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The Retirement Computer

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I’ve been playing with computers since college in the 80’s. Fortran was the only programming language offered at W&J and we would sneak into the lab at night to play an ASCII based adventure game that was on the system’s four terminals. My first computer was a Commodore 64 and I used it mostly for games and played with the GEOS operating system. It had a GUI and all the features we’ve come to expect in a modern OS. In the early 1990’s I bought my first PC, an IBM with the then new Intel 486sx processor. It had 4 megabytes (not gigabytes) of RAM a 170MB hard drive, both 5.25 and 3.5 inch floppy drives and was capable of displaying 256 colors on its 13″ CRT. MS-DOS (5.0 Ithink) and Windows 3.1 were installed and it had a 2400 baud modem to connect to BBS systems. It came with a Prodigy trial account, but I soon joined Compuserve because it was where all the best computer and news groups were. Not able to leave things alone, I upgraded the RAM to 8mb at a cost of $50/mb, added an 8 bit sound card and bought a bunch of little video memory chips that plugged into the motherboard to give me 65,000 colors when playing games. Since it had a 486sx CPU and Intel came out with math co-processor chips to boost performance (actually just DX chips) and I even put in their DX-2 chip when available to double the clock speed. Since then I have built and upgraded systems for myself and learned all about ISA and VESA local bus, memory managers, IRQ conflicts, editing autoexec.bat/config.sys/win.ini/sys.ini files ad nauseum. Finally computer power grew to the point where the games and things I was doing didn’t require constant attention and upgrades. for the past 4 years or so, I was getting by with a refurbished HP 8120n. It had a quadcore Q6600 cpu and I only bumped up the RAM to 4GB and upgraded the videocard twice over the years. Being an HP system it didn’t have the parts I would have chosen, but it was a good deal at the time and it did yeoman service as I have said for 4 years. Well once I retired I thought I should build myself a new computer that will do anything I can think of now and for the next 4 or 5 years.

The Retirement PC. Cool LED Fan came with the case. (click for hi-res image)


Sound and video editing are the biggest tasks my new machine may be asked to do. With smart phones and the iPad capable of making HD video, the home movie is getting quite the makeover and everyone seems to be putting their creations on Youtube, so why not me? I have time to play more games and I think I might try Skyrim or the latest in the Call of Duty franchise. These things can tax the CPU and the video subsystem to a great extent. I’ve always tried to get the best bang for my buck and this build is no different. My significant other has given me that look that means “I don’t understand it, but if it makes you happy, go ahead. Just don’t go too far overboard with it.” I could have worse vices, I suppose. After much research I came up with the spec’s and my choice of parts. Intel or AMD? Intel of course. AMD makes good low end CPU’s, but nothing they have can compare clock for clock with Intel.

Next decision was what socket, 2011 or 1155? 2011 is the newest and may have the longest projected lifespan, but there are only something like 3 current CPU’s for the socket and they cost from $300 to over $1000. Socket 1155 will be around for the next couple of generations of CPU’s I think and will take the latest Ivy Bridge parts today. So, it will be socket 1155, but what motherboard and CPU? Looked at MSI, Asrock and Gigagyte boards and they each have good boards and comparable features. I finally chose the Gigabyte Z77X-UD5H-WB due to it’s heavy duty PCB, dual gigabit LAN ports, plethora of USB 3.0, esata and SATA III ports. I got the version with a wi-fi/bluetooth add-in card because I need wi-fi to connect with our downstairs router to which all the network entertainment components (Onkyo Receiver, Roku, Blu-ray, home theater PC) are hardwired. I chose a middle of the road CPU, the Intel 3570K. It is a Core I-5 quadcore part that runs at 3.4Ghz. It is unlocked, so can be easily overclocked, if I choose to go there. It screams compared to the old Q6600 (and it was no slouch). I went with an aftermarket CPU cooler because the stock coolers are loud and keep the CPU from overheating, but just barely. The Cooler Master Hyper 212 plus is huge, but it’s big fan turns slower, cools much better and makes less noise. I have read people have overclocked this CPU to almost 5Ghz using this same cooler. A $10 rebate made it more attractive as well. To power the board and CPU I got a Corsair 700 watt modular power supply. Modular means only the connections I need are used and there are no unwanted power cables to keep out of the way(btw, it had a $30 rebate).

