Saturday, December 29, 2001

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CD writing basics explained

If, like me, you're a bit of a web media junkie, your hard drive is likely to be bursting at the seams with cherished digitized entertainment. This leaves you with a tricky dilemma; do you engage in a cavalier deleting spree to make room for new arrivals, buy an expensive second hard drive, or glaze over in dreamy reminiscence for the days when 10mb of storage was thought to be all you'd ever need? Your best option is probably to get yourself a CD writer. These work just like an ordinary CD drive, however, will also allow you to archive up to 900 megabytes of data (depending on which CD media you choose) to a recordable CD, commonly known as a CD-R. CD writers are now very reasonably priced and are getting cheaper all the time, and if you shop around, blank CDs can be purchased for less than ten pence each, giving you a theoretically unlimited amount of storage space. While you'd imagine this would provide more than enough scope for anyone's storage requirements, the wheels of technological advancement continue to turn relentlessly. As soon as DVD-R drives become more affordable we will find ourselves embarking on a further storage revolution, and as a result we'll be referring to backing up many gigabytes of data rather than a 'paltry' few hundred megabytes. Nevertheless, until this day arrives, you can't beat CD writers for making cheap, convenient and hassle free backups.

Once you've purchased your CD writer you will need to acquire (or unwrap) some CD writing software to accompany it - your new device is useless without it (Windows XP's built-in, flimsy burning tool doesn't count). Most top quality CD writers are shipped with an OEM copy of Nero, the de facto standard in CD writing software. If the manufacturer of your new kit were shortsighted enough not to include this, you can head on over to the Nero home page and download a free trial version.

There are a variety of ways in which to copy computer data to a CD, and as you would expect they each bring with them certain advantages and disadvantages, all of which will be outlined below. The first method is to use a 'packet writer'; a piece of software that allows you to use your CD drive in a similar way to your hard drive. Employing this method you can drag and drop data onto your CD drive using nothing more sophisticated than an Explorer window. Whenever you do this, the packet writing software works seamlessly in the background, automatically copying the information to a CD without the need to execute any CD burning software. Similarly, you can use your burning software to create what is known as a 'multi-session copy'. This involves writing data to a CD-R a bit at a time whenever it becomes necessary to do so, until the CD reaches its full capacity. Both these methods are quite handy as you can use your CD writer much like a hard drive by dragging and dropping files onto it whenever you choose (it should be noted that this technique wastes a considerable amount of space, reducing the final capacity of the CD). The third option is much more reliable and makes more efficient use of the available space. It involves gathering together data in CD-sized chunks (up to 900mb worth) and then dumping it all onto a CD in one go.

Although CD writers are not quite as flexible as hard drives, they do have several advantages. The media is extremely cheap for a start. Also your data is undeletable, which means it is safe from hackers, viruses and accidental formats or deletions. Providing you have one of the more modern CD writers, a full CD can be burnt in less than two minutes so you are unlikely to find yourself twiddling your thumbs waiting for the task to be completed. With this in mind let's add speed of backup to the already impressive list of 'pros'. To give you a rough idea of how the speed ratings of CD writers relate to the time it takes to burn a full CD, a two speed writer can churn out the finished product in about 36 minutes, whereas a four speed drive would take roughly 18 minutes. Keep halving these estimates while doubling the speed of the writer until you reach the latest tech specs available today and you'll soon realize that they are so quick it's hardly worth quantifying the times involved.

When CD writers were still in their infancy, writing CDs at high speed could often render CDs unreadable because they had no way of combating a phenomenon known as 'buffer underrun'. These errors occurred whenever the device you were copying from was unable to serve files to your CD writer's buffers quick enough for them to be transferred to your CD-R in the absence of any stutters. To circumvent this stumbling block it was advised that you should write your CDs at lower speeds and learn to be patient. When it was discovered that - shock, horror - patience isn't a virtue possessed by the great majority of computer users, a new, all singing, all dancing range of writers were developed by Sanyo which could operate at full speed without running the risk of corrupting CD media. These new breed of drives, known as 'burn-proof' writers create error free CDs by suspending the burning process whenever the CD writer's buffers are empty, and resuming only when the buffers once again contain data which is available to be written.

Be that as it may, many people will not have access to one of the new varieties of writers or may even be stuck with a first generation dinosaur, so unless you want to create a lot of shiny coasters you will need to remember that you can't do anything else with your PC while a CD is being burnt. This is because, as already explained, any pause during the burning process can result in buffer underrun errors, which can render CDs unreadable. For this reason make sure you turn off any screen savers, automated TSR programs and power management functions before attempting to burn a CD. Just leave your PC to its own devices for half an hour while it struts its funky stuff. Come on, it can't be that difficult can it?

Providing you follow these basic rules, backing up your electronic goodies shouldn't cause you any major headaches. Copying original CDs for preservation purposes, on the other hand, is a different ball game entirely (refer to the ISO tutorial). The main problem stems from the fact that most modern software titles are copy protected. This can mean all sorts of different things. For instance, the publisher may have added large portions of unreadable data to their CDs, causing your CD writer to either go on copying indefinitely or to stop responding in the middle of the burning process. The most common method, however, is to alter the main executable file so that it will appear to copy successfully, but when executed will not function as it should. Not to worry though, help is close at hand in the form of Game Copy World, a site which while on the surface masquerades as a legitimate means of backing up your original CDs is really a pirate's toolkit containing the largest collection of cracked executables anywhere on the net. That said, it's also an invaluable resource for those of you wishing to stay on the right side of the law too. In case you haven't already guessed, in order to copy an original CD what you have to do is replace the original exe file with the cracked version before burning the whole thing to a CD. This will work without a hitch for the majority of the time, but some original CDs will require more sophisticated techniques in order to copy them successfully. Under these circumstances you will have to use Game Copy World's search engine to find the instructions for copying your particular game. These should be followed to the letter to avoid problems. This is always a good starting point whether you believe the cracked exe file will suffice or not, and will only take you a few minutes to read through in any case. Alternatively you can resort to everyone's favourite original CD duplicator, Clone CD, to make yourself a flawless backup. You'll have to contain your excitement until you reach the ISO tutorial to find out how that works.

A few final points that need to be taken into account before you begin backing up your data - make sure you're absolutely certain of what you want to put on a CD before clicking on the 'begin copy' button, because once burnt they can't be altered in any way unless you happen to be using CD-RW media. These are slightly more expensive than CD-R due to the fact that they can be formatted and re-copied many times. Also you need to remember that if you want other people to be able to use your CDs, or you want to be able to use them in a drive other than your CD writer, you will need to 'close' or 'finalize' the CD after copying it. This simply involves clicking on the relevant option before performing a CD copy. As a result nothing else can be added to it at a later date. One last tip before I dismiss the class; if your CD writer doesn't recognize the newer CD media available i.e. those with a capacity of 730mb or above, its firmware may need to be flashed. This procedure involves running an executable file which adds new information to the BIOS modules built into your CD writer. For more detailed instructions refer to my 'how to update your firmware' FAQ entry.

