Newsletter #134 - Jan 20, 2006
Is Your Computer Working 'OK'?


Does your computer look and sound normal when it's sitting there shut-down, when it starts, when it runs, and as it shuts down? Maybe you have good computer karma? Or is the hard drive whirling away when you're not doing anything, and little lights flashing on and off when you're only thinking about something? Maybe you have 'bad computer karma?
Attached to, but a step beyond your computer is your personal network, and then the internet. Are your file downloads and uploads agonizingly slower than usual, but you're not doing anything except uploading your latest movie to YouTube? How do you know what's normal to compare your system to?
Some experts will advise you to update your software, others to update hardware or drivers, and yet others have horror tales about viruses or adware. How do you know who and what to believe? It helps to have some things to use at least to cross-check the advice.
I don't have all the answers, not even all the questions.... but what I do have, I'll share with you. In this issue I'll go over some of the things I routinely check and how I do it.
... before getting into more details, here are some notes...

Vista Corner... 
I submitted the MaximumPC article on Monday, about making a movie in Vista. It's about the 15 steps from camcorder tape to Photo Gallery to Movie Maker to DVD Maker, ending with viewing a DVD playing on my XP laptop... I got a positive note back with a single request for another picture showing the DVD playing on the laptop... a visual to add to the closing punch line.
The website pages about Vista are evolving... you may have noticed some changes. One of them was to tweak the image collage I use at the top of the main page of the site and at the top of each newsletter. I dropped the version numbers 2 and 3 from Movie Maker and Photo Story, and put a screen shot of my Vista system in the neptune monitor... with it looking stronger than the rest of the image. The first thing you notice in Vista is the eye-candy of the aero-glass, so I'm notching up the in eye-candy in the Vista section.
I'm adding notes about what's on the Vista operating system... things like codecs available for third party apps. And I'm checking some of the apps in my toolbox to see which ones open, and which ones work. VirtualDub works but VDubMod doesn't. IrfanView works but GSpot doesn't... etc. Some work, some open but then don't function. Some don't open.
.... back to the main topic...

A Computer Once-Over
Here's the scene in my office...
There are 5 computers at my desk... my laptop and 4 desktops. There's another older laptop on a back bar behind me, and two systems downstairs used by Bernadette (a desktop and tablet). Between my desk and a wall of stereo/TV equipment is a mess of cables, including a cable modem, a wireless router, a bunch of power strips, USB2 hubs, and external USB drives. It's an area you don't walk on or vacuum... you try not to even look at it. The room is much more wired than wireless.
My main computer is the HP laptop running XP's Media Center Edition. When I'm home, it's connected to its power adapter, an external USB TV tuner, a USB wireless mouse, and a USB2 hub. The hub in turn has 3 external USB drives and a thumb drive in it's 4 connections.  
The laptop sits on a couple strips of wood about 1/2" high so the air under it has more breathing space for the cooling system...

Computer boot-up...
Per Microsoft, The design goals for Windows XP on a typical consumer PC are:

Boot to a useable state in a total of 30 seconds

Resume from Hibernation in a total of 20 seconds

Resume from Standby in a total of 5 seconds

Boot and resume times are measured from the time the power switch is pressed to being able to start a program from a desktop shortcut.

Here's a link to a utility on your hard drive... an old utility at that for those of you who remember sysinf.

System Info

Among other things in this utility are lists of the audio and video codecs on your system... here's the video codecs it lists for my laptop, sorted by manufacturer.
Video Codecs
The list differs considerably from other lists such as those provided by GSpot.

