Another Sad Dell Monitor Story

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Dell, you continue to disappoint me, but I keep coming back for more. Perhaps it’s because I know that when you do get it right, you really get it right. Remember those three 24″ wide screen monitors I ordered? They arrived on the 27th, the same day as the Velocity Micro MCE system, and late in the afternoon (after I swallowed the bitter disappointment of the busted-up computer), I thought I’d cheer myself up by setting up the new Dell monitors. With Ashley’s help unpacking, I set up the first one and braced myself, fearful of seeing the colour banding problem again. I ran the colour spectrum test and it came up clean – no banding at all. I was elated…uh, wait a second, what’s what? A stuck pixel. I ran a few more solid colour tests, and sure enough, there was one stuck pixel. Ok, scratch that monitor – what made it more complex was that I couldn’t return just one monitor as part of Dell’s 15 day “no questions asked” return policy. I thought I’d figure it out later. Then I hooked up the next one – another stuck pixel. Wow. Ashley unpacked the third one, and said something was strange – it was missing the manual and looked like it had been re-packed. Sure enough, the screen had fingerprints on it. And the LCD panel looked a bit odd. I powered it up and ran the colour spectrum test…and here’s what I saw:

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That, dear friends, is a broken/cracked LCD panel with liquid crystal seeping out. Three monitors, all bad in one way or another. Is it really too unreasonable to expect that, when buying Dell’s most expensive line of monitors (Ultrasharp) that one would get a non-flawed monitor out of the box? On the bright side, all three were bad, so it was easy to ship them all back and cancel my lease. I then re-ordered them, one per order, at the $699 price (which thankfully is still being offered for a few more days). So now I have three orders on the way, one monitor per order. This gives me the flexibility to send back one monitor at a time if it’s not up to spec. I’m expecting to see the monitors come my way on the 2nd or 3rd of January – just before I leave for CES on the night of the 5th. And since the $699 price point ($200 off) is being offered until the 4th, I may have one more chance to re-order a new batch of monitors if this second batch aren’t perfect. I know, it’s bordering on insanity, but I’m not going to drop $2100 on monitors unless they are without flaws. Now that I know these monitors no longer have the colour banding issue, I hopeful that the next batch will be the ones I keep…

Windows Vista Hardware from AMD & Microsoft: Here’s My Story

There’s a big blow-up about Microsoft “bribing” bloggers, so I figured I’d better get on the record now before someone accuses me of “hiding” something. On the 22nd of December I made a comment on my blog about receiving a new piece of hardware, but I mentioned that I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to talk about it yet – because the hardware wasn’t released yet and not up on the OEMs Web site for sale. Obviously now that this story has gone public, I can, so here’s the story.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been a member of a group called the Windows Featured Communities for my work on Digital Media Thoughts (somehow I’ve been bumped to the bottom group of related sites, but I’ve confirmed with someone at Microsoft that I should be in the top group). Basically, Microsoft wanted to bring together bloggers/community leaders who were talking about Windows XP, Windows Media Center, and Windows Vista and give them some hands-on experience with the products that they talk about. The Vista angle was especially interesting for many of us, since back in 2004/2005 we didn’t have the ability to use betas of the OS, etc. I wrote about my experiences, and disclosed that Microsoft was paying the airfare and hotel bills. There have been a couple of events that they’ve brought us down for, and next month I’m going to CES 2007 half-courtesy of Microsoft: they’re covering my air fare (about $380 CAD) and I’m covering my hotel room (about $100 per night over five nights). I’ve always been open about the free stuff I get from Microsoft events – as an MVP, I’ve been given free Pocket PCs, as a Mobius member I’ve been given free Smartphones and other goodies. I’m also a founding member of The Hive.

