My "Ideal Computer" (A Treasury Of Computer Knowledge And Links)

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Here I examine what, after scrutinizing the resources available on the hardware page of this site, I believe to be the best personal computer one can assemble today. I myself bought and assembled this very system; buying around the beginning of November of 1998, the cost--including all shipping costs (and to the northwest United States)--was almost exactly $3,300 US. I had no trouble with any of the equipment ordered, and was able to assemble the system easily in one afternoon with no special tools. If you are contemplating rolling your own--which saves money and assures you of the system you really want--I have a page of tips and advice on Building Your Own Computer.

The Main Divisions On This Page:
o What "My Ideal" Is
o Case
o Power Supply
o Secondary Fan
o Motherboard
o CPU Cooler
o Memory
o Video Card
o Video-Chip Cooler
o Slow SCSI Controller
o Fast SCSI Controller
o Hard Drives
o Hard-Drive Cooler
o Sound Card
o Modem
o Floppy Drive
o SCSI Cables
o Monitor
o Keyboard
o Trackball
o Speakers

What "My Ideal" Is

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The genesis of this entire site was my decision, in early autumn of 1998, to get a new computer system for my home office. I am tempted to say that I wanted "the best system that money could buy," but that would be untrue. The best that money could buy would likely be a house-filling commercial supercomputer. Even restricting myself to the category of "desktop PC" leaves jiggle room, because there are gigantic monitors made for industrial designers, there is room for a gigabyte of RAM on even ordinary modern motherboards, and so on and so forth.

In restriction, then, the goal became the best desktop PC for reasonable "SoHo" (small-office/home-office) use by a reasonably sophisticated but not hyperexpert "power user." Performance ranks first, but price/performance ratios were considered.

There is one other class of power desktop users, and it has similar but not quite congruent wants and needs, and that class is serious computer gamers. (I get the feeling that almost all such gamers are teenaged males, but that is irrelevant.) Modern PC games make severe hardware demands and, to be enjoyed to their maximum by aficionados, require the very best hardware. The major difference between gamers' needs and SoHo needs lies in the video system: gamers need special industrial-strength "accelerator" video cards, while SoHo needs (even with some occasional game-playing) are best met by top-line 2D (two-dimensional, as opposed to gamers' 3D) cards. Gamers' sound-card demands are also more intense than SoHo needs, but excellent sound cards are so modestly priced now that the difference there is of little account.

On the hardware-selection page of this site, I have presented links to a horde of sites that you can and should use to draw your own conclusions about hardware. This page presumes that you have at least read the educational material available on that hardware page.

What follows here are the conclusions that I derived from visits to the sites listed on the hardware page (and others), but--as they say on the net--YMMV ("your mileage may vary").

Moreover, timing is critical. My conclusions were drawn in late August and early September of 1998. The computer world is far from static, and new products are put out almost literally every day. While I intend to try to keep this page current with new developments, I cannot guarantee to do so; and in any event, your opinion of new hardware may differ from mine just as it may for the hardware I discuss here.

Now, onward.

Case: Elan Vital Aegis T-10AB Mid-Tower

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Elan Vital is a subsidiary of Asus, the outstanding maker of motherboards and other computer components. There is a very nice review of the T-10 on the Ultimate PC site.

A further plus: Asus is excellent about providing documentation and assistance to those who want to put their own system together with their own two hands. Here is a link to their on-line do-it-yourself manual so you can get an idea if that's something you might want to try (it sure cuts costs dramatically!); it's really no big deal if you are not one of those terrorized by screwdrivers. (The case comes with a printed copy of that manual; speaking from experience, I will say that the text and photos make the process childishly simple.)

Power Supply: Sparkle/SPI or Elan Vital 235-Watt ATX-2.01

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Often, purchase of a case brings a power supply with it, but sometimes it does not. If you read the review of the T-10 case above, you will see that it often comes with either a Sparkle/SPI or an actual Elan Vital 235-watt ATX-compliant power supply. (Asus normally uses the Sparkle, but--owing to occasional product shortages from busy SPI--also makes their own counterpart to it, which is very similar.) The two makes are essentially equivalent and either will do. As the review notes, earlier T-10 cases came with non-ATX power supplies; considering how well the T-10 is selling (dealers have trouble keeping it in stock), the chances that you might get an older one with a non-compliant PS are small, but ask before you order.

