Friday, April 27, 2012

A tale of two towers

When I started my search for a new computer to replace my aging system, I naturally began looking for the appropriate hard drive. This is the heart of any personal computer. It *IS* the desktop after all, and comes in many different shapes, sizes and configurations.

Many of us think of name brands such as Microsoft or Apple Macintosh, when we think of owning a PC, but it all starts with the humble computer tower, where motherboards nurse their internal hardware to external peripherals. Manufacturers build the parts, and companies such as IBM, Acer and Dell put them together to make your "name-brand" PC - complete with trademark software (most likely Microsoft).

The old Acer Standard Desktop Computer

When you want to configure your own system however, it takes a bit of research. First you have to know what you want to use the computer for, and then secondly, limit yourself to that benchmark. Because when I first started looking, I wanted the MOST RAM (Random Access Memory) and the MOST HDD (Hard Disk Drive) space, because I naturally assumed more meant faster processing speeds.

It's true, the more RAM (Random Access Memory) you have available, the faster the processes of your computer will run. But there are other parts of your computer which can be delegated specific tasks too. Enter the graphics card. I never had one in my old PC, but in my new second-hand tower they provided one. It's the only reason I allowed myself to compromise on less memory than I wanted. Because with a graphics card, it could handle the video footage you're watching, while your RAM is being used elsewhere on the computer. In other words, it takes the pressure off the RAM if you have a graphics card.

Still, I asked the company I purchased the second-hand unit from, to upgrade my RAM (Random Access Memory). It was really the HDD (Hard Disk Drive) memory I had to live with. It was only 160GB when most computers come with a hefty 500GB nowadays. It was way more than the 40GB of my old system, but still, that memory can get eaten up over time with repair patches, as I discovered with all my Microsoft Windows operating systems.

But here again, I found a solution. Microsoft Windows in one option for an operating system, which traditionally eats up a lot of HDD memory, but Linux based software uses a lot less. As it doesn't get hacked as much as Microsoft, there are less repair patches constantly being downloaded. Plus as the operator, Linux allows you to pick what downloads you want to install. With Windows you just had to accept ALL the automatic downloads it decided your system needed, whether you actually used the programs on it or not.

I will do a more in-depth post on Linux and Ubuntu which was the operating system I eventually chose. For now however, I want to break down the cost of my new system, and how it compares to my old system.

The new Acer Mini Computer

The Acer Media Centre V1000 cost:     $169.00
Upgrade from 2GB to 4GB RAM cost:  $  45.00
Postage from NSW to QLD cost:           $  16.50
Insurance cost:                                       $    5.30
USB TO ps2 adapter cost:                     $  20.00

Total:                                                       $255.80

Because I wanted to use my existing Monitor and Keyboard/Mouse, I checked the cable fittings which were PS2. The Mini computer I was purchasing however, didn't have those fixtures at the back, so I had to buy a USB to PS2 adapter. It looks like this:

Image credit

I kicked myself, because the company I was buying the second-hand computer from were selling those same adapters for $11. I didn't buy one at the time because I thought Dave had one with his laptop! Silly me, he didn't, and after my run around town the cheapest I found it for was $20. I could have paid less than $2 however, if I wanted to wait over a month for it to arrive from Hong Kong. Just goes to show the mark-up rate in Australia, doesn't it?

The company I purchased my mini computer from was Express PC Parts. I liked how thorough they were with pictures on their website, plus links to manufacturers the parts were from. At a glance, I could see what I was getting and if it was going to suit my purposes. The only downside was it came with Windows Vista that was originally installed on the hard drive. But I deleted it when I installed Ubuntu.

Still, for just over $255 I'm not complaining. Compared to my old system, I've got double the RAM, 120GB more HDD memory, uses less than half the electricity than my bigger tower, plus I didn't have to pay a manufacturer for the software packages. I hated all those pesky "free trial" offers for security programs, using up valuable memory, which I could never delete.

Linux was indeed a breath of fresh air! So was the final price.

