Dan's Data letters #147Publication date: 1-July-2005.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
Dan, you forgot to add in your review of the "cheap" Dell Inspiron 9200, that one CANNOT replace the inverter board when it goes bad. You have to buy the ENTIRE screen, to the tune of $US700 or so. ALL consumer grade laptops are this way. Pavilions, Presarios, Satellites, Inspirons, Gateways, etc. Only BUSINESS class laptops, like HP/Compaq Omnibooks and IBM ThinkPads let you buy the inverter board, which only costs $US80 or so.
You see, it costs money to part out an LCD screen, instead of just SKU'ing it as one part number. So that cheap laptop is a THROWAWAY in 24 months or so when the backlighting goes bad. 7 times out of 10, it's the inverter board that is bad. And Dell makes a KILLING selling unsuspecting dolts brand new screens when they only need an inverter board.
Next time, let your readers know about this before they buy a "cheap" consumer grade laptop. Sometimes they are not so cheap...
Sure you can get a spare inverter for a 9200 (or 9300) - you just can't get the part from Dell (I presume - I haven't actually checked). People rip apart dead laptops and sell the bits online all the time. I don't think anybody's got any 9200 or 9300 inverters for sale yet, but as soon as the laptops actually start dying, there the parts'll be, by definition!
Of the "business class" laptops you mention, Omnibooks don't exist any more, so I guess it's just the ThinkPads (not, once again, that I've checked).
OK, I'll just buy a 17 inch ThinkPad, then...
OK, well, surely they've at least got a widescreen model with...
OK, 15 inches then, with a fast video adapter...
Nope. Well, you can get a GeForce Go 5200 or a Radeon X300 in a 15 inch ThinkPad, but only for about $AU1000 more than you'd pay for a similarly specified 17 inch Dell. There's your backlight replacement fund, right there.
I think ThinkPads are great, and own a couple of old ones, but I also think saving a substantial amount of money in the first place and resigning yourself to having a hard-to-service laptop (like, you know, pretty much all laptops - I've worked on the ThinkPads too, and it ain't no picnic even with the service manual) is a perfectly valid option. Especially when there simply is no equivalent product in a "business" laptop.
I don't know how long the Dell backlights last on average. I imagine there's considerable variation from OEMmed model to model, so it's hard to guess how current models will do based on one's (lousy) knowledge of the reliability of past ones. Lots of disgruntled Dell owners trailing through the local computer repair places is not very informative, unless you know what proportion of the laptop market Dell have in the area.
The backlights in quality laptops (and LCD monitors) commonly last for more than five years. Those in really crappy laptops may fail in a couple. I'd expect at least three years of hard use from a Dell, but that's just a guess.
My PC has been driving me nuts over the last couple of weeks with all sorts of whirring noises that just don't sound like the sorts of noises that a PC should make. These noises are LOUD, intermittent, and bashing the side of the PC hasn't made them go away. Sometimes turning the thing off and on again will make the noises go away, but they eventually come back. Further bashing doesn't help either.
People who call me on the telephone started asking if I was building a TARDIS, 'coz that's what they thought the background noise my PC was generating sounded like.
Thinking the worst about disks that are about to suicide, I got even more paranoid than usual about making back-up copies of my important data EVERYWHERE before getting brave enough to actually do something about the noises.
Today was finally noise day. I took the PC to a place where these things can get diagnosed, and started trying to track down the source of the sound effects. I figured it could be either one of the disk drives or a faulty bearing on a fan somewhere.
With the cover off and the machine switched on and running, we found that there were three fans (one PSU fan, one case fan, and one CPU fan) and two disks that could be making noises. We had to wait a bit until the noises started, but since none of us had a stethoscope, and none of our attempts to stick our heads in the machine could give us any idea of WHERE the noises where coming from, we resorted to sticking a screwdriver into the blades of each of the fans to see if stopping it would make the thing shut up. Then we tried pulling the power plugs out of the drives.
The racket continued.
I started thinking about passing my PC onto one of the more junior members of staff, preferably someone with a hearing defect, or with a habit of working with an iPod making enough noise so they wouldn't notice.
