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May 02, 2013 10:45 AM EDT


Solid State Drives or SSDs are one of the biggest advancements to modern computing in recent years. 

Traditional hard disk drives or HDDs consist of a series of metal platters that spin around.  There are magnetic arms that then move around to read the data off of the hard drive.  This limits the speed of the hard drive to how fast those platters can spin, and because there are moving parts involved, the hard drive tends to wear out faster than any other part of the computer.  Spinning the platters also causes additional heat and noise inside the computer.

SSDs don't have moving parts.  You can think of them as basically memory or RAM that stores the data permanently.  There are differences, of course, between these two technologies, but the high level concept is the same.

Because there are no moving parts, it is much faster to read/write data.  They also use less power and create less heat. While they'll still wear out eventually, they can last longer than traditional hard drives.

The only downside, currently, is that solid state drives cost more per GB of storage.  As the technology advances, this is becoming less of a discrepancy.  The 128GB SSD cost me $150, but you can currently get a 2TB hard drive for about $100. 

How fast is an SSD vs. an HDD

The best way to explain the difference is to give you an example.  For those of you who know MySQL, you know that backing up the database consists of running MySQLDump, which writes out a file with all the insert statements that can then be read back into MySQL to recreate a database.

I used a database that is large enough to easily see the differences.  The database dump file was about 1.5GB in size. It contains 200+ tables and millions of rows of data.

First, I restored it to my traditional hard drive, then I installed an SSD, reconfigured MySQL to use the SSD as the data directory, and then restored the same file again. The rest of the PC was exactly the same, which happens to have 4GB of RAM and a 6 core AMD Phenom II 1090T Processor.  It's running Linux Fedora 14.

This computer only has SATA2 controllers, which has a limit of 3GB/s of data that can transfer across its wires.  There are now motherboards with SATA3 controllers, which increases this limit to 6GB/s. The SSD I used was a OCZ Technology 128GB Vertex 4 Series SATA 6.0 GB/s 2.5-Inch Solid State Drive.  It's backwards compatible to the SATA2 or 3.0 GB/s speed.

My traditional hard drive took 35 minutes to import.  My solid state drive took about 5.  In theory, if I had a SATA3 controller, this could be cut in half again, though I doubt it would end up that efficient.  More likely, it would be 3 1/2 to 4 minutes.  So for this one test, the SSD was 7 times faster than my regular hard drive, and might end up 10-12 times faster under SATA3. 

There are also SATA3 controller cards that you can buy for about $50.  I thought about buying one of these, but I suspect that it wouldn't give you a full 6 GB/s because I believe you'll lose some speed as it travels through the card into the motherboard.  If you've done this, please comment and let me know your findings.

When to use SSDs

Any time you need speed over raw storage, use a SSD.  Some common uses are:

  • Boot drive - you'll boot up much faster using an SSD.  Store your photos and data on a traditional HDD.
  • Database Drive - if you are running any sort of database, the hard drive is often your slowest part.  Move your data over to a SSD and you'll notice a speed increase.
  • "Working Drive" - if you're using programs such as Photoshop that saves a history of each file change, you should see an increase in performance if your working drive is an SSD especially since most Photoshop files are 100MB or more. 
  • "Swap File" - If you are using more programs than you have available RAM, some of your working data will be moved to a file called the Swap file.  Put this on your SSD for a boost in speed.
  • Any time you're using a program that is hard drive intensive (i.e. has to load or save a lot of files or data while using the program).
  • If heat is an issue, such as in a data center where you have hundreds of computers or in a server where you're striping many hard drives together, use an SSD to decrease the amount of heat produced.
  • Use a SSD to reduce the amount of noise produced by your computer.

When to use HDDs

  • When cost is a factor
  • For raw storage such as large photos and other data that doesn't need to be accessed often
  • Storing backups where speed isn't an issue



Brian technology | computers | database | mysql | linux | data backup
Jun 19, 2011 02:09 PM EDT

Choosing the Right Digital Camera

Because there are so many options, it's hard to make the best decision when purchasing a digital camera. Factors such as size, quality and even color all play their part. So, which type of camera is right for you?

Unfortunately, the answer is that it depends on what you're going to use it for.

