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July 10, 2001 - Vol. 1, No. 8
By Scot Finnie
IN THIS ISSUE
I actually performed the inside connections and software installation on my own, since my installer completed the outside work while I was out of town and when I returned, he was out of town. He and I had talked about this in advance, so it wasn't a surprise. All told, my end of the deal took me about an hour. It might have been 15 minutes except for two problems. The hardware end is simple. Connect two coax cables (one to each DirecPC modem) and then connect the USB cable between the downstream modem and the PC. (Three minutes.)
Next, the installation software. Pegasus Express provides literally no written instructions, and the website has nothing but a basic FAQ. I had received a CD in the mail, without any documentation. When you insert the CD you have a few options, but basically, you just choose "Installation." So, I, ah, chose that option.
My first problem had to do with Ethernet connectivity. I had heard that Pegasus Express would not work if you had an Ethernet card in the computer. So before I installed, I ripped my 3Com 3C905B-TX card out of my test machine, a Dell R450 with 128MB of RAM. I also uninstalled AOL software from this machine since I'd heard there were issues with that software. The Pegasus Express installation routine crashed repeatedly at a specific point early on, so I knew I still had a conflict of some sort. I decided that ripping out the Ethernet hardware might not be enough, so I killed the software entry for network card in Device Manager. Reboot. Presto, the installation software works. (Oh, and by the way, you can run Ethernet with Pegasus Express. I'll come back to this point.)
Pegasus Express requires your computer to have an analog modem for about five minutes during setup. This is the only time you need the analog modem, but making use of a 56-kbps connection greatly eases the installation process because all the settings for your connection are handled by the setup software and the DirecPC server. StarBand, pay attention. Among other things, the installation absolutely required me to give up a credit card number, name, address, etc. (22 minutes.)
My second installation problem occurred at the very end of the process. The very last setup step is to configure a primary email address. The setup routine crashed at that point. When I rebooted, I found that my connection was working perfectly, but I still didn't have an email address. A webpage on the Pegasus Express site lets you create additional addresses for your service (additional names must be five digits or greater in length, not the three digits claimed on the page). Unfortunately, it doesn't let you create a primary email address. And without the primary, you can't create additional email addresses, so I was stuck. (40 minutes.)
I had to call one of my company contacts at Pegasus to learn the Customer Care phone number (877-470-7488) because it wasn't listed anywhere that I could find. I got through to a real human being pretty quickly, waiting on hold for less than five minutes. The person I spoke with was very helpful and friendly, but not very knowledgeable. On the other hand, there was someone she kept checking with, and she did finally understand and then solve my problem. The fix was a special URL that allows you to create a primary email address. I heard that the problem I had was a known problem experienced by a subset of new Pegasus Express users. (60 minutes.)
One last wrinkle I discovered shortly after installation. Pegasus Express doesn't offer newsgroup service yet. The company plans to begin testing newsgroups in the near future, according to a tech support representative.
It's Wicked Fast, Sort of
With email created and Web browsing operational, I began testing the service. I tried FTP, instant messaging, email, and other Internet activities. I didn't try VPN because the Pegasus Express FAQ plainly states that VPN is not supported.
I also ran some bandwidth testers, including both servers at DSLreports.com as well as several others. As measured, the performance was very good. The lowest number in my tests was 1,101kbps, or just a little shy of T1. Actual download performance is square in the center of real-world T1 speeds. I've also received performance test numbers well in excess of T1 speeds. Even though it advertises a maximum speed of 400kbps, which is 100kbps slower than StarBand's advertised 500kbps top speed, Pegasus Express makes StarBand look like it's standing still. As an example, Pegasus Express downloaded my 15MB test file in about 75 seconds (with an FTP client) -- that's a real-world data-transfer rate of around 1,725kbps, which is faster than T1.
