Tuesday, May 29, 2007

ATI's Basic Display Driver + ATI Tray Tools = Freedom from Catalyst Control Center

This is a quick guide on how to remove the ATI Catalyst Control Center (CCC), improving system performance by freeing resources and in some case increasing system stability . This guide uses ATI's standard display drivers and ATI Tray Tools, and is intended for users of Windows XP.

1. In your Device manager, uninstall the driver for your ATI video card. Do not restart yet.
2. From the Device manager, uninstall the video card itself as well. Do not restart yet.
3. Open Add/Remove programs, and uninstall all of the ATI related drivers and Catalyst Control Center.
4. Download the newest standard display drivers from ATI (currently 7.4). Do not install yet!
5. Download ATI Tray Tools. Do not install yet!
6. Restart your computer, and Cancel any attempts by Windows to find your drivers.
7. Install the ATI standard display drivers and ATI tray tools. ATI Tray tools takes the place of the CCC, and allows you to control various video settings including Anti-aliasing and Anisotropic filtering.

Notes: I noticed a performance increase after following the above steps. To my knowledge, ATI Crossfire users must use Catalyst Control Center for that feature.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Linux and Windows are the same thing, I've just been using Windows longer

After reading various debates on Digg and other places where Windows vs. Ubuntu is debated, I've come to the conclusion that the reality of the situation is this: Windows and Ubuntu, actually, operating systems in general have basic things you have to do in order to use them, and many, if not most, users don't know how to do them even in Windows. This is why a Windows computer comes pre-configured with drivers, software applications, etc. Ubuntu and Windows aren't easier than one another- there's steps you take with either operating system to get it functional from a fresh install.

I was getting ready to reinstall Windows on my PC for performance reasons (In my experience Windows XP's clean running life is 2 years with a single major application and 1 year with various applications and frequent installs/uninstalls). I'll mark everything that a large segment of PC users can't do or do effectively in red:

Installing Windows:

Run installation CD, set up users and passwords
Load desktop, fix default resolution and now I'm at a blank desktop.
Video drivers
Monitor drivers (for proper refresh rate detection)
Chipset drivers/Audio drivers/wireless drivers
Install anti-virus software (I oftentimes I help people choose anti-virus software, and something that happens a lot is installing Norton antivirus over mcafee trialware plus a "good antivirus program" suggested by a friend, plus a large number of viruses, system instability, etc.)
Install OpenOffice.org
Install Firefox
Install Trillian
Install games

Turn off auto-loading programs through their own menus
Open Run dialogue and open msconfig, uncheck any startup items that I don't want that oftentimes are hidden
Clean off desktop, delete files and update drivers to regain stability
Defragment hard drive (effectively), run spyware scans and anti-virus scans, keep auto-detection on and update virus definitions

Windows XP is a pretty good operating system. I've used it for years and years, know the ins-and-outs of it and know it's limitations. I've played tons of games on it both indie and large corporation, every kind of software app imagineable, etc. I can say at this point and time, aside from what feels like a ticking time bomb of system instability that goes crazy almost every calendar year (most likely from the registry getting more and more complicated), Windows XP has worked fantastically for it's lifetime.

For someone who has made Windows XP an artform, i.e. your "Windows poweruser", there's not much incentive to switch to any other operating system. And the politics of free/open source software aside, I've always been willing to pay for quality and respect that developers put time into their work and oftentimes they would like to be compensated.

The arguments of opensource OS's and apps vs. Windows and closed-source nonfree apps shouldn't be the realm of your typical user. Users need to evaluate:

1. What will do what they need to do
2. What is most cost-effective

And that's it. If the answer to those is Ubuntu (see my post, Dell Chooses Ubuntu), then go for it. But say for example, as of right now (May 18th, 2007), you can't easily play all major game titles in linux. The driver support and industry support aren't there. So install Windows XP, keep it healthy and reinstall once a year and be happy. If you don't need to play major game titles and don't have irreplaceable Windows-specific programs, go with Ubuntu. The reality is both operating systems require tons of tinkering at times, any OS will, and the end-user should use what works best for their situation.

The only problem in this seemingly simple equation is Vista. The moment a near-perfect Linux Desktop OS arrives this happens:

1. Directx 10, the newest gaming API-thingumy used by game software developers, is Vista specific, nearly forcing gamers to upgrade to something that has typically reduced computer game performance to 90%ish of it's former self, if not worse
2. Vista is expensive
3. Doesn't add much new functionality
4. Windows XP updates, patches and software company support will eventually die out, and users will find themselves reading the backs of boxes to see if the programs they need support an outdated OS, much like Windows 2000 SP3/SP4 users might today.

It's much like a new edition of a textbook. Not much is added, a little is changed, it's expensive, everyone is inconvenienced, and people find a way around it.

One can hope Ubuntu's popularity will create a new operating system paradigm for software companies to move toward in light of these difficulties. Or maybe Windows XP will be greeted with a new service pack and a DX10 support patch. PC users will have to wait and see.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Dell chooses Ubuntu: An overview

Yesterday (May 1st, 2007) Dell and Canonical both confirmed the rumors and officially announced that the popular Linux distribution Ubuntu would be found on 'select consumer desktops and laptops'. This decision was made, according to dell, 'by popular demand' through Dell's suggestion site, IdeaStorm. Many users also speculate the decision was influenced by Michael Dell's use of Ubuntu on his laptop.

