A Bit More Bull

Bear Mountain Bull Annex/Archives

Customer Service — Western Digital June 4, 2012

Filed under: Hobby Electronics,Other — BMB @ 6:30 pm

A couple years back I bought a 1.5 TB Western Digital Elements external hard drive to use for our monthly machine backups (yes, I back up our computers regularly – you should too). A few weeks ago, when doing those backups, I got a ‘bad block’ error from the external disk. Not good. Tried it again – same thing. Downloaded the diagnostic tool from WD, ran the quick test, and everything (including SMART parms) passed fine. However, the extended test did find bad blocks, and when I told the program that I wanted the disk to try and repair them, I got a message saying “Error trying to repair bad blocks”.

That’s not good. The drive is not usable in that condition. Ordinarily I’d be pissed enough that a drive didn’t last two years, but in this case, I was even more annoyed because this drive literally spent 99% of its life in a drawer, being used only 5-6 hours per month to do our backups. That was its only job.

So, just for kicks, before I went off to buy a new drive, I thought I’d write to WDC support to see what they had to say — it was worth a shot, right?? I knew the drive was out of warranty (which was only one year, a little lame), but I also knew that this drive had very, very few hours of actual use — and that the drive’s SMART data (power-on hours) could prove that.

In less than 24 hours, I got a response from a support person at WDC, telling me that he would escalate the issue to his supervisor to update my warranty, and then I would be able to request an RMA to have the drive replaced. And they did — next time I checked, the drive’s warranty had been reset to current, expiring in a few months. I requested an RMA, got the shipping labels and returned the drive to them. Once they received it, a replacement was shipped the next day, and was shipped 2nd day air. I could have even had them ship me a drive before they got my return if I wanted. And all it cost me was the return postage. That’s a lot cheaper than a new drive.

Kudos to Western Digital for good customer service.


Computer Troubles? Get Help October 23, 2010

Filed under: Hobby Electronics — BMB @ 1:13 pm

Is your machine giving you fits? Redirecting your browser to web sites you didn’t expect? Having trouble getting to certain sites? You may very well have a virus/malware infection.

Yeah, I know. You ran your antivirus software and it said you were clean. But your machine is still misbehaving. What do you do?

Get help. There are numerous sites out there that will help you to get rid of your computer demons. These sites allow you to submit diagnostic log files to their forums, and they’ll take a look at them for free. They’ll tell you what the next steps are, what tools to run, and how to run them (although it helps if you’re already pretty comfortable with computers. If you’re not, you might ask a geek friend to give you a hand!). And they know about tools that you probably haven’t heard of yet.

I have personal experience with the forums at BleepingComputer.com, but there are many others out there. Look for their instructions on how to start a new help request and follow them. It may take a while — even a week or more, when they’re busy — for the experts to get to your log post and start working your problem, but it will be worth the wait.

And these guys/gals are volunteers. They’ll help you for free, but once you’re done, they’ll tell you how you can make a donation to help keep the malware fight going. These folks deserve our support — all the ones working every single case over the web, from all over the world, analyzing your logs and helping you clean your machine. And we certainly can’t forget those who are spending the time writing the tools that clean up the messes. Without them, we’d all have to be buying new machines once they got hit by the bad guys.

Obviously, prevention is the best medicine. Do regular backups (just in case your machine can’t be cleaned — most of you don’t do backups at all, do you?), keep your virus software running and up to date, keep your OS up to date, and practice ‘safe surfing’ as best you can. But even with all that, you can still get hit.

The nice thing is that there are people out there who can help you.


Vinyl Restoration June 14, 2009

Filed under: Hobby Electronics,Tunes — BMB @ 5:30 pm

Having grown up in the BCD era — Before Compact Discs — I have a fairly healthy collection of vinyl records. Some of you may have heard of them, or you may have actually seen some at some point in your life. They come in cardboard envelopes about 12 inches square…usually with pictures or fancy artwork on the outside.