What I found most interesting from this exercise however, was the difference in size between the large tower and small. Do you want to know the real reason why one is big and the other is small? The larger towers are manufactured to allow future upgrades for internal devices. I found this interesting, because most people who buy a cheap package deal, have absolutely no intention of opening up the tower for upgrades. Yet all "cheap" package deals sell the large towers. Feels like a bit of unnecessary waste. The mini computers nowadays only house the system it is being purchased for - only a general PC for general use. If more people spend on mini-computers (for their intended purpose) maybe manufacturers will get the message?

My old tower won't go to waste however. I'm going to rebuild it. For the first time I'm going to pull apart my own computer and upgrade it myself. I don't expect it to be a pain free experience, but it will most definitely be an enlightening one. There won't be any pressure to rush finishing either. I predict my second-hand new unit has about another 6 years use ahead of it.

In fact, if I learn how to upgrade computers from scratch, I may never have to buy a new computer again! Just keep recycling the old ones and replacing the parts which are broken.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A new way to do business

My computer is 6 years old now. We purchased it as a "package deal", so we received a brand new computer with monitor, keyboard, mouse and operating system (Windows) and paid just under $1000 for it. Six years ago that was pretty good value, but now my old system has aged it can barely keep-up with all that multi-tasking. If we were to buy another computer package, it would cost a few hundred dollars less, for a more powerful computer.

We considered a new package, but I suppose after you buy a few (between us, Dave and I have purchased 4 in the 17 years of owning computers) you start to look at the whole exercise as a bit of a waste. Why do we have to replace the monitor, keyboard and mouse all over again, when it was really only the hard-drive which kicked the bucket?

I asked myself that question more seriously before going out to purchase a new computer this time. My three criteria were price, value and reliability. Could I find something different to the normal way of doing business with the PC world? Without going into long convoluted stories, let's just say I came to realise why we were locked in a wasteful cycle. We'd grown-up on package deal diets, and didn't know how to make a PC from scratch. What's more, the two operating systems which dominated the market (Windows and Macintosh) went out of their way to make computing easier for the user. Why did we have to think beyond megabites someone else prepared for us?

Basically, we were happiest to sit back, open a box and go wow when the switch was flicked for the first time. That was the problem. It was the "operators" not the operating systems. We didn't want to go looking for choice if it was a harder process to go through. After many months of determined research, often feeling like I was sitting for exams all over again (my brain turning to mush and being out of my depth) I eventually received my prize...

Two Acer computer towers side-by-side

Above you can see my old and new system, sitting side by side. Both are Acer computers and somewhat a bit of luck the new (second-hand) computer turned out to be an Acer too. I was looking at purchasing a new hard-drive originally, but the new Linux operating system I was going to install may not have worked. After all, I had never attempted anything like this before.

So I decided I would opt for a second-hand computer to experiment on instead. If I lost the money because it didn't work, then at least I wouldn't have lost as much as a brand new hard-drive would cost. The one I had priced was around $360. All up, my second-hand system cost a total of $255. I will itemize all the costs and the process involved, in another post. I believe the information is a lot easier to absorb if it's broken into smaller bits.

I think the new Acer blends in well with my existing monitor, keyboard and mouse. I didn't have to replace them and that gave me a great deal of satisfaction. I know you can get bigger monitors (mine is 17 inches) but it works perfectly fine and I don't do a lot of video editing to justify an upgrade.

At the end of this exercise, I got the satisfaction of knowing a little more about how computers work, and that I'm not as powerless a consumer as first believed. There are many options beyond the package-deal diet, but you have to hunger for something else. I like technology, I think it can be very useful, but why not learn something new in the process? We can choose to sit back and go wow when we open the new box, or we can choose to put something together ourselves that meets our needs better.

The process didn't kill me and I'm not a computer geek either. I raise a family and maintain a property at the same time - I don't have a paid job though, so that's the only reason I had the time. If you've got time available too, before your next computer dies, look into free open-source software, which uses a Linux based kernel. It's why I didn't have to pay for an operating system, or all the free software that makes my new system work.

This won't be the last post I write about this subject. It's far too interesting not to talk about.

Monday, April 23, 2012


I am back on-line from what seemed like an impossible month. I won't go into all the details because that part's really boring. Let's just go straight to the fun stuff, shall we? Here we go...Geronimo!

DAY 1: When your husband starts packing a sonic screw-driver and a TARDIS for the weekend, you just know he's bound to run into some trouble.