But a funny thing is true of Pegasus Express. Like StarBand, it's a little slow at running instant messaging, email, and other functions. Not as slow as StarBand, but slower than my 384kbps SDSL connection. Even more strange, Pegasus Express could not keep up with my SDSL connection at the basic task of loading website home pages (or secondary pages). My SDSL connection took anywhere from six seconds to 13 seconds to load a battery of web site home pages and secondary pages. Pegasus Express, whose raw download speeds are *much* faster than those of my SDSL connection, required anywhere from 8 to 23 seconds to load the same pages. In particular, it seemed to have trouble with sites that have numerous graphics on the page -- especially those with multiple third-party server calls. It's not exactly slow. But it isn't as snappy as I'd like to see. It's roughly on par with StarBand in the Web browsing department. But whereas StarBand falls down on file download speed, Pegasus and DirecPC shines there.
What about upstream? DirecPC offers pretty terrible upstream performance that tested in the 33kbps range, which is actually somewhat slower what you can expect from a clean local line and a 56K modem (roughly around 44kbps). Although DirecPC's upstream connection does not require a telephone line, it's advertised as being "up to 128kbps." Not even close. StarBand's upstream is at least double the performance of DirecPC's.
Like any satellite connection, Pegasus Express has a severe latency issue to overcome caused by the 44,000 miles the signal has to travel there and back to the satellite. Like StarBand, Pegasus quotes a roughly half-second latency period -- pretty much ruling it out for complete real time activities like some multiplayer games and real-time two-way video.
Some other bullet points are worth including. Pegasus Express charges $700 for equipment and installation, and the company charges $69.95 a month for the service. Service levels are a bit unclear at press time, but this does include multiple email addresses. Apparently it also includes a dial-up option designed as a fall-back for the satellite in bad weather conditions.
Hughes Electronics is the company behind the DirecPC two-way satellite solution, which it calls a "Satellite Return System." The diminutive, stackable DirecPC modems and satellite dish are built by Hughes, and they appear to work well. Hughes is relying on third parties entirely to market and support its end-user customers. But there's information on the Hughes site about where you can get DirecPC.
AOL Plus sells only a one-way solution, which requires a satellite modem for the downstream link coordinated with a 56K dial-up connection for the upstream link. This type of connection kills the always-on advantage.
Like Pegasus, which is the largest reseller of DirecTV services, ISP EarthLink is the second main reseller of two-way DirecPC. For a limited time, EarthLink's upfront charges are lower: About $600 for equipment and installation. (After August 31 pricing goes back up to about $900.) EarthLink has one significant advantage. Because it's a world-class ISP already, you get newsgroups and 56K dial-up service with nationwide POPs (20 hours per month) as part of the plan. The current promotion makes Earthlink a worthy option. One gotcha you should be aware of is Earthlink's $399 early-termination fee; the company requires a 12-month contract.
American Satellite, Infodish.com, Best Buy, Circuit City, and Office Depot all sell two-way DirecPC packages. I'm still double-checking this point, but I believe all those packages come with Pegasus Express as the backend provider. So, while you may surmise that Earthlink is the primary source for DirecPC, I don't believe that's so.
In coming issues I'll be covering more about Pegasus Express/DirecPC. One thing I found out right away is that after installation was complete, I was able to reinstall my 3Com network card and set up my computer so that it was part of my local area network. I have not tried to share the Pegasus Express Internet access yet, but a Pegasus Express executive notes that it is possible to do this. Because the DirecPC modems do not have an Ethernet port, you're stuck connecting to your PC with USB. And that means hardware options for sharing the connection are out. But software, such as WinProxy and WinGate, and even Internet Connection Sharing, should work but there is a good chance of performance loss. I plan to cover all this in more detail in a future issue.
On balance, my first impression of DirecPC and Pegasus Express is favorable. It definitely surpasses StarBand -- at least for the moment. It's possible, even likely, that as more people get on Pegasus Express the performance levels will erode. Time will tell. For right now, DirecPC appears to be the best two-way satellite solution for most people's needs.
