Saturday, November 27, 2010

. . . Logitech Revue

Have you seen this video on YouTube??

Yesterday the Fed Ex man dropped off a package that I have been expecting -- it contained the Logitech Revue unit that I am supposed to review as it is one of the feature gadgets in this year's Gadgets and Gifts for Gamers feature piece.

If you do not know it, the Revue is a device that turns your TV in to a fully net-connected web and media browser as well as providing access to Google TV, and other online TV content. One of its stand-out features is that it really displays YouTube videos well.

I have to admit that I was not expecting much -- I remember WebTV and while that may be old tech, it left me with a very hard to defeat opinion that TV's do not make good web surfing interfaces. OK, so I have to change that opinion now, because the Revue is the bomb! It is not just amazing, it is -- combined with its keyboard with touch pad interface -- simply amazing. I fully expect to see these as standard equipment in hotels all over the world by this time next year, that is all I am saying.

Back to my story -- so I set it up, patched it, and used the Revue for a few hours yesterday, just to put it through the basic paces, and a random search of videos turned this up:

Every now and then I come upon a video on YouTube that causes me to go glassy-eyed and sort of all hit with a hammer stunned -- not so much that someone thought of it, but that they made it in the first place. This is one of those videos. It is so self-depreciating for the bloke that made it, and at the same time so funny, that I feel bad and amused at the same time. Conflicting feelings aside, you really need to watch this one...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

. . . Fall Feelings

I woke this morning to the sound of the wind blowing against the side of the house, rattling the screen just enough so that I was able to identify the sound, reminding me that it is once again time to pull down all of the screens and store them in the shed, and put up the storm windows that will add a layer of glass and air between the inside and the outside. There was a chill in the room... I was going to need to turn the heat on.

That was the thought floating in my head when I realized from the number of warm lumps pressed against me that, at some time in the night, my dog Calvin and our three cats, Pixel, Midnight, and Lightning, had joined me on the bed.

They were each curled up in their own special way, reluctant to be disturbed in their warm furry sleepy goodness. Commander Calvin had burrowed under the covers and had assumed his "I am a doughnut!" shape pressed against the backs of my knees, while Pixel (a 19 year old American Shorthair cat) had somehow managed to position himself between my pillow and shoulder, partially covered by a fold of the down comforter.

The two sisters, Midnight and Lightning, occupied the end of the bed by my feet, and were curled up together for shared warmth -- an unusual position for them as they are more cat-like in their aloof haughty ways. They must have really been cold to share the same few cubic feet with Commander Calvin willingly...

Clearly sensing that I was now awake, Calvin emerged from under the covers, the still-sealed package of Jack Links Premium Cut Teriyaki Beef Jerky chunks in his mouth. After he negotiated the cat pile he made his way to my pillow and dropped the package in my chest, clearly saying: "Oh good, you are awake now. Would you mind terribly opening this package? There are treats inside and I want them."

At this point Pixel noticed the package too -- though the jerky really is treats for Calvin, our dean of all things Cat is not above having a taste or two when he can, and this morning he decided that was a good idea. As I struggled with the package, which was wet and slippery from someones drooling on it all night -- it was with the insistent thwap-thwap-thwap of a tail smacking me on the arm, and a dachshund nose pushing my fingers this way and that, you know, to "help" me in getting it open.

Pixel stretched in this amazing transformation move that somehow makes him twice as long as he normally is, paws stretched in every direction, big yawn, blink, yawn, blink, then an inquisitive "Bleeerrtt?" which roughly translated means "Why is this taking so long?!"

I get the package open and give them each a piece of jerky, and they happily munch, the distinctive aroma of the teriyaki making me think about a Burrito Supreme from Taco Bell, but as we do not have a Taco Bell conveniently nearby it will have to remain simply thought. The girls are ignoring us -- they do not want jerky, they want my wife to wake up, and until that happens they are content to stay right where they are, curled into a warm pile of cat.

Suddenly the bump on the other side of the bed moves, and it is as if time suddenly freezes. Four sets of animal eyes lock onto that motion, as I become a thing to be ignored. I can actually hear the mental telepathy based conversation between them...

"She is awake?"

"I believe that she is!"

"Oh most excellent! The life giver will present us with feasts. The smelly one has served its purpose!"

They move as one to the other side of the bed and begin prodding, poking, and making friendly noises to the lump.

"Good morning!" my wife says.

"Indeed it is," I agree.

Monday, November 22, 2010

. . . Fallout: New Vegas

One of the strange aspects of playing Fallout 3 was the way it made you feel nostalgic for an era that came and went long before you were born. I do not know how the developers managed to do that, but they did it in spades.

Even allowing for the fact that as a child of the 70's (OK technically I am not really a child of the 70's because I was one of those kids who was sort of half-in the 70's half-in the 80's, but I was there man, I remember the 70's) there is a tacit connection to the era of the 1950's. What am I talking about? Well, there is an established trend in our culture with respect to fashion, TV, and to a lesser extent, cinema, that looks back 20 years.

The streets of New Vegas -- go armed or go home!

In the 00's the 80's were the nostalgic era -- though having lived in that era I have to wonder about how the writers of TV shows chose to reflect upon that decade. Of course they focused upon the Breakfast Club stereotype, but the truth is that the 80's was a cold and vicious decade that is best summarized by one word: Greed. But I am getting off-track here.

In the 1970's the era of nostalgia was the 1950's, which goes a long way towards explaining why Happy Days and Lavern and Shirley were major hits on TV, why retro TV was Andy Griffin and The Honeymooners, and why a number of 50's staples in the comic book world made a reappearance. Suffice it to say that the adult TV watching generation at whom this nostalgia was targeted got to see the best parts of an era that otherwise can be defined by one word: Fear.

The developers who created Fallout 3 dialed right into that vibe and then nailed it like a Malibu surfer on a glassy 5 foot noon-thirty swell on an otherwise flat day. In the process of building the atmosphere they picked iconic music, images, and perhaps more significant, cultural fears and combined them into horror entertainment.

Fallout: New Vegas takes this perfect combination of elements and doubles its impact, its effect, and its ability to haunt you long after you turned the power on your console off and try to do other life-related things. It does not help that anytime a song from the 50's pops up on the radio or TV you are reminded of the game, practically everything reminds you of the game! Spooky.

It started slow but...

When I first slotted the game it started slow, but very quickly ramped up the tension when I found myself being executed by a gunshot to the face. Not the best way to begin your day, clearly, and yet there you have it. I would not want it any other way.

Now to be fair, a bullet in the face is not always fatal -- even in real life -- but you would think that a bullet in the face followed by being buried in a not-so-shallow grave would prove to be a fatal combination, and yet... Not so much.

Let me be candid here -- having you "lose" your memory as a result of your injury is a slick way to handle the start of this epic adventure. Bear in mind that last game we began by being born, and then observing some of the character shaping events of your young life before jumping in at adolescence and taking over, but then in the last game we were born and raised in a Vault, and that is not the case this time around because -- this is so cool -- the area of the country we were born in was not so badly ravaged as the east coast was by the nuclear war!

Now that is not to say that the Great War did not have any impact at all -- it did, whoa baby! Having traveled through that part of the country, and even on those roads, through those towns, it is painfully clear to me just how destructive the war was on the region, and yet once you get past the rubble of the urban landscape and reach the center of what used to be the casino district -- or as the locals refer to it, the Strip -- you are left with a very vivid and clear impression that you are in Las Vegas!

That is really as far as I have gotten in the game at this point. I am getting over a very bad bit of illness -- about a week of which I was not in my right mind -- so you should probably take that into consideration as far as my warm and fuzzy feelings about the game go. Still, fever or not, I am impressed!

This promises to be a long and interesting journey.

- - - - -
Standard Disclaimer: No ghouls or mutant were harmed in the filming of this video game.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

. . . Subscription Fees

In the past 24 hours I have received -- at last count -- 43 email messages from readers who are concerned with the new pay-access plan that is now in place at the Cape Cod Times. I understand the concern that this is causing, but it is not as bad as it may seem.

First, it is not completely restricted to pay-for-access -- there are actually three levels of access:

(1) Unregistered Access -- visitors who have not registered an account at the paper are allowed to access up to 3 articles a month for free, based upon the computer that they access the paper from. So if you access the paper's site from your work system, you get three articles, and then if you access it from home, you have three more.

(2) Registered Access -- Visitors who have registered an account at the paper's site have access to 10 articles every month. Registering for an account is free, but requires you to provide a valid, working email account from which you can verify the registration.

(3) Subscriber Access -- Visitors who have registered a free account and then chosen to subscribe (pay) have unrestricted access to the online version of the paper each month.

That basically sums up the situation. The subscription service only applies to the newspaper content on the site -- the articles and content that are from the print version of the paper -- and not the regular online content, like the Blogs, and the chat section.

It may feel like this is a hassle, but the reality is simply that charging for access to the content on the site is a necessary evil -- in this economy there are more people accessing the online version of the newspaper than there are people who subscribe to the print version, that is a reality. The Cape Cod Times resisted moving to a pay-for-access format for a long time -- much longer than most papers in our region.

On the flip-side of the coin is the fact that a paid subscription base also means that they will be able to expand the content that is published in the online version to be more in parity to the print version, so in that respect, this is a good thing.

Change is often a disturbing element of life, and like a lot of people, I am not a big fan of abrupt change -- and this move felt to me like it was abrupt despite the fact that I knew it was coming a month ago. Still, I am hoping that it turns out to be a good thing! Anything that improves the economic health of the paper is a good thing in my eyes, and honestly, I can see the day coming when most newspapers are not newspapers, but websites.

