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Scot’s Newsletter

Windows and Broadband Information You Can Use!

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January 17, 2002 - Vol. 2, Issue No. 19

By Scot Finnie

IN THIS ISSUE

  • Second Annual Broadband Users' Poll
  • Lowdown on the NTFS File System
  • The Latest Installment of 'DSL Hell'
  • Satellite Corner: Pegasus Express (DirecPC) Improves
  • Product Beat: Norton Internet Security 2002 Pro
  • Online Retail Update
  • Scot’s Newsletter 'Tried and True' Products
  • Windows Security Bulletin Notes
  • Link of the Week: MyNetWatchman.com
  • Tips of the Week: Make Win XP Work Your Way
  • Subscribe, Unsubscribe, or Change Your Address.


    Second Annual Broadband Users' Poll
    Surprise. About 45 percent of those who responded to last issue's Broadband Reader Poll reported they have three types of broadband service available to them — cable modem, DSL, and satellite. About 1,300 people responded to the poll.

    Cable modem-only was the next largest bucket, with about 10 percent of the respondents, and each of the rest of the possible answers (for example, DSL only, DSL + satellite, satellite only, cable + satellite, and so forth), all earned less than 100 responses, making them somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the total.

    The biggest surprise of all is that fewer than 30 people out of 1,300 said there was absolutely no broadband service available to them. I'm still a little floored by that data point. But I don't think it means that most people have broadband available to them, or even that most SFNL readers have broadband available to them. More than anything it probably just indicates that SFNL readers who don't have broadband aren't in much of a mood to take a broadband reader poll. And who could blame them?

    Even so, last year's poll, conducted by Winmag.com, showed a similar trend with under 20 percent of the respondents saying they couldn't get broadband. Cable and DSL providers are focused on specific, more lucrative markets, too, which explains why many people have multiple choices, and I'm guessing many others have none or satellite only.

  • The poll questions from last issue in case you want to review them.

    For anyone who has broadband, is there a specific type of broadband-oriented content you'd like to see this newsletter provide? Send me your suggestions.

    Back to the Top


    Lowdown on the NTFS File System
    A lot of you out there are budding operating system experts, whether you know it or not. If you find yourself posing questions about file systems — trust me — you're a hopeless geek. I had to own up to this exact point over a decade ago. It's painful, but it passes.

    Why do I say this? Because I'm getting a steady stream of email asking for explanations about the differences between Windows XP's NTFS file system (NTFS stands for New Technology File System, and yes, NT, like Windows NT) and FAT32 (File Allocation Table), which originated in the Windows 95B version but was made popular by Windows 98, Second Edition, and ME.

    Most of the questions I've been getting are from people who are considering Windows XP in one fashion or another. To make sure of my answers, I interviewed Microsoft's David Golds, group product manager for file systems and storage. And I have some useful information to pass along to you. Even if file systems sound ... yawn ... boring as heck to you, strap in and check this out for a few minutes.

    If you've bought or are buying a new PC with Windows XP, the odds are extremely high that it will come with a single NTFS partition, or volume. One giant Drive C:, that is. Microsoft has tested NTFS with a single partition of up to 19 Terabytes (TB), but the theoretical maximum is at least 8 Petabytes (PB).

    By contrast, FAT32 is effectively limited to volume sizes of 2TB (although this point is debatable, and this is a theoretical maximum). One of the big differences is that FAT32 doesn't scale as well as NTFS. The larger the volume size in FAT32, the larger the cluster size. At 64GB, FAT32 moves up to 16K clusters. Even a 512byte file uses 16K of space just to exist under FAT32 on a 64GB volume. That means FAT32 does not store data efficiently on larger volumes. NTFS is able to keep to its 4K cluster size default even on huge disk volumes. NTFS also stores files that are under 700bytes in the Master File Table, where they displace 1K instead of 4K, further improving storage efficiency. No other Windows file system stores files as efficiently as NTFS, especially on large disk volumes.