If you still have any unanswered questions have a browse through the other sections of my site before tearing your hair out in frustration. In addition you will find some very informative and detailed tutorials at CD Media World. Alternatively, you can take a look at Andy McFadden's CD Recordable FAQ. If he can't help you with your CD copying conundrums, no one can!

Saturday, December 22, 2001

Wednesday, December 12, 2001

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Cloning conundrums

I've used Clone CD to make a backup of one of my original CDs and been left with three files with the extensions .ccd, .img and .sub. What am I supposed to do with them?

The .ccd file works in a similar fashion to the cue sheets you are probably more familiar with. A .ccd file contains information regarding the logical structure of the disk - it is the file you would open in Clone CD in order to burn the image to a CD-R. When this file is opened, the other two files are automatically processed providing they are stored in the same directory and share the same filename.
The .img, or image file, contains the main channel data of all tracks of the disk, and the .sub file comprises the sub channel data of all the tracks of the disk.

To burn a Clone CD image you would select 'write from file' from the 'file' menu, browse for its accompanying .ccd file and select OK.

Thursday, November 15, 2001

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Honing your search engine technique

Be more specific when using web search engines. First of all make sure you're using as it's undoubtedly the most comprehensive search engine ever to have existed, and what's more, the hits it returns are actually relevant to your search queries - surprisingly a feature which all too many search engines lack!

Now that Google is set as your home page remember to use Boolean queries whenever you use it to search the web. A Boolean query is a logical term or operator, which can be added to your keywords or phrases to refine your search. The most common ones include the words AND, OR and NOT. It's worth remembering though that some search engines will allow you to replace the words AND and NOT with the symbols + and -, and that Google dispenses with the + operator altogether as it assumes you want all the keywords entered to be included in the results - makes perfect sense if you ask me. Notice that these are written in uppercase. I haven't accidentally left my caps lock button turned on; I've done this deliberately to indicate that this is the way they must be typed into your search engine.

As already noted, the AND operator is largely superfluous today, but to demonstrate how this would work in less advanced search engines, consider the following example. If you were looking for information regarding the author Joseph Heller (you know, the guy who wrote Catch-22?), you might try typing only the two words comprising his name into a search box. The hits your search engine returned would lead to any web pages containing either the word 'Joseph' or the word 'Heller', but not necessarily ones that contain both. In effect, you could be directed to sites that revolve around John Heller or Joseph Smith (whoever they are!). If you wanted to filter out all the irrelevant hits you could use the AND operator. This ensures that the keywords you specify must both appear in the search results (or hits). Any sites containing just one of the terms will be ignored. To do this you would type Joseph AND Heller into your search engine. Try it now and you'll see how effective this can be.

If you don't want to rule out too many possible matches you could use the OR operator instead. Typing in two keywords separated by the OR operator will return web pages that contain either one of your keywords. Again, this switch is fairly redundant in most cases because it will already be the default setting, but since most search engines support it I thought I'd give it a mention.

The NOT operator is much more useful. This can be used to specify words which should not appear in the results (I apologize if this is already obvious!). For example, typing in soap operas NOT Neighbours will give you a list of all the web pages that concern soap operas, except the ones about Neighbours in particular. So you may be directed towards Home and Away, Days of Their Lives or Family Affairs fan sites. Disclaimer: my knowledge of these program's existence does indicate that I watch them, thank you very much. ;)

Perhaps the most effective measure you can take to refine a search query is to use phrases enclosed by inverted commas. For instance, one way to find a selection of Monkey Island related sites would be to type "The Curse of Monkey Island" or "Escape from Monkey Island" into your favourite search engine (the case isn't important, I just like to be grammatically correct). This will only return web pages that include all the keywords listed in the correct sequence, i.e. any sites containing just one or two of these keywords, or containing all of the words, but in a different order will be filtered out.
For more search engine fine-tuning tips refer to the official Google cheat sheet.

So what are you waiting for? Go and practice with Google. Remember, 'tis all in de Booleans mon!... or something like that.

Saturday, November 03, 2001

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How do I close full screen pop-ups that do not have menu bars?

A quick way to do this would be to use your Task Manager. This displays a list of all the programs/windows you currently have open. To summon the Windows Task Manager you can press control, alt and delete simultaneously and then select the 'applications' tab. Alternatively, you could open the Task Manager by selecting the run option from your start button and typing in 'taskman'.
When the applications list appears, search through it for the title of the pop-up you wish to terminate, select it and press the 'end task' button. A quicker way still, however, would be to press alt and F4 together to close the active window.

Refer to the pop-ups tutorial for more proactive solutions.

Sunday, October 14, 2001


A software uninstaller that uninstalls software... properly.

When considering the uninstallers which come bundled with most applications I like to use the shopping centre escalator analogy. Have you ever noticed that if it's necessary to go upstairs to enter a shop, or get to the next level of a shop, there will be an escalator to transport you upstairs whereas you have to use ordinary stairs on your descent? Personally this doesn't bother me because I was taught from an early age not to be a lazy oaf, but the scheming behind this speaks volumes.

The proprietors want to make it as easy as possible for you to access their shops and spend your money, but couldn't care less how smooth your exit is. The same can be said of the vast majority of software vendors. Upon installing their wares, new files and registry entries will be haphazardly dispersed throughout your system without a thought pertaining to their future removal. This is considered your problem and you are consequently left to fend for yourselves. Packaged installers may appear to perform an exact reversal of their respective installation processes, yet many orphan files and useless registry entries are often left behind to gather dust and depreciate your system performance.

To address this problem you need to be able to take a snapshot of the files contained in your system folders and the composition of your registry prior to installing anything so you can then compare this state of affairs with that of your post-installation system. If a detailed log is kept of each and every change made to your system following the installation of a piece of software, those changes can be rescinded as simply as you would 'undo' a typo in your favourite word processor. Many uninstallers at least claim to do precisely this, yet on closer inspection I found that what some were actually doing was invoking the flimsy integrated uninstallers of the programs you wish to remove from your system - a task you could achieve with the same level of 'efficiency' by making use of the uninstaller built into the control panel of Windows (naturally as this is actually all this tool does!).

The challenge therefore is to track down uninstaller software developers who aren't money-grabbing, lazy, conniving charlatans. This I achieved, having spent a considerable amount of time trawling through a variety of shareware and freeware databases, upon stumbling across the Optimus Software group, who are responsible for developing 'Trash It'. This tool partly won my vote because it strictly follows the KISS (keep it simple stupid) approach to software development in that it does exactly what you want it to do and nothing more, which means it's light on useless fluff and is super efficient. Not surprisingly, some of the worst vapourware creating offenders are the authors of those 100-in-1 gadget suites which claim to do, well everything... while achieving very little.

If you save an individual log file for each future installation, you will no longer have to concern yourself with what is left behind when you remove unwanted, test-driven software. Think of it as instant Ghosting without a reboot.

