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September 18, 2001 - Vol. 1, Issue No. 12
By Scot Finnie
IN THIS ISSUE
Some of you know that I live in the Northeastern part of the U.S., not far from Boston. Like many of you, I'm sure, I'm still stunned by what transpired in New York City and Washington, D.C. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.
Many in the United States are still in a state of shock. I still feel like I'm having a bad dream and I'm still hoping to wake up. But we're not going to wake up. When the reality takes hold, the anger and determination are going to be fierce. Many of us, including me, are going to feel that way. Many us of us, including me, are going to welcome it.
But let's guard against acting rashly. One of the problems with this kind of anger is that it tends to spur people to seek a release. Please, let's not allow ourselves to degenerate into ethnic or religious hatred. Let's not hate people based on the way they look or their national heritage. Let's not give in to our need for revenge with acts of violence against our own.
True Americans come from all over the world, they follow all sorts of religions, they may speak with accents, have different features or different colored skin. Let's not let these despicable terrorist acts turn us against ourselves.
We are stronger than that, smarter than that, and better than that.
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Bottom line: I have found some of the new features (particularly the picture controls) a tad annoying, but you can just turn them off in the Tools > Internet Options area. I'm having zero problems with IE 6.0. But from past experience, I'd be willing to bet that some of you are having difficulty. Write me about your experience, either good or bad, and I'll let people know about them.
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So, back to the point. What's your next operating system? Windows XP, Windows Me, Windows 2000, Windows 98 Second Edition, and the multiple flavors of Linux -- including Red Hat, SuSE, and Mandrake -- are all viable options. Let me erase one for you: Windows Me isn't worth the trouble of upgrading. If you already have it, and it's giving you no problems -- fine. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But it's not an operating system worthy of upgrading to.
Of the three big Windows versions out there, each one has both a serious advantage and a serious drawback. Windows 98 (Second Edition or original) is the most widely distributed version of Windows, by far. It will have the fewest hardware and software compatibility issues. And chances are, you already know a good deal about its interface and workings. The downside? It's unreliable. It freezes. System resources get used up. A badly written application can make it crash and burn. I'll give you an example: My beloved HomeSite 4.5 HTML editor has a memory leak that causes the program to bring the system down after only two to three hours of use. Eudora Email 5.0, though not as bad, has a similar problem. The two together can bring down my Win98 SE system in an hour or two. Win2K, WinXP, and Linux (assuming you could run these apps under Linux) would all be far less likely to come crashing down.
Windows 2000 and Windows XP share opposing weaknesses and strengths. Win2000 was shoved out the door at the last minute without the broad-based hardware and especially software compatibility work it truly needed. Windows XP apparently fixes those errors, but it introduces Windows Product Activation -- the software licensing enforcement code that I believe will make power users' lives miserable. The average Joe will be more or less unaffected by Product Activation. But anyone who will ever likely move his or her XP installation from one PC to another will probably feel like I do.
Then there's Linux. Tantalizingly attractive to many of us. But clearly an imperfect OS -- especially for everyday use by average computer users. Most people would rather use their applications, not spend hours tinkering with their OS. Linux is going to require the latter for quite some time. To be fair, a lot of that is just learning a more Unix-like way of doing things. Even so, the Linux user experience currently still needs work. Linux does, however, have a lot of promise. And I don't know about you, but I'm ready for a world where there's competition among desktop operating system makers again. In all seriousness, though, we're still a long, long way from that. Microsoft has a commanding, probably insurmountable (any time soon) marketshare lead.
So, I want to know. From what you know right now, what will your next operating system likely be? I'd like you to let me know by sending me a quick message via email, choosing the selection below that most closely matches your point of view. Feel free to send me comments in the body of the message (although this is not required). I will most likely not be able to respond to them. Also, I would very much like to know what operating system you currently use. So it would be great if you could put in the message something like "Right now I'm using XXXX" and the name and version number of your operating system. Again, not required if you're in a hurry.
