Category Archives: Computer Hardware

A 2000 year old computer

Nova: The 2000 Year-Old ComputerDecoding the Antikythera Mechanism (first aired on American PBS television network in 2013)

“It re-writes the history of technology.”


The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project

Jo Marchant explains: In search of lost time

Watch hard drives being made

Ever wonder how today’s hard drives are manufactured?  I think it’s amazing that we can buy hard drives that store more than a terabyte for about a hundred dollars. When you watch this video, you’ll see how this miracle in manufacture is done.

All operations are performed in a clean room environment, because clearances and tolerances are measured in fractions of microns. (A micron is about 0.00004 inch. A human hair ranges from about 20 to 150 microns in diameter.)  In operation, the read/write head of a modern hard drive flies a few nanometers above the platter surface.  A fingerprint on a platter could cause a head crash.

hard drive manufacture

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

One more reason to hate wireless keyboards

Today, while trying to reinstall Windows XP (I know — it’s obsolete) on an old Dell Vostro 200, the setup failed after I pressed F8 to accept Microsoft’s EULA (End User License Agreement).  I thought that the setup CD was faulty,  but had the same problem with two other setup CDs.

wireless keyboardThen I replaced the Microsoft wireless keyboard and mouse with wired mouse and wired keyboard.  Installation proceeded without hesitation.

If it were my site,  I’d replace all wireless keyboards and mice with wired replacements.

  • Strategy: I plan to install Xubuntu on a second partition on this PC, and allow dual booting to either the default (Xubuntu) or optional (Windows XP) operating system.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Don’t push CD-ROM/DVD drive doors!

While I’m in a cranky mood about dumb hardware problems, I’ll mention another pet peeve.

I hate encountering CD-ROM and DVD drives whose trays no longer work because their user always pushed their drive trays closed. The photo below shows the plastic rack and pinion mechanism that converts a small motor’s rotary motion into the in and out linear motion of the drive’s tray. It assumes that the user will electrically power the DC motor with one polarity to open the tray and with the opposite polarity to close the tray.

DVD drive tray rack and pinion gears
DVD drive tray plastic rack and pinion gears

When a user doesn’t press the little “tray open & close” button on the face of the DVD drive, but instead physically pushes the tray in, he/she risks stripping the teeth from the plastic rack or pinion gears. Eventually, when enough teeth are broken, the tray will no longer open.

CD-ROM drive

If you like your CD-ROM, DVD, and BluRay drives, don’t just force their trays to close by shoving their trays. Take a moment to locate their “tray open & close” buttons and press them instead. Your drives will return years of service, instead of only months.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

I hate wireless keyboards and mice.

Microsoft wireless mouseToday, while troubleshooting a sick Windows PC, its wireless mouse stopped responding. Acck!

Luckily, I found a good ole wired Microsoft optical wheel mouse, plugged it into the PC’s USB connector, and continued on. I won’t waste time troubleshooting the wireless mouse.(Update: replacing both AA batteries brought the wireless mouse back to life.)

Computers are unreliable. I see no point in unnecessarily adding the complexity of wireless links between keyboards and mice. Complexity reduces reliability. (If you could see the technology within keyboards, mice, and their wired communications, you’d appreciate why it makes no sense to needlessly add the complexity of wireless links to these already complex interfaces.)

I’m sure that there are cases in which wireless keyboard and mice links make sense. I suppose that if the desktop is separated by a walkway from the PC, they’d make sense.

Other than that, the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle dictates wired keyboards and wired mice. Preserve precious local RF spectrum. And stop wasting AA batteries.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

I nearly melted down my phone

While listening to a podcast on my Samsung mobile phone via the Tunein app, a pop-up announced, “Charging paused. Battery temperature too low or too high.” The pop-up remained on screen until I unplugged the charger. The battery had only about a 6% charge, so as soon as I unplugged the charger, another pop-up warned that the battery needed to be charged. Catch 22. Room temperature was probably about 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

imageI grabbed a cold pack from the freezer and rested the phone on its icy carcass. The over-temperature warnings ceased while I simultaneously listened to the podcast and charged the phone’s battery.

Decades ago, I helped develop military radio communication hardware. The products needed to pass environmental tests for vibration, shock, high and low ambient temperatures, and humidity — while under continuous full-load conditions. We invested many hours in heat management.

My mobile phone is clearly incapable of passing such tests. It’s intended for intermittent use — what’s known as low duty cycle usage. I’d guess that my phone can handle about a 10 to 15 percent duty cycle at full output.

This is probably as good as we can expect from consumer-grade products. We just need to have frigid cold packs ready if we want more.

My phone: Samsung SGH-T679. T-Mobile Insight II 4G.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Lightweight oil source

I have a number of small motors whose bearings need occasional lubrication. Paper shredders, impact printers, and tape libraries contain mechanisms that require lubrication with a light oil. Hunter original ceiling fans, assorted locks, hinges, and small electric motors require SAE 10W straight weight, non-detergent oil. Good luck finding it locally! Home Depot, Lowes, and Sears stores have driven out the small hardware stores that used to carry this stuff.