Then, one of the techies suggested taking out all of the adapter cards. I don't know why I went along with this 'coz it sounds silly, but sure enough, the noises stopped. And the culprit was... the video card! Yes, it has a tiny fan bolted to the heatsink on the gubbin that must to do the stuff that requires a heatsink and a fan, and this fan had been announcing its presence (and perhaps its displeasure) in interesting ways that seem to have been the source of all my whirring noises.
This little fan had a couple of wires coming from it that plugged into a thing that you plug things into on the video card itself. So I pulled the plug out of the plug-into thing, put all of the adapter cards back into the machine, and started it back up. Silence! Well not silence, but at least no sound effects, and Bad Things seemed to be absent.
Finally, the little bit of advice that I need.
With that little fan disconnected, I asked the computer to do the sorts of things that I would get it to do when I am hard at work, while at the same time having a volunteer (well OK, I volunteered him) keep his finger on the video card's heatsink that had (until recently) been cooled by Mr Noisy TARDIS Sound-Effect Emulator. There were no third degree burns, nor were there any deviations from normal operation apart from the obvious abnormality of having a man stand there with his finger on the whatsit (which can be dismissed as being part of experimental necessity).
So, is it safe to continue to run the computer and the video card like this?
The video card is made by some company called Gecube and purports itself to be an ATI Radeon 9600 PRO. Some Googling tells me that this is a card that is quite happy to do 3D pipelines and shading and stuff (whatever all of that means), and is the sort of doo-dah that would have gamers laughing at me for owning. I can't help thinking that if all I use it for is displaying 2D images and text and stuff, then it's hardly going to break a sweat, and probably doesn't need any cooling help from Mr Noisy.
Am I right, or am I asking for trouble?
For future reference, there's one other place a fan can be hiding inside a PC - in an old CD burner. CD and DVD burners today aren't very bothered about temperature, but old burners were finicky, and so often had a teeny 20mm fan in the back. Smaller fans have to spin faster to get anything done, so it's little fans like these that generally crap out first.
Is it safe to run your 9600 fanless? Yes. You're unlikely to barbecue anything. Is it a good idea? Maybe not.
The Radeon 9600's not a very hot-running chip, and if you never use 3D mode it'll never get close to full power input (and, thus, heat output). In this situation, just the plain heat sink probably will keep it acceptably cool, provided there's a bit of air flow through the case.
Later on, though, a dust-blocked front fan grille and a hot summer day may leave you with a computer that hangs at random moments. If you define "safe" as "not likely to cause you to lose work because of an unexpected reboot", this doesn't make the grade.
If I were you, I'd put some kind of quiet low-power fan on the card. It doesn't have to be the same size as the standard one; various dodgy installation techniques, usually involving cable ties, will let you strap all kinds of fans onto video cards, or near enough to them to do the job. A low power (less than two watt) 80mm case fan would be great, if you can get it set up next to the card, or you could attach a low power CPU fan directly to it, as I did back when the original TNT cards were high end.
Note that video cards are static sensitive devices, as are lots of other PC components, so you need to take precautions when working on or near them. Here's a decent guide.
I've just given up on my... 6th-ish pair of headphones (or rather, headSET). Every one has broken in the most annoying of manners, wherein they have not been stepped on, put through the washing machine, swung around like a flail, or subjected to any other obvious mistreatment. They simply die, and they die in such a way that sometimes the most minor twist, bend or pull on the wire brings them back to crackling life for some brief period. So you fiddle for a few days, or weeks, before finally giving up and going with a slightly more expensive set.
My latest set was the Koss SB40. Quite a bit better in terms of quality and comfort than the sets I'd previously used. The downside to these was the fact that it had a wire going into each speaker instead of looping through the band from one to the other, but I thought that, being of higher quality, the build quality would be better and it wouldn't be an issue. Clearly this was not the case. I lost the left speaker last week.
