Notes and reviews about hardware

Updated: 2011-12-28
Created: 2001

These notes are personal opinions about hardware products.

The reviews contained or listed in this page are usually my personal impression of the notable aspect and the overall worth of the things described rather than in depth ones.

After some wavering I have decided not to remove obsolete entries, but to mark them as such, if I notice they are obsolete and I remember to mark them. Obsolescence here means the stuff is no longer available or not at the noted price.

List of hardware reviews

I used to put reviews into this page, but I have changed my mind as most reviews become rather dated and fit better within my computing blog; I will put here brief pointers to those reviews here:

Older:

Older hardware reviews

Toshiba U300-13U (080218)

In the post-festivities sales at the beginning of the year I found a good offer for a Toshiba U300-13U laptop, a very portable laptop with a 13.3" screen, 2×1.5GHz Core 2 chip, 2GiB of RAM, and 160GB of disk.

Overall I am quite happy with it. Some good points:

The disappointments are:

Overall I like it more than the Dell D620, where some points of comparison are:

Like with all laptops one should buy with it a spare battery, a spare charger, and at least one backup external disk, and also eventually an extended warranty.

I have already got the external backup disks; I shall buy an extended warranty near the end of the initial warranty (it would be very annoying to pay for an extra two years and warranty and have the laptop destroyed or stolen in the first year).

I have bought as spare the Toshiba 6 cells 5600mAh model, and for a charger a Targus compatible model. Considering how critical the battery is, and how dangerous a faulty battery can be, and how easy they are to design poorly or with bad materials1, I think that a third party battery can be an excessive risk. Buying a random power supply can also be dangerous, but I reckon that it is a lesser risk, and anyhow Targus are a fairly high end supplier with a reputation (and margins) to defend.

The list of GNU/Linux specific tweaks I have used is:

Updates (080628)

  • The current version (Linux kernel 2.6.25) of the iwlwifi driver does not associate automatically with 802.11a APs which is really rather inconvenient.
  • Linux kernel release 2.6.25 with the X.org release 7.3 now does accelerate OpenGL using DRI. Quake III class games work well and fast, but Doom3 and Quake4 class games find some OpenGL extension missing.
  • There is now an updated U400 series with some few updates, for example better build quality especially about flex, but regrettably a black keyboard instead of a silver/white one.

Teknik Office posture chair (061022)

I tend to find most comfortable when sitting somewhat high with respect to keyboard and mouse, so that my elbows are higher than either; this means that usually my legs tend to dangle down from the seat.

Having been a bit swamped with things to do recently, I have had to sit for longer times than usual, and this has been painful, because the edge of the seat than cuts into my thighs, even if I take frequent breaks.

I have tried two solutions. The first is standing up while using screen and keyboard; this work very well and results in avoiding the problem completely, but it rather tires my feet, which then ache; I wonder how shop assistants cope.

The other solution has been to try one of those kneeling chairs, specifically a Teknik Office posture chair (SKU 309854) which is one of those who try to improve posture by having the sitting person rest their weight in part on a kneeling pad.

I usually have a good sitting posture in part because I am careful to have my monitor at eye level, and not much below, but the idea attracted me because it means that the weight of the person rests not so much on buttocks and thighs but also on the knees, and also the legs are not horizontal and point down.

Well, I was a bit disappointed because of two issues:

Also one of the seams of the upper seat ripped soon (probably all too weak sewing).

Well, neither solution is perfect, but both are better than an ordinary chair. The Teknik product has some issues, but it avoids my main problem, and is fairly cheap for a chair, so I think that overall it is fine, but I say this a bit begrudgingly.

Zalman Fanmate2 (060505)

The Zalman Fanmate2 is a little device that allows controlling the speed of fans that use the usual 3 pin berg connector style.

Like all the devices of its type it does so by changing the voltage supplied to the fan, and it changes the voltage by applying variable resistance, which means it reduces the power supplied to the fan by dissipating it into heat.

