Backups, Multiple Monitors, and Serial Ports

What do backups, multiple monitors, and serial ports have in common--besides Windows NT, that is? Not much except that my column this month covers this smorgasbord.

You're Making Backups, Right?
Last month I said that Microsoft had every right to be proud of RAS, the Remote Access Service in Windows NT. The backup software Microsoft included with NT isn't too shabby either. It's not as full-featured as a third-party package, such as Arcada's Backup Exec, Octopus Technologies' Octopus, or Palindrome's Network Archivist, but it's a good starter program.

There's a story that goes with that opinion--isn't there always? Backup, like everything else in NT, is pretty fussy about the hardware you use. Is it on the Hardware Compatibility List (HCL)? If not, someone had better have written a driver for it.

I should have heeded my own advice. For the system I was building, I thought I'd use a Travan technology tape drive, after getting assurances from the distributor that it worked fine under Windows NT. Once I purchased the drive, however, I called a tape manufacturer who said that Travan software would support NT soon. Until then, the drive was for use with DOS and Windows 3.x only. Now they tell me!

Although we've seen an explosion of disk backup formats in the last year, Travan tape drives are certainly the ones to watch. They read and write the old DC2000, quarter-inch cartridge (QIC) tapes, such as those the Colorado Memory Jumbo drives use. But they also use the new Travan TR-1, TR-2, and TR-3 media. The TR-3 tapes will hold 1.6GB uncompressed, perfect for the ever-larger hard drives that people are buying. The Travan drives also have a street price under $300. Being able to read the older DC2000 backup tapes is a big plus, too.

But I had to deliver reliable backup supported by NT now. I chose the Exabyte 250i SCSI internal QIC drive. It's an older technology than the Travan tapes, but it holds about 1GB per tape, uncompressed.

What drive should you choose? If you want the best combination of speed and compatibility, an 8 millimeter (mm) tape drive is still king, and Exabyte is still the leader. The 4mm Digital Audio Tape (DAT) drive is only slightly behind it; Hewlett-Packard (HP) makes very good 4mm drives. Digital Linear Tape (DLT) holds 10GB or 20GB--and soon 40GB--but it's quite expensive and less common. All these drives are faster than QIC drives and don't require preformatted tapes. If you need to send a tape full of computer graphics files to someone, 8mm is the standard. Whatever you decide, though, make sure it's compatible with NT before you buy it.

Oh, and that rule I mentioned in my first column still applies: When in doubt, use SCSI. Floppy-based and IDE-based backup drives abound for DOS, Windows 3.1, and even Windows 95, but few of these drives work under NT yet.

I installed the Exabyte 250i tape drive, hooked it to the SCSI chain, and turned on the computer. (Well, OK, it required fiddling, but I'm using journalistic license to pretend I never waste time.) The SCSI controller saw the new drive, and NT booted up. I started the Backup program--it's in the Administrative Tools Program Manager group. Backup reminded me that I needed to install my tape hardware and told me where to do it: Windows NT Setup under Tape Drive Setup.

That impressed me--a little. Last month I complained about software being guru-friendly, not having enough reminders for the rest of us, but that alert box saved me hours of tearing my hair and reading the manual. I went into NT Setup, chose the Exabyte 250, and rebooted the computer. Then I opened Backup again.

A second pleasant surprise: NT will back up any drive it's mapped to. From Windows NT Server, I backed up two complete Windows 95 drives and a Windows NT Workstation over the network as easily as if I were sitting at those machines.

One exception, however, was that Backup couldn't capture the NT Workstation's always-open system files. It waited 30 seconds for each one and then skipped over them. This was a bit curious, because Backup had no problems with the system files on the server. Otherwise, I had no complaints. Backup worked fine.

On another NT system, I tried out the Exabyte EXB-8700 external SCSI 8mm tape drive. If you need 8mm compatibility and speed in a portable drive, I can recommend this one, but watch out for the slightly flimsy loading door.

NT Can Do Multiple Monitors, Too!
Macs are famous for their ease of setup and use. One feature Apple liked to show off in the mid-80s was how quickly you could add a second or third monitor; just drop the card in the system and restart. If you want to rearrange the display, putting one monitor to the right of another or two on top of a third, just drag the pictures of them around in the Monitors control panel. Ditto for the menu bar; just pick it up and move it within Monitors. If you're unsure which monitor is which, the Identify button will tell you.

To this day, the religious wars online between Mac and PC zealots often revolve around this feature. And until recently, Windows had no corresponding capability.