Case Fan: Asus "Smart" Secondary Case Fan, 2TX

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As discussed in the case review linked in two places above, a secondary case fan is a good idea for any modern computer, and it makes sense to get the fan from the maker of the case itself. Just be sure, on that case, that the you use only the rear secondary fan location, and always set up the fan's airflow to match the airflow direction of the power supply, which--for an ATX-compliant supply--means that the secondary fan sucks air out of the case. (If you have trouble locating the recommended Asus fan, any standard case fan will be nearly as good--but do be sure it's a ball-bearing type.)

Motherboard: Abit BH6

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The motherboard (sometimes called the "mainboard") is a crucial component of your system. The considerations are many, and better gotten from the sources cited on my hardware-selection page, but here's one much-respected reviewer's comments on this and competitive boards. As you will see if you read that article, the BH6 is one of what is being called "second-generation" BX motherboards (here BX refers to the Intel chipset used on the board [the chipset does communications between the CPU chip and the rest of the system]). Our previous favorite board, the Asus P2B, was a first-generation BX board.

CPU: Intel Pentium II 400 MHz

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Right now, for top speed the only choice is the Intel Pentium II 400 MHz chip. (There is also a 450-MHz version, but the increment in performance is quite small, perhaps 5%, while the 450 is much more expensive than the 400.) Unfortunately, no other brand's CPUs are yet close to the current level of the Intel Pentiums. (That will change: within a year, we may well see 1000 MHz non-Intel chips, and I don't mean Alphas.)

It is also possible to run CPUs, and the whole computer, faster yet--by means of what is called "overclocking." That is just what its name says: you increase the clock speed of the motherboard to run the chip (and associated data channels) faster than the manufacturer of the CPU specifies it for. The problems with overclocking are that you are now running many of the elements of the computer--the CPU itself, the PCI bus, the AGP bus, the chipset, the video card, and above all the memory--beyond their nominal limits. Moreover, you are causing each of those stressed components to generate significantly more heat than they normally do. Good-quality items can readily withstand some overclocking and still run reliably, especially if you take care to provide good cooling. For example, a Pentium II rated at 400 MHz and a 100-MHz FSB can be run at 448 MHz with a 112 MHZ FSB without noticeable strain. Trying to run the same setup at 532 MHz for the CPU and 133 MHz FSB is possible, but requires great expertise, heroic cooling measures, and truly extraordinary (probably unique) memory chips.

The overclockers' current darling CPU is the Celeron 300A (the A is crucial--it is the newer Celeron with the on-board cache). But, as the Celeron Overclocking FAQ says, overclocking is by no means a 100% successful thing. If you're pinching pennies, you might consider it: you pays your money and you takes your chances.

Overclocking is easy to achieve; you do it changing settings in the motherboard BIOS (some motherboards are thus much more amenable to overclocking than others). You do know how to change BIOS settings, and what each is for, yes?

Lesson: Don't try overclocking unless you know exactly what you're doing!
In extreme cases, you can fry your CPU in an instant.

But, for you speed maniacs, even using overclocking a PII 450 is only the same 5% or so faster than the PII 400 overclocked by the same multiple. There's a nice speeds table on Tom's Hardware site; manifestly, under different operating systems--and different benchmark software--results will vary, but the charted figures put one in the ballpark. Specifically, note that a PII 450 overclocked to 504 MHz (that's the 112-MHz FSB) is still only 10% faster than a nonoverclocked PII 400.

CPU Cooler: "Cool-it Dude!" FAP2X3B

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You have to have a CPU cooling fan or multi-fan unit; that is a given. That much said, there is not a vast difference in price (in dollars, not as a ratio) between the no-name cheapies and the better-quality units. Of the latter kind, the best are all pretty good, but lab tests by experts show the FAP2X3B from the ill-named "Cool-it Dude!" line (a proprietary line from the ComputerNerd on-line store) the best. You can only buy it from ComputerNerd; do it, or tell your systems supplier to do it for you.

