Windows 98? Linux and VirtualBox! (Maybe)

Believe it or not, some people still use Windows 98. Microsoft abandoned Windows 98 to the wolves in 2006 and no longer fixes known bugs or known security flaws in Windows 98. Yet some folk still use Windows 98. There may be a business reason such as a critical hardware controller that is built on Windows 98 for a manufacturing system that cost millions of dollars. Upgrading such systems can be very expensive so businesses usually keep them around for a very long time before upgrading. Other reasons may be personal. For example the user who is happy with Windows 98 because it does what she wants, her five year old PC she upgraded to in 2004 and had Windows 98 installed on is still running and she sees no reason to upgrade again.

However, hardware moves on. Most, if not all, new hardware no longer has Windows 98 drivers. When the critical system or the personal system hardware begins to fail then the user with Windows 98 may find that the new hardware will not work with Windows 98 due to lack of drivers. In such cases upgrading the hardware and reinstalling Windows 98 will likely be problematic to impossible. The option then is to get Microsoft Vista on a new PC, a huge, painful and possibly costly leap from Windows 98 if one wants a PC that will run Vista well. Upgrading a Windows 98 based control system for manufacturing or other critical business system may be impossible or very costly to do if one’s only choice is Microsoft XP or Microsoft Vista and new hardware for the production line or whatnot. One valid option is to go with a Linux distribution and a virtual machine like Sun Microsystems’ VirtualBox.

VirtualBox, also known as “vbox”, is another open source software project by Sun Microsystems, Inc. like their openSolaris, OpenOffice and other Sun OSS projects. What VirtualBox provides in layman’s terms is an emulated computer in memory on your real computer. The emulated computer is called a virtual machine or VM. The operating system that runs VirtualBox is called the host while the operating system running inside a VM is called the guest. The hardware on the host can be “virtualized” for sharing with the guest. In many cases where business control systems are involved this means the serial port would be shared with the guest for controlling the systems needing one’s old Windows 98 controller. All input and output through a serial port can then go to the control software running on the guest Windows 98 in the VM.

I have installed a Windows 98 guest in VirtualBox on my SOHO personal / business computer to try it out for this article. My first impression, once I got all the parts in place, was that it runs quite slow. I installed the SeaMonkey integrated browser to get a modern web browser on the VM but it loads and runs so slowly I found it to be unbearable to use. I searched for information on running Windows 98 under VirtualBox to see if there are “tweaks” one can do to speed it up. On my own I increased the VM RAM from 128MB to 256MB and the VM video memory from 8MB to 16MB. This seemed to help a little, but not much.

One should definitely read this if considering running a Windows 98 guest in a VirtualBox VM: http://www.virtualbox.org/wiki/User_FAQ#Windows98guests The slowness may or may not matter for a control system that largely gets set then runs unattended. However, it would be impractical for a user wanting to use the Windows 98 VM interactively. Other than a much faster CPU than my 1.5GHz AMD processor there appears to be little one can do as a user to speed it up. The developers apparently know about the slowness with Windows 98 VMs under VirtualBox but are not motivated to work on the problem since Windows 98 is so outdated. Unless someone wanted to invest a lot of money to get VirtualBox code tweaked to run Windows 98 there is little likelihood this will be fixed.

See the video of my Windows 98 virtual machine here: linux_vbox_w98.ogv
(OGG Theora video, 62,262,193 bytes, about 13 minutes or so in length. Get a player that can show OGG Theora videos here http://www.videolan.org/vlc/.)

During a conversation in the VirtualBox #vbox channel on the Freenode IRC Network a channel operater going by the nickname “klaus-vb” had this to say when I asked about speeding up a Windows 98 VM with a multi-core CPU: “… Multi-core doesn’t help much. clock speed helps, and what potentially also helps a lot (didn’t try win9x in a long time) is enabling hardware virtualization. [One] will of course require a cpu capable of this, and a bios which allows [one] to enable it. Just a few facts: 1 VM = 1 process, and in that process one of the threads executes the guest code. there are other threads in a VM process, and they can benefit from extra cores, but the thread which executes the VM code doesn’t get much faster usually. From this it should be obvious why higher clock speed increases the speed of a VM, but not necessarily increasing the core count. the latter of course helps if you run a lot of VMs. The fact that hw virtualization speeds up things would need to be checked. it does speed up real mode code, but win9x is doing weird things, so better check.” Unfortunately I do not have a computer with hardware virtualization available to check this as klaus-vb recommended, so caveat emptor.