So anyway, back in November Aaron Coldorin (Product Manager – Community) announced to the Featured Communities group that, in cooperation with AMD, we’d be offered our choice of an Acer Ferrari 5000, an Acer Ferrari 1000, or a new Alienware DHS Media Center PC (no link, they no longer offer it). All would be running AMD CPUs, since this was a joint Vista/AMD promotion. The exact working from Aaron was as follows:

“I’ve been working with AMD and some of our other hardware partners to get you some awesome new hardware to review and blog about. As Featured Communities I wanted to give you first choice on what hardware you want. My recommendation is that you give the machines away as a prize for your site, but you are welcome to keep them or return them to me as well. It will take a while to order these and get them imaged, etc, but I expect to have them out to you in late December.”

So, to be clear, the choice of what to do with the hardware was up to the people receiving it. I decided I was going to keep the hardware for day to day testing because I had nothing high end enough to run Vista properly. Why were we getting this hardware? Well, reviewing/using Vista on older hardware is, to put it mildly, kind of painful. It really depends on what kind of hardware you have, but at CES 2006 I was in the room when many of the Featured Communities were talking about how the new beta build of Vista required a dual-layer DVD and how many of them lacked the proper hardware to read/write dual-layer DVDs. Many of the people in that room are hobbyist bloggers, pay for things out of their own pocket, and some don’t even have ads on their sites. Most are not like me, doing this for a living. So for these people to write about Vista, someone at AMD and Microsoft thought they needed new hardware – which isn’t an unfair assumption at all. I’ve been testing Vista on a low-end box, 3.2 Ghz CPU, 1 GB of RAM, older AGP video card…because I didn’t want to lose productivity by deploying Vista on my main work computers (which are more powerful). So I welcomed the chance to test Vista on some fast hardware. I already had two nice laptops, and since Digital Media Thoughts covers the MCE beat, I thought getting the Alienware DHS MCE would be the best choice – especially since it was a horizontal DVD-player style case that would fit right under my Allsop monitor stand holding up the Dell 26″ LCD TV.

A few days before we were supposed to get the units shipped to us, Aaron informed me that there was a switch and instead we’d be getting the a Velocity Micro unit. Ok, no big deal I thought. Soon after I received the specs for the unit and started to get really excited:

  • Case: XS1 Black Home Theater Enclosure with Remote and integrated IR receiver
  • Power Supply: 700 Watt Seasonic M12 Modular PSU 80Plus Certified SLI-Ready
  • Motherboard: Asus® M2N32 SLI Deluxe – NVIDIA® nForce™ 590 SLI MCP, PCI Express Motherboard with DDR2, socket AM2
  • AMD® Processor: AMD® Athlon™ 64 X2 5000+ Processor with Dual Core Technology, Socket AM2
  • CPU Cooling: ZALMAN CNPS 9500 AM2 2 Ball CPU Cooling Fan/Heatsink
  • DDR2 Memory: 2048MB Corsair™ XMS2 DDR2-800 Low Latency CL4 Extreme Memory with Heat Spreader (2×1024)
  • PCX Video: 256MB ATI® Radeon™ X1950 Pro*, 2 x DVI out, 1 x S-Video out w/HDCP
  • HDTV Tuner: ATI TV Wonder 650
  • HDTV Terrestrial Antenna: Zenith ZHDTV1 HDTV-UHF Digital Indoor Antenna
  • Audio: on-board High Definition 7.1 Channel Audio with dual S/PDIF out
  • Hard Drive: 2 x 400GB Seagate 7200.10 16MB Cache SATA/300 with NCQ in RAID 1 (400GB Total)
  • Optical Drive 1: 16x Lite On® DVD+/-RW Dual Layer Burner with LightScribe Labeling Technology
  • Floppy Drive & Media Reader: 8-in-1 Floppy Drive & Media Reader Combo, Black Bezel
  • Network Adapter: Dual Integrated 10/100/1000MBps Ethernet Network Adapters
  • WiFi Adapter: Integrated WiFi-AP Solo™ supports IEEE802.11b/g
  • FireWire: 2 Integrated IEEE 1394 FireWire Ports, 1 front & 1 rear
  • USB 2.0 Ports: 6 USB 2.0 Ports, 2 front & 4 rear

