Upgrade or Buy New

I just finished the previous post and at the bottom of the post I included the analogy I use when I explain to clients about upgrades and why RAM is the most effective upgrade that you can do to most PCs. Then I got the idea that I should expand on that (and also keep it from getting buried in another post) by creating a separate post for it.

I often get asked if people should upgrade their PCs or look at buying a new one. My answer is that depends. Does your PC do everything now that you want it to but maybe is just a little slow? What has to replaced? How old is it (yes this is a factor as older RAM is generally more expensive than current RAM and some parts may not even be possible to find)?

Two things that I advise clients to look at for new PC purchases or upgrades are: The amount of memory that is in the machine and the monitor. The same would apply to upgrades in most cases.

This is the analogy I use to explain how PCs work and to show how RAM upgrades usually trump all other upgrades.

Think of an office desk as the amount of RAM that you have in your computer, then a filing cabinet (or a bookshelf) as your hard drive, your eyes as the display and you are the processor. You can only open so many files (or programs) on the desk before you start running out of desktop space (remember your operating system uses some of this desk too). When the desk fills up with stuff, you have to start putting stuff in the filing cabinet. You get up move stuff to the cabinet then sit down. When you are dome with something you put it back in the filing cabinet. This is what happens on your computer. When the physical RAM fills up (opening programs and files) it starts to store open data on the hard drive, which is slower. Think of a RAM upgrade as an upgrade of your desk. If you double the amount of memory in your PC, you essentially are doubling the size of the desk. Now you can open more work and still have space left on the desk. You can switch back and forth between programs and files faster than if you had to run to the filing cabinet every time to get something.

Before you upgrade your RAM though there are a few things that you have to consider. What type of RAM is in the machine? There are some types of RAM that are so hard to find and when you do find it is ridiculously expensive that it makes no sense to upgrade it. Specifically I am thinking about RD RAM that was used in some early Pentium 4s. If you have RDRAM you are better off buying even a used system than trying to find any of this stuff. PC100 and PC133 RAM is a little more expensive vs. todays memory, but it’s not that bad. An example You can get a 2 GB kit of DDR 2 Kingston Value RAM (667 PC 5300) for about 80.00 in Calgary now (a few stores). 1 GB of PC3200 RAM (DDR) is anywhere from 110.00 to 120.00 for Kingston Value RAM and a 512MB stick of PC133 (SDRAM) is about 75.00. 256 MB of RDRAM is closer to 150.00 and 512MB is 260.00. Hardly worth spending the money when you can find a used PC with a P4 and 512MB of Ram and Windows XP for 250.00 to 350.00 in the city. Another factor is to try and get as close to matching your existing memory as possible. My own experience of a recent memory upgrade using the same part numbers from Kingston (but different density memory) led to some strange problems (see my previous post).

Displays… Unless you’re designing and launching space missions, playing the absolute latest 3D games at their highest resolutions or creating a Hollywood Feature or Animation on your PC, no one really needs most of the systems that are out there (not even me). Most people surf the web, do email, play the occasional game, home accounting and edit some pictures with their PCs. I often will advise my clients to make sure that they make sure to spend a little more on the display for their system rather than focusing on the processor speed. You don’t look at the system you look at the display. There are some very cheap LCDS panels out there and that is exactly what they are cheap. Cheaper displays tend to come with lower resolutions, lower brightness’s and less contrast than some that are as little as 50.00 more. The monitor is your key interface between you and your system. When thinking of upgrading a monitor, think of it as getting better glasses for your eyes. A good quality monitor will give you excellent clarity and resolution that allow you to sit at your system longer and be a more enjoyable experience. The nice thing about a good monitor is that you can move it to another system or use it as a secondary display later if so desired.

Other upgrades.. There are other upgrades that are really no brainers and if you have to do them you can. A good example is Hard Drives and DVD Burners. If you are running out of space you can replace or add a second hard drive for usually well under 100.00, or add a DVD burner 40.00 to 50.00 (if your PC will handle it) and archive off some of your data. At least with a hard drive you can take the upgrade out of the machine and put it in an external enclosure later to hook up to a new machine. Video cards you have to be careful on and unless you can find one for under 100.00 that will work with your PC it is not worth upgrading either.