RAM is about as cheap as it has been for some time. I went overboard and maxed the board out with 32GB of DDR3 1600 from G.Skill. With that amount I can play with RAM disks and shouldn’t have to worry about page files and virtual memory. The Ivy Bridge CPU’s have Intel’s latest integrated HD 4000 graphics. This is much better than the 3000 and 2500 of previous Sandy Bridge and earlier CPU’s. However, they cannot compete with a discreet add-in video card. Again, I went middle of the road and got an AMD Radeon HD7770 Gigahertz Edition made by Sapphire ($15 rebate). With my BenQ 24″ monitor, it will drive all the games I like at the highest detail levels. Graphics cards are the easiest thing to upgrade and about the only thing I might over the next few years. Internal storage is handled by a 240GB Corsair SSD ($30 rebate) and an older 256GB Samsung SSD I got from a geek on Craigslist for $100 when he wanted a bigger SSD. Once you go SSD, you’ll never want to go back to waiting for that spinning hard drive to read and load the operating system on boot. For data and internal backup I have two 1TB drives in a RAID 1 mirror.

All this is stuffed in an inexpensive Rosewill Challenger case. I added an LG Blu-ray reader/DVD burner and another DVD burner I had lying around just in case I want to copy and burn at the same time. The build went pretty smoothly. I suggest adding as many components as you can before mounting the motherboard into the case. Once in, things get cramped and my short stubby fingers have a hard time plugging things in. Installing Windows 7 Ultimate was easy and restoring my data from the Drobo held no surprises. I’m still tweaking settings and deciding what programs I really use and not installing things I don’t need. This is fun for me. Some folks like to plant flowers. Let’s see how long I can go before the adding something new. Please share your computer stories, I’d love to hear them good or bad.

Kindle Keyboard 3G

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I got the Kindle Keyboard last year and have been loving it. I have read books on my iPod Touch and it was a bit tedious with the small screen and the back lit screen is tiring on the eyes. looking at all the others I decided Amazon had the best selection and has the resources to dominate the e-book market. You may not like their tactics, but I think the Kindle will be around for some time. The Nook and other devices I’m not so sure of. Anyway the Kindle is great at one thing: displaying readable text in a light and handy device. The e-ink disply is crisp from tiny point sizes to optical reader size for the legally blind. The page is refresh is quick and not too distracting. There is a sort of flash or blink as each page changes. It annoys some folks, but not me. There are a host of other feature as well. With the keyboard you can annotate and bookmark as you read, which I have never done and can’t see myself doing, but some folks may find it useful. The text to speech feature works, but I don’t see me listening to a robotic voice read me a Stephen King novel. That it has speakers is nice as it can function as a media player. With only 8 gigs of storage you can’t put everything you own on it, but for a short trip when you don’t want to carry your iPod or laptop, you can store some entertainment on it. I got the 3G version because I still refuse to get a smart phone and pay an additional data fee to my arch enemy, Verizon. With the Kindle I can sort of connect to the internet and get directions or check an email in an emergency. It has to be an emergency because the navigation capabilities are very limited. You have a 4-way switch and some arrow keys. It can be done, but it’s not fun. That you can read a web page at all is surprising, but the e-ink display can render a remarkably precise graphics and readable fonts. Battery life is scary. If you keep the wi-fi off, it’ll last weeks and weeks on a charge. I turn on the wi-fi every few days to get new books and check the special offers that are another interesting aspect of the Kindle. I recommend getting the special offer version of any Kindle model. They are great! I got the $50 case w/ booklight for half price and there’s are monthly $1 book deals. Sure, it’s Amazon’s way to make more money from you, but if you plan on buying books anyway, why not take advantage of the special deals. There are simple games like Boggle, Blackjack, and Yachtzee, that can help while away the time on the beach or on  a trip. Don’t get me wrong, I love books. I really love books and I have way too many (just ask my Significant Other).  The kindle allows me to keep in one place an electronic version of many classic works (free by the way) I have on the shelf, but don’t want to carry around.  If you are thinking about taking the plunge there are several Kindle types available. I’d stay away from the “touch” versions as the IR touch system seems to be getting panned by many folks. The Fire is a tablet device and is great for what it is and it can do web browsing like any real computer. The $79 basic Kindle may be perfect for most folks. It is the essential Kindle doing what it does best, displaying readable text. It doesn’t have speakers, so it won’t be your portable media device, but many people won’t care about that. E-books are here and you should take a look at them.

