New hardware doesn’t have to cause problems

Fred langa By Fred Langa

Usually a major hardware change causes endless software hassles. It doesn’t have to be this way.

If your current PC doesn’t have "PCI Express" technology, your next one most likely will. Here’s the scoop on PCI Express and what it means for Windows users.

Using Windows with PCI Express hardware

Reader Bob Spaith encountered a problem that will become more and more common as new hardware technology moves into our Windows PCs:
  • "I’m wondering what the main differences are between PCI and PCI Express. I’m using a motherboard that only has PCI slots, and I am using an Adaptec SCSI controller card that is PCI Express. I was told that Windows will work with the PCI Express card in a PCI slot (and it does), but part of the card does not have a socket to plug into, so it is not connected to anything.

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    "I would like to know what is lost by using a card like this? Speed? True compatibility? I don’t really understand how the card can operate correctly when part of it is not plugged into anything."
Hmmm. Something’s not right there, Bob, so let’s take a moment to sort out some technologies with confusingly similar names.

First, for clarity: PCI and PCI Express are electrical "buses." A bus is a series of connections that your PC’s components and subsystems use to communicate with each other.

Most PCs today are built around the original PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) parallel architecture introduced back in the early 1990s. PCI was a replacement for the even older first-generation ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) and EISA (Extended ISA) architectures. These last two bus types have all but vanished from current PC motherboard designs.

Toward the end of the 90s, PCI technology spawned two offshoots. In 1997, Intel introduced AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port), which is a variant of PCI architecture designed specifically for higher-speed graphics cards. In 1999, a consortium of hardware vendors launched PCI-X. This is not PCI Express, but rather "PCI eXtended," which is another variant on classic PCI’s parallel-connection technology designed to increase throughput speed.

A 32-bit PCI-X card can fit into a standard 32-bit PCI slot without problems (although it may have extra connectors "hanging over" the edge of the slot). The PCI-X card will run just fine in a PCI socket, albeit at the slower speed of standard PCI.

Although AGP is also a close variant of classic PCI technology, AGP uses a special slot or socket that won’t accept standard PCI cards. Most PCs sold today have several standard PCI and one AGP slot. In fact, the PCI/AGP combination is all but ubiquitous. PCI-X is still around, but much less common.

PCI Express is an entirely different animal. Originally called "Third Generation I/O" (3GIO) and introduced in 2002, PCI Express is a high-speed serial bus that can run at up to 10 GHz, as opposed to the approximate 1 GHz practical limit for conventional PCI’s parallel architecture.

PCI Express cards usually have special slots or sockets. Normally, you can’t plug a PCI Express card into any standard PCI slot — even if it fits, PCI and PCI Express use fundamentally different architectures (parallel versus serial), and so they’re unlikely to work unless the card has some ability to switch types, which depends on what kind of socket it’s plugged into.

This brings us back to Bob’s example. Adaptec sells both PCI-X and PCI Express cards. I could find no mention in the Adaptec sales literature about their PCI Express cards being interchangeable between bus types. So, my guess is that Bob actually has a PCI-X card, rather than a PCI Express. (The similarity in the names is, indeed, confusing.) His PCI-X card is working, and all he’s losing is the extra speed afforded by the PCI-X technology. His card is operating as if it were a standard PCI card.

You’ll be glad to note that Windows is happy to work with any or all of these technologies. It may be no surprise that Windows works with PCI, AGP and PCI-X because they’ve been around for quite a while. But Windows also works just fine with PCI Express. This is because the consortium that designed PCI Express decided that it would still use the classic PCI driver model on the software side. (In fact, Microsoft was part of that PCI Express consortium.) So, no new classes of drivers or other software would be needed, and any operating system that works with ordinary PCI should also be able to work with PCI Express.

PCI, AGP, and PCI-X are aging but viable technologies that are currently in use. They’re well-proven, thoroughly known, and mostly bulletproof. But PCI Express is the likely successor to them all, because it offers better performance and a more open-ended future. As PCI Express becomes more common, it’s good to know that you won’t have to worry about changing or reconfiguring your copy of Windows to take advantage of the new hardware. Windows already knows how to use it!

Online resources to find Windows tips

With the plethora of tip sites on the Web, which ones are really worth your time? Reader Warren Taylor has one suggestion, and I have several others:
  • "While surfing around the Web looking for XP hints, I came across the Optimize Guides Web site that has a wealth of information. The lead-in on the homepage reads: "Optimize Guides are free, easy to read, comprehensive guides for the Windows 2000, XP, and Vista operating systems. Whether you want to improve performance, improve security, or simply diagnose a problem, you will find solutions here."
Thanks, Warren. There does, indeed, seem to be a fair amount of information there, although some of the pages are really just descriptive links to other sites.

You might also want to note the free Windows Secrets WinFind search service that lets you search not only the back issues of this newsletter, but also 14 other sources for expert advice on Windows. Very handy!

WinFind search engine
Figure 1. The free WinFind service lets you search 15 trusted sites that provide reliable Windows tips.

Other sites I personally find helpful include Doug Knox’s Windows Tweaks and Tips and Paul Thurrott’s SuperSite for Windows. You may recognize Paul Thurrott as Brian Livingston’s co-author of the best-selling Windows Vista Secrets book. Online sources are great, but sometimes the depth, permanence and portability of a book are extremely valuable as well!

Is the ‘1024-cylinder boundary’ real?

Reader Charlie Rose couldn’t defrag his C: partition in Windows due to too little space. When he tried to enlarge the partition, his software told him the newly enlarged partition would be unbootable. What are his options?
  • "I’m running XP Pro SP2. My C: partition has only 9% free space. All my defragmenters require 15% free space. I told PartitionMagic 8.0 to increase the partition size, but it told me that that ‘would cross the 1024-cylinder boundary and not be bootable.’ "
This isn’t a problem with Windows or with your partitioning software. Rather, the legendary "1024-cylinder boundary" is actually a hardware limitation that existed in early PCs; the BIOS simply wasn’t designed to handle large drives. (The "1024-cylinder boundary" represents a drive or partition of about eight GB — unimaginably large in the early days of computing, but quite small today.)

To my knowledge, no PC sold since about the year 2000 has had this 1024-cylinder boundary limitation. Many of the major-brand PCs overcame this constraint years earlier. Some partitioning tools, however, still retain the warning about the 1024-cylinder boundary, just in case.

If your PC is less than about seven years old, odds are you’re fine. You can ignore the warning and make the partition whatever size you wish. Of course, it’s always wise to make a backup first before performing any work on live partitions.

If your PC is an old one, or if you’re still not sure about it, go to the manufacturer’s Web site and follow the instructions there for downloading and installing the latest BIOS update. It’s usually just a small software tool that reprograms the BIOS with new instructions. No hardware changes are needed.

In the unlikely event that none of the above works for you, you probably can buy a modern replacement BIOS. The better BIOS replacement sites can tell you if they have a BIOS for your model PC, and can offer how-to instructions. Some representative vendors include eSupport’s BIOS Upgrades, BIOSman, and BadFlash. A new BIOS isn’t expensive, usually costing in the vicinity of $30 or so.

But again, if your PC is of any reasonably recent vintage, the "1024-cylinder boundary" warning you got is probably just a false alarm.

Is the antimalware tool PrevX1 worthwhile?

While trying to track down a "questionable program" he found on his PC, reader Ronald L. Berman ran across an unfamiliar antimalware tool:
  • "Recently, while searching for an answer regarding questionable programs listed in the Programs Control section of my Norton Internet Security package, I came across PrevX1 antimalware software. I have downloaded it, although usually I don’t download software into my computer without a good deal of reading about it first. I would like to read a report about what Windows Secrets thinks about this program, including recommendations, pro and con."
First, you might want to check the lead item in the Jan. 18 issue, which said (among other things): "When you use antimalware tools, take the threat counts reported by such tools with a grain of salt: Things are rarely as dire as these tools can make it seem!"

You see, some anti-malware tools find "threats" that aren’t really all that threatening as a way to prove to you that you need that tool. There’s not enough detail in your note to know if that’s the case with PrevX1, but it’s a possibility.

PrevX1’s main distinction seems to be that it’s primarily heuristic, which means that it can "learn" to detect new malware by observing its behavior, even if a particular strain of malware is new to PrevX1.

But PrevX1 isn’t purely heuristic; it also relies on a central, online database of known malware "signatures" or software descriptions. This two-part approach isn’t unique. For example, many antivirus tools combine an element of heuristic technology with a central database of virus signatures. It’s the latter that are downloaded when your antivirus tool updates itself.

PrevX1 doesn’t do that kind of updating, however. When it runs, it uses its heuristics plus the malware signatures stored in the online central database. But it apparently does not retain a full copy of the signatures for use when your PC is offline. This is one of the reasons that most formal reviews give PrevX1 a mixed scorecard.

For example, PC Magazine’s review of PrevX1 said, "Requires active Internet connection for full protection. Doesn’t remove malware traces such as Registry keys and non-active files. Occasionally blocks valid programs." And PC World said, "Slow scanning time; not a complete Internet security solution."

So, PrevX1 seems to work, but not well enough to make me want to change the tools I’m currently using.

On the other hand, if PrevX1 works for you, and is useful in solving a particular problem you’re having, then by all means go for it. It’s a perfectly legitimate tool.

By the way, you can always see the current recommended "best of breed" security tools on the free Windows Secrets Security Baseline page.

Fred Langa is editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others. He edited the LangaList e-mail newsletter from 1997 to 2006, when it merged with Windows Secrets.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2007-02-15:

Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.