The popular “3-In-One” brand oil in tbe red, black, and white squeeze can is about 20W, but it contains detergent, which is bad news in most applications in which you can’t flush, filter, or drain the old oil with the dirt particles held in suspension. Those particles will abrade bearing surfaces in simple machines.

squeeze oil bottleI found exactly what I needed on Amazon. It’s La-Co 4 ounce Zoom spout oiler 79704G. It contains four ounces of pure 10W non-detergent oil. It’s packaged in an easy to use squeeze bottle with a tiny extendable tube for precise application. Cost is about $4.00. It’s sold by Pandora’s OEM Appliance Parts. It was delivered to my door within a couple days of my order.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

How are modern integrated circuits manufactured?

I’ve worked with integrated circuits (I.C.s) since the 1960s, but haven’t been involved in their manufacture — only their application.

Haswell wafer
Intel Haswell wafer with a pin for scale
photo: Intel Free Press
Today’s integrated circuit manufacture is a high stakes capital intensive business whose players use trade secrets to maintain their market advantage. I’ve never been inside an I.C. “fab” (factory), so it was a treat to find an hour-long presentation by an industry manufacturing engineer on YouTube. The technologies used at nano dimensions are mind-boggling.

Here’s the excellent presentation, in full:

The speaker mentions that lithographic imaging of the mask is now being done at 193 nanometer (nm). As you can see, we’re well above visible light and on our way to x-rays(!). Here’s the electromagnetic spectrum in that region:

Click for full-size
graphic by: Shigeru23

The presentation is aimed at the layperson and is filled with surprises. For instance, one gigabyte of semiconductor memory can be produced on a flat substrate within the diameter of a human hair. I give it two (gloved) thumbs up.

Xubuntu on Dell Dimension 4500

Last weekend a customer presented me with what he thought was a five-year old Dell Optiplex. It was actually a twelve year old Dimension 4500 with Microsoft Windows XP Home and was agonizingly slow. In any case, XP was rapidly approaching its end of life.

Dell Dimension 4500I feared that this PC was also at its end of life. reported that it had shipped in 2002(!), and its hard drive SMART indicated over 50,000 power-on hours. Still, its CPU was a 2 GHz Pentium 4, so I decided to beat this dying horse a bit more before putting it out to pasture.

This desktop PC contained two 512 MB DDR memory modules. Both Dell and advised that this motherboard couldn’t address more than 1 GB of memory. Google revealed that in fact this motherboard could accept two 1 GB DDR memory modules, so I installed two 1 GB DDR memory modules, for a total of 2 GB. The BIOS reported 2048 MB total memory. Yesss!


Unfortunately the PC wouldn’t boot from a Xubuntu 12.04 live DVD. No wonder: this PC contained a CD-ROM drive, not a DVD drive. It also could not boot from a USB drive.

No problem. I booted from a Ubuntu minimal install CD, installed it, and used the sudo get-apk install xubuntu-desktop command to download hundreds of megabytes and install Xubuntu 13.10. (I don’t know how — or if it’s possible — to install anything but the newest release with the get-apk command.) It ran, but the display would occasionally blank and log me off. Not good.

I wanted to try Xubuntu 12.04, not 13.10, but how could I do this on a PC with only a CD-ROM — not a DVD — drive? I found a clever program called plop boot manager that installs on a boot CD-ROM, which in turn passes control to a boot thumbdrive in a USB connector. I created a plop CD-ROM and a Xubuntu 12.04 boot thumbdrive. It worked! Xubuntu 12.04 runs nicely on this old Dimension 4500.

Now I just need to replace its 50,000 hour hard drive. Maybe it’ll run for another twelve years.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Linux as a remedy for Windows XP’s end of support

A customer with a perfectly good Dell Inspiron 600m laptop was in a quandary. On April 8 his laptop’s Windows XP will lose Microsoft support, making it vulnerable to attack via the Internet. The laptop had slowed to a crawl, so it was time to either reinstall XP or try something else. The laptop’s specs: 1.4 GHz Pentium M, 1.5 GB RAM, 30 GB hard drive. These specs are too modest for Windows 7, and Windows 8 is, well, Windows 8.

xubuntu desktop mage

Linux to the rescue
Because this laptop’s resources are modest, I chose the lighter weight Xubuntu flavor of Linux instead of the heavy-duty Ubuntu. Unfortunately the latest release of Xubuntu, 13.10, would neither run from its live DVD nor install because the Pentium M CPU apparently doesn’t include physical address extensions. Xubuntu 12.04 installed without protest.

With Xubuntu 12.04, both the Firefox and Chromium web browsers are quick, apps print reliably to the networked HP OfficeJet 7500a, and the customer can scan from the same OfficeJet over his LAN to the Simple Scan app that’s part of Xubuntu. It’s very sweet and was surprisingly easy to configure.

