Friday, May 11, 2007

How to give an old PC a new lease on life

Questions and Answers
  1. What are we talking about today? Are we talking about transforming an old klunker into something that can keep up with today's new PCs?

  2. Not exactly. That would take a lot of time and money, and with the prices of new machines today, it is easier and cheaper to simply buy a new computer. So, what we are talking about is taking an older computer and restoring it to something like what it was like when it was new. The assumptions are that:
    • Your old computer does everything you want it to do: email, web browsing, word processing, etc. You don't want new capabilities.
    • But, you are not happy with your old computer because it has gotten slow and buggy.
    • You do not want to spend a lot of time and money fixing the situation. Cheap and easy is the rule.

  3. Why does an old computer get slow and buggy?

    • Adware, spyware, viruses, and any other forms of malicious software can be a big problem on older computers. These programs work against you in many different ways. Some will fill up your hard drive, some will erase key files or data, some will be always loaded into RAM and using the CPU, others will freeze up your machine when you try and do certain things.
    • Over time, you've bought downloaded and loaded software to your old machine, like anti-virus, tax preparation, personal finance, utilities and games. Sometimes these programs install themselves so that they load whenever the computer is turned on. You might not see them until you click on an icon on the desktop or in the system tray, but they are loaded into RAM when you boot up, slowing your computer down. On an older machine with little RAM, you can take quite a performance hit.
    • As your computer gets older, its hard drive starts to fill up. As the disk fills, and as you work with applications and your saved files, files become fragmented. If a single file is stored over many non-contiguous locations on the drive, the job of reading and writing files takes longer.
    • When the hard disk gets really full, it can no longer provide temporary “scratch space” which some applications require. This can slow the machine down and lead to unpredictable behavior on the part of the applications involved. The system may hang and data you are working with may get corrupted.
    • One of the common enemies of performance in a PC is heat. If the components get too hot, to avoid damage, PCs are designed to slow down to reduce power consumption and lower internal temperatures. You see this often in laptops because components are packed together and ventilation/heat transfer is problematic. In an old desktop or tower PC, heat can become a problem, causing it to slow down, when dust and pet hair accumulate inside or in the air filters and block the machine's cooling systems.

  4. Are you going to tell us to open the computer case to replace any of the components inside?

  5. Generally speaking, that is not a good idea. You need to know what you are doing when you start replacing things. And with the cost of components and the value of your time, you quickly arrive at the situation where you are better off buying a new machine than putting the time and money into the old one. If it is cheap and easy, then yes, we'll crack open the case and do it.

    Here are some examples of the cheap and easy things we can do inside an old PC to give it a new lease on life:
    • Increase the size/amount of the machine's RAM.
    • Replace a non-working case fan.
    • Clean the air filters and vacuum out the dust and the pet hair.

  6. What about replacing the hard drive?

  7. Replacing the hard drive is not a trivial piece of work. For most people it violates the “easy” part of our “cheap and easy” assumption. And, if you no longer have the install media for the various applications you want to run, it violates the “cheap” part as well. If the computer is clean of malicious software, you could create an image of the old drive and load that on a new hard drive if you have the tools and the know-how.
Next week: How do we deal with an old, slow, buggy computer? Where do we start to give it a new lease on life?

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