Thus the major issue with such devices is how hot they become. Well, the Fanmate2 behaves very well here: it can dissipate enough to support fans drawing up to 6W, and most fans draw at most around 2W. Indeed with two such fans in my PC (CPU and case fans) the Fanmate does not even feel warm.

It is possible to see a pretty huge heatsink inside the little perforated box that is the body containing the electrical bits, which surely helps a lot. I had tried some other mainfestly poorly built fan voltage control device and it would get very hot, by contrast.

The Fanmate2 also has the considerable advantage of having a quite long cable, which allows great flexibility in positioning the box with the control dial; I have for example put them in an otherwise unused 5.25" slot on the front of my case, for easy access when tuning the speed of the two fans.

Overall so far the Zalman Fanmate2 has been an excellent choice, way better (which mostly means cooler) than others, and still fairly cheap at around £4 each. The only limitation that I can see is that it does not support directly fans that have a 4 pin Molex connector, but it is fairly easy to get 4 pin to 3 pin cables.

No Name ULT31311 (060418)

The No Name ULT31311 is an external enclosure for 3.5" disc drives with an external brick style power supply.

It uses a Prolific PL3057 chip for both USB2 and IEEE1394 bridging to ATA.

It is fairly cheap and convenient, with a clamshell style case that is easy to open and close, but which also seems to be very ugly.

The power supplys is one of those cheap 12V ones that tend to burn out, and is rated at 2.0A, which is not too bad but would not support many 3.5" hard discs that require more power.

The PL3057 chip is a bigger issue, as its IEEE1394 side is, according to my experience and many others reported on the web, practically unusable because of poor reliability. Some people report that updating the firmware in the chip may improve it, but that are contradictory reports even as to that.

The USB2 side of the PL3057 chip actually works fairly decently and with good speed.

Overall I was not that happy with this enclosure, but then the same power limits and reliability problems are pretty common.

No Name TT-346U2F (060418)

The No Name (probably Triumph) TT-346U2F is an external USB2/FW enclosure for 5.25" and 3.5" disc and CD/DVD drives; it has an USB2 to ATA chip from ALi, the M5621, and a FW to ATA chip from Oxford Semiconductor, the OXFW911.

It also has an internal power supply rated at 1.8A for 12V.

The bad points are:

Overall I like this box, even if it is a bit annoying to open and close, but both slightly differentw variants that I have seen (I bought two of these boxes) look faily good and robust.

The internal power supply is a lot more convenient than an external one, and the 5.25" form factor means that it can house a CD/DVD drive or a 5.25"-to-3.5" disc drawer., and the OXFW911 IEEE1394 chipset is fast and reliable.

Belkin F5D7630 ADSL router (060929)

This is a combined ADSL modem, wireless AP, and 100MHz Ethernet switch, with firewall and routing. It is a rebadged product from the Far East, and very similar variants are also sold by SMC and 3com. Indeed many models of these variants are firmware compatible, which is good because the Belkin firmware seems rather buggy and incomplete to me.

The good thing is that it is fairly cheap (I paid £80 at the local Comet shop in Oct. 2004, and it costs only a little less from mail order companies). It also works fairly well and it is easy to set up, with fairly sensible defaults customised for the UK.

Apparently it is also quite reliable and not crash prone (except for cooling problems, which are easily fixed, see below) like other similar products.

It has some bad points though:

By looking at the source of the web pages of the user interface I have formed the impression that it is quite badly written by rather unskilled people, and this might explain why it seems to me rather awkward and buggy. Reading the impression of the various people who have looked into the firmware update files also gives me an overall sense of shoddy work.

The final impression I have got is that I should have gotten a Netgear or Linksys instead, as they are far more configurable and informative (Linux based...), but then I read bad things about the reliability of many Linksys and some Netgear models.

All in all I am going to keep it. It works most of the time despite the bugs, and its reported hardware reliability is somewhat more important to me than customizability.