Other open source virtual machines one may consider are Bochs and QEMU. For closed source virtual machines one might consider VMware. One of these might be a better option for running Windows 98. I will try them in the future and see.

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Edit Thu Jun 25 08:10:28 CDT 2009: Add URL for VLC video player.

Why I Think Open Source Will “Win” In The End

I am going to start this with some questions for you. Think about them and give honest answers to yourself. Have you ever called or e-mailed Microsoft or some other software manufacturer’s technical support about a problem as a user? What was your result? Did the technical support personnel begin with the assumption that you were the problem, not their software? In “the industry” this is known as Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair or PEBKAC (We “geeks” do love our acronyms.). Have you ever found a problem with some software that you knew was not due to “PEBKAC” and tried to get a response from the people that could fix it? Did you get a satisfactory conclusion?

I have done all the above both as a technical support person and as a plain old end user. I can tell you my results with Open Source people are much more satisfactory than my results with typical Closed Source companies like Microsoft.

Here is an example of getting results for a problem from Open Source folk as a plain old user. Recently my wife started an upgrade for one of our SOHO (Small Office / Home Office) computers from Mandriva Linux 2008.1 to Mandriva Linux 2009.0 over the internet. She was using the Mandriva GUI from her KDE desktop to do this. During the upgrade she ran into a problem with lack of space on one of the partitions that is needed for the upgrade. This caused the upgrade to fail while trying to download upgrade packages, although the upgrade software kept trying to get the new packages.

This has happened to me before so I had a work-around that I have used in the past to get around this problem. Of course it meant stopping the upgrade, doing some “arcane stuff” logged in as root (Known as “system administrator” for Microsoft users.) with symbolic linking at the dreaded command line interface, then restarting the upgrade. This time though, since my wife was affected by it, I had had enough of the problem and decided to do something about it.

After setting up the symbolic links to drive partitions with more space and restarting the upgrade I went to my PC where I have an IRC chat program always running and started asking polite questions on the Freenode IRC network in the #mandriva channel. Being polite is always my policy when dealing with technical support problems. One of the first responses was “file a bug report”. I took that advice, went to https://qa.mandriva.com/ and did just that. Within 24 hours of my bug report I received an e-mail notice that the bug report was accepted:

This report is considered to be a valid and complete bug report according to
the Mandriva Bug Policy. It is accepted on behalf of the maintainer.

Mandriva Triage Team

What followed was a satisfying “conversation” with the Mandriva Open Source team about the bug. They did not attempt to point fingers at me, blame my hardware, grind their teeth at the way I have my computers configured, or expound upon the phases of the moon to explain their lack of culpability for this problem. All things I have experienced with “professional” Closed Source support personnel. Well not the moon phases part, that is just my attempt at humor. No, the Mandriva Open Source folk handled my bug report quickly and professionally. I have no doubt that it will be resolved by the time the next Mandriva release is ready.

I will not go into my half remembered “horror stories” of my sessions with Closed Source technical support. I did not document those nor do I really want to recall them. I just remember a great deal of frustration dealing with Closed Source technical support when I knew the problem was their software. Sure, sometimes PEBKAC is true. But many times PEBKAC is used in “the industry” to explain away real problems with Closed Source software by support personnel. Getting an acknowledgment that a Closed Source software program has a real problem can be problematic to impossible for an end user. Certainly this could happen with Open Source projects as well. But to date I have never experienced a “brush off” from Open Source folk and I will be surprised when or if it does happen.

If you want to see my bug report and the responses from the Mandriva people it is at: https://qa.mandriva.com/show_bug.cgi?id=46520

If you want to talk about your good or bad experiences with Open Source or Closed Source support feel free to post a comment here. But, do provide proof of your experience as I have done with this article. If you have no proof, then people tend to think it didn’t happen.

More Shopping Site Updates

I am slowly but surely getting content on our shopping site. I actually added some items for you Microsoft users today. A service item for Microsoft system recovery and an AVG Internet Security item. Granted, these are not fun items but they are necessary for many Microsoft users none the less. There are plenty of other places to get the fun stuff … or you could switch to Linux. 🙂

Go check out ERACC On-Line Shopping to see the new items. As always, I look forward to any of your comments.

Mandriva Linux Used to Save a XP Professional PC

I will admit it, I like tabloid-like headlines. While these types of headlines are trite and irritating to many, they do get attention. Thus the title of this article is intended to grab attention. If you are reading this because the headline got your attention, you can see it worked.