Hard drives...
Are they using the desired NTFS file system (at least for video work) so they are not limited to 4 GB max file sizes, less than 20 minutes of a DV-AVI file?
How full are they, and are they defragged? Use Start > right click on My Computer > Manage > Storage > Disk Management and Disk Defragmenter. My drives are:
  • Defrag AnalysisC - 93 GB - NTFS - internal drive - 27 GB free (28%) - Analysis says it doesn't need defragging, but I'm going to do it anyway... the analysis report shows lots of fragmented files. Before starting the defrag, click the File Size column to sort the list by size... note the biggies and think about if you still need them. The first in the list of my C drive is a 3.68 GB file that was a test capture by Premiere Elements, which I don't need. Delete it and empty the recycle bin before the defrag. 
  • H - 56 GB - FAT32 - external USB1 drive - 14 GB free (24%) - Analysis says it doesn't need defragging
  • E - 466 GB - NTFS - external USB2 drive - 114 GB free (24%) - Analysis says it doesn't need defragging
  • I - 233 GB - NTFS - external USB2 drive -38 GB free (16%) - Analysis says it needs defragging. The report says the most fragmented file is a short DV-AVI one that is 69 MB in size and is stored in 4,767 fragments. Defragging would put all the fragments together for easier access by the hard drive's head. After defragging, there were no more fragmented files.
Are the USB2 external drives using the policy of 'quick removal' or 'performance'.
If set to 'quick External Drive Policyremoval' they can be unplugged without using the 'safe removal' step, but won't work with larger DV-AVI files. If set to 'performance', they work fine capturing to or from large DV-AVI files. Right click on My Computer > Explore > right click on an external drive > Properties > Hardware tab > select the drive > Properties > Policies tab.
The defragging of all the drives happened in the background as I continued writing the newsletter... no need to stop doing things during it.
When done, the report said there were no more fragmented files, and the visual feedback showed a better picture... here's the one with the most dramatic change in it's picture. 
Defragged Drive

I run at the highest screen resolution of 1680 by 1050 pixels... the highest varies with the computer. The refresh rate is 60 Hertz (raise it if you see flickering... mine only offers the one setting with this resolution).
They say an LCD holds it's color calibration and only needs it once, so I only did it once. We use a 'spyder' device to calibrate monitors.
When I plug my laptop into the projection system at the library, the two systems work together to decide what resolution is best... as a result the 100 or so icons on my desktop get reshuffled to where I don't want them. To put them back, I use Icon Saver... running it before heading to the library to make note of the icon positions, and then again when I return home to put them all back to where they started.

You might hear the whirring of the main cooling fan or feel the warmth (or heat) of the laptop. If the whirring goes on too long or the warmth is too hot, it's time for at least a quick look.
I did an overnight defrag of the I drive... it was finished in the morning, and things were quiet when I sat down at the laptop, but the cooling fan started to run when I resized the defrag report window to take a snapshot, and it continued on and on... a quick check of the Task Manager showed the CPU running steadily at 50%, a good reason for the fan to be on..... but I hadn't told the defrag utility to do anything.
The process tab, sorted by CPU, shows the defrag process using the 50%, and using 1/2 GB of memory, and all it was doing was resizing window.... I thought. It must have been doing something in the background.
CPU Usage
I told it to something productive, defrag the C drive.... at the 3% progress point the main fan stopped and you could hear only the quieter purring of the smaller CPU fan.
Vacuuming the dust collection in the computer helps with air flow and cooling.

