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Scott's Column
More On New computers, The New Briefing, and Stuff

April 1, 1999
By Scott Lewis

March was a full month. My laptop was replaced under its lease, I underwent my third sinus surgery, and I built a computer for my sister-in-law and her husband.

Sister-in-law’s Computer

If you read last months column, and Feature Article, you are aware that I built my own computer. In doing so I discovered how inexpensive some parts are. This led me to encourage my sister-in-law and her husband to let me build them a computer.

I had previously told them they should get a computer for around $1,000 – $1,200. With the prices I saw for parts while building my own computer I wondered if I could build a computer to compare with the low end of the market.

I found I could build them a decent computer for just a hare under $900. When I told them about it, and I got my own computer running the first night I finished its assembly, they agreed to let me build one for them. They wanted a couple of things that I had not priced at the $900 level. Mainly 128MB memory. I refused to let them have a non-upgradeable system, and had planned on getting PC100 memory. They eventually settled on a budget of $1,100 without shipping or sales tax ($1,200 total), and told me to push that to the max.

I built them a pretty fast system for $1,135 including shipping and tax. Their system has these basic components: Celeron 366MHz CPU, 128MB PC100 memory, Diamond AGP video card w/ 8MB memory, 8GB ATA/66 hard drive, 15" Sony Trinitron monitor, Turtle Beach sound card, and Logitech’s very cool cordless keyboard and mouse. I will detail their entire system in an upcoming Feature Article.

Overclocking

I was only able to get my system up to 450MHz (Using the 400MHz Celeron with a bus speed of 75MHz). I could have run the Celeron 366 with an 83MHz bus speed for a total speed of 457MHz, but the real performance difference would be too slight to notice. I thought I would be better off with the safety of only overclocking the PCI and AGP a little.

My overclocking experiments, complete with benchmark results, will be in next months Feature Article. All my overclocking was with the stock fan and heat sink on the CPU. I have hear that much better results can be had with a better heat sink/fan setup. I may get one and try again to attain 500MHz from my computer.

New Laptop

The lease was up on my old laptop (IBM ThinkPad 760, Pentium 133, 40MB memory, 2GB hard drive, 12.1 in active matrix screen). My company is very close to approving Dell’s 300MHz laptops for use at my company. Since the 300 is not yet approved, the leased computer had to be replaced by the current standard 233MHz computer.

The new machine is a Dell Latitude with a 233MHz Pentium MMX processor, 4GB hard drive, 64MB memory, 13.3 active matrix screen, etc. It is a decent machine, and quite a bit faster that the machine it replaces. I told my boss about the 300MHz upcoming release, and that he should stall of getting the replacement until he 300 was available. It was not possible to stop the wheels in motion from bring us a 233 machine. My boss was planning on getting a laptop to replace his desktop. He is going to wait until the 300MHz machines are available to order, and he will trade me for the 233. What a guy!

On with the Dell. Here are a few likes and dislikes about it. At first I didn't like the mouse "pad" in front of the keyboard. I had gotten used to IBM’s little eraser pointer between the g and h keys on the ThinkPad. Also, I was getting what seemed like random clicks form this built-in "mouse." As it turned out, it was the way the device is supposed to work. Although there are left and right mouse buttons in front of the pad, you can tap, or double tap, the pad for clicking and double clicking. I must have been accidentally tapping the pad.

Now that I have a feel for the pad, I find it very useful. But it is too small, or rather its range it too small. You will not be able to move the pointer fully across the screen without lifting your finger and continuing the movement. This is what partially led to the accidental clicks. Also, the mouse pad does not work while a mouse is plugged into the mouse port on the rear of the machine. IBM’s lets both work together. Overall I like the pad, but it takes more getting used to that other pointing devices I have used.

IBM’s Thinkpads have an LCD panel that tells (among other things) the amount of time left in the battery. The Dell relies on a Windows battery utility in the task bar for this information. However, the Dell’s battery lasts 4.5 hours, according to the utility. I have not timed it, but it does seem to last quite a while. And the batteries have a button and 5 green LEDs that you can use to see if the status of the battery without putting into the machine.

The Dell as two bays in the front of the laptop. The left one is only for a battery. The right one takes a floppy drive, a CD-ROM drive, or a second battery. With both batteries the computer should last 8.7 hours, according to the Windows applet. I will let you know how the batteries hold up as I use them. The computer even comes with a "blank." This looks like the battery, but it is just a hollow piece of plastic. You can plug it into one of the bay to save weight. It’s a nice touch, but they should have included two blanks, for those that just carry the laptop between two location and plug it in at both of them.

Also, since the batteries, floppy and CD-ROM slide into the front, it is much better than IBM's ThinkPad series. The IBMs make you raise the keyboard to swap components from its modular bays. You also need special plates for using the second battery on the IBM. Otherwise you can see into the machine. The Dell is much better at this.

Mine came with two AC adapters, so I leave one at home. So far I don’t need it. With the two batteries I have yet to need to plug it in at home over the weekend. But then I just may not be using it for over 8 hours on a weekend.

The PC Card slots suck. Well at least the buttons for ejecting the cards suck. They are spring-loaded and stay retracted until you need them. You press it in, and it pops out for you to push it in ejecting the card. Trouble comes when you accidentally press both. Now you have one level sticking out and no way to put it back in without ejecting its card. I definitely liked the folding arms on the IBM better.

The keys are a mixed bag. They feel nicer, but have a gritty feeling that I find a little annoying. Also, there is no way to tilt the keyboard up like IBM’s Thinkpads. The function keys (to include the page up & down, home end, etc.) seem smaller on the Dell. I don’t have to IBM anymore to measure them, so this is a subjective feeling. The keys do have a much better feedback feeling than the IBM. Like I said… a mixed bag.

