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Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008
Computers can run for years
I recently lost my job. I have a desktop computer that is four years old. I'm worried that it might fail. The last thing I need is a several-hundred-dollar expense. What can I do to keep the computer running?
Until recently, I got relatively few questions from people out of work. That has really changed. So I'll run a relevant tip on Tuesdays. We'll call it Find a Job Tuesday. How's that?
So, what can we do about computer maintenance? It's important to remember that a computer is a box of parts. It's not a sealed black box with mysterious innards. You can keep it running for years by simply replacing failed parts. And those parts may outlast your software. More on that below.
I'm going to focus on desktop computers. They take little skill to work on. Laptops are a different story. You could probably add memory. Otherwise, I DO NOT recommend you attempt repairs. They are complicated and very crowded little machines.
Many of my employees build their home computers. These machines tend to last for years. My people use first-rate parts. And they are unconcerned about replacing those parts. They already know their computers inside out.
There isn't much maintenance you can do on the hardware. It most likely will be overtaken by obsolescence. Eventually, your computer will just become obsolete. You won't be able to connect to an Internet service, perhaps. Or, it won't be able to run a program that you need.
Technology moves fast. Yesterday's flashy machine is tomorrow's wheezer.
At any rate, you'll know when you hit the wall. Then you'll probably want to buy new. But until then, I'd make do with the old computer.
What could go wrong? Well, we have had several hard drive failures in our offices. A new hard drive will cost you less than $100. That is not bad if you do the work yourself. If a shop does it, the price will be closer to $300. At that point, you're probably better off buying a new computer.
Is a hard drive difficult to replace? Not really. Yours is probably held in with four screws. Or it could be attached to rails. The rails slide into a cage on the computer box. Again, you just need to remove screws.
Look at the old drive to see how the cables connect. Also, follow its lead on placement of the jumper. This small piece of metal fits over pins in the drive's rear.
Check my tip for further instructions. One other piece of advice: Ground yourself on the box's frame before reaching in. Otherwise, you could fry a crucial part.
I suggest you prepare for a failure by imaging your drive. Imaging programs are inexpensive. They allow you to get back to work quickly after a drive failure. You still need to do daily backups, though.
Assuming you have backed up your data, reinstall it. That should go pretty quickly, if you have a recent image.
Another part prone to failure is the optical (CD or DVD) drive. These are easy to replace. They slide out and in like a hard drive. But you don't have to reinstall data. You should find replacement drives for less than $50.
I have more information on my site.
A dead power supply is also a common failure. You'll recognize this problem right away: The computer won't do anything. Your power supply roosts at the top rear of your computer. It doesn't take Albert Einstein to replace it. But you do have to run power cables to everything in the computer. I'd take pictures of the setup before disconnecting the old power supply.
The new power supply should have the same or higher wattage rating. Most power supplies run $50 or less.
Your monitor also could die. You probably can get a 19-inch flat-panel for $150 or so. It should work fine with an XP computer.
If your machine starts having random problems, it could be overheating. Open the computer and turn it on. Check that all the fans are running. There is always one on the power supply. These days, the microprocessor and video system probably have fans, too. Some boxes also have exhaust fans.
If the forgoing doesn't cover your complaint, ask a geek friend. The problems I've mentioned probably cover 90 percent of failures.
I don't recommend taking an old machine in for repair. It's just too expensive. If it comes to that, buy new. But your old machine may serve you much longer than you expect.
A 4-year-old computer probably has Windows XP on it. Microsoft plans to support XP until 2014. So, you'll be able to get Windows updates. That's crucial; crooks quickly exploit reported flaws in Windows. Whatever you do, stay up with those updates!
Other programs can also have dangerous flaws. They are regularly updated, buy you may never hear about that. However, programs are available to spot those weaknesses.
I like the Secunia Personal Software Inspector. It's free for personal use. It checks your entire computer for update problems. It does not update programs. Rather, it tells you where to find them.
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