When to flip your computer's power switch


April 06, 1992|By PETER H. LEWIS | PETER H. LEWIS,New York Times News Service

It is the nature of computer users to worry. They worry about potentially big things, like computer viruses, hard disk failures, electromagnetic field risks, compatibility problems and rapid obsolescence. But they also worry about little things, which is only natural in an industry where speed is measured in nanoseconds, size in microns and information in bits.

Lately, for example, we have worried about whether it is better to turn the computer off when we are going to be out of the office for several hours, or to leave it on.

As one might expect in anything that has to do with computers, there are no simple answers. The issue is whether the computer's delicate internal components are harmed by frequent power surges generated by the on-off switch.

"There are two or three schools of thought," said Roger L. Cox, senior engineer with the Entry Systems Division of the International Business Machines Corp., graciously affirming that other people have pondered the same issue.

Simply put, Mr. Cox said, the school mottoes are "Leave it on forever," "Turn it off every time you're not using it," or that of his own alma mater, IBM, "Turn it off when you quit work at night."

In other words, the Goldilocks Principle applies: not never, not always, but just often enough.

"There are severe disadvantages" to leaving a computer on all the time, Mr. Cox said. "You're stressing system components like the hard file and the monitor," he said. "The monitor is basically a cathode ray tube with filaments, and they will essentially burn out after long periods of time. Hard files are mechanical, with bearings, and bearings are eventually going to go."

But being trigger-happy with the power switch can be equally harmful.

"Our IBM power supply systems are designed for 3,200 on-off cycles," Mr. Cox said. This does not mean that a typical computer will fail the 3,201st time the power is turned on, but rather that one can reasonably assume the computer's power supply will not fail before then.

As it turns out, the monitor and hard disk again may present the real risks.

"There is a surge of electricity when you turn the computer on, and the voltage potential to the screen elements can have a damaging effect," Mr. Cox said. "Hard files are designed so that the heads land on the disk itself when power is shut off, so every time you take a hard file up, it has to break the head away from the oxide surface." The disk is lubricated, and the lubrication may wear away with excessive use.

"I turn my system off every night," he said. "If I am away from my desk for more than four hours, I turn off my monitor." Even with a screen saver, which reduces the chance of screen phosphor burnout, switching off the monitor protects internal components, said.

Monitors also cause energy loss, not just for electricity consumers, but also by heating a room and leading to higher air-conditioning costs in summer.

Turning the system off at night reduces the risk of damage from power line surges, such as those caused by lightning storms.

And finally, turning the computer on each morning allows it to perform its built-in diagnostics tests, which can warn the user if a component is not operating correctly.


Whew. Now that that issue is resolved, there's the burning question: Why are computers almost always beige boxes? Why don't they come in colors?

To be fair to color purists, computers actually come in a wide array of colors, including beige, light tan, putty, sand, off-white, parchment and ecru, among others.

However, some computer makers are beginning to explore color options, with black or charcoal as the most popular alternatives.

"The emphasis in the computer business has been on technology improvements, and as a result the hardware packaging has been the most economical way to get that technology to market," said Steve P. Belletire, executive vice president of the Joss Design Group of Chicago. Joss recently redesigned the computers for Gateway 2000, giving them a "cool gray" color and softened, rounded shapes.

"Computer marketers are conservative to the extent that even though they have new technology, they don't want to alienate customers by trying anything that may be controversial," Mr. Belletire said.

Newer companies like Gateway are more willing to explore new designs, he said, but within reason. "The trend in interior design has been to cooler values with accent colors," he said, so changing to a light gray was a "relatively safe strategy."

There is also a cost issue, he noted. Beige materials do not show flaws or discolorations as readily as other colors, especially black, so the rejection rate for colored components is higher.

The expected rise of truly personal computers in the 1990s, with pocket-size and tablet computers, holds the promise of breaking the color barrier.

"As computers trend toward smaller devices, and as pen-based computers take hold, that's probably where the real drive will come for personalization in hardware," he said.

"It may be like personal electronics, with Sony Walkman-like products, with color options based on demographics. There may be a plethora of color styles and options, reflecting the personal statement of the user."

These smaller computers will probably be made of new materials to be more rugged, Mr. Belletire said, and rubberized materials and vinyls may afford new color choices.

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