Tuesday, June 17, 2008
A disturbing trend I have been noticing in the last 4 years or so is the general decline in the quality of hardware components released to the market.
Quality may be too broad a term; functionality may be a better fit for my point. Electrically, I believe component quality has improved. It is in the firmware and drivers, the final implementation, that I see the decline. The consumer’s perception of quality is the total package; why it won’t work makes little difference. If any piece of the functionality puzzle is missing, the whole product is perceived as defective.
Friday, March 28, 2008
Whether you're just getting started or have been running a PC repair business for a while, there are several factors that will help you run a successful business. Here are five of the easiest ways to make your PC repair business a success:
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Five steps - that's all it takes to fix your customers' PCs. As an active PC tech for the last few years, I was regularly asked how I troubleshoot problems. It was a single question with a thousand answers, and one I'm sure most of you field every day.
Narrowed down, here are my Top 5 Quick and Dirty PC Troubleshooting Steps:
Saturday, March 1, 2008
The decision by Toshiba to drop HD DVD was just enough motivation for me to find out for myself which standard is ultimately better: HD DVD or Blueray (I'll name them HD and BD from now on for simplicity). I don't want to rehash the marketing glossies which overlook the entire mess of the implementation. In fact, I believe that the only useful pieces of information from the marketing slicks are the following:
- HD stores about 15 GB per layer, and 30GB per side of a disc.
- BD stores about 25 GB per layer, and 50GB per side of a disc.
- BD uses a subset of Java for interactivity, with the specification inspired by Sony.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Toshiba raised the white flag this weekend on HD DVD, essentially ceding the market to the Blu-Ray camp. What do you think? Did they give up too soon? Did the best technology win?
If you're too lazy to comment, at least vote in the survey below in the left column. You might have to scroll down to see it.
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
I'm from the PC-Doctor QA lab. I won't mention the name of my former employer here, but I can say that I gathered considerable PC troubleshooting expertise while driving a distinctive black and white vehicle and that I was not involved in law enforcement.
The biggest challenge to successful troubleshooting is to make very sure that you understand as much as possible about problem. When and under what conditions does the problem occur? What environment causes the problem? Ideally, you will be able to reproduce the problem at will. If you can do that, it's a simple thing to fix it and then verify that it is fixed.
However, we all get many problems that we can't reproduce. Sometimes when you are stumped, it's because the problem is just too simple. Try dumbing it down? looking at it from the simpler perspective of a non-technical user. For example: a customer was not getting any display on the monitor, even though the monitor and system were powered up. The tech checked the video card, changed modes and resolution, but finally found that the monitor was not plugged into the back of the computer. Sometimes the environment is the culprit, as in the classic case of a printer that began spewing paper every afternoon. After many on-site visits and replacement parts, a savvy tech finally discovered that the afternoon sun shined through the window at just the right angle to hit the paper sensor for a few minutes every afternoon.
Tools can help you understand problems. Say, for example, that a client says, "My computer is slow and sometimes I notice data missing." He could need more RAM (common problem!), or might have a hard drive problem, or it might be something else entirely. Problems like this can become expensive time sinks if you don't have a good diagnostic tool like PC-Doctor Service Center to quickly confirm suspected hardware problems.
Remember that you can't know everything. Cultivate every source of information you can find, including colleagues, books, and internet sites. You would be amazed at how often you can Google a problem and find a perfect description of how to reproduce it and/or how to fix it!
Friday, January 11, 2008
Can you see all of CES in a day? I tried, but of course I knew I couldn't see all of the 2,700 vendors. I saw about 20 and boy was it worth my time!
CES claims it would take me 2.5 years to meet all 2700 vendors outside of the show. That is an average of 3 visits each day for 890 days straight. Ah, needless to say I was glad CES brought everyone together for me and allowed me to see some competitors, the major PC manufacturers, and a lot of other cool stuff.
CES is the show that, at least for the last few years, has been known as the place to launch the biggest and best wide screen TVs. And one specific product captured more than the 140,000 attendee eyes and, in my book, wins the "King of the Hill" award: the announcement by Panasonic of the 150" TV, the World's Largest Plasma TV. It is a mammoth TV and spanned almost 12' by 8'. It isn't in production yet. Panasonic is building a fifth factory in Japan to manufacture this movie screen. Prices are not public but one can get some idea of its pricing by looking at its little brother, the Panasonic 103" plasma TV that sells for between 60 and 70k USD today. Who has that kind of cash when they can pay less than 10k and get a beautiful projector and at least a 150" display screen. Hmm. . . I just don't know.
Needless to say, I was impressed and captured a Panasonic employee demonstrating the enormousness of this new plasma that some day may be exactly what I need in my living "movie theater" room.
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
I'm not an Apple-agnostic person. A bit over two decades ago I owned and liked my Apple IIc with its wow-factor portable LCD display. Sometime later my desk was graced with the original Mac right alongside an Amiga and a PC. But with my usability and let-me-do-what-I-want requirements, the Apples were replaced by an almost endless succession of various PCs and portable devices.
Now I'm back to an Apple product, as I bought an iPhone. Frankly, I had not really planned to do so, but it was the culmination of circumstances that were perfectly aligned for that outcome. First, T-Mobile that I've used for many years has service at my house that for lack of a better term stinks. That combined with the declining firmware quality of Nokia phones (which is the brand that I've used almost exclusively because of their intuitive and task-centric user interface) gradually getting to the point of unacceptability. Finally, over the years I had already looked at several of the traditional Nokia competitors, such as Motorola, Samsung, NEC, and Sony-Ericsson, but found their firmware to be uniformly buggier than that of even the worst Nokias, and the user experience to be far from intuitive.tations.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
It's been six months since my purchase of a 17" Toshiba Satellite P100. Before purchasing this laptop I spent many months researching the different manufacturers and quizzing the guys in our QA lab. They get to see lots of hardware, as well as complete systems, and are a great resource for info when purchasing a new system and/or hardware. I looked at all the major players (in no particular order); Lenovo, Dell, Gateway, HP, IBM, Sony, and Compaq. I even looked at a few of the smaller manufacturers like Acer and Alienware.