I found important to at least upgrade the firmware to the latest version, which as I write seems to be V.A.1.08.03UK (Jul 8 2004 15:41:37) because this allows configuring the disconnect-on-idle timeout and the MTU for PPPoE, PPPoA and similar connection types.

But after some long frustration I decided to try and load as some other users have done the firmware for the equivalent 7804WBRA router from SMC, and what a change. Not only the user interface is much better organized, it is far more complete, and less buggy (it is still written in a way that to me seems very poor). Also virtually all the most annoying bugs with the Belkin firmware seem fixed in the SMC one.

Note: one annoying bug remains: while the DMZ option works, the flood protection continues to be applied to the internal interface, and even if it is disabled for the external interface. The protection gets triggered by TCP connection rates higher than 300 connections per minute, or 5 per second, which is absurdly low, as just opening a page with half a dozen images will trigger it. As with the Belkin version of the firmware this can only be avoided by disabling the firewall entirely, and then one loses the DMZ. But there is a workaround: in the NAT section, under Virtual Servers it is possible to forward all ports (1-65535) one-to-one under both TCP and UDP to a given internal host, which is the same as DMZ for a single external address. Since I have only one external address that is fine for me. Perhaps full DMZ functionality can be obtained by using the Address Mapping feature in the same NAT section.

On top of all this the 7804WBRA manual is well written, complete, documenting all the options and expalining them tersely but correctly. I am going to buy SMC in the future rather than Belkin.

Note: a number of people have also discovered (1, 2) that Belkin have licensed a generic and fully featured ADSL firmware used also by SMC, and that Belking have removed from the main web configuration page the links to a number of really useful control pages, and here is a list of these:

Status and statistics
ADSL
WAN
Wireless
Firewall
Other services
Internet Gateway Device XML status pages
Not very useful or broken

LG L1710B 17" LCD monitor

Pretty good display quality, with many nice details: DVI input with DVI cable included, the power supply is builtin, the base is telescopic and contains an USB hub, narrow bezel, fairly good analog autosync, the base can be removed leaving a standard 100mm VESA mounting plate, for example for a telescopic arm, and it has very little to no trails/ghosting when playing games or movies.

Almost the only defect is that backlighting is slightly uneven, with the edges of the screen being brighter, but this is almost unnoticeable. A secondary issue is that the display is somewhat fuzzier on the VGA input; but it is supposed to be used in DVI mode. Those monitors that only have a VGA input tend to have better VGA input quality.

ASUS DRW-0402P DVD-R/DVD-RW

Good quality drive, a clone of the Pioneer DVR-105 drive. Speed is not bad, random access is a bit slow relative to some others.

The best news is that there are ways (1, 2) to turn it into a Pioneer DVR-105 with firmware that contains some useful hacks.

Adaptec DuoConnect AUA 3211

This card is a quality USB2 plus IEEE1394 host adapter for the PCI bus.

Major advantages:

The only big disadvantage is that it is somewhat expensive; but compared to two separate cards it is rather more convenient, and the features are rather better thought ought than other combo cards.

Epson 1660 (GT-8300) scanner

This is probably the best value midrange scanner around, and it has four large advantages:

I am not aware of any disadvantages.

Epson 680 (or 777) color inkjet printer

Major advantages:

There are three disadvantages, two large (one of them is not confirmed) and the other small:

All in all I am fairly happy with it, but I think I should have gone for a Canon inkjet instead, as they have much lower ink costs even if they cost about 50% more to purchase. Another alternative would have been a slightly more expensive HP inkjet, like a 940c, which does not use chipped cartridges and they are easy to refill too.

ABIT KG7 motherboard

The KG7 is one of the better Athlon motherboards, if what one is looking for is solidity rather than flashy features. Its main advantages are:

The main disadvantage is that it uses DDR-DRAM, which is twice as expensive as SDRAM. If you want to use SDRAM, the best bet may be one of the few Socket A motherboards that support both SDRAM and DDR-RAM.

Another advantage is that the bracket with the sockets for the second USB host adapter is bundled. Unfortunately the IR bracket is not included, and is hard to find.