With the increasing popularity of digital electronic publishing, hand-held book and newspaper readers, and the inevitable expansion and refinement of that technology, it really is only a matter of time before the printed newspaper disappears from the American landscape. I will be sad to see that day come, and I do believe that this change is the first harbinger of that change, but as a wise man once said, you cannot stop progress.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

. . . How I became a Webmaster

In 1994 if you asked me my profession, I would have instantly answered that I was a Network Security Engineer.

If you asked me to describe what it was that I did for a living, I would have said that I design and secure networks, test the security of networks, and advise companies on methods that they can use, and policy that they should adopt, to keep their business network secure.

At some point in the Summer of 1994 that all changed.

At the time I worked through an agency that provided technical expertise -- for a price -- to mostly corporate clients.

XYZ Corp might have had a bad security compromise, and be in need of an expert to come in, trace the compromise to its source, and implement whatever changes had to be made to protect them from it ever happening again. In the process they usually also asked for a complete security profile of their network in case there were other holes that they did not know about. In a nutshell, that is what I did -- and I liked it!

The first two weeks of the month I might be commuting to Boston, and the last two weeks I might be in Denver or LA. Business sometimes took me overseas -- mostly Europe and Asia -- and it was very cool... Until I learned that we were going to be parents. As I contemplated the idea of being on the road two to three weeks out of every month, while my pregnant wife sat at home waiting to have our baby, it was no longer as appealing as it had been.

Then I thought about how much I would not like it that I would be traveling instead of spending time with my family, because my wife would not be able to go with me on trips anymore -- once you have kids it changes the way you have to live.

I realized that I needed a regular job; a place to work where I went to the same place, and where I worked predictable hours, so I told my agent at the company that represented me to the market, and she went to work looking for a gig that fit the bill. A months after the New Year she called me and said she had something -- maybe.

It paid a little more than I was averaging on the road minus per diem, and while it was not network security per se, it did require a strong background in that area.

"What is the job?" I asked.

"Webmaster for a game company," she replied.

"Web what?! What the hell is a Webmaster?!" I asked, and she told me.

Webmasters -- The people behind the curtain

Back then a Webmaster was much more than the person who organized and oversaw the creative side of a website. You have to remember that in the Summer of 1994 the World Wide Web was still pretty new, and the position of Webmaster was not a formal and well understood job.

At some companies the Webmaster was only responsible for writing the code that was the website, while at others they were also responsible for overseeing the web server, securing the companies net connection, and anything else that a resource manager responsible for what was really a new communications media could be convinced was part of their job!

The company that had contacted her was looking for more than just a person who understood how to configure a web server, or new how to build a web page. They needed someone who could do all of that, sure, but also put together a team of people to help construct what was, arguably, the first fully-automated web-based platform for Fantasy Sports.

The company was called Replica Corporation, and prior to moving toward a web-based platform, they provided their gaming service via computerized phone systems. The gamers would call the number for their "service" and using the standard phone keypad, log in, negotiate a series of menus, and make the choices they wanted to make for the game that they were playing, which for Replica meant either Fantasy Sports like football and baseball, or Fantasy Stock Market games.

It sounded like a good fit for me -- I had an advanced knowledge of web servers and the daemon, and a fair bit of experience with building web sites -- but mostly they were either personal, or volunteer efforts, because at that point the web had not caught on and simply was not the destination that it would become only a year later.

She set me up for an interview... The company created Fantasy Sports and Investing Games, from Sports Illustrated Fantasy Football to the Fidelity Investment Challenge, and it sounded like an interesting place to work!

My Introduction to the Web

In April 1991, I found myself backpacking on the Franco-Swiss border and badly in need of a place to stay the night. I had failed to make reservations at the youth hostel where I thought I was going to stay, unaware that in that part of the world reservations were a necessity, and the cost of a hotel for the weekend would have rivaled the price I had paid for my plane ticket to Europe!

Fortunately I remembered that a friend from university had managed an internship at the Conseil EuropĂ©en pour la Recherche NuclĂ©aire -- also known as CERN -- or what is now called the European Organization for Nuclear Research. After a few false starts — CERN is more a city than it is a facility — I managed to track her down.

Grace is a physicist, and a kind and gentle soul who was happy to put me up for a few days in her flat and be my tourist guide that weekend. It was a Friday morning and she needed to be at work, so we met in front of the market and she parked me in her flat, showed me how to operate the TV, the espresso machine, and the water closet, and hurried off to do that physicist thing she did at CERN.

Bored, I turned on the TV, but every show was in French, which I do speak, but rather slowly and not with a vocabulary suited to daytime TV. The folks on the telly were speaking so fast I got about one word in three if I was lucky, so I made myself an espresso and searched the well-packed bookshelf for something to read, certain that I would find a book more entertaining than the TV.

Everything in the bookshelf that was printed in English related to physics — except for one shelf full of bodice-ripper romance novels -- and I was not that bored!

Among the shelf after shelf of books in languages I did not read at all, or at least not well, I finally found one spiral-bound book that was in English; entitled "Information Management: A Proposal" by a bloke named Tim Berners-Lee, who it turned out worked at CERN.

Tucked into this book was a packet consisting of a proposal for use and notes from what I believe was a presentation on the use of this new software. As I read the book I experienced my first epiphany of my life — the book was about building a hypertext standard and a client-server model that would be called the "World Wide Web." When I finished reading it, my first thought was, "This will change the way people use the Internet!" My second thought was, "I cannot wait to see what this looks like!"

That weekend I had the chance to see the Web on one of the NeXT Slabs (a workstation computer that could also function as a server that was designed and build by Steve Jobs after he left Apple). The Web Server was a NeXT Cube, and both the server and client software was created at CERN, largely by a man named Tim Berners-Lee, who moved from CERN to a position at MIT later that year.

I did not get to meet Berners-Lee at CERN -- though I would have the opportunity to meet him a few years later at MIT and during the 4th International World Wide Web Conference in Boston, where I was a member of the MBone Team.

The point to all this is that I learned about the Web in that tiny flat in Switzerland, and a few years later after I acquired my own NeXT Slab, I actually ran my own web server, and created a few web sites. Did that qualify me to be a Webmaster? Well, sort of...

The Interview at Replica

As is often the case, there was more to this job than was instantly obvious. When I showed up for my interview it was with the company CFO and CTO, who sat me down in a meeting room and told me all about what they did there -- Fantasy Gaming -- and what they hoped to do on the World Wide Web very soon. They asked a lot of questions about my background, but what surprised me was that they seemed to be more interested in my abilities as a Systems and Network Engineer than as a Webmaster...

As the conversation moved towards the end of the interview I grew a little suspicious -- there was nothing concrete that I could point at and cry "foul!" but there was something slightly off. As we were shaking hands and saying our good bye's I asked them point-blank: "You are not in critical path on anything, are you?"

"Oh no, not at all," they lied, with sincerity.

I went away thinking that the interview had gone well. I knew that they had a dozen other people to interview, so I did not expect to hear from them any time soon, but the following day I got a call from my agent: Replica wanted to hire me.

"They want you," she said. "But not as a contract. They want you as salary, and they are willing to pay us our buy-out fee," she added. I whistled, then clucked my tongue. The buy-out to hire talent away from that agency was $50,000 and even in 1994 that was a lot of money.

"Are they serious?" I asked.

"They want you to start tomorrow," she answered.

My First Day at Replica lasted 336 hours

After all of the paperwork was signed -- my contract, my salary papers, insurance and other legal papers that included a stack of NDA's, I was shown my office, and asked what I needed as far as computers were concerned, both for myself, and for my staff. What staff? I asked. Why, the staff you will need to hire -- you have to do that, it is part of your job, they said.

As I sat at my mostly barren desk making the list of the kit we would need, I also made a list of the staff that I would need to hire, and I only just finished that when the manager in charge of the database section came in and dropped a bomb in my lap.

He wanted to interface with me on how soon I expected to get an Internet Connection in to the building, and whether or not the existing network would work for that, and would we be hosting our own email? I must have looked odd, I am sure I looked confused -- and then he said, "Man, I don't know how you are going to manage getting that game built and deployed in less than 6 weeks! You must have brass balls or something!"

A few targeted questions revealed that not only was Replica in critical path on a project -- it was now MY project, and they had a contractual obligation to a major Financial Services company to get that game up and running in one day less than 6 weeks! They had known that for half a year, they just only got around to hiring the Webmaster that week!

I was in trouble. I instantly understood that. I went directly to the CTO to get the true word -- how bad was the situation? Very bad.

I needed to put together a game that had precisely Zero lines of code already written, test it, get it online, and then make sure it worked under load. But before I could do that, I had to get them an Internet connection -- they had no Internet services. Oh, and I needed to get staff as well, to actually build the game!

That night I went home for the last time in the next two weeks -- when I showed up for work the following morning I had my sleeping bag and a duffel full of the things I would need, and I lived in my office.

I slept under my desk, and I ate take-away food from nearby restaurants. The space that we were in had previously had a gym attached to it, so there was a large bathroom with showers down the hall, and it had a decent lunch room, but not the sort where you could cook anything more sophisticated than a microwave meal.

I was hired on a Tuesday. Using connections from previous jobs and contacts at Verizon, I was able to bypass the usual roadblocks that are put up by the provisioning office, and get an order for a full T-1 line and Internet connection fast-tracked for installation three days later on Friday afternoon. I quickly revised the list that I had written on needed hardware, and I also revised the list on needed staff, changing it from what I wanted to what I knew I needed.