If you want a camera that you can take around in your purse or jacket pocket, then a consumer grade point and shoot camera is a great option. These are compact and don't weigh very much. They generally have decent preset settings and make it possible for you to literally point and shoot.

If the size and weight of the camera isn't a problem and you're looking for a better photo in terms of size, color depth, and overall quality, then a DSLR is probably what you're looking for. DSLR cameras have a larger photo sensor than point and shoot cameras. This is important because each pixel is able to receive more light and data so the photo is rendered better. One example is that a photo is less grainy at higher ISO settings.

To put this into perspective, a 14MP consumer grade point and shoot claims to be able to make a good 16x20" print, while a 6MP DSLR shooting in RAW can produce a good print up to 30x40". Why? Because the sensor is more than 4 times larger in the DSLR.

And, of course, the DSLR is able to change lenses for a variety of different situations such as telephoto lenses for sports or wildlife shots, large aperture lenses for low light shots, or macro lenses for closeups of insects, flowers, or other small objects.

The downside is that these cameras are a lot heavier and bulkier, especially when factoring in the weight of the lenses. This can be a problem for spur of the moment shots or when hiking for miles. In the case of the wildlife photographer, special backpacks are available to pack lenses and camera equipment for protection and to help distribute the weight more evenly.

Brian technology | camera
May 16, 2011 01:14 PM EDT

Drawing Tablets Defined

A drawing tablet is a computer input device, similar to a keyboard or mouse, that makes it possible for people to draw graphics, pictures, and use programs that need more sensitivity than a typical mouse. They are also referred to as a digitizer, digitizing tablet, graphics pad, or graphics tablet. The device consists of two items: a pen and a pad.  When the pen touches the pad, the motion and amount of pressure applied is captured by the computer and is displayed in the computer program such as Photoshop or Illustrator. Because it renders the amount of pressure, the program is able to determine how light or dark the line is to be displayed and, in certain instances, the thickness of the line. Often, the 'eraser' side of the pen also acts as an eraser with the tablet.

Beyond the art industry, tablet technology has reached the point of sale industry as well. Many businesses are using modified tablets to record signatures for received deliveries, credit cards, checking in at hotels or at the dentist's office, etc.

Smudged graphite drawings are a thing of the past; however, it does take a little getting used to.  The line doesn't show up below the pen anymore. It shows up on the screen.

Wacom is perhaps the most popular drawing tablet vendor; however, there are many available options such as Tooya, PenPower, and VisTablet.

Brian technology | computers
Apr 04, 2011 01:21 PM EDT

E-Book Readers Defined

An e-book reader is a mobile electronic device used to read books and periodicals. They are also called e-readers or e-book devices. While any device that is capable of displaying text on a screen can act as an e-reader, only the ones with the e-paper technology are technically consider one. These are specialized devices that are geared towards making it easy to read books using an electronic device. Careful consideration has been placed on available fonts, unit's weight, battery usage and overall readability.

Current research suggests that these types of devices are more popular with the older generations, possibly because they simulate real books more closely.

Amazon Kindle leads the market with 48% (as of Q4 of 2010), followed by Barnes and Noble Nook, Pandigital, Hanvon, and Sony Reader.

For around $100, current Kindle models have a 6" screen and weigh less than 6 ounces. For approximately twice the price, the Barnes and Noble Nook is available. The Nook is more like a tablet PC than an e-book reader. It uses a color touch screen, can play interactive games, and weighs about 16 ounces. It requires more battery power than the Kindle, which uses very little battery power because of its use of e-paper technology.

Brian technology | gadgets
Mar 09, 2011 01:28 PM EDT

GPS Defined

GPS stands for the Global Positioning System, which is a navigational system based on 24 different satellites originally intended for military use. These satellites where placed into orbit by the U.S. Department of Defense; however, in the 1980s, the government made the system available for regular civilians to use.

Each GPS satellite transmits a signal to Earth indicating the current time along with its current position in the sky.  GPS devices take this information and use triangulation to calculate the user's exact location. Basically, the GPS receiver compares the time from the signal to the current time, takes the difference of these two times, and uses that to calculate the distance between the device and the satellite.

It does this for 3-4 or more satellites. This way, the device is able to determine, within a few meters, the exact location of the device and then display the coordinates on the device's map. If it's connected to 3 satellites, it can determine latitude and longitude. If it's connected to 4 or more, it can also determine altitude. 