All in all, quite the killer system. The 700 watt power supply gave me pause though, because this was sounding like a big system, not the small unit I thought it was going to be. There was a customs delay and I didn’t get the unit before Christmas – it arrived on the afternoon of the 27th. The box was huge, and once I unpacked it I saw that the unit itself was equally huge. I was unpacking it slowly, taking pictures for my review and posting about getting this piece of hardware from AMD and Microsoft. Then things went downhill…
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I had been reading reports from people in the private Featured Communities newsgroup that their Velocity Micro systems had been showing up damaged – specifically, the hard drive cage was tearing free from the case during shipping. Knowing that Microsoft uses DHL, the Worst Courier Company Around, I wasn’t surprised to hear this. Sure enough, when I unboxed my system I heard something rattling around inside. The hard drive cage had torn lose. This wasn’t a problem when the system went from Velocity Micro to Microsoft in Seattle, so I hesitate to call this a flaw in the Velocity Micro design, but clearly whatever DHL did to this computer was too much for it to take.
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It looks like the screws were too shallow to take much force, but the unit must have been banged around a great deal with bend the drive cage like that (more pictures here). So here I was with a busted system on the evening of the 27th, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Oh, I also had a very disappointing experience with the three Dell 24″ wide screen monitors that showed up the same day, but that’s a post for another day. My wife and I went out for dinner with some friends – and ended up having a really bad experience there as well (fodder for another post). It wasn’t a good day.

The morning of the 28th is when I started to read about people getting upset about Microsoft and AMD sending us this hardware. It started to blow up all over the place. Some flippant comments gave people the wrong idea (come on Robert, you should know better), some were constantly-evolving-multiple-edit stories (the graphic up top there didn’t always say “Free”), and some were just full of angry people calling it a bribe. Some of the bloggers that received the units are new at this and getting beat up unfairly over it because they didn’t do or say exactly what some people thought they should have, which is unfair. All of this happened over Christmas as well, so anyone that thinks we should have been rushing to update our blogs instead of spending time with friends and family needs to get a life and some friends and family of their own.

Ed Bott has written a nice piece on the ethics of the whole thing (I’ll be writing about ethics and bloggers later on), but as for myself, it’s pretty simple: I’m answerable to the people that visit Thoughts Media sites because they’re the ones that support what I do. My readers know me and my style of honesty, and I’m confident that all of them will see this hardware for what it is: a tool that will help me do what I do better, and they’re the ones that will benefit from it in the end. I’m equally confident that anyone who looks back on the history of my writing (and involvement with Microsoft) will come to the same conclusion. You can’t just read three sentences about this situation and leap to conclusions – ethical judgements require information and careful thought, most of which has been lacking from many comments on other sites. I’ve always worked closely with Microsoft, and sometimes directly for them, but my objectivity and ability to be critical of them (or anyone else) has never been compromised, nor will it ever be.

What about that broken computer? As it stands now, I’m waiting for return instructions from Velocity Micro, who will be shipping me out a replacement unit – but I’m not likely to get it set up until after CES, so it’s going to be a while before I can really dig into this unit.

And there you have it. Comments welcome, but if you’re coming here to mindlessly troll, don’t expect me to fall for the bait.

Protecting Data on a Hard Drive the Hammer Way

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I use Acronis Drive Cleanser to wipe out hard drives (it overwrites every bit on the hard drive with 0’s and 1’s several times to stop anyone from recovering the data), but if you have a hard drive that is too borked to be wiped via software, you have a bit of a problem – because if you just toss it out, someone could retrieve it and if they thought the data was valuable enough, remove the platters and take your data. So, to prevent that, use the hammer method.

  1. Take hard drive
  2. Smash with medium to large size hammer
  3. Repeat until hard drive sounds like it’s full of sand when you shake it

Pictured above is the result of said process. The piece of crap Samsung hard drive died 60 days past its one year warranty, but it would still spin up so I knew the data was likely viable. The hammer method solved that!

