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Scott's Column
Multiple Printers, New MP3 Player, How Much Computer Here

January 1, 2003
By Scott Lewis

As you read this the holidays have past. However, I spent the month of December getting this article ready, so you have to bare with me as I tell you what I was up to during the holiday rush.

Multiple Digital Printers

In getting this month's column ready I realized that I have not spent much time talking about my work lately. My current project (as I write this) is to get multiple digital printers into production. As some of you may recall I had a HUGE project back in May through August to put a digital printer in production to start replacing our printing presses. Well, that project went quite well. It is more reliable than the printing press, both from a software point of view and the human issues.

The code base I started with was a nightmare. With the digital printing we started to move away from a Mecca/UNIX solution for generating Postscript files to a Datalogics Formatter/Windows NT solution. Since I had to completely change the code base to generate input for a totally different system I threw away all the code that was the "print engine." Starting new allowed me to create a code base that was far more bug free and easier to maintain and enhance.

I have added a number of enhancements over the months. None of the enhancements were critical, but they were very nice to have. Of course there were some bugs. The most trouble we had was dealing with special characters. Mecca has its own requirements for special characters, and DL Formatter has its own. I was not in the mood to rewrite the special character filtering system. It used a table to look up values and get there replacements. The biggest problem was when the two different systems had conflicting characters. Also, the barcode system we use (I2of5, don't ask) creates special characters that add a new dimension to the problem. These problems were nearly impossible to work out prior to a production launch because we didn't have enough test data to cover all the special characters.

Just as this goes to "press" we have two additional digital printers and are migrating more of our products to the new format. I had to change the way we generate and store our Postscript files. I basically leave the files on the server without sending them to a printer. I created an Oracle table that shows exactly what's on the server in what I call a "Job Store." Then I wrote an application that allows them to send any work in the Job Store to any printer. The application that allows them to "batch" orders together for printing will eventually be rewritten to batch orders automatically as they come in, instead of manually. We will "auto batch" the orders as they come in and compose them into Postscript files, placing them in the Job Store. From there they are manually "directed" to one of the printers. Eventually we expect to have 10 printers and all our printing presses will be retired.

New MP3 Player (with an old feature?)

I finally received a new MP3 player. Two years after my last MP3 player. As long time readers will remember, I received the Rio 600 as a Christmas gift (it was what I asked for) for Xmas 2000. It only had 32 MB of memory. However, I was assured over the phone and in an e-mail from SonicBlue that they would have the 340 MB Backpack memory expansion (based on IBM's Microdrive) in time for Christmas 2000.

SonicBlue seriously misrepresented themselves. I tracked their proprietary backpack memory expansions. They came out with the 32 MB expansion fairly quickly. A few months later they came out with the 64 MB version. Then, in a switch in direction, they started flooding the market with more players. A 64 MB Rio 800, followed by a special 384 MB Rio 800 that made use of 128 MB of built in memory with a 256 MB backpack (I think that was the configuration). Then a 64 MB Rio 600, and a 128 MB Rio 800. Then they put a 128 MB backpack up for sale. Quickly prices shifted, and the 64 MB backpack cost around $70, but the 128 MB version cost far more than twice as much at $200. Gradually all the backpacks left the SonicBlue site. There are currently no memory backpacks available on the SonicBlue's shopping web site. I find it amazing that they still sell three Rios (600, 800 & 900) advertising them as expandable when they don't offer expansion. The IBM Microdrive backpack never happened.

I dug up an old link to e.Digital's MXP 100 MP3 player and noticed the price dropped drastically since last year when I first noticed them. The MXP 100 uses IBM's Microdrive. When last I checked they had it priced priced with a 340 MB Microdrive at about $339, and with a 1 GB Microdrive it was priced at $399. That was expensive when you could get 5+ GB hard drive based players in the $300-400 range.

When I checked their site in early December they had the 340 MB version available for $149, and the 1 GB version available for $229. I made the mistake of waiting a couple of days before "asking" my wife for it as a birthday present. When she gave the OK I went to order the 1 GB version, but it was off the site. I contacted them and they only sell the 1 GB version during special promotions. I ordered the 340 MB version for $149.

Cost of IBM Microdrive

I can see why the 1 GB version disappeared from e.Degital's web site. When I searched the Internet to find a 1 GB Microdrive for sale the lowest price I could find was $219. Clearly the MXP 100 with the 1 GB drive was a bargain at $229.

