A few months ago I decided to retire my SN41GV2 Shuttle Box PC. The Shuttle Box, which is named Titan, has served me well as a home server, but I had grown tired of the noise level associated with its power supply fans. I worried too that after being upgraded to an Athlon XP 3200, it would one day overheat and take my data with it. Considering price as the most limiting factor, I set out to setup a new Windows Server and found some interesting choices along the way. For example new Intel based Shuttle Box models were intriguing, but the small form factor is limiting and not all that cheap. Intel based servers are fast and reliable, but their price ranges are high for all but entry level Celeron based systems. I have had good experiences with AMD’s Athlons, so I decided to give AMD another chance and looked for Opteron based servers.
The Flavors of AMD Opteron
Seems like AMD is quite popular in the small business server market. You have choices, like the HP ProLiant ML115 Server and at the time I was able to find a lowend Opteron based IBM System X server as well. Almost all of the Opteron servers used an NVidia based chipset and featured similar motherboard specs, so the only decision came down to price and extras. The HP ProLiant had one major difference on the Dell PowerEdge T105, it came with built-in SATA RAID. In end, I waited for Dell to have a sale and the price range ended up being significant. The T105 on sale goes for $349, while everyone else had a $500 or more price tag. At this price it is hard not to buy a Dell. Note that this does not include an operating system or any hardware upgrades like more memory and bigger hard drives. Do not forget to add $20 for shipping, so we are now at around $380.
For computer upgrades, you really cannot beat Newegg.com. They have great service and their site has pretty much everything you could ever want when it comes to components. I ended up ordering a 500GB Western Digital SATA hard drive for around $105. The only problem with buying an Opteron based machine is that it uses ECC memory and not regular DDR memory. This ended up costing me twice as much. Instead of the $40 or so for 2x1GB DIMMs, I had to pay around $80 for the same memory and only Kingston has DD2 800 memory ECC DIMMs. The same ECC DIMMs now cost around $50, so they have gotten cheaper in the last six months.
Eventually I will upgrade the DVD Drive and add another internal hard drive. I am still waiting for 2GB ECC DIMMs to become cheaper. The T105 can take up to 8GB of RAM.
Windows2003 Server Performance
At first I had a lot of problems with Windows2003 stability on the new server. Hard drive access especially was slower than expected. The fix ended up being to go into Device Manager and for disk drive, choose Optimize for Performance. This ended fixing the weird pauses I saw in Explorer. Comparing the system to the old Athon XP 3200, which ran at 2.2GHz, the dual core Opteron 1210 18GHz is more stable and application wise feels faster. Some apps do perform better than others, so performance is always relative to the application and if both cores are being utilized. Since this is a server, other than terminal server RDP, I really do not run much in the way of desktop applications. Apache 2 is definitely better on dual cores.
Overall the new server was a good bargain. It is quiet enough for the home office and while the size factor is that of a normal tower, it is very expandable compared to a small form factor PC. I guess it is true, you can’t beat Dell on price.
I recently got a new 2007 Intel Mac, which I have yet to review, but which I already updated. Apple has a reputation for gouging customers on extra memory configurations, (much like every other computer maker), and even though Apple now sells their computers with at least 1GB of RAM, this proves to be insufficient for Mac OS X 10.5 at least. However with today’s memory prices, you can easily find a good deal on DDR2 667MHz SO-DIMMS. The best deal I found was from NewEgg: 2GB Transcend DDR2 667MHz SO-DIMM for $36.99. When purchased there was also a $10 Mail-In Rebate that cut the price to $26.99, (with $4.99 extra for shipping). The aluminum Intel iMacs can handle up to 4GB of RAM, so if you do not mind throwing away the original 1GB DIMM, you can max out your iMac for less than $80.
I gave up on inkjet printers a long time ago, and have been using an Epson 5700i Laser printer for years now. It finally ran out of toner a month ago and I was without a printer for the first time.
A printer is one of those things you never really think about. While printer makers have tried to market printers as multi-function devices, photograph printers, and anything else they can think of, in reality you just really need an affordable monochrome laser printer that works with your current computer setup. Color laser printers are actually now hitting the $400 range, but toner refills are quite expensive and having to replace multiple toner colors, makes color printing three times more expensive than monochrome.
In my case, the Epson 5700i was due for replacement. My home network had grown to encompass multiple Macintosh and Windows machines, so I needed a printer that could reside on the network and accept print jobs from both Mac OS X and Windows machines. While there are many brands to choose from: Brother, Samsung, HP, and Epson to name a few, I decided on the Lexmark E240N, as the most appropriate solution for a small multi-platform home network.
In the printer world, HP is the number one printer company. If you absolutely want great quality, you need not look elsewhere. However if you have price concerns and are trying to get the most for your dollar, HP printers cost more and have less features. This becomes rather obvious when you try to find an HP printer with network capability in the $300 range. This made me consider Lexmark, because they are known for their printers and not much else, and even Dell sells Lexmark printers exclusively.
The feature that makes the E240N stand out is the built-in print server. Just connect the printer via Ethernet to your router or hub, and you have an instant network printer. For Windows, you can print in PCL6 and for Mac OS X, you can print in emulated Postscript Level 3 or Level 2. The print server is accessible via a web-page interface, but you really will not need to access the print server interface at all. The IP address of the printer is DHCP enabled, but you can install an IP setup utility and change the printer to a specific static IP address.
The E240N prints 1200 DPI x 1200 DPI and can print about 27 pages per minutes. The DPI is defaulted to 600 to save toner, but you can set it to 1200. There is a manual feed tray that you can use to print envelopes and transparencies. When printing envelopes it is best to use a high quality envelope, as thinner quality envelopes will tend to curl with the heat of the printer. To use the manual feed option, you print in your application and then the indicator light on the printer will notify you it is ready to accept via the manual feed tray.
The printer comes standard with 32MB of memory, but it will accept a 64MB printer SO-DIMM for a total of 96MB of memory. Printer drivers are available for Windows98 thru WindowsXP, Linux, and Mac OS X. Lexmark does not include any USB cables or Ethernet cables. The included toner is only a starter unit that is rated for half of what the standard toner cartridge is rated for.
The only annoyance I have experienced with the E240N is that every now and then it will wake itself up and adjust itself. The noise is not unusually load, it is just that it is a bit alarming when working at night or in a quiet office. Space can be a problem too, seeing how all network printers tend to be quite large. In comparison the E240N is a bit smaller than a comparable HP network printer, but it does take up some space. If space is a concern the Lexmark E120N is a small compact laser printer with more conservative features. When I was comparing prices, the E120N is actually cheaper if you purchase it from Lexmark directly, but the E240N is a better bargain if bought through an online store such as Newegg.com.
My first computer in college was a Macintosh LC III. The hard drive that came with it was 80MB only and I remember having a stack of floppies around for backup. Nowadays I carry most of my essentials on a SanDisk Cruzer Micro; this tiny flash drive is pretty incredible when compared to that 80MB hard drive. It features 1GB of space, which currently leaves me plenty of room for data files and programs. At the same time it is absolutely tiny and easy to carry. Although I have had other USB flash drives, I personally prefer the Sandisk Cruzer Micro for three reasons: the first being it’s physical size, the second has to do with the rubber casing which makes it easy to handle, and the last reason is the U3 software that makes it easier to manage portable applications.
The U3 Drive
U3 is really a platform which some flash drive manufacturers use to make their drives more appealing. These flash drives, usually referred to as smart drives come preformatted in two partitions. One partition automatically loads the U3 Launcher application and the main partition is for your program and document storage. The Launcher sets up a U3 icon on the Task Bar for you to click on. Think of it as a second Start Menu.
Clicking on the U3 icon will bring up the Launchpad as shown above (shown with third party applications already installed). Some smart drives come with third party applications already setup. SanDisk does not come with any third party applications. They include only their CruzerSync software, for which they sell a Pro version upgrade on their website for. Most U3 applications are just repackaged applications that are retrofitted to work on the U3 platform. This also means that most U3 apps are actually commercial applications that you have to purchase from the Software Central site. Although most opensource applications like Firefox are being ported, see Firefox Goes Portable.
The U3 Launchpad
The best features of the Launchpad is that it makes portable software easy to install, launch, and maintain. SanDisk’s implementation of the U3 system is also excellent. Unlike other vendors (like BestBuy’s GeekSquad brand), SanDisk actually updates the U3 software via a software update feature. Their last update, updated the Launchpad’s theme to a brushed metal background similar to Apple’s Safari.
There are however some downsides. The most annoying one is that the Launchpad sometimes refuses to install or interferes with your other mapped drives. So far I have not seen this documented anywhere, but the fix is actually pretty simple. The problem appears to be caused by a conflict between the last mapped drive in Windows, this is sometimes a CDROM drive, or a substituted drive mapping. The solution is to open up Computer Management, which is under the Start Menu – Settings – Control Panel – Administrative Tools. Under the Storage section you will find Disk Management. Right-click the removable disk partition for the flash drive and choose Change Drive Letter and Paths…, and then click on the Change button. Change the drive letter to a higher letter. For example if your CDROM drive is drive D or E, choose F or I for your flash drive partition. Once you make this change, just restart Windows and the Launchpad should install correctly and no longer mess up your CDROM drive mappings.
If you are trying to use the Micro Cruzer or any other U3 smart drive with VirtualPC, it simply won’t work. I think it is because of the USB port that VirtualPC emulates. Then there is the fact that the U3 system only works on Windows, so Linux and Mac OS X users simply will not be able to use the Launchpad at all. I experienced some problems on Windows 2003 Server as well.
In all I am quite happy with the SanDisk Cruzer Micro. It is a durable flash drive with some nice features, and even if you don’t use the U3 system, there are plenty of portable versions of Firefox to use with it. My personal favorite is PortableApps Firefox. The only thing I wish SanDisk would do to improve on it would be to include more applications with it.
Other Recommended SanDisk USB Drives