What's your next desktop PC operating system? Click the appropriate link to vote by email (please vote once only):
1. Windows XP
Or send email to: email@example.com/snl, and put "Poll_Windows_XP" in the subject line.
2. Linux (any version)
Or send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org/snl, and put "Poll_Linux" in the subject line.
3. Macintosh OS X.1
Or send email to: email@example.com/snl, and put "Poll_Mac_OSX" in the subject line.
4. Windows 2000
Or send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org/snl, and put "Poll_Windows_2000" in the subject line.
5. Windows 98
Or send email to: email@example.com/snl, and put "Poll_Windows_98" in the subject line.
6. Windows ME
Or send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org/snl, and put "Poll_Windows_ME" in the subject line.
7. An operating system you didn't list (please explain in message)
Or send email to: email@example.com/snl, and put "Unlisted_OS" in the subject line.
8. Not planning to upgrade within the next 18 months
Or send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org/snl, and put "Poll_Not_Upgrading" in the subject line.
9. Don't know
Or send email to: email@example.com/snl, and put "Poll_Don't_Know" in the subject line.
Thanks for taking the time to send me your message.
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Windows XP should be available from Dell, Compaq, Gateway, HP and many others very shortly or may be already available as you read this. During this twilight phase, it will be easier to select from a variety of Windows operating systems.
But, more importantly, you can save some hard earned money. Hardware wars on everything from full-fledged PCs to components, such as CD-RW drives, are breaking out everywhere you turn. Excluding monitor, tax, and shipping, you can get a fully loaded top of the line 2GHz name-brand system for $1,200 if you shop smartly. Just under a year ago I built my own Pentium III 866 system with most of the trimmings for the same amount.
To illustrate the point, I priced a 1.5GHz P4 (the latest sweet spot) "Small Business" Dell Dimension 8100 with a 60GB 7200 RPM ATA/100 hard drive, 256MB of RAM, a 32MB DDR GeForce2 GTS 4x AGP video card, a 48x CD drive, SoundBlaster 64V PCI LC Sound Card, Harman Kardon HK-395 Speakers, running Windows 98 SE and Microsoft Works for $1,059 (not including shipping and tax). Dell's minimum shipping charge is $95, and the company now appears to be charging tax even outside of Texas. But it's still a great deal.
A similarly equipped Gateway 1.4GHZ Gateway Athlon toted up to about $1,400. Gateway's shipping charges are only $45 for a CPU without monitor.
Of course, if you want to pay a lot less for a PC, that's no problem. Under $1,000 is quite doable with some sacrifices. And the reality is that any computer with sufficient drive space, a fast video card (I'm partial to the GeForce 2 or 3 products), at least 128MB of RAM, and something in the neighborhood of a 1GHz CPU (whether Athlon or Pentium III/4) is plenty fast enough for any popular desktop operating system and for 90 percent of consumer and business applications. The exceptions tend to be usage niches: If you're doing professional CAD or graphics design work, for example, no PC is ever fast enough.
(Note: Comparison pricing was conducted two weeks ago. Dell has since discontinued the 8100 and replaced it with the 8200, whose slowest processor is 1.7GHz, which makes the high-end consumer desktop model a good deal more expensive. Recommend you price the 4300 model instead. It's already getting harder to get Windows 98 from Dell.)
Things to Think About
But should you buy right now? Conventional wisdom says to wait until after the holiday season. But that's more aimed at consumer PCs, and I strongly urge you not to buy a PC that's packaged for consumers. Such models tend to be loaded with a lot of software garbage you don't need. The truth is that many corporate IT departments wait until the first quarter of the year to make their purchases. Sometimes it can be tougher to get a good deal in January than it is in December. I bought my last two new PCs in December and never felt like I missed any "sale" opportunities either time. In fact, with PC sales down, many PC companies will be so desperate for sales in the months leading up to the holidays that they may cut all sorts of deals, like free shipping, free memory, etc. It's a buyer's market out there.
The operating system part of things is a huge issue. If you look closely, you'll find that your operating system choice is a big factor in both the cost of your PC and also the hardware it comes equipped with. Video cards, sound cards, CD-RW, and DVD drives are more and more being designed for Windows XP or 2000, and that may limit your options is you want to buy a Windows Me or Windows 98 Second Edition machine. The flip side is that you'll also pay a bit less for a Windows 98 Second Edition machine. I also suspect that Win9x PCs will provide faster video performance than most Windows XP boxes -- at least for the next three to six months.
Most likely Win98 SE will continue to be available for only a short time (corporations may have the option to purchase it for quite a bit longer). Now's the time to get it if you want it in a new machine. You can still get it from Dell, for example, if you buy a "small business" Dimension model. Other manufacturers may provide it if you ask. Ditto for retail copies of Win98.
There's something else to keep in mind. You may be tempted to buy a Windows XP-equipped machine. If you like XP, great. Product Activation issues aside, I think it's the best OS Microsoft has ever produced. But if for any reason you decide to head back to Win9x, your XP hardware may not be fully supported there -- at least, not without acquiring new drivers. I'd be willing to bet that some hardware component makers may never provide 9x versions of drivers for hardware designed for Windows XP.
If you intend to convert to Linux after buying a cheap Windows machine, my suspicion is that you'll be better off buying a Win9x PC. Although it's finally beginning to catch up, Linux is still not compatible with all types of hardware. It's even less likely to be compatible with Windows XP-optimized hardware.
Finally, would-be Windows XP PC buyers should keep in mind that it's early days for Windows XP and the hardware it runs on. If you can wait for Microsoft's first XP service pack, and for the second generation of PC hardware designed for XP, you'll probably have a better long-term experience with your purchase. Things tend to go wrong in the first six months. Waiting is prudent.
Price/performance wise, there may never be a better time to buy PC hardware than now, or at least some time over the next six months. As bleak as things look now, the PC slowdown won't last forever. But it's also not likely to improve dramatically overnight. You have time. Use it to make a sound decision.
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But then a funny thing happened. Several weeks ago some readers contacted me to say that they couldn't find the 20 Questions story at CNET any longer. Sure enough, the online computer publisher has recently rid itself of thousands (my estimate) of older stories in its archives. Even though I probably had the legal right to publish the story on my own, I wrote to CNET anyway and got permission.
Note: I intend to update this story. Most of it still applies perfectly, but some of the links no longer work, and there are one or two minor points that need revision.
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1. I still have not decided whether Windows XP will become my operating system. I'm still sure I hate product activation, and it's primarily because of that, that I'm on the fence. I'm exploring my options. I will, of course, have Windows XP installed on multiple PCs in the SFNL Labs.
2. My first experience with the shipping code wasn't perfect. I've had the exact same experience with the last three versions of Windows. The shipping code gives me some little problem, even though the late pre-releases were bullet proof. It's as if some problems creep in just as Microsoft is freezing the code.
My minor problem with the final version of Windows XP was that Setup halted with a strange error message. Naturally, Setup waited until it was 90 percent of the way there before it informed me that it could not find IEXPLORE.EXE on the disc, and so therefore couldn't install Windows. This was a clean install mind you, and it's all pretty straightforward. I suppose that the CD I received was damaged. Through a strange set of circumstances, Microsoft's PR company had accidentally sent me two copies of the gold XP code, so all I did was pop in the second CD and finish the installation. But what if I'd bought that CD and only had one disc? What a pain.
3. I mentioned above that Windows XP's clean installation is really straightforward, and that's a point I want to elaborate on. Whether you want to upgrade your existing version of Windows, create a multiple-operating system boot environment, or you want to wipe the disk and start fresh, Windows XP's Setup routine offers whatever you need. It'll even repartition and format your hard drive with FAT or NTFS, as you wish.
I installed it as a clean install on a computer that I use for testing XP. So I wasn't dealing with data or applications that I was concerned about. To initiate a clean install, though, all you have to do is insert the Windows XP setup CD and restart your computer. So long as your PC can boot from its CD drive (and if your PC is up to snuff for XP, chances are high that it does), you can initiate a clean install in this fashion. Just follow the onscreen prompts.