Wednesday, September 19, 2001


English soil never looked so good

Phew! I'm glad to be safely back home. Flying back from the US was a complete shambles following Tuesday's tragic events. Still, what's a bit of inconvenience at a time like this? When so many innocent people lose their lives in such senseless attacks everything else pales into insignificance. I'd like to offer my deepest sympathies to all those affected by the recent disaster in America and urge you to support the Red Cross relief fund by making a monetary donation via their home page or by giving blood - information regarding blood donations can also be found here.

It's extremely heartening to see what can be achieved when people all pull together to achieve a common goal and I sincerely hope that we can learn to maintain the same compassion for humanity in the absence of such a crisis.

Wednesday, September 05, 2001

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MP3: music for the digital age

No internet harvesting training course would be complete without a bit of information on finding and downloading free music, so here's my attempt at guiding you to do just that. First a little bit of background information to give you a rough idea of what I'm talking about. When people use the phrase "free music on the internet" they are referring to MP3 files. MP3 is a fairly recent development in the computer music industry.

Music tracks are encoded from CDs and converted to compressed files with an MP3 extension. These can then be transferred back and forth across the internet, can be stored on your hard drive in the same manner as any other file format and require nothing more than Window's default media player to play them back (although Winamp makes a much better job of it). There's nothing new or revolutionary about this - we have been doing it for years now. The only difference is the transition between file formats.

Until recently, music was encoded in wave format (with a .wav extension) and a typical music track would occupy somewhere between 40 and 50 megabytes of hard disk space, which was obviously very inconvenient for transfer via the internet. So the critical change that the MP3 format brought about was a drastic reduction in file size, allowing much easier distribution over the internet, even for 56k modem users. To give you an example, a typical MP3 file will vary in size between 3 and 4 megabytes (depending on the 'bitrate' or quality in layman's terms) and provides near CD quality sound.

Locating and downloading MP3 tracks

So now the history lesson is over I'll get on with explaining how and where to find your next music fix. Many of the techniques that apply to other kinds of file foraging will also be useful for finding MP3s, so if you've already read my introductory lessons you'll be well equipped to begin your search.

The most dedicated MP3 aficionados tend to bypass more traditional transfer methods, instead opting for much more user friendly file-sharing clients. Of course, before the recent court ruling which imposed new restrictions on the exchange of copyright protected material, Napster ruled the MP3 sharing roost. Those days are, however, long gone. Not that this is likely to spell the end for the sharing of digital music; Napster was just the tip of the iceberg, the granddaddy which gave birth to the modern file sharing client if you like. While Shaun Fanning deserves full credit for putting the wheels of the free (or at least reasonably priced) music machine in motion, we shouldn't be bowing our heads in silence to commemorate the fallen hero, but saluting his contribution whilst looking ahead at a much more sophisticated range of replacements.

The sheer number of alternative clients is astounding, yet many of them are plagued with problems, the most detrimental ones concerning difficulties in connecting to the networks used to transfer files and store user's file databases. We have all witnessed how vulnerable these centralized networks are to legal action - this is precisely why there has been a marked propensity of late to develop de-centralized systems whereby no single server exists that can be shut down in order to drive the network off-line.

Piolet utilizes such a system and is rapidly shaping up to be the number one Napster replacement. While the current version is still in its infancy, it has the potential to be more popular than Napster ever was and not least because the two programs are so similar. Piolet, as Napster once was, is built on the foundation of simplicity and ease of use, and this is precisely what will attract exiled ex-Napster users by the droves. To help illustrate the point let me draw your attention to the fact that Piolet requires no installation whatsoever. You download a single file from the program's home page and you're ready to rock; the download is the whole client. Once it has finished downloading you can place it in any folder you like and simply double click on it to get started; the client automatically 'plugs' you into the community where you can begin searching for music tracks.

Also proudly riding the simplicity bandwagon is the anonymity factor. The program doesn't require you to register so you don't have to waste time thinking of a unique username or trying to remember your password before logging on as you would with many of Piolet's competitors. This means you are totally anonymous, a fact which the lack of any integrated spyware will also attest to.

OK, I take it you've had time to download and start the client by now... and if not, why not? Getting this baby up and running is absolute child's play. While it will run perfectly well 'out-of-the-box', it's always a good idea to set your preferences the first time you run any new application. To do this click on the 'config' tab. If your primary language isn't English, now's the time to tell Piolet. With that precursor taken care of it would be advantageous to inform the client of what sort of connection you are employing to allow other users to estimate how long it is going to take them to download files from your hard drive, and also how long it is going to take you to download files from them. From within the same 'connection' tab it is also possible to choose a nick name by which people can identify you. This isn't essential and doesn't have to be unique to you, although it's a simple way to introduce yourself to the people you are exchanging files with - it's just a matter of common courtesy really.

With that taken care of, it's time to switch to the 'uploads' tab. This is the area which allows you to select which folders will be made available to other Piolet users. To do this, click on the 'add' button and then use the integrated explorer to choose the folders where your MP3 files are stored. Note that it is advisable to have at least a few files available so that you can begin trading; you're not going to be too popular if you turn up to the party without a bottle! Below the 'add' folders option are two input boxes. These allow you to restrict the number of files other users can grab from your computer simultaneously. Obviously if you're lumbered with a feeble dial-up modem it would be a good idea to keep this number fairly low (I would suggest setting this to just one or two simultaneous connections, and the maximum number of connections per user to one). If on the other hand you've been blessed with the use of a T1 or faster connection then throw caution to the wind and be as generous as humanly possible.

The final option which requires tweaking is the folder where you wish to store your downloads. You've guessed it; the menu which allows you to do this can be found under the 'downloads' tab, so click on that now and select a drive with plenty of free space available. The other options can be left alone to use the default settings unless you run into difficulties later.

While you were taking care of the formalities, the Blubmeister (it used to be known as Blubster) was busy logging you into the network. You will now have reached the point where you will be allowed to search through and download the collections of other users, in exchange for allowing other users to have access to your files. So what do you have to do to embark upon your MP3 foraging quest? The first step is to click on the 'search' tab where you will be prompted to fill in a few details relating to your query. You don't have to be a genius to work out what to put in the 'artist' and 'title' boxes so I won't spell it out for you here. Note that these are the only fields which have to be completed to conduct a search.

See, I told you this was child's play didn't I. Having pressed the search button, the results will quickly be presented in the lower window from which it will be possible to reorganize the tracks to narrow down your search. For instance, if you click on the title at the top of the 'bitrate' column, the files will be rearranged according to the sound quality of the tracks. A useful rule of thumb is not to download anything with a bitrate of less than 128 kb/s. This is the middle of the road setting, which offers a nicely balanced sound quality to file size ratio. Choosing anything less than this figure will result in finding music with a smaller file size, but a lower sound quality, and the converse is true for anything with a higher bitrate. If you've got plenty of hard drive space and a fast connection aim for the highest bitrate tracks available.