The server I chose was a Sun Netra Server, which had to be ordered through an authorized Sun Computer distributor, but that too was fast-tracked for delivery on Friday. I put the orders in for the PC hardware, expediting that through the CTO's office, and then I drove over to U-Do-It Electronics and bought the tools I needed, and a box containing 500 feet of CAT-5 wire, a dozen surface-mount boxes and all of the kit that went with it.

I spent Thursday wiring the office that I had been assigned -- a room about 30 feet by 40 feet in size sectioned off into six cubicles of varying sizes. Mine, for instance, was a little larger than the others, and had my desk and chair, and a love seat style couch, coffee table, and single matching upholstered chair in it, ostensibly for meetings. The couch was too small to be used as a bed, so when I slept it was under my desk, in or on my sleeping bag. I did not sleep much.

The PC's arrived late on Thursday, and I spent most of the afternoon and evening evening getting them installed on their respective desks, and hooked to our network, which was itself connected via a fiber backbone to a new switch in what was destined to be our server room -- a small area that was adjacent to the servers being used by the database and programming departments, and the client systems belonging to the IVR department.

At that point, Replica had about 200 computers on tables running the length of the building in four rows, staffed by part-time college students who would take the calls of the customers, and using the computer in front of them, enter their "moves" into the system. That was in addition to the automated telephone input and response system that was in the process of being phased out, to be replaced by the Internet.

Friday Arrives

When I woke up under my desk on Friday morning, I had a fully-functioning department with a staff of one -- me. On each of the six desks were two computers each -- one running Windows, one running Linux.

At the time I was partial to Slackware, so that is what was installed on the systems. We needed both -- the Windows boxes to interface with the existing network, and the Linux boxes for development. I was not sure what the staff would prefer -- Windows or Linux -- so I figured that having the option was the way to go. The Linux boxes were all configured for X11, and although we did not have an Internet connection at that point, could talk to each other and the DSN Servers I had put together using Slackware and deployed in the server room just fine.

The T-1 crew showed up early, and by 1 PM we had a fully-functioning Internet connection sitting behind a commercial grade firewall, with a DMZ containing our DNS servers and connections for our Web Server when it arrived. There was much rejoicing.

The folks from Sun showed up an hour later, and by 4:30 PM we had our web server deployed, tested, and functioning, but not connected to the Internet because it needed to be hardened and have the unnecessary services and ports closed. I could not do that immediately, because I had somewhere that I needed to be that afternoon.

-- 2600 The Hacker Quarterly --

At that time, in Boston, on the first Friday of every month, a colorful collection of characters gathered in the food court at the Prudential Center for the monthly 2600 Meeting. 2600 being 2600 the Magazine -- or 2600 the Hacker Quarterly as it was officially called. From all over the Boston area and points covering most of Eastern Massachusetts, parts of Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine, computer and phone hacking enthusiasts would gather to chat, view impromptu presentations, and be social.

After grabbing food and beverages, the meeting would come together in the far rear corner of the dining area, and while it was half social and half serious, it was all fun. We played games like Spot the Fed, and talked about more than just the latest issue of 2600 or what the people were up to in our group and the groups within our group. It was a different era -- much different than what you find today -- but more important than that, it was where I needed to be, because it was where I was going to recruit the core members of the Web Staff for Replica!

The first person that I "recruited" was Sean Hamor -- AKA Sciri -- one of the smartest and most capable net geeks I know. As soon as I arrived at the meeting I sat down next to him, and I asked him how he liked his job -- at the time he was working for the City of Boston or maybe it was the MBTA? Anyway, he was working as a temp -- and he hated his job.

"Quit," I said. "Today."

"I can't quit, I need the money," he explained.

"Quit. Come to work with me. I can get you three times what they are paying you -- maybe more," I said.

I am not sure if he believed me right then or not... I called the CFO and told him that I had found the first member of the Web Staff, and I needed to have him in the office, first thing Monday morning, ready to start, and what would that take?

He had to be interviewed. He had to fill out some papers. It was mostly formality, I was told. And that was true. Sean started to believe me as the call progressed. On Monday instead of showing up for work at the City, he showed up at Replica, had his interview, worked out what he wanted to be paid, and moved into his desk that day.

The second person I hired was a young woman named Window Snyder, who was a genius at code and fully grok'd the World Wide Web. Based upon their recommendations we hired a coder -- a bloke named Steve who would have been right at home on Haight-Ashbury Street in 1968 -- and Replica had its Web Team!

After Replica sold its online gaming assets and closed up shop, the team scattered to the four winds -- Sean went on to work for Lucent Technologies, and eventually ended up as Operational Systems Administrator for Canonical USA, which I understand is a place and position he likes a lot. Window took the job as network security boss at Mozilla, where she hardened my favorite browser, Firefox, before moving on to Apple Computer, where she is the Senior Security Product Manager. I do not know what happened to Steve... But that, in essence, is the story of how I became a Webmaster!

The team that I assembled pulled off a major miracle, building the game from scratch from outline to finished code in less than 5 weeks. We did the Sports Illustrated Fantasy Football game, the Fidelity Investment Challenge, and a half-dozen other projects before the company was shut down, having sold-off its game business for serious money.

That introduction to the world of All-Area Utility Webmaster served me well, and the skill and knowledge that I acquired in the process has proven useful at other jobs, and in the volunteer work that I have done and continue to do.

What is a Webmaster?

To this day I am still not sure what the answer to that question really is... Despite the fact that the World Wide Web is nearly 20 years old, the reality is that the position of Webmaster still means many different things depending on the company.

To my way of thinking the easy definition is this: The person who is responsible for the day-to-day operation, planning, content, and content deployment for a web server and site. That sounds about right.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

. . . Wiki's

Most citizens of the Internet think of Wikipedia when the subject of the wiki is brought up, though to be honest Wikipedia is a site that is viewed by most members of the media as a rather suspect and unreliable source of information. In fact it is often used as a zinger or joke when an editor asks for the source for a particularly salacious or damaging quote -- the sort of thing that you absolutely must be able to reply upon being accurate or risk a lawsuit -- to which the writer will nonchalantly reply: "Oh that? I saw it on Wikipedia!"

All joking aside, Wikipedia has done more to make the Wiki platform the success that it is than any other site or community, and that says something worth noting! If you are not familiar with what a wiki is, in a nutshell it is a program that is usually deployed on a web server that uses a database or databases that are filled with user-submitted information -- or pages -- to collect and present information on a given subject.

Specifically it is an attractive and easy to use front-end that serves as both the major element of the sites design, and its structure. The users of a wiki create an account, and then they are free to post pages to the wiki -- and of more significance -- edit the pages posted by another user. Why is that important?

In the case of Wikipedia -- which is an online interactive user-driven encyclopedia -- it means that if you come upon a page on that site that has incorrect information, rather than send an email to report it, you can if you choose, log in and correct the information yourself. Quite a powerful tool indeed, especially because the web browser itself is the basic tool by which the contents of a wiki are read and created!


The story of Wikipedia is one of those Internet success stories that are often brought up whenever a project is being pitched on an approach that has never been tried before. "This will be our Wikipedia!" is a phrase I have heard often in the past.

The site itself was not the first to implement the wiki as its structure -- that honor was pioneered by Ward Cunningham, who developed the first wiki in 1994. He used the wiki for his personal site and several sites that represented projects with which he was associated, but major success for the platform followed the creation of Wikipedia by Rick Gates, based upon the concept that was first proposed by Richard Stallman.

Originally conceived as a vehicle by which recognized experts in a given field or subject could generate content for the website Nupedia, the unique construct of the wiki format and its accessibility very quickly eclipsed Nupedia, and caused Wikipedia to spin-off as its own online encyclopedia site, as well as caused the creation of other related sites.

A side-effect of that success was the attention of the web world that was paid not just to the site -- which was wildly popular with surfers -- but also to the format, indirectly creating its own industry as individuals and groups set out to program their own take on the wiki with the improvements that they thought it needed. Today there are literally hundreds of different wiki programs -- some are naturally based upon the more successful offerings, while others are scratch-built to fulfill specific needs.

The idea behind the wiki is sound; it is one of the most efficient and best methods for creating and relating information, while allowing a large community to participate. While that is certainly one of the greatest strengths of the wiki as a platform, the fact that it is equally useful for a small group or even a single person to use to document and link information, and that it will run on any client that can use a web browser, well now there you have significant strength.

A Personal Wiki

The idea of a personal wiki -- of leveraging all of the advantages of the wiki platform for the management of personal or business data -- did not occur to me until quite recently I am embarrassed to admit.

Over the course of the past year I have been struggling with devising a way to manage what has become a large amount of diverse but related information in a manner that was not simply able to store it, but also make it instantly available to me. I needed to be able to create documents and then naturally link them together so that I could smoothly transition from one to another along a chain, a chain that often is very long.

I needed to keep track of information like the details on a video game, and then link that to my data on its publisher and developer, along with notes I take while playing the game to prepare for reviewing it. But I also needed to be able to associate the PR Representative -- whether they were an in-house employee of the publisher or worked for an agency, and there again was another galaxy of information that needed to be linked not just to the game but to other games. Add in what amounts to a dossier on the PR people that includes everything that I know about them, reports of meetings at events, phone call logs and reports, and more.

Initially I tried the traditional route -- notes taken on pads and notebooks, file-o-fax, and the classic address book -- but the simple enormity of the information quickly rendered that unusable as a system for information management. Sure, I had the information, but I had to remember where it was written down and then access it.