Several colleagues and friends of this newsletter have written interesting things about Win XP or product activation that I hope you'll check out.
Serdar Yegulalp has a newsletter called Windows 2000 Power Users. His September 9, 2001, issue has several bits of news about Windows XP and product activation that you'll want to check out:
I also want to point out that InformationWeek and Fred Langa have produced an intriguing and popular set of stories on XP and product activation. They are recommended SFNL reading:
Meanwhile, my ex-Winmag friends Dave Methvin and Martin Heller, both co-founders of PCPitstop.com, have created the Windows XP Readiness Test. I ran this test and discovered that my system needed more free disk space, but that everything else was pretty much in order.
If You Hate Product Activation
I'm on record as coming down strongly against Microsoft's new software piracy technology, called "Product Activation."
After reading that rant about product activation, SFNL subscriber Fred Kray, sent me a message about how his company, HackerThreads.com, offers T-Shirts that among other things offer anti-Product Activation slogans, such as "Product Activation + Greed = Linux." See for yourself.
Want to thank Fred for his care package. By the way, these are high quality duds.
Smart Activation Question
I just read your most recent newsletter, and it once again got me thinking about Microsoft Product Activation. What happens, years from now, when Microsoft stops supporting Office XP and Windows XP? Will they still offer product activation support for these products? I believe they no longer support Windows 95, Windows 3.1, and MS-DOS. I couldn't find much support for any of them at the Microsoft site.
I know people still using Windows 95, Windows 3.1 and even MS-DOS, either because they don't want to upgrade their hardware and software (and it still serves their needs perfectly well) or because they use some legacy piece of hardware or software not supported by newer OS versions. This type of situation will almost certainly be possible once Windows XP becomes "legacy software" and Microsoft support has expired. Will these people no longer be able to reinstall their software if Microsoft Product Activation kicks in and disables it? --Daryl Forrest
Response: I recently asked Microsoft this very question. The answer I received was that Microsoft will continue to support Windows XP product activation indefinitely. I'm sure that is the plan, but I have strong doubts that this will be what actually happens. What this could amount to is a software variation on the auto industry notion known as "planned obsolescence." I'm not accusing Microsoft of that at this time. But, bottom line, I think we as consumers need to think twice about what operating system we want to live with for years and years. I don't think Windows XP is it that OS. --S.F.
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Several people sent the key piece of information I needed to finish the job of modifying LILO. You have to run "/sbin/lilo" for your changes to take effect. If you don't do that, all your lilo.conf file changes are ignored. Once I did that, everything else fell into place perfectly. Now I know what to do. A lot of people sent this information in one way or another, but the resource I like best is at the Linuxdog.org site, and it's called the LILO mini-HOWTO.
Best of all, this document is continually being updated. Unlike much of the other Linux information I've found so far, this particular FAQ (along with many others at the Linuxdoc.org site) is of very high quality. It far surpasses anything Microsoft does for Windows. On the other hand, you really need this documentation to work with Linux effectively. I don't mind that personally. But most people will. And as a side point: The commercial Linux distribution companies need to start rolling much of this configuration stuff into some sort of UI. It doesn't need to be pretty. Just functional.
The shoot-from-the-hip questions and answers were in this edition of the newsletter. Questions 2 and 3 are where there were issues:
2. Is there something akin to Internet Connection Sharing under Linux?
The biggest goof I made last time was that I strongly implied that Linux does not have a facility like Internet Connection Sharing (ICS). Most distros, in fact, do provide this functionality. So many people wrote to correct me on this point that I definitely stepped in Penguin poop. Even so, there were a lot of very different instructions on how to enable ICS-like functionality under Linux. Reader Randy Switt offered an excellent explanation of those who wrote to me about firewall-based features in Linux.
Actually, Linux distros based on the 2.2 kernel have a utility called IPchains which offers very sophisticated packet filtering and routing. It does essentially 2 jobs; firewalling by using packet inspection, and Masquerading by doing packet redirection by port (i.e. NAT, i.e. Connection sharing). Many distros offer a graphical setup utility for this, and when I setup Mandrake Linux a while ago, the setup was available and didn't even have any setup options, you just pressed the icon, and presto! it worked. I don't think this option will even show up though, unless you have two network cards, or a network card and a modem, installed.