No more Microsoft Update Tuesdays or constant virus scanner updates or infections!

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

IBM PC design chief dies

I was surprised to read this headline recently: IBM PC pioneer William C Lowe dies, aged 72. I well remember when IBM introduced its first PC in 1981. It was not especially remarkable, aside from its IBM nametag and the momentum, capital, and resources behind that name.

William C. Lowe
William C. Lowe

Until the IBM PC, the microcomputer industry (if you could call it that) was a disorganized rag-tag collection of under-capitalized dreamers — including a little hippie outfit called Apple Computer. Messrs Lowe and (Don) Estridge in just one year designed and placed in production a personal computer that would light a fire under the microcomputer industry. IBM brought credibility to the market, along with a deluge of peripheral, add-on, and software developers. Lowe, Estridge, and their crew deserve gold stars for quickly producing a product that would revolutionize the microcomputer world, if not the business world.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Learn how to fix gadgets

I like the philosophy expressed by stuff should be repairable, and users should have free access to repair information for their stuff. ifixit logoThe site’s goal is ambitious. It provides illustrated maintenance and repair information for everything from automobiles to cell phones.

ipad air teardwonSome modern handheld devices, including Microsoft’s Surface and Apple’s iPad tablets, aren’t designed for ease of repair. Quite the opposite. By gluing in their batteries, their manufacturers exhibit disdain for society and environment. Rechargeable lithium ion batteries in such devices might have a lifetime of 1.5 to 2 years, so it makes sense to allow the owner to change the battery in a device that might enjoy a 4 or 5 year useful lifetime. Otherwise, when their batteries die, these devices are likely to become landfill.

The iPad Air and Surface Pro 2 teardowns show just how service unfriendly these designs are. The ifixit people rate these tablets a 1 or 2 on a repairability scale of 0 to 10. In my opinion, this makes them poor designs, despite their other virtues.

Bookmark You just might need it soon.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Retrofitting a solid state drive

I’ve retrofitted solid state drives (SSD) with SATA interfaces to a few Windows computers recently. Since SSDs use flash memory, which have a finite number of write cycles, we want to reduce the number of disk writes to our new SSD.

A Vertex 2 Solid State Drive (SSD) by OCZ. photo: D-Kuru
A Vertex 2 Solid State Drive (SSD) by OCZ. photo: D-Kuru
Within the computer’s BIOS, change the disk interface from IDE to AHCI. (In Windows XP, edit the registry first to use the AHCI disk driver.) Disk reads and writes will be faster with AHCI.

Within Control Panel / System / Hardware / Advanced / Performance Options / Advanced / Virtual Memory stop writes to the swap file by disabling virtual memory. Click the “No paging file” radio button, followed by the “Ok” button. Make sure that the host PC has plenty of memory — at least 4GB and preferably 8GB — as the operating system won’t be able to swap code/data out to disk anymore.

I’ve read recommendations that with SSDs, the System Restore facility be disabled. I’d rather retain the security of system restore points. I’ve also read that on SSDs, FAT32 partitions be used rather than NTFS partitions, the theory being that the FAT32 file system entails less writing per file. True, but NTFS partitions are more robust than FAT32 partitions, so I’ve retained the NTFS partitions.

What’s your experience with retrofitting SSDs?

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Be careful when cleaning

I recently replaced the hard drive in a three-year-old mini-tower PC that had spent its life on an office floor. It was a routine job with the expected dirt and dust inside the case. No vacuum was available, so I used the shop’s compressed air and blow gun to blow out the dirt, then reassembled everything. When I started the PC, it howled a loud screeching/ticking noise. I opened the case, removed power from the hard drive, powered on the PC, and listened with a stethoscope. The noise was coming from the power supply — probably its fan.

PC-Power-Supply-170wI removed the power supply, disassembled it, and discovered that the power supply fan’s 12 Volt DC supply wires — maybe 28 gauge, were rubbing against the spinning fan blades. A jet of compressed air through the power supply case perforations must have nudged the wires into the fan blades. I dressed the wires so that they were a quarter-inch from the blades, reassembled everything, and the PC worked quietly. Time lost to troubleshoot and repair this dumb problem which I had caused: 1 to 1.5 hours.


  • Use a vacuum — not compressed air — to remove dirt from inside PCs.
  • Murphy’s Law applies even to routine jobs.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Google as hardware manufacturer

With today’s introduction of the Motorola Moto X smartphone, Google has hit three consecutive hardware home runs:

  1. Nexus 7 tablet $230
  2. Chromecast video streamer $35
  3. Moto X phone $200 with cellular contract




Nexus 7 smartphone
Nexus 7 tablet

Chromecast video streamer
Chromecast video streamer

Moto X smartphone
Moto X smartphone

All three products set new price / performance benchmarks.

Ten years ago, who would have guessed that Google would not only be manufacturing hardware, but would be setting the pace in hardware? Kudos to Google.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695