Frequently asked questions about hardware

What is this OEM stuff?
Which is better, Pentium II or AMD K-6?
Who makes the best scanner?
What's the difference between AT and ATX?
What the heck is Firewire?
How do I find out more about my computer's memory?
Should I choose an Abit motherboard?
Wow, a TV Tuner for my computer?
What is the difference between CD-R and CD-RW?
Amd, Cyrix, or Pentium II?
An especially good CPU guide

OEM....What does that mean?

OEM is short for the dutch words Onder Eigen Merk: (to be sold) under own brand name. Philips started the possibility for companies to market a product manufactured by Philips, but using the own brandname Philips people "translated" the words in to (mock) English: Original Equipment Manufacturer which does not cover what happens. In the computer world Marketing companies buy boards and parts from established manufacturers under OEM contract, which means they have to sell under their own brandname. Microsoft gave the OEM term new dimensions. The OEM sales policies take care selling their products to other companies under heavy loaded contracts, not allowing them to sell it under an own brand name (not even allowing them to change anything) and taking care that Microsoft does not need to support the product. The OEM has to do it, without support from Microsoft.

What is the difference between an AT motherboard and an ATX

ATX is the new standard for cases/power supplies. It involves some physical stuff as well as some software changes. ATX will eventually take over from AT, but for now, either is fine for most people. You do have to make sure to get matching case/motherboard/powersupply.

AT is the original desktop motherboard. It is a fairly large motherboard and has, in large part, been replaced by the "Baby AT" which is physically smaller. The power supply connector on both of these is the same.

ATX uses a different power supply connector to take advantage of some of the new power saving features. Some motherboards come with both power supply connectors to give the most flexibility in their usage, but be sure what power supply you have before purchasing a motherboard that doesn't list this dual connector.

Should I choose an Abit motherboard?

That is a 3/4 baby AT motherboard and is one of the most versitile I have ever seen. Also called an "OfficePRO" a somewhat smaller version of the IT5V board that has been popular. It uses the Intel 430VX chipset, has a standard 256 or 512 cache onboard. There is a PS2 mouseport provided, and the board also supports APM (Advanced Power Management) and DMI. It is designed to operate with all pentium class processors. Great for all around performance. you can enter the bios, overclock your chip, use the F8 key to get to the command prompt, start up your game and rock & roll. Then simply exit, shut down and reboot, resetting the bios for reliable workstation use. Processors, will run at up to 75MHz bus speed. With the advent of new, faster processors in the very near future the BIOS will be upgradable to allow use of faster bus speeds. The manual provided with the board is very comprehensive, providing a detailed explanation of hardware and BIOS setup. The novice PC builder will really appreciate this well-written document.

Chips..-AMD vs PII vs Cyrix

According to my sources (no I'm not going to name them) Cyrix is the bottom of the Big 3. AMD is probably gaining on Intel, but Intel had such a lead, is a tough go. I do tend to root for the underdog, though and would tend to lean toward AMD. Nothing really wrong with a Cyrix that I know of, just that they are reported a little slower.

Which is better, AMD or P II?

The AMD K6II is similar to a PII. In certain areas, it outperforms the PII. In other areas, it is slower than a PII. It will run your software, though. A big difference between the two is that the AMD is socket 7 while the PII is a SEC (cartridge). In other words, you won't be able to upgrade to PII later on with the same motherboard if you buy the AMD (or vice versa). The K6 is slower than the K6-2, just like the Pentium is slower than the PII. As to which you should get, buy whatever is the best value.

The AMD is cheaper. For most applications, it will be a better price/performer than the equivalent Intel. The biggest problem so far is that most motherboards that support AMD do not allow for future Intel upgrades (and vice versa), so you have been locked into one or the other. I know AMD is working on a compatable "slot 1, slot 2" version, so perhaps that won't be a long term problem.

The net is that if you don't already have a prefernce between the two, you probably won't care one way or the other. I do AMD and love it.