At last alternative if you do not want to upgrade hardware but want to upgrade from an older legacy PC with unsupported OS (Windows 9X or ME), consider going to a Linux Distribution. Linux distributions like Ubuntu are getting more and more user friendly, are free and will often work on older less capable hardware. You often get everything you need on the CD and they are continually supported in regards to security. As I write this now I have Ubuntu running off a Live CD on another PC.

Please feel free to contact Sysguy Consulting if you want to know if you should or could upgrade your existing PC. We make house calls!



Ram Upgrade Issues

I recently decided to upgrade the amount of RAM in my primary PC from 2 GB up to 4 GB. I have received a copy of Adobe Photoshop CS3 Extended upgrade and would like to work with as much RAM as possible. As well I will be doing some Video Editing on my primary PC as well (while my Video Editing Station is down waiting for its upgrades). DDR2 Ram is also very cheap right now so I decided to take advantage of it.

When I built the PC a few months ago I installed 2 GB of Kingston DDR2 533 RAM in it and it has been working well. I ordered 2 GB of DDR2 667 RAM for a new AMD machine I am building soon, then with the low prices I decided to order a another 2 GB of RAM. I figured I would put the 4 GB of 667 RAM in my main machine and put the 533 in the AMD machine I am building. The first two sticks of Kingston Value Ram I ordered turned out to be Double Sided memory (Ram chips on both sides of the chips), the second set (same part numbers) was single sided. The Intel manual for the board said it could handle both, both so I went ahead with the upgrade. The machine was working well but then the processor would start to spike at 100% usage and the system would lock up for up 2 to 3 minutes (and as long as 5 minutes) from time to time. I removed the new RAM put the old RAM back in and everything was fine again. I then tested each pair of RAM individuals (DS and SS) and again everything tested and worked fine again. I went back to the 4 GB and the system started on the processor spikes again. The motherboard bios correctly detected all of the RAM 4096MB and Windows Vista Ultimate saw the 3508 MB of RAM (explanation of why down below).

Next I tried changing the order of the pairs on the motherboard and while the system was a little better, it would still spike the CPU every so often. In frustration I picked up 2 more GB of Kingston Value RAM again yesterday but this was a matched RAM kit and was double sided. I removed the Single Sided sticks of RAM, installed the new Double Sided, restarted and everything was fine again and has been running without the CPU spikes.

My motherboard is an Intel DG695WH (one of their higher end desktop boards) and it did indicate that it could handle both types of RAM. The manual says nothing about installing Single Sided and Double Sided RAM together. Nor would it work with the Double Sided 533 DDR2 and the Double Sided 667 RAM either (which in theory all 4 sticks should have run at 533).

So while everything appeared to be fine with the mixed types of RAM it wasn’t. This may not happen on all motherboards, but to be safe if you are planning an upgrade of your memory, or are having problems after a RAM upgrade, ideally try to get identical RAM if you can (if you have DS RAM, get DS sticks).

I indicated earlier that Windows Vista Ultimate only sees 3508 MB of RAM while the motherboard sees the full 4096 MB. This is a function of any 32 bit operating system, and the same thing would happen if I did this to a Linux machine or a Mac. The operating system cannot see memory above the 4000MB mark. If I go ahead and install a 64 bit version of Windows or another OS on this machine, it would see the entire amount of RAM. This is something that you should keep in mind when doing upgrades as well.

With the extra RAM that I have now (4 GB) I am going to build and AMD machine with an Asus motherboard to see if 1) it will run with 533 and 667 DDR2 RAM and 2) if it will run with the double and single sided sticks. The plan is to also install a 64 bit version of Vista on the system as well. Otherwise it looks like my Media Center PC will get the additional 2 GB 533 RAM and the AMD will run with only 2 GB.

Remember that the best upgrade you can do to virtually any computer is to upgrade the amount of Memory in it to improve performance. I use this simple analogy to explain hoe memory upgrades work for my clients.

Think of an Office desk as the amount of RAM that you have in your computer, then a filing cabinet (or a bookshelf) as your hard drive, your eyes as the display and you are the processor. You can only open so many files (or programs) on the desk before you start running out of desktop space (remember your operating system uses some of this desk too). When the desk fills up with stuff, you have to start putting stuff in the filing cabinet. You get up move stuff to the cabinet then sit down. When you are dome with something you put it back in the filing cabinet. This is what happens on your computer. When the physical RAM fills up (opening programs and files) it starts to store open data on the hard drive, which is slower. Think of a RAM upgrade as an upgrade of your desk. If you double the amount of memory in your PC, you essential double the size of the desk. Now you can open more work and still have space on the desk. You can switch back and forth between programs and files faster than if you had to run to the filing cabinet every time to get something.