Memory: 128MB, SDRAM PC100 Cas2 Samsung -GH, Mushkin Memory

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There are several quality brands of good-quality PC100-compliant SDRAM that will work just fine at the present FSB ("front-side bus," the lines the CPU uses to speak to the rest of the stuff in your computer, all of which is much slower than the CPU itself and sometimes bottlenecks computation) top speed of 100 MHz. What one needs to know is which, if any, will work reliably at higher speeds, up to the 133 MHz we may see in the not-too-distant future. While the bus speed is fixed by your motherboard and CPU (unless you're into "overclocking" ), some day you'll want to upgrade those things; it would be nice at that time to not have to pitch out all your expensive memory and get new expensive memory just because you didn't choose wisely at the outset.

Until very recently, while lots of places were advertising "125-MHz" SDRAM, there were no reliable third-party test numbers; now there are. Look here, at this SDRAM speed/reliablity test by AnandTech. Any questions?

Here's Mushkin's front page.

One last issue, a big one: the amount of memory. The rule is simple: the more, the better. But at some point, the cost-benefit curve starts to flatten. Right now, that point--in my opinion, which is far from definitive--is 128 MB. The scale-up from 64 MB (the minimum, I would say, for modern systems) and 128 isn't vast; beyond that, however, cost mounts and it is unclear that performance mounts to match. Of course, the delight is that by buying a 128-MB DIMM of SDRAM today, you leave yourself at least two more DIMM slots into which you can, as and when you like, insert as much as another half-gigabyte of memory. (Don't pinch pennies by buying two 64-MB modules to get 128 MB--you needlessly waste a memory slot you may need some day.)

Video Card: Matrox Millennium II G200 AGP w/8 MB SGRAM

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This newly released card is the latest descendent of a widely respected line of quality video cards. For anyone other than high-intensity gamers, it is clearly the best card around (gamers need a heavy emphasis on so-called 3D video--effects specially programmed by the game writers--while most of us are concerned with standard--or just 2D--performance). By the way, keep in mind that the operative chip on this board, the G200, is a proprietary product of Matrox' very own, so they have designed this board from the silicon up.

As to on-card memory, it's like any other kind: the more the better. For nongamers, the 8 MB seemed to me adequate, and doesn't cost much more than the minimum 4 MB; more, up to 16 MB total, is available, but for nongamers I think that overkill.

There is much debate in some circles about the AGP ("advanced graphics processing") interface versus the PCI interface for video cards. I selected AGP over PCI because: 1, I specify a generous amount (8 MB) of fast on-board graphics memory, which minimizes AGP's tendency to hog system main memory; 2, I am not a fanctic gamer, so "texture rendering" is not a large part of my computer video universe; and 3, using the motherboard's dedicated AGP port saves a PCI card slot. (Dedicated gamers should review the several AGP/PCI articles on the Tom's Hardware site.)

Video Card Chip Cooler: TennMax Lasagna X

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The G200 is reported to run very hot even in normal (not overclocked) use; that mandates a chip cooler. Incidentally, such heating is not at all unusual for modern high-performance video chips; some run a lot hotter than the G200 does. Despite the curious name, the Lasagna is a well-known and respected brand of cooling device. It was originally designed as a CPU cooler for the older, slightly less hot CPU varieties, but works excellently on video chips and is now marketed specifically for that purpose. It is widely praised, this Hardware One review being a representative sample.

SCSI Controller #1: any old SCSI2 ISA Board

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SCSI is not as complex as it may seem at first, but to use it wisely you need to understand it at least a little (the topic is covered on the hardware page of this site). The salient point here is that you cannot easily mix high-speed and low-speed SCSI devices on the same "channel." Since you will have one or, I recommend, several high-speed hard drives to run, you can't put older, slower devices--such as CD drives--on the same channel. (Actually, SCSI cards usually have two channels: an internal channel, which is what the drives and any other in-the-case SCSI devices go on, and an external channel for, yes, external SCSI devices; but most or all modern systems will have at least one internal slow-SCSI device such as a CD drive.)