You need a phonograph/turntable (yeah, kinda like those things the rappers use, but theirs are ‘special’…) to play the music that is etched on these archaic pieces of plastic, and today you might have trouble even finding a stereo receiver/amplifier with a phono input — nowadays, ‘receivers’ aren’t much more than audio/video switching devices, and have connections for more speakers than a football stadium. But I digress…

At any rate, I got to thinking a bit ago that it might be nice to get copies of some of my favorites on CD. I’m not planning on replacing ALL of my vinyl with CDs, but I’d hate it if something would happen to the vinyl copies of some of these favorites, and I didn’t have some sort of backup copy. However, as luck would have it, I’m the last to find out that some of my favorites were indeed available on CD — but only for a short time, a few years back, and now they’re out of print on CD. And it’s not like these are real rarities — I guess it’s just a matter of them not necessarily being the biggest stars of the 70’s (like the Zeppelins and the Floyds were), so record companies just didn’t go all out to make sure that later generations were able to get their stuff on CD. Oh sure, some of my stuff I can find on sites like the Amazon used/new section, and can get still-sealed, brand new CDs for under 10 bucks shipped. That I can handle. But some of these other albums? I was pretty surprised — and disappointed — to find out that we’re talking 60, 70, or even 100 bucks for a single CD on the used market. Yeah right. Not in this lifetime. Maybe they weren’t considered rare or valuable then, but they’re pretty rare now.

So, thus was born the BMB vinyl restoration project. Why not just digitize the vinyl I already have and put it on CD? Sure, the little crackles and pops are annoying, but then at least my vinyl would be preserved. But in this digital/computer age we can go a step further, and once that analog signal has been digitized, it can be processed and altered via computer…

Wave Corrector screenshot

Enter Wave Corrector software. Just one of a number of digital audio processing programs available out there, but it was designed specifically for the purpose of helping the home user digitize and restore their vinyl records and cassette tapes. Unlike many of the other pop/click processing programs, it lets you modify the results and even add your own corrections if you so choose, giving the user pretty much total control over the end result. And it doesn’t mess around with any of that lossy MP3 stuff — it records and processes lossless WAV files, which can then be burned directly to audio CD format by your favorite burner program.

So next time you wonder why BMB hasn’t posted anything in a while, just imagine he might be in the ‘studio’ with his headphones on, staring at a couple of squiggly red and green lines on the screen, trying to track down that elusive click — that one he’s just certain is there (he’s pretty sure he can hear it clearly at 1/4 speed!), but darn it all, it’s a tough one to pin down because it’s jammed in there right on top of that last kick-drum ‘thump’…

His idea of ‘fun’ has always been a bit different than that of a lot of other people.

Update: If you can get your hands on a good sound card or USB interface to do your A/D conversion, do it. Your digitized recordings will be much better than if you use an el-cheapo sound card. I lucked out and picked up an old ESI Waveterminal U24 USB interface (no longer in production – replaced by the U24XL) on eBay at a very good price — it does a wonderful job. The difference is most noticeable on the bottom end — recordings produced by a cheap sound card were much ‘thinner’ by comparison.

Update: I thought it might be useful to post some audio samples. For file size considerations, these are MP3 (compressed) samples, but all file processing and CD burning is done with lossless WAV files.

The clips are the from the guitar intro to “Raging Fire”, on the ‘A Place In The Sun’ album by Pablo Cruise, circa 1977.

Original vinyl recording:

Audio ‘restored’ with Wave Corrector software:


More Geek Stuff June 21, 2008

Filed under: Hobby Electronics — BMB @ 6:38 pm

Ok, like the post on the soldering station a few weeks ago, this one is just a wee bit off topic too. But heck, if Barry can do Friday Night Jazz posts, I can throw in a little electronics stuff now and then.

I’ve already got a few different multimeters, but for one reason or another, I started looking around for one that would measure capacitance as well as the standard volts-ohms-amps. Meters like this one will measure capacitance up to 200uF, and they’re pretty inexpensive – they can be had for as little as $15 shipped on eBay. Also in my shopping, I ran across the Extech EX470, which looked great – measures frequency and temperature, via both thermocouple and infrared as well as capacitance. But it retails for $130, only measures capacitance up to 100uF, and doesn’t show up on eBay often enough to give you a chance at a really good steal on the price. Harbor Freight has this meter for $19.99, which has the thermocouple temperature measurement, but it doesn’t do the frequency thing, and only measures capacitance up to 20uF, not enough to test things like A/C motor run/start caps and such.

Vichy VC99

Eventually though, my persistence paid off. I came across this meter, the Vichy VC99 (made in China, of course), which looked like it had all of the features I wanted and then some. It has the temperature measurement function (in degrees C and F), measures frequency up to 60 MHz, and measures capacitance up to 2000uF. How cool is that?

So how much is it? Well, that depends. Looking at the few merchants that carry it on eBay, you can get it for anywhere from $37.99 to $65.99 plus shipping, which ran from $10-$15. That seemed a little high to me – so I kept poking around and found it at an outfit in California called Central Computers. They have the meter for $22.95, and it cost me less than 9 bucks shipping to Texas. Grand total was under $32. Now that seemed like a pretty fair price for a meter with those specs. Done.

The meter is fairly nice. It’s obviously not the high quality of something like a Fluke, but it doesn’t carry that high a price tag either. The display is nice and big, which is great for my aging eyes. And it does what it says it’s supposed to do – temperature, frequency, capacitance. Works great. You can’t ask for more than that.

If you’re looking for a bit more than your standard volt/ohm meter at a decent price, check it out.

Update, 1/18/10:   In prototyping an infrared security beam, the frequency measurement capability of the VC99 has been coming in very handy. The IR detection module is looking for a 36 KHz signal, and the datasheet charts says that it would respond best to a duty cycle > 45%. The VC99 measures both frequency and duty cycle, and has allowed me to ‘dial in’ the transmission side of the IR beam much more precisely than I could with, say, my old analog scope. Very handy to have around. Also had some questions about some old caps I had laying around, so the capacitance measurement allowed me to check those for unknown values, as well as verify that an old electrolytic was no longer near it’s stated range.

Update, 1/2/11:   Looking for a comparison of $50 (and under) multimeters (including the VC99)? Check this out.


Feed the Geek May 31, 2008

Filed under: Hobby Electronics — BMB @ 3:01 pm

If you’re not a techie/electronics geek, you can probably skip this one.

After attempting yet another soldering project where my 12-watt, tiny-tipped Weller iron just wasn’t enough and my who-knows-what-watt Radio Shack iron from a previous generation seemed like it might be a bit too much, I decided it might be time to move on to a better soldering tool, especially in these days of learning to solder/unsolder surface-mount devices – YIKES!

Xytronic 379I used to do a LOT of soldering using a temperature-controlled iron (Metcal, Weller) in the electronics shop I worked at while in college, and I never had a complaint about the soldering equipment. I guess there was a reason for that – it was a lot better than what I have today (of course, back then everything was through-hole circuit design too, and you could actually see the parts you were working on without a microscope…).

So, off I went to the web to see what kind of a value I could find on a decent, temperature-controlled station, and I wound up here with the Xytronic 379. It gets great comments all over the web from people that own it, it seems like it might be nicer than the comparably-priced low-end Weller, and it’s cheaper than the low-end Hakko.

I ordered it using a ‘discount code’ I found in another forum (post #15). That gave me a slight discount – then when the order was actually processed and the invoice arrived via email, it turned out that Howard charged me even less, for whatever reason. I wasn’t going to complain – I got the whole thing for just over $51 shipped. Not bad at all.

So if you’re looking to feed your inner soldering geek, you probably can’t go wrong with this station. With the temp dial set at around the midpoint, about 650° F, the thing goes from power-off to melting solder in less than five seconds. Try that with your Radio Shack iron…

Incidentally, if you’re looking on info and/or help on soldering and desoldering SMD components, there’s a lot of good info and videos over at Curious Inventor. For desoldering, that Chip Quik stuff is particularly cool (see demo), and it’s available at Fry’s.

P.S. – I looked at the digital readout station that Radio Shack is selling for $40, but most of the commenters on the web complained that they couldn’t find replacement tips for it.

Update: I’d seen mentions on the web that Hakko tips would fit the 379 iron. That would be convenient, as it’s probably easier to find the Hakko tips than the Xytronic brand – for example, there are a lot more Hakko tips available on eBay (at decent prices), and places like Fry’s would be much more likely to have Hakko tips. Since the blurbs I’d seen hadn’t been specific as to which Hakko tips would fit the 379, I did a little bit of research to compare sizes and such, and determined that the Hakko 900M series of tips looked to be almost exactly the same as the tip on the Xytronic iron. I ordered a few of the 900M tips off eBay to give it a try, and they seem to fit the iron perfectly. So there ya go.