SWAGWATCH: Oakley Laptop Bag from AMD

Given how sensitive some people are in the blogosphere, I thought it might be a fun experiment to keep track of all the swag, review gear, and other assorted sundries that come my way over the next couple of months. It might be enlightening for some people if they saw how much, and what sort of things, come the way of an online reviewer type such as myself.


Above we have a package that appeared out of the blue from AMD – likely related to the Velocity Micro MCE promotion. The bag is quite nice – very high quality, and it stores a laptop vertically, which is one type of bag I actually don’t have (I own around 20 laptop bags/pouches). They also sent along a combo four port USB hub that has an integrated ethernet cable, along with a separate four port travel hub. Both look pretty cheap, but I’ll keep ’em for spares or give them away on Digital Media Thoughts.

Which Superhero Are You?

I always swore that I’d never use this blog for posting every random lame survey I did (or was asked to do), but being a former comic book geek I felt this was appropriate. How much of a comic book geek am I? On New Years Eve we had three other couples over and we were discussing the trailer for Spiderman 3 and how cool it looked. Someone said that Venom was in it, and I patiently explained (without rolling my eyes even!) that the black “costume” is really an alien symbiote and Venom is created when said symbiote bonds with Eddie Brock, who’s name they dropped in the first Spiderman movie…thus setting up Spiderman 4 for a possible Venom storyline (depending on how Spiderman 3 ends of course). Yes, I’m a coming book geek. So who was I when I took the test?

You are Superman

Green Lantern
Iron Man
The Flash
Wonder Woman
You are mild-mannered, good,
strong and you love to help others.

Also, through no advance coordination, when my wife Ashley took the test, guess who she was? Supergirl! We’re sooo cool. šŸ˜‰

They also have super-villain test, which of course I didn’t take because I’m super-hero minded, and Superman after all. Ok, ok, I know my friend Mitch would want me to take the test, so here’s who I am as a super-villain…

You are Lex Luthor

Lex Luthor
Dr. Doom
The Joker
Dark Phoenix
Mr. Freeze
Green Goblin
Poison Ivy
A brilliant businessman on a quest for world domination and the self-proclaimed greatest criminal mind of our time!

Isn’t it interesting that my “hero” side and my “villain” side are the arch-nemesis of each other? I’m not sure I want to think too hard about what that means… šŸ˜‰

When It Rains It Pours: More Technology Dysfunction

As the saying goes, when it rains it pours. In the past 45 days, I’ve had one hard drive fail, had a trashed computer show up at my door, and had three defective Dell monitors come my way. Those three things are irritating, but not show-stoppers, because they didn’t impact the technology I currently have in place. Yesterday, something else happened that really made the other things seem insignificant. Sunday afternoon I put in the DVD for Titan’s Quest to play an online game with my friend Tim who’s out in London, Ontario. The game booted up, I created a game, then started checking the game quests since I hadn’t played in a couple of weeks. My cursor suddenly froze and the game locked up – I raised an eyebrow, wiggled the mouse a bit to confirm that it was locked up, then waited. It didn’t un-freeze, so I was thinking a video driver crash. I pressed ALT+F4 to kill the game. Nothing happened. I pressed CONTROL+ALT+DELETE to bring up the Task Manager. Nothing happened. I waited another 30 seconds to see if the CPU was going to acknowledge the keystrokes, then punched the reset button on the Shuttle SD11G5. Nothing happened. At this point my other eyebrow raised, because now I was seeing a hardware malfunction. I press and held the power button – again, nothing. Getting a bit more concerned, I pulled the power cable from the back of the unit. I waited about 10 seconds, plugged it back in, then booted up the machine. I breathed a sigh of relief when the machine booted up, but when I saw that the BIOS boot text was partially purple, I knew something was very wrong.


The only time I’ve seen things like that is when a video card has gone bad, or is about to completely fail. What was even more peculiar though was what I saw when I examined the voltages reported by the motherboard.


I’ve never seen anything like THAT before: 4 degree Celcius CPU temperature? .9 volts on the 12 volt rail? Windows XP would also not boot past the logo screen. I went out to a local store and picked up a cheap eVGA 7300GS PCI Express video card and swapped it out. The video card problem went away – no more purple characters, no more voltage problems. Thrilled, I thought I had solved my problems – I was wrong. I didn’t un-install any drivers, I just put in the new card and booted up the PC. I was working in Windows (it booted up OK) and the machine would lock up. I did this fairly consistently, so I rebooted the machine, un-installed the nVidia drivers, rebooted, and re-installed the newest drivers. Things seemed to be ok, so I left the machine at the Windows XP desktop and went back up to the New Years Eve part we were having at our house. This morning I woke up and when I checked on the machine, I saw this:


Not good. Even worse, when I rebooted the machine it became even more unstable – I couldn’t boot into Windows XP any longer. I started to poke around at the guts of the Shuttle, checking for loose cables and whatnot. I ran memtest86 and it locked up after 5 minutes – but no RAM errors were reported. I swapped out the 2 GB of RAM anyway, replacing it with a single 256 MB stick, and ran the test again. This time it locked up after 20 seconds. At this point, the Shuttle wouldn’t even boot – now when I press the power button all I get is the fan kicking up to full RPM and staying there…and nothing coming up on the screen. I’m thinking a bad power supply possibly, but that’s hard to debug because the SD11G5 uses a custom external power supply that I don’t have a spare of. It could also be a fried motherboard, or even a bad CPU. At this point I’m out of ideas and tomorrow I’ll likely be calling Shuttle – but I’m not sure if the unit is even still under warranty, or if there’s anything cost-effective they could do even if it was. I may build a new machine based on the transplanted parts of this computer, but without being able to test each component first, that may be another disaster waiting to happen.

I sure hope this isn’t an indication of how the rest of my 2007 is going to go with regards to technology! Maybe I should have been a dirt farmer after all…

Another Sad Dell Monitor Story


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:


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: AsusĀ® M2N32 SLI Deluxe – NVIDIAĀ® nForceā„¢ 590 SLI MCP, PCI Express Motherboard with DDR2, socket AM2
  • AMDĀ® Processor: AMDĀ® Athlonā„¢ 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 Corsairā„¢ XMS2 DDR2-800 Low Latency CL4 Extreme Memory with Heat Spreader (2×1024)
  • PCX Video: 256MB ATIĀ® Radeonā„¢ 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 OnĀ® 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 Soloā„¢ 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…

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.

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


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

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.