Low End PC

Tying up Loose Ends on Bitty Boxen, Buttercup, and the State of Tech

- 2002.12.02

Okay, here I am, in front of my beloved Buttercup, getting ready to write my last column of 2002. I know that I have been quite remiss, but as it has been throughout the year, my circumstances have basically intervened every time I've tried to sit down and write.

My Setup

Yes, I am getting lots of use out of Buttercup. It's a great machine. It is now running four different operating systems, each on a separate hard drive: Mandrake Linux 9, Lycoris Linux Amethyst Update 3 Beta, ButtercupFreeBSD 4.7, and Windows 2000 SP2. Right now I do most of my business on the Mandrake 9 drive.

The Windows drive is relegated to playing Unreal Tournament and showing DVDs. Both the Lycoris and FreeBSD drives are my "tinkering" drives.

Mandrake 9 is insanely great. No other way of describing it. You still have to tweak it and update it before it's usable, but I would say there is less tweaking and updating you have to do for it to be ready to go than you have to do for Windows 2000 to be ready. No, I never did go the XP route. The benefits of XP do not outweigh the drawbacks. And since I don't get email and rarely surf anymore on the Windows 2K side, most of the security concerns of 2K are no longer an issue.

Here I have Open Office 1 and KOffice 3 at my beck and call, I have KMail for my email, KNode for my Newsgroups, and my choice of Mozilla or Konqueror for the Web. There are some great little games on here like Frozen-Bubble (very much like Bust A Move on the late, lamented Dreamcast) and PowerManga (think Galaga) and Tux Racer is in its full 3D glory.

I intend to get down to learning programming once and for all quite soon, and I have great resources like KDevelop, Python, and, of course, gcc (the compiler that Linus Torvalds used to develop the Linux kernel 11 years ago) at my disposal. I am even getting to the point where, rather than fire up my Mac and use BBEdit, I will sit down here and use Bluefish to write HTML.

Linux still isn't as polished as Mac or Windows, but it's almost there, and I have enough frontier spirit to where I don't mind learning the grittier details.

Buttercup Updated

Buttercup is a little different, hardware-wise, than it used to be. For one thing, I need to eat some words here. The lack of an I/O shield actually turned out to be a big deal beyond keeping bugs and dust out. Those ports need that piece of steel there as a common ground. If you don't have them, you wind up with maddening glitches that are devilish to try to chase down. Here's what happened to me: Plug in your printer to the printer port, and presto! your PS/2 ports disappear. Well, they didn't just go poof all at once . . . you would wind up with the mouse being able to mouse but unable to click, and then the keyboard would be ignored. It was subtle and intermittent, but it got in the way.

Since there is no such thing as an I/O shield for the Toshiba board, I wound up taking the very radical leap of Intel D815EFVgoing out and buying a replacement motherboard. I now have an Intel D815EPFVL board in Buttercup, and it took me a grand total of 30 minutes to strip off the cards, CPU, and RAM from the Toshiba board; extricate it from the case; put in the I/O shield; put the Intel board in its place; and then replace the stuff I removed from the Toshiba board.

Whoever designed this case deserves a medal. Unfortunately, this meant money I didn't want to spend. However, it had to be done, and I did it, and I am not sorry I did. This board is faster and better than the Toshiba board, and it came with a CD-ROM with all the Windows drivers I could ever need. I now have DMA working on both IDE lines, even in Windows, and everything is just grand.

The video card is more than adequate. ATI sent me back the new, improved, non-W2K-challenged Xpert2000 after I sent them the buggy one, and it works like a champ. Maybe I won't be able to play Unreal Tournament 2003 with it, but the original Unreal Tournament is gorgeous and runs like greased lightning. Maybe I won't be able to play Doom 3, but it's sufficient for all the Quake variants, including Dark Forces 2: Jedi Outcast.

My buddies who have their floating LAN party are still playing the original Unreal Tournament, so I'm fine. I'm even lasting more than a couple of seconds between being fragged! Practice makes, if not perfect, at least for better survival time.

Bitty Boxen Boards

Okay, so what happened to the super-micro boards I was going to talk about lo these many months ago? Well, the nForce 2 took its sweet time coming out, and at this point nobody is making a Micro ATX board featuring its wholesome goodness. ABit is no longer manufacturing the NV7M board, and ASUS is only using nForce 1 in its smaller format offerings.

The ATI all-in-one chipset never really got anywhere, showing mediocre performance in spite of the Radeon video circuitry on board.

Surprise! Who should come to crash the party but Intel! Sneaking around the back of Nvidia and ASUS, Intel has just come out Intel D845PECEwith a Pentium 4 mATX board that might be the best yet. I have yet to get my hands on a D845PECE, but the specs sound like music to my ears. There is no onboard video, but Intel has joined the 5.1 club with onboard audio that specs out as being competitive with ñVidia's onboard audio.

Of course, the P4 has its own considerations - it's a power hog and not as efficient megahertz for megahertz as the Athlon. But with P4s breaking the 3 MHz barrier, they can be a little bit on the full-figured side and still kick butt. It's sort of like who would "win" in a collision between a Ferrari Testarossa and a Cadillac Escalade? You'd have a flat Testarossa for sure. I will be keeping my eye on this board and will hopefully be able to report more on it in 2003.

Whither Tech?

Finally, whither tech? We have been adrift in this sargasso sea of an economy now for almost two years. Right now, only the gamers and video hounds are demanding better/faster/more powerful. The business community looks at the current crop of PCs and thinks, "What do I need this for?" The killer app to make everyone say "damn the cost, we have to upgrade" is nowhere to be found.

For a geek who stays largely behind the curve, this is not a problem. But this makes for a pretty inhospitable climate for those trying to make a living in the tech field. This past year has been one where I have spent more time than I care to enumerate at non-tech jobs: retail, customer service, even (shudder) telemarketing. In 2001 I wasn't even in the hunt; I was basically retraining for technical jobs that never appeared.

Sure, 9/11 hurt. Big time. But even without that, the tech sector had cut all the fat they could and was busy whittling away at muscle. Good companies, good technologies, and good business models withered on the vine along with the bad, the unsound, and the downright lame.

At the end of the year, I see the possibilities of recovery. I also see sites like Low End PC becoming more and more important as business tries to make do with less and make older machines continue to be useful. And I also see more companies going down the tubes as the realization that too much cutting and too much downsizing left their once vital enterprise with the inability to ramp back up when the economic tide finally turns.

These past couple of years have been the proverbial "Interesting Times" that an old Chinese sage once considered a curse. Barring a new Vietnam in the Middle East, perhaps less interesting times might be in store for the future. One can only hope. LEPC

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