New Computer Time, Again

Once again, it’s time for me to upgrade my computer. Which, thanks to the (unfortunately unique) design of my computer (see my post on “CPU Upgrades – Not As Easy As They Used To Be”) basically means I have to go out and buy a whole new computer.

This is because I need a new motherboard in order to support a newer CPU (i.e., Core 2). But I can’t just upgrade the motherboard in my computer, because the the case is set up for the BTX form factor, and almost all new motherboards are ATX form factor.

So, in order to upgrade my CPU, I need to upgrade my motherboard. In order to upgrade my motherboard, I need a new case (and power supply).

Now, while that might not sound that bad, there’s a few other things to concern myself with. For example, a new motherboard and new CPU should probably be paired with new RAM that runs at the right speed, and a new hard drive would probably be a good idea, since they’re so cheap these days (and given that my old hard drives – as I’ve written about before – have a few glitches).

So, when you factor in a new CPU, motherboard, case, power supply, RAM, and hard drive, you’re basically looking at a whole new computer. But wait, there’s more!

You see, I’d also like to keep my old computer more-or-less intact, because I don’t want to end up with half a computer that I just have to throw away. I’d much rather have an intact old computer that can still do work – like maybe be handed down to someone who needs a new computer (i.e., family).

So a new computer seems to be the way to go. But, how to get that new computer? Buy a pre-built one, or build it myself?

Well, years ago I would have scoffed at anything but the “build it myself” option. But these days, I’m too much out of touch with the technology to trust myself to get it right – especially when I depend on my computer for so much.

Also, the pricing is an issue as well. Although I could build a decent computer (assuming I could figure out which CPU goes with which socket, and which motherboard has the best performance, the right expansion slots, supports the maximum amount of memory I’d like, etc.), when you factor in buying all the parts (and the shipping costs), it comes very, very, very close to the cost of a similarly-equipped pre-built computer.

So once again, I’m going to buy a pre-built computer. From Dell.

Since I work from home, and I’m a software developer, I have slightly different requirements for my computer than the “average” user might. Specifically, I need:

  • Multiple CPU cores (for multi-tasking, compiling, running virtual machines, etc.)
  • High speed components (high clock speed, large CPU cache, high front-side bus speed, fast memory, fast hard drive)
  • Absolutely MUST be 64-bit
  • As much memory as I can afford (6 GB +)
  • A decent sized hard drive (no less than 500 GB)
  • CPU extensions (whether they be Intel’s or AMD’s) for supporting virtualization (because I run virtual machines quite often for testing/development)

I wasn’t stuck specifically on Intel or AMD – in fact, AMD looked quite appealing due to lower thermal output and a competitive price – but in the end, I went with Intel and a Core 2 Quad CPU.

Here’s a handy comparison chart from my old computer to the new one:

Old Computer New Computer
CPU Name: Pentium 4 w/HT Core 2 Quad Q9400
CPU Architecture: “Prescott” “Yorkfield-6M”
CPU Cores: 1 (2 logical) 4
L2 Cache: 1 MB 2 x 6 MB
Clock Speed: 3.2 GHz 2.66 GHz
Front-side bus: 800 MHz 1333 MHz
Thermal Draw: 82W 95W
RAM: 1 GB DDR2 PC4300 + 2 GB DDR2 PC5300 6 GB DDR2 PC6400
HDD: 160 GB + 500 GB 500 GB
Video: ATI Radeon X300 Radeon HD 4350
Video Memory: 32 MB 512 MB

As you can see, the new computer is far from “state of the art” (that would be, as of the time of this writing, a Core i7 based system) but it’s no slouch, either. It’s also the best I can do within the budget I’ve set for myself.

In all the ways that matter, the new computer is faster – faster bus speed, faster memory transfer, faster graphics – and it has more cores, so it can do more at once (which is becoming increasingly important to me as I do things like encoding videos or compling code while running a virtual machine).

Of course, it also goes without saying that the new computer will have Windows 7 – which I was looking forward to as well.

All in all I think I’ll be quite happy with the new computer – although perhaps I’ll change my tune once I’ve gone through the agonizing process of moving my digital life from one computer to another – that is, transferring hundreds of gigabytes of data & user settings, re-installing programs, etc. So, we’ll see how that goes once the computer actually gets here.

Once the computer is here and up & running, I’ll be sure to post again!

Keith’s Logon Screen

Everyone loves to customize their computer a little bit, right? And one of the simpler things (well, sort of) that you can do is to replace the Windows Log-On Screen background image.

Like this, for instance:

keith's logon screen

Yes, that’s right – I have put a close-up picture of myself as my Windows log-on screen background image. I am, to use the industry jargon, a huge geek.