I tried to bid for a number of Microdrives on eBay. I was constantly outbid. People were paying between $180 and $275 for the 1 GB Microdrives, and even 340 MB Microdrives were going for over $100 (e.Digital sells the 340 MB Microdrive for $99). I really don't want to spend more than $100 for the 1 GB Microdrive. That would put my total investment at $250. Any more than that and I have to wonder why I don't just get the 5 GB Apple iPod for Windows at $299. Although I remind myself that I would have to buy a FireWire card to be able to USE an iPod.

When the MXP 100 w/ 340 MB Microdrive arrived I checked e.Digital's web site, mostly to see if they offered the 1 GB Microdrive as an accessory. Low and behold they had the 1 GB equipped MXP 100s back on their web site. I called to ask if it would be possible for me to return the 340 MB version and exchange it for the 1 GB version. They were incredibly helpful. Since I had not opened the package (at all, it was still in the UPS shipping box) they said I could open the box and remove the 340 MB Microdrive and send it to them. As soon as they received it they would send me out the 1 GB Microdrive and only charge me the difference between the price of the players. They even said they would NOT charge me for shipping the new drive to me.

Wow! Talk about service. All it cost me to go from the 340 MB drive to the 1 GB drive was $70. I was very impressed.

How Many Songs

I converted a good portion of my MP3s to 48 kbps WMA files to maximize my Rio's pitiful 32 MB. I was able to get close to 90 minutes of music on the Rio 600. Still, that was not enough for me to keep from hearing repeats of songs during my 75 mile round trip commute to work EVERY day. At the far more common 128 kbps rate I can fit about 16 hours of music on the 1 GB Microdrive. That's more than enough for me to travel round trip to work for a week without hearing the same song twice.

While waiting for the 1 GB Microdrive I borrowed the 32 MB CompactFlash card from my Kodak digital camera and tested the MXP 100. It took some experimenting, but eventually I discovered that it would not play 48 kbps WMA files. It will play 64 and 96 kbps files with no trouble. This means I cannot use my collection of 48 kbps files I made for my Rio in the MXP 100. Oh well! If I get ambitious I may convert my music collection over to 64 kbps WMA files so I can fit 32 hours of music on the MXP 100 with a 1 GB Microdrive. Not bad for a device that weighs only 4.9 oz.

I will have more on the MXP 100 next month once I have had more time to use it.

New Computer

A couple of months ago my wife told me I could get a new computer after the new year... Assuming she doesn't change her mind after the post Christmas bills come in. I will have to use some of my income tax refund to afford this. However, I am on the fence. I would love a new computer, but I don't seem to be doing much with my current computer lately. Aside from my recent experiments with multi-booting three versions of Windows and two versions of Linux, I don't use my computer for much more than surfing the web and e-mail. My gaming time seems to have shrunk down to almost nothing.

I use my wife's laptop to balance my checkbook... while lying in bed. When I spend a few hours at a time in my study I start hearing the tales about how "Daddy is always on the computer." A new computer would run my existing programs faster, but that is only a time issue. Games are the real performance bottle neck in a current PC. That's right, except for games my 5 year old, 450 MHz Celeron based PC is just fine for all my tasks.

Now I have to decide, do I need a gaming machine anymore. I have always replaced my computer when I had a game that needed the extra horsepower. Warcraft III is the most recent game I own and it works on my old computer. It should play a bit more smoothly with a new computer, but I certainly don't need a new computer for Warcraft III. Other games have steeper requirements, but I am not playing them. If I do I will get the "Daddy is always on the computer" complaints. If I don't get time to play games on the computer, do I need a new computer that is a strong gaming machine.

I bring this up because I am reasonably happy with the performance of my current computer. I would love to build a cheap computer that can be a file and print server. That would free me to play around with booting my machine and not having to worry that someone wants to print just as I load up Linux instead of Windows 2000.

How Much Computer?

If I don't buy/build a machine specifically geared toward gaming, I can get away with saving a lot of money. Since money is tight, I am trying to decide between a few major points in my next computer. Do I build a 2.0 GHz Celeron with enough CPU power to run Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Paint Shop Pro, FrontPage 2000, Warcraft III, with power to spare? Or do I spend an extra $400-500 to "upgrade" to a 2.4 GHz P4 with a nVidia Geforce4 Ti video card for serious gaming action? Do I get a 17" LCD flat panel display ($500-700) or get a good 19" tube monitor ($200-300)? Do get 512 MB of memory instead of 256MB? Do I get a 120-160 GB hard drive over a 40-60 GB drive? How much computer do I really need?