I recently had to recover data from a very sick Dell Dimension computer running Microsoft XP Professional at one of our client sites. As usually happens in these cases Windows had chewed its’ hind legs off and was not working. What had occurred was one of the people at this site had plugged in a USB thumb-drive, a regular occurrence at this location, and the system went to a black screen. No BSOD, no error message, just a dead PC that had to be hard reset. Upon reboot the operating system reported it had crashed due to a “thermal event”. Then it loaded v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y taking over an hour to show the desktop and never drawing the icons.

Since this problem was beyond the scope of the users to repair, my company was called to handle the problem. I am the technical support guy so I packed up my laptop (Loaded with Mandriva Linux of course.), grabbed my briefcase, picked up my organizer and headed out with coffee in hand. Once on site I spoke with the people about the system and opened it up to have a look inside. Since a “thermal event” was reported I was looking for excess dust (There was almost no dust!) or dead cooling fans (All were working.). This indicated to me there was probably not a “thermal event”. I took out my freshly burned Mandriva One 2009.0 Linux live CD with KDE and booted the troubled PC. After going through the selections of keyboard, locale, time and desktop (I chose Compiz Fusion.) the PC booted to Linux and I was able to play around spinning the Compiz Fusion cube for people in the office. I checked the thermal reporting in Linux and all the thermal monitoring was within the average. In other words, the hardware was fine.

After testing the hardware with Mandriva One 2009.0, I recommended that the data be backed up and that XP Professional be restored to factory condition from the Dell recovery partition. Then all updates be applied, programs reloaded and data restored. This was agreed upon and I took the sick PC to our office to begin the repair.

At the office I connected the PC to a KVM switch we use for working on sick computers. I booted Mandriva One 2009.0 again and immediately noticed the mouse was not working. This is a standard KVM with PS/2 type connectors for mouse and keyboard. I pulled a USB mouse from the shelf and connected it to one of the USB ports, moved it a bit and had a working mouse. Then I finished booting into a standard KDE desktop. I did not choose Compiz Fusion this time because, well, let us all admit, that is just eye-candy and not really necessary to get work done.

After booting I had to force mount the NTFS partition for XP Professional because it was showing an unclean shutdown. The Linux ntfs-3g driver will not normally mount an unclean NTFS partition for safety reasons. Safety for the NTFS partition, not for Linux. After mounting the partition I set up a NFS mount at the Mandriva One CLI for one of our server partitions used for backups of data from sick computers. Then I examined the XP Professional partition and using tar zcvf I created an archive of all the data from the XP Professional partition. This included the entire “Documents and Settings” tree as well as a few directories and files that had been created outside that directory structure. Yes, I know this will not respect certain file attributes, like hidden and system, that Microsoft operating systems expect to use. But it works to backup, restoring works and the data is preserved. That is good enough in almost all cases.

Then the Dell PC was rebooted and recovery was started using Ctrl F11 at the Dell boot splash screen. After recovery of XP Professional to factory condition the PC data was restored. Since many of the applications that had been installed no longer existed I spent a few minutes cleaning up errors when loading the XP Professional desktop. I also removed items from the menus by hand and reset the “DESKTOP” files found in several of the menus to hidden. Then began the long process of getting Microsoft updates, updates to the updates, updates to the updates to the updates … you get the picture.

After one set of updates the system began starting with very low graphics settings and giving BSOD at random when trying to reset the graphics to higher resolution. I suspected that an update from Microsoft had caused the original Intel graphics driver from the Dell recovery partition to begin having problems. A download and install of the latest Intel driver for the Intel graphic chip-set on the Dell fixed this problem.

To make a long story just a wee bit longer, the system was delivered. Programs were reinstalled and the PC is once again being used productively at the client’s office. Could I have used other tools to backup and restore the data? Sure, but my point here is that one can do this using a Linux distribution live CD with the tools included in almost all Linux distributions. Cost to you? Only your time learning what to do and how to do it.

Edit Fri Oct 24 21:19:04 UTC 2008: Fix a typo.

Edit Fri Oct 24 22:13:33 UTC 2008: Fix a poorly worded sentence.

