This month, after a bit of clock‑watching, Martin Walker looks at a utility which should keep your PC running for longer.
There seem to have been a lot of new developments in the PC world of late, and since many are relevant to PC musicians I intend to open up the cupboard, probe into its darkest recesses, and reach for a change of clothing. Yes, it's anorak time again!
Let's dive in at the deep end. Your PC's system buss controls communication between the processor and other parts of the computer's motherboard, and for some time overall performance of PCs has been held back by the 66MHz buss speed. However, although Intel motherboard chipsets were supposed to run at a maximum of 66MHz, others have been available which can achieve higher speeds, of up to 83MHz. Some people even 'overclocked' the Intel chips, to these higher buss speeds, by changing jumpers on their motherboards, although warnings are normally issued with instructions on how to overclock, since the practice causes the processor chip to run hotter. Depending on the quality of your motherboard (and the RAM chips), you might then be prone to random crashes and other reliability problems. In other words, on your own head be it!
However, overclocking can produce problems in another area for musicians: the speed of the PCI buss is normally half the system buss speed, and some soundcards (and any other PCI card for that matter) might suffer from erratic performance after such overclocking. They're only designed to run at 33MHz (half the normal 66MHz buss speed), and although many will run at the slightly higher speeds of 37.5MHz (with a 75MHz buss speed) and 41.5MHz (with an 83MHz buss), others will exhibit glitches, or even lock up the PC altogether.
One reader recently emailed me after suffering a complete lockup every time he booted his Cyrix 6x86 PR200 MMX‑powered PC after installing an Event Darla soundcard. This processor uses a 75MHz buss speed by default, so I suggested that he try reducing buss speed to 66MHz. The Darla card worked perfectly after this, although his PC would also run significantly slower. This is not a criticism of Cyrix processors — it just illustrates once again that unexpected things can happen when you attempt to mix and match hardware from different manufacturers.
The reason I mention all this is that, along with the many new processors I discussed in last month's PC Notes, there's a significant new feature appearing on systems with the fastest 350 and 400MHz Pentium II processors — the 100MHz front‑side buss (and yes, unfortunately there is a back‑side buss as well). The secret is the new Intel 440BX chipset, which has been designed for these new devices. New motherboard designs based on the 440BX chipset can support any Pentium II processor, from 233MHz to 400MHz, but the two fastest models can now run with a front‑side buss speed of 100MHz, rather than the 66MHz of the others.
As always, the overall system improvement is not as high as one might initially expect, but it's causing some people to worry that their existing PCI cards may not work properly if they buy a new system with a 100MHz buss. However, in such systems the PCI buss actually runs at one third of system buss speed and so returns to the safe value of 33MHz, which prevents problems with PCI expansion cards.
Mind you, the 100MHz buss is not just for those with bottomless wallets and purses who can afford the latest high‑speed Intel processors, since there are various manufacturers developing a Super7 chipset, which will work with Socket 7 processors (such as the AMD K6 series). Industry experts are actually predicting that the 100MHz buss will give greater improvements for the Super7 motherboards than for Slot 1 Pentium II systems. This is because the two major areas of improvement for Super7 are the increased clock speed of the Level 2 cache, and that of the entire system RAM. Since the Pentium II chips already feature a Level 2 cache that runs either at the processor clock speed, or at half of it, the improvements with the 100MHz buss are not so dramatic — but, of course, the 350 and 400MHz processors themselves are faster.
Unfortunately, there are other components that will normally need upgrading to run reliably with any motherboard featuring the higher 100MHz buss speed, and the eagle‑eyed among you may already have noticed PC memory ads quoting different prices for SDRAM suitable for 100MHz operation. Memory with Intel's new PC100 spec will cost significantly more than the 66MHz‑rated version, and while some people have managed to use their existing memory modules with 75 and even 83MHz buss speeds, 100MHz really does need these faster memory chips.
Norton Utilities Version 3
The Norton Utilities suite for both the Mac and PC seems to be the standard by which most other toolkits are judged, so when a major update appears it's worth examining what's new:
- The Integrator (see screenshot, left) provides quick and easy access to the other programs in the suite, and this is similar to the approach of both Nuts & Bolts (which I mentioned in PC Notes October '97) and First Aid 97 (mentioned in the May '97 PC Notes).
- System Doctor now repairs as well as detecting viruses.