Another Pegasus Express Perspective
SFNL reader Geoffrey Stoner got Pegasus Express before I did, and he had this to say about his experience:
"The installers got my Pegasus system working on the second attempt. The first group of installers sent out had never installed the system before, and for seven hours they attempted to install and align the dish without success. The second installer got everything going in about three hours. I've had one service interruption since when the mail server was down for most of the day, but so far so good. I am using Pegasus Express right now during a rather ominous thunderstorm and still have service with both DirecTV and DirecPC with surprisingly no rain fade. I used to get fade on the DirecTV with the smaller 18" dish. First day of operation testing speeds on CNET I was getting about 200kbps, right now its reporting 2,400kbps, and it usually averages about 700kbps. Other than the initial installation hiccups, it's been good so far." --Geoffrey B Stoner, Colorado
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For those of you unfamiliar with XP or even Win2000, the process of doing a clean install couldn't be easier. All you do is boot from the WinXP Setup CD. Most PCs bought over the last two or three years are capable of booting to a CD disc. (You may have to adjust a setting in CMOS/BIOS to enable CD-boot functionality.) Many PCs, including my Compaq Armada M700 notebook test machine, display a message during boot, such as "Press any key to boot from CD," whenever you boot with a CD in the drive.
Windows XP's Setup takes it from there. Onscreen prompts offer you the option to upgrade an existing Windows installation or perform a clean install. You also have the option to use an existing disk partition and file system, or to apply NTFS and install to the partition of your choice. Beta testers should do a clean install of RC1. For everyone else, when Windows XP arrives in October, I strongly urge you to install it in a multiple-boot configuration with your existing version of Windows (something I'll detail in this newsletter when the time comes). That way if you run into problems, you can boot back to your working OS while you resolve them. Eventually -- say after six months with no problems -- you'll want to install XP as your primary OS. Microsoft recommends an upgrade install at that point. I recommend a clean install.
WinXP RC1's installation seems to take a bit longer than Win9x/Me or Win2K installations. But it's worth it. The setup routine in Windows XP is the best Windows installation Microsoft has ever done. And that's saying something because Microsoft does good installation. I'd rather take the extra time to get it right. Most of the process doesn't need to be attended.
RC1 offers a clear refinement over previous betas of Windows XP. There are a lot of subtle changes, including new artwork for the interface and general design. There's also literally just one icon on the desktop, the Recycle Bin.
As I reported last time, the Quick Launch bar (beside the enlarged green Start button) is turned off by default. A new control under the heavily revised Taskbar and Start Menu Properties (which you access by right-clicking either the Taskbar or the open Start Menu background and choosing Properties) lets you turn Quick Launch back on. It's one of the first things I did. Microsoft may want to kill Quick Launch, but I use it constantly.
The Start Menu is now designed for the least-common-denominator Windows user. I applaud the basic idea: Don't mix people up between whether they should work from desktop icons or a primary menu. That was always a problem with the old interface. With My Computer and My Network Places available from Start, the UI element is finally the place where everything begins. But experienced users need to keep this in mind. You're likely to be fairly frustrated until you use the aforementioned Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog to customize the Start Menu. There's a lot more going on in these dialogs than any previous version of Windows, including ME and Win2K. I suspect that many of you will want to just go back to the "classic" Start Menu -- an option Microsoft has thoughtfully included. I've written about the new Control Panel before, and nothing's changed. I recommend customizing Start so that Control Panel cascades to show all the applets one click away. It's for the best.
Previous versions of Windows XP have had problems, we all hoped beta in nature. Little things like, it was sometimes very hard to open a disk drive folder window. That appears to be fixed in RC1. Finding the correct "My Documents" folder -- the shell game Microsoft began under NT and Windows 2000 -- is still a nuisance under XP. Because of the multiple users, there are multiple locations for these things. If you use the GUI interface, you'll be okay. But many of us use shortcuts for accessing Windows structures that either no longer work or operate in different ways. Win XP's UI is more complex than Win9x users are used to.
I was both pleasantly surprised and mildly annoyed by the improved basic networking functionality. For the first time ever under Win2K or WinXP, after installing RC1 (an utter clean install) I had instant peer networking connectivity with the other 9 nodes on my network, most of which are 9x variants. Making this work under Win2000 was something of a nightmare for many people -- most of whom resorted to enabling their "Guest" user, which ain't a great a idea for security reasons. I know seriously experienced users who gave up at this task under Win2K, and the problem has been around since NT.
The mildly annoyed part came when I tried to share whole Windows XP drives on my network. Although my XP box could see and work with the other PCs on the LAN, those other PCs could access XP because volumes or devices had been shared there. Standard stuff. But what isn't standard is that Microsoft not only warns against sharing a whole drive for security reasons, the options that are supposed to let you do that are grayed out on my machine.