And so I brought them into work, my mate brought his soldering iron, and we attempted to fix them. A coupla bucks worth of connectors and wires, plus several hours of chiselling/whittling away plastic (the hot knife no longer fit the iron for some reason), and we had a custom SB40 set with two stereo minijack connectors in the left (one for mic, one for speakers) and a wire attached loosely to the band from one ear to the other. Not pretty, but it worked. Well, the speakers worked. Until last night. The mic died on the operating table and could not be revived.
I'm too lazy to go through all that again. I have a list of features I want, and I'm willing to pay somewhat more than I did for the SB40s to get them. But I cannot seem to find a place selling a single product with all of them. I thought you might have some simple product recommendations, or other ideas. Amongst all your many headphone reviews, I do not recall seeing a product that matches up.
The feature list is:
* Circumaural. I play a LOT of Half-Life 2 deathmatch. I want comfort. Open or closed makes no difference to me. I am not using them to listen to Mozart. But the sound quality must be at least up to the SB40s.
* Microphone. I could buy a separate mic, but I'm not sure how well that's gonna work in the heat of battle. I expect it might end up flying across the desk. Plus it seems far less 1337 than a bendy bit of wire coming off the left earpiece.
And now for the big two...
* ONE wire to the headset. Or actually I should say one chord, or bundle. Not one in each ear. Certainly not one in each ear plus one to the side for the mic.
* And finally, the wire must not be permanently fixed at the headphone end. I want a plug there, to ensure I never have to go through all of this again (unless I actually do step on the damn things or do something equally destructive).
Ah, intermittent cable-fracture problems, and the meatball surgery that ensues. Been there, done that.
First up, note that Koss headphones have a lifetime warranty. Your hacked-up 'phones won't qualify, and I don't know who does Koss repairs here in Australia, but the warranty still applies and is probably no more onerous than it is in the USA and Canada, where you just have to pay a small shipping fee to get fixed or new headphones.
Your sound quality requirement isn't too onerous - I haven't listened to that particular Koss model, but they're not a whole lot more expensive than the no-microphone UR20s I reviewed some time ago, and those don't sound too great. Good for the money, though.
Needing a plug-in cable, though, rules out an awful lot of headphones, especially the cheaper models. You may find there's a better way.
Some replacement plug-in cables are quite expensive - the cable by itself can cost almost as much as a set of SB40s. If there are standard connectors at each end - like the 1/8th inch and (perverse) 1/10th inch plugs on some-but-not-all plug-in Sennheiser cables - then anyone with a soldering iron can make a new cable from cheap parts, but their time is probably worth something per hour as well.
If you're happy with cheap headphones, it might be a better deal if you just buy new ones when the cables on the old ones fracture.
The integrated cables in better quality headphones are often tougher than the ones in cheap headphones, too. There's better strain relief, higher quality conductors (wire with woven-in nylon for strength is common; actually, you sometimes get Kevlar these days), and beefier insulation.
Also, headphones with non-plug-in cables may still have cables you can replace without soldering; you just have to take the ear-cup apart and unplug a little circuit board connector inside.
Another marvellous thing you may not have thought of is that if you head off to your local pro sound place and find a nice gigproof professional headset (and, probably, plug adapters to reduce its big pro connectors to weedy 1/8th inchers), it may well have pretty high impedance and pretty low efficiency, because it expects to run from some monster mixing desk with lots of headphone output power. Fed from a computer sound card output, it may not go loud enough. The SB40s are 120 ohm and seem to suit you, though; you're not using some tiny MP3 player that runs out of puff when driving anything above 32 ohms.
I've hunted around for something that meets your requirements but isn't some multi-hundred-dollar lump that'll make you look like a TV cameraman, and I've failed to find it.
Hence, I present these options:
1: Get another cheap Koss headset, and take advantage of its warranty if it should die. The things are cheap enough that you could buy two, so you'll have one to use while the other one's getting fixed.
2: Use a separate mic. A little clip-on lapel mic will cost you close to nothing, give speech quality just as good as that from a cheap headset's mic, and give you the option of buying any pair of headphones you like to go with it (I suggest these, if your budget stretches that far). Yes, it's one more cable, but even for games, there's some point to having better sounding headphones; they make positional audio cues work better, for instance.
But wait - there's more! Click here to go to page 2 of this letters column!