said that this configuration wasn't ideal for students who needed to do serious number crunching. But I suspect that few students outside the computer science department really need a serious 3D graphic accelerator (except, of course, to play Quake). The integrated video on the Intel CA810E has really nice 2D performance and image quality, and usuable 3D features. Again, if a serious 3D card is required, there's no reason not to install a PCI version with lots of local memory. The PCI bus isn't a bottleneck if all the video processing is being done locally.
-- Robert Bruce Thompson email@example.com http://www.ttgnet.com
The discussion in alt.mail got me a-thinking about my own university days. As such, I have a few tidbits to pass along.
1. Contrary to what others have been saying, buy a GOOD monitor. The best you can afford. Why? In my 5 years of University, I swapped out every component of my system at LEAST three times - except the monitor. I still had the 14" 1024x768 (interlaced) SVGA beastie after all those years. I hated that monitor. Too small. horrible scan rates. And worst of all, it NEVER DIED. Thus, I never had a justifiable reason to replace it.
Hard disk, RAM, motherboard, video. These were all justifiable upgrades. Monitor? no way. This was on a student budget, afterall.
2. Don't worry about motherboard upgradability too much. In all my years, I've never bothered to put a new processor in an old board. More often than not, something happend to make me buy a whole new board: ISA->VLB->PCI, DIPP->SIMM->DIMM, and so on. As an added bonus, I could keep the old board around to run as a junker, or donate the whole thing to a family member.
3. Printer: Same logic as the monitor, and more so. Buy a good HP. I've never seen an HP inkjet die. In fact, my parents still use my original HP Deskjet 500. Printers have a lifespan of 10 years or more (which is near infinite in the computer game). Getting the best one you can afford is well worth it here.
4. Don't expect to be using the same machine for the whole 4+ years. (unless you're doing NOTHING but word processing). I had those hopes. I ended up going through almost one PC a year.
4. This all aside, laptops have a longer life in them than do desktops. I still use my thinkpad 701 for road trips. Why? The requirements are different. Word processing and email. If you want something that will last, a laptop might be the beast for you. It wasn't a viable option for me, but things were different 10 years ago.
Attached is a list of the computer hardware I just bought my sons for college - it totals just over $2,000. One gets a two year-old Epson Photo 700.
Note that I got a pair of Hewlett Packard 6635's for $330 each after the Staples and HP rebates. Those have a 533mhz Celeron II cpu, 64 meg RAM, a 10 gig. hard drive and a 40xCD drive. It is no wonder that college students can buy a new computer each year. The HP 6635's don't have enough RAM so I have to pay $70 each for another 64 meg, but that is still only $400.
Everything else can be recycled to new computers, including the Ethernet cards. I followed Alt.Mail's advice and got a pair of 17" NEC monitors. Leo gets a CDRW as he will be a music major or minor, and Joe gets an external Zip as you suggested.
I ran into an interesting problem with our home peer to peer LAN - the 10/100 Ethernet cards in the new computers wouldn't interface with the 10baseT cards in the older computers, through either our Linksys Router or our old hub. Furthermore neither new computer could even see themselves on the network if the two HP's were the only ones connected to the hub or router, but they could see themselves if I turned off the other HP. Perhaps 3Com and Kingston 10/100 cards dislike each other.
I had an extra 10baseT card and used that to transfer my sons' data files and game updates to their new PC's. Right now Joe's HP is a stand-alone in his room while Leo's HP is in the study networked to our LAN using the old 10baseT card. I'll have my dealer make certain the two new 10/100 Ethernet cards work with 10/100 LAN's when he installs various upgrades tomorrow, then swap the 10baseT card into Leo's computer again.
The Staples salesman thought the problem might be the HP's not having enough user resources (58% initially) with 64 meg RAM given all the family software HP stuffs into them. I uninstalled a bunch of HP's software and got my sons' computers up to 78% user resources, but haven't tried them with 10/100 cards again.
I have another college related topic for Alt.Mail when I get some time: "ET Phone Home - Internet Phone at College".
COMPUTERS FOR COLLEGE
2 x HP 6635 1,149.96 from Staples 17" NEC M75 249.98 from Staples 17" NEC AS70 187.50 from Buy.com with free shipping HP 842 printer 149.98 from Staples RAM upgrades 139.98 from local dealer HP CDRW 99.99 from Office Depot (4x4x24) Ext. Zip USB 99.99 from Egghead (100 megabytes) Trackman Wheel 49.95 from local dealer Trackman Wheel 37.95 from Buy.com 3Com 10/100 Ethernet 35.99 at computer fair (+ free Kingston from Pacific Bell's DSL)
Sales Tax 162.34 Instal. Charges 110.00 (estimated - includes installion of graduation gift sound card) Shipping 9.90
Staples' rebates -340.00 HP rebates -100.00
Subtotal rebates -440.00
GRAND TOTAL $2,043.51, not including CDRW &; Zip disks, extra print cartridges, etc.