- Rescue Disk (which creates floppy disks to boot into Windows 95 if your hard drive causes problems) now has options to use Zip or Jaz drives. The original floppy disk option is still available, and this will get you as far as DOS, so that you can use other DOS‑based Norton Utility programs to solve your problem, but the Zip/Jaz version boots directly to Windows, where the Rescue Recovery Wizard starts up to get your system running properly.
- The Crash Guard 3.0 utility runs in the background, using 150K of memory, and intercepts crashes, with an Unfreeze option that allows you to save your work before closing the offending application.
- LiveUpdate Pro claims to find and install the latest updates for all your software applications, using the Norton Web Services web site, but as always its usefulness depends on what manufacturers it has in its database — music software is still unfortunately a minority interest, so you'll probably still be better off perusing the appropriate web sites for yourself.
- Norton WinDoctor is a new addition which scans for problems with the Registry, file associations, and shortcuts, and then offers manual or automatic repair facilities. This is very similar to the approach taken by First Aid 97, and is just as useful.
- The Optimisation Wizard reorganises your Registry data for optimum performance there's a similar option in Nuts & Bolts), as well as adjusting the swap file. This latter option is the only area in which you may want to tread carefully, since I ended up with a swap file that had a minimum size of 96Mb. The idea is that setting a large minimum swap file size reduces or eliminates swap file fragmentation. You can benefit from this, but you may want to reduce its value (I reduced mine to 32Mb).
- The final new option is Speed Start. I made some comments about Windows 98 in the August '98 PC Notes, and consider that one of the three main reasons to buy it is its much faster loading of applications, due in part to reorganisation of the file order on the hard drive. Norton's Speed Disk has similar options, but Speed Start monitors disk accesses when loading any application, and can subsequently give much faster loading times — I certainly noticed a significant improvement, although you may want to disable this background utility when undertaking hard disk recording.
For those who have not used these utilities before, it's worth pointing out that although many of them default to being loaded automatically every time you start your PC, you can disable this and only use specific modules as and when required. This saves memory and resources, and should be the preferred option for PC musicians. The only one I leave running permanently on my system is CrashGuard, which, according to its Statistics page, has intercepted four Cubase crashes since its installation, letting me save my music before re‑booting.
Norton Utilities 3 may be the most expensive toolkit (street price about £70, or upgrade from version 2 at £40), but it's still the best, with few unnecessary frills. For example, even though the Rescue options may rarely be used, when something goes wrong you'll be very glad that you have them. Highly recommended.
Microsoft have made yet another attempt to clarify audio streaming technology: we now have DirectShow audio plug‑ins. This name change does help to reduce the current confusion between the DirectX foundation layer (which includes DirectSound soundcard drivers), and the DirectX media layer (which includes DirectShow, and controls media streaming). However, the poor software houses will soon have to refer to audio plug‑ins as using DirectShow — formerly known as DirectX Media Streaming Services, formerly known as ActiveMovie, formerly known as Quartz!
More pleasing is the news that the infamous Windows 95 11‑device MIDI limit is reported to be vanquished forever in Windows 98. Although I haven't yet confirmed this for myself, I have just received the full shipping version of Windows 98, and hope to report on this in more detail soon. General impressions seem to be that it is more stable than Windows 95 (not surprising, since many people consider it to be a bug‑fixed version of the same). No major incompatibilities with music software have apparently been reported, although I did spot one user reporting a crash with the Cool Edit Pro 1.1 Noise Generator option. Mind you, it's always wise to wait a month or two if you can, to give developers a chance to produce bug‑fixes if necessary.
Akai have posted a new improved PC version 2 of their MESA sample editing software on their website (www.akai.com/akaipro" target="_top). This includes many of the features of the Mac version 2, although neither the press release I have nor the web site specify exactly what these are. Note that it still only currently supports the XL‑series samplers (S2000, S3000XL, S3200XL and CD3000XL).
Now that the Layla soundcard has finally emerged from hiding, Event have released yet another set of drivers, which work with Darla, Gina, and Layla (version 3.05). Sadly, a tiny bug has crept back into the S/PDIF input function on Gina only, but by the time you read this a fix should be available on the web site (www.event1.com/" target="_top). However, probably a lot more interesting to most people is that the so‑called Echo Console has been released along with the drivers, and this gathers all routing and monitoring functions into one easy‑to‑use panel. It may look slightly 'clunky' (see screenshot), but that's because it's fully resizable (the slider caps, buttons, and meters all change to suit the current Console size), and you can change the colour scheme as well. A comprehensive Acrobat‑format manual is also included, which should result in a lot less confusion all round.