My next stab at it involved using Excel Spreadsheets as the focus for tracking the status of the different projects, linking documents to the entries and then linking in the address book functions from Outlook. Microsoft Office is a very useful suite of programs, and they do talk to each other -- but then Microsoft pulled the rug out from under me!

I was using Office 2000, for which I had paid a pretty big chunk of money back in 2000, and it still worked just fine for me. All of my data was in various formats used by it -- but when I bought a new notebook computer and went to install it to it, I discovered that at some point in the previous year Microsoft had declared Office 2000 dead, and they were not just not supporting it anymore, they actively killed its key registration system online, preventing owners of the product from doing ANY new installations!

When I contacted them about it they told me I had two choices -- buy a newer version of Office, which they were happy to sell me -- or find an alternative office productivity suite, and oh, have a nice day sir!

Do I have to tell you that my reaction was unpleasant? After having them kick my knees out from under me there was no way I was going to invest $500 in getting into bed with them again, because the day would come when they simply did that to me again. The following day I switched all of my systems to Sun's OpenOffice -- which is free -- but that does not have all of the components or interoperability that MS Office did, so while it solved my need for an office suite, it did not solve my information management troubles.

One of my editors, when they learned of my predicament, sent me a copy of Act for Windows, which I admit is a great program for management of contacts and documenting my interaction with them, but it only does that well for small bits of data. It is, to be accurate, a lightweight weapon in a battle that required a WMD.

I struggled with this for months, missing some release dates and losing contact information only to find it again AFTER I no longer needed it, and I finally sat down and declared that enough was enough. I needed a solution.

I happened to be looking at Wikipedia, reading about the development delays for a game that I was reviewing, when I said to myself -- what you need is a personal wiki.

In the past I have experienced what is called epiphany, but never had I experienced it on that level. It felt like being physically struck in the psyche. The blow was rapid and acute and stunning, and as I sat there, glaring at my video display, I repeated the words.

"What you need is a personal wiki!"

Getting there is half the fun. . .

I immediately sat down and began researching the wiki, and learned that there were hundreds to choose from, but not all of them were free. There were also options -- I could pay to lease a hosted wiki, or I could put together a server and place it on my network and install my own wiki. I could get a stand-alone wiki that will run under Windows and just stick it on my notebook, or I could get what is called a Workgroup Wiki and install that to my desktop, which would offer a limited service to my home network.

After carefully considering the matter I came to the conclusion that I would need a wiki that I could access from any machine in my house, and that I could access when I was away from home and office. It had to be web-accessible, and it needed to be robust. It had to have built-in security and access control, and if at all possible, I wanted it to be free.

With that criteria established I went looking for a wiki and, no real surprise, I ended up choosing MediaWiki -- the same software that Wikipedia uses.

There were plenty of cons -- for one thing I was already used to using that, and I was familiar with its markup code. For another, it was robust and war-tested. It was available as a package installation for Ubuntu Linix, which happened to be the flavor I use these days, and best of all, it used skins, making its presentation flexible.

MediaWiki it was!

Deciding on what to use turned out to be the most difficult part of the whole process.

I pulled my old notebook computer out of storage and installed Ubuntu Server on it, then put it on a shelf on one of the computer racks in my NOC, and tuned the LAMP Package to meet with the requirements of the wiki. Then I installed and configured the wiki software, and in a very brief single afternoon I was up and running.

I imagined that it would be very useful, but of course getting the wiki up on my network was really the beginning of the deployment process. It had no information, you see, so despite the fact that I had an operative Wiki it was not useful without information!

Where I started was with the stacks of notes, notebooks, and post-its that were the primary debris that littered my world. I took each note, created a page for it in the wiki as needed or added it to another page, and then shredded it. At the end of every evening I backed up the wiki so that if anything happened to the system, I could simply redeploy it to another computer and nothing would be lost in the process.

I then sat down to create a cron job to automagically back up the wilki twice a day so that I would no longer have to think about doing that, sending the back-ups to both of our NASD's for a mirrored arrangement so to speak, and the following day I resumed the operation.

Over the course of a week I transferred what amounts to five years of notes, information, contacts, and resources into that wiki. When I was done with the major part of that -- what I call the Information Alpha Build -- I sat back and started to use it.

Being able to search through all of that data using a web browser and the search button was, to be blunt, freaking awesome! All of the data was linked, and none of it was redundant. I no longer had to duplicate information because the information was associated with multiple subjects being covered. I could instantly and conveniently access what I needed, and if what I needed was elsewhere, why there was a link to it! It was only a few mouse clicks away!

My wiki quickly became an indispensable tool of my work-flow methodology!

Real Life Too

One afternoon I was looking for a digital photo that a relative asked me to email them when I thought -- man, here is a task that would be made so much easier by having it all in a wiki. But it is a photo, you cannot wiki those. Or can you?

A quick check of Wikipedia proved to me that indexing and organizing photos was one of the things that MediaWiki did well -- in fact you did not even have to FTP the photo to the wiki -- you could do it with a mouse click from your regular browser! And how cool is that?

While transferring the notes and data was time consuming, it paid off immediately. Building a database of photos however, well, that is not something I will manage in a week. No, that is a long-term project, best completed by making sure that all the new pictures are entered that same week that they were taken, and entering old ones in batches, when I have the time. But still, it is a workable project!

And there is no shortage of projects to be wikified! I plan to once and for all create a complete and accurate catalog of all of the CD's, DVD's and books that I own, with notes as to where they are located. Maybe I will even use the Dewey Decimal System -- I don't know. What I do know, though, is that the catalogs will be conveniently available from the landing page of our Household Wiki!

I plan to transfer all of our recipes to a Kitchen Section on the wiki -- and install a disk-less network computer on the counter in the kitchen to make accessing the recipes painless.

I am going to be inputting all of the vet records for our pets -- and for that matter, while I am at it I should scan all of the report cards my kids have brought home over the years -- maybe work on a graphing system so we can examine their progress (or lack thereof) in a given subject. And then there is our Coca Cola collection -- that clearly needs to be wiki'd.

I really love my wiki!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

. . . Final Fantasy XIV


The months, then weeks, and finally days that had to come and go before the release of Final Fantasy XIV were often filled with stray thoughts like "wow it sure will be nice when I can actually play that game" because, and I am being honest here, I missed the original FF based MMO (Final Fantasy XI) that I used to play a lot with friends but that I honestly do not have time to play today, or tomorrow, or really whenever.

That is sort of the point, really. Total lack of time. But when something is new and shiny and has that new MMO smell you will be surprised at how much time you can MAKE to play it. Plus there is the added fact that several of my best mates live a long way away from me, and the only time that I get to spend time with them, as well as having an excuse for rambling hours-long VOIP sessions, is when we are playing MMO's.

OK, so where was I? Oh yeah, looking forward to playing FFXIV...

So the game arrives via Sir UPS, and I pop it into my PC and load it -- the PS3 version will not be arriving before March 2011 at the earliest, so it was PC or nothing -- which meant that I also had to locate my PC gamepad and plug that in. Then I had to find the drivers for it because (surprise) I have not actually used that device since before I made the switch to Windows 7.

Once FFXIV is installed and I have my gamepad plugged in with the drivers installed, I go to run the game and... It has to patch.

Three Hours Later

The patch is finally downloaded and installed -- and it only took 3 hours! How cool is that?! I remember patches for FFXI taking 8 to 12 hours, so this one was not bad at all! With the game properly patched, and even though I know that my best mate has not finished installing his copy yet, I go ahead and run the game. I create my character, I do the appearance edit and decide on the basic stats, and finally I am ready to play. I hit play.

I appear in the game, and wow, the graphics are WAY better than those from FFXI. There is an almost haunting realism to them, and as I have created a Mithra, my human-like cat chick, or maybe cat-like human chick... I am not sure... Whatever! Stands at the entrance to a long avenue in a city made of stone, and there she stands. I cannot move. The gamepad is not working.

The lights on the gamepad that are lit when it is properly loaded are lit; clearly the drivers are there, so it should work. And yet not. A quick web-search and I know why! I need to actually configure it to work for FFXIV, which means quitting the game and loading a separate config program. I do that, and five minutes later I am once again standing at the entrance to this long avenue made of stone. There are NPC characters around me, but oddly no player characters.

I push forward on the right joystick and start to walk -- Cool! The gamepad is properly configured!

I take three steps.

The game freezes.

A message pops up: The Server is now going down for Maintenance.

Oh man!

I check the message board on the official site and learn that this "Maintenance" will take 8 hours. I go to bed.

The Next Evening

The soonest that I can log in and play is late the following evening, because as much as I want to play, there are all these other things that I have to do, like work, and family, and you know, stuff. But here I am, and bonus! My best mate has installed and patched his copy, so I get to do my initial exploration of the city with him! Very awesome.

This is NOT Final Fantasy XI...

It is sort of like FFXI, but not. A lot is different. For one thing the leveling system and the jobs are much more complex and require a great deal of careful study of the conversation dialogue that I am having with NPC's. Confusion is everywhere, but slowly things begin to make sense.

I spend an hour and a half exploring this new city, but I am unable to locate the player housing area. I know -- I KNOW -- that there has to be one, and yet I cannot find it. Finally in a fit of desperation I Google it, and I learn that the reason that I cannot locate it is because it is not there. There is NO player housing in this game. The good news though, is the proper way to express that fact is: "There is no player housing in this game... Yet."

OK, so there will be. There is also no follow command, and the help button leads to a notice telling me I should load a website whose URL it provides. That was not optimal. Ideally when you are looking for help in a game, the help should be IN the game.