Now if you click on 'velocity', the tracks will once again be re-organised, this time according to the connection speed of the user serving the files whilst still taking into account the bitrate value which we specified previously. This is an example of a secondary categorization. Avoid modem users like the plague, instead set your sights on at least a cable connection, but obviously the faster the connection the better. Clearly the more people who are connected to a single user's computer at any one time, the smaller the bandwidth limit is for each person. This is why it is wise to download from someone with as fast a connection as possible. Modem users clearly have far less bandwidth available to begin with, which is why such users are best avoided.

'Ping rate', the final option, is much more variable than the preceding two and so will have a lesser effect on your downloads. The ping rate is the length of time it takes for a message to travel from your computer to a remote computer and back again, a bit like a digital boomerang if you like. Note that this figure is not the same as a user's static connection speed (56k for example) because it is dependent on a multitude of other factors. These can include the number of simultaneous connections the user is currently accepting, the number of concurrent downloads he or she is making, and whatever else the user happens to be doing online whilst using the Piolet client. Although it is advisable to choose the download location with the highest ping rate, since any of these factors can vary at a moment's notice, meddling with this setting will not necessarily yield salient improvements in transfer speeds. So if the range of ping rates offered are very similar don't spend too much time worrying about which download location to choose unless you find that your connections are crawling along at a snail's pace.

Once the track list has been neatly rearranged according to filename, file size, connection speed and so on, downloading is simply a matter of double clicking on whatever takes your fancy. In the same way, other people can download your files without you having to do anything. If you are searching for a particular album, a good tip is to go and find the CD cover for it first (refer to the links at the bottom of the CD burning tutorial for some excellent sources). This way you don't have to wrack your brain trying to recall the names of every track that is on the album because the back cover will contain an official track listing. Armed with a scanned CD inlay you will know exactly which tracks to look for, and in what order they should be burnt to a CD-R if you plan to produce an audio CD later.

The Piolet client also includes an MP3 player and an integrated chat program, which allows you to communicate with your fellow 'Blubsies' via private messages. In short, it is a virtual music community where you can meet new friends, exchange files, run and dance naked in the fields and live happily ever after in a perfect state of melodious bliss! It really is a musical utopia - I've gone too far again haven't I? You really should stop me before I get carried away you know. Trust me though, it's damn good... and if you don't believe me check out some of the independent reviews at Zero Paid. Test driving it yourself and making your own mind up is advisable too however!

Although Piolet is set to revolutionize the way we listen to music, it is not without its problems. Providing you are aware of them, however, the two of you should get along just fine. One of the few stumbling blocks you are likely to encounter is having your transfers cut short. This happens whenever the user you are downloading from disconnects from the internet mid-transfer, moves the files you are downloading or generally performs some other brainless action, which is likely to interrupt the download process. You can slice and dice an MP3 track anywhere you like and the remaining portion will still play correctly, which may lead you to believe everything has gone according to plan despite receiving a 'transfer error' message. That is, until you listen to the end of the track and find that it comes to an abrupt halt without warning. At this point the best thing to do is hit your computer as hard as you possibly can while cursing at your nearest and dearest friends, relatives or partner. It won't help you in the slightest, but it may make you feel a bit better!

To avoid accumulating a collection of half finished MP3s I'd suggest setting Piolet to delete partial downloads from within the preferences menu. That way you can perform a new search for the same track and begin again from scratch; a painful process, but one that pays off in the end. Nevertheless, what's even more annoying is when other people fail to do this and instead leave partially transferred tracks in their shared folder for you to find and waste your time downloading. The best way to avoid this pitfall is to click on the heading of the file size column to reorganize the tracks into ascending order according to their file size. Providing that the songs listed in your search box are of an equal bitrate and have the same track title, the one with the largest file size will be the most complete of the set. When trying to reduce the likelihood of downloading half finished tracks, biggest is best, so always make a beeline for the ones with the most bytes to avoid having your listening pleasure cut short.

If Piolet doesn't float your boat, fear not, there's a plethora of other options available to you. While none of the competition feature cutesy pixelated Blubsies they will nevertheless get the job done (with widely varying degrees of efficiency) - check out my file sharing tutorial for some inspiration.

Ripping, encoding and creating audio CDs

Now that you have a reasonable sized collection of MP3s you may want to create your own audio CDs that can be played through your hi-fi so that you can make use of your woofers, tweeters and any other house hold pets you can lay your hands on! This is a fairly straightforward process, but you have to keep in mind that you won't be able to fit hundreds of them onto one CD because they will no longer be in MP3 format. Before your hi-fi's CD player can recognise an MP3 file as a music track it must first be converted to wave format; the 40 to 50 megabyte files we discussed at the beginning of this tutorial.

When this conversion process has been taken care of, all that remains to be done is to burn the files to a blank CD-R using an audio CD template. To carry out this operation, open your favourite CD writing program and select 'new CD' from the file menu. Now choose 'new audio CD' and drag the wave files you wish to burn from the source files window to the music CD project window, give the CD a title, fill in the artist name and finally press the 'write CD' button in the usual way. Bear in mind that if you burn your collection of wave files using a data CD template your hi-fi won't have a clue what to do with them, although you will still be able to open the files through your PC using Media Player or a similar audio playback program.

Before you begin creating audio CDs and converting file formats it is important that you understand some of the terminology used in MP3 creation/playback circles. Ripping is the process by which audio CD tracks are converted to wave format and stored on your hard drive. Encoding on the other hand is the art of converting these wave files into MP3 format whilst attempting to minimise any loss of quality which may ensue. There is a glut of so called audio ripping/encoding programs on the market which will take care of these tasks for you, but the difference in terms of the quality of the encoded tracks they produce is vast.

The program used to rip or encode audio tracks is not the only consideration, however - these programs are not standalone, but rely on a particular external encoder to produce MP3 tracks. The two best encoders are Fraunhofer and Lame, and to be of any use, these must be used in conjunction with an audio ripper. Many people use the Xing encoder without really understanding its drawbacks because it is the default encoder found in one of the most commonly used audio rippers, Audio Catalyst. Note that Xing is a very poor substitute for the Lame or Fraunhofer encoder because the sound quality is inferior to that produced through the use of the latter encoders. In short, give it a wide berth if you want to optimise the sound quality of your MP3 tracks.

As I said earlier, there are a broad range of options to choose from in terms of MP3 tools, but my personal favourite is Audiograbber. Audiograbber, when used correctly in conjunction with the Lame encoder will guarantee that your rips are free from pops and clicks every time. Combining these two essential components may sound complicated, but it simply involves placing the freeware Lame DLL encoder file (which can be found in the download section of the Audiograbber home page) into the directory where the main executable file of Audiograbber resides. Audiograbber is completely idiot-proof so is perfect for beginners, and yet has a myriad of more advanced functions which allow the more experienced encoder to fine tune the conversion process.