This is my dilemma. I quickly priced these three systems:

Mild Mannered Machine: 2.0 GHz Celeron, Intel Motherboard with integrated graphics and sound, 512 MB PC2100 memory, 60 GB hard drive, 40X CD-RW drive and 19" CRT. Price: $968.

Flat Panel Display System: 2.0 GHz Celeron, Intel Motherboard with integrated graphics and sound, 256 MB PC2100 memory, 40 GB hard drive, 40X CD-RW drive and 17" LCD Flat Panel Display. Price: $1210.

Gaming Rig: 2.4 GHz P4, Intel Motherboard, 512 MB PC2700 memory, 80 GB hard drive, 19" CRT, Geforce4 Ti4200 video card, Creative 5.1 sound card, etc. Price: $1395.

Notice the gaming machine has a number of serious upgrades for performance. The memory is the faster PC2700 (333Mhz) vs. PC2100 (233MHz) of the other systems. The gaming machine also has a true Pentium 4 were as the others make use of a Celeron processor. The two "slower" systems make use of Intel's on-board graphics and sound while the gaming machine uses a nVidia graphics card and Creative sound card. All these things add up in the end.

For under $1000 I can have a really nice machine... though not the fastest machine. And it will have a chunky 19" monitor instead of some sleek, modern LCD display. I had to sacrifice memory and hard drive space for the flat panel display, and it still cost almost $250 more. The gaming machine cost over $400 more than the budget conscience setup. That's the cost of staying close to the leading edge. Is this worth it?

The point I am trying to make is that if you want a fancy LCD monitor, or a serious gaming machine you will have to pay a premium for it over a basic system. This basic system is not that basic. It will surely blow away my current 450MHz computer, and will seem blazingly fast to me as long as I don't start playing around with faster systems.

I am also torn by this statement from Jerry Pournelle, "Incremental changes in already-fast computer systems tend not to make any difference in our perceptions, no matter what the benchmarks say." Going from 2.0 to 2.4 GHz when I am already coming from a mere 0.4 GHz probably won't mean much, especially if I can't run them side by side.

So... is it worth it? Should I stay below $1000 and get a nice machine with a big clunky monitor, or should I spend the extra money for a flat panel display or serious horsepower? And if I am going to give up on either of those luxuries the question that's really gnawing at me is... do I really need a new computer?

Hopefully I will have the answer soon.

BTW... when I priced these systems in early December I noticed that there were virtually no price changes on most of the components since September except for memory which was significantly more expensive. Memory prices are volatile, so it is best to buy memory when it is cheap. Don't wait. All other components just go down in price, or get better then go down in price. I would think as Christmas got closer prices would drop. Otherwise they would surely drop after the holiday spending to boost post Christmas sales. 

Multi-Booting Print Server

In my desire to play with other operating systems and multi-boot my computer I wanted to set it up so that no matter what operating system I am running all the other computers in the house could access my files and the printer seamlessly. It took a while to get that working with Windows 2000 and Windows XP. I finally have it so that each computer can see the files or the printer regardless of which Windows OS I am running. Next I will do the same for Linux.

I am pretty sure I am going to load Windows 2000 Server or Professional when I finally build my server. Since I will only be sharing drive space and a couple of printers this is more than good enough. Plus I can load pcAnywhere on the server and control it remotely. I know, the Linux crowd will tell me there are any number of ways I can control Linux remotely, and they are right. However, until I learn Linux I will have to go with the OS that has shortest learning curve and is easier to setup... Windows.

Conclusion

I am losing my Linux Guru. A guy at work is very bright, and knows Linux very well. This has been my safety net. I am a Windows Guru. Now I am getting the kind of help I have been offering for so long. I am so new to Linux that I feel completely lost. So far I have not had to get any direct help from my coworker, but that would change. Now he is moving on and I may only be able to use him as a resource by e-mail.

I still want to play around with Linux, but without the close at hand help, I may be slowed down a bit. We'll see if I have any time to work with Linux after the holidays.

Until next time...
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