Adobe “Answers” More Linux Questions

Following our previous article, Adobe Answers to Linux Development Questions, several people on Digg.com and elsewhere had comments about questions they would like to see Adobe answer. I said I would see what I could get from Adobe. I again contacted Kelly Murphy of A&R Edelman, a PR firm handling Adobe’s media inquiries, and asked her assistance. Kelly was kind enough to get answers to your questions. Well, what passes for answers from big, corporate entities with policies in place as to what can be said and when it can be said.

Here are some of your Adobe Linux questions with the answers Adobe is willing to give you. All I ask is that you do not shoot the messengers (me and/or Kelly). The questions are in red, Adobe’s answers are plain text and my comments about the answers, if any, are in italics.

1. Is Adobe working on GNU/Linux versions of other Adobe products besides Adobe AIR? If so, can someone list which ones?

Adobe develops products based on customer needs and demand. Adobe has shown a commitment to the Linux communities through a number of offerings including Adobe AIR for Linux, Adobe Flex Builder 3 for Linux, and Adobe Flash Player for Linux and Adobe Reader for Linux. We have not made any other announcements about other Linux based products at this time.

I am so tempted to make a pithy, sarcastic comment about “announcements”. Instead I will just say Adobe is a purveyor of the obvious here. It is a given that most Linux users already know about these projects mentioned by Adobe. Developers will likely know about all of them. Average users already know about Flash Player and Reader for Linux. The question would not need to be asked if Adobe had already been forthcoming about its’ Linux plans for the future. I suppose it is extremely difficult for closed-source companies to see a benefit to openness with regard to future product speculation.

2. Will Adobe offer GNU/Linux versions of a current Photoshop anytime in the near future?

Adobe does not comment on unreleased products and product updates. We will continue to listen to the needs of our customers to determine the future direction of Photoshop.

I am not fluent in corporate-ese, but I think Adobe is saying, “We are not going to tell you anything. Thanks for asking though.” 🙂

3. What keeps Adobe from releasing Reader for GNU/Linux at the same time as Reader for Windows?

In order to deliver new versions or dot updates of Adobe Reader as quickly as possible to the greatest number of users, we focus resources initially on the platform(s) of the majority of Reader users. This is currently Windows (and Mac). With that said, we then work to deliver updates to the Linux version of the product as quickly as possible.

Note, as well, that we continually monitor customer usage and market trends, which can influence future plans.

In this answer I think we are seeing the result of Adobe monitoring its’ downloads and noticing a smaller “market share” for Linux downloads. Of course, my one download of Reader gets stored on a file server and installed on new Linux desktop systems from there. I only download when there is an update. I guess I should download from each system needing to use Adobe Reader instead.

4. When does Adobe project there will be a usable version of 64-bit flash for 64-bit GNU/Linux?

The Adobe Flash Player team is working on support for 64-bit platforms as part of our ongoing commitment to the cross-platform compatibility of Adobe Flash Player. We have not yet announced timing or release dates. However, you can run Flash Player in a 32-bit browser running on a 64-bit operating system.

So, unlike Microsoft, Adobe is not going to keep announcing the new and improved 64-bit Flash will be available on Tuesday of next year. Then, of course, continually pushing back the release date. As long as Adobe is willing to say “we are working on that” I can be happy with that answer.

There you have your answers. If anyone comes up with more Adobe Linux product questions for me to ask Adobe please feel free to login and comment here.

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Multiboot PC for FreeDOS, Linux and eComStation

Here is another great system for an eComStation user that is similar to the previous system I wrote about. There have been requests from several people for me to document these builds to help promote eComStation (demo CD URL) and I have agreed that is a good idea. Here are the specifications of this system as agreed upon by the end-user:

  • Thermaltake Armor Series VA8000BWS Full Tower Case w/Side Panel Window (Black)
  • ENERMAX EG465P-VE-FMA 460W Power Supply
  • Asus M2N-E nForce 570 Ultra Sempron/Athlon 64(FX)(X2) SktAM2 DDR2 ATX Motherboard w/Audio, Gigabit LAN, RAID/Serial ATA (includes added internal parallel cable)
  • AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core Processor 4000+ Socket AM2 (65W)
  • Kingston KVR800D2E5K2/2G 2GB Kit DDR2-800 PC2-6400 ECC Memory
  • Adaptec SCSI Card 29160N
  • HIS H165PRF512N-R Radeon X1650 PRO 512MB GDDR2 PCI Express x16 Video Card
  • NEC 1.44MB 3.5in Internal Floppy Disk Drive (Black)
  • LITEON DH-20A4P-08 20X IDE DVD Burner Black Drive
  • FUJITSU MBA3147NP 147GB SCSI-320 (68 pin) 15,000 RPM 8MB Buffer Hard Drive
  • Logitech Media Keyboard (PS/2)
  • Logitech Marble Mouse (PS/2 + USB)
  • ViewSonic Q241wb 24in 16:10 6ms LCD Monitor 1000:1 300 cd/m2 (Black)
  • eComStation 1.2MR upgrade from eCS 1.1 (ESD)
  • Labor to install eCS on new PC
  • eComStation Subscription Services with eCS (ESD)
  • Novell openSuSE 10.3 (ordered from Novell for the end-user)
  • Installed FreeDOS on first primary partition