The reason Audiograbber produces such high quality MP3s is because it encodes music not via the sound card, but digitally, enabling it to make perfect duplications of audio CDs. It also has the ability to analyse the files it has produced for imperfections, which can then be corrected, in addition to eliminating periods of silence from tracks and performing a normalizing function to make sure all the tracks are encoded at the same volume. The interface is exceptionally user friendly so it is usually fairly obvious how things work from the outset, nevertheless, if you're still struggling to get it to work after going it alone, the Audiograbber home page provides some very comprehensive FAQs and walkthroughs to help out newbies.

If sound quality isn't your top priority, however, an even simpler method would be to let Easy CD Creator take care of the whole process for you. With a few mouse clicks this all purpose program will convert your audio CDs or MP3s to wave files and then burn them to a blank CD-R all in one fluid motion on the fly. If you're planning to take this approach, first ensure that you have plenty of spare disk space available to store the temporary wave files, which will be created behind the scenes before being written to the CD-R.

There are two ways in which you can encode your music tracks. The first, as already covered in detail above, is to download MP3 files from the internet and convert them to wave files, and the second is to turn your own or your friend's CD tracks into wave files (known as 'ripping'). With this antecedent dealt with, it is simply a case of deciding what is going to go where and in what order. To arrange your files, simply drag and drop them using your favourite CD writing software.

Before you all rush off to burn your first audio CD, a final point to note is that most modern CD compilations are stored on 80 minute CDs. This means that to copy a CD track-for-track you will not have enough storage space available on your standard 74 minute CD-Rs, so make sure you stock up on plenty of the fifty-megabytes-extra varieties.

Thought for the day

Roll on fairly priced, legal music downloads! It will be a monumental leap forward for consumers when we are at last able to pick and mix the music we wish to purchase without paying a premium for space-fillers, or to subsidize the luxurious lifestyles of fat cat, record label parasites. Hell, let's dispense with them altogether and pay the artists directly. With the advent of forward-thinking, internet-based delivery systems for music, let's also hope that less well established, yet equally talented and hard working artists will be able to penetrate the market and receive the recognition and reward they deserve.

Saturday, August 11, 2001


A home from home for your favourites

All those web shortcuts can soon mount up and get out of control, and since your browser has to process them every time you open a new window, this can dramatically slow it down. If you remove them from your favourites folder altogether and place them elsewhere, you will find that since far less processing power is required to run your browser it will suddenly become much more nimble. Once your favourites have been rehoused in a new folder you can begin categorizing them using subfolders making them easier to navigate and manage. Now if you right click on the taskbar and select 'tool bars' followed by 'new tool bar' you can transform your new shortcuts folder into a structured, self-expanding menu system which can be dragged anywhere on the screen. You could even have it hidden on your desktop so that when you hover your mouse pointer over it, it will magically spring into action.

Once you have your new shortcut folder all fired up and raring to go, you could also use 'Bookmark Wizard' to automatically generate an HTML page from it. This cunning widget will neatly arrange all your shortcuts under separate headings on a single web page which can then be set as your home page. You can download this handy labour-saving device from and you'll be pleased to know that it's completely free.

Monday, July 30, 2001

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Houston, we have a (file transfer) problem

Common wisdom and research conducted by the Bureau of Made-up Statistics suggests that the best way to introduce a web tutorial is to impart a well-meaning, but overly patronizing metaphor. Let's give it a whirl then shall we. How's this? The internet can be thought of as a giant, digital take-away. It's brimming with tasty dishes for you to consume, but sampling them isn't quite as straightforward as dialing a phone number and getting the delivery man to bring them to your door. As already noted in my 'essential applications' tutorial, the most efficient way to get your 'orders' from A to B is to employ a download manager. But which one to choose? If you're a PC user I'd recommend Flashget, while Mac people would be well-advised to use Speed Download.

With either of these applications installed, whenever you click on a file, the browser integration gizmo will kick into action and a download window will appear stating the file size, file location and estimated transfer rate of your chosen download. If everything goes according to plan you should simply be able to click on the 'download now' button and your download manager will take care of the rest. This process can be repeated for a well-nigh infinite number of transfers - you do not have to wait for one file to finish downloading before clicking on the next one you wish to transfer. Each new file will be added to your download queue and transferred sequentially in the order they were clicked - unless of course you choose to rearrange them in order of priority. Once your download manager commences transferring a series of files you can close the web page where you found them and take your metaphorical surf board elsewhere. No more internet babysitting, hoorah!

It's all gone Pete Tong

At this stage there are oodles of sniveling error messages you may be confronted with. In determining the reason for the inaccessibility of a particular file some download managers are more informative than others. If yours ambiguously concludes that if a file cannot be downloaded it must simply be 'busy', it's time to switch to a more insightful application. Below you will find a list of some of the most commonly experienced file transfer errors, and possible workarounds for the non-fatal ones...
~ "File not found" - The file has either been deleted from the server, moved or was incorrectly linked from the outset by the webmaster. It could also be that the web space provider has zapped the file because its presence infringes copyright regulations as detailed in their terms and agreements of use tome. If you're confronted with this message it is probably best to look elsewhere for the same file - perhaps by prompting your download manager to search a variety of mirror servers or by manually scouring File Mirrors.

~ "Unable to connect to..." - You are most likely to see this message if the file you are attempting to download is stored on an FTP site. The explanation - FTPs are actually people's hard drives, which you can access only when their owners are connected to the internet. If you cannot get the file first time, just try again later. If this is happening frequently, the IP address may have been a temporary one and no longer refers to the location where the desired file resides (some ISPs will assign you with a new number each time you log on). The moral of this story is to download goodies from these sites as quickly as possible because they often have a short shelf life.

~ "Too many users - try again later" - Exactly what it says on the tin. The number of simultaneous connections permitted by many FTP sites is limited to a pre-determined maximum to keep download speeds to a reasonable level. Whenever this happens you will have to learn to be patient until it's your turn to connect. Do not 'hammer' the site (repeatedly try to access it) as this can annoy the owner who can then ban you from using it.

Another handy hint: if you've been banned, you will be abruptly disconnected from the FTP site without explanation whenever you try to log on - if you do not have a static IP address you can circumvent this dilemma by disconnecting from the internet and re-dialing. When you re-connect you will be allocated with a new IP address which will mimic the appearance of a new user the next time you try to access the FTP site. To make sure this doesn't happen again, open your FTP client's options menu and extend the retry intervals to match the level deemed acceptable by the FTP sys op; anything above 20-ish seconds is reasonable. A better idea perhaps would be to schedule your downloads for a time when fewer users are likely to be accessing the FTP site - early in the morning (UK time) for example, when all the net-hogging American's are fast asleep.

~ "Incorrect password/username/access denied" - The owner is fed up with having hundreds of people clogging up his or her FTP site and has changed the password to prevent you from gaining access. This is very common where 'banner FTP sites' are concerned - those requiring you to click on various banners and hunt for keywords, which form the username and password necessary to access the server. Unsurprisingly this is another money making scheme - these sites are more likely to stay active as the owner has more to gain from keeping them up and running.

