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Norton Utilities Integrator; USB Tips

The Norton Utilities Integrator provides an elegant front‑end to the ever growing suite of utilities that help you keep your PC in tip‑top condition (see page 242).The Norton Utilities Integrator provides an elegant front‑end to the ever growing suite of utilities that help you keep your PC in tip‑top condition (see page 242).

If you fancy making music on the move, a laptop PC looks ideal. Martin Walker looks at some of the options

Since I last mentioned the use of laptop PCs for music in the March '98 PC Notes, many more people have become interested in taking up the challenge. Laptops (or notebooks — call them what you will) are ideal if you want to create a mobile system, especially if they have built‑in sounds of sufficient quality for serious use. Integrated motherboard soundchips have improved greatly over the last year or two, with background noise levels low enough for routine use.

However, I suspect that an additional reason why many people are thinking about laptops is the ever‑worsening problem of unwanted acoustic noise. Traditional desktop computers are using ever faster processors, and ever faster and larger hard drives, both of which normally need forced cooling. This necessitates the use of fans, which are never the quietest of devices, even if you substitute low‑noise versions for the standard ones. In addition, hard drives themselves are becoming noisier, largely due to rising spindle speeds.

Any computer that is primarily designed to be used 'on the move' has to be designed to last as long as possible on a set of batteries. To keep power consumption down, the processor and other chips must be run at lower voltages, but this in turn also means less heat is generated during operation, which removes the need for noisy fans. Result? A peaceful computer that can sit in the quietest control rooms without becoming intrusive.

The huge problem with laptops has always been that they are designed as an all‑in‑one solution, which means losing the expandability that we take for granted with full‑sized computer cases — no internal PCI expansion slots for MIDI interfaces and soundcards, and no way to 'swap the graphics card' if you get audio glitches. Since low power consumption is a priority, the hard drive is also likely to be chosen for this aspect of its performance rather than how fast it is — hardly a problem for the majority of laptop users, but a potential problem area if you are attempting hard disk audio recordings. These aspects, and the fact that music‑making is normally a low priority for laptop manufacturers, mean that if you already have a laptop you won't know how successful it is likely to be for music purposes until you try it out.

Even worse, if you want to buy a laptop specifically for music use, it is difficult to recommend a model unless someone else has already waded though the minefield and tried it out. For instance, many laptops have MIDI synths built‑in to the motherboard, but while this may be fine for MIDI playback, not all provide external MIDI In and Out sockets, which would stump anyone trying to write music unless they bought an external MIDI interface. Other laptops only provide half‑duplex audio, so that you can record or play back digital audio, but not both at once.

In addition, while the beauty of the laptop is its small size and portability, this means that any internal audio components will be crammed in far closer to the hard drive, and there is also likely to be far less internal RF shielding. This can result in clicks, buzzes, and whines in your audio — not exactly what the doctor ordered for quality audio. The solution in many cases is to make sure that audio components are outside the laptop case.

Laptop Audio Solutions

The new version of Norton's CrashGuard provides far more protection than the previous version, and now also lets you save your data safely before even attempting to revive the crashed program.The new version of Norton's CrashGuard provides far more protection than the previous version, and now also lets you save your data safely before even attempting to revive the crashed program.

There seem to be two tiers of potential user: those who want all‑in‑one MIDI support using either the built‑in sound or a PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) soundcard, and those who want full digital audio recording and playback using a MIDI + Audio sequencer. Back in March '98, the only real PCMCIA contenders seemed to be the Roland SCP‑55 and Emu 8710. Sadly the Roland model has since been discontinued, and although a new model Emu 8710PS is still available (with a 4Mb GM ROM and 2Mb sample RAM), it is difficult to get in the UK, since it is normally sold directly via the Emu US web site. Digigram still have their professional PCXpocket and PCXpocketAD soundcards, and a new model is expected by about June 1999 — the VXpocket will feature 24‑bit converters, balanced stereo analogue input and output, and S/PDIF input and ouput, with an 'estimated' price of $729 (about £450).

Until recently, therefore, the prospects of getting digital audio in and out of a laptop were strictly limited, though most existing serial or parallel port MIDI interfaces should work with laptops (once again there seem to be no guarantees — some people find out the hard way that a particular combination of interface and laptop simply won't work). However, for those who would prefer to use their laptops alongside other gear, rather than as an integrated mobile system, there is now an alternative to PCMCIA expansion cards — the Universal Serial bus. Although the final version of Windows 95 had USB support, Windows 98 incorporates this as standard, and with the latest iMacs featuring USB as well, peripherals are being released in droves. Both Opcode and Midiman have a range of devices that support MIDI and digital audio, and these can plug directly into any laptop featuring a USB socket. Roland have the UA100 — a complete USB solution in an external box featuring 20‑bit A‑D and D‑A converters, mic, line, and guitar inputs, Sound Canvas synth and effects, 2‑port MIDI interface, and optical digital S/PDIF output.