AMD issues K6-2 advisory

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) has advised customers of an incompatibility between the latest versions of its K6-2 processors and certain versions of Windows 95. If the incompatibility occurs, systems will fail to boot. The Sunnyvale, Calif., company posted an advisory on its Web site stating that "when you are starting Windows 95 OSR [OEM Service Release] 2, 2.1 or 2.5 on a computer with an AMD K6-2 processor running at speeds of 350MHz and above, you may receive an error messages. That's bad news for AMD, which this week announced 366MHz, 380MHz and 400MHz K6-2 processors that are used in systems from some of the leading PC makers, including Compaq Computer Corp., IBM Personal Computer Co. and Hewlett Packard Co.

FireWire (IEEE 1394)

FireWire is Apple Computer's version of a new standard, IEEE 1394 High Performance Serial Bus, for connecting devices to your personal computer. FireWire provides a single plug-and-socket connection on which up to 63 devices can be attached with data transfer speeds up to 400 Mbps (megabits per second). The standard describes a serial bus or pathway between one or more peripheral devices and your computer's microprocessor. In the next few years, you can expect to see many peripheral devices coming equipped to meet this new standard. FireWire and other IEEE 1394 implementations provide:

A simple common plug-in serial connector on the back of your computer and on many different types of peripheral devices A thin serial cable rather than the thicker parallel cable you now use to your printer, for example A very high-speed rate of data transfer that will accommodate multimedia applications (100 and 200 megabits per second today; with much higher rates later).

Hot-plug and plug-and-play capability without disrupting your computer. The ability to chain devices together in a number of different ways without terminators or complicated set-up requirements. In time, IEEE 1394 implementations are expected to replace and consolidate today's serial and parallel interfaces, including Centronic parallel, RS232-C and SCSI. The first products to come with FireWire are expected to be digital cameras, digital video disks (DVD), digital video tapes, digital camcorders, and music systems. Because IEEE 1394 is a peer-to-peer interface, one camcorder can dub to another without being plugged into a computer. With a computer equipped with the socket and bus capability, any device (for example, a video camera) can be plugged in while the computer is running.

Briefly How It Works

There are two levels of interface in IEEE 1394, one for the backplane bus within the computer and another for the point-to-point interface between device and computer on the serial cable. A simple bridge connects the two environments. The backplane bus supports 12.5, 25, or 50 megabits per second data transfer. The cable interface supports 100, 200, or 400 megabits per second. Each of these interfaces can handle any of the possible data rates and change from one to another as needed. The serial bus functions as though devices were in slots within the computer sharing a common memory space. A 64-bit device address allows a great deal of flexibility in configuring devices in chains and trees from a single socket.

IEEE 1394 provides two types of data transfer: asynchronous and isochronous. Asynchronous is for traditional load-and-store applications where data transfer can be initiated and an application interrupted as a given length of data arrives in a buffer. Isochronous data transfer ensures that data flows at a pre-set rate so that an application can handle it in a timed way. For multimedia applications, this kind of data transfer reduces the need for buffering and helps ensure a continuous presentation for the viewer.

The 1394 standard requires that a device be within 4.5 meters of the bus socket. Up to 16 devices can be connected in a single chain, each with the 4.5 meter maximum (before signal attenuation begins to occur) so theoretically you could have a device as far away as 72 meters from the computer.

Another new approach to connecting devices, the Universal Serial Bus (USB), provides the same "hot plug" capability as the 1394 standard. It's a less expensive technology but data transfer is limited to 12 Mbps (million bits per second). SCSI offers a high data transfer rate (up to 40 megabytes per second) but requires address preassignment and a device terminator on the last device in a chain. FireWire can work with the latest internal computer bus standard, PCI, but higher data transfer rates may require special design considerations to minimize undesired buffering for transfer rate mismatches.

The hottest new technology in video editing is FireWire. In this very straight forward discussion we will attempt to explain the technology, why it is so important, and dispel a few myths along the way. At the end of this section is a comparison table of all the FireWire cards we sell. Each product is hot linked to the complete specs page on our site.

What is FireWire ?

What is FireWire ? Technically it is the high speed data transfer protocol IEEE1394. When the FireWire concept was first announced a few years ago, it was envisioned that it would become a new standard that would replace SCSI and link all our consumer electronics equipment and computers together. There was talk of FireWire hard drives, FireWire home theaters and most of all FireWire camcorders and televisions. Well, the dust has settled and the hype has died down. The only application for FireWire that has actually come to fruition is for transferring digital video (DV) information directly form a camcorder (or VCR) to your hard drive.