I am going to create another post with this analogy soon as I like this one too much to bury it solely in this blog post.

Strange IE 7 Error on Vista

I ran into a strange problem with IE 7 on my Vista Ultimate box today. I am having problems after upgrading RAM in this box (that’s a whole other post), but I rebooted my system a couple of times last night. This morning when I fired up IE 7 after the reboot, I received an error that IE requested an abnormal termination request. This was in a visual c ++ error message box. Luckily I have Firefox and Opera also installed on the system so I did a search and finally found a post with a similar problem.

Turns out the problem was related to some software that I installed yesterday. I was looking for a new RSS reader as I wasn’t really happy with RSS Bandit. I tried a couple of other readers and still wasn’t happy. I went back to a program I liked on Windows XP called Omea Reader from Jetbrains software. Turns out this was the cause of my problem. The software installs a couple of add ons in IE and these were causing the crash. Found the link to the solution here:

I disabled the two Jetbrains add ons and restarted IE 7 and had no problems.

So if you run into problems with your browser try disabling the add ons that you have installed by right clicking on Internet Explorer, selecting internet properties, going to the programs tab and click on the manage add ons button. Here you can disable the different add on s to see if that solves your problems.

PC Freezing up lately?

Have you been having problems with a PC just freezing up lately after looging in. The problem is the MS automatic updates. It uses 100% of the processor and doesn’t allow anything else to happen. A fix will be available May 22nd via Automated updates but in the mean time there are two things you can do.

  1. Disable automatic updates or
  2. Apply the KB and install the client located in this article. http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9019218&source=NLT_PM&nlid=8

We got a call the other day about a couple of machines with these symptoms and saw them first hand on an XP Home laptop in our labs Tuesday evening. \

Rebooting then applying the updates va Windows Update from help and support immediately fixed the problem on the laptop.


Windows PC slowing down CPU at 100% Urgent

Over the last several days there have been several reports of PCs using Microsoft Update (not Windows Update) of becoming extremely slow. When opening task manager we are seeing svchost.exe consuming 90 to 100% of the CPU time. This is being caused by Microsoft update (the update program that patches Windows as well as other Microsoft Applications like Office). A temporary workaround has been to disable Microsoft Update and go back to using Windows Update. Here are instructions for doing this courtesy of SBS MVP Susan Bradley. You can read her blog here. http://msmvps.com/blogs/bradley/

We’ve seen it on just about everything.

1. On the Microsoft Update site, click Change Settings.
2. Scroll down the page, click to select the Disable Microsoft Update
software and let me use Windows Update only check box, and then click
Apply changes now.
3. You receive the following message:
Windows Automatic Updates will not be able to deliver updates from
Microsoft Update Service.

Are you sure you want to continue?
Click Yes.


After this is done make sure that you visit officeupdate.microsoft.com to ensure that you are getting patches for the Office Suite as well as for Windows.



Another Small Vista Problem, Adobe Acrobat and IE7

I have run into another piece of software that has a problem with Vista, except it is only one small piece. If you use Adobe Acrobat 7.0 or 8.0 Standard or Pro version and want to print a pdf from a web page you are out of luck. You will get an error indicating that the software has to be activated before you can use the printer. This occurs even if the software has already been activated. There is a workaround and I would suggest using it if you know you have to print a pdf from a webpage. I usually do when purchasing items on line.

Before opening Internet Explorer, right click on the icon and select run as Administrator. While running IE as an administrator you will be able to print to PDF. I do not recommend running this way all the time as it circumvents IE running in protected mode and makes it vulnerable to Internet threats. If you think you are going to be ordering something or require printing from PDF, opening it in another IE session as Admin, print and exiting. Hopefully Adobe will patch this soon.

Another option is to use a free pdf converter until Adobe fixes the problem. I was using primo pdf except that when I printed from IE under Vista the PDF files would be corrupted. I have gone back to cutepdf, available at http://cutepdf.com. It seems to work just fine.


Back up, Back Up, Back up!!!

Well I started writing this post some time ago and saved it. Today I have started re writing it all over again to stress the importance of backups!