One controller card can have multiple internal channels or you can use as many discrete SCSI cards as your motherboard has spare slots for. Since multiple-channel cards are expensive if at least one of the channels is suited for modern Ultra2 LVD devices, there's no point in getting one. For slow SCSI devices your best bet is just a cheap old (maybe even used) ISA SCSI2 card (I doubt you could find a SCSI1 card if your life depended on it). I say an ISA card because contemporary motherboards still have two or, often, three ISA card slots (though that will change in a few months and ISA will, at long last, be gone), and you might as well use them for something. The only other things worth having that use ISA today are modems and less-than-cutting-edge sound cards, so (if you have a nice new PCI sound card) you'd likely otherwise have at least one empty (wasted) ISA slot.

SCSI Controller #2: any Ultra SCSI PCI Board

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(To understand this selection and the one that follows, you need to take a little detour to my peek into the near future of drive control.) Since all we want is a more or less temporary card, any 40-MB (Ultra SCSI) controller will do. There are many suitable cards available today at very low prices (because Ultra2 cards are displacing them): as I write, specimens of such cards, new are available at nominal price tags under $80 (I found the perfectly satisfactory Tekram DC-390F to be the lowest-priced one readily available). And you can, with the new Ultra2 LVD drives, just plug them right into the card and they'll work just fine, albeit as single-ended devices (not in LVD mode, that is).

Hard Drives: 2 or 3 Quantum Viking II 4.5 GB LVD Ultra2 SCSI (QM34550PX-LW)

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(To understand this selection and the two above, you need to take a little detour to my peek into the near future of drive control.) If, despite what you saw on that detour, you wanted to just stick to having a single hard drive, that drive really has to be the Seagate Cheetah. But if you think as I do, you'll want two or, much better yet, three of the best available inexpensive quality hard drive, the Quantum Viking II. I selected the 4.5-GB size because if you're buying two or three you're getting 9.0 to 13.5 Gigabytes of storage, and virtually no one really needs the 18 to 27 GB that you would get from buying 9-GB drives. Buying three is best, but if price is a limitation buy two, or even just one to start out with--but keep in mind that you can buy two 4.5-GB Vikings for little more than the price of just one 4.5-GB Cheetah, and three 4.5-GB Vikings for maybe 10% more than one 9-GB Cheetah.

Hard-Drive Cooler: none, but . . .

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The recommended Viking II hard drives should not need cooling: they run at 7200 RPM and are only moderate heat generators. They do, however, generate enough heat that you won't want to run all three stacked closely and tightly into the confined space of a "narrow" (3-1/2 inch) case bay. So be sure to mount as many of your hard drives as your case will allow into "wide" (5-1/4 inch) bays, using for each one of the very inexpensive (a couple of bucks or so) adapter kits that allow mounting "narrow" devices into "wide" bays; that way, you get very much better air flow around the drives. My case recommendation, the Elan Vital, has a three-slot "wide" bay; using one such slot for your CD drive will thus leave two for hard drives. That case also has a three-slot "narrow" bay so that, with a hard drive in one such slot and a floppy drive in the other, there remains an open "narrow" slot to act as a channel for air flow.) I strongly recommend against using the "extra" narrow slot that Elan Vital provides up top of the power supply: it has inadequate ventilation for any modern higher-speed drive.

But, should you get a Cheetah or other hot-running drive, know that a tech at Seagate (maker of the Cheetah) recommended to me the Wind Storm drive cooler made by DigitalScape (at 714 587-3023).

Sound/Audio Card: DCS Multimedia S805 PCI A3D

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There are at present only two kinds of devices (other than old, outdated hardware) that still use the venerable ISA bus: modems and sound cards. And now sound cards are going PCI (modems, though they don't need the extra bandwidth, soon will also go PCI, because no new computers/motherboards are going to have ISA slots starting soon). While one could still use an ISA soundcard (most contemporary motherboards, including my selected BH6, have at least two and often three ISA slots), I at least have use for two such slots without using one for a sound card: that is, a modem and an old SCSI2 card for the non-Ultra2 devices (scanner, CD drives, and the like).