    On your new Windows XP machine, it's also likely that you'll get an NTFS partition whether you get Win XP Pro or Home edition. Both versions of XP support and provide NTFS. When properly installed, NTFS under XP is greatly preferable to FAT32.

    What if you bought a shrinkwrap copy of Windows XP, not a new PC with Windows XP preinstalled? According to Microsoft's Golds, unless you're doing a 100-percent clean installation of Windows XP on your existing PC, converting to NTFS as part of your Win9x upgrade installation could reduce your hard drive performance. This is more true under Windows 2000, where due to the conversion process, the resulting NTFS cluster sizes, Gold says, are reduced to 512bytes, or one-half K. Smaller cluster sizes are more storage efficient, but they also slow down drive performance.

    The conversion scenario is a little better under Windows XP. The underlying tool that Microsoft uses to convert FAT32 to NTFS attempts to raise NTFS to the best cluster size possible. According to Golds, "This depends on how the FAT32 clusters align with the NTFS clusters, which can vary." He points to a Microsoft Developer's Network document that describes this in more detail:

  • NTFS Preinstallation and Windows XP

    "If you have a FAT volume that was not prepared specially as described in the document above, then you do not get the best performance from the resulting NTFS installation," Golds adds. "For the fastest NTFS layout, either use the process described above or a cleanly formatted NTFS volume. For machines upgraded from 9x, I would probably stick with FAT volumes, unless I specifically wanted the security and functionality that NTFS offers."

    Because I wonder about things, I checked in with PowerQuest, the company that does PartitionMagic. Among other things, the latest version of PartitionMagic, 7.0, can convert back and forth between FAT32 and NTFS, and it fully supports Windows XP. According to PowerQuest's Travis Eggett, a retail product specialist, there isn't a noticeable performance hit for converting from FAT32 to NTFS is noticeable to the average user. He also notes the company has no performance complaints from PartitionMagic customers, under Windows 2000 or Windows XP. PowerQuest uses the same underlying tool in PartitionMagic that Microsoft uses in Windows XP to convert FAT32 to NTFS. So what we have here is a difference of opinion. Or it may be a semantic difference: real world vs. underlying reality. I don't know the answer. But if I find out, I'll let you know.

    Some people are experiencing issues with performance, though. I've had a handful of email complaints about this to the newsletter. So far as I can tell, some people who purchased Windows XP with a new PC right after it became available have experienced very slow disk performance. Could this be because the OEM PC makers used a DOS tool to image the disk on new XP machines and converted the FAT partition later in the process, resulting in small 512byte cluster sizes? Unknown at this time. I am in the midst of putting together any SFNL readers who have this problem with folks at Microsoft who'd like to get to the bottom of it. So, if you bought a new Windows XP machine with the NTFS file system preinstalled and you're experiencing slow disk performance, let me know about it

    I will forward your message to Microsoft, and they should be in contact with you.

    By the way, according to Golds, most of the bigger PC makers now have Microsoft-supplied tools that accomplish the new-PC disk-imaging task using NTFS, so there's no potential for performance issues introduced during conversion.

    If you suspect your NTFS installation of not being up to snuff, there is a worthwhile (if arduous) solution for you. Copy everything off your hard drive (either to backup or to another PC), then repartition and reformat the drive, and finally perform a clean install of Windows XP. After that you can copy back your data, but you'll have to reinstall drivers and applications.

    — More Conversion Details —
    What about Win2K users? The version of NTFS in Windows XP is 3.1. It is backwardly compatible with the version of NTFS with Windows 2000, which is v.3.0. When you upgrade an NTFS Win2000 installation with Windows XP, the conversion to NTFS v.3.1 is routine (and unless you upgraded a Win9x installation with Win2K), you should have no issues, performance or otherwise.

    Microsoft offers two ways to convert your PC's file system to NTFS. The first is during installation, where you'll be asked both what partition you want to install to and whether you want to format that drive with NTFS or use the existing file system. The second option is available post installation. It's the command-line CONVERT utility. To access it, open the Command Prompt window (should be available on Start) and, to get more information about how to use this tool, type:

    Convert /?