We at ERACC installed FreeDOS and eComStation for the end-user. We offered to install the Linux as well but the end-user wanted to install the openSuSE 10.3 Linux himself. There is space set aside on the 147GB SCSI hard drive for him to install a /boot near the start of the drive and the rest of openSuSE 10.3 after the eComStation partitions.

The Radeon X1650 PRO based PCIe graphics adapter was ordered with the other parts and arrived with them but before this system was built we at ERACC discovered there is a flaw in the graphics handling for many ATI video cards under eComStation. I contacted the end-user and offered to replace the Radeon X1650 PRO with a nVidia based PCIe card at our expense. He agreed so we ordered a GeForce 7300 LE based PCIe card to replace the ATI based card. This worked out quite well with the included SNAP Graphics driver that is included in eComStation 2.0rc4. I imagine it will also work with the Panorama VESA driver but we did not try that since SNAP worked “out of the box”.

The 24 inch Q241wb ViewSonic monitor is a very good choice here. It works perfectly with the eComStation graphics system and is run at its’ native resolution of 1920×1200 dpi. I personally want one of these monitors now.

I have also never used a trackball “mouse” myself. I found myself liking the Logitech Marble Mouse while working on the setup of this system. That is another item that may find its’ way onto my desktop in the future.

The original dual IDE DVD?RW drives were a matched set. When building the system it was discovered that one of the drives would not spin up. So it was replaced with a “PIONEER DVR-212DBK 18X SATA DVD” burner which works quite well with the updated eComStation mass storage chipset drivers from Daniela Engert.

The audio was problematic as we downloaded the latest UNIAUD drivers and installed those. This caused a very nasty hard hang on the desktop whenever the second system sound tried to play. The only out was to push the reset button. After several hours of trial and error research I discovered that installing UNIAUD from uniaud114RC5.zip and then replacing the uniaud32.sys file with the one from uniaud32-1.9.2.zip “solved” the hang problem. These are both older versions of UNIAUD files but they work here. NOTICE: This is a specific fix for the audio on these ASUS M2N-E motherboards and may or may not work on other motherboards with eComStation.

Several folks have asked me for pictures of this build so here they are:

The Entire System

From the Top

From the Side

Yup, it is a Q241wb.

1.44MB Floppy, IDE DVD?RW and SATA DVD?RW

Storage drawer included with the Thermaltake case

OOOoooo! Shiny!

I also took a video with my digital camera of the system booting into eComStation 2.0rc4 and then rebooting to FreeDOS. The video is rather large (319,581,796 bytes) and is 640×480 resolution in AVI format. I attempted to convert it to MPEG-2 but the results were even worse than the original AVI so I deleted that. It is only of the PC booting with roughly the first half of the ~6 minutes showing the system counting the 2GB of RAM and waiting through the IBM Boot Manager 30 second count down to boot eComStation. In my opinion it is not all that exciting but I went ahead and included the video here to be complete.

(This was still uploading as of the time of this post. ETA to finish uploading is 4.5 hours from the time on this post. I want ISP people to just give us the same uplink speed as downlink speed without the unnecessary huge extra fee for that.)

Multiboot PC Video – AVI format – 640×480 – 319,581,796 bytes – Removed until resized

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Building A Modern eComStation (OS/2) Personal Computer

My company, ERA Computers & Consulting, builds personal computers and servers to customer specifications for customers that want pre-loaded eComStation, specific Linux distribution, FreeBSD, other operating system pre-installed or no operating system installed. These personal computers and servers are all x86 type systems with one or more AMD single-core or dual-core processors. We do not sell nor do we usually install Microsoft operating systems. There are plenty of Microsoft shops to choose from already.