 

Roku XD: Who needs Cable or Satellite anymore?

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TV watching on the internet is growing rapidly and is on the verge of breaking out into the mainstream. The old VCR and the new DVR showed people they weren’t tied to scheduled broadcast times and annoying commercial breaks. Youtube, Hulu and Netflix have introduced the masses to online content that mirrors what they get over the air or through their cable/satellite providers. Virtually anything you see listed in TV Guide can be found online somewhere and the majority of it doesn’t even violate the evil Digital Millenium Copyright Act. The bottleneck to accepting online content seems to be the setting we’re used to viewing these things. Computers are ‘lean forward’ devices and generally require more direct interaction in that people use search features and scroll around pages clicking on links to view multi-media content. TV viewing is traditionally a ‘lean back’ activity where a couple of clicks on a remote get us what we want. Many folks are not keen to hook a computer to their TV and navigating with a keyboard/mouse is viewed as more trouble than it’s worth. This has led to a number of set-top boxes that stream internet content to the TV via Wi-Fi or an Ethernet connection. Roku, Apple, Logitech, Western Digital, D-Link(Boxee Box), and others sell these devices. They all work pretty much the same way and differ mostly in their interface and what services they have lined up.

Based on some research into these products and their reviews, I chose to spend some Christmas money on the Roku XD. It is the mid price product in the line with 1080p output and a better remote and slightly more capable Wi-Fi than the $60 basic model and really only lacks the USB port of the $100 higher end product. The beauty and ultimate success of these devices centers on their simplicity. Geeks will complain of the lack of this or that, but to get penetration into the homes of folks who mostly use computers for email, banking and Facebook, these things have to be, not idiot proof, but mother/father/grandmother/aunt/uncle proof. The Roku XD is pretty simple to get working out of the box. If you have a newer HDTV with HDMI, then one cable (sadly not included) carries video and sound from Roku to TV. Older TV’s will have to use the supplied composite video/RCA stereo cord. Plug the unit in (remember to put the included batteries in the remote) and follow the on-screen directions. You have to decide on wired or wireless connection. A wired Ethernet connection will be the fastest, but depending on your broadband speed and router connection, it may not be noticeable and running a wire across the room may be aesthetically unacceptable to some. Once connected to your network the most complicated thing is linking your Netflix and other accounts to your Roku. It’s not hard, but tedious to go back and forth from your computer to the Roku entering codes. I suggest having a laptop on hand, so you don’t have to run from one room to another. Once set up, the Roku just works. There is an eclectic mix of channels that provide content from all over the world and you will have fun exploring them. The basics are Netflix, Youtube, PodTV, and the Internet Archive for me. There are lots of news, sports and educational channels. Most are free, but some offer premium subscription content too. The user interface is simple, but effective. The remote navigates you mostly up/down and left/right through the channels and shows on them. It’s pretty easy and it works. I can get a number of local channels with an indoor antenna and now with the Roku I can get almost everything else. Of course in my bedroom I have my big computer and full access to the same thing, but sometimes you just want to lean back and watch TV.

Right now you can get a $20 credit off the Roku XD on Amazon by spending $5 in their VOD area. Amazon-Roku XD dealYou have to spend the $5 by January 3, 2011 and buy the Roku by February 5th.

Really Cool & Useful Apps for the iPod Touch or iPhone

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Touch Mouse by Logitech  is a simple app that makes your Touch a trackpad/keyboard to control a computer via wi-fi. You download the app to your Touch/iPhone and install a small applet on your computer available from Logitech.com. This is perfect in my living room for switching between Windows Media Center, Hulu, YouTube, and the History channel website. Most wireless or bluetooth keyboards won’t work beyond a few feet from the computer and who wants a keyboard mixed in with their remotes anyway. I cancelled my DirecTV and get all my TV from the Internet now. I stream audio and video to my AV receiver and old SD 32″ TV while my PC sits in the other room. I was stuck in Media Center which is fine for Netflix and IPTV selections Microsoft offers, but that is still pretty limited. Now I can switch applications and manipulate the screen from my comfy chair like I was in front of the computer. It’s free, simple to set up, and can work on Windows or Mac.