    Wondering what your file system's cluster size is? I haven't been able to find that information using the tools Microsoft provided (but if you know a way, please send it on and I'll print it next time). One way I do know to check cluster sizes is with PowerQuest's PartitionMagic utility. (See the Tried And True section later in this issue for more details.)

    — What's So Good About NTFS? —
    It sounds like NTFS might be a hassle, so why would you want it? Surprisingly, there's just no question that you do. NTFS offers a ton of advantages. It's more secure, more efficient, just as fast as FAT32 on typical drives when properly installed, and is extensible in several ways that could make it even more useful in the future. Here's a few of the advantages:

    Reliability. None of those reasons I mentioned in the previous paragraph are the main reason why I like NTFS better. What I really prefer about NTFS is that it's a journaling file system. NTFS literally keeps a log file (Microsoft calls it a write-ahead log because it writes what it's going to do before it does it) of all changes made to the hard disk. That way, if the power goes out or the operating system freezes or some other calamity occurs in the midst of a write to the disk, NTFS can resume the operation automatically as soon as the operating system is running properly again. Under the FAT file systems, that kind of situation winds up in file system or disk corruption — a sort of permanent error that can bring down the operating system or your data like a house of cards. Journaling is the main reason to use NTFS. It doesn't matter whether you're a business user or a home user, NTFS is more reliable. And reliability is what you want from your file system.

    Storage efficiency. I've explained this already, so I'll keep it brief. Windows XP's NTFS is far more efficient at storing files than FAT32. In other words, you'll use less space on the disk storing a given set of 1,000 typical files under NTFS than you will with FAT32. And the larger your hard disk, the more true that is. No Windows file system is stores data more efficiently (in the least amount of disk space) than NTFS.

    Drive performance. This is less black and white. Microsoft claims performance improvements on boot times. And NTFS is faster than or equal to FAT32 on smaller drives (sub 10GB) according to PowerQuest's Eggett. Microsoft has worked to maximize NTFS's performance, though; and it does appear to be inherently faster than FAT32. But as you grow into larger disk sizes, NTFS retains its smaller cluster sizes (the very attribute that delivers excellent storage efficiency). Smaller cluster sizes drag down performance. My estimate: On drive sizes over 30GB, you can expect modest reductions in NTFS performance over FAT32. According to Eggett, any such reductions really aren't noticeable. The difference is minor. That may sound pretty bad, but it's actually a pretty neat technical achievement. The performance/efficiency thing has long been a trade-off on the desktop.

    One other performance point, the actual code size for NTFS is larger than for FAT32. So in a highly memory constrained environment, such as a handheld device or embedded situation, NTFS requires more space, and that can slow things down. On the typical user PC with at least 128MB of RAM, this is pretty much a non-issue.

    Security. Every file in NTFS has an ACL (Access Control List). That means that technically you can create user-based security for every file on your computer. What's more, Windows XP Pro has built-in file encryption. Encryption is even preserved in backups. NTFS is far more secure than FAT32.

    Disk compression. Remember how you used to use file compression before FAT32? NTFS has always supported file compression. It's just another added benefit.

    Link tracking. You know how under Win98 if you create a desktop shortcut for something, if you move that target file, the shortcut is broken? Not so under XP with NTFS, which can dynamically update file shortcuts by automatically searching for the new location of the target file.

    Extensibility. I could use up a lot of white space explaining NTFS's architecture. Suffice it to say that every structure in NTFS is nothing more than a simple file. The Master File Table (MFT), directories, free space map, each of these items is a file, not some special structure. Because everything is so simple, and because Microsoft designed NTFS with database properties, the file system is highly extensible, and new functions like Link Tracking, can be added easily. And there are others functions like that already. Built-in disk quotas, for example. This extensibility means that Microsoft can keep innovating with NTFS to make it more and more useful as time goes by.

    If you have questions about NTFS in Windows XP or FAT32, shoot 'em my way.