Once it knows the position of the device, it can then compare positions of where the device was in the past. This is used to determine speed, bearing, trip distance, etc.  For example, a mountain biker at the top of the mountain can find out what their average speed was when they reach the bottom based on how long it took and the distance traveled.  They can also determine the elevation change between the top and bottom.  Many devices also allow the user to upload their trip so that they can see it on an interactive map.

GPS works around the world, 24 hours a day, and it also works during any type of weather conditions.  There are no subscription fees to use the system, although vendors may have subscriptions for add-on services such as cloud storage to keep a log of many different trips taken.

Brian gadgets | technology
Feb 09, 2011 01:00 PM EDT

Computer Memory Defined

RAM (Random Access Memory) is the short term memory for a computer or electronic device. When a program is loaded, information is taken from the hard drive and placed into the computer's memory so that it is ready for the processor to work with.

Most computers have 2-4 RAM slots, and each computer accepts a specific type of RAM based on the slot size and other characteristics. Sometimes computer memory cards are referred to as sticks because their shape is similar to a stick of gum: long, flat, and thin. Each stick of RAM has a different, and ever increasing, measurement of how much memory it can store. It wasn't too long ago that RAM could only hold a few MB, but today, it's common for RAM to hold several GB.

Regardless of the specific amount of memory each stick can hold, it is usually less than the total capacity of the computer's hard drive (except in cases where the computer does not have a hard drive though those specific cases are beyond the scope of this article), and more than the memory connected directly to the computer's processor (often referred as CPU cache or L2 cache). RAM is much far faster than the typical hard drive but slower than the CPU cache.

When the computer is turned off, all of the data stored inside RAM is erased, which is why computers have hard drives - for permanent storage even though they're many times slower than the computer's memory.

In certain cases, the quickest and cheapest way to increase the overall speed of a computer is to add more memory. If the sum of the memory required by all of the programs that are currently running on the computer exceed the total amount of available RAM, the computer will start to "swap" memory, which means it will move some of the data to and from the hard drive. This is a time consuming process and is eliminated by either closing down enough programs so the computer needs less RAM for the moment, or by adding additional memory to the computer. If a program is simply installed, but not running, it is not loaded into memory and therefore does not affect the amount of RAM needed.

Sometimes programs have what is known as a memory leak. Internet Explorer and Firefox are notorious for various memory leaks. On Windows, check your task manager or on Linux and Macs, check your system monitor, top, or ps to see which programs are loaded into RAM. If the amount of RAM is much higher than when you first loaded the program, chances are this is the case. Simply restarting the program can be a temporary fix especially if it takes several hours to notice the slowdown. In these cases, make sure you have the latest version in case the issue has been fixed, and make sure your software vendor is aware of the problem.

Brian technology | computers
Jan 12, 2011 03:20 PM EDT

Tablet PCs vs. Laptops

For those that need the power of a desktop on the go, often a notebook, netbook, or a tablet PC is the way to go. Even just a few years ago, laptops cost several thousand dollars, but prices have fallen rapidly with the advent of smart phones and tablet PCs, which has opened the market up to a much larger audience.  Those always on the go, IT admins, college students, and road warrior  salespeople are among those that benefit from mobile technology.

So, which is better?  A laptop or a tablet PC?  Tablet PCs are often smaller, have touch screen, and fit in a backpack easier than a laptop. This is great for simple applications such as receiving email, showing sales figures in PowerPoint, browsing the web, playing simple games, or other tasks. 

For more powerful applications such as photo manipulation software like Photoshop or development software like MySQL, Eclipse, or Apache, the laptop is still the preferred way to go.  The laptop is bulkier and takes a little bit longer to set up, but it generally has a larger screen and keyboard to work with.  Often the other resources are greater as well such as processor speed, memory, and hard drive space.

Another benefit to using a laptop is that it's easier to fix and replace an individual part such as the laptop screen.  If a tablet PC has a problem, the entire device often has to be replaced.

To summarize, if size and convenience is your primary objective, a tablet PC or netbook may be the right thing for you.  If processing power and a larger screen size is more important, then stick with the laptop.

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Brian computers | technology
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