I don’t know why I find this image of myself staring (rather intently!) back out at me so amusing, but I do. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when you log on to my computer, it says “hello” in that creepy voice that the turrets from the game Portal use?

Or maybe I just like the reaction people have when they sit down to use my computer and are faced with… well, me!

Ah well, whatever the reason, it’s not like I see this screen very often – maybe once or twice a month, max.

I Love Living in the Future

Sometimes I have to just stop and be amazed at the things we can do these days – things that would have seemed like futuristic science fiction when I was a kid (or even when I was in college).

For example, just this weekend I was doing some cleaning around the house (cleaning up the bunnies area) and I wanted to have some relaxing, chillout music on while I worked.

For me, the easiest way to accomplish this was to boot up my netbook, hook it into my livingroom stereo (via the same cable I use to hook up my iPod), and just play some streaming music from Shoutcast (the Digitally Imported Chillout Dreams stream, to be exact).

So that is exactly what I did.

netbook + wifi + streaming radio + home stereo = awesome

Simple, easy, and straightforward – and it doesn’t take a whole bunch of complicated steps to get going, nor does it take very long (just long enough for my netbook to boot up – which is pretty fast – and to load the radio stream).

It is just amazing to me that this little computer can sit there, pulling music literally from thin air. And of course, the fact that streaming Internet radio gives me an almost unlimited library of music to pull from doesn’t hurt, either.

Now, while this was pretty darned cool, it did make me think of something that was… not so cool.

I have a Windows Media Center Extender right there, just to the right of the Wii in the picture. And the whole point of the Media Center Extender is to do exactly this sort of thing. So why wasn’t I using it?

Well, the short answer is because it’s too slow, too hard, and it doesn’t work with the streaming radio stations I like. The Media Center Extender takes a long time to boot up (longer than my netbook), the interface is slow and clunky, the remote control is awful, trying to enter text is an exercise in frustration, and getting streaming radio to work on it is… well let’s just say “not easy” and leave it at that. You need to add special add-ins to the Media Center PC (not the Extender), which of course must be downloaded, installed, set up in advance, etc. In the end, it’s just not worth the effort.

(In it’s defense, I don’t think the Media Center Extender was ever meant to work with streaming radio from the Internet – it was meant to stream music from a local Media Center PC instead… but really, if it can do that, it should be able to do both. But I digress…)

Anyway, despite the failings of the Windows Media Center Extender, listening to streaming music in my home while I clean is pretty darned neat.

The future is pretty awesome. I love living in the future!

My New Netbook: Acer Aspire One

So, I’ve been sort of stalking this particular model of netbook for a while now – the Acer Aspire One AOD-150. It had everything I was after:

  • 10.1 inch screen
  • 1.6 GHz Intel Atom CPU
  • Webcam
  • A good keyboard (perhaps one of the most important factors when buying a netbook)
  • Good battery life (when you get the 6-cell battery)

So when I saw it on sale recently over at Newegg, I swooped in and bought it.

Well, it just arrived yesterday, and I spent some time setting it up – of course, even though it’s brand new, it still needs to spend a few hours downloading updates, and of course I have to pull out all of the stupid “bundleware” that comes with computers these days.

Of course, the hardest part about getting a new computer for me is just choosing a name for it. Long-time readers here will remember me prattling on about my old computers – and of course you’ll see there’s sort of a “theme” to the names I give my computers.

I was at a loss as to what to name my new netbook until I sat down with it and suddenly it came to me: Ryo-Ohki. It just makes sense. The cute little netbook that is surprisingly powerful!

my new netbook - ryo-ohki

Oh, and I also split the hard drive into 2 partitions and installed Ubuntu Netbook Remix. It is quite possibly the sweetest little UI for a computer I’ve ever seen – like something out of the future. Anyway, it’s really, really nice.

What’s really amazing to me is how everything just works. I’ve used Linux before (back in the day – get off my lawn you young kids, etc.), but it always had a sort of… unfinished look to it. It never quite worked as well as Windows, especially with built-in stuff like, say, those crazy blue “function” (or “fn”) keys on laptops – you know, the ones that let you adjust the volume or the screen brightness.

Well, I can tell you right now that Linux has come a long way since then.

I didn’t have to do anything special to get Ubuntu up and running on this little netbook – and everything just works. The webcam works great, the sound is great, the volume and brightness controls work great, the wireless works out-of-the-box, the battery meeter works perfectly – even the little SD memory card reader on the side, which supposedly has some trouble on some models of the Acer Aspire, works fine – I put in my memory card and it read it right away. It even knew it was from a camera and offered to download pictures from it for me!

In short, these days, Linux really is a viable alternative to Windows, no questions asked.