    Back to the Top


    The Latest Installment of 'DSL Hell'
    There's nothing like losing your broadband connection to drop you into a pool of angst. Is it possible to be addicted to the "any information anywhere, anytime" benefit that broadband brings? I'm proof positive that is. Just ask my wife. [Editor's note: He is. Trust me.] My DSL service went down unexpectedly on Wednesday, Jan 2, at 8:37AM. Out. Gone. Zip. Nada. And it actually threw me into a depression. You see, the local Verizon technical dispatcher has already made threatening comments about my DSL connection. I went through a rough several months with this same DSL connection late in 2000. That was detailed in my now defunct Broadband Report newsletter.

    There was a line-quality issue at that time. I was experiencing frequent drop-offs and very high packet loss. It took about four months to resolve that problem. The cause? Verizon appropriated my DSL line without warning and gave me a different line, which was longer and also had some sort of open in it. The problem began August 1, 2000, and didn't start to become a memory until early December 2000, when Verizon finally just replaced my entire DSL line with a new one. The new line actually worked better than the original one had. And I lived happily ever after. Until Jan. 2, 2002.

    Some quick background: I live in a town where Verizon does not offer DSL, but Covad does — purely based on the Telecommunications Act of 1996. If that law didn't exist, I wouldn't have DSL. And now HR1542, the Tauzin-Dingell bill, would seek to put all the power back into the hands of the baby bell companies. If you're not against this bill, you should be. It's before Congress right now. Write your congressperson and just say no to HR1542!

    Anyway, back to my home town in suburban New England. Few people are even aware in this town that it's possible to get DSL. In fact, Verizon was recently quoted as saying that it won't even consider rolling out DSL here until 2003 at the earliest. The town has a digital switch, so that's not the issue. Verizon just doesn't feel like offering it right now — probably because the population is too small and some parts of the town need significant line upgrades. That's what happens when you have a true monopoly: No competition, no reason to offer services. The local phone companies are far truer monopolies than even Microsoft.

    So what went wrong with my DSL connection? It's pathetic really. My next-door neighbors are building an office in their basement — putting in new work phone lines. Like me, they've become telecommuters. Verizon sent out what appears to be trainee to do their work. I went over to talk to him after my DSL connection went down. (He was so young I had to stop myself from asking him when he planned to graduate from high school.) I asked him whether he might have accidentally disconnected my line. He said no. But now it appears that was the case.

    All the phone connections are accessible from a large green box at the end of the street. It's not even locked. Anyone could go in there and mess around with literally scores of people's phone lines. This is no way to run a telephone business. It's from a bygone era, and it should be upgraded. (Okay, everyone now: hold your breath.)

    By now you've probably gathered that my DSL connection was restored. At about 4:30PM on Friday, two and a half days later, it was restored. The tech who did the work said that my line was just disconnected — the way it would have been if my service was cancelled for non-payment or something. (I'm actually paid through February.) He assured me that I got back the line that I had before, and he was one of the Verizon techs who worked on my problems back in late 2000, and he remembered.

    The frustrating part of this experience wasn't — for once — with Verizon. Sure, they caused the problem. And I wish they had better safeguards. I wish, also, that I could call them directly for help. What was truly frustrating was the process. Because I knew with a true nerd's intuition at 8:38AM that the problem was caused by the tech doing the work at my next-door neighbors. But first I had to deal with SpeakEasy, which in turn has to work with Covad, which in turn has to work with Verizon. At each step of the way, I told them about the work going on next door. Everyone sounded sympathetic, but those kinds of leaps of faith just don't fit into the repair process in the telephone business.

    SpeakEasy blew it in the early going. I talked to three techs, one on Wednesday, one on Thursday, and one on Friday. The first one did nothing but say he'd report it. The second one did her job, but an error was made that had me waiting for a Verizon tech all day Friday while SpeakEasy and Covad were expecting me to call them with my "availability" the following week. No one communicated with me that they were waiting for me to give them this information though. Way to work with the customer.