There are but two broad classes of top-quality sound cards in the contemporary market: those based on the Aureal "Vortex" technology and those based on Creative Labs' "Sound Blaster" technology. Expert opinion is that Aureal is clearly ahead (and will stay ahead). So, it comes down to a Vortex-based card, of which there are many.

There's a fine summary of the current overall sound-card situation at the 3D Bytes! web site. Look over the table of features, then read the descriptions. Considering price, if you're not a fanatic gamer, how could you possibly choose anything but the S805? (And here is a review of the card).

Modem: 3Com/USR Sportster 56k v.90

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I here again refer you to the Boardwatch Magazine article about the two competing modem standards (x2 and Kflex). If you have the least shred of interest in getting the best available modem, you must read that article in its entirety. (And the supposed fading of x2 and Kflex into v.90 does not change the force of the article's results.)

There is simply no choice: you want a USR modem.

For most of you, the good old Sportster line will be satisfactory. If you happen to live in an area where the quality of telephone service is pretty awful--lots of line noise, for example--you might want to spend the extra money to get the USR Courier "V.Everything" modem, generally reputed to have the best information-transfer rates under "impaired" conditions, which is Telco-speak ("telephone company") for "we don't care, we don't have to--we're the phone company." (With credit to Ms. Tomlin.)

If you want to test your telephone line to see how well it stacks up for 56K transfer rates, USR has a telephone number, (847) 262-6000 (not toll free), that you can use. Dial it up with your "terminal program" (not an internet connection--a "terminal" is the kind of software you used to use to dial up BBS's). When asked for your name, give line as the first name and test as last name: that will take you directly to the line testing instead of the tedious BBS login procedure. (Case is immaterial in giving the "names" required.) When asked about Graphics capability, answer Yes. And, after the first results screen comes up, be sure to press <Enter> to see More, which will be a lengthy technical table with marginal parameters of your call in yellow and bad ones in red (you might save that table to disk for discusions with your local telephone company, but good luck in that department). There is also one page beyond that table, a frequency-spectrum chart, of less significance.

CD R-W: Yamaha CRW4416S

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Re-writable CDs are a nice, easy backup medium, and write-once CDs are so cheap nowadays that they are close to free. And while read-only CD players are up to so-called "40x" speeds by now, who cares? There is essentially no commercial CD wanting a reader faster than 4x, while this very new Yamaha CD-RW now reads CDs at 16x. Here's the Hardware One review of the CRW4416S, and here's Yamaha's own CD-RW web page, where you can get detailed specs on it and Yamaha's other related models. It seems to be the consensus that Yamaha leads the pack in CD-RW, although there are some decent other players.

If you don't want to pay a premium for the new 4x Write speed of the 4416, Yamaha also still makes the CRW4260TIPC, a 2x-Write/6x-Read unit which is my recommended budget alternative (in fact, it is the unit I myself finally, after agonizing, selected). Here's the Hardware One review of the 4260 (and much of what they say there also applies to the new 4416); moreover, that review also includes an excellent backgrounding on the technology of CD-RW. What they don't mention in the review, though, is that several competitive devices are more prone to the dreaded "buffer underflow" (which they mistakenly call overflow) than the Yamaha. Buffer underflow occurs when the CD-RW cannot absorb data fast enough from your system to keep a steady stream going to the CD it's writing. When that happens, you will have made a CD of the kind known in the trade as a "coaster" (because its only use is as a beverage coaster on your coffee table). The Yamahas have a nice, big buffers to help avoid coasters.

Incidentally, those Yamaha devices are actually the "real" guts of several other brands as well, but are as cheap or--most often--cheaper under their own name.

Floppy Drive: any 2.88-MB Drive

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Floppy diskettes evolved from 5-1/4" truly floppy 360K sizes to 1.44-MB size on a pretty steady evolutionary path; but when the 2.88s came out, somehow the demand went away and 1.44 remains the near-universal norm. That is unfortunate. Even with all the razzmatazz high-capacity removable media available these days--from Jaz to CD-RW to plug-in hard drives--it is still nice to use diskettes for specific backups, and it remains true, at least in my own experience, that there are an awful lot of zipped-up file packages that won't fit on a 1.44 diskette but that will fit on a 2.88.