If you listen to audio books, you probably are a member of Audible.com and if you aren’t, you should be. Audible released it’s iPhone/iPod Touch app this week and it’s great. The Touch or iPhone will play audio books through it’s media player and it’s fine. The Audible app gives you more flexibility with the playback by letting you go backward and forward in 30 second increments and allows you to bookmark a spot for future reference. It allows you to access  your Audible library through wi-fi, so you can get away from iTunes , wonky syncs, and the whole computer, if you choose. Just open the app, connect and download anything from your Audible library online. Of course it also knows what is already on your device and you can play it from the app. There are stats on usage and some silly social badge things you can earn. I don’t really care about that stuff, but others might think it cool. It has the ability to tweet and post things to facebook and twitter and hooks into YouTube for videos of Authors and readers. I see I have 26 books and listened for 3 hours 29 minutes today ( I had to drive to Harrisburg). Another cool app for my Touch. I like it!

Favorite Tech and Gadgets of 2009

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Here is some of the stuff I have used throughout 2009 and liked a lot. In no particular order…

ZOOM H2: a hand held recorder that I use to make recordings. It’ll record in WAV files and has multiple microphones for stereo and surround. It uses SD memory cards and does a good job. Great for noodling or recording riffs before you lose them. One downside is the USB 1.1 interface that is too slow and should have been 2.0.

DROBO: How I love the Drobo. Redundant expandable storage that is beautiful to look at. Right now I have 3 terabyte drives and one 750gb drive in it and have beau coup storage for all my music and other media.

Ipod Touch: 32GB model does everything I can think of. Games, photos, audiobooks, podcasts and tons of music. I hate trying to use it to surf, but when I need to connect it’s there and works.

FACEBOOK: Connecting with old friends is great. I have concerns with its privacy controls, but still think it the best social site out there.

Audible.com: I love books, but spend a lot of time in the car. I’m not sure I’m an aural info processor, so I use it for entertainment books mostly.

NetFlix: I’m using the watchnow feature for the most part and stream content to my TV using the Windows Media Center interface. I’m very close to ditching DirectTV and getting all my TV over the internet.

Windows 7: Latest and greatest Microsoft OS to date. It works and is still compatible with almost everything I have no matter how old.

BlueAnt Supertooth Light: Simple bluetooth speakerphone for the car. If your car doesn’t have a hands free system, you need to get one. This is stupid simple and inexpensive. New models have more features, but this is all I need. If you hold a phone while driving anymore, you are an IDIOT!

drobo update

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Added some new drives to the data robot recently. Now have a 1TB, 750GB, 500GB and a 320GB for 1.42TB of redundant, protected storage and about 600GB free at the moment. I Have dumped media from all but one external drive onto the drobo and now have several external drives that I don’t have a use for, at the moment. I think an immutable law of digital storage is you will find stuff, no matter its usefulness, to fill 80% of the storage available and then think how you can increase it before the last 20% is used up.

Remember, despite the redundancy of the drobo, you still need some sort of off site storage solution or you are at risk. Francis Ford Coppola had his computer and back-up drives stolen from his home in Argentina and he literally lost his life’s work. Microsoft’s Skydrive will give you 25GB of storage for free. Don’t risk losing the important documents, music and pictures you are accumulating.

The Drobo

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the amazing drobo click for larger image