    When I called again on Friday, Jan. 4 (each call requires negotiating an arcane SpeakEasy menu system and waiting on hold for 15-30 minutes), I finally got through to a very experienced and competent tech. I explained the history and said — as I'd said to each tech along the way — that we had to get Verizon out before someone walked away with the line I used to have. There are very few free copper pairs in this town. Any pair that's dangling can be snapped up in a second. That was my greatest fear, that my accidentally disconnected pair would be found and re-used before I could get the phone company to wake up.

    Friday's tech got the whole message, realized that I had been promised a Friday visit from Verizon that was somehow botched, and he called Covad directly to plead my case. Although he told me that I probably wouldn't see Verizon until Monday, Covad clearly escalated my priority. And someone called someone, because Verizon was out only a few hours later. At every turn, Covad has shown itself to be a company that goes the extra mile for its customers.

    The big problem here is that I have to work with three separate companies to get anything done. Once I lit a fire under SpeakEasy, they performed. Covad, as usual, was great. And then even Verizon came through. The process, though, is utterly flawed from an end-user perspective. SpeakEasy needs to do a better job. And/or the customer should have direct access to Covad or Verizon. I wouldn't trade SpeakEasy for any other DSL ISP; but that doesn't mean the company's customer service process hasn't gone downhill. It has. I recognize that tech support costs are a big concern. But I don't think the current methods involving a BBS-like posting works. Different SpeakEasy techs man the BBS than man the phones. There's too much potential for confusion, or to get caught in a crack.

    — Really Strange Footnote —
    Longtime SFNL and Broadband Report readers are going to begin to believe I'm jinxed when they hear this. Heck, I'm pretty incredulous myself. On Monday of this week, after all my DSL problems were resolved, I began having a new problem. My ISP, SpeakEasy, was no longer able to "see" my web host (Hostway) or my website or my website-related email (which includes all email to SFNL). For about 36 hours, I couldn't get SFNL email or ping my website, much less visit it.

    I knew something was really strange because, using StarBand with WinProxy 4.0 for StarBand — and after a minor network configuration — I was able to get my email and visit the SFNL website. Oddly, for a time during the same 36 hours, StarBand was unable to display CNET.com, while SpeakEasy was able to. And neither service could display DSLReports.com, because that site was down. I was beginning to think I was single-handedly pulling down the Internet when midday on Tuesday I submitted trouble tickets to both SpeakEasy and Hostway.

    To its credit, SpeakEasy admitted that it had an IP routing table problem specific to all Hostway domains. Within an hour after it acknowledged the problem, it was resolved. Also, the StarBand CNET problem cleared up magically. And DSLReports.com was back online by first thing the next morning. But tell me, what are the odds that my ISP would have a routing problem to my web host?

    These are the kinds of things that can go wrong with your broadband connection. All I can say is, I'm just glad the Internet is so messed up because otherwise I'd have nothing good to write about.

    Back to the Top


    Satellite Corner: Pegasus Express (DirecPC) Improves
    There was a strange silver lining to my 2.5-day DSL outage two weeks ago. [Editor's note: You mean like spending time with your wife??] Pegasus Express, which is based on DirecPC's two-way satellite service (now called DirecWay) was my fallback. And I quickly discovered several facts. First, even though I was following directions for installing the Pegasus Express software, I had a botched installation. I ripped everything out and started over again. The result was a much better and far more reliable user experience. Bottom line: It worked. My signal strength, currently averaging between 55-60, still isn't great. I'm working on that as we speak. But my performance and reliability were vastly improved.

    The second thing I learned is that Windows' Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) works perfectly with Pegasus once I had the very latest software properly installed. So, while I can't use a hardware solution to share the Pegasus Express connection, a software solution like ICS works just fine.

    Past SFNL/Broadband Report Link of the Week Website, DirecPC Uncensored, was also a big help in fine-tuning my connection for performance. Following instructions there, and also using the DrTCP utility from DSLReports.com, as well as the DSLReports Tweak and SpeedGuide.net's TCP/IP Analyzer pages, I was able to noticeably improve my Pegasus Express performance, both on primary satellite and client PCs.

    In the past, I have recommended against DSLReports.com for performance tweaking for everything but that site's explanation of RWIN tuning. But it is markedly better now, and I prefer it to SpeedGuide.net's current offering. Although I recommend you run both and compare them.

