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Hardware Reminisces

Once upon a time this page was a "hardware review" page, but I stopped updating it. So now, it's a page of reminises: a few notes about old machines and devices that I loved, liked, or hated.

Agfa is highly regarded in the photo industry. Their digital cameras also enjoy a fairly good reputation. Mine (circa 2000) was an ePhoto CL50. I purchased it for $200 from a friend who had only used it for a few months. It was quite good for portraits. For landscapes and scenic photos, it wasn't quite as good; it seemed to lack detail in the shadows, and there were some noticable color shifts. Reds, in particular, looked TOO red. On the minus side, it positively ate batteries. And second, there was a very noticable lag between pressing the shutter button, and the time that the picture is actually taken. Forget about action shots. And third, it had no lens cover of any kind. The only way to protect the lens was to put it inside its case.

Ah, the Macs I have known...

Macintosh Plus
A miracle machine in its day. My first computer was a Mac Plus that I got as a trade for a beloved Pentax SF1. I used to run Quark XPress on that computer, with only 2.5 MB RAM, and a 20MB hard disk. It was a good little computer.

Macintosh SE
I bought a couple of these cheap a few years ago; one had an internal 20MB hard disk and a 1.44 floppy, the other had two 800K floppies. This machine was essentially the same as the venerable Mac Plus in terms of performance. One advantage of the SE: it used the same ADB bus as later Macs, which meant you swap keyboards and mice with other Macs.

Macintosh Color Classic
The first computer that I really just loved. With a full 4MB RAM, and a giant 80MB hard disk, it was actually possible to do real work. I did lots of page layout stuff on that computer. I felt genuinely sad when I finally sold it.

Macintosh IIci
For years this was your basic business-class Mac. It was a good machine for its time. I would bet money that even to this day you could find some of these still in use for simple tasks in small offices. In fact, until about two years ago, I would still dust off one that sat in our office, just to crank out some quick-and-dirty graphics for our web site; it had Photoshop 2.5.1, and I prefered working with a good program on a slow machine to working with a lousy program (Microsoft PhotoDraw) on a fast one.

Macintosh IIfx
This machine was FAST. To this day, I have never seen a computer boot into a full-color GUI as quickly as that blazing 68030, running System 6. Mine was actually a Macintosh II that had been upgraded with a IIfx mainboard. It had an 800K floppy instead of the 1.44, but it was the first computer I had that could actually run Photoshop, so I loved it. It wasn't as stable as my other Macs, but it helped me churn out my very first web pages.

PowerMac Performa 6300
This one could be turned off and on by the TV remote!

Macintosh Quadra 800
I love, love, love this old machine. To this very day, I have one at home, and I still use it for 90% of the graphics work I do. It has a handsome mini-tower case, and uses a 68040 CPU at 33mhz. It uses the same 72-pin non-parity memory that dominated the PC landscape for years, which meant it was easy to find inexpensive memory. Mine has 52MB of RAM, and that is more than enough to run Photoshop 3.01 LE. With System 8.0, it's a very stable machine. I replaced the original 230MB hard drive with a 1GB Quantum. At one point I decided that the drive was on its last legs, and I decided to leave the machine up 24 hours a day rather than risk shutting it down and having the disk fail on restart. Except for a couple accidental shutdowns (thanks to my 2-year-old, who loves this machine), it's now been up virtually around the clock for nearly a year, and it's still going. Lots of geeks tend to diss the Mac, but how many 1992-vintage PCs are still in everyday use? And to think I paid only $500 for the full system - including a 17" Apple monitor - more than three years ago.

Macintosh PowerMac 5400

This first Mac that I've really been unhappy with. I bought it used, and it was cheap. It looked like a great idea: an all-in-one PowerMac, not as damn ugly as those first-generation Bondi Blue iMacs, but a big step up from my old Quadra. But the built-in 15" monitor has only 1MB of VRAM, limiting you to either 16-bit color at 640x480, or 8-bit color at 800x600. So I slapped in an ATI video card to attach a second monitor. That's neat, but the machine is just plain unstable. I couldn't get OS 8.5 or 8.6 to run at all, and under 8.0 it freezes ALOT. I suspect there is something wrong with the CD-ROM, since most crashes seem to occur when a CD is in use. And on top of everything else, this thing is really seems no faster than my old Quadra. Too bad... guess I've just gotta save up for one of those flat-screen iMacs, which should be within my price range by the time they are five years old...

Ass-kicking motherboards. I love Asus. A few of the ones I used:

This one had video on the board, a relative rarity for its day. Very reliable. I used one of these for years, with a Pentium 166.

Not very good in its first incarnation: my system had an AMD K6-2 550 CPU, one Quantum IDE hard disk, one Western Digital IDE hard disk, and ATI Rage 8MB video card, an Intel 10/100B NIC, and an Adaptec 1542 ISA SCSI card, and 96MB RAM. It crashed with blue screens all the time. It was totally impossible to install Win95 on this system; 95 had a problem with AMD processors above 350mhz, but there were some patches and fixes that often solved the problem. On this system, however, they were no help; it would never boot, not even into safe mode. I wound up reformatting the disk and installing Win98, but got several crashes the first day. Office 2000 gave me an illegal operation for msiexec.exe, immediately after I entered the serial number. Fluke? Nope... it did it three times before I gave up and started messing with other stuff to try to locate the problem. Moreover, about half the time, it would blue screen (sometimes in ifsmgr.vxd, sometimes vmm.vxd, sometimes... I dunno what) immediately after the network login box came up. I took a shotgun approach to solving the problem: I swapped the 550 CPU for a K6-2 500, I pulled out the SCSI card (temporarily, anyway), I removed the Western Digital hard disk, and I replaced the Intel NIC with a Netgear FA310TX. So far, so good: Office installed without a hitch. My intuition tells me that the problem may have been with the Intel NIC. I hate the 10/100 series; they make your life a living hell especially on NT 4, since NT doesn't seem to know exactly what model it is. And for that matter, you put the stupid driver disk in, and you sometimes STILL can't figure out exactly what model it is.