Sunday, December 2, 2007
By now you might have heard of the Amazon Kindle, the e-paper based reader, that allows wireless access to a vast library of electronic books from Amazon, and some selected blogs, newspapers, and such. There is even "experimental" access to the internet, though it's not very powerful, and is geared around static data only. I won't rehash more of the publicly available details on the unit, but give an inside peek at the guts of the unit.
One of the things that I noticed right away is the limited set of file formats that Kindle supports. Glaring omissions were the popular PDF format, and all forms of images, such as JPG and TIFF. Amazon provides a service that can be accessed for free and for fee, that converts image files to Kindle format. However, the service seems a bit slow, and requires the the file must be e-mailed to be converted.
To see what it can do, I used the service to convert several image files. The result was an image file that apparently had a maximum size and maximum resolution. An analysis of the files that were produced showed a header, followed by some HTML code, and then a binary image file. What appeared to be some closing bytes appeared at the end of the file.
With a hex file editor I cut&pasted the obvious header and footer, and placed them around some JPG files of my own. The resulting combinations did appear in Kindle as files, and were even partially viewable as images.
Kindle, however, seemed to refuse to display images above a certain size. While I did not determine the exact cut off point, it seemed to be somewhere around 64kB. An image larger than 64kB would only display correctly for information in the first 64kB. The remaining pixels were shown in a uniform pleasant gray.
I can't tell if the behavior is an intentional limitation in the Kindle software, a CPU-driven feature (e.g. 16-bit registers), or caused by memory constraints. I wanted to find out, hence I had no alternative to popping the covers on the unit.
The unit is relatively easy to open. There are 8 screws, all accessible without peeling labels. The corners of the plastic case have tabs with a very firm grip, but they will pop with an even pull on the side while pushing the top cover in the opposite direction. (Kids, if you have never done this before, or if you are worried about having a broken Kindle, don't try this at home.)
The interior of the unit was not exactly crowded. There is one main circuit board, with attachments for the keyboard, the displays, main power switches, scrolling mouse and the SD card adapter.
The AnyData DTEV-DUAL cellular modem is connected using a board-to-board connector, but its shell is permanently soldered to the main circuit board. It seems to have two antennas, one on the top, and one on the bottom right side of the unit.
The main microcontrollers are a Microchip PIC16LF874A, NXP ISP1761BF and Intel PXA255. The purpose of the PIC part is unknown, but a hunch based on its location is that it provides handling for the scroller and the keyboard. The NXP part is a USB-On-The-Go controller, which means that it can also function as a USB host, even though the Kindle only supports being a USB client device. The Intel part is an X-Scale ARM processor, which likely is the main processing unit for the Kindle.
Audio is handled by a Wolfson Microelectronics WM8971 Stereo codec that seems to be driven by another small PIC microcontroller marked "6282E/7270SH". The latter could also be memory or a voltage controller, but I had insufficient time to determine its type.
Memory on the unit is present in two Infineon 256 megabit Mobile-RAM parts, giving the PXA255 a total of 64 megabytes of RAM, accessible over a 32-bit bus. There are two Samsung K6F4016U6G chips that provide 1 megabyte of SRAM, accessible over a 32 bit bus, which are either working memory for the NXP part, or more likely video memory. Firmware is stored in a Spansion 512 megabyte boot-sector Flash, type S29AL004D90BFI01.
The display controller is the same as on the Sony electronic book series, a part marked "9322 571 0032 1 Apollo 1.18 T6TW8XBG-001".
The only part that remained a minor mystery is marked KFG2G16Q2M-DEB8 from Samsung. It is located next to two ADG3247 bus switches. It appears to be a 2 gigabit Flash part (256 megabytes). Its proximity to the bus switches might mean that these provide for sharing of the Flash between the NXP part when USB is connected to a PC, and the Intel PXA255 in the normal operating mode.
The last parts worthy of mention are a LM75A and a LTC3455. The LM75A measures temperature, and is likely used to avoid overheating the battery and the cellular modem. The LTC3455 provides battery power management, charging, and DC-DC conversion to change the variable voltage of the battery to a fixed voltage for the internal electronics.
Now that I know what's inside the unit, it's easier to say where limitations to functionality are intentional and where they are not.
First, there appears to be no good reason for this system to not handle large images. The CPU thinks in 32 bit, there is plenty of memory, and video output is not generated on the fly, but stored in SRAM. Hence, the limit is arbitrary.
This system should also easily be able to handle compressed and encrypted PDF files, making that limit arbitrary as well.
The USB-OTG controller is interesting, as it means that the unit might have future applications beyond what's apparent.
I'm not about to start hacking my Kindle, but it's apparent that serious hacking opportunities are present. The PXA255 is a common MCU, and its firmware comes from an external flash. The file system is likely on the other flash. And access to all is likely to be easy, since the board seems to have JTAG connectors and connection points for programming the various microcontrollers and memories. One of the connectors is even accessible while the case is closed, just by popping off a small access panel next to the battery.
If you end up hacking your Kindle, please let the world know what you find!
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