~ "Insufficient credits" - You are likely to see a message like this if you are accessing a 'ratio site' - one which requires you to upload a certain quantity of bytes before permitting you to download any of the hosted material. To solve this problem you can instruct your FTP client to begin uploading files whenever you are approaching the designated data transfer limit. This can be arranged simply by placing the files you wish to upload at the bottom of the list of currently downloading files. When you run out of credits they will automatically be uploaded. Alternatively have two FTP sessions open at once - use one to upload and the other to download simultaneously (some sites will limit your access to one connection per IP address so this method will work only when multiple connections are permitted).

~ Servers running Windows NT 4.0 and below do not provide support for the resume function. If you are downloading a file from an unresumable server and the connection is reset you will have to start transferring the file again from scratch. It is best to avoid such files like the plague, especially if they are quite large, but if this isn't feasible, download them one at a time and make sure you do not surf the web simultaneously if you have a slow connection. This will allow you to maximize the bandwidth allocated to your currently downloading file whilst minimizing the likelihood of any interference which could result in transfer interruptions.

~ If when you click on a link it appears as a 'cgi' or 'php' file in the transfer window, the file is either being protected by an anti-leech system or is subject to a file tracking setup (usually just for statistical purposes), making it very awkward to transfer using a download manager. The best way around this complication is to temporarily disable your download manager by holding down the shift button whilst you click on the file and wait to be redirected to the actual target file you wish to download (keep in mind that this will deny you the use of the resume function in many cases). Similarly if you attempt to download a file expecting it to occupy 300mb and it appears in your download directory in a matter of seconds, you can safely assume that you've downloaded the code responsible for redirecting you to the download rather the download itself. There are ways of convincing your download manager to cooperate in downloading these files, but again, in most cases it is quicker and simpler to use the method described above. Some sites simply do not like download managers. Call it a personality clash if you like, but don't waste any more time trying to make the two 'talk' to each other.

~ Note that many more of the errors you will come across while attempting to access FTP sites will not be reported in plain English. In contrast to those listed above, the only clue as to the cause of the problem may be presented in the form of a three digit code, which must first be deciphered before you can attempt to remedy the problem. Below you will find a comprehensive list of these error codes along with their explanations. Note that not all of these codes should be a cause for concern. Many of them will appear simply to keep you informed of the commands currently being executed to facilitate the transfer process.

100 - The requested action is being initiated, expect another reply before proceeding with a new command.
110 - Restart marker reply.
120 - Service ready in x minutes.
125 - Data connection already open, transfer starting.
150 - File status okay, about to open data connection.
200 - The requested action has been successfully completed.
200 - Command okay.
202 - Command not implemented, superfluous at this site.
211 - System status, or system help reply.
212 - Directory status.
213 - File status.
214 - Help message.
215 - Name system type. (Where name is an official system name from the list in the Assigned Numbers document.)
220 - Service ready for new user.
221 - Service closing control connection. Logged out if appropriate.
225 - Data connection open; no transfer in progress.
226 - Closing data connection. Requested file action successful.
227 - Entering Passive Mode.
230 - User logged in, proceed.
250 - Requested file action okay, completed.
257 - Pathname created.
300 - The command has been accepted, but the requested action is being held in abeyance, pending receipt of further information.
331 - User name okay, need password.
332 - Need account for login.
350 - Requested file action pending further information.
400 - The command was not accepted and the requested action did not take place, but the error condition is temporary and the action may be requested again.
421 - Service not available, closing control connection. This may be a reply to any command if the service knows it must shut down.
425 - Can't open data connection.
426 - Connection closed; transfer aborted.
450 - Requested file action not taken. File unavailable.
451 - Requested action aborted: local error in processing.
452 - Requested action not taken. Insufficient storage space in system.
500 - Series Codes: The command was not accepted and the requested action did not take place.
500 - Syntax error, command unrecognized. This may include errors such as command line too long. 501 - Syntax error in parameters or arguments.
502 - Command not implemented.
503 - Bad sequence of commands.
504 - Command not implemented for that parameter.
530 - Not logged in.
532 - Need account for storing files.
550 - Requested action not taken. File unavailable.
552 - Requested file action aborted. Exceeded storage allocation (for current directory or data set). 553 - Requested action not taken. File name not allowed.

Even double Dutch makes sense with a double Dutch to English translator!

Wednesday, June 27, 2001


What's the deal with all those pay as your surf programs?

Well, for those of you who have been living on the planet Zog for the last few years, pay as you surf companies offer you the opportunity to earn money simply for viewing adverts displayed in an 'adbar'. The premise is that these banner ads will captivate your attention to such an extent that you will feel compelled to visit various web sites and buy whatever unmissable offer is available at the time. Nevertheless, it isn't compulsory that you purchase anything at all if you don't want to.
Since many people do visit and spend money at these sites, all sorts of people are willing to pay companies such as Valuepay and Cash Surfers in order to have their adverts displayed. A small chunk of the income generated from affiliated advertisers is shared with the members as a reward for keeping the adbar visible on their desktop.

In addition to being paid for the hours that you surf, you also have the opportunity to refer other people to sign up using your ID reference so that you can earn money while they surf.

...Or at least this is how the pay as you surf system used to work before the bottom fell out of the internet advertising model and the dot com bubble burst. These days you'd be lucky to see a single penny in return for the time you invest in these programs. If you want my advice, give them a wide berth; they're not worth the hassle.

Tuesday, June 12, 2001

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Why do some sites hide the URLs of their files or pages?

If you hover your mouse pointer over one of the text links on this page you will notice that the name of the page or file linked to and its location will be displayed in the bottom left corner of your browser. Some webmasters choose to insert javascript code into their pages in order to mask this information. This may be done to display important information or for misguided aesthetic reasons, but can also be used to conceal links to dangerous files or pages designed to redirect you to the site's sponsor or malevolently coded web sites.

If you are in any doubt you can right-click on a link, select 'properties' and assess the URL for authenticity. If it contains a CGI or PHP reference with an ID code you should be wary of rushing into clicking on it. This is generally a good rule of thumb, however, there are some exceptions that you should be aware of - when the site is using an anti-leech system, for instance, to prevent people from harvesting the entire contents of the site using an automated download tool.

Firefox users can prevent web sites from tampering with the status bar like so: open up the 'preferences' menu, select the 'web features' tab and click on the 'advanced' button adjacent to the 'enable javascript' check box. Now untick the (allow scripts to) 'hide the status bar' and 'change status bar text' check boxes and click 'OK'.

Tuesday, June 05, 2001

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Common movie/audio encoding formats defined

ASF is yet another video format to receive the MPEG4 codec treatment. It stands for Advanced Streaming Format because it was designed to be watched while being transferred from the internet (or to be 'streamed' if you want to use the correct lingo). The quality is nowhere near as good as MPG, DivX or VCD, but is still acceptable for most purposes while maintaining a comparatively favourable size to quality ratio.

