Saturday, August 8, 2009

I hate getting a new computer

Mea culpa.

My computer died. About a third of my important data was on that computer, without a recent backup.

Yes, that does happen; even to professionals who should know better.

I spent five days trying to ressurect it before I gave up and decided to start over from scratch. I promoted my test bed to be my primary computer and set this one aside to be rebuilt and used in situations where I’ll never trust it again.

Now I have to go about making “a” computer “my” computer again. Two weeks later, I’m finding significant programs I forgot to reinstall and nothing works exactly like I’m comfortable with. Oh, I did have a backup that was about 6 weeks old. Most of what I will weep over losing was a month-and-a-half worth of emails.

What's missing when you get a new computer?


The computer comes with Windows which includes Internet Explorer and Windows Mail for your primary online needs. It probably also included a 30- or 90-day subscription to a security suite. Maybe you bought it with an office program and even a personal finance program. What else could I want for my computer?

The first thing I do is uninstall the bloated security suite and install a cleaner updated antivirus only utility. Then I connect to the internet and run Windows Update.

Now I need a few utilities to work with the computer the way I want. These include Firefox, a compression program such as the free 7zip, a media player such as iTunes, a .pdf reader, and some administrative utilities appropriate to my business. Then come drivers for accessories such as my webcam, scanner, smartphone, and printer. Now I remake my network connections to file storage and printers.

Whew! I haven't even started on the application programs. In addition to an office suite and money manager, I use a graphics suite and a number of tools for web authoring. I'm sure I'll find more programs I need as I use the computer. Fortunately I'm mostly organized and can usually put my hands on the original CDs or downloads and activation keys of my programs.

Now, I've got a functioning computer, but it's not my computer. I keep most of my data on a network drive, so usually I won't have to restore that 100 GB. But some programs such as Outlook Express insist on keeping their data on the local drive, typically in some obscure location you wouldn't think about backing up. Even though I have my Outlook 2007 old mail and contacts data on a network drive, all of its connection settings are integral to the local computer so I have to look up user names, passwords and account settings for a half-dozen email accounts. And don't ask me how much I've personalized Word and Excel. Generally, the more complex the program, the more likely that it saves it's settings and preferences irretrievably in Windows.

Microsoft does offer a couple utilities that purport to help you save and transfer your settings between computers. The Files and Settings Transfer wizard (FAST) collects some important and some trivial Windows settings from your logon password to your desktop color. It also will copy your cookies and favorites from Internet Explorer and the contents of your My Documents folder. The last can take a long time and a lot of disc space if you keep music and pictures, as well as documents, in that folder. I recommend that you point it to a USB hard drive with lots of space. It will not get any data such as I mentioned above that is not in My Documents.

For Microsoft Office, you can also use the Microsoft Office Save My Settings Wizard which is usually in the Microsoft Office Tools folder. It will, with one operation, collect a lot of the more obscure personalizations in Word, Excel, Outlook, and other Office programs.

Both of these wizards apply only to the current user. That means your spouse and kids will have to run it individually. You'll also have to manually move data in Shared Documents. And, of course, they only pick up the customizations in Microsoft programs.

Now that I'm up and running, I can start worrying about hardware productivity features. My new computer did not come with an upgraded video, so I will have to move that from my old computer (if it's compatible) to use dual monitors. Also the keyboard has a slightly different layout that causes me problems. Unfortunately, my old keyboard uses a different connection and I will have to deal with that.

My situation was made more difficult because the old computer completely failed. If you are merely upgrading, you can always go back to the old machine to look at settings or get that template for your letterhead. I was saved, however, by the fact that most of my data is not actually on my computer. Even with a six-week-old backup, there was very little critical data that I lost.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Spring cleaning

Now (even if you're reading this in November) is always a good time to do your computer housekeeping.

The two biggest enemies of electronics are bad power and heat. I covered the concerns of power surges in Storm Season. Where does heat come from and what can you do about it?

Everything you put into the computer generates heat. Every chip, spinning drive, and the power supply all add heat to the environment. And our quest for more and faster just means more heat. A faster CPU, fancier graphics adapter, bigger hard drive, more powerful sound card, even more memory each add their own increment to the heat load.

You can assume that every watt of power you put into the computer eventually ends up as heat after it is finished pushing the bits around. That means if you have a 200 watt power supply, it's the equivalent of sticking a large (incandescent) light bulb inside a metal box. In my childhood, that is how a toy stove could actually bake cookies.

Sometimes that metal box also exacerbates the issue. Open a full-size tower and you'll probably see at least 3 or 4 fans blowing on the various components. But most consumers and many businesses would rather have a compact size and quiet computer. Both of those criteria mean fewer fans and less space for air to circulate around the components. In a laptop, those issues are even compounded, although the components are somewhat more efficient with their use of electricity.

Speaking of quiet, most computers have thermostatic fans. When things inside start getting hot, the fan runs faster. If, all of a sudden, your computer starts making more noise and then quiets again; it was probably your fan putting on a burst of speed. If it always runs at high speed there may be something causing your computer to overheat. By the way, your CPU and hard drive also have thermometers in them and will shut themselves down before they dangerously overheat. There are numerous monitors of your internal temperatures available from any search engine. One that looked promising is available at (I have not tried it and don't vouch for it's legitimacy - always get your downloads from reputable sources and check them for malware)

Oh, that's right. The title up there is "Spring cleaning." The first thing to do to keep your computer cool is to get rid of the dust inside. Open the case and blow it out. Don't use a standard vacuum cleaner as they generate static electricity. You can buy high-quality "canned air." If you have access to a compressor, you can use that, too, at a moderate pressure. (I manage 150 devices in an industrial plant and blow them out with the building air. I have never had problems related to water or oil that may contaminate this unfiltered air.)

Be sure you have disconnected all the cables (especially the power) before you open the case. Then blow it out and the dust will go flying. I blow in both directions through all the vents and fans and even into the disc drive openings. Lift the shroud over the CPU and blow out all the heat sinks that look like vertical grids of metal.

When you reconnect the computer, check around that it has good airflow in and out of the vents. Keeping it in a closed cabinet will kill it quickly. Some serious power hobbyists have floor fans blowing at their computers to circulate even more air. Making the computer work harder also makes it use more power, so you might consider this tactic if you are into high-end gaming or video rendering that make heavy demands on the graphics system.

And don't feel guilty at all the dust you found. Even in very clean houses I find the computers full of dust. Just be sure there are no snakes or mice wrapped around the chips. (Just kidding, but you can find some scary stories on YouTube.)