Microsoft has made strides. With the right display card, NT can have several or many monitors hooked up. This support is not yet in the Mac's league for ease of use, but it's closer. With plug 'n' play in a year or so, NT may catch up to the Mac in that regard.

The customer in question, the commodities broker I mentioned last month, needed two or three big monitors to run its trading program, which uses all that screen real estate. The company chose the Colorgraphic video card, which can support up to four monitors on a single PCI card. (Colorgraphic also makes ISA and PCMCIA multiple-monitor cards.) To the Colorgraphic card, the customer hooked 21" Nanao color monitors set at 1280 x 1024 resolution. With three monitors on one card, this made a total screen area of 3840 x 1024 pixels--quite a sight to see. (Don't try this without a sturdy desk, deep pockets, and a strong back!)

Once the card and monitor are installed and Colorgraphic's supplied software is installed on the Windows NT Display control panel, you need to set the screen resolution. Then, after a reboot, a new control panel called SetArray appears. It's pretty basic, not as flexible or intuitive as the Mac's Monitors panel, but you can set how many monitors you have horizontally and vertically. Four monitors could be 2 x 2 or 1 x 4 after you reboot. However, you can identify which monitor is which only by experimenting. I had to swap cables until they appeared 1, 2, 3 on the desk.

But these are minor complaints, things a Mac user migrating to NT will miss. Anyone who needs multiple monitors will find the Colorgraphic card quite acceptable.

The four-monitor Colorgraphic card comes with a terminator to use on the fourth plug if you've attached only three monitors. This is important; without the terminator, monitor #3 has a noticeable shadow--not surprising, considering the very high frequencies present. Other than this caution, however, I recommend the Colorgraphic card highly.

It's interesting how many programs don't behave quite right on multiple monitors. I'm sure that few testers have two or three monitors to test on, but that's no excuse for Office 95, which seems to contradict Microsoft's own programming guidelines. For instance, if you have a Word document window open on screen three and maximize it, it goes big on screen one. You must manually size and move the window if you want it somewhere else. And several NT messages also pop up on monitor #1, no matter which monitor has the program.

This situation reminds me of the early days of the Macintosh, where programs would do the same sort of things. In that case, as I'm sure will be true in this one, the cure was time for the developers to realize the problem.

Serial Ports Galore
If you need a lot of serial ports, the classical solution is a multi-port intelligent serial board, one that has an on-board CPU. DigiBoard, Equinox, CompuTone, and others make great boards that include NT drivers. They use memory mapping and perhaps a single interrupt request (IRQ) line to transfer data between the computer and the outside world. If you need a lot of ports, that's the way to go: One board can handle 128 or more serial devices. NT sees COM1 through COM128, and the board does the CPU-intensive I/O.

But most of us don't need a roomful of serial devices; we need four or five: mouse, modem, graphics pad, and maybe a UPS monitoring port. The original PC supported only two, so additional ones have been tacked on. Each one needs a separate IRQ, so you need a 16-bit board to have enough IRQs to go around. For that, I'd recommend a board such as the one from QuickPath Systems. It has four serial ports, with settable IRQs, so you can connect all your external devices. It also has two parallel ports, so you can hook up all your printers, too, and still use only one ISA slot.

On the QuickPath, like most good serial cards, each serial port uses a 16550 UART. This chip has an 8-byte buffer for characters; if you turn it on in the "Advanced" section of the Port Control Panel (it's the "FIFO Enabled" check box), you'll lose fewer characters at high speed.

My main complaint about the QuickPath is that you can set its third and fourth port to high-order IRQs--9 through 15--but not the first two. They can be set only to IRQs 3 through 7. Most Pentium motherboards have two built-in serial ports that can use only IRQ 3 or 4, so you may have to turn off two serial ports, instead of having a total of six.

On the Road Again
Having explored the basics of Windows NT installation fairly completely, I feel a road trip coming on. I've already visited a few special-effects shops that use NT, and I'll discuss their work starting next month. Remote-access software should be mature enough to try pretty soon, and shows like Digital Hollywood are on the horizon. It's great to have so much to write about!

Contact Info
Arcada * 800-327-2232
Colorgraphic * 770-455-3921
CompuTone * 800-241-3946
DigiBoard * 800-344-4273
Equinox * 800-275-3500
Exabyte * 800-392-2983
Microsoft * 206-882-8080
Octopus * 800-919-1009
Palindrome * 800-288-4912
QuickPath Systems * 510-440-7288