My first impressions of FFXIV

This game was published before it was finished. So much is missing that I am actually in a slight panic as to why they released it at all... Of course that just means that it can only get better from here, right?

When the game was originally announced years ago, I was still playing FFXI at the time, and I remember thinking that a new MMO would ruin FFXI because it would draw players away. But then at the time I did not realize that I would be one of the players who would stop playing FFXI due to time and life issues, so I sort of imagined that I would still be playing FFXI at the time, which would have made picking up a new MMO almost unthinkable. Now not so much.

First impressions... I like the crafting system better than its implementation in FFXI but I do not really understand the finer points of the crafting system here, so I am not sure how valuable that opinion really is...

I really like it that you no longer have to find a moogle to change jobs -- that your job is totally dependent upon the tool/weapon you have equipped. That is very cool. But I do not understand the different jobs other than the obvious ones -- I mean a fighter is a fighter, but what I think must be White Mage actually feels like a combination of Blue and Black Mage... Obviously if you are not familiar with those classes that does not mean much to you, but there you have it.

There is a strong feeling of a tighter information density here, and a distinct and almost painful lack of community cohesiveness. In the previous MMO you had this definite sense of belonging to your home city -- which was like in this mew MMO pitted in a pseudo-war against the other cities. But the other cities are largely unknown quantities at this point... And still there is this glaring absence of any sense of identity and community.

I am hoping that this is just that fuzzy period of time in which you are just getting to know a new environment and not a true lack of cohesiveness, because that identity factor is a very special part of what made playing these games so attractive.

The other players in the game are a LOT less chatty than those in FFXI... Perhaps it is simply that everyone is new. The game has been publicly available for only a week, and I am clearly overwhelmed by the newness of it all, so I have to presume that so are the other players. Sure, some of them have been playing for almost a month if they bought the Collector's Edition (I did not), because they got early access to the game. So at least SOME of the players should be confident enough to start to be chatty... But no.

One pleasant surprise is that Mithra have tails! That may sound strange, but you see some of the early information that was released about the game two years ago and that was a subject of conversation in FFXI was that Mithra were losing their tails in the new game. I am happy that this is not true, but I cannot explain why that makes me happy.

With games like this you really cannot write a review for months because it takes months to really get a sense of the game -- so if you are expecting a review to appear in Game On you will have to be patient.

My first impressions are that I need some more first impressions. But there is a lot here to like, and assuming that they get busy adding into the game the things that should already be in it, this looks like it will be a very cool MMO home for years to come. They just better get housing in before Christmas, because I am looking forward to the traditional Christmas Quests and setting up my tree, and oh man... Must resist MMO....

. . . MPCU: Power Supplies

Modular PC Upgrade Series Part 5
(from the Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column)

A Brief Foreword on this Series

This post is part of a multi-part series on the subject of Modular PC Ownership.

The system of Modular PC Ownership espoused in this series follows a green conservation approach to technology that is intended to reduce your individual carbon footprint, save you money, improve your computing satisfaction, and increase the value in many respects that you receive from your personal computer. Each posting on this blog has been created to support and enhance a related column published in the newspaper.

Today's posting supports the column: Upgrading? Now's the time to seize power, which is the August 3rd, 2010 Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column.

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Table of Contents

Part 1: Speaking of MPCU -- Introduction
01: Preface
02: Introduction
03: The Economics of Modular Upgrading
04: Introduction Conclusion

Part 2: Speaking of MPCU - Keyboards
05: Introduction
06: Connectivity Options
07: Keyboards Conclusion

Part 3: Speaking of MPCU - Controllers & Sound
08: Introduction
09: Controllers
10: PC Sound
11: Controllers & Sound Conclusions

Part 4: Speaking of MPCU - Computer Cases
12: Introduction
13: What a Case Should Do
14: How to Begin Building your Foundation

Part 5: Speaking of MPCU - Power Supply Units (PSU's)
15: Introduction
16: Selecting a Power Supply
17: Quality vs. Cost

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Power Supplies

15: Introduction

The history of the Personal Computer can trace its origins to a complex collection of parts that were packaged with an instruction manual requiring more than a passing familiarity with a soldering iron, multi-meter, and firm grasp of Ohm's Law. In fact the establishment of the PC as a legitimate piece of office equipment -- let alone a device for the home -- owes a considerable debt to a common device found on most business desktops: the calculator.

Arguably the first true personal computer -- called the Altair -- was created as a product of desperation by a man named Ed Roberts, who owned an electronics assembly kit business whose principle line was largely electronic calculators. The invention of the Integrated Circuit (IC) fomented a radical change in the manufacture of calculating devices, which up until the mid-1960's consisted largely of the masterful engineering of moving parts. These largely mechanical devices -- whose output was invariably printed on narrow strips of white paper that were clipped to the document being totaled -- were a product of a conservative approach to the process of number manipulation, created for industries that were thought to be resistant to change.

The bulk of Roberts' business consisted of hobbyists who assembled electronic calculator kits, but once the manufacturers of calculators embraced the IC and began to produce product lines that were centered around it, Roberts' found his customer base drying up. In what might be described as a defensive reaction, Roberts looked for other devices that might appeal to the electronic hobbyist and concluded that the personal computer was the answer. Shortly after he created the Altair kit, Roberts found himself unable to keep pace with demand because the public was clearly ready for the personal computer, and his success with the Altair did not go unnoticed.

In just a few short years other manufacturers recognized that untapped market, and Roberts soon found history repeating itself, as his competition used innovation and their established manufacturing base to move the PC beyond a device that consisted of a complex system of switches to the more recognizable keyboard based computer that we use today.

Along the way other devices were integrated into the design of the PC, starting with the video display screen, which in early PC's was built into them rather than connected as a peripheral. Next came the removable disk drive, and eventually the fixed disk (hard drive), sound circuits, and upgradable components like serial ports, parallel ports, and pointing devices. All of these optional add-on devices altered the basic power needs of the PC, which previously were served by a fairly simple built-in power supply that provided a clean source of single-voltage power that the device used.

As the PC grew more complex and capable its power needs also altered, until we find ourselves with the current state of the PC, with an average requirements of three different voltage requirements that all come from the same power supply. Building this as a kit is no longer a practical approach, and not simply because it can be done cheaper and more efficiently by way of mass production, but because the power requirements for the modern PC are exacting, with a list of needs that include clean power in specific voltages that must be consistent.

The power supply for early PC's was, like its case, an integral part of the system design, and was not easily swapped out; when a power supply on the IBM PC went bad the usual course of repair was just that: a technician replaced the part in it that was bad. Modern PC's are built upon a modular approach, and the low cost of their devices promotes a different approach -- when a piece of your computer goes bad or breaks, you replace that piece rather than repairing it, both because it is cheaper to do it that way, and because the skilled repair infrastructure no longer exists in the market.

With that approach to PC components being the standard, it should not be a surprise that the power supply industry began to specialize in the 1990's, producing different models of power supply for different purposes. The general-use PC with its limited needs required what is today considered to be the basic power supply, while the high-performance gaming rigs currently popular have a more specialized set of requirements, which created a highly competitive market for user-installed power supplies and replacement power supplies.

This change in how the device is considered has had the effect of elevating the power supply from a minor factor for a PC build to the level of a core consideration, with most PC builders and owners giving the power supply as much importance as the motherboard or CPU. The end result of this is a market that includes branded power supplies with product lines with so wide a variety of features so that choosing a PSU is now almost as confusing as the process of choosing a CPU! The result for the end-user is similar to what has happened with motherboards, CPU's, and video cards -- the process of selecting the power supply is one more compromise in the build that often comes down to the issue of price rather than features or tech.

16: Selecting a Power Supply Unit (PSU)

At last count, when you consider the different models of PC created as boxed offerings as well as the variations of PSU that are offered for new and original PC builds, there are an estimated 25,000 different types of PSU on the market. If you narrow the selection just to PSU's that are suited for consideration for a new custom PC build, that number still surpasses 4,000 and that does not take into consideration the units that are designed as part of the standard case in a generic build.

A quick check of websites like Newegg, Tiger Direct,, or Fry's -- just to name a few -- turns up around 97 different manufacturers of PSU's, and each maker has an average of 6 product lines, within which are often a dozen different models per product line. With numbers like that it is not just the average consumer or hobbyist who is contemplating a custom PC build who end up confused and struggling to make sense of the market -- professional PC builders also find the choice of PSU to be an often confusing proposition!

The major difference between the professional builder and the average hobbyist however, is simple enough: the professional knows that there is a certain minimum level of features that must be maintained, and invariably makes their PSU choice using that standard combined with an estimate of the future power needs of a system based upon what they know the end-user will do with it, and where they think the future of PC hardware will develop.

  • Replacement PSU's
The process of selecting a replacement PSU for a damaged unit is perhaps the most simple choice when power supplies are the part being replaced, because the choice for general-use PC's is often simply the same model that has gone bad. Replacement for a system that is used for Computer Assisted Design / Computer Assisted Manufacturing (CAN/CAM) is a bit more complex, while replacing a unit in a system that is used for gaming is even more complex. Often the process of replacing a PSU is viewed as an opportunity to expand the capability of the PC in ways that the original equipment manufacturer did not consider when they spec'd out the original design.

The first major consideration in replacing a PSU is whether the user is considering an upgrade of their video card. Only three years ago the vast majority of video cards drew all of their power from the PC bus, which means that plugging the card into the PC expansion slot was all that was necessary in order to power the video card. That is no longer the case -- most modern video cards today require additional power using special cables that are part of the modern power supply -- but having one of those cables as part of the PSU is only one element to consider.