the amazing drobo click for larger image

I finally got myself a drobo. It’s a unique storage   device that adds unlimited capacity and data redundancy in a very simple product. They market it as a ‘data robot’ and thus the name drobo. It’s  a USB 2.0 or firewire 800/400 (that’s ieee1394 or ilink to some people) external drive enclosure that will hold up to 4 sata drives of any capacity. Some geeks love to set up RAID arrays and will argue whether RAID 5 or Raid 10 is best. I’d rather not have to worry about striped and/or mirrored arrays where you must use disks of the same size (and usually exact brand and model or you are likely to have problems). The drobo eliminates all the hassle. You just slide in two or more drives of any capacity and connect the USB or firewire cable. There is a simple software application that gives you the drobo dashboard. You first decide how you want to format the drives. NTFS is best for windows user, but Mac and linux users have their options too. In a couple of minutes the drives are formatted and you have one large volume that you can map as any available drive letter and name whatever you want (Mine is the X: drive named drobo). Now I can dump anything I want on that drive and it is safe from system crashes and hard drive failures on my computer and even more importantly on the drobo itself. the drobo uses a proprietary sytem (it’s not RAID!) that allows the drobo to rebuild itself when a drive fails with no loss of data. All your precious pictures, music, video, even your memoirs are protected against drive failures. The cost of this is reduced capacity of all the drives. You can figure about a third of the total capacity is lost to this redundancy. A small price figuratively and literally when you look at hard drives these days.

Drobo has 4 bays and accepts any sized sata drive

Drobo has 4 bays and accepts any sized sata drive

I had a 250gb, a 320gb, and a new 1terabyte drive on hand and slid them in. This is not the most efficient combination since the available storage is less than 500gb overall due to the difference in sizes and how the data is spread over all the drives so that the failure of any drive allows all the data to be recovered from the other two. The drobo is smart. It’ll tell you when a drive is getting full or is in danger of crashing. Just slide out the smallest drive and add a bigger one. The drobo will rebuild all the data with no muss or fuss. This is a great data protection and back up solution for anyone who has important information on their computer(s). Keep in mind that while drobo will guard your data at home or office, it can’t protect against fire, flood, earthquake or even thieves. A comprehensive data storage and protection system has to incorporate some sort of off site storage plan. This could be an external drive with your critical data that you take to work, or a dvd your burn and send to your mother, brother, or friend.  There are online solutions like carbonite or amazon’s S3 service. Microsoft has Windows Live (http://home.live.com) and you get 25gb of free storage and a number of other interesting services as well. However you choose to do it, you need to have multiple copies of important data in more than one place or you are only one act of God away from lost data. Drobo is pricey compared to simple external hard drives. I have a small forest of drives next to my computer for storage and back-ups. The drobo will be replacing most of them due to its set and forget ease of use. I can use a free app like SyncToy from Microsoft and set up folders on the drobo that mirror folders and files on my desktop and laptop machines. SyncToy will copy any changes and keep the folders synched. Check out the drobo and see if it fits into your back-up and storage plan. www.drobo.com

Current set-up

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I currently run a HP m8120n. (Refurbished from Newegg for $600 delivered. I couldn’t build a new box for anywhere near that.) It has an Intel quadcore Q6600 at 2.4ghz, 3gb RAM, 2x320gb HD’s, Hauppauge digital tuner card, and I threw in a Radeon 3650 video card because I didn’t want to bother with a new PSU. I have an HP Media Vault for media storage/back-up and it has 800gb of storage. I have several Seagate external USB drives ranging from 250-500gb. I’m trying to get started ripping hundreds of CD’s. I use a 24″ BenQ Super PVA LCD monitor because I hate the color shift and viewing angles on most consumer panels. I run Vista because that’s what it came with and I haven’t had a problem with it. I actually like it.
I use the media center a lot now. I still have a 32″ CRT for my livingroom home theatre. I run a composite out from the PC to it and use the HP remote to stream content. Works fine for standard def and video podcasts. Hope to upgrade to a HDTV soon.

Boycott Viacom!!

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Viacom is evil! They just don’t get it. Everyone should be outraged at the invasion of their privacy. The ‘old’ media companies are so ignorant. Youtube is the best advertisement and product placement tool they could want and they just can’t see beyond the rabbit ear antennas of a few people. They think they can squeeze some money out of Google and scare the net into ‘protecting’ their content for them.
I predict the backlash against Viacom will cost them more than anything they get from Google. The genie will not be placed back in its bottle. The people watching Youtube are not watching content on their TVs. Viacom is arguing they are being harmed by people seeing content they wouldn’t watch on conventional OTA, cable or satellite. Youtube is not taking away from their market, IT’S a NEW MARKET YOU IDIOTS!! And instead of exploiting it, Viacom wants to crush it. So long Viacom, I hope my pension fund isn’t investing in you.