Sunday, August 24, 2008

TOTW #5: Why So Slow? & 50 Cent Tripod Substitute

Computer Tip: Why So Slow?

The biggest problem I see with computers these days is that they are just too darn slow. Even new computers out of the box suffer sometimes. The common misconception is that computers are usually slow because their processor isn't fast enough, but that isn't the case most of the time. The real reason that most of our computers are too slow is because they don't have enough memory.

Computers use two primary types of storage. Temporary storage, in the form of RAM (Random Access Memory), and non-volatile storage in the form of a hard disk drive. When you start a program on your computer a copy is made from permanent storage to temporary storage (hard disk drive to RAM) and the program is run from RAM. Many programs, including Windows, OS X, and Linux themselves, usually require more RAM than is actually available in the computer so they use virtual memory to temporarily store data from RAM to the hard disk drive whenever isn't needed immediately. Then when the time comes that it is needed, data from another program is moved out of RAM to the hard disk drive to make space to pull the required data back into RAM. The problem with this scenario is that hard disk drives are literally thousands of times slower than RAM, so it is a very slow and painstaking process to move data back and forth. Every time you see your hard disk light flashing when you aren't loading a program your computer is swapping data back and forth.

The more programs you have running on your computer (and remember that your operating system is really one very big program) the slower it is going to be if there isn't enough RAM to store all of the data required. Upgrading the RAM in your computer cuts down on the amount of swapping going on, thus improving computer performance dramatically. In many cases you can double, triple, or quadruple the time it takes to start, switch, or use programs just by upgrading your RAM.

How much do you need? If you are running Windows XP or OS X Tiger, 512MB is a decent starting place, but all three are happier with 1GB or more. Windows Vista and OS X Leopard require much more RAM to be happy, so 1GB is the minimum recommended, with 2GB or more being ideal. To find out how much you have, in Windows right-click your My Computer icon and select Properties. In OS X, look under the Apple menu, About This Mac.

If you need more RAM, I recommend shopping at; they have a really easy to use wizard to tell you what type of memory your computer needs, and they have great prices. Installing memory is very easy, and is usually done by unscrewing a single cover or panel, and snapping the memory board into place. In most cases you can upgrade to 2GB for less than $50. It's a cheap fix for an aging, slowing machine.

Upgrading your RAM will give you a very noticeable improvement in performance for not a lot of money, especially if you have a 'budget' computer that didn't have a lot to start with.

Multimedia Tip: 50 Cent Tripod Substitute

So imagine you're hiking in the mountains with your camera one evening and you spot a bird 25 yards away that you'd like to get a picture (or video) of. No problem, right? Except that you're in the shade under cover of trees, so there isn't much light. Holding the camera with just your hands will then cause the picture to blur, and the bird is far enough away that you'll have to zoom in, making your shaky hand that more detrimental to the picture. So you need a way to steady the camera, but you don't want to carry a tripod. Enter the 50 cent tripod substitute.

You'll need:

  • You'll need a piece of string just longer than you are tall.
  • A short 1/4-20 screw or bolt, about 3/4" long.
  • Maybe a large metal washer if you want to get fancy.

Get a 1/4-20 screw or bolt from your local hardware store. They'll know what 1/4-20 means (1/4" diameter, 20 threads per inch). But get something short, like 3/4" or so. Some instructions I've read recommend getting an eye bolt with 1/4-20 threads, but that makes the project more expensive without getting any better results.

Take one end of the string and tie it tightly around the threads of the screw at the base of the head. If you purchased a large washer, cut the string at the same length as your height, and tie the washer on the other end of the string. If you didn't buy a washer, cut your string about a foot longer than you are tall, and make a loop large enough for your shoe to fit inside with a little room to spare, and tie the loop tight.

The idea is that you step on the washer (or into the loop), screw the screw into the tripod mount on your camera, and pull upwards on your camera to keep the string taut, with your foot pulling downward on the other end. The downward force on the camera will greatly improve the steadiness of the camera especially compared to holding it just by hand.

It isn't a total substitute for a real tripod, but it does fit in your pocket or camera bag, only weighs a few ounces max, and is super cheap. It does produce great results, though, and is even more useful for video cameras.


bwarby said...

at what point should I just get a new computer?

DoubleDeej said...

It's kind of a personal decision, but the short answer is when your old computer no longer meets your needs.

If you've upgraded with as much memory as your motherboard will hold and it's still slow, it's probably time for a new computer. Or if upgrading your memory costs a significant portion of the price of a new computer, it's probably better to buy new.

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