    I'm still not a big fan of GUI tools like DSLReport's DrTCP utility. All they do is edit the Registry for you, and in doing so, don't show where to edit the Registry for all the things they do. I prefer to edit the Registry myself, but that may just be my curmudgeonly outlook on things. More importantly, I do not like .REG files that automatically edit your Registry with a one-size-fits-all patch when you download and double-click them. DSLReports.com is still using that method, which I have seen get all sorts of people into trouble. DrTCP is okay, though, if you need some help. It's also useful, if like me, you have 5, 10, 17, or 49 PCs whose settings you need to change — because it's much faster than using RegEdit.

    One thing I did find is that DrTCP doesn't always report exactly what the Registry setting is. That's because the service you're using (and this is especially true of satellite solutions) may be controlling settings like RWIN and MTU via other means. StarBand, for example, does this. Pegasus is more straightforward, although DSLReports.com's Tweak Tester is stumped by the proxy server arrangements used by both StarBand and Pegasus.

    All in all, I was impressed with how easy it was to work with Pegasus Express on my 17-node network once I set my mind to it. (Necessity is the mother of invention, or in this case, refinement.) I would like to see the Pegasus Express/DirecPC performance levels improve. But if I had to use them on an ongoing basis, I could.

    Worth noting is the fact that my 384-kbps SDSL connection and my "400-kbps" DirecPC connection (at 60 signal strength) behave very differently. Sheer Web surfing performance is at least two notches faster with the SDSL solution, never mind the latency issue with satellite connections. Anyone would notice the difference readily. On the other hand, raw file download speed is noticeably faster from the Pegasus connection. When it comes to upstream performance, the SDSL connection is at least five times faster than either Pegasus Express or StarBand. Keep in mind, with 384kbps SDSL, I theoretically get equal upstream and downstream performance. That isn't true in reality, but my SDSL connection offers much better upstream performance than many cable modem or ADSL/RADSL DSL connections.

    All in all, there's a marked improvement in Pegasus Express with the new software properly installed. It's still missing some things, which I've detailed in earlier issues, but it's more worthy now.

  • Pegasus Express: Should You Get It?
  • First Impression: DirecPC (Pegasus Express) Two-Way Satellite Flies

    Next time, I'll offer some comparative conclusions about Pegasus.

    — What About StarBand? —
    The experience with DirecPC has given me reason to test the StarBand 360 satellite modem system that's been stacked in a pile awaiting attention since last August. StarBand is more than a year old now, and I was expecting to find the service less shaky. As I write, the StarBand 360 is installed and working, but I need a couple of cloud-free days and another week or so before I report on it. Look for a comparison review of DirecPC/Pegasus Express and StarBand in the next issue of this newsletter. What's more, if you've followed my reviews of satellite systems in the past, you'll be surprised by some of the data points. Under-three-minute 50MB downloads, for example. Plus, both two-way satellite systems are perfectly capable of sharing their connections with multiple PCs. VPN is still a problem, though. Details next time, and a winner.

    Back to the Top


    Product Beat: Norton Internet Security 2002 Pro
    The big story at Symantec these days is the new version of Norton Internet Security that includes intrusion detection. BlackICE Defender has made a name for itself with its intrusion-detection features, and ZoneAlarm is heading in a different direction. As much as I love ZoneAlarm, though, I think the combination of a smart firewall plus properly implemented intrusion-detection features is the right mix of protections to have. This will probably be the version Symantec product I test against ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0, and hopefully BlackICE Defender (if I can get the attention of their PR folks) for my forthcoming comparison review of personal firewalls.

    The price for Norton Internet Security 2000 Pro is a pretty steep $99. But it comes with a huge pile of features, and is really aimed at small business owners. Symantec assures me that the intrusion-detection features will be added to future versions of NIS aimed at power users (with a lower price). Plus, I'm told there's the usual $30 mail-in rebate coupon inside. The list price for a five-pack of Norton Internet Security 2002 Professional Edition is $399.95. A 10-pack runs $799.95. More detail on NIS 2002 Pro.