The few recent Socket A motherboards that support ECC seem to be all based on AMD chipsets, and are mostly expensive dual processor ones. The ABIT KG7 is together with the EPOX 8K7A the only cheap uniprocessor socket A motherboard that supports ECC and has six PCI slots. The EPOX seems nice, but some power regulators are non switching, so I went for the ABIT. Another two uniprocessor socket A motherboards support ECC, the Gigabyte XXX and the DFI YYY, and the both trade stupidly a PCI slot for an AMR or CNR slot.

Maxtor 133 IDE/ATA PCI card (Promise ultraATA TX2)

This is based on a Promise PDC20269 chipset. It is OK and well supported by recent Linux kernels. The ATA133 support is largely pointless, so one could buy the similar ATA100 board by Promise, which can be found for somewhat cheaper.

3ware 7410 IDE/ATA RAID PCI card

Very very good, amazing tagged queueing performance.

Lian Li PC-7 and PC-60 cases

In brief: amazingly good at a relatively low price. But on reflection the PC-60 case is only a little more expensive and has a few nicer details, and is a slightly better value.

Samsung 570S 15" TFT LCD

In brief: amazingly good even if a bit old styled. Fast enough for DVD and games.

Hansol H530 15" TDT LCD

In brief: amazingly good even if a bit old styled, and despite some slightly uneven backlight. Fast enough for DVD and games.

CMI 8378 sound cards

In brief: quite good, well supported under Linux ALSA (but they need software sharing). The mixer structure is simple enough, which of course help a bit with ALSA that by default gives a raw view of any card's mixer.

For some people they are the cheapest (and really cheap usually) way to get full optical and coaxial digital SPDIF/IEC958. The CMI 8738 based Trust 514DX has a full set of digital inputs and outputs, for example. But the gameport does not work (known defect, never fixed).

The sound quality is good for the price, even if it has limits at high frequencies. The CMI8738 chip is really 48kHz only, even if it can accept and produce 44.1kHz, but using 44.1kHz should not be done as it involves low quality resampling, sometimes twice.

The MS Windows drivers seem to me to be quite slow though; seems better under MS Windows 2000 than 98.

Hardware review sites

There are a lot of place that do hardware reviews, and here is a list of some of those I particularly like.

PC Pro magazine
This is a UK magazine, not a web site, but it does fairly good technical tests and it is also fairly cheap. Other magazines with fairly decent reviews are PCPlus and PC Format but both are significantly more expensive, and PC format's reviews are less technical. Personal Computer World and Computer Shopper are also fairly good with nice reviews.
XBitLabs
XBitLabs reviews are as a rule stunningly informative, with a weath of data and explanations that make it not just a review site, but also a place where one can learn about many interesting aspects of contemporary hardware technology.
Reviews like their survey of power consumption of graphics cards address important subjects that are often disregarded by other reviewers, and with a wealth of insight.
Tom's Hardware
Tom's Hardware is a bit the “light” version of XBitLabs, addressing much the same themes but rarely reaching the same level of technical discussion, even if it is often higher than most other review sites.
AnandTech
This site has reviews of good quality, broadly equivalent to Tom's Hardware, but sometimes with a slightly different flavour.
MikhailTech
This is another Russian site like XBitLabs, and with the same attention to technical detail and information, but a smaller, less deep site.
The Tech Report
Not too bad, even if not in the same league as XBitLabs or Tom's hardware.
Extreme Cooling
Extreme Cooling, as the name suggests, is about cooling thingies and low noise things. The reviews are in this area, and they are fairly technical and detailed.
Trusted Reviews
The Trusted Reviews site has lots and lots of reviews, and they are mostly OK, even if a bit superficial sometimes.
Blue's News
This site does daily news about games and the game industry, and it is very good for that, but it also does daily links to recent hardware reviews, mostly of items of interests to gamers, but not just.
8 Dimensional
This site has comprehensive and fairly frequently updated lists of reviews on other sites.
Bjorn3D
Hard OCP