Other great ones: the P2B, the P2B-S, P3B-F, the P3VX, the P4P800E, the P4C800E, and the A8N5X.

At this point, Dell is my favorite hardware vendor. Latitude laptops and PowerEdge servers rock. We have six-year-old C600 Latitudes that are still in daily use. Our main machines have been the D600, D610, D620, and now the D630. All are fast and rock-solid, and Dell's warranty services is great. The PowerEdge servers (a 2500 and a 2600) are also rock solid.

Years ago, I used four or five early Pentium-class mainboards in some desktop systems for our network, usually with AMD processors. They were a bit cheaper than the Asus boards, and I never had any problems: No RMAs, no freaky hardware conflicts, no performance problems. Our supplier, however, eventually stopped carrying FIC; according to my sales rep, they had a very high return rate compared to Asus.

A very good value for the money. I've used alot of these boards, mostly the GA5-AX and the GA5-AA. One of them wasn't on the NT HAL, but I used it anyway. It gave me big pain in the installation; it would hang over and over. Finally, Gigabyte tech support suggested turning off the power management features in the BIOS. I did that and all was well. A few of these boards had a dumb little heat sensor under the CPU socket, and you had to actually bend it down to get the CPU to seat... as if you want to start bending and smashing things on a brand new board. I had one Gigabyte board that was dead on arrival, but otherwise quality has been good.

Very reliable, inexpensive optical drives. I've used many over the years, and I give them the official "thumbs up."

I've used about a billion floppy drives made by Mitsumi, another billion keyboards and mice, and a truckload of their CD-ROM drives, too. For the money, they seemed like a pretty good deal.

For a while we had an Okidata OL810e printer. It was, I think, an LED printer instead of an actual laser printer. The print quality was pretty good: noticably better than our old LaserJet Series II, but not as good as our HP LaserJet 5P. However, this was the SLOWEST printer I saw. The only reason I remember this printer is that we had a great nickname for it: We called it the "PokeyData."

Packard Bell
Tech support people referred to these as "Packard Hell," and not without reason. I knew two people who owned Packard Bell Pentiums. One needed a new hard disk when it was less than one year old, and the second went to the Great Beyond when its motherboard failed after about four years of use. I will say, however, that the name "Packard Bell" is surely a stroke of marketing genius. People who don't know much about computers will confuse it with Hewlett-Packard, or they'll think that the company was a spinoff from Bell Telephone.

When I began working in LAN administration, I inherited a network with four or five Sceptre monitors on some of the desktop systems; I was never impressed with the image quality, but I'm not sure how old the monitors were. One of them eventually shorted out and literally went up in smoke. But on the other hand, one of them is still in use on a lowly 486 that functions as a print server. It ain't pretty, but it's now been in daily use for at least seven years. Not that long ago, we bought a Sceptre LCD. The image quality wasn't as good as some other LCDs (ViewSonic, Dell, or Acer) but it was still a decent value.

We used a couple SOHOware ND4205 5-port hubs, and I would not recommend them. But first a disclaimer: one of the two, if I remember right, was labelled with the brand name "Genie" instead of SOHOware. But I think they were actually identical aside from the name. In any case, these were neat in one respect: they were TINY. Not much bigger than a pocket calculator. But the "Genie" hub shorted out one day, temporarily disrupting traffic across the entire LAN. No kidding... nobody in the entire office could connect to anything, in spite of the fact that none of them were actually routed through that hub. I assume that it was just flooding the entire network with garbage traffic. It took me about an hour to track down the problem. I realized I was on the right track when I picked up the hub and could smell burned electronics. Needless to say, that was the end of the line for that one. The second one never actually died, but it did flake out once. After a very brief blackout, it stopped working completely. It came back to life after it was unplugged for a couple minutes and then plugged back in.

Once upon a time, I swore by Toshiba laptops. But that was a long time ago...

Tecra 730XCDT
I loved my old Tecra 730XCDT. It seemed to be indestructible. The bag that it's carried was been dropped three times, and once it hit the ground hard enough to break the corner of the case and bend the chassis. On another occasion, I awoke one morning to find my son (a year old at the time) standing on top of it. I hauled it to Cambodia and back. I used it five days a week for years. Eventually the power switch became balky, and somehow I broke the CDROM... I forget how. Eventually we shipped it off to someone in Cambodia, where it was still chugging away.

Other models: The 2800 series was FANTASTIC, and also practically bulletproof. The 1450 and 2450 series were also rock-solid, but they weighed a ton. That, however, was where my positive experiences with Toshibas ended. The Satellite 3000, 1750, 1100, and 1200 all had faulty case designs, and the lids always cracked at the hinges. We probably had about a dozen of these, and every last one wound up with a broken lid. Every one. Oh, wait... not every one. One of the 3000s died with a fried motherboard before the lid had a chance to break. Ultimately, I got an email from Toshiba announcing a program to reimburse people who had paid to have the hinges repaired. Too little, too late: All of them were long dead by the time the email arrived.

Very, very nice monitors. A friend once gave me a 17-inch ViewSonic A70 monitor. I love it. It's a bright as any monitor I've ever seen, and very sharp. One of these days, when the nine-year-old Apple monitor attached to my Mac dies, I'll probably replace it with a ViewSonic.