What's the difference between DV and FireWire ? DV is the actual format of the video and it looks incredible. It is the new super high resolution digital video format that is better quality then S-Video and has many broadcast professionals thinking about scrapping their BetaCam gear. The images are crisp, bright and have excellent depth and contrast. Best of all, the information is stored on the video tape in digital form, so it can be copied over and over without any loss.

FireWire is the jack and protocol that lets you transfer the DV data to your computer. The full FireWire spec includes frame accurate device control and the ability to read and write the digital video. Not all DV cams have FireWire, and not all DV cams implement the FireWire spec the same way. Worst of all, many PAL (the European television standard) DV cams have the DV input disabled, so that they can be imported at lower duties!

What's the difference between DV video and video captured using a video capture card? Most of the hi resolution video capture cards on the market use MJPEG compression. The less you compress the video, the better it looks, but the higher the sustained data rate you need. At compression under 6:1 (over 3000 kilobytes/sec) most people will think the video looks as good as the original, but it will be slightly lower quality. The video will have very slight artifacts and image loss. The DV spec is a 720x480 image size, at roughly a 5:1 compression. More accurately, it is compressed at a constant throughput of 3600 kilobytes per second which averages out to 5:1 compression. Unlike MJPEG compressed video, DV video can't be scaled. You can't capture frame DV, or increase the compression. DV in = DV out

This is what makes DV so special. When you capture DV footage to your hard drive via FireWire, the DV video on your hard drive is an exact digital copy of the original footage. There is no loss. DV is a constant. Every FireWire card we carry delivers the exact same DV quality output. When choosing a FireWire card, there is no video quality debate regardless of what CODEC (compression method) is used.

What are the different DV CODECs ?

Basically the DV CODECs can be split into 2 groups. Hardware and Software. I will try to give a brief, non-technical overview of the advantages and disadvantages of each. Remember, the final video quality of your production is not an issue. DV in = DV out.

Software CODECs

The biggest advantage of software based FireWire boards are how affordable they are. They are much less expensive then hardware CODEC based cards because they rely on software compression and the speed and power of your computer to digitize and edit the footage. Software FireWire cards are really just an interface for bringing the DV video in and out of your computer. Everything you do with the video is done by software. The obvious advantage of this is that with computers getting more and more powerful every day, software based systems become faster and faster.

The biggest downside of software based cards is that they are DV only. They don't have S-video or composite video inputs or outputs, just DV. So if you have older analog footage, you have two choices. You can buy a DV deck with analog inputs and make a DV copy of your old footage, or you can run your system with both an analog, MJPEG based, video capture card and a software based FireWire card. You can convert footage from one format to the other by rendering it and creating a new movie using your NLE software. This process can be quite slow. A one minute conversion can take over 15 minutes in a P200MXX system.

Hardware CODECs

These boards use the same exact DV chips used in your DV cam to handle the DV data. They have both analog and DV inputs and outputs. They can convert from analog to DV and DV to analog in real time. You can create a timeline that includes both analog and DV footage. In addition, these boards have additional chips on board that allow you to view the DV video full screen, full speed on your computer monitor; S-Video or composite video monitor; and through your DV device all the time and at the same time. You can scrub and trim your video while viewing any or all of the output options. This makes the actual editing process much easier and faster.

The biggest downside of Hardware based FireWire boards is the cost. Currently you're going to spend around $3000 for a hardware based solution, compared to well under $1000 for a software one. The good news is that prices have dropped, and will continue to drop as more and more DV chips are made and economies of scale start kicking in.

Which is better for FireWire editing, Mac or PC? This is a very difficult question to answer, but I'll try to give it a go. Remember, DV in = DV out, so the video quality is identical, the only difference is editing features.

First, the hardware based solutions are PC only, so if you want one of them, your only choice is between Win95 and NT.