This article is to showcase a PC we just completed for a customer wanting an eComStation pre-installed system. Here are the specifications for the build taken directly from the quote approved by the customer:

Thermaltake Armor Series VA8000BWS Full Tower Case w/Side Panel Window (Black)
ENERMAX EG465P-VE-FMA 460W Power Supply
Asus M2N-E nForce 570 Ultra Sempron/Athlon 64(FX)(X2) SktAM2 DDR2 ATX Motherboard w/Audio, Gigabit LAN, RAID/Serial ATA
AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core Processor 4000+ Socket AM2 (65W)
Kingston KVR800D2E5K2/2G 2GB Kit DDR2-800 PC2-6400 ECC Memory
Adaptec SCSI Card 29160N
HIS H165PRF512N-R Radeon X1650 PRO 512MB GDDR2 PCI Express x16 Video Card
NEC 1.44MB 3.5in Internal Floppy Disk Drive (Black)
LITEON DH-20A4P-08 20X IDE DVD Burner Black Drive
Fujitsu MAW Series MAW3073NP 73.5GB 68pin U320-SCSI 10,000RPM Hard Drive w/8MB Buffer
eComStation 1.2MR upgrade from eCS 1.0 (ESD)
eComStation Subscription Services with eCS (ESD)
Labor to install eCS on new PC

The customer has his own mouse, keyboard and monitor that will be used with this new system. The customer prefers SCSI for storage (so do I as a matter of fact) so we provided him with an Adaptec SCSI controller and Fujitsu SCSI drive. The ThermalTake case was not on the original quote but was substituted on a new quote when the case quoted originally went out of stock. The internal hardware parts were chosen, specifically the ASUS M2N-E motherboard, because they all have drivers for eComStation and fulfill the customer’s specifications. Since the customer wanted ECC RAM the Kingston KVR800D2E5K2/2G RAM was chosen to fill that request. The ASUS M2N-E motherboard has an on-board 10/100/1000 NIC that is driven by the nveth driver found on hobbes.nmsu.edu OS/2 and eCS file repository (thank you “nickk” for nveth!). The on-board sound is driven by the latest port of the ALSA driver called Uniaud (thank you Paul Smedley for Uniaud!). The Radeon X1650 PRO graphics chip is driven by the latest release of the Panorama VESA driver (thank you eCo Software and Mensys BV for Panorama!). There is currently no 3D capability for eComStation so there is no need to run any driver that provides 3D. This may change in the future, especially with the Voyager project porting its’ GUI to multiple operating systems.

During the build and setup of this system it was discovered that when ECC was enabled in the BIOS the system became “flaky” and would not go past the P.O.S.T. process. Several frustrating hours of testing later the latest beta BIOS file for the M2N-E was downloaded and applied. This solved the problem with ECC and the system was finally finished with eComStation 1.2MR installed and running.

Here are some pictures of the system prior to shipping.

Upper Case Exhaust FanClick To View Full Size This is a picture of the inside, upper case exhaust fan. This fan is shipped detached and is installed by the builder.
Case Side View With Panel OffClick To View Full Size This is a picture of the finished system with the side panel removed. All cables tied off, or routed to allow better air flow inside the case.
Side View With See-Through Panel InstalledClick To View Full Size This is a picture of the finished system with the side panel installed.
Shot Of The Back Of The PCClick To View Full Size This is a picture of the back of the PC.
Front Of PC With \Click To View Full Size A picture of the front of the PC with the “wings” closed.
A Picture Of The PC Front With \Click To View Full Size A picture of the front of the PC with the “wings” opened.
A Picture Of The PC Case Top Exhaust GrilleClick To View Full Size A picture of the PC case top exhaust grille.
A Picture Of The PC Case Top Access PortClick To View Full Size A picture of the PC case top access port for 1394 jack, USB jacks, headphone jack and microphone jack.

In this build the 1394 jack is not connected as there is no 1394 pin header on the motherboard. The access cover is not spring loaded which I found to be a surprising and irritating oversight. Otherwise I found it quite pleasant to build with this ThermalTake case. I have been a strict Antec guy in the past. Now I will be an Antec and ThermalTake guy.

Edit Wed Mar 11 19:36:51 UTC 2009: Fix old URL for custom computers from ERACC.