Linux distros based on the 2.4 kernel [the one I'm using --S.F.] have an even more sophisticated utility called netfilter or IPtables. This is similar to IPchains, but also offers stateful packet inspection, leading to a much more sophisticated firewalling capability, as well as the IPchains capabilities. I don't know if there are graphical front ends to netfilter.
I have a feeling, though, that Linux IP Masquerade may be a closer cousin of Windows' ICS services. ICS is primarily a NAT designed to share an Internet connection among two or more PCs. It's not truly a firewall. For more information IP Masquerade (IPMASQ), check out David Ranch's Linux IP Masquerade HOWTO.
Combining IPMASQ with either IPchains or IPtables would provide both Internet access sharing and firewall features.
If you have better information on this point, please email me.
3a. Would files be sharable with Win9x applications (in the networking sense)?
Files can be shared in the networking sense with Windows machines. You do this by installing Samba to make your Linux machine appear on the network. Windows' native network sharing protocol is SMB or Server Message Block. "In Linuxese," explains Randy Switt, "this is referred to as Samba. Samba is mature and works quite well, and there are many different graphical front ends for setting it up, including SWAT (Samba Web Administration Tool)." It's relatively easy to make Linux appear on a Windows peer or workgroup network using Samba. But it's also possible to make a Linux box act as a Windows NT Primary Domain Controller if you want to.
If anyone has the bookmark for the perfect FAQ on how to setup Samba, I'd be obliged for the link.
3b. Would files be sharable with Win9x applications (in the file format sense)?
About the other kind of sharing, file format sharing: StarOffice does work with Microsoft Word format, though it doesn't support all the advanced features of the latest versions. You can select "MS Word 97/2000" file type in the Save As menu to save your document to that format. Ditto for people who want Word 6, Lotus WordPro, WordPerfect, and .RTF. StarOffice has no trouble reading Microsoft Office files automatically. Bob Thompson writes that StarOffice fails a little on converting spreadsheet formulas, but does a very good job of converting back and forth with MS Word.
The forthcoming version of StarOffice also sounds very appealing: Less is more.
These are just some of the many readers who wrote in to help me with Linux: Bob Carpenter, Antony Tovar, Mike Peterson, Mike Barnard, David Cullen, Srdjan Sobajic, Adam Schrotenboer, Randy Switt, Fraser Farrell, Gary McClannahan, Ladislav Bodnar, Tony Brannigan, Jeff Bonner, and many, many others. Thanks to you all.
If you have general comments about Linux for this newsletter, please use this email link.
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Subsequently, I've decided that Pegasus works better without ZA running. I haven't absolutely proved that to be the case, and it may be personal firewall software in general that's problematic for Pegasus. It also may be that it was coincidental that Pegasus problems seemed to go away when I stopped using ZA over six weeks ago. But based on this anecdotal evidence, for now, while I try to coax reliable, reasonable performance from DirecPC-powered Pegasus Express two-way satellite, my test machine is flying without a personal firewall.
But that's the least of my worries with Pegasus Express. I've encountered large connectivity problems again. Pegasus sent me a shrink-wrapped software box with the same version of its software that I'm already running: Version 4.0, release 36. And I've planned to reinstall for the heck of it. But you have to be connected via the service to fully install the software. (A dial-up connection gets you most of the way there.) Unfortunately, I've had no Pegasus connection to the Internet every single time I've checked over the last three weeks. Most of the time my Pegasus Express signal strength shows "00." You need a strength of 20-30 to get service. As I wrote last time, my patience with Pegasus Express/DirecPC's reliability is wearing thin.
My experience isn't universal by the way. But lots of people are having intermittent troubles with the fledgling two-way satellite service, which is offered by Pegasus Express, EarthLink, and DirecPC SRS. You can check out some experiences on the DirecPC Uncensored message boards. Satellite users will also find a lot of other useful information at this site.