    Symantec has also released Norton AntiVirus 2002 Professional Edition, whose suggested retail price is $69.95. There's a $30 mail-in rebate, but unless you're a Palm Pilot user who's concerned about viruses, I'd skip this version. There's not much new. Also I would reiterate my previous comments that while I like the underlying structure of Norton AntiVirus 2002, many of the default settings and configuration options just aren't as good as those of Norton AntiVirus 2001. On my primary machine, I'm still using NAV 2001. Note: Symantec has also raised the priced of antivirus definition updates after your first year. You may be better off sticking with NAV 2001 because of that, too. More detail on Norton AntiVirus 2002 Professional Edition. While we're on the subject of Symantec, the company is shipping hardware Firewall/VPN products that you might be interested in. More detail on Symantec's hardware firewall products.

    — Linksys and AT&T Broadband Team Up —
    AT&T Broadband and Linksys have joined forces to offer wired and wireless solutions for AT&T Broadband Internet users. AT&T Broadband will offer broadband subscribers the opportunity to build a home network with Linksys hardware to share cable-modem access for up to five people. The Linksys products being offered include: Wireless Access Point, Wireless PC Card, PCI Adapter, and USB adapter as well as wired solutions including: 5-port hub, 5-port switch, USB adapter, PC Card, NIC card, and cables. For more details.

    Does your company have a new computer product of interest to this newsletter's readers? Submit it to Product Beat.

    Back to the Top


    Online Retail Update
    In the last issue I did a Rant of the Week about How to Fix Online Retail. It was actually pretty popular. I have to make two corrections to what I wrote as a result of feedback I got from literally dozens of readers. The first is unfortunate. Apparently, Home Depot has recently changed its return policy in the United States. It no longer allows returns on purchases older than 90 days. Compared to many retailers, 90 days is still a liberal policy. Still, Home Depot just lost some stock with me. I loved the store because of the old unlimited policy.

    The second correction is more upbeat. Apparently, several SFNL readers work for Lands' End because two separate employees wrote me to say that I was wrong in the last issue, that it is possible for Lands' End to stop sending both my wife and I every issue of its catalog. Well, they were right. Even though I have personally called Lands' End three times over the last five years asking them to fix the problem, we still got double mailings. This time when I called, they said they'd recently fixed the problem on their own. I wish all catalog companies would figure this out. The problem is harder when people living in the same house have different last names. But it's not rocket science.

    Back to the Top


    Scot’s Newsletter 'Tried and True' Products
    I wish I had the time and space in this newsletter to write reviews of every great software or hardware product out there. But I just realized the other day that I can tell you in brief about products that I use personally — the ones I *know* are good. That's the basic idea behind this new section of the newsletter called Tried and True. It's a list that I'll add to in the future (and probably create a Web page for) that shows recommended computer products. Here's a few 'tried and true' products to get it rolling:

  • PartitionMagic 7.0, PowerQuest
    Dynamically converts your hard drive to any of several popular desktop file systems without have to vacate your data; resizes, adds, merges partitions without damaging data. Supports all Windows and most Linux files systems. Converts from FAT32 to NTFS and also back from NTFS to FAT32. No PC user should be without this product. It's the indispensable disk utility.

  • Netgear FA310TX 10/100Mbps PCI network card, Netgear
    This is not Netgear's latest and greatest NIC. It's been around for quite some time, and that's precisely what I like about it. I used to be a big 3Com guy. All my NICs were 3Com. But then 3Com started getting tricky, adding wake-on LAN stuff that was funky, and requiring extras drivers under Windows. Phoo-ie! Give me a NIC that just works, and I'll buy it every time. That's the Netgear FA310. It's also inexpensive. The only downside is that this model appears to be discontinued in favor of the FA311. It's still possible to buy the FA310 in the channel, but it may not last for long.

