Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


If you're a user who can't leave things alone if there's a chance you can make them better, even if it means bucking the norm, read on. We have some tips and tricks that just might make you more productive.

Totally Tubular

Looking for the ultimate in PC sound for games and movies? The answer might not be in bigger speakers or better cables. Instead, a vacuum tube, a device that was high-tech in the early 20th century, might be the key to getting richer sound from your computer.

Putting a vacuum tube in a computer--teeming with millions of transistors that replaced such fragile and fussy tubes--might seem backward. But as some audiophiles have said for years, sometimes analog is better. With a vacuum tube in the preamplifier, sound is often described as being "softer" or "warmer," or as having a smoother tonal quality than digital transistors can achieve.

Adding a vacuum tube to your PC does not mean turning it into Frankenstein's monster. AOpen manufacturers motherboards equipped with a vacuum tube. The company currently sells two such mobos in the United States: Model AX4B-533 Tube (about $150) is based on the Intel 845E chipset, and model AX4GE Tube-G (about $185) is based on the Intel 845GE chipset. AOpen also plans to release a board that's compatible with the AMD K8 CPU.

The motherboards have a traditional onboard digital sound chip. To achieve the unique sound, the chip's output is sent through the vacuum tube preamplifier before being routed to the speaker jack. If you would rather use a third-party sound card, you can still use the motherboard's vacuum tube. An audio input connector on the motherboard lets the sound card's output route through the tube amplification.

Motherboards with tubes are a niche product and will probably stay that way. "They're definitely not for the mainstream," says Richard Jen, AOpen's product manager for motherboards. "This product aims at those people who love quality sound from their computer. It provides a very warm sound for those who hate cold audio from the computer."

Tube-equipped motherboards cost about $70 more than their solid-state counterparts, one reason they'll remain a niche product for techies and audiophiles. In addition, tubes don't last forever. Under normal operating conditions, a tube should last 4,000 to 5,000 hours (166 to 208 days if the computer is constantly left on) before it needs replaced. "Most people don't know where to get replacement tubes. That's a major hurdle for mainstream users," Jen says.

In addition, the change in audio that a tube brings isn't for everyone. "It's so subjective," says John Esau, customer service manager at The Tube Store (www.thetubestore.com), a vacuum tube retailer. "You have audiophiles who don't like tubes, who prefer solid state. Solid state can be analytical and dry, and some people find it irritating. Tube sound warms it; some people say it adds a sense of magic. The person who prefers the tube sound is looking for a smoother sound." Other users complain that sound from a tube is less precise, or fuzzier, than digital.

For modders who like to adjust every aspect of their PC, a vacuum tube provides one more piece of hardware to tweak. AOpen's motherboards use a type 6922 tube, which is a fairly common model. The boards ship with a Russian-made Sovtek 6922 tube, but other manufacturers are (or have been) making compatible tubes. Replacing the Sovtek tube with another brand can give your PC a truly distinctive sound. Prices for 6922-compatible tubes range from about $10 to more than $150.

If you want vacuum-tube sound but don't want to replace your perfectly good motherboard, an external sound processor can do the trick. You can connect the Bit88 Universal Sound Enhancer (www.bit88.com) between any audio source and speakers to add that pleasing, tubular sound. However, getting one in the United States might be a project. Because the Bit88 isn't distributed here, you'll have to buy from an overseas distributor. You'll also need a step-up transformer to work with its 230V power supply.

Oddly, you can download a program that simulates vacuum-tube audio digitally. According to its Web page at www.dadev.com/products_vtube.asp, VTube "uses the latest technology improvements and patents to implement a very powerful and delightful warm simulator." (Better sound through patents. Who knew?) The program costs $119, but a free demonstration version is available for download.

Serial Killer

Empty your desk, ATA; it is time to retire. You are being replaced by a younger, faster interface. Serial ATA is here.

The Parallel ATA interface--the bus that controls hard drives, CD-ROMs, Zip drives, and other IDE and ATAPI devices--has been around for 18 years. But it's doomed to obsolesce.

SATA 1.0, the version of the interface that's available in PCs today, moves data at about 1.5Gbps (150MBps). That's not much faster than the fastest PATA devices, which work at about 133MBps. However, version two of SATA will be twice as fast. Serial ATA II "is expected to hit the market in 2004 and ramp in 2005," says David A. Dickstein, spokesperson for the SATA Working Group. SATA II products will be backward compatible with 1.0.

Serial ATA II will provide additional enhancements, delivered in increments. The first, focused on the needs of server and network storage segments, were released earlier this year, including command queuing and staggered spin-up. Future enhancements "will focus on enhanced cabling, fan-out and fail-over capabilities, and next-generation signaling speeds," says Dickstein.

SATA's third generation is expected to be twice as fast again, maxing out at 6Gbps. Although 6Gbps transfer rates are a few years off, there are more immediate SATA benefits until SATA reaches that speed. With four to seven wires instead of 80, SATA's connectors are much smaller than PATA's, which is important in notebooks and other tight spaces. SATA cables are also much thinner than PATA's ribbon connectors, meaning improved airflow. SATA cables can also be longer, up to 1 meter (39 inches) compared with 18 inches for old ATA cables. The SATA bus also uses a fraction of the power--250mV, compared to the 5V PATA typically uses--and includes two power-saving modes, also good news for notebook users.

SATA devices are also easier to connect. Devices are hot swappable and connect directly to the bus in a point-to-point configuration, with no need for daisy chaining or dealing with a master/slave configuration, as with PATA. A Port Multiplier specification has been announced, which will let users connect up to 15 drives to each SATA port. However, because it uses the familiar ATA command set, no additions to the operating system are required. (However, a chipset optimized for SATA is necessary to get the most speed.) SATA is backward-compatible with PATA; with a cable adapter, the SATA bus supports PATA and ATAPI devices, including hard drives, CD/DVD drives, Zip drives, and so on.

Most desktop makers now offer SATA, primarily on higher-end rigs. Adoption is expected to be slow this year due to SATA's high cost relative to PATA. Next year, as prices fall, SATA will begin to be standard on many more desktops and will begin to appear on notebooks, says Dave Reinsel, research manager for hard disk drives at IDC. He expects the vast majority of PCs to ship with SATA by the end of 2005.

More SATA information is available at the Serial ATA Working Group's Web site (www.serialata.org).

Zip It

Dealing with cable clutter, especially in notebook bags, is a perennial problem, but the folks at Keyspan and Cables Unlimited have a novel solution: retractable cables. Zip-Linq (www.ziplinq.com) cables start as a compact spool that fits in the palm of your hand. Pull on the ends and the cable extends up to 36 inches. Give another yank and it zips together again. Many cable types are available, including USB configurations, RJ-45, FireWire, and synch/charge cables for PDAs and cell phones. There's even a mouse with a retractable cable.

At $12 to $16 each, the cables are more expensive than regular cables but are perfect for tossing into a notebook bag or computer first aid kit. They'll be there when you need them but won't tangle up the works when you don't.

Reprinted with permission from Computer Power User magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz