Category Archives: Hardware

Archive VHS Tapes

If you have old VHS tapes that you’d like to save, here’s a relatively cheap and easy way to do it, without the use of a TV or separate monitor.

1. Find a  Diamond One Touch Video Capture unit online or in a store near you. I paid about $40.00 for mine.

2. Hook it up to your VCR as described in the instructions and then to your computer using the supplied USB cable.

3. Follow the instructions to install the capture software.

TIP: Guard the program shortcut with your life! Once you install the software, it’s very hard to find the shortcut if you move it. I’m a geek and found it hard to find. Warning!

4. Start the capture software. You’ll see a screen like this:

Diamond capture screen and menu
This is the menu that you DON'T want to see.

What’s wrong with this image? The green line across the bottom, that’s what. Down on the lower left is an X. If you see this kind of screen, hit the X and reopen the program. Maybe this is just on my computer but I have to restart the program in order to get rid of the green lines on the bottom.

Your screen should look like this:

Proper capture screen
This is what you should see before you start playing a tape.

Once you can see this screen, you’re ready to go.

5. Pop a tape into your VCR (could be Beta or VHS or camcorder, it doesn’t matter what you use as a source). Start to play it and you’ll see this kind of screen:

Video showing on one touch screen
The video on the screen with no scan lines on the bottom.

6. Once you can see this kind of image in the window, you’re all set. Use the VCR to control the tape, then record the bits and pieces that you want to save using the One Touch controls. The red button records what’s in the window, including sound if you have the cables set up correctly, and the black button (which turns red after you start recording) stops the capture.

7. In the Settings menu, shown here:

Settings menu
Here's where you adjust the settings.

This is showing the Record tab where you can set the file type (I use DVD for small file size) and save the files in a folder on my desktop. Set your preferences according to your tastes.

8. Once you have the tapes sorted and have saved the files that you want, rename them to keep track of them and then you can archive them to DVDs, etc. I prefer to change the files to either FLV or DIVX in order to keep the files as small as possible. If the video if very important, leave it was a DVD file and write it to a disc.

That’s it! Simple and cheap, without the pain of having to have a TV monitor cluttering up your desk or work area. Not only does this method capture fine quality video (depending on the source, of course), it eliminates the need for a video monitor. Alternatively, you can feed your TV output into this unit and watch and record live TV on your computer.

Thanks for reading! If you have questions or comments, write them below or follow me on Twitter: @_BrianMahoney

Build a Computer – 2

Here are some tips to keep in mind when you are assembling your new PC. For actual step-by-step instructions plus pictures, head over to MaximumPC online. I have written for MaximumPC in the past (and hope to again) and I recommend the magazine and the website. Because the instructions change from month to month, it’s best to keep up to date on the current how-to articles on MaxPC.

1. Make sure you’ve got everything together. Some things that you might not remember are the thermal paste (I got mine from Arctic) even though the Intel CPU came with paste pre-applied. I scrubbed off the old stuff and applied the Arctic Silver paste. You just need a pea sized dab of paste, not a whole bunch. Less is better but make sure you have complete coverage. Another thing you might forget are the SATA cables. Most motherboards come with a few but make sure that you have one for every drive.

Arctic Silver Thermal Paste
The best thermal paste you can buy.

2. Clean the area, clear your mind and don’t assemble the computer while standing on carpet! A good static electricity shock can fry some parts, your RAM or one of the many chips on your motherboard. Touch the case before you touch anything else. There are grounding straps you can pick up, too. I’ve never used one but, then again, I’m pretty anal about grounding myself every ten seconds.

3. Read the manuals. You should take an hour or so to refresh your memory about the ins and outs of  your motherboard/CPU assembly. The RAM and drives are pretty self-explanatory but make sure you know which connectors are which. Keep the schematic of the motherboard layout in front of you and turned for the correct orientation. If you have SATA 2 and SATA 3 connectors, figure out which are which. The most confusing part of all of this, from my experience, is the system that connects the tiny wires from the front console of the computer to the motherboard. ASUS has made this very easy with a little do-jiggy that takes all the connectors in one foul swoop and pops them all at one time onto the motherboard. Look for that piece and learn out how to use it.

Asus motherboard connector
This little guy makes it easy to connect the front panel connectors to the mobo.

4. Every case is different. Some have easy to load bays that don’t require screws, others are more old-fashioned. Above all, look out for sharp edges on the steel. A cut from one of these is much worse than a paper cut and can really ruin your day.

5. When it comes to installing the stand-offs (those little screws that make the motherboard sit a bit above the case), make sure you install the right number. If you have too many screws or too many holes, you’ve done something wrong.

metal standoffs
These things keep the mobo from shorting out on the case.

6. The process, as explained in Maximum PC, begins with installing the CPU, the RAM and the cooler. If there is any pressing down to be done, make sure you do that BEFORE you install the motherboard into the computer. I used the plastic bad that the motherboard came in to put under the board while the whole thing sat on a towel which absorbed any pressure.

7. Another difficult part was fitting the connector console on the motherboard into the corresponding hole in the case. The little pressure tabs usually get screwed up so take your time here and check your work. The first two times I did this, the pressure tabs covered one or more of the holes. Not a good situation once the whole computer is assembled and ready to go.

Asus back panel inputs
This is the tough part to install. Very finicky.


8. Once you get everything assembled, check your work. My latest computer wouldn’t POST. There was a panic moment but then I realized that I had managed to knock the tiny switch wire off its connector when I was installing the SATA cables. Usually it’s just a little thing that screws you up.

Good luck with all of this. Questions, comments are welcome.

TIP: NCIX will assemble your computer for only $50.00 before they send the whole thing off to you. They even have a PC building system that tells you what will work with what. Check out the site.  If you are timid but still want to ‘roll your own’ computer, maybe this is an option.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter: @_BrianMahoney

Build Your Own Computer

This is the first part of a series on how to build your own computer. If you can handle a screwdriver and follow directions, almost the same as Ikea, you should be able to cobble together your own computer in a relatively short period of time. The computer I am writing this on is about four months old and was painstakingly assembled in a few hours. Things don’t always go smoothly, however. Asus ran into a problem with the USB ports on the original motherboard, forcing me to disassemble then reassemble it when the new motherboard came in. Sure, it was a pain but I learned to develop some speed in the assembly the second time around!

These days, you really only need to buy a few parts. Most of the new motherboards already have just about everything built into the board itself. In this post I will tell you what you need, using this computer as an example.

1. Motherboard/CPU combination – I chose Asus as a manufacturer based on my past experience with another Asus board. For the CPU, I chose Intel  simply because they have a brand new set of processors with four cores and they also have a good reputation. For my use, four cores are overkill, most of the time anyway, but the price was right. The Asus motherboard came with just about everything that I needed already on it. There were three video outs which would support two monitors, a sound card built-in plus networking and a slew of USB connectors. I also use Firewire for video captures and there is a connector for that. Sure, the video isn’t for gamers but I was able to use the computer for a couple of months just as it was. I installed a video card recently but only because I wanted to play Far Cry.

2. Case/Power Supply combination – I like a tower case, as opposed to a small form factor case where you have to squeeze everything in. For the Power Supply (PSU), I chose a Corsair 600W model. Corsair has a great name and a good warranty. The case is an Antek unit, based on price and ease of construction. It looks pretty mean, all black with a nice grill on the front. Make sure you have a PSU that supports your power requirements. 600W is pretty medium now, some factory built units come with much smaller PSUs that crap out way before you want them to. Consider 750W or 1000W if you are a hardcore gamer and want to use the latest, greatest video cards and hard drives.

3. RAM – I chose Mushkin based on price and reviews. For my rig I figured 8 gigabytes of RAM (memory) was fine. I use Windows 7 Ultimate and I never notice a slowdown, no matter how many programs I have open. Consider 8 a minimum.

4. Optical Drive (DVD/CD writer) – A basic (non-Blu Ray) unit, a Samsung Writemaster fills the bill nicely. I may go for a Blu Ray later on but this is fine for now.

5. Hard Drive – For this, I chose a Western Digital ‘green’ 2 TB drive. WD has a good reputation and a good warranty. In the past, I’ve used Hitachi and Samsung but lately I’ve been using WD. Since I have lots of room in the case, I am using several hard drives. The WD 2TB, a WD 1.5 TB, a Kingston SSD that was an experiment, and a 1 TB WD 7200 RPM ‘black’ drive. At some point in the near future, I will re-install Windows and use the 1 TB black drive as a boot drive.

6. Keyboard/Mouse combination – I have keyboards in abundance and didn’t have to buy one. Same thing for a mouse. Depending on your needs, get a combination that suits your lifestyle. Wireless is nice but not necessary for me. There are also some pretty fancy mice out there, check them out if you’re a gamer.

7. Monitors – I had two nice Dell monitors so I didn’t need to buy them. My working model is a 22″ LCD, nothing fancy and my other one is a 20″ Dell. I use the 20″ for my TV watching, using a Hauppauge 1600 HD tuner card.

8. Cooling unit – The Intel CPU came with a cooler already but I chose to change it up with a Coolermaster Hyper 212 unit. It installed much faster than the Intel factory unit which proved to be cheap and really wonky to figure out. $19 was cheap for a much better unit from Coolermaster.

That’s it. Next time I’ll tell you how to put it all together.

TIP: All the bits and pieces came from NCIX, the best of the best. NCIX is a one-stop, no worry place to buy computer parts and electronics online. They have bricks and mortar stores, too. Full of helpful tips and tricks, these guys are the best. Did I already say that? (Choose your country: U.S. or Canada.)

Thanks for reading. Follow me on Twitter : @_BrianMahoney

Ram, Hard Drives and Confusion – computer ads explained

I think that most people just assume that everyone understands the difference between RAM and storage space, dual core and quad core, etc. If that was the case, why does everyone still call the desktop computer a CPU? Here’s a rundown of the terms that are used in a typical computer ad. It’s not difficult once you get past the buzzwords. Here is a typical ad:

Ad for Dell Vostro
It's specs like this that confuse the hell out of people.

This isn’t even the full list of specs. I’ll run through the important ones here. If there is something that still confuses you, ask me in a comment.

This is a notebook, or laptop. Most people these days seem to prefer laptops as opposed to desktops. Mobility is the key here. A huge section of people use mobile phones to connect to the Internet, too. The size you buy is up to you but a 14″ is great for moving around school or work, while a 15.6″ or 17″ can be used as a ‘desktop replacement’.

A netbook is much smaller, usually with a 10″ screen. These are great for taking everywhere you go. I’ll stick to more conventional computers here instead of confusing the issue more with the new pads. The terms are pretty much the same, regardless of the style you buy. Here are some of the terms explained:

1. AMD Quad Core A6-3400DM Processor – This is the brain of the computer, the part that gets really hot and looks huge in a desktop but is really only the size of a Triscuit, and about the same thickness. The two big names are AMD and Intel. You will recognize Intel, I think. Each company maintains a well documented site that will allow you to search out the age of the processor you are looking at. The price you pay for your computer is partially dictated by the price of the processor. This isn’t always the case, however, since Intel’s new processors are even cheaper than the older ones and much, much faster. For most people, the standard dual or quad core is fine. Two heads (dual core) is better than one and four heads (quad core) is even better.

2. 4GB Shared Dual Channel DDR3 at 1333MHZ, 2 DIMM  – This is called RAM (random access memory). It’s what the computer uses to keep track of things while it’s running. These days, 2 gigabytes is an absolute bare minimum, 4 to 8 gigabytes is much more common. The more RAM, the more things your computer will be able to think about. You can run two, three, four or more programs at the same time. Less RAM means your computer can only think of one thing…very slowly. Adding RAM to an old computer will do wonders for its speed. All you really need to know here is how many gigs of RAM you get with the computer and, potentially, how much more you can add. This is using 2 sticks (2 dimms). Most laptops only have two slots so you’d have to swap out the memory completely as opposed to adding another stick. 4 gigs is my minimum at this point. All RAM these days is Dual Channel, that’s just there to confuse you or to make it sound better.

3. 320 GB 7200RPM SATA Hard Drive – This is the storage NOT memory. The hard drive is where you store your files, music, videos, etc. The bigger the hard drive, the more you can store. This particular drive is an OK size and a GOOD speed. Most laptop drives are only 5400 RPM. This one is 7200 which means that it will be able to feed out stuff faster. However, it will also use up more power and create more heat, two things that will affect your battery life. I’m fine with 5400 RPM except for gaming or video capture. This is a plus, for sure, but 7200RPM isn’t necessary at all. 5400 is just fine and cheaper. SATA is superfluous. All drives now are SATA and it means nothing to you.

4. 6-cell Lithium Ion Battery (not shown) – The more cells in a battery, the longer it lasts. This one is average, 8 is much better. Battery life is dependent upon the processor and how much power it uses (faster uses more), the hard drive (7200 RPM uses more than 5400 ROM) and the type of display the laptop uses.

5. 15.6 inch HD LED Display (1366×768) with anti-glare (not shown) – This is a decent display. LED means that the laptop uses much less power than a normal LCD screen. (That is offset by the 7200 RPM hard drive for some strange reason). HD is meaningless, pretty much. Everything retail now is HD. 1366/768 is the screen resolution. Images and text will look clear and crisp on this screen. Anti-glare is extremely important. You will probably be using this laptop outside sometimes. With anti-glare, you’ll be able to see everything without the blinding glare.

6. 8X DVD+-/-RW with double layer DVD+/-R write capability – Put simply, you can write DVDs or CDs with this laptop. You can watch DVDs, listen to CDs but you CAN’T watch or write Blu Ray disks.

TIP: Netbooks, the really small laptops, don’t come with an ‘optical’ (DVD or CD) drive. There are small external drives available for less than $40, often less than $30.

TIP: Don’t spend extra money on software, whether it is Microsoft, Norton, Symantec or McAfee. There are many free alternatives to anything that you can buy. Read my past posts about free software. There is always something free out there. (By free I mean free, not pirated.)

That’s a very long post but I hope you’ll find it helpful. There are many other things to think about when you’re looking for a new computer but this covers most of your important choices.

Thanks for reading! Comments are welcome. Follow me on Twitter: @_BrianMahoney