More Massive Monitor Mayhem

My geek life just got more complicated. Remember I had ordered those three Dell 24 inch widescreen monitors? Well, Dell just released their new 22 inch widescreen monitors – and I got an email promo that says on the 26th and 27th they’ll be offering the monitors for $80 off, making them only $299 CAD each (that’s what the email says, though $80 off the published price of $399 is $319…). $299 for 22 inch widescreens! That’s crazy-cheap. So I’m in a quandary – I could get three of these 22″ widescreen monitors for $897 CAD versus the $2097 CAD for the three 24″ widescreens. And we’re only talking about two inches here. Big change in resolution though: the 24’s run at 1920 x 1200, the 22’s at 1680 x 1050. The 22’s aren’t as bright, and have a lower contrast ratio. But for the difference in price, would I notice? Hrm. Decisions, decisions. The monitor is so new I can’t find any reviews of it…

Geek Paralysis

There’s a certain type of “geek paralysis” that occasionally happens when I buy a new piece of technology, but then I hold off on installing/unboxing it because an issue has come up and I’m not sure I’m going to be keeping it. That lovely Epson R1800 printer I bought a couple of days ago? I’m in geek paralysis over it. As someone very correctly pointed out on Digital Media Thoughts when I posted about it, what about Vista drivers? Will Epson release Vista drivers for the R1800, or will they use this as an excuse to release the R1850 that’s identical but has support for Vista? Back in the pre-XP days, I remember companies doing exactly that: I was running Windows 2000 and went to upgrade to Windows XP and I think it was my scanner that lacked drivers for XP. The company released a near-identical scanner, only with support for XP, and never released drivers for the scanner I had. I’m concerned that the same thing is going to happen with my R1800. The printer was $549 CAD + GST + environmental disposal fee, a complete set of ink for it is about $140 CAD, and the paper…oh man, the paper. 20 sheets of 13 x 19″ glossy paper is $83.99 CAD – over $4 each! Check out Epson Canada’s pricing – I’m gagging on my tongue. Worse yet, it’s really hard to find this stuff – my local stores carry 13 x 19″ paper for HP and Canon printers, but not many for Epson – watercolour and some velvet-finish type. I found a place in town that carries pretty much all Epson papers – The Camera Store – but in my current state of geek paralysis I don’t want to buy any paper until I know if I’m going to keep the printer. I’ve got an email in to an Epson PR person, hoping that he’ll respond with something to indicate to me if I should keep this printer and wait for the Vista drivers (which Epson Canada tech support said were coming for all models of printers – but do I believe them?).

25 Megabit Internet Access Now Offered…

Shaw, my local cable company, is the provider for my Internet access and our home phone (think high-grade VOIP). I currently pay an extra $10 per month to get 10 megabit per second Internet access, but they’ve recently started offering a package the blows everything else I’ve seen away, both in price and in performance. They have a 25 megabit offering that costs $99 CAD per month – the question is, would paying for this actually enhance my day to day Internet activities? As you can imagine, I’m online day in, day out, and am typically doing ten things at once – email, FTP, streaming video/audio, you name it. So I need a lot of bandwidth – but there’s a limit that most servers will be able to kick out at a time. I’m downloading 330 MB of video files from one of my servers now, which isn’t serving up much at all late on a Sunday night, and I’m only getting 600 KB/s of total downstream bandwidth. If you do the math, that’s 0.6 megabytes per second, and my 10 megabit connection can theoretically dish up 1.25 megabytes per second. So would going for the 25 mbps connection benefit me? Not really. I see this 25 mbps offering as a stepping stone for eventual delivery of HD movies on demand. I’d be better off getting a DSL line and figuring out some way to bridge the cable and DSL connections together for added speed and redundancy. I know Robert X. Cringely did the same thing, but I have no idea how…

A Lust-Worthy Printer: The Epson Stylus Photo R1800

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A few hours ago I picked up an Epson Stylus R1800 for the great price of $549 CAD, normally $699 CAD. Long story short, I was using my local Wal-Mart to do some holiday greeting card prints, and the colour reproduction was horrific – we’re talking truly pathetic. I couldn’t even find anyone that knew anything about colour to talk to, so I gave up and printed the photos myself at home on my R200, which turned out great. The reinforced my belief that being able to create great-quality output at home was of great importance to me, and being able to do larger prints has always been on my geek lust list. It’s also part of the re-configuring of my work area to better serve my goals of upping the game of my photography.