Because people have been asking whether they should get this service, here's what I think about Pegasus Express and two-way satellite services in general.
Start with the general. All in all, two-way satellite service is pretty bad as a category. This type of broadband Internet access should only be considered as a last resort. It's moderately fast, expensive, and doesn't treat all Internet protocols equally. There's a lot of latency with these systems and that makes them bad for real-time streaming media (like two-way vide conferencing) and for online real-time gaming. Reliability is a big issue too. Part of that is that these services are in their infancy. I expect Hughes/DirecPC and EchoStar/StarBand to iron out many of the wrinkles with time. But how much time? And then there's the issue that Internet protocols just weren't designed for a 44,000-mile round trip into space. At $70 a month and with a large upfront cost, two-way satellite is no bargain either.
Specifically about Pegasus Express/EarthLink/DirecPC: I recommend against ordering it right now. There are too many issues that Hughes Electronics is trying to resolve. One of those is that the company, which is owned by General Motors, is for sale. But there are also scalability and technical issues that DirecPC has to work out. You don't want to be their paid beta tester. But StarBand's service, by the way, is no better a deal right now.
Pluses and minuses of Pegasus Express:
1. File download speed is excellent for satellite. Much faster than StarBand or my 384kbps SDSL service. This is an important advantage for some people, including me. As more customers come online with Pegasus Express, however, that performance is likely to erode.
2. FTP performance is also quite good.
1. Web surfing performance is only adequate. There are some Registry tweaks that may help.
2. If you want it to work properly, you have to wait for its automatically-running software to start up after Windows loads -- before running other Internet-enabled applications. Sometimes you have to wait a minute or more for this to occur.
3. The Pegasus Express software is buggy.
4. Upstream performance is low even for two-way satellite.
5. Reliability hasn't been great so far.
6. Like most satellite-based Internet services, Pegasus Express is expensive. And it's not a great deal on the price/performance scale -- unless it's your only option. In other words, fixed wireless, cable, and DSL all deliver faster service (on average). They're also a better Internet access value.
7. Installation fails if you have a network card installed.
8. Sharing your Pegasus service with multiple PCs will probably require a more expensive version of the service.
9. Pegasus Express customers do not get newsgroup service as part of the bargain. This doesn't apply to EarthLink or DirecPC, who do get newsgroup service. For $9.95 a month, you can subscribe to the third-party EasyNews and receive newsgroup service over Pegasus Express.
Bottom line: This type of Internet access just isn't ready for prime time. So, unless you have no other choice, give two-way satellite a miss. There's a big exception. For anyone who has actively researched their part of the world and have come up with no alternatives, two-way satellite has to be a consideration. But if you can possibly hold off while they finish the shakedown cruises on these services, you'll save yourself a lot of frustration.
It's tough to tell whether the DirecPC-based services or StarBand will eventually emerge as the clear winner among two-way satellite providers. (There are also other two-way satellite services preparing to launch. Ka-band-based WildBlue.com is one of them.) But judging on this year's service levels, existing two-way satellite services are a very poor substitute for cable modem or DSL.
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Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows- or broadband-oriented website that everyone should know about? Please send me the URL, and let me know why you liked it.
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1. Drag a .SCR icon from C:\Windows or C:\Windows\System to the C:\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup folder. A .SCR file is a screensaver, and Windows comes equipped with several by default.
2. Password protect your screen saver. To do that, right-click the desktop, choose Properties, then click the Screen Saver tab. Adjust the screensaver to your liking and set a password.
When you reboot the machine you'll be immediately faced with a password logon box. --Keith Andrews, New Zealand
Do you have a Windows or broadband tip you think SFNL readers will like? Send it along to me, and if I test it and print it in the newsletter, I'll print your name with it.
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I don't want to discourage email. In fact, it's one of my favorite parts of doing a newsletter. But I also want to set expectations. I probably answer only one in every eight messages. But I save every email I get, and sometimes they really make a big difference in the quality of this content. So keep 'em coming. Thanks for understanding.
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