If you want to go with one of the less expensive software based solutions, Macs currently deliver better features. So far several very cool features such as being able to scrub and preview out the FireWire are only possible on Macs. Macs also are more stable, and deliver a bigger, full motion preview window on the computer monitor. The tricky thing about Macs is the storage subsystem. Not all Macs have fast enough SCSI storage, and adding it can be very tricky. For this reason we urge those of you buying a Mac for DV to get an 8600, 9600 or G3.

The PC based FireWire solutions are still an excellent investment. New features and improved drivers are closing the gap with Macs. The biggest advantage of a Win95 PC is that you probably already own one that is capable of running one of these cards and you can also run all the software you use at home and on the job. We have customers using P133s, but we recommend a P200/233MMX or a new Pentium II system. If you plan on getting a new computer to build your DV editing system around, it is incredible how they just keep getting cheaper and more powerful. PC owners also have new low cost digital video storage options that are cheaper then SCSI, yet more than capable of handling DV data with perfect results. We have tested and used Medea VideoRAIDs and the Promise FastTrack with great results.

Can I use one of these new Ultra DMA EIDE drives for DV ?
NO!!! These drives simply do not have the sustained throughput required. I mentioned earlier that the DV compression can not be scaled. The downside of this is that if your data rate dips below 3600 kb/sec, your entire DV stream breaks up. In reality you need a storage solution that can sustain over 6000 kb/sec for DV work. Ultra DMA drives can't do this. Believe me, folks have tried. The real world results of a hard drive are often quite lower then the advertised peak performance. This is why we only recommend Ultra SCSI drives (wide or narrow) hooked up to an Ultra SCSI controller. These drives spin at 7200 RPM or faster and have a real world sustained throughput of well over 8000 kb/sec. This is where the tricky part about Macs comes in. Most Macs have SCSI controllers built in, but very few are Ultra SCSI. In addition, the external SCSI connector that most Macs come with is only SCSI-2, and yield less then 4000 kb/sec throughput. So, if you are going to go Mac, you need to make sure your Mac has enough SCSI throughput to get the job done.

PC users have new storage solutions that can save them big bucks and are also much easier to set up then SCSI. Medea VideoRAIDs deliver 10,000 kb/sec sustained throughput over the entire drive. Best of all, they don't require any extra PC resources. No IRQs or memory. You simply hook them up to your primary EIDE drive, insert the boot floppy with install software, reboot and follow the on screen instructions, reboot again, and you are up and running.

VideoRAIDS are available in 5/8/13/17GB sizes, so finding the right one for your budget and storage needs is a piece of cake. If you really want to get a huge amount of DV rated storage on a tight budget, the Promise FastTrack controller is for you. You can buy the FastTrack and a pair of 6.4GB drives for under $1000. Setting up the RAID takes about 15 minutes and the result is a huge drive capable of storing a full hour of DV footage!!

So, which FireWire card is for me?

To get the best answer, you need to decide what is most important to you. Do you need the flexibility and combination of Analog and DV that the hardware based CODEC boards offer?

Are you going to use it in your existing computer, or get a new one? Do you have adequate storage? What is your total budget? Once you have figured this out, it really comes down to the feature set. That's what separates one FireWire card from another. DV in = DV out, so no matter which card you get, the finished video will look as spectacular as the original footage. All of our FireWire boards have some unique utility or feature that differentiates them from the competition. The following table lists each card, alphabetically by vendor. I have included our current price, platform compatibility, CODEC type, and the special feature(s) that make it stand out.

FireWire comparison chart

Canopus DVRex-M1 Win95/98, NT Hard MS Pro 5 DVRex Edit, Multiple DV audio channel support $2,299 DPS Spark Plus Win95/98, NT,Soft Premiere Video Action will fully integrate DV editing $799.95 Fast DV Master Win95/98, NT Hard MS Pro 5 PowerPlay, MetaCreations final Effects $2,499 Fast DV Master PRO Win NT Hard Speed Razor Speed Razor $3,499 Pinnacle DV300 Win95/98, NT,Mac Soft Premiere LE DV Tools, Instant Video $699.95 Radius EditDV Mac Soft EditDV Live DV, Draft mode, $799.95 Radius MotooDV Studio Win95/98 Soft Premiere 5.0 PhotoDV $749.95 Truevision Bravado DV2000 Win95/98 Soft Premiere 5.0 Full Premiere for under $500!!