A Business Case for Linux? (Laptops Marketed and Sold as Microsoft Vista Ready)

I have had the dubious pleasure of helping more than one Microsoft Vista laptop user recover from “This thing is really slow” syndrome. So far the fix has been to take the pre-loaded Vista laptops that were sold with only 512MB of RAM installed, pull out the 512MB of RAM and install at least 2GB of RAM. Then to go into the Vista performance settings and choose speed over glitz. This makes Vista less slow for all the laptop users I have helped. It does not make Vista as fast as Microsoft’s Windows XP on the same hardware and definitely not as fast as Linux with X and a light window manager (I like fluxbox) on the same hardware, but it helps.

My question is why are these companies (like Acer, Dell and others) selling these memory anemic systems with Vista pre-loaded? It seems to me to be misleading to sell a laptop with Microsoft Vista and less than 2GB of RAM when everyone I know personally in the personal computing technical community seems to agree that 2GB is really the minimum RAM one needs to have a good experience with Microsoft’s Vista. The most recent laptop I fixed this way is an Acer Aspire 3690 series owned by a college student. When the young lady’s grandfather (a client of my company) contacted me about the problem I thought perhaps she had upgraded to Vista on a laptop with too little memory. However, when I got to the laptop I discovered it had the Microsoft Vista OEM stickers on it and that it had been sold to her with all the glitz “features” of Vista enabled but with only 512MB of RAM. Incredible as that may seem.

I think these companies should not be selling anything with Vista on it with less than 2GB of RAM, a minimum of 512MB of video memory and a top notch video processor. Anything less than that is misleading the customer. Further, the more I see of Vista on these “under powered” systems the more I think Linux can make inroads on the SOHO, home user and college user desktops, laptops and notebooks. Those of us that sell pre-loaded Linux systems just need to get the marketing ramped up and in the face of people looking for a new PC. We should also be willing to assist people as much as possible with a transition to Linux. It would be very exciting to me to see IBM/Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and other major personal computer vendors that are Linux friendly push Linux pre-loaded personal computers with some major advertising dollars. Will this happen? God alone knows for certain. I think it should, I think it will and I am waiting to see which company will be the first.

Edit: PC World has an article that agrees with me. ComputerWorld has the same article. This article says that 4GB is the “sweet spot”. Check out the Realistic Windows Ram Requirements at Pomona College.

Edit: add a clarification on these “under powered” systems. The phrase “under powered” is in quotes because these systems are not truly under powered, Vista is just over demanding of hardware. Changed the word “lot” to the phrase “minimum of 512MB”.

Oh Where, Oh Where Has My OS/2 Gone?

The news of the demise of IBM’s OS/2 is at best premature and at worst deliberate spread of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Disinformation). Sure, IBM is no longer selling the OS/2 brand itself and stopped supporting it in 2006. However, those who got hooked on the Workplace Shell (a.k.a. WPS) can still get their fix by purchasing the eComStation operating system. eComStation is a rebranded, third party release of OS/2 that has all the good features one knows and loves from OS/2, including the WPS. eComStation, however, comes with updates to applications and hardware drivers to keep running on more modern hardware.

In the past few years there was a push in the OS/2 community to open source OS/2. There were e-mail campaigns and petitions sent to IBM about this. Finally IBM stated unequivocally that OS/2 would not be open sourced. What this means is the OS/2 kernel currently used in eComStation will not ever be able to run as a 64-bit kernel. The current kernel will be 32-bit “forever”. However, as long as modern hardware will run a 32-bit kernel then eComStation can be a viable choice for those who love OS/2 and the Workplace Shell. There will continue to be eComStation driver development and driver porting from OSS projects into the foreseeable future. There will continue to be new software for eComStation ported from OSS projects like OpenOffice.org and Firefox into the foreseeable future as well.

What does the distant future hold for eComStation (or am I going to be stuck holding the bag if I get eComStation)? Fear not, there is a project set to address this exact concern. The Voyager project by NetLabs.org may lead to creation of a kernel replacement that will possibly run existing OS/2 software as well as new software. The Voyager project is mainly to work on an open source version of the Workplace Shell written from scratch that will run on top of a modern kernel.

Is this kind of thing even possible or probable? Absolutely! This has already been realized by another company, Apple, Inc. the maker of the Macintosh computer, the Apple PowerBook and other personal computers. Apple’s OS X is Apple’s GUI on top of a BSD kernel. Apple got out of the low level operating system writing business and ported their GUI to a customized BSD. To all appearances this has been a very good move for Apple. While Apple did not have to rewrite their GUI from a blank page the idea is still viable for eComStation. It could also be a very good move for eComStation.