AVI is an acronym for Audio Video Interleave. Technically it is a container rather than an encoding format in its own right in that it specifies how audio and video data is structured within the file. The DivX codec is one notable example of an encoding format which makes use of the AVI wrapper.
AVI files contain a four digit code which is recognised by movie playback tools such as Media Player or VLC, allowing them to determine how to decode the movie.

DivX is the name of the encoding process used to convert DVD, VHS etc movies into a very high quality AVI video format. This is carried out using a combination of the MP3 format for audio compression and a hacked version of Microsoft's MPEG4 codec for video compression.
A typical DivX movie will fill a standard 650mb CD-R and can be played back using nothing more than Microsoft's trusty (ha!) Media Player providing you have the DivX codec installed (see my movie links page).

The MPEG format was devised by the Motion Picture Experts Group, hence the abbreviation, and its variations (MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and so on) form the basis for many other formats (see previous definitions). It combines very high quality video playback with large file sizes.
Once again keep the VLC Media Player handy.

Musepack is a lossy audio compression format much like MP3 though distinguished by it's .mpc extension. The most notable benefits of the MPC format are:- - Superior quality audio at medium to high bit rates - Very fast encoding and decoding - 100% transparency i.e. MPC music tracks sound identical to their CD counterparts Despite the high quality audio output rendered by Musepack, the format is not widely used because most media players do not support it natively i.e. a plugin is required. Currently the only media player which can handle MPC files 'out of the box' is Foobar. Also to it's detriment, very few hardware audio players make provisions for MPC playback. In effect, to listen to MPC music on the go, the files first have to be converted. As this entails switching from one lossy format to another, inevitably the quality will deteriorate in the process. Ideally if you wish to use MPC files in such a way, you would be best advised to re-encode them directly to the destination format, though if this isn't possible you might like to let either the Alive MP3 Wav Converter or 4U WMA MP3 Converter go to work on them.

Burning MPC files directly to CD enabling you to play them in the usual manner is less problematic. To do this using Nero you will need to install the MPC plugin available from Mausau's audio plugins site. Alternatively you could use the freeware audio CD writing tool, Burrrn, which supports the MPC format by default.

More detailed information relating to the Musepack audio compression format can be found at the official home page.

nAVI is a non-streamable hybrid of the ASF format, which boasts better quality playback due to its adoption of much improved frame rates.

Ogg Vorbis is a completely free, streamable, open source audio encoding format. Compared to the more widely known MP3 format, Ogg Vorbis files provide superior sound quality and a smaller file size. Since the format is patent-free, software vendors do not need to pay licensing fees to implement the encoding of Ogg Vorbis files into their software. Effectively this means that a greater variety of encoding software will be available for the Ogg Vorbis format.

QuickTime format was conceived by Apple and therefore it is not surprising that these type of movies first appeared on Macintosh computers before being ported to the PC. They comprise high quality playback and the ability to be streamed over the internet. Many Mac-friendly web sites favour this encoding method, largely due to its association with Apple I don't doubt.
What is most annoying about proprietary codecs is that the authors will have you believe you need to use a specialist tool to play them back - in this case Apple's QuickTime Player (who'd have thunk it?). A waste of perfectly good hard disk space if you ask me! Use VLC instead.

Real Media is a proprietary, MPEG-2 based streamable format used to encode audio and video data. Small file sizes mean you won't have long to wait for content to begin streaming, or finish downloading if you are transferring the complete .ra or .rm files before attempting to play them back, but quality can leave a lot to be desired. Real Media movies and audio can be played back using Real Network's free RealPlayer application or Real Alternative. Real Media movie clips are very common on mainstream news sites that don't know any better, bless 'em.

VCD stands for Video Compact Disc. These are CD-Roms containing full motion video encoded using the MPEG1 codec. Because they consist of high quality stereo sound coupled with reasonable quality video playback (equivalent to the VHS format) you will often find that they occupy two CDs.
VCDs can be played back with Microsoft's Media Player, amongst a host of other more specialist programs simply by locating and opening their '.dat' files.

WMA is an acronym of Windows Media Audio; Microsoft's propriety audio format. WMA files provide CD quality sound and are slightly more compact than their MP3 equivalents. Like MP3 files they are streamable.

WMV is an acronym of Windows Media Video; again one of Microsoft's propriety formats. WMV is used to encode movie data, which can contain both video and audio streams. Such files offer near broadcast quality video, and as an added bonus, can be streamed over the internet.

The observant readers among you may have noticed that XviD spells DivX backwards. I would imagine this reflects the wish of its authors to highlight the similarities between the two codecs. Both are MPEG-4 based and are derived from source code written under Project Mayo.

The principal fork in the path can be traced back to their respective software licenses; DivX is commercial and closed source, whereas XviD is open source and released under the GPL license.
It's difficult to definitively answer the question, "which codec is better?" because there are so many factors which can affect the performance and quality of movies encoded using either codec. See for downloads and further information.

Saturday, May 26, 2001


What is a PM?

PM stands for private message. These are used whenever you want to communicate with another board member without anyone else being able to see your message. The PM system is much like email in that no-one can gain access to your messages unless they know your password. The method used to send a PM to another member is very similar no matter which type of bulletin board you are using. You can either browse through the members list to find the person you want to contact and then click on the adjacent PM button, or even easier than that, you can locate the PM button in the member's replies on the board and click on the link from there.

Whenever you click on the PM button, analogously to email, you will be presented with several empty information fields, which must be filled in before you can proceed. These include a 'to', 'from', 'topic' and a message box. Providing you are already logged into the board, the first two fields will be entered automatically, leaving you to give your message a topic title, type the text of your message into the large empty space and press the send button.

Friday, May 25, 2001

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A tip for those of you with memory impairments. A tip for those of you with memory impairments ;)

One of the major faults of pre-XP versions of Windows is that when you close down an application, the memory which was allocated to that application is not automatically freed up for re-use. This means that the more programs you use, the slower your PC gets - eventually it will crawl along at such a pathetic pace that it will require a reboot before you can get anything done. However, by installing a memory management program, whenever you close down an application, the RAM that is no longer required can be reclaimed and recycled. My favourite tool for this job is the tiny, and best of all free, Max Mem, available from With this installed, whenever you run and subsequently close down a memory hogging application, Max Mem will swoop down from the skies in its lycra costume, cape and bright red underpants to save the day, thus preventing your PC from grinding to a halt (yes I know I've watched too many Superman films!).

Saturday, May 19, 2001

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How can I stop all that irritating web site music from playing?

Just wait for the page to finish loading and press your browser's stop button (the red circle with the x in the middle). It is also possible to prevent web site music from initiating to begin with - at least it is if you happen to be using Internet Explorer. The procedure is as follows: click on 'tools' and then select 'internet options' from the drop down menu. Now click on the 'advanced' tab and locate the 'play sounds in web pages' option from within the 'multimedia' group of preferences. If you untick the checkbox adjacent to it, never again will you have to suffer from such auditory intrusion.

Monday, April 16, 2001


Is there a quick way to decompress lots of zip files at once without clicking on each one individually?