TV on your computer, Don't waste your money!

Three types of people like the idea of turning their computer into a TV. For the sake of argument, let's call them freaks, sneaks, and geeks. Freaks need a continuous feed of TV while they work, for either professional or personal reasons--CNN, financial news, sports, soap operas, trashy daytime talk. Sneaks have severe space limitations that require them to slip a TV into the same space occupied by their computer; watching TV while they work isn't a priority. Geeks have the highest motivation of all: boundless enthusiasm for gadgets, including cards that let you watch TV in a little window, search closed captioning for keywords, and surf Web pages broadcast along with the TV signal.

I looked at the following devices that bring TV to your PC: two external boxes and seven PCI tuner cards, all of which cost between $99 and $130. The cards include video capture capability and inputs for camcorders and VCRs. The two boxes offer neither, but they're much, much easier to install.

Although TV tuners for PCs generally appeal to a select few users, WaveTop in Win98 , a service that enables you to download up to 148MB of Web content each day over a cable or broadcast connection. Microsoft's WebTV for windows 98 (which emulates the WebTV Plus interface) and Intel's Intercast software, two other services that use the TV signal to push data, will also be included--and all the cards I tested (but neither box) will be compatible with all three services. Whether you want to watch Oprah on your PC or surf the Web in your living room, the day when TV and PC truly converge is drawing nearer.

I gave little detail to the reviews of the lesser units What to avoid:
1. Channel Surfer-----Poor picture quality
2. ADS Technologies---Poor picture quality
3. Diamond DTV 2000---Picture ok but software real bad
4. Avermedia TV Genie [box]-This is a box not a card that goes between the monitor and the computer. Very good overlay image on the screen.
5. Haupage WinTV------Poor picture quality
6. IX Micro TurboTV-------Poor windowing and poor picture
7. Pinnacle Systems Micromedia PC--Good picture, some ghosting at full screen but the software was a joke.
8. Prolink Pixel View Magic TV [box] ----Fair but no cigar.

The following is the only card I recommend with confidence.


This $130 card offers the best user interface and the best picture quality. Two thumbs up! Review: Don't let the box fool you: an illustration on the box shows a remote control in someone's hand, but it's not a real remote. It is, however, the best software facsimile bundled with any tuner card I checked, combining channel changing, input selection, and access to video capture functions in one clean interface. The TV PCI Television Tuner's picture quality matches that of the top-rated microMedia PCTV, provided you have a 4MB graphics card (with 2MB cards, subtle shimmering and snow taint the image). You also get a complete set of image adjustment controls to spruce things up. As usual, the picture looks a bit worse at full screen than in a window, especially since a portion of the video window's frame stubbornly hangs around in the upper left corner. This was not a significant problem though. Otherwise, the TV PCI's bells and whistles seem well thought out. For example, the Surf option lets you select frequently watched stations and view them together as thumbnails--with less delay than other cards offering similar functions. You can password-protect some channels to keep them away from prying little eyes. The capture facility is rudimentary but functional; you can also use the bundled Asymetrix application, Digital Video Producer, to edit your creations. Plus STB throws in Intel's Intercast software. Provided you have a 4MB graphics card, I feel confident recommending the STB TV PCI. With its intuitive controls and pretty pictures, it's the best tuner card you'll find for only $130 retail.

I don't sell them but, it's the one I will use on my computer for myself. If you have a different view on the units that I wasn't too pleased with, post your opinion, thats what this forum is all about.

In my search for a good TV/capture card, I've learned a bit about them. The ATI "all-in-wonder" card is probably the best, if you don't mind replacing your current video card. It's a 'good' 2D-3D video card, the tv functions will definitely work, it does video capture and all that stuff. The 4MB version costs about $115, while the 8MB version costs about $135. These are prices a saw just about 1 hour ago at a computer show in my area. Regular retail in,say, CompUSA will be substantially higher. Search e-bay for 'tv cards' and you'll come up with one from Second Source in Calif. for a very reasonable price with a wireless remote!!! It depends what brand computer you have though. It works on anything except a fully loaded Dell.