To find more information on eComStation go to the home page and look around. There is also a news server: news.ecomstation.nl which can be accessed through a web news portal an IRC network and an #ecomstation channel on chat.freenode.net on the freenode IRC network.

Update Sun Mar 30 16:22:18 UTC 2008: I forgot to add that one can get a Demo CD of eComStation at the eComStation Demo CD web page.

Update Sun Apr 6 19:31:22 UTC 2008: Clarify information about Voyager, specifically about a new kernel.

Review – Adobe Photoshop Express

I will confess I am a GIMP guy on Linux. I often see forum and USENET posts from Microsoft fanatics that state since (insert commercial software here) cannot be found for Linux no one is going to use Linux. One of the oft mentioned applications in this category is Adobe‘s Photoshop. Others will recommend GIMP only to be told that GIMP is not as good as Photoshop. Now we all know that is really just personal opinion, not objective fact. In any case there is now a Photoshop that should even work on Linux. I am talking about Adobe Photoshop Express, a web based application. (For more news on Adobe Photoshop Express see this AltaVista News Search)

I am not an “arteest” but I am an occasional graphics creator and editor for images I need to put on a web site. I decided to try out Adobe Photoshop Express to see how well it works under Firefox on Linux. I opened the site in Firefox and immediately noticed the Flash “thing” in the middle of the page. I am no fan of Flash, I truly loathe having to use it for anything other than games, so this immediately put me off (You say you don’t like Flash either? Try Flashblock with Firefox.). But I want to try this “free” application so I went ahead and clicked through to the registration page. I encountered yet another Flash widget for the sign-up page. Basically if one does not have Flash installed and working then one cannot sign-up to use Adobe Photoshop Express which is not a good thing in my opinion. In spite of this In My Face use of Flash I gritted my teeth and signed up. One has to await a confirmation e-mail to be sent before one can continue. So I twiddled my thumbs and waited for the e-mail … (actually I started writing this article).

The e-mail finally came through my greylisting e-mail host and I clicked the verification URL. I get a confirmation page and a button to click to sign in. I click the button … EGAD! More Flash. This is becoming painful for an avowed Flash loather like myself. However I soldier on. The login is a flash widget which completely breaks my Firefox browser’s ability to save the password for me. It appears that the whole Adobe Photoshop Express “application” is Flash based. At this point I am thinking I am not going to be using Adobe Photoshop Express very often after this review.

I land on a greeting page that has several clickable options. To get started I decide to upload some old photos I took at a Video Surveillance System install I did a while back. I choose to put them in a new album related to this review. Then I click the button to upload them. I watch with increasing interest as each of the photos I have chosen are marked as unsupported (this is humorously ironic, The GIMP gives me an error popup but will work with these photos just fine and I can view them all with GQview.). I then get an upload error notice after all my picture files are rejected by Adobe Photoshop Express. Since these pictures were made with an older digital camera and Adobe Photoshop Express does not like its’ pictures I decide to try just one picture from my new digital camera. I choose to upload it to the existing album that was created even though my previous picture uploads failed. Although this picture is much larger in size than the ones from my old camera the upload works and I click the Done button. I am automagically placed into the album where I just uploaded the photo.

Now to see what I can do with this photo. I hold my mouse pointer over the photo and get a drop down menu button across the bottom which I then click. I decide to choose “Edit Photo” from the menu. This loads my photo into a new screen with several clickable actions on the left. I browse through each option and play with the photo a bit. This is not intended to be an exhaustive review as I am mainly looking to see if this “application” works under Linux and I have already found that it does. All the edit options appear to work as intended and I can totally screw up my photo in many ways (since I am no “arteest”).

My conclusion is there is now a version of Photoshop that will work on Linux. Would I personally want to use it? No. Should Adobe still make the commercial version of Photoshop available for native use on Linux? Yes. However, I am sure there are those in the Linux community who would like to use Adobe Photoshop Express for whatever the reason. Oh, and of course we can now rub it in the face of the Microsoft fanatics on USENET and elsewhere. 🙂

(Edit Fri Mar 28 14:29:18 UTC 2008: One needs a blog user account to post comments here. Registration for a blog user account is currently only by request using the form provided. The comment problem appears resolved with a change to a new WordPress theme. Gene)

(Edit Sat Mar 29 23:37:26 UTC 2008: Based on user feedback the registration process has been reopened for users to register themselves. We’ll see how this goes. Gene)