Hardware Heaven II: Crash Proofing Your System

Also: Rugged systems for trading while on the beach, plus advice about firewalls.
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Some of you who read last week's column,

Hardware Heaven: Ideal Trading Platform, realize I missed one vital component: a small TV monitor tuned to

CNNfn

,

Bloomberg News

or

CNBC

. Some of you say you can

make a living by quickly flipping stocks recommended by analysts appearing on

CNBC

. Still other active traders I know insist you should tune out as much noise as you can -- leave the TV off and keep your eyes and mind focused on your charts.

You could probably do the same point/counterpoint about any of the system components I mentioned. I'm grateful to all of you who told me about your own computer systems and passed along your questions and advice. Here's one letter from a trader named Toby who made several excellent points.

In 10 years of trading I have found that to a great degree, less is more. The important key for my basic-vanilla operating system is keeping it free of all extra background utilities and drivers that are not essential to my operation. That means no real-time virus scanning or any other background utility that eats resources and processor ticks. I ruthlessly hack the run section of the registry to keep all unnecessary drivers and background convenience utilities from being loaded on boot. I keep system tray icons to a bare minimum and dump any win.ini load or run commands. Same for things hiding in the autoexec.bat or config.sys files. I use the Win 98 resource meter to avoid crashes from low resources. And it works like a champ. I'm boring, but crash-free and productive.

It would take an entire column to explain step-by-step how Toby has streamlined his system. Suffice it to say, these are not difficult procedures. It would be worth your while to study a Windows manual and implement them yourself.

Trading On the Beach

Toby goes on to say that he runs

RealTick III, a fairly robust daytrading execution platform, on his

Dell Inspiron 7500 laptop. And he has packed the laptop with 256 megabytes of RAM. The system has a clock speed of 600 megahertz and ports to the net via a simple 56k modem.

Also notable, the Inspiron comes with an active matrix screen as standard. Other laptop manufacturers like

Toshiba and

Compaq are likewise making active matrix screens standard on even their low-end models, costing $1,200 or so. Active matrix is brighter than the SVGA screens that come with most lower-priced portables, and they have a much wider angle of vision. Trading all day on a laptop without active matrix would be torturous.

The Inspiron has one feature that makes me a little nervous, however. It uses a touch pad for curser navigation. I've called up enough Web sites accidentally with the touch pad on my desktop to think that someday I'll swat a fly off the keyboard and suddenly find myself the owner of 10,000 shares of Off-In-Left-FieldTechnologies.com. For that reason, I'd check into a laptop from Toshiba or

IBM, since both use a pointing device to move the curser.

Properly configured, using a laptop for trading might just be ideal. One trader I know brings his laptop along on his frequent business trips. He keeps a list of hotels that provide Internet access from their rooms. Before trying this on the road, you might keep your broker's phone number handy in case the connection is unreliable.

And of course, the same advice holds if you're trading from that beach house on Maui. Come to think of it, why not totally live the dream and take your laptop right to the beach?

Amrel Systems,

Itronix and

Melard Technologies are three manufacturers of laptops designed for rugged outdoor use. Each lets you link via cell phone to the Web. These systems, which cost anywhere from $4,165 to $9,690, can survive trips to Mount Everest. And you can clean these units in your dishwasher. Seriously. Read about them in the May 2000

Wired

magazine.

Security Tradeoffs

Another reader wanted to know about firewalls, software that protects your system from hackers while you're online. Firewalls may be especially important to anyone who connects to the Internet via a cable modem or a DSL line. The reason: Both cable and DSL connections are always on. In other words, whenever your computer is turned on, it's linked to the net and theoretically vulnerable to attacks.

The preceding should convince you to turn off your computer when it's not in use. But should you install a popular firewall software program such as

Norton Internet Security or

McAfee.com Personal Firewall? It's tempting, since these programs cost just $40 to $50. And they're easy to install. Unfortunately, firewall software can prevent data, such as stock quotes, from streaming to your computer and can cause software conflicts leading to a crash -- not every day, but maybe once too often.

I'll wager that the chances of a system crash as a result of a firewall are infinitely greater than the chances of someone hacking your brokerage account. For example, during the widely publicized hacker attacks that occurred last February (read the

TSC

coverage) against

E*Trade

and

Datek

, both brokers' systems froze due to the attack. But client accounts were not compromised.

But there's nothing wrong with playing it safe. If you're adamant about wanting firewall software, test it out with your broker and/or financial-data provider before trading live. And as an extra backup measure, do what a lot of traders do: Download a hard copy of your account balance each day.

Mark Ingebretsen is editor-at-large with

Online Investor magazine. He has written for a wide variety of business and financial publications. Currently he holds no positions in the stocks of companies mentioned in this column. While Ingebretsen cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback at

mingebretsen@onlineinvestor.com.