Video card technology is moving in new directions today, with the standard being built-in components on cards that duplicate or replace processing responsibilities that previously fell to the PC itself. Modern cards now feature onboard RAM that is often faster than the system RAM, and often include multiple CPU's that are built into the card to take over processing graphics. These two expanding technologies represent pivotal methods for increasing both the capabilities of a PC and its speed that is independent of the computer!

Manufacturers of graphics cards try to address the needs of the software companies whose products best utilize their cards, with video game studios being the greatest demand source for graphics card technology. An office productivity suit is not going to stress a video card, but a modern video game that uses complex layers of graphical display will, and often to its limits. The result of this has been a movement to combine the inherent capacity and processing abilities of multiple video cards in a single system!

  • Multi-Head vs. Multi-Card
In the past when a user wanted to add additional video displays to a single computer the choice usually involved adding an additional video card. Most modern high-end cards can usually support more than one display -- and on a general-use PC that is often enough -- but when the system is used for gaming or graphically-intense engineering or design programs, hanging more than a single display off of a card can actually degrade performance of the system.

In that case adding a second or third video card is absolutely required, with the configuration in that situation largely dictated by the desired effect. For graphics rendering, design, and using programs like Adobe Photoshop, the configuration is usually independent, meaning that each display is connected to its own graphics card, and given sole control over that cards resources.

High-end gaming and certain types of computer assisted design often require a more flexible use of the graphics resources in the PC, so in those circumstances it is preferable to have all of the cards in a PC linked together, their resources shared, and the utilization of their processing power and RAM shared out among the displays.

Ultimately the installation of multiple high-end video cards means a much higher set of power requirements on a system, which means that this potential draw must be taken into consideration when selecting a replacement power supply! A general-use PC might never require more than 500 watts of power, which means that selecting a 650 watt power supply is more than adequate for the current and future needs of the PC, but at the other end of the spectrum it is often necessary to over-compensate for power needs in order to provide the foundation for future expansion.

After tallying up the current needs for a system and arriving at 800 watts, the builder may be tempted to pick an 850 watt power supply for the build and call it a good day -- but if that build includes three graphics cards the simple act of replacing them at a later date with newer more powerful models could easily push the minimal system needs above 1,000 watts. That means that the 850 watt PSU that seemed more than adequate when it was chosen as a replacement PSU now must be replaced not because it is failing, but because it fails to meet the minimum power needs of the system! In that case a 1,250 watt PSU would have been the correct choice, even if it seemed like overkill at the time.

  • Balancing Price and Capability
The difference between the price of an 850 watt PSU and a 1,250 watt PSU is considerable, and though we do not like to admit it, price is often the higher measure of consideration when we are contemplating replacement, or selecting components for a custom build. The old saw that you get what you pay for applies here -- that $250 savings in selecting the lower wattage PSU at the time may end up being a total wash; the original savings of $250 ends up costing the PC owner way more in the end, because they are out the $300 spent on the original PSU plus the $550 that they now have to spend on a properly powered unit, so the cost of saving $250 at the time of the replacement or build turns out to be a whopping $850 in the end.

When considering a replacement PSU or picking one for a new build, the first step is determining the current power needs for the hardware that has been selected or is already present in the system. The second logical step is to estimate what the worse case scenario could be for future power needs. How many devices are in the system? Take a look back at the development cycle of these devices to see how big the power needs changed between versions going back two or three generations.

If the jump in power needs for a video card of the type that is used in the system averaged 100 watts, use that number to estimate the potential future needs -- but multiply that by three, because you may end up adding two additional cards to your system. Use the same approach for the storage devices, and do not forget to factor in devices that receive power from the bus, in particular USB devices. Once you have that new total, add an additional 20% just to be safe, and you now know what your base power need may be for the future.

The most popular form of custom-built PC today is based upon the Bare Bones Systems that are offered by practically every PC and parts website on the Internet. Many PC manufacturers offering out of the box systems also have lines of Bare Bones Systems that are sold via third-party vendors, because this approach removes most of the headache of spec'ing out a system.

Most generic builds -- what are called Bare Bones Systems -- consist of a medium grade case and power supply rather than a high-end case and modular PSU as a result of the basic economics of the product. Bare Bones Systems are created to permit the average PC owner to select a system using a key set of criteria -- CPU capabilities, motherboard, and basic RAM. It is fair and accurate to view these systems as "kits" to which the user will then add components to complete and customize them.

A Bare Bones offering usually includes a minimum level of RAM, the CPU and motherboard, a case and power supply, often a keyboard and mouse. Usually the graphics capabilities of these systems is represented by whatever card is built into the motherboard, and for general-use builds that is often perfectly adequate. Some offerings include a hard drive, and it is common to find a discounted selection of Windows OS included as an option.

When the user is putting together a more specialized system -- a gaming rig for example -- they will be upgrading and adding components to the purchase. More RAM, hard drives, a better CD/DVD or BluRay drive, and a better graphics card that will replace the onboard graphics. The one thing that they rarely every consider, let alone upgrade, is the PSU.

  • Medium Grade PSU's
Identifying the quality level of a PSU is not a difficult process. The medium grade PSU's that are usually included as part of a Bare Bones build have a distinct appearance.

The unit illustrated here is typical of the medium grade modular PSU that is used in these builds. The dimensions are uniform, and the quality of the cabling and connectors typical of that pictured here. One aspect in particular is that the cluster of cables is hardwired into the unit -- whether you use them all or not, they are present. Devices that require special cables can only be used with these PSU's if a form adapter is available. This type of PSU is the perfect example of how a component is built when the specification is for the cheapest cost possible.

Medium grade PSU's will get the job done, but that describes the entire approach to these PSU's from quality to form factor. They are less than a compromise, but fortunately like their higher grade cousins they are built using a standardized system of attachment, which means that they can be easily replaced.

Pictured here is an example of a high-grade PSU. The differences between this and the previous example are immediately evident upon inspection, with the appearance and the system of cabling being the most obvious. The cables that supply primary power for the motherboard are the only cables that are hardwired to the PSU, while the cables that provide power to the peripherals use a modular plug-in approach that is color-coded and based upon unique plug forms in order to prevent confusion.

Supplied with the PSU is a set of modular cables, allowing the user to install just the cables that are needed, which cuts down upon clutter in the case, and permits proper cabling without the use of adapters, which often represent the weakest point in a power scheme. The dimensions of the PSU are similar to those of the previous lower grade, and while larger capacity PSU's may be slightly deeper than the average sized units, they will still fit easily into most Bare Bones cases.

Upgrading the PSU for a Bare Bones build, or selecting a higher quality PSU as a replacement unit is a sound approach for several reasons. The cheaper grade PSU's often have very limited warranty coverage if any. If any flaws in the PSU are not apparent within the first 90 days of ownership, chances are the maker will not replace the unit after that time period, because 90 days warranty coverage is typical for this grade of PSU. The higher grade units like the Toughpower 750 watt PSU pictured above come with 5 year warranty coverage, and their manufacturing process is structured to include a much higher level of quality control, which means that they are much less likely to develop problems related to manufacturing.

There are other equally obvious benefits to using better grade components, but not having to replace a bad unit is a major plus in my book. The quality of design in the higher-grade models includes better thermal management, which means that these PSU's are often nearly silent, as they do not require a built-in fan set at its highest revolution to provide cooling. In addition to that, and acknowledging that the effect is superficial to the consideration of PSU tech, these units simply look cool!

Part 17: Quality vs Cost

When phrases like "higher-grade" are raised with respect to computer components both for replacement and as part of a custom build, the average user presumes that there is a cost to them. In many areas of technology that principal holds true -- you get what you pay for. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Quality costs. While that may be true in most cases, personal computer tech is often an exception to the rule, or more accurately, the cost is often less than you might suppose.

  • A good example of quality and costs
If you visit the website for Tiger Direct ( and select Barebone Computers from the main menu, and you are presented with a selection of the Bare Bones Systems that they offer for sale. Pick a mid-range general-use system with your emphasis being economy that is intended as a Home Entertainment PC -- for our example we will use the B69-1205 Kit -- which is a fairly common design for multimedia home entertainment PC systems.

The base cost of the unit is $189.99 and for that relatively low cost here is what you get:
  • Biostar G41-M7 Motherboard
  • Intel Pentium Dual Core E5300 Processor
  • Kingston 2GB PC5400 DDR2 Memory
  • Power Up Black ATX Mid-Tower Case with 450-Watt Power Supply
That is a pretty good starting point for a general-use build. The CPU is actually a bargain unit considering that it is a generation old, but it is perfect for general-use computing and can even handle most modern games, including MMO's as long as the system has a decent video card installed in it.

The system comes with 2GB of RAM, which is perfectly adequate for a 32-bit version of Windows 7 or Windows XP. To this you would be adding a hard drive, CD/DVD drive, and a good video card, which will add anywhere from $325 to $700 to the cost of the build, but you end up with a very nice system for less than it would cost to purchase an out-of-the-box brand name model with similar capabilities.

Now let's say that the PSU failed after the warranty expired on the purchase. This is a standard 450 watt medium-grade PSU, and to replace it with a similar unit will cost around $49.99 for a generic 450w PSU. Or you could replace it with a high-grade name brand unit like Coolermaster's Elite Series 460w PSU -- for $8 less. That is not a mis-print, the cost of a Coolermaster Elite Series 460w PSU is $41.99, $8 less than the cost of replacing that PSU with a generic 450w PSU!