Overall I like the Dell better than the IBM. Its screen is extremely bright, and its larger size makes writing a breeze. The IBM strained my eyes and had me leaning toward it more than the Dell. Don’t knock IBM for this, they have bigger screens too now, and I assume brighter as well. I would love to have one of Dells latest 366 PII machines with their 15" screens. That would be great. Too bad it takes so long for my company to approve hardware. Hopefully the 300 has a 14" screen. I'll keep you informed.

Home Plans (and more on laptops)

We bought land, and are pouring over floor plans for our dream house. Unfortunately we can’t dream over 3000 sq. ft. We bought a copy of Floor Plan Deluxe, and it came with a Home Plan Encyclopedia with 1001 plans in it. As it turned out, my brother-in-law had previously bought the Home Plan Encyclopedia as a stand alone application. His had 3003 plans on three CD-ROMs.

Having an 18GB drive, I wanted to load it to my hard drive and run it from there. I copied all the files from the three CDs to a directory on my hard drive, then ran the installation from my hard drive. It installed fine, but still asked for the CD-ROM to run. I looked in the Windows directory and found a file (hs.ini) that had a setting for image path. This path matched the directory for all the images on the CD-ROM, but not the directory I was using on my hard drive. I edited the entry, and the program started just fine. However, it would ask for Disc 2 or Disc 3 when we tried to few plans that were not originally on disc one.

A little more poking revealed a database file (PlanCD.mdb) in the home plan directory. I opened the file with Access, and low and behold, it was an Access database. Unfortunately it was created in an older version of Access. So I could edit the fields, but not make structural changes. OK. I open the plan table and there is a field DISK_ID that has a 01, 02, or 04. Go figure why 04 is disc three, but it is. I try to add a SQL statement to globally change all the values in that field to 01. Alas, adding queries is considered a structural change. So I manually edit the database. Yes 3003 records. Hey, but I only had to change 2000 or so of them. And it was a one-time deal.

Now my brother-in-law and I have it running on our hard drives. Cool. We have narrowed our selection to 4 or 5 houses. But we still might draw something ourselves, and take it to and architect/fireman that my brother-in-law knows. He charges 30 cents a sq. ft. Very cheap, but about twice the cost of buying the plans from the CD-ROM. I'll keep you informed.

BTW... my wife asked if I could load the Home Plans onto the laptop to view while we were lounging in bed. Of course I can. So I did, and am running it on the laptop for more casual viewing. This had led me to the conclusion that someday I will get a laptop for home. I plan to wire my new house for networking computers. I will now consider a laptop for the master bedroom sitting area, so I can bring it to bed. I will also have to include at least some level of wireless networking in the house. But that is years away. Just thought I'd mention it.

The New Briefing

We have a resounding success with my new client application. It has been getting rave reviews. We have our own usability testing department. Here are the summary points found by their usability testing

Positive Findings:

  • Good tool! Will help maintain focus on objectives.
  • It's nice to have access to the various reports & surveys.
  • As long as the information is timely, it will be useful to us.
  • I enjoyed it all!
  • Likes speed of generation of reports.
  • You couldn't have made this more simple to use!

Negative Findings:

  • All users may not understand terminology used.
  • Thought there would be more [data elements] were available at [lowest location] level.
  • Would like to be able to trend at [the lowest location] level.
  • Would like to be able to customize the default chart type.

Some of the comments were: "Good graphics, easy to read, not too busy" and "Very user friendly" came up more than once. I especially like the last positive finding.I don't determine how much data we have in the system, and the terminology is very data dependent. If you don't know the terminology you may not need the application.

As for the trending data, the application lets you trend any location, so I will have to investigate why we got this result. We would only be able to provide minimal customization to the default graph type. We use 3d bars & stacked bars with lines for goals. If a user set a default that did not use this combination they would not see the results as they were designed. I will add the ability to turn off the 3D to the graphs, and this was a specific comment that was returned.

Overall we did very well on usability. I am looking forward to see how our web site holds up under scrutiny.

International Application

The biggest news I have it that we are now officially an international client/server application. We got a request for the application in our London office. I spent a large amount of time with our Mountain States office when we first ported the application outside the home office. The work spent getting everything running in Colorado was well spent. I have not had any trouble in any of our 4 major regional offices, and the London setup went flawlessly the first time.

This is a bad thing. Since it worked so well, I can’t get a trip to England out of it. Damn! I guess I am too good. Kind of like Hawkeye and Trapper John from the early MASH episodes… They were too good to let go… they screwed up in reverse. He He.

Surgery

This was my third sinus surgery. However, it was also the easiest. I was feeling fine later that day, except for the pain in my throat from the tube the anesthesiologist used. It left my throat hurting so badly that I couldn't talk or swallow without a lot of pain. Ice cream went down good, but it didn't have a lasting effect. So I had a lot of it that day.

My throat stopped hurting after lunch the next day. In fact, I was feeling so good, I assembled my sister-in-law's computer the day after my surgery. Cool.

Conclusion

That about covers this month. I hope my boss orders "his" laptop soon. It will take about 6 weeks for it to come in, so this won’t be the only edition of this column I write on the 233. Don’t forget to read next months Feature Article to get the low down on all my overclocking experience. And the month after that I will cover the detail to my sister-in-laws budget (but fast) computer build up.

I may be getting my cable modem as early as mid-late May. If so, this site will be moving again. I will keep the old address active until the contract with the service provider expires. I will be letting my in-laws use this account with my old computer to see if they really want to spend the money for an Internet account.

Happy computing!

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