I'll be spending days, weeks, and months with the new XP, and reporting on it frequently. I can tell you this, RC1 is very slick. With the exception of product activation, I think Microsoft is doing some of its very best work right now in this operating system.
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But I had a sneaking suspicion this might happen. So, yesterday I made screen captures of Amazon's Windows XP product pages. For your viewing pleasure:
According to Amazon.com, the WinXP Home Edition Upgrade version is $100 and the Windows XP Professional Upgrade version is $200 (very steep price delta). Meanwhile, the Windows XP Home Edition is $200 and the Windows XP Professional is $300. Gone are the days, apparently, when you could get a copy of Windows for $90. A $100 price delta between the Home Edition and Pro versions isn't justified. I'll be surprised if the street pricing on the Pro versions does not come down after the product ships.
Comcast Goes After AT&T Broadband
I have to admit, I was a bit surprised by Comcast's bid to swallow up AT&T Broadband. (Do you think that would mean I'd get a cable modem faster? ;-) It's actually a tough call right now as to whether this is likely to happen. I think AT&T's management has no intention of selling, but it's board -- after a couple of very tough and expensive years -- could well think otherwise. There are even rumors that Liberty Media may be considering its own bid for AT&T Broadband. I guess time will tell. If you're interested in the cable industry, these stories on the subject make excellent reading.
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As always, Mossberg writes perfectly for average consumer PC users, and he explained product activation well. (The only nit I would pick is his concern about privacy, which I think is overstated. For Microsoft, this is about money, pure and simple. I don't think there's any reason to fear that the 50-digit hardware installation ID that product activation sends to Microsoft will be used for nefarious purposes.)
Just as I was about to send out the newsletter, a story published by CNET about a German firm's detailed analysis of Product Activation which concludes that things are basically as Microsoft has said with regard to privacy. See this white paper for the full report.
But Mossberg and others are right when they criticize Windows XP's product activation for being, as Mossberg writes, Draconian. While the process of activation is easy, its purpose is to make consumers who own multiple PCs pay. And the problem is that most consumers don't already realize that a copy of Windows is only supposed to be installed on one PC at a time. Microsoft is doing nothing at all to help consumer customers understand this issue, while all the while it doles out huge discounts to its bread and butter corporate customers. The big marketing emphasis for Windows XP is the consumer features. But this version of Windows contains what amounts to a stealth license-enforcing scheme in product activation that's apt to frustrate and anger literally millions of home users. Even home users who only have one computer could potentially run into activation issues when they change hardware in their PCs.
For a company that was once the most customer-focused software maker in the computer industry, Microsoft is making a serious blunder with product activation. But it's done usability tests, so it knows better. Well I don't think so. In the May 25, 2000 issue of Windows Insider: Is Judge Jackson Mad?
In the same way that I asked that question about Thomas Penfield Jackson, I have to wonder whether Microsoft isn't madly attempting to raise the bottom line by making a similarly outlandish decision. In fact, the irony is that product activation (and BIOS-locking of OEM Windows to PCs) is really the first thing I can remember Microsoft doing that actively hurt consumers.
But it might not matter. If retail-buying Windows users aren't deterred from buying Windows XP by the specter of product activation -- if, in fact, activation causes Windows XP retail sales to grow, as Microsoft probably believes they will -- what's the downside for Microsoft? Short-term, none. But here's the part that's hard to measure or predict: I think the negative customer experiences surrounding product activation are going to push a lot more people out of Microsoft's camp, starting with power users like us. Microsoft's corporate image is already bad enough. Maybe Microsoft truly is a monopoly though. What alternative do we have? Linux? It's not ready for desktop primetime. It may never be. Apple? It doesn't run Windows software. BeOS? Be serious. There's nothing wrong with those operating systems; but none of them has critical mass on the desktop. Windows is the only one that does.
So, at the very least, we need to get the word out about product activation. What it's for, how it works, how it complicates the Windows experience, and what the downsides are. Microsoft has proved that it will respond when the negative backlash is strong enough. The recent removal of Smart Tags in Internet Explorer 6.0 and Windows XP are a good example of that. At this point, though, I don't think activation is going away. It's going to be released with Windows XP on October 25, 2001, and it's already out in Office XP. But retail Windows buyers should hear about this from their expert friends before they plunk down their cash.