USB has a much wider bandwidth than either serial or parallel ports, and is therefore more suitable for digital audio transfers. There seem to be a few initial teething troubles, and I suspect that there may be some problems with glitches if multiple USB devices are plugged in simultaneously, but of course the beauty of USB is that you can plug and unplug devices while the power is on, so this needn't be a problem.

I've recently spoken to various SOS advertisers concerning laptops, and many believe that they are poised to become a significant option for the PC Musician.

Norton Utilities Version 4.0

I make no apologies for bringing the newest version 4.0 of Norton's famous Utilities to your attention. I've used this package for years, and have yet to find anything better for the day‑to‑day tasks that keep your PC (or Mac for that matter — see this month's Apple Notes too) running smoothly. Whether you want to solve system problems (such as a corrupted Registry or hard disk), recover from a minor or major crash, or streamline and speed up the overall performance of your PC, this suite is hard to beat.

Apart from a fresh coat of pixellated paint, there are a number of new utilities and improvements to existing ones. WinDoctor, apart from its comprehensive scanning of the Registry to find missing or invalid references, checks on program integrity for shared DLL files and uninstalls, and checks on the validity of existing shortcuts, now also checks for and repairs corruption in the Registry. The new System Check utility provides a complete checkup with a single mouse click, but although this finds disk and Windows problems, improves performance, and carries out preventative maintenance, it doesn't seem to provide any features not already available from the other utilities.

Connection Doctor troubleshoots your Internet connections, while Norton's CrashGuard has had a number of improvements. Crash Monitor runs in the background waiting to intercept any system crashes, and if and when they happen Crash Assistant and Advisor suggest one of several recovery options. VitalSave saves your open file and then closes down the offending application (the safest option), QuickReload is ideal when your Internet browser crashes (it closes it down and then restarts it at the web site you last visited). Terminate simply closes down the application in question, and Revive lets you attempt to continue if the VitalSave option isn't available (this depends on the individual crash, but is the least safe option to choose).

If your application doesn't cause a crash, but stops responding to keyboard or mouse input, FreezeGuard may help. You access it by clicking on the CrashGuard icon on the Taskbar, and then letting it check any running application before launching the Crash Assistant to provide recovery options. Within a couple of hours in installation CrashGuard proved its worth when it caught a crash in Microsoft Word 97 that the old version hadn't managed. Over the last couple of weeks CrashGuard has proved significantly better than its predecessor.

A variety of other improvements lurk beneath the surface. SpeedDisk now works faster and better than before (and it already beat the equivalent Microsoft Defragmenter hands down); there are more customisation options, and the Rescue Recovery Wizard guides you through the process of restoring missing or corrupted windows files. Norton Utilities 4.0 is invaluable. You can buy it from most PC software suppliers at about £40.

The Best Laid Plans

I was going to have a mini‑review in this box, but sometimes events are just not destined to happen. The first utility I was sent locked up every time it accessed my CD‑R drive, and the second that I drafted in to replace it installed perfectly, but then refused to read its own key disk during authorisation, and consequently wouldn't run. Due to the huge number of different CD‑ROM and CD‑R drives available I can understand why a particular model might cause problems, but key disk authorisation has always been (and will continue to be) a nightmare for legitimate users. Why can't developers all get together, decide on a single universal dongle with a unique serial number for each user, and then on being provided with that serial number, provide a unique password that will let their software work only with that dongle? A similar system works perfectly for the Soundscape Mixtreme card.

Tiny USB Tip

While testing the Opcode DATport for a forthcoming review, I came across a USB quirk that may help solve an intermittent MIDI problem for some users. What happened was that previously well behaved MIDI utilities (such as Hubis Loop and XGedit) suddenly refused to send MIDI data to the previously selected port — sometimes everything worked fine, but not always. I traced this to the new version 6.1 of Microsoft's DirectX routines. The new DirectMusic section incorporates a 'lowest common denominator' MIDI driver that can be selected if no other MIDI soundcard is available, which takes over digital playback to provide a complete Roland licensed GS synth in software.

When I connected the DATport, the Microsoft GS synth appeared in the list of MIDI drivers, but it disappeared after this was disconnected. Any MIDI application open at the time seems to carry on regardless, despite the change in MIDI devices, but the next time you launch it or reboot your PC the list of available MIDI devices will have changed, and you may end up sending your MIDI data to the wrong port. It's easy enough to reselect the proper port in your MIDI setup. Strangely, some MIDI applications don't see this Microsoft driver — it doesn't appear in Setup MME for VST for instance. At least now if you plug in a USB Audio device and your MIDI goes on the blink you'll know where to look to return things to normal.