Through the warring on various blogs, forums, and Digg submission comments, there's a lot of speculation and very little full-blown fact-seeking. Here's what I've put together:

Support. Basic non-hardware support will be provided through the Ubuntu community. As seen in the Dell website's support section on "How to install Ubuntu", Dell has no problem with pointing users in the direction of Ubuntu's established peer-to-peer support base. Canonical makes it's money by providing profession tech support for Ubuntu installations- which would easily answer where paid support would be purchased when buying a Dell PC.

Cost. Ubuntu Dell machines may very well cost as much as or slightly more than Windows machines. While this has not been verified by Dell or Canonical, each Windows installation on a Dell PC is subsidized by large amounts of trial software and bloatware from various corporations such as AOL and Earthlink. According to some sources, adding bloatware or trial software to Ubuntu, while possible, may be more difficult because of Ubuntu's trademark policies. Apparently to be an official Ubuntu distribution, certain requirements must be met that may keep Dell from adding any trial software to it's Ubuntu PCs.

However, one might say that with reduced technical support on it's shoulders, Dell could technically make up a lot of it's costs through that area.

Benefits of pre-installed Ubuntu. Many users are asking why anyone would opt for a PC with Ubuntu instead of Windows when one can obtain a cheap Windows license and install Ubuntu for free anyway. Here's some reasons:

A. When buying a Dell Ubuntu PC, you would be purchasing a pre-installed, pre-configured Ubuntu installation with all the necessary drivers.

B. All of your hardware, of course, would be linux-compatible and ready-for-use. If you purchase a Dell laptop with built-in webcam, all-in-one card reader, nvidia graphics card and built-in microphone, all of these would be linux-friendly and pre-configured to work out of the box. Of course, Dell could just slap a fresh Ubuntu install on it's PC's and ship a headache-in-a-box to all of it's customers, but with it's IdeaStorm website and choice to offer Ubuntu to customers many believe Dell is taking a turn in a new direction with it's customer relations. We can only hope.

C. How really useful is a OEM, Dell, bloatware/trialware infested Windows Vista Home Basic license key/cd? A large number of customers who were forced into buying Vista before Dell offered XP again complained of having to install XP over it anyway.

(Alternatively, if you need Windows Vista, my recommendation is to get it via an OEM distribution. Windows Vista Ultimate and Home Premium are at hugely discounted prices by this method, but you miss out on Microsoft support. Dogpile, then Yahoo, and now Google have been my Microsoft support sites for years anyway.)

Are you a potential Ubuntu user? I've helped hundreds of people make decisions on what kind of computer they need to do what they want to do. Ubuntu vs. a Windows machine is a very easy decision from that aspect. From the basic computer uses:

Ubuntu can easily do:
-Web browsing (via Firefox)
-Photo viewing (I never looked at what program handles this in Ubuntu, which is a good thing)
-Office software (through OpenOffice, which is basically a free office suite that is nearly identical in functionality to Microsoft Office 2007 Standard Edition)
-E-mail and calendaring (through Evolution mail manager, but of course a lot of people use web-based managers such as Gmail)
-Image/photo editing (through The Gimp, which is an awesome bit of software that I was using years and years ago to make a website in middle school, i.e. pretty easy to use and gives a lot of room to learn more as your editing needs increase)

What's tricky on Ubuntu:
-Gaming in general: A lot of games are supported through a program that lets you run Windows programs/games in Ubuntu called Wine, however for you to be truly sucessful with this an Nvidia graphics card is a near-requirement and you need to make sure your favorite games are supported before going for it. Most gamers will want to keep a Windows installation on their computers as well to switch to for gaming.
-Making financial and tax software made for Windows work in Ubuntu. TaxCut, TurboTax, Quicken, QuickBooks, etc. don't have viable alternatives in Ubuntu to my knowledge.

What's nice about Ubuntu:
-The operating system is rock solid. My parents use Ubuntu 6.06 on an old IBM machine, 400Mhz Pentium II with 384MB of memory on a 40GB hard drive. It sits on a desk in the corner of their living room and it is used to surf the web, send e-mail and read the news. Ubuntu runs flawlessly, the computer is never turned off or starts slowing down after extended periods of time between restarts. This kind of flawless performance compared to the previous Windows installation makes me very happy with Ubuntu overall. The number of tech problems they have run into with a Firefox (internet) icon, Openoffice Icon and a folder to save their files is zero.
-99% of the software is free and is easily installed from incredibly fast Canonical servers with nearly zero configuration by the user. Open add and remove program, search for the kind of program you need, check the box and hit install. It shows up in your Applications.
-All of the software installed like that gets automatic updates that are easy to install, are done quickly and don't greatly effect system stability in any way.
-Codecs are downloaded after a quick prompt (much like Windows Media Player), and the download and install is quick and fast. After removing all of my codecs and trying to play mp3's, avi's, ogg's, ogm's, mkv's, and wmv's I had all my codecs installed and better configured than my manual installation from previous Ubuntu versions (6.10).

Most people sit down at their computer, write a paper, surf the web, check e-mail and organize pictures from the net, e-mail or their digital camera. For those purposes, there is no better operating system than Ubuntu, period. It's reliability, ease of use and security are second to none. Dell's decision to include Ubuntu as an OS option for customers was an excellent move and I hope it becomes a sucessful venture for the company.

All images are copyright of their respective owners, including Dell and Canonical.