Task Manager - PerformanceRAM and Virtual Memory....
If things are working fine, but all of a sudden you hit a brick wall.
Things slow down considerably, by a factor of 10 or more. What happened?
If you've reached the full use of your physical memory (RAM), and are now dipping into the virtual memory swap file on your hard drive... it's normal. But are you at that point?
To find out, don't close anything... open your Task Manager and check the current use of memory.
If the figure for 'currently used' memory is more than your physical RAM, then your system is dipping into the swap file on the hard drive... the computer goes in and out of RAM lots faster than it does the hard drive... that's why the big slowdown.
The picture shows my laptop with its 2 GB of RAM, current usage of 1.2 GB, with the peak usage of 1.8 GB since I turned the system on last night. 
Note that Vista can use a SanDisk Cruzer Micro, a smart USB flash drive... the computer uses it as a quicker swap file than the hard drive, but not as fast as physical RAM. I have a 2 GB one plugged into a USB slot on my Vista system, which has 1 GB of RAM.... 
What's Using Your Computer's Memory?
Lots of stuff... which offers you hours of detective work and head-scratching. Put these things together and you can free up some memory to put to better use.
The first item in my Startup folder is the BlueTooth Tray... you can see the same little icon for the service nestled in the flock of icons at the right of my task bar. Not being a Bluetooth user, it must be using some memory that would be freed up if I turned it off simply by removing it from the startup folder.
The first in my alphabetical list (4) is the Adobe Elements 5 file agent, which came with the 30 day free trial I installed a bit over a month ago, which is now up and non-functional. I haven't gotten to the point of uninstalling it or getting a full licensed version... until I do something about it, it will continue costing 236 K of memory.
Running Processes
The memory used by all the things you don't use, don't need, or didn't clean up from something you tried... can add up to make the difference between being able to save a complex movie or running into a memory-related issue. My 2 GB of memory on the laptop lets me be a bit sloppy about doing such cleanup, but even it runs into the familiar error message when saving a movie.

Speed TestWireless connections...
How is your computer working with a server someplace on the internet? Try this handy and cute website.
At home with my Charter internet service, and my laptop connecting via a Linksys wireless router, I get 2932 kbps downloading and 243 kbps uploading with the suggested server in Chicago.
At Barnes&Noble, which connects through a wireless AT&T service, I get slower 1316 kbps downloading and faster 327 kbps uploading. Sometimes I'll save my bigger uploads until I get to B&N.
The signal strength with the router is somewhat directional... move your laptop around to check it... if it's connecting to your router, move the antenna on the router to check it in different positions.
Wireless signal strength

When I turn my laptop on in the morning, I check to see if the power cord is plugged in... if it is, I promise to remember to unplug it the next time I shut the system down.
Computer repair shops say that a battery can cycle only a limited number of times during it's life and if you leave it plugged in when shut down, it keeps cycling while doing nothing... but I forget about disconnecting it when shutting down about 25% of the time.
As time goes by, it's normal to have the fully charged battery be able to run the computer for less and less time. My laptop is an energy hog, so I'm trained to scout for outlets as soon as I go to a new place. I carry a spare battery but don't swap them out very often because I'm usually plugged in. On a trip to an unknown location, I'll check and charge the spare battery. 
If you're using a laptop with a wireless wi-fi connection, the energy to connect supposedly uses about 1/3 of the computer's energy, so turn the wireless switch off when you don't need it and you're not plugged in.

CD/DVD drive/burner...
Some say the laser light lens should be cleaned every now and then, but I'm not a heavy disc maker and have never cleaned one.
Standard advice about burning discs is that they burn more surely if you use slower speed burns. But change the speed only if you run into problems.
Most DVDs are encoded for playing in specific regions... I've never met anyone who changes their setting regularly. My laptop has never changed the setting and it says I have 4 more changes remaining. If the number of changes left get down to zero, be sure your last one is where you want it to be for the rest of its life. You can't extend the number of times it can be changed. 
The sound of a smoothly turning disc is different than one of a disc with a stuck-on paper label that's off-balance or worse... not having enough head room. If the sound is off-beat, don't wait too long to open the drive drawer and check what's happening. A paper label could be shredding and leaving a mess in the drive.
Laptops have less head-room than drives in desktop systems. I bought an Epson R-200 disc printer and print directly onto discs...  I've never used stick-on labels.  

Vista readiness...
How well will the computer work when you install Vista?
The Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor should tell you about your computer, with specific pointers to what won't or might not work with Vista.... it doesn't get thru the checking on my laptop without giving an error message, so it might just be running XP forever.  

Conclusion and Closing... and What's Next?
It's an ongoing process with no conclusion and hopefully no closing. Tune your computer up regularly and learn a bit more each time.
Movie making is one of the most complex projects you can ask a computer to do, so you'll have plenty of opportunities to use your tune-up knowledge and skills...
Have a great week!!

Have a great week...