Now let's say that you want to add some extra watts since you plan to upgrade your system later anyway, and as you have to replace the PSU you may as well install some extra capacity in the process. For a little more than twice the price -- $109.99 -- you can replace it with one of Thermaltake's TR series 800w PSU's, which comes with their standard 5 year warranty and modular cabling system.

There is truth in the saying that you get what you pay for, but it pays to shop around. Often it seems to me that I am proselytizing when it comes to the modular building and upgrade approach to PC ownership -- and perhaps I am -- but the benefits to this approach so outweighs the drawbacks, and it is such a logical means of maintaining computing power that it is worth the effort.

Computers -- and specifically the Personal Computer -- are often part of the relationships that we have in our life. I don't mean to imply that there is a reciprocal relationship present such as that which exists between two sentient beings -- obviously a computer cannot return your affection. But that does not stop people from identifying with their computers! Most owners pick a name for their computer that has subtle but significant meaning to them. Most owners feel a sense of pride in ownership, and care that their PC can meet their computing needs. Like their automobile, most owners have a minimum level of expectation for their PC, and considering that they spend a great deal of time sitting in front of and using it, that makes sense.

I am an observant person -- in fact people watching is one of my hobbies -- and one thing that I have noticed among my friends, relatives, and acquaintances, is that rarely ever do they get rid of their old PC when they replace it with a new one! Invariably it is either placed elsewhere in the home as a second system, or re-purposes to preform another function, as a file server, print server, or entertainment system. With the addition of another hard drive and software many of my friends turn their old system into a digital DVR to record their favorite TV shows and movies and offer basic web surfing capabilities to their living room entertainment center.

Those who do not re-purpose their old computer pass it on to some other family member -- it is fairly common for a parent to give their old PC to a child when they replace it. Why do they do this? I am sure that part of the reason is the value that they feel for the PC, and for its inherent and intrinsic value, but there is also the question of the emotional attachment that they have for the PC. After all, it gave them years of useful service, and was their gateway to the online world.

When you adopt a modular ownership system, instead of replacing your PC you upgrade it, replacing the various parts and thus its capabilities. By doing this you not only save money, but you get the full measure of the value of what you spent on this system, which for most people is a very attractive element in the process.

Replacing the case and the PSU for your system with a more robust and option-rich case and powerful PSU is the first logical step in the process of shifting to modular PC ownership. If you read my column and blog entries on cases, and do a little research of your own online, you are certain to find more than just a few case designs that lock-in to your idea of what a computer should look like, and what its basic capabilities should be.

We are constantly reminded of adopting a green lifestyle, to recycle, and to reduce our carbon footprint -- this modern day era of conservation is not simply an extension of the earlier notion that material responsibility is good for the planet, but is a logical extension of the bad economy and the very real need to save money. Modular PC ownership neatly fits into that scheme and approach on multiple levels, and offers not just the opportunity to save money, but to increase the value of the money that you have already spent on your PC.

So far this series has covered the basic introduction, keyboards, controllers and other input devices, peripherals for enhancing the sound and music in our PC's, the cases, and now the PSU's. There is still a lot to cover in the series both here on the blog, and in the column, and you can expect me to address motherboards, graphics (video cards), media and storage, thermal management, and the many types of peripherals that attach to our computers, as well as the different kit that we can use for networking them together to give us a wired house and shared access to the Internet.

Each piece in this series will include an updated entry in the Table of Contents -- so you can jump to the top of any entry in the series and navigate to the next, or to the one covering the tech you are interested in, even when there are other blog entries that appear in between the series pieces. While I have previously touched upon it, I want to remind you that these blog postings are intended to compliment the columns from the series that appear in the Cape Cod Times -- and remind you that to best use these posts, you should start with the related column in the newspaper -- the online version of which can be easily accessed from the paper's site, or through the link that appears at the beginning of each post on the blog.

As I conclude this section of the series I want to thank you for reading the paper, thank you for reading the series, and thank you for considering Modular PC Ownership as a viable and green solution that lets you save money while improving your overall computing experience!


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CM Boots-Faubert is a freelance writer, author, and columnist. He writes the Digital Grind Column for the Cape Cod Times, and the Game On: Cape Cod Gaming Blog at the paper. He writes extensively on video games and gaming, both as a freelance journalist and as a walkthrough writer, reviewer, and previewer. His books include the soon to be published title Games Journalism 101, that discusses how to establish a career writing on video games, and his title in the Hand's On Series, Hand's On: Home Networking which is a complete guide targeted at the average PC user on how to design and build a home computer Ethernet network.

Monday, September 20, 2010

. . . MPCU: Computer Cases

Modular PC Upgrade Series Part 4
(from the Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column)

A Brief Foreword on this Series

This post is part of a multi-part series on the subject of Modular PC Ownership.

The system of Modular PC Ownership espoused in this series follows a green conservation approach to technology that is intended to reduce your individual carbon footprint, save you money, improve your computing satisfaction, and increase the value in many respects that you receive from your personal computer. Each posting on this blog has been created to support and enhance a related column published in the newspaper.

Today's posting supports the column: A couple of case studies in cool computing, which is the July 6th, 2010 Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column.

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Table of Contents

Part 1: Speaking of MPCU -- Introduction
01: Preface
02: Introduction
03: The Economics of Modular Upgrading
04: Introduction Conclusion

Part 2: Speaking of MPCU - Keyboards
05: Introduction
06: Connectivity Options
07: Keyboards Conclusion

Part 3: Speaking of MPCU - Controllers & Sound
08: Introduction
09: Controllers
10: PC Sound
11: Controllers & Sound Conclusions

Part 4: Speaking of MPCU - Computer Cases
12: Introduction
13: What a Case Should Do
14: How to Begin Building your Foundation

Part 5: Speaking of MPCU - Power Supply Units (PSU's)
15: Introduction
16: Selecting a Power Supply
17: Quality vs. Cost

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Computer Cases

12: Introduction

The computer case is the most visible part of a PC, and is often what determines how a system is thought to place in terms of power or how modern it is. This is odd, considering that what is inside the case and largely hidden from view are the key components that relate to those questions, but it is also understandable; as consumers, how something looks is often as important to us as how something works. Automobiles are the perfect example of this: a Ford Mustang from the 1960's is faster than a modern Japanese sports coupe, but the modern cars simply look faster due to the design of their body and carriage work, and so to the casual observer, they are faster.

Carrying that relationship further, in the world of the modern PC there are two distinct areas of concern with respect to computer cases, the first, which we just touched upon, is utilizing the appearance characteristics to imply different values with respect to performance or value. The second, which is a much more important consideration, is the underlying functionality of the computer case, including aspects such as materials, quality, and function.

Large PC makers employ engineers whose job that it is to design the outward appearance of the computer -- its case -- and who do so with a set of goals already in mind. Usually the criteria that is used to determine the appearance of the computer has nothing to do with performance or function, and everything to do with image. Making the computer look appealing, making it look powerful even if it really is not -- especially if it is not!

The design engineers are fulfilling an important role in the process of creating a new computer model -- a role that is essential for the sales process. Their goal is to make that new model stand out, and instill in the viewer a sense of what the manufacturer is trying to sell to them. That may be confidence, in which case they go for a solid-looking design that suggests reliability and strength, or it may be speed, in which case they make the case look sleek and fast and sexy.

Lately the big-names in mass-produced PC's have come to recognize that the PC gamer represents a very significant piece of the market, so they are superficially copying the design elements that have been created by custom case makers, like windows in the side of the system that allow for a view of the motherboard and internal components, or fancy lights that make the PC stand-out at LAN parties. These are features that are often found in custom case designs, but like other aspects of case function, the big name PC makers have lost sight of -- or never understood -- the purpose of those style elements in the first place.

Speaking plain, when you purchase a brand-name PC, if you are lucky what you end up with is a system that will work to the specifications on the box. For the most part the cases are not designed to the same exacting requirements as those made by custom case manufacturers, they are simply part of the package. That they fail to perform in areas that are critical to system safety, and also fail to provide the controlled environment that is key to longevity for the high-end PC is not the point; those big name makers expect you to replace the entire PC in a year or two anyway, which is why those concerns are not part of the process in creating their products!

So what is it that the custom case makers do that is different? The most obvious difference is in the engineering process that is applied to case design -- specifically the function of the case, which is not simply to house the internal bits of your computer, but to function in specific ways, and provide a specific set of functions that are critical elements in maintaining a cutting-edge system.

You may have the best CPU in the world inside your name-brand PC, but your investment in that often expensive piece of hardware has a limited shelf life by design, and even though you may feel a sense of brand loyalty because it delivers performance that makes you feel good about it, the idea of selling you your next computer is never a distant concern for the company whose brand you identify with, and that fact alone should be a considerable concern to you!

13: What a Case Should Do

Considering that brand-name PC cases are just there to hold the internal bits, and look good doing it, while at the same time projecting the image that the maker desires, you may be wondering what a case should do beyond those?

The most important function of a modern computer case should be managing heat. The process of controlling and removing heat -- what is called Thermal Management -- is the single most important element in the design and engineering of any computer case. Considering this, it is often shocking to realize that for most name-brand PC manufacturers this is the last concern that they have, if they worry about it at all beyond the point of ensuring that there is enough airflow to keep the system from overheating.

Let us be clear here: "enough airflow to keep the system from overheating" is a completely inadequate approach to thermal management in the personal computer!

Consider that the heat that is created by a PC -- and almost every device and subsystem in a PC from the motherboard to the hard drives generates heat -- also happens to be the element most often responsible for system or component failure, and you should be able to understand why the first concern in the design of a good case should be to manage that element. But why is heat a bad thing? What does it do that shortens the life of your PC?

