NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, July 2006
The New, the Best, and the Worst
Collected by Pim Borman,
SW Indiana PC Users Group, Inc.

swipcug@sigecom.net (click to email author)

Times Change
Leafing back through old copies of The P-See UrGent, I notice that I started this monthly column in February, 1998. That makes this about the 80th installment – hard to believe. It started out as a discussion of things New, Best or Worst in the computer world, but much has changed since then. We are no longer impressed with incremental improvements in CPU performance. Arguments over the most proficient Web search engine have pretty well been settled for now. Discussions of viruses and other malware have grown way beyond the scope of this column. LCD monitors are no longer “prohibitively expensive, suffer from poor brightness, a narrow viewing angle, and relatively sluggish refresh rates.”

I began to look for long-range trends in computer technology. In my July-August 1999 column I mentioned the birth of a new Web search strategy based on evaluating hyperlinks to identify the most relevant Web sites for a given search term. I specifically described a search program, called Clever , that was being developed by the clever folks at IBM and was highly successful. Typically, IBM used it only internally and did not make it publicly available. As a footnote I added that a similar program, being developed at Stanford University, was made available in beta form. Its name? Google.com. IBM missed the boat again.

It is no coincidence that I read about Google in the June 1999 issue of Scientific American. The most interesting new developments with potential long-term importance are not first reported in PC Magazine or PC World, but in high-quality publications with a more general readership. I often find interesting developments reported in The Economist, the outstanding British weekly news magazine, as well as on the Web site of the BBC News. Other good sources are national newspapers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, but I don't get to read those regularly. As a sign of the times, the April 22nd issue of The Economist carries three full-page in-your-face ads touting the energy advantages of AMD Opteron processor-based servers (e.g.”You could've hired 250 engineers, 570 IT support people, 5,235 interns, and one new CIO with the amount of money wasted by non-AMD powered servers”). No mention of Intel (which is feeling the competition). David is starting to kick sand in Goliath's face!

On the other hand, PC Magazine is now mostly dedicated to gadgets, including a review in its May 9, 2006 issue of the Mercedes ML 350, which is loaded with electronics and sells for up to 70 thousand dollars. A 20-page review of Vista, not expected to become available until January 2007 at the earliest, reports that only 50% of current computers will be able to use it. Very few will be ready for the much-ballyhooed Aero Glass interface without upgrading their graphics capabilities.

PC World stays closer to specific computer topics, but how many “50 Best New Sites” and “Best Free Stuff” do we need? The most important contributions of these PC Magazines are their product evaluations. Otherwise, how would we have known that AMD managed to overtake Intel in CPU technology?

Wi-Fi Progress
In just a few years, as equipment cost dropped to affordable levels, wireless connections between computers in households have become commonplace. Several IEEE standards assure interoperability between different makes of equipment. The most popular standard today is 802.11g, capable of connecting at speeds up to 54 megabits per second (Mbps). It is backwards compatible with the older 802.11b which operates at up to 11 Mbps. A third standard, 802.11a, operates at up to 54 Mbps and uses a different frequency range to minimize interference with other equipment. It is not often used.

The IEEE has almost completed work on a new standard, 802.11n, that should increase the transmission rate to a maximum of 540 Mbps. In anticipation of the new standard, several wireless connection providers have been marketing new products that provide faster connections over greater distances. According to PC World (February 2006) Netgear's $180 RangeMax 240 Wireless Router and $100 Notebook Adapter can connect at close range at about the same rate (100 Mbps) as a standard wired 10-100 Ethernet connection. The router has 3 antennas and transmits over 3 non-overlapping bands within the allotted 9.4 Mhz frequency band to achieve this performance.

The high speed may be useful when you use bandwidth-gobbling applications such as VoiP telephony, network gaming, or streaming audio and video. If you mostly use a wireless Local Area Network (LAN) in your home to share an Internet connection you have no need for premium high-speed wi-fi equipment. The fastest download speed available from my local cable provider, SIGECOM, is 6 Mbps with its premium Xstream service. At that speed, even the slowest 802.11b equipment is adequate for short distances. The 802.11g standard is preferred for connections at greater distances while maintaining sufficient transmission rates.

Since I bought a new computer I moved the laptop upstairs to my den at the other end of the house. As a crow would fly, if it were allowed inside and capable of penetrating floor joists and air conditioning ducts, the distance between the computers is about 35 feet. This is well within the range of 802.11g equipment in open areas, but due to the intervening obstacles I was unable to establish a reliable connection between my standard Netgear router and the Dell laptop with its built-in Dell-brand, 802.11g capable Wi-Fi adapter. I disabled that adapter and plugged in a standard Netgear wireless USB adapter (WG111v2) with the included USB cable. This gave me a strong connection to the router at the other end of the house, with a reported transmission speed of the full 54 Mbps. Although the cable allowed me to set up the adapter within several feet of the laptop computer, it was actually sufficient to Velcro the adapter to the lid of the computer so that it was roughly parallel with the antenna of the router. It goes to show that the quality of the Wi-Fi equipment can make a significant difference in the results when conditions are less than optimal.

Should You Shisen Sho?
Browsing through the games available with Linux distributions such as Linspire and Xandros, I happened on a Mah-Jongg variety called Shisen Sho. If you like to play Mah-Jongg you ought to give it a try – it is definitely habit forming. The game starts out with a square grid of Mah-Jongg tiles. The size of the grid can be varied, but I found 24x12 a suitable size. The goal of the game is to remove identical tiles in pairs, with the restriction that a pair of tiles can only be removed if they can be connected with no more than 3 straight lines (horizontal or vertical) without crossing other tiles. You can specify that the game must be solvable, although that doesn't guarantee that you'll actually solve it on a first try. The secondary goal is to solve the game in the shortest time. The game remembers previous scores to let you assess your increasing proficiency. My first game took me 40 minutes, but since then I have managed a few in slightly under 20 minutes.

There are many versions for Windows available. A listing is available on http://home.halden.net/vkp/vkp/shisensho.html. I downloaded a game by Daniel Valot from http://dvalot.free.fr/games.htm that is well implemented, but Google displays many other versions also. Shisen, in culinary circles usually called Szechuan after the Chinese province, is also known as Four Rivers. Give it a try!

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

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