So, tonight I drove across the city to the one place in Calgary that had this printer that was open late on a Sunday, and picked it up. I was looking for a printer (available locally) that would do 13 ” x 19″ prints, but also printed on CDs and DVDs – and the list of printers that met those requirements was one item long: the R1800 (unless my research was inaccurate). I was initially a bit hesitant on getting this printer because it was released in February 2005, so it’s a bit old, but Epson made no move to replace it with a newer version at Photokina 2006, so it seems it’s still the most modern printer of its type – especially for $549. I haven’t even un-boxed it yet, but I’m really looking forward to it! Much to my dismay, the store was out of Epson 13 x 19″ paper, because someone bought an R2400 the day before and all of the 13 x 19″ stock at the same time. So I’m off to another store tomorrow AM to pick up some big paper to make my first prints.

Alienware Superman Laptop

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Ok, this absolutely rocks: a Superman-themed Alienware notebook! The colouring and design of the case is simply awesome. I thought at first the logo was raised plastic or resin, but it turn out it’s flat and airbrushed. Still very cool. The laptop itself is no slouch – the base config sells for $2239 USD, but you can deck it out with a Core 2 Duo processor at 2.33 Ghz, two 200 GB hard drives in a RAID array, 2 GB of RAM and dual TV tuners…for a mere $4206 USD. This would be one fast notebook, and it looks so damn good! I’m not notebook shopping until Q1 2007 when the new Vista models come out, so I won’t even consider this…but it sure looks nice! I’m intrigues by the branding partnership here as well – it’s not something I’ve seen very much of, but I’d sure like to see more. I’d kill for a Wolverine-themed notebook. 😉

I Went a Little Monitor Crazy This Week

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Two days ago I did something kind of fun and scary at the same time: Dell had their 24″ wide screen monitors on sale for $699 CAD yesterday, and I ordered three of them. Yes, three – that’s 72 inches of monitor goodness. Why? Well, I’ve had my eye on an upgrade to my dual 20.1″ Dell LCDs for a while now, and I’ve been looking hard at how I use all my computers in my home office, and I think some different hardware will help me get more done, faster. The three Dell monitors are part of the plan…more details to follow later. I also opted to lease them, which is something I’ve only ever done with computer equipment once before. Three of these beauties for $58 per month over four years – I qualified for their best financing rate (9.99%), so it’s not too bad in terms of overall cost of leasing ($490.86). And, yeah, these are the same monitors that I bought back in August ($50 less now) and ended up returning a few days later. Am I a glutton for punishment? Maybe. I want big monitors, and I’m really hoping that four months later, Dell has addressed this issue. There aren’t any monitors on the market that compare to these for $699 each. I read up in their forums before ordering, and it seems like the latest batch of revision A03 monitors no longer have the banding problem. How am I going to use such big monitors? Well that’s a tale for another day…

[as a side note, I’m realizing now one of the dis-advantages of having a template with a non-white background…if I end up posting images designed for white backgrounds very often, the background might need to change]

When Software Should Stop Bad User Behaviour

In grinding through the 1614 email messages I had when I opened Outlook this morning, one email in particular stood out to me: it was an email with an attachment that was 31 megabytes in size. THIRTY-ONE FREAKING MEGABYTES. That’s beyond ludicrous, that’s well into the “will crash some email clients even if it happens to make it through and doesn’t kill your entire Inbox and cause all your other email to bounce” category. Now, the person sending it likely didn’t realize it was so big (I sure hope they didn’t), but here’s where smart software should come into play: an email client simply shouldn’t allow a user to send an email attachment that big without a polite warning, stating something such as “The attachment you’re trying to send is very large – it may not be received properly”. The threshold would be set fairly high – likely around 10 MB before it would trigger the warning – and there should be an option for users to ignore the warning if it’s something they do often and know that the person on the other end can accept large files. No one wants a return to irritating Clippy-like helpers, but there’s just no way that intelligent software should let users do something as foolish as send a 31 MB email attachment.