When a system sits idle, with the power on, it is generating a base level of heat. When it is in use, it generates more heat, and when it is used in a way that stresses its subsystems or demands peak performance -- for example when it is being used to play a modern video game -- its thermal signature can triple!

When the PC is turned off after being given a heat-generating workout, the system and its components rapidly cool to room temperature. Almost all of these bits are out of sight inside the case, and even if you could see them, you would not notice the physical manifestation of the changes that are taking place -- the changes that eventually lead to a failure of one or more of the internal bits of your PC.

For a simple demonstration of this process and the damage that it causes, imagine in your mind a stack of quarters that are connected to each other by solder. When electricity is applied to the stack, it heats up -- and because each of the quarters -- and the solder that binds them together -- are metal, a natural side-effect of that is that as they are heated, they expand slightly. When they are cooled, the metal contracts, but because the quarters are made of different types of metal, pressed into layers, and the solder is also a different type of metal, they do not cool at the same rate, so one part of the stack size does not conform to the others.

Eventually as the stack goes through hot and cold cycles repeatedly, the layers of different metal inside one of the quarters begins to separate. Even though a small gap has appeared, the quarter still functions, passing the electric signal through the stack, but as the process of expansion and contraction continues, eventually that gap grows too large, and the signal can no longer pass through it efficiently, and so that component fails. That is what happens to the subsystems of your computer.

A circuit might separate from the motherboard, or a capacitor or resistor might break its connection -- this can happen on the motherboard, on a hard drive, even on one of your memory sticks. The end result is that that subsystem fails, and its failure is an event that would have been prevented with proper thermal management.

The engineers who create the different bits that make up a PC design the different bits to compensate for this effect, adding in heat sinks and fans to moderate the process of thermal build-up. They try to design the parts so that they heat and cool at uniform rates, and so that they do not over-heat. The cooler that they can keep a part running, the less likely it is that it will fail due to effects from heat. In an ideal world that should be all that is necessary to guarantee that your motherboard continues to function properly for years, but we do not live in that ideal world.

When a motherboard is placed inside of a case that is smaller than what was used to establish the base line of thermal management, or it is placed in a case that has a less than ideal amount of airflow, the likelihood that it will suffer a heat-related failure grows. Considering that most PC makers try to use as little material as they can get away with in making things like the case, it is easy to understand why their cases do not handle thermal management very well.

  • Custom Cases
The custom designed computer case industry was created partly as a result of this problem, and partly to provide the components needed by custom PC builders. The cases created by companies like Coolermaster and Thermaltake are not simply cool looking cases (okay, they are cool looking cases but that is not the point), but are in reality carefully engineered for performance.

You might think it odd to apply a word like performance to something that just sits there, but make no mistake, these cases do have a level of performance that is not only important, but is key to the health and longevity of your PC!

Where a name-brand computer might have a single fan on its power supply, a small fan on the heat sink that is installed on the CPU, and a case fan to suck air in, custom designed cases are created with thermal management as one of the key criteria in their design. It is not unusual to find a custom designed case with six or more fans, all moving the air in a specific pattern.

Some of these fans will be dedicated to ejecting hot air from the case, others to pulling cooler air into it, and still others that are positioned specifically to cool an area of the motherboard or one of the devices in the system. Hard drives can generate a lot of heat, so it is common to include a fan or fans that pull air into the hard drive bay and push it across the drives, to help them to run cooler. This is important, because hard drives are not built to dispose of their own heat!

The heat sink that comes stock on most CPU's is a slab of metal with fins on it that is attached directly to the CPU using a layer of thermal paste to bond them into a single unit. Often a small fan will be attached to the top of the heat sink, and attached to the motherboard, which regulates its speed to help keep the CPU from overheating. Under ideal conditions -- in an air conditioned office for example -- this is enough to address the basic cooling needs of the CPU. But when you are using the computer in a room with poor air conditioning or the computer is placed in a restricted area -- under your desk for example -- this is no longer an adequate solution.

A wide range of after-market heat sink and fan combinations exist, and most serious PC owners and the folks who build high-performance PC's use those. They are large -- often six to eight inches high -- and they will not fit into the inadequate cases that are built for name-brand systems. To use this sort of cooling product, you have to replace your computer case -- but you should be doing that anyway, as keeping the stock case is just not an option when it comes to properly managing heat.

As a result of this, the custom computer case industry was created, and they offer a wide variety of case designs that address specific system types. A gaming system using the most current of the cutting edge hardware available has different thermal management needs than say, a system that is used for CAD/CAM or graphics rendering. Though the design of a case for these systems has similar concerns, the appearance of the cases and their features are distinctly different.

  • Filling a Need
In the process of building two computers -- a General Use system, and a high-end gaming system -- we developed different basic requirements for our case needs.

For the General Use system we needed to control heat, but we also wanted features that would add to the usability of the system. Backing up data is a concern, and the use of extra hard drives has become one of the preferred methods for doing this. The case that we chose from Coolermaster includes a SATA mounting slot on the top, covered by a plastic door, that permits the user to slide a hard drive into the top of the case and have the system recognize and use it.

To perform a back up, all that the user needs to do is take the hard drive out of their desk drawer, slide it into the slot on top of the case, and power on the system. Once it is booted, they simply copy the files that they want to back up to the temporarily installed hard drive, and then shut down the system and remover the drive, closing the cover of the mounting slot. For the average user this is a twenty-minute chore once a week, and this built-in capability makes restoring data just as easy!

For the gaming system we had other concerns that needed to be addressed -- among the most important was expandability. We needed to be able to add four to eight hard drives, plus optical drives and a fan monitoring and control screen, and still provide proper cooling to the case. For that we went with a gaming case from Thermaltake.

Each of these cases are well documented and easy to install to, each is readily available online or through the makers, and each provides a solid foundation from which to begin the process of Modular PC ownership!

14: How to Begin Building your Foundation

Regardless of whether you are building a PC from scratch or are just beginning your journey into Modular Ownership, your first decision is going to be what case you use. Ideally this will be the last computer case you ever need to buy for your PC, because the modular nature of their design means that it will accommodate new hardware -- including motherboards and CPU's that have not been invented yet!

The case that you choose should meet all of the requirements that you have for your PC, from expansion slots to the number of external bays for your devices. After you sit down and decide what you need by making a list of what you plan to have now, and perhaps have down the road, you will have a better idea of what you need. Then you can spend some time looking at the case technology currently being offered by reliable custom case manufacturers.

To start with, take a look at the current lines from Thermaltake and Coolermaster, two of the biggest names in the industry. Both of these companies design and engineer cases that address all of the important points, starting with thermal management all the way to expansion, and they both tend to build into their cases small conveniences that have created a loyal following. Coolermaster's SATA dock is a good example, and the built-in light and fan controls on some of Thermaltake's cases are another.

If you are building a system or are converting a system that you own for gaming, adding a little bling to the project is not a bad idea. Windows that allow you to view the internal components are not there simply to allow you to add neon lights to the inside of the case and highlight the fact that you have three video cards in your system, or fire-engine red cables -- they actually serve a practical purpose. They allow you to visually verify that all of your internal fans are functioning properly, and that all of the wires are connected where they should be. They also look good, too, and provide you the opportunity to customize your case with details like cut glass with your initials or personal emblem, and artistic metal fan slot covers -- two ideas that are popular among the LAN gaming set.

Decorating and customizing a case are valid parts of the process, but the underlying foundation that you are building when you go this route is one of taking control over your computing tech. It allows you to hand pick the components that you use, control the quality of your PC, and the cost.

  • Getting your feet wet
The case and power supply are your starting point when you are converting an existing name-brand PC to a Modular PC. Once you decide on the case and PSU, spend some time familiarizing yourself with how the different components are installed in the system -- read the manual for the case, and then go on to YouTube and watch some of the hundreds of videos on the service that illustrate exactly how the components are installed.

You do not need a tech to do this for you -- with a little study you can safely and properly do this yourself. Just make sure that you have the right tools, and enough time to do it properly. Moving your motherboard into the new case, then the expansion cards, and finally the devices is only the first step. Once you have everything transferred and properly functional, you have in effect completed the foundation.

You can use your system now, and take your time to begin improving it as your budget allows. A new heat sink and fan for your CPU is the best first step in the process, and there are plenty of styles available so that you should be able to find one that both appeals to your tastes and budget, and also provides the cooling level that you need. With that in place, a heat sink and fan set for the motherboard chipset, or cooling fins for your RAM might be the next place to look -- all of this is possible because you now have the foundation -- a properly engineered case.

A year or two down the road when you need to upgrade your motherboard and CPU it is simply a matter of swapping them into your case, rather than spending thousands on replacing your computer. The benefit of this approach is not just in savings, it is being able to hand-pick the brand and type of motherboard and CPU, and in not having to deal with getting rid of your old computer. The control that this method of ownership provides is paired with the satisfaction of learning more about your PC, knowing how it works, and what each type of tech does -- in many ways it becomes an adventure itself.

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CM Boots-Faubert is a freelance writer, author, and columnist. He writes the Digital Grind Column for the Cape Cod Times, and the Game On: Cape Cod Gaming Blog at the paper. He writes extensively on video games and gaming, both as a freelance journalist and as a walkthrough writer, reviewer, and previewer. His books include the soon to be published title Games Journalism 101, that discusses how to establish a career writing on video games, and his title in the Hand's On Series, Hand's On: Home Networking which is a complete guide targeted at the average PC user on how to design and build a home computer Ethernet network.