Can someone tell me buck for buck who offers the best scanner?

It depends on the quality and such you need; for the low-end, I like Mustek. On the high end there is HP, but there are others. I would avoid the absolute rock-bottom no-namers (since their support is non-existant).

RECORDABLE CDs, Whats the Difference ?

The main physical difference between the recordable disc types and the standard pre-recorded CD & CD/ROM is that the prerecorded disc has no recording layer. The information is permanently stamped in the aluminum reflective layer. There is also a difference in terms of data areas on the disc. The CD-Rs have an additional CD-R and CD-RW area located in front of the lead in area. This area stores data that is specific to the recording process.

CD-R and CD-RW

CD Recordable and CD ReWriteable discs have the same basic structure but with significant detailed differences. The CD-R has a dye based recording layer, with a reflectivity of 40-70 %, while the CD-RW has a phase change recording layer with a reflectivity of 15-25 %. Both have an additional reflecting layer (gold) for the CD-R and (silver) for the CD-RW. Both types of discs have a track spiral groove, made at manufacture, onto which the data is written during the recording process. This groove has the same width of 0.6 micron and pitch of 1.6 micron as a conventional CD and it assures that the recorder follows the same spiral pattern as a conventional CD. In addition to the spiral pattern, the track has a slight superimposed sinusoidal excursion of 0.3 micron at a frequency of 22.05 khz. This is used to control the speed of rotation. The frequency readout from the disc is constantly monitored, and the speed is adjusted to maintain a speed of exactly 22.05 khz. An additional 1 khz. frequency modulation is applied to provide the recorder with an absolute time reference.

Recording on a CD-R

Digital information is written to the disc by burning pits in the recording layer. The energy of the laser beam (4 to 11 mw) causes limited heating of the substrate layer to approx. (250 degrees C). At this temp. the recording layer melts, reducing it's volume while the substrate expands into the available space. Bt constantly switching between writing and reading power, a pit pattern corresponding to a conventional CD is produced. The write pulse initially has a higher power to produce the required heating of the dye. Subsequently, the power is reduced to a level that is sufficient to maintain the dye temperature at the desired level.

Recording on CD-RW

Here the recording layer is made of an alloy of silver, indium, antimony and tellurium. In it's original state, the layer is a polycrystalline structure. During the recording process, the laser selectively heats tiny areas of the recording track to a temp. above the layers melting point (500 to 700 degrees C). For CD-RW writing, the laser power used is 8 to 14 mw. The pulsed energy delivered by the beam melts the crystals in the heated areas into a non-crystalline amorphous phase (pits), which has a much lower reflectance than the remaining crystalline areas (lands). This difference in reflectance allows the recorded data to be readout, producing a similar signal to that obtained fram a standard CD. The physical characteristics of the amorphous phase are "frozen in" during cooling, making the recording just as permanent as any standard CD.

Erasing a CD-RW

There are two ways to erase a CD-RW, One way involves increasing the temp. of the recording layer to 200 deg. C, this takes about 37 minutes. The faster way involves erasing only the last recorded track (sub-code track). This leaves the disc ready for overwriting as it will then appear empty. Either CD-RW or CD-R users can choose between "write-once" CD-R discs to make recordings which they do not expect to change, and which have full CD playback compatibility, and rewriteable CD-RW discs which can be re-recorded an unlimited number of times. The better the software that comes with the unit the easier it will be to use. Currently Memorex has a bug in their driver that is causing many reported troubles from users. Hewlett Packard CD-RW units and drivers are a little more difficult to install. Philips has come up with a good unit with good software and so has Sony. When you choose a CD recorder, be sure to get a SCSI recorder if your computer supports SCSI. Remember that when the unit is writing data that there can be no interruptions and with IDE it may be very difficult to multi-task while recording. SCSI allows a more seperate uninterrupted data packet flow compared to IDE. Before choosing the one that is on sale and ploping down the cash for a test drive, check out the companies customer support. You will most likely have to call on them for help after purchase. Some of these can be difficult to setup, some not.

I hope this post clears up any misunderstandings or misinformation you may have received on this topic.


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