If you read some of my earlier entries from last week you will know that I started building a new Intel based Core 2 Duo machine on Vista. I started transferring data from my old pc and had done the most important files on my secondary drive. I usually build machines for myself with two separate hard drives. One for day to day use and the other for important data (accounting, some pictures etc).

Last night I was transferring some photos from the old machine to my new one as I just added a 300 GB external USB hard drive that I was going to store pictures on. I got almost all of the photos moved over then went to bed. When I came down this morning, I heard a sound that made my heart pound. The old machine was making the un mistakable clicking sound of a bad hard drive. I hoped it wasn’t the newer drive in the machine. I signed on the the machine, saw the dreaded write failure warning in Windows and opened my computer. Phew, the 300 GB primary drive was there but the 2 partitions from my 160 GB drive were gone.

Luckily last week I had moved a majority of the important files last week (and last night for some photos) over to the second drive in my new machine. I should buy a lottery ticket! It is just dumb luck that I had moved the stuff over before the drive went South on me as there was no warning at all. The machine and the drive were functioning perfectly yesterday, and hard drives going bad usually give you some sort of a hint before the do. My last one for example a couple of summers ago, clicked and gave me errors that I ignored for too long before it went bad. Luckily using some special software that time I was able to recover some of my data. I and also been doing some DVD backups as well, but I wasn’t so religious about them.

Most of us today under estimate what we have on our PCs. How many of you back up your systems? Most people will say that they don’t have much on there that is important, until they look deep at what they have stored there. With Digital Camera pictures stored all over the machines, important receipts in email, contacts, homework and tax and accounting software are you really sure that there is nothing there that you don’t really need? Pictures themselves are gold, and that is one of the reasons I recently added the external drive only for pictures. What would happen if you lost photos permanently of your kids while they were younger or those magical vacation photos.

After my last hard drive crash I got into the habit of burning my pictures (at least newly downloaded ones) off the system onto DVDs more regularly than I had in the past. These were stored in a CD binder. My plan for the external hard drive was to do another full DVD backup and then sync newer pictures between my main c: drive and the external hard drive using the Vista Sync toy tool. I also create slideshows on DVD of my pictures so at least I have a backup copy that way too.

Today there are loads of inexpensive devices available to back up your systems so there is really no excuse. Pocket flash drives, DVD burners, external hard drives, online backups, online photo sites, even digital media cards can do the trick. Most devices even come with backup software for doing this and XP users do have the backup utility built in.

Here are some basic tips for backing up your system and saving that important data!

Figure out what you want to backup (pictures, my documents folders, accounting software etc) and figure out how much space you will need. Open Windows Explorer find the folders you wnat to backup, right click on them and select properties. Record the size of the folder. Once this is done you can decide what type of backup device you need.

If you don’t mind taking the time to backup you can use DVDs or CDs (DVDs are much more economical). If you don’t have a DVD burner, one can be purchased for around 50.00 including basic burning software. Each disk can hold 4.7 GB of data at a cost of about .30 to .50 cents per disk. This is a great option except there few things to be wary of.

If you have a lot of data, you will be burning a lot of DVDs and it can be time consuming. As well this is typically not an automated process so you would have to be there putting in disks if needed.  A great use for the burner though is to do periodic backups. Say every month just backup the latest data. It is a bit more time consuning if you have to restore later but at least your data is safe. Another tip check your disks after they are burned, open them on your system and check the files, the store them in a safe place. For ultra security burn 2 copies and store some in another location (garage, office etc). I just use Media binders to store the discs and keep some hidden in the garage and some in various locations around the house.

External Hard Drive. This is another good option. You can buy external drives specifically designed as backup devices or you can put your own together. This gives you a few more options, and is much faster than the burning method. You can currently buy drives up to 750 GB and then use backup software to back up to them or sync the files using software (Vista sync toy for example). You can automate the process telling Windows to back every Sunday night at 1 AM and just leave the system on. If you want you can use 2 drives and swap them between PCs, storing the other in a safe place. This is often how I set up Small Business Server backups for clients.

Design your system for backups – When buying a new computer there are a couple of things you can do to help you with backups. One look at a system that has Raid 1 capability. With Raid 1 you have the system built with 2 identical hard drives, and the main hard drive get’s mirrored to the other hard drive. This way if one drive fails, the other kicks in and away you go. There is a slight hit in performance but you have the added safety. Alternatively you can add a second drive and just copy important data to this drive on a regular basis so that it lives in two locations. Again the MS Sync Toy does a good job in maintaining this as long as you remeber to run it periodically.