To bone up on product activation, see these SFNL and Windows Insider articles:
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Tweak UI can cause your Start button's right-click Open and Explore menu items to go prematurely gray. In other words, it can render those functions unusable. When they work, those menu items open the folder that corresponds to your Start menu with a standard folder window or a two-paned Windows Explorer, respectively. In my book, using a folder window is the fastest way to do serious Start Menu customizing. Literally thousands of people have found the fix on this page useful for reinstating the use of these Start button context menu items. If you've got the problem, you will too:
What's the Best of SFNL?
The Best of SFNL is a recurring series of web-based explainers, fixes, and tips that I've found to be popular. I'm building these as I can, with plans to provide several more topics that will be available to anyone, subscribers and non-subscribers alike. When I have enough built, I'll offer navigation on the website. At present, the only other Best Of SFNL content is:
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The most common complaint about the name PC Insider is that it offers no clue about the broadband coverage. I know that some of you tolerate the broadband content, while others are wild about it. Many voters suggested I name the newsletter Windows & Broadband Report, PC Broadband Insider, or variations on that theme. (If I could come up with a short, catchy name like that, I'd go for it.) Others suggested names that focus solely on broadband, many of them good ones. But since I cover both Windows and broadband, that thinking is equally problematic.
Surprising to me, the next most common negative reaction to PC Insider is a preference for using my name as the title. After all, my good buddy Fred Langa does this (quite successfully), and many other newsletter authors do the same. The problem is that if you don't already know who I am, Scot Finnie's Newsletter might as easily be about kumquats as PCs and broadband. One thing I have decided, if I go with a name like PC Insider, it'll be formally known as "Scot Finnie's PC Insider."
The argument that's really starting to get to me though is that many people wrote that the word "Insider" is a little tired, that a lot of plain-vanilla newsletters use it. One voter wrote "PC Insider sounds generic. If that's what you want, OK." Even though Scot’s Newsletter was born from Windows Insider, so there's a precedent for the Insider part of the name, I don't want to sound generic. But rest assured, if the name changes it'll be a change in name only. The newsletter isn't going to change at all. And I think you all know me well enough by now to know that I'm not going to go corporate on you. But what about people who don't know me?
There's one other nagging concern. Among the 300+ dissenters to the PC Insider name are many industry people, IT pros, and a long list of regular readers whom I've known for quite a while and whose opinions I've come to respect. It's enough to make a guy think twice.
The upshot is that I haven't decided whether to rename the newsletter PC Insider -- or whether to rename it at all. (It's tough to ignore 2,000 votes to the positive though. I believe that's the highest number of votes and the highest percentage for or against something ever for me.) But for a short while, I plan to continue pondering the whole name thing until the right answer emerges. In the meantime, I've registered a PC Insider domain that automatically forwards to the current SFNL newsletter domain, just in case:
Thanks for your votes. If you have ideas or comments about the name of this newsletter, I would very much like to hear them. Please email me your thoughts.
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"In a recent newsletter you indicated that WildBlue would be launching service late this year (2001). I wanted to clarify that point because we will be launching our service in mid 2002.
"You may have seen the recent coverage of WildBlue in the Wall Street Journal and several of our print and TV stories on Tuesday June 26 following our announcement of a major equity investment from Telesat Canada, a subsidiary of Bell Canada Enterprises. We believe it is a strong affirmation of our business model given the tough economic environment for technology and telecom companies.
"We are confident that we will be the first one out with the next generation Ka-band spot beam technology that will make service pricing affordable (about equal to cable modem and DSL), which should be worth looking forward to for your newsletter subscribers. If you need further information on WildBlue, please do not hesitate to call me." --Tony Gonsalves, VP Consumer Marketing, WildBlue
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So I'm naming Speedguide.net Scot’s Newsletter Link of the Week, which it richly deserves. I think you'll agree.
Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows- or broadband-oriented website that everyone should know about? Please send me the URL, and let me know why you liked it.
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Do you have a Windows or broadband tip you think SFNL readers will like? Send it along to me, and if I test it and print it in the newsletter, I'll print your name with it.
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