  • NVIDIA GeForce-Powered Video Cards (VisionTek is one maker)
    I have several GeForce-powered video cards in my various PCs, and they won me over about 18 months ago. They're fast, inexpensive, feature packed, and best of all, do an excellent job of displaying images. Most computer magazine reviews don't talk much about display quality, believing, I think that performance is the most important thing. Unless you're a gamer, I think display quality is the most important thing. I haven't tested even a quarter of all the GeForce cards on the market (there are a LOT of them), but everyone I've used has been first rate. I recently purchased a VisionTek GeForce card for an older PC in the SFNL Labs, and I love it. One downside: Driver installation isn't as convenient as some.

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    Windows Security Bulletin Notes
    Last time I included a quickie announcement at the very top about a security bulletin Microsoft issued just as the newsletter was going out. The security flaw in question relates primarily to Universal Plug and Play, which is a built-in service of Windows XP, and an add-on to Windows 98/Me/2000. Apparently, the flaw also affects Windows 98 when Internet Connection Sharing is installed and operational. To be truthful, the bulletin itself was confusing, one of the two links I offered was bad, and there were some kinks in the installation process that were very confusing. I offered what Microsoft gave me at the 11th hour because at that point, no one knew how serious the flaw was. All I knew was that the FBI was involved, and I figured you'd want to know about it ... even if I hadn't done all the leg work for you in advance.

    Well, I got some angry messages from a few people who felt I was wasting their time. So be it. I'm not perfect. But that's not why I'm writing. The story of what happened with this update is interesting. My friend Fred Langa, author of the LangaList newsletter and the LangaLetter column in InformationWeek, got a chance to expand on what happened on this one before I did. I'm going to point you to his column for the explanation. I promise you it's interesting reading. While you're at it, you'll get some good computing advice. But definitely see #1:

  • Ten Resolutions For Better Computing In 2002

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    Link of the Week: MyNetWatchman.com
    Now here's a great idea. Lawrence Baldwin's MyNetWatchman provides agent software that reads your software firewall log (and that of some hardware firewalls) and automatically sends your log events to the MyNetWatchman central server whenever events occur, where the events are analyzed. IP addresses are backtraced to the responsible domain. By looking at all the data, MyNetWatchman can get a much better picture of what caused the event, and whether the same pattern is repeating elsewhere. Depending on the target service and the number of agents that report a given source IP, the MyNetWatchman mailbot automatically sends alert emails to the responsible party. If your computer contributed data on a specific event, you'll also get a Web-based personal report page showing what happened.

    MyNetWatchman is free for personal use. You have to register, download the appropriate code (3.5MB for most of us), and install it. But this is simply a brilliant idea. I haven't tested it extensively yet, but assuming that it works as described, every SFNL reader should take part in this effort to thwart would-be port scanners and hackers.

    I'd like to thank SFNL reader Terry Auspitz for suggesting this Link of the Week last June. It took me too long to get it into the newsletter.

    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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    Tips of the Week: Make Win XP Work Your Way
    Courtesy of Microsoft this time, two Windows XP tips:

    — Unlock Toolbars to Customize Them —
    It's the case of the missing icons. Many of you may be wondering where all the icons from your desktop are in Windows XP? Well if you're like me, you like to have at least My Computer, My Network Places, and My Documents on the desktop. To do this:

    1. Right-click the desktop and select Properties.

    2. Click the Desktop tab and then Customize Desktop.

    3. Put a check mark in the box next to My Document, My Computer, My Network Places, or Internet Explorer, to add those good old Win98-like icons to your desktop.

    — Add Fields to the Details View of Folders —
    You can add other columns to the Details view of the files contained in Windows XP folders, such as Comments, Description, Category, and many others. To add new columns:

    1. Right-click the column header of the files list. Next, click one of the fields listed or click More to see others. You may be surprised by just how many attributes are available.

    2. In the Choose Details dialog box, you can reorganize the order of column headers, specify column widths, and add columns to display details for the files in that folder. When you click the new column header, the width of the selected column is displayed in pixels in the Choose Details dialog box.

    While SFNL is not switching to all Windows XP tips all the time, I will be running Windows XP tips from time to time.

    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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