Online Photo sites are also a good way to backup your pictures. If you publish all of your digital photos to an online site, they are stored on the companies servers as well. Just because these sites are made for sharing, doesn’t mean you have to. Be prepared however to pay a few to get larger accounts (storage space) and make sure to check to see if there is any limit to the lenght of time a picture can stay online. Try Googling photo sharing for some ideas.

Online backups – There are several sites that offer online backups for a small fee. Again look into these. Typically they charge from 10.00 US and up per month but important Data is worth it.

Build a server or Network Attached Storage – Huh? Many people have multiple systems in their homes now with Internet sharing and a small home network. Kids often have PCs, there is the main machine, maybe a laptop. Before getting rid of an old PC (or buy an inexpensive used one), install a bigger hard drive and say a DVD burner to that machine, then synchronize data to a shared folder on the hard drive of that machine. Main backups can be done on the “server machine”. Again the data lives in two places so if one machine crashes the data is still in another location. There are also what are called Network Attached Storage Devices available, that reside on a network and are just storage devices (network attached hard drives). The jury is still out on how well some of these work, so if you keep your eye here, as I will soon be reviewing D-Links latest NAS device. Using either method, again the data has to be synced and the tools are freely availalble. This is actually the idea behind a product that is currently being Beta tested by Microsoft, Windows Home Server.

Windows Home Server – Coming soon from Microsoft. Currently in Beta 2, my understanding that this will be a headless appliance for home networks. It will be a small box that you plug into your network but will not need a keyboard,  mouse or monitor. It is based on Windows Server 2003 technology and will include software to run backup and share files and printers from the home server. This looks to be a very interesting product and could greatly benefit most home users and a number of small businesses!

As you can see there are lots of options available to backup your important data. Most people overlook the fact that they are storing digital photos (essentially their memories) on their PCs. They don’t realize this until after they lose data due to hard drive failure or virus wipes their drives!

If you would like assistance in setting up some sort of back up solution, please contact us, we would be glad to advise on your situation.



Vista Part 2!

Well I broke against my own best practices when I installed Vista as an upgrade over XP Pro earlier this week. I have always been a big believer in installing a clean version of an OS instead of doing an upgrade, but I figured since this was a fairly clean install of XP I was safe. I had no real problems other than the sound issues I complained about and fixed after my original install, until today. I was trying to install Creative Labs software (supposedly Vista compatible) for my Zen Vision:M 30 GB (a great device I will write about one day), and the installation kept failing. I went back to the CD an dwas able to install the older softer with no issues, but then still couldn’t update it to the Vista version. Again I hit the web and found a thread on Creative’s forum where someone was having the same problems so they did a clean install.

I had nothing to lose as I just was starting to get the PC ready to where I wanted so I had nothing to lose. If you read my earlier post you may know that I have an upgrade Windows Vista Business Disk and purchased the Windowsanytimeupgrade to Vista Ultimate. One thing about the Vista upgrade DVD is that it is designed to run as an upgrade from the previous OS and not for clean installs. There is away that has been widely published on the net so I am not going to describe it here but it is a little cumbersum, but in the end it works just fine. Anyway my suspicions were confirmed and my creative software installed cleanly and is no longer an issue. In short some of the files from XP were interfering with the installation of the Creative software.

 For my clients, I strongly recommend doing a clean install over doing an upgrade to help reduce the possibilities of future problems. Please feel free to contact me if you want to attempt this on your own and I can provide you with instructions, or if you prefer I can handle the upgrade for you!


Windows Defender Problems – Can not start error when starting PC

This week I have started getting reports form Sysguy Clients (and in various tech maiing lists) that peope are getting an error when restarting their computers. The error reads that Windows Defender can not start. This is being caused because the beta version was installed as opposed to the released version. The Beta version of Defender expired Dec 31, 2006.

The remedy is fairly easy, uninstall Defender via the Control Panel Add Remove programs icon, then download and install the new version of Defender from Microsoft at http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security/spyware/software/default.mspx. This is a free downlaod and is bundled with 2 free support incidents from Microsoft. I have had success installing over top of the beta version but it is better to first remove then re install the new version. This ensures that files from the Beta are gone and properly replaced.