Maybe it's time to let go of your dying PC

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October 13, 2005|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Can a computer die of old age?"

The question, in the subject line of an e-mail, brought a chuckle. But the writer was quite serious. He had a PC that was well into its fifth year, and for some months now it had been slowing down.

His original processor, once a muscleman, was overmatched by 7-megapixel digital photos and graphics-heavy Web pages. His once copious 20-gigabyte hard drive was full and badly fragmented - which slowed his system even more.

On top of that, years of installing and removing software had left his Windows registry a bloated, gloppy mess.

As a result, the computer crawled through everyday tasks. And from time to time, it generated strange error messages, then crashed completely.

Given those symptoms, he asked, was his computer likely to give up the ghost completely one day? And, assuming he didn't want to wait for that unhappy event, should he spend money to upgrade the machine or just buy a new one?

Good questions. I don't have hard data on this, but I seem to be running into a lot of folks who are pondering the ultimate mortality of what I like to call the first generation of "long-lasting" computers.

These are generally Windows 98 or Windows ME machines that had enough original horsepower to handle modern word processing, spreadsheet, Web browsing and e-mail software, along with new generations of programs such as photo editors and music players.

With their well-engineered Pentium III processors, they didn't turn obsolete two years after they were purchased, and most turned into solid, reliable performers that have never had a chance to gather dust. As one colleague described her machine, "The kids would use it every day till it was time to go to bed, and then it was the adults' turn to use it for work. It got a lot of wear and tear."

Many of these computers are still running just fine. Here at The Sun, we publish every day using PCs that date well back into the Clinton administration.

True, I spend a lot of time waiting for my computer to do things, such as display Web pages or switch from one program to another. But eventually it gets the job done.

Now here's the weird thing: There's a brand new PC sitting next to the old one. I got an early peek to check out software compatibility before we all get new machines over the next few months. The new one is a lot faster - but somehow not enough to overcome my own inertia about moving my files from the old PC.

As long as the old one still works, I can keep putting it off. Which is how a lot of people feel about their own middle-aged computers.

Unfortunately, even the best computers eventually reach the end of the road. Some wear out physically - the hard drives start to fail, or motherboard components give up the ghost.

Others need more memory or hard-disk space to keep up with the demands of the latest software - and they may not have the processing power to run the hungriest programs at all.

Even Web browsing, once a digital sinecure that allowed processors to loaf most of the time - now requires heavy-duty CPU cycles to deal with animations, compressed graphics and other detritus of the advertising medium the Web has become.

The sheer number and variety of attacks on networked computers also force us to run ever-more sophisticated virus checkers, spyware eliminators and firewall programs. None of these programs does anything affirmatively useful - they merely protect us from the bad guys, and use a lot of processing power in the background. Machines built five or six years ago weren't designed for that much overhead.

Users who don't take these precautions have their own set of problems - the worst being machines that have been crippled by adware and spyware (a common affliction in households with teenagers). Even without these assaults, Windows itself slows down over time, thanks in part to problems that develop with the registry - the database of critical system settings that can charitably be described as "self-corrupting."

All of these issues make it hard to diagnose any particular case of what we might delicately call "approaching computer death," or ACD for short.

You can indeed treat ACD's symptoms. For example, cleaning up unused files from a nearly full hard drive and running defragmenting software can speed up a slow computer. A variety of utility programs (such as Norton Systemworks) can handle these chores and repair your Windows registry, too.

Physically, you can boost an old computer's memory to 256 or 512 megabytes of RAM - a cheap and effective fix in many cases. More memory lets you run more programs simultaneously without using your hard drive for spillover, which gives security programs some breathing room. Hard drives are much slower at moving data than the pure silicon of memory chips, and $50 to $100 worth of RAM can work wonders.

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