There is a false perception that 2.88 media cannot be found. They can; you just have to look. What is getting hard to find is the actual drives themselves. Although about a dozen or so big-name companies made them at one time or another, they're now scarce. Nevertheless, all modern motherboards claim the ability to operate such drives.

I suspect--but have not yet verified--that most or all of the widely available surplus PS/2 2.88-MB floppy drives will work in ordinary PCs, although some fiddling with connector pins may be needed. I will update this information as I acquire experience (I have a couple of old PS/2 drives in hand, but have had no time yet for experiment). There are also other sources of such drives, new and used--use a search engine on both the web and usenet.

SCSI Cabling: Granite Digital a/r

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At modern Ultra2 SCSI speeds, the cabling is not just a bunch of wires, it's an engineered system unto itself. While there are many makers of SCSI cabling, some of whom may produce excellent products, I at least have found no sort of side-by-side evaluations; but everybody who has anything at all to say about the subject (other than the makers themselves) seems to say, to a one, that Granite Digital is it in this field. They're expensive, but the money buys peace of mind: erratic, untraceable, hard-to-reproduce system errors are a nightmare, and it's always nice to have one possible trouble source just flat eliminated from consideration. (You can save a little money by buying Granite cables through a distributor instead of direct from Granite at full retail.)

What exactly you will need depends on what exact SCSI hardware you're including. Fortunately, Granite, which makes all LVD cables to order based on what's being connected and the case layout you describe to them, only charges $10 above the actual parts cost for the customizing. Be sure that if you are, as I urgently recommend, getting Ultra2 LVD drives you get TPO ("thermal poly olefin") internal SCSI cable. Also, be aware that no Ultra2 LVD drives can be set to terminate: you'll require a separate cable-end terminator device--Granite (or anyone else you might use) will know that and will supply the device and a place for it at the cable end.

(It can be difficult to work out what lengths of cabling you will need if you do not already have your case and drives in hand; with the Elan Vital case and the drive mounting I recommend, a run of 12 inches from SCSI controller card to the first drive, 6-inch runs from drive to drive [2 such if you have 3 drives total], and a 3-inch run from last drive to the terminator slot works well.)

(By the way, an amusing aside that again proves the old, old saying "Never go with the frontrunner"--which, for SCSI, is Adaptec--is that Adaptec tech support told me explicitly that connecting LVD drives to an Ultra SCSI SE card is "impossible"; Granite Digital set me straight instantly, with obvious ease. You have been warned.)

Monitor: CTX VL 950 19-Inch

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The new Hitachi 19-inch picture tube has opened up, more or less overnight, a new niche in the monitor world. For scarcely more than the cost of a 17-inch monitor, a size that is now the virtual entry-level screen, you can get 19 inches. And while there are always questions of image quality, the fundamental truth of monitors is that size does matter. From 19 inches, the next jump is to 21 inches, and those babies are still awfully expensive--too much so unless you're a professional graphics artist or industrial designer.

The CTX VL 950gives a fine picture at the lowest price of any of the new 19-inch models; you can't beat that combination.

(If a "short-neck" option--a foreshortened picture tube making for a flatter monitor--I would avoid it; it seems from some reports possible that the shortnecks don't have just quite so good a picture as the regular-length CRTs give.)

By the way, it is my feeling--just a feeling, not a conviction--that reviews and analyses of monitors are of dubious value because I suspect unit-to-unit variances of the same model may be as large or larger than variances from brand to brand and few reviews if any monitor reviews are based on multiple samples of each reviewed monitor.

Keyboard: Focus FK-8200

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Input devices--keyboards, mice, trackballs, and the like--need to be chosen as much by personal preference as by technical excellence, since within broad limits there aren't many degrees of quality. For a keyboard, the primary characteristic is the tactile feel of the keys: are they crisp or mushy? (And, of course, which sort do you prefer?) Other details are the size of the Enter key, the placement and left/right duplication (or lack of it) of the Alt and Ctrl keys, and the placement of the cursor and function keys.

Beyond those basics, however, any keyboard that I'm going to use has got to have some auxiliary programmable special keys--keys that you can set up to replicate a string of keypresses, to avoid constantly retyping such frequently used strings. My own research has not been exhaustive, but I've looked around and the keyboard that has the nicest combination of key feel, layout, and programmable keys is the Focus FK-8200 (the 8200 is just like the same maker's commoner 9200 except it doesn't have a built-in trackball--built-in keyboard trackballs are extremely low in functional usability).

As a nice bonus, the FK-8200 has a built-in calculator/clock (it's a clock until you start using it as a calculator, then returns to time-keeping when you're done).

(I should add as a footnote that the broad class of "ergonomic" keyboards--you know, all those funny looking ones that seem to have come out of a Salvador Dali painting--do not strike me or the scientific community [see the fine print below] as being worth their inflated prices or learning curves; if you place a standard keyboard in decent accord with well-known ergonomic principles, you should have no troubles unless you have some very special physiological condition.)

There has been some research into radically different keyboard designs, for example where the keyboard is split into two parts which are turned to allow the user to keep their wrists [stet] straight. However, most such designs have severe disadvantages in terms of size and practicality. Claims that only split keyboard designs can be considered ergonomic go beyond the evidence and therefore there is no requirement to introduce such designs under these Regulations.

Similarly, claims that unconventional keyboard designs have 'cured RSI' have not been substantiated in the scientific, refereed literature.

--the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations, 1992 (E.E.C. Regulations)

Trackball: Logitech "Marble" (classic)

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First off, I feel that the superiority of a good trackball over any mouse is so obvious that I will not expound on the subject. Trackballs came first: a mouse is just a trackball on its back dragged all over your work space.

Technology marches on, even in the plebian world of pointing devices. Until very recently, both mice and trackballs worked by having the rotation of the ball mechanically coupled to sensors. Now Logitech has patented a new technology, which they appropriately call "Marble Technology": it replaces mechanical-motion recording with optical tracking to enhance precision and reduce wear. Being--purportedly, anyway--resistant to dust and dirt, this trackball supposedly (time will tell) doesn't require the regular cleaning that users of ordinary mice and trackballs know all too well.

The Marble trackball comes in three flavors: "classic" (the original), Plus, and FX. For me, brief trials in stores left the definite feeling that the classic felt the nicest and easiest to use of the three, but you should try each yourself because "feel" and comfort are very much a personal decision. In any event, be sure to get the PS/2-style plug, as opposed to the serial plug: no point wasting a serial port when motherboards have dedicated PS/2-type mouse ports.

Here's a review of the original from PC Quest; here's Tech Review's take on the FX. Or you can read Logitech's own material about the product line.

Speakers: Boston Acoustics BA-635

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Hard as it is to believe, there are folk who spend hundreds of dollars on speaker systems for their computers! For that money, you can buy a pretty decent living-room speaker set. But if you feel that you want good-quality sound from your computer to enhance games and other multimedia material (and to just plain avoid the fingernail-on-the-blackboard feeling that tinny speakers give one) yet feel that three-digit prices are excessive, there are answers.

For some time, Cambridge Soundworks was the consensus choice for such speaker systems, but there's a new kid on the block and those that have tried them seem to feel that this new kid is the new king of the hill. The envelope please? It's Boston Acoustics' BA-635 set. Here's Gamespot's review of the BA-635 speakers.

The single biggest problem with that system is simple: finding it for sale. Yes, you can easily go to BA's own BA635 page and buy it direct off that site, but then you pay the $99 full retail price. BA told me that they are not, at least so far, distributing the BA-635 (or any of their other computer-system speaker sets) through the usual computer-components channels; that means you will have to try hi-fi/audio stores, who may not have much stock (or knowledge) of computer speaker systems--although such stores, like computer stores, normally sell far, far below the laughable MSRP ("manufacturer's suggested retail price"). The search would be worth it.

(I must admit that when push came to shove, I myself bought the Cambridge Soundworks system because I could get it from a competitive vendor for about half the price of the BA system, and while I feel the BA is better, I don't believe it is twice as good; BA had best wake up and smell the coffee.)

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(Last updated: 15 January 2000.)

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