Yes - if you're an 'old skooler' (sic) you can use the DOS executable pkunzip.exe, available from If you run the command 'pkunzip *.zip' from the DOS prompt in the same directory as your zip files they will all be extracted sequentially without any further intervention from you.

On the contrary, if you can't bear to leave the more user-friendly Windows interface (hmmf, amateurs! :p) you can use Winace or Winrar instead. Once installed both of these programs become integrated with your file manager so that you can decompress your archives without having to open the program interfaces each time. To do this, locate the folder where your compressed archives are stored, highlight them by dragging a box around them and right-click on one of them. Now if you select 'extract files' and choose a folder to store them in, you will be able to decompress the lot simultaneously with minimum effort. Conversely, if you prefer to open the Winace or Winrar file manager and then browse for your archives that way, this works just as well. Similarly this involves highlighting a selection of files and hitting the 'extract to' button.

Friday, April 06, 2001

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(Not so) Hotline

Back in September 1997 before Napster was even a twinkle in its mother's eye and Gnutella was nothing more than a chocolate spread an application known as Hotline emerged opening the flood gates to a world of file sharing opportunities. Sadly while Hotline's radical approach to internet communication created quite a stir in its infancy, the program is now little more than a fancy FTP client with a few superfluous bells and whistles.

Clearly I'm not exactly Hotline's number one fan. If I am to cut the developers any slack at all it would be for having the foresight to recognise the problems that go hand in hand with centrally indexed networks, and for leaping over this pitfall by opting to take the much more future-proof decentralised network path. This feature alone is perhaps the one thing to have kept the program afloat over the years.

To cut a long story short, the software consists of two components; the client and the server. Nevertheless, the backbone of the system is the tracker software which allows users to locate servers and then search for files by name. The client, server, and tracker software can be downloaded from the Hot Springs Inc home page. The client works much like an FTP client in that it allows you to connect to a remote server in order to exchange files. Unlike modern file sharing clients, however, Hotline allows you to choose what you wish to upload. So what exactly does Hotline have to offer over and above your average FTP client? Well you can chat to other users, post messages, read news and ...yadda, yadda, yadda. Who really cares? If people want to interact they'll go to a Yahoo chat room or use an instant messaging program. If they want to download files they'll use an FTP client. The two things, in my opinion, just don't mix.

The server software, in contrast, allows anyone with an Internet connection to turn their computer into a file server, which other people can log onto to exchange files. Pfff, big whoop! You'll have to excuse me for not dancing on the table with excitement, it's just that I've been able to do this for years using Serv-U, and with much less hassle. I wouldn't be such a cynic if the Hotline software had helped to create a community where people actually made files available out of the goodness of their hearts rather than to try and make a quick buck. In the beginning this is exactly how the servers were run, but now they have become nothing more than banner FTP sites where in order to gain access you have to trawl your way through porn sites clicking on banners left right and centre to locate username and password combinations.

What makes this worse though is that often, once you have gone through this tedious process you discover that the whole thing was a money making scam. Analogous to no ratio FTP sites, free access servers do exist, but they are very few and far between. If you are to get any benefit from this program at all you would be best advised to set up a private server between a group of friends. That way you can freely exchange files while side stepping the inevitable banner click scams.

But wait, there's more! More moaning from me that is. Whenever a client upgrade is available, your present client automatically gives up the ghost and refuses to work until you have upgraded it to the latest version. While this makes sense in theory, very often you are unable to connect to the upgrade server leaving you stranded up the creek without a paddle. To boot the program is riddled with spyware and the whole network is carefully monitored by Hotline Communications Ltd. As the years have gone by Hotline has gradually become more and more commercialised - aptly demonstrated by the implementation of excessive banners, pop-ups, spyware and other information-gathering tactics. Subsequently the Hotline client has become more and more bloated and its stability has declined beyond belief. You'd think the developers would have learnt from their mistakes, but no, they still insist on opening every aspect of the program in a new window as though they are all independent applications. This creates a cluttered mess on your desktop and generally makes the whole interface awkward to navigate.

If you've got any sense you should be running for the hills by now, but for the masochists amongst you who actually still want to give this a whirl, here's how to get started. Once you have installed the software you will need to add a group of servers, known as a tracker, to your bookmarks. is currently one of the biggest hosting nearly 2000 servers, so this is a good place to start. You can also find an up-to-date list of active Hotline trackers at Tracker-Tracker if this one doesn't meet your requirements. Having added the tracker you now need to click on it so that the available servers become visible. Once the server list has appeared pick one you would like to connect to and double click on it. A dialog box should now pop up. If the server requires a username and password enter this information into the relevant fields and click on the connect button.

Now that you're in the clutches of the merciless Hotline server nerds you can download files simply by double-clicking on them. Any uploading you wish to do is taken care of by the button sporting the upwardly pointing arrow - if you click on this a browser window will pop up allowing you to select the files you wish to send to the server. To search for files first choose a file category from the pop-up menu and enter some search terms in the field next to it. Search queries make use of actual file names rather than keywords, so the search term 'music' won't return any hits unless someone has a file with a name like '' on their server. To make it easier to find accessible servers there are also check boxes to limit search results to servers that are online, and servers that allow you to download without a special account. Happy hunting!

So that just about covers Hotline's disadvantages and... erm, disadvantages. Personally I think Hotline has had its day. File sharing clients are getting better all the time, but sadly Hotline has been forsaken in the race to fill the gaping hole left in the market by the demise of Napster. It was good-ish while it lasted, but there are now far better clients around, and since they are all free to download there's no reason for you to settle for second best.

Tuesday, March 27, 2001

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Why does my browser crash when I use the right-click button several times in a row?

Not content with preventing you from using the right mouse button, some webmasters also code their pages in a such a way so as to cause your browser to freeze by creating a stack overflow error. Sometimes you will be warned to stop right-clicking, and at other times your browser will just lock up with no such admonition.

Thursday, March 08, 2001

Why when I download a file is it only several kilobytes in size?

This can happen when files are linked to using scripts rather than direct web addresses. Files hosted on some virtual drive file storage servers are well notorious for this problem. Usually the files have not been deleted, the download is just being mismanaged because the real location of the file is not evident in its URL. To sidestep this quandary you can temporarily disable any download manager browser integration features by holding down the shift button when clicking on the target file(s). Doing so will either whisk you away to another page containing a direct link to the individual file, which can then be dragged into your download manager, or redirect you to the file itself without revealing its true location, which will automatically begin downloading independent of your download manager.

Sunday, February 04, 2001

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What are emulators and ROMs?

An emulator is an application that simulates another computer system or console using your PC. If you wanted to play Mario 64, for instance, without having to dig out your Nintendo 64 console from the dim, dank recesses of your loft you could use an emulator instead (incidentally the best N64 emulator is UltraHLE) and download the game from the internet. Games which are designed for other platforms, but are played on a PC are known as ROMs and are freely available on the web. Note that it is illegal to download and use these ROMs unless you own the original cartridges.

Refer to my emulation links post to find out where to download emulators and ROMs.