Reliable Computing

By Ray Rayburn

Reliable Computing – Ray Rayburn shares some valuable insight on some important issues to consider when buying a computer.

A rule of thumb is that you can count on a PC to last 3 years if not abused.  6 years is a very long life for any computer.  My work laptop was a Dell D810, and last year when it was well out of warranty the backlight for the display failed.  Dell only sells complete display assemblies, not just the back light, and the display would have cost a large portion of the cost of a new machine so they bought me a Lenovo T500.  I must note that during the 6 or 7 years I used that Dell D810, the rest of the office went through 2 to 3 IBM/Lenovo laptops each!

My personal laptop is a newer Dell D810 for which I bought the extended 5 year warranty (under 2 months to go) so I know that probably at some time in the next year or so I will need to replace it as well.  Look at how long a warranty the manufacturer will sell you and use that as a guideline to how long to expect that PC to last.

In my experience the most important issues with any PC are:

1 ) Don’t buy the cheapest option.  When I built my own desktops I used better if not the most expensive components, and got an average 7 to 8 years of life from those machines.  When I bought my work Dell D810 it was their top of the line model and I loaded it with the best display option, and the most RAM and hard drive space offered.  The IBM/Lenovo machines that my office was running through getting little over 2 years each were the least expensive machines that were good enough to do what we needed.  At 2 years life versus 6, were they really the least expensive choices?

2 ) Updates.  Switch from Windows Update to the full Microsoft Update, and make sure you get every weekly update.

3 ) Use a top quality Anti-Virus.  This is no longer MacAfee or Norton, in fact Norton 360 is a total disaster for anyone who needs to use serial or parallel ports to connect to test equipment or DSP since Norton 360 effectively disables those ports.  I now use Trend Micro on my personal machines, and we use Kaspersky at work.  Both have worked and don’t get in the way.  Any anti-virus needs weekly updates as well.

4 ) Backups are critical.  I use a Windows Home Server (WHS) to backup all the machines on my home network every evening, including my work laptop when I bring it home each weekend.  I built my own WHS machine because I had parts on hand, but when I need to replace it, I will buy a commercial version.  It is critical that a WHS machine have multiple hard drives even though some are sold with only one drive.  With multiple hard drive WHS duplicates all your information onto two different physical drives so you don’t lose any information to a hard drive crash, _if_ you setup the WHS correctly.  The drives on a WHS machine do not have to be identical.  Any mix of internal or external drives of any size will do.  All hard drives will fail, the only question is when.  Since getting my WHS I have lost 3 hard drives on my PCs, but never lost any data.

5 ) Before loading a program, back up your PC and set a restore point.  Then and only then install the new program.  This way if you find the program was bad or had bad drivers, you can get back your working machine.  Repeat this procedure for each time you load a program.

6 ) Make sure programs you plan to use have drivers for the operating system on your PC.  Many PCs these days come with Windows 7 64 bit, but drivers have not caught up.  Note the problems Pat has had finding a external audio interface with drivers that will work with his new Windows 7 64 bit desktop.

7 ) Never, NEVER click on a link in an email or open an attachment unless you _know_ by some external means such as a prior heads up email or a phone call that the person was sending you the attachment or link.  This goes double for links that hide the actual destination by using TinyURL or similar redirect services.  In particular suspect emails from people you know, because their machine or that of a mutual acquaintance might be infected.  To aid this process I filter all my emails through Gmail.  They have excellent filters which among other things will sort any email into the SPAM folder where the display URL and the actual URL do not match.  As an additional layer of protection I have my Outlook email program set to display all incoming emails as plain text unless I switch that particular email back to HTML.

8 ) Don’t install a program because you _might_ need it.  Only install programs you actually need.  For other programs copy the install CD or DVD to your hard drive, but _don’t_ install them.  By the way you can often greatly speed the install process by first copying the source disc to hard drive before installing.  The reason is that a hard drive is much faster than the CD drive, particularly when it comes to seeking and finding a random part of the disc.  The copy process goes fast since it just takes the data from the CD in a linear way, and then the random accesses during the install process call on the hard drive not the CD.

9 ) Make sure the machine has the ports you need such as a serial port.  If you just can’t get the ports you need get a plug-in card to provide the missing port.  I have had good results with the cards sold by B&B Electronics.  In my experience they work much more reliably than USB adapters.