DAY 2: Seems you can't go parking a TARDIS any where on the Gold Coast, without a posse of villainy tagging along. Weeping Angels just want to feed on the cosmic energy, and the Cat Nurses from New New-York, think they are the Doctors...

Zombie Scarecrows - well, how many villains can pull off a Hessian sack nowadays, I ask you? Looking good Zombie. Get in line though, the Doctor's that-a-way --->

His best bow-legged impersonation of the 11th doctor (ahem, I mean, of himself) trying to sort a Darlek, which threatened to exterminate anyone for taking any MORE pictures with it. The Doctor's plan was to confuse it with flashing lights, and his trusty sonic screwdriver. It's literally star struck and unable to move!

 LOOK! What's that? I'll remember any minute now.  It's right on the tip of my tongue. Give me a sec - (SILENCE)....

Where was I? Maybe it was checking out this elusive pack of Gallifreyans. Normally timid, this almost extinct species known as "Time Lords", have gathered together to renounce the power of the Leader of the Council. In the striking red scarf we have the formidable Tom Baker (4th Doctor) the glasses, the irrepressible 10th Doctor, David Tennant, and donning the bow tie, Matt Smith, our current Doctor to date. Tom Baker steals all the attention however, because I think the Leader of the Council approves of his taste in colour.

Another vote of approval, for the Doctor with the scarf! Start them young, I say. As a grown man, he'll have all this costume shenanigans to look forward to. Geronimo!

Of course, you cannot have a convention without a Storm Trooper steeling the show with Bobba Fett. Confusing this Dalek with an R2D2 unit, they interrogated it about the whereabouts of the nearest facility. They already tried the Police Box, but it was bigger on the inside. They had to turn back once they found the swimming pool.

Does this Sith apprentice look really ticked, or what? Maybe he was expecting a real light-sabre, instead of one made in China?

The Doctor is really letting his standard of non-violence go, if this is who he's taking on board as his next assistant! You'd have thought he'd learned from the Time Wars, now he wants to involve Star Wars? Just kidding Darth, really, love ya work babe! Stop in for some Jammy Dodgers any time...

I guess you know everything in the universe will be okay, when Yoshimo and Princess Peach are on the scene though. How cute are these guys? Awwh, used to be my favourite character to play Mario Carts on the Nintendo Wii.

But then I started to question what kind of dragon you really were, after my husband told me your hand came close to his butt in this photo! Maybe it was difficult to see with all those lights and you were a champ for taking so many photos with people. How you didn't managed to keel over from heat stroke, I don't know. All the same, I may consider Mario to be my new favourite cart racer now. Because I think his red cars go faster and my husband's butt is a very sacred thing.

Sounds like we need an Avenger. Where is a Tony Stark: Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist, when you need one. AVENGERS, assemble...

Iron Man (above) and Black Widow with MISS Captain America (below) too. A lovely representation - I love how she stands with the shield, just like the "Cap" does.

Now down to the business end of why so many great enthusiasts found their way to one place on the Gold Coast over the weekend.  Supanova! Big convention, lots of things to see, and this is why Dave found his way there:

He had a display and table for the Doctor who Club of Australia, which has been the first one for the club on the Gold Coast. The guy in our local group who made the TARDIS, kindly brought it down for the two days. The Dalek was someone else's creation who came on Day 1, and after seeing the TARDIS, asked if they could bring it on Day 2. Boy was everyone thrilled they did. It was a terrific surprise to have two iconic Dr Who life-sized props to play with. Dave was told there was a huge "Doctor Who" sized gap on the Gold Coast convention, but this year, thanks to this man...

My own life sized action hero!

Yes, the Toowoomba Avenger himself, and all round Doctor Who enthusiast - plus these wonderful volunteers below, from our Toowoomba local group, who kept Dave sane...Ben is missing - hiya Benjamin...Geoff (TARDIS maker) and Steve, thanks as well.

They all made it possible to share some of that weirdness, dare I say, the "Shenanigans" which is the Doctor Who universe. I didn't go - long story, but I'm glad he could make it with some really lovely people.  And just because I can...

This is my favourite picture - a Weeping Angel. Complete with red eyes from the camera. It's one of those shots you WANT the red eyes to appear! Nice to see the Angel didn't blink!