Anyway – moving along – the little netbook is all set up today, happily purring along in either Linux or Windows. I kept Windows “just in case” I need it for something Windows-specific. After all, it’s got a fairly big hard drive, and I don’t plan on keeping huge amounts of files on the drive itself, so it just makes sense to split the drive and dual-boot. If I have any files, I’ll probably keep them on a USB drive or maybe a SD card I’ll just keep in it all the time (SD cards are cheap enough to make this a viable option).

So in the end, I’m quite happy with this netbook. The keyboard is small, but easy enough for me to type on comfortably (the right-hand shift key is full-sized and in the right spot – a major annoyance for me that I found on some other netbooks), and the touchpad, although small and a bit … touchy? … is actually easy enough to use once you get used to it.

So if you’re looking for a netbook, you could do far, far worse than to pick one of these Acer Aspire One’s up – and the price certainly is right!

Windows Media Center Extender Follow-Up

Well, it’s been over a month since I set up my new Windows Media Center Extender, so now I can talk about how it works over the long term.

Keeping in mind that I bought my extender on sale for a measly $99, and that normal models can go for a lot more (I’ve seen models in stores with HDD-based DVR-capabilities running upwards of almost $500), I can’t say that I’m disappointed with it… but I can’t exactly say I’m pleased with it, either.

That’s not to say I have buyer’s remorse or anything, though. I like having it – it is handy to be able to pull up some music while I’m cleaning, for example, or to sit down and watch some movies I’ve got on my computer out in the living room (on the big – well, bigger screen) – but I guess the bottom line with Windows Media Center Extenders is that they are “not bad, but not perfect.

For example, it goes without saying that music purchased from iTunes isn’t going to play via a Media Center Extender (unless it’s the DRM-free kind). The Linksys extender comes with a software program to “import” your iTunes playlists into Media Center, which it does… but as for playing iTunes music, well, it sort of “hacks” it. The software uses a feature of many sound cards which is often called “what you hear” – basically, it’s a way of recording exactly what is playing through your sound card (without using a loopback cable or anything). And, yeah, it works… but while it’s working, your computer is playing music too!

What the software does is when you choose an iTunes DRM-protected song from the Media Center Extender, it opens up iTunes on your computer and starts playing the song – using the “what you hear” recorder to effectively “re-record” or “transcode” the music and stream it back out to the extender. As I said, it’s a bit of a hack. (And it’s kind of annoying if someone is using the computer while the extender is in use, too.)

iTunes aside, there are also a few other niggling issues which make the experience of the Media Center Extender “just OK” rather than “really nice.”

  • It’s slow – dog slow. The UI feels like it’s made of cold molasses.
  • It doesn’t play nearly as many video formats as your computer can.
  • Managing playlists (for music) is more than a bit of a pain in the neck – sometimes playlists that you can see on your computer in Media Center don’t show up on the Extender until much, much later (as in, the next day).

Now, I know there are very valid technical reasons for some of these things – the slow UI comes from the fact that it’s sort of a hybrid of a remote desktop client, and although it’s slow, it’s at least bearable. The video format problem comes from the fact that video is not streamed in raw format across the network (it’d take up too much bandwidth, I suppose), but instead the video file is streamed, and then decoded on the extender device itself (and since the extender doesn’t have a very powerful CPU, it doesn’t have the muscle for certain video formats/codecs).

The playlist thing I really don’t understand – I know that there’s a “Media Center Maintenance” task that runs every night, and after that runs my playlists will show up on the extender – but I don’t know why that is. It’s incredibly frustrating sometimes – I’ll make a new playlist on my computer (where the UI is faster), but it won’t show up on my extender right away.

As for the video format limits – there are ways around that, of course, but they are all generally video versions of the same method used by the iTunes software – something called “transcoding.” Basically, when you choose to play a file, your computer will transform it from whatever format it’s in to a format that the extender can understand – on the fly, as you’re playing it. Sounds like it’d work pretty well, if your computer has a bit of CPU power to spare (re-encoding video on-the-fly is very CPU intensive). Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well. I’ve tried several methods to do it, and they’ve all failed, horribly. Some people claim to have much better luck with it – I guess I’m just not one of those people.

In the end, I just seem to come back to my original conclusion – Windows Media Center Extenders are “just OK” or “not bad.” They certainly do what they are supposed to… if slowly and within some rather draconian technical limitations. You’d think with competition from things like Apple’s Mac TV thing that Media Center Extenders would raise the bar or something – but sadly they do not. (And if you own a Media Center Extender, stay away from anyone with an Apple computer hooked up to their TV – you’ll become insanely jealous. As always, the Mac does things so much better, cleaner, and more elegantly.)

So if you can get a good price on an extender (as I did), and you want that kind of functionality (and you’re a Windows household, of course), I’d say go for it. It won’t be great, but you’ll still be able to do things you couldn’t before. But if you paid a lot of money for an extender… well, you have my sympathy.