The Dead PC

One of our PCs died last week. What a chore. The machine was about three years old and there were no warning signs. The machine is at a desk in the bedroom and while I was watching TV one evening I heard it stop. I tried restarting; it whirred for a bit and then shut down. Uh-oh. Pulling the machine out I’m thinking “oh, it’s just a power supply.”

It’s never the power supply 

I have a bunch of really nice power supplies in their boxes from all the previous occasions I thought it was the power supply. My experience in over 20 years of “modern” PC ownership: it’s never the power supply. Not to say power supply failures don’t happen, it’s just that they don’t happen to me (yet). My experience has been: if the machine dies, it’s dead. There’s no fixing it. Pull the hard drives out and move on.

Ok, I heard a bunch of people say to themselves “wait, you could troubleshoot it and have it working in a few weeks after a few dozen trips to Fry’s and Radio Shack for some simple parts. An oscilloscope would show you …” Right. Look, $699 buys a lot of machine these days. $699 is much cheaper than several weeks of my “spare” time lost to chasing a problem (that the CPU really did fry because the heat sink was too full of dust).

What really fails? 

For me the devil has been miscellaneous “motherboard/CPU issues” (three times, counting this failure), and disk failure (once). I typically have 4-5 machines in use in the house at any one time. Over 20 years x 4.5 machines = 90 machine-years of PC use so with only four failures I think I’ve had very few problems. The one disk issue gave me lots of warning: it was an NT 4.0 system and the system log started showing disk errors. I was able to get everything off onto a new drive so I’ve never lost data (so far). I still have emails stored from 1990 (I’m not sure that’s a good thing).

What works?

Running machines all the time 24×7 is definitely better than turning them on and off once a day. I have a domain controller that is a Pentium Celeron 300 MHz built ten years ago. It’s had three drive upgrades but still runs fine.

Distribute critical data. I almost never make backups. There. I said it. Yeah yeah yeah, I know you’re supposed to make backups. EVERYONE knows you’re supposed to make backups.

At least I’m honest enough to admit I generally do not make backups. Anyone else who says they are continuously backed up is simply a liar.

Who has time to row fifty (or one hundred) CDs through the CD burner? It’s not that I have not tried. I backed up a 20-meg hard drive onto 3.5″ floppies once (remember 3.5 floppies?). I bought a tape drive once. Two hundred fifty whole Megabytes a tape. Modern hard drive capacity growth devours any backup strategy I can think of. Modern hard drives are also your fastest cheapest back up medium (see Raid 1 below).

Source Code Control: I use Source Safe for a lot of my data backup. I copy stuff to my laptop. I copy stuff to my work computer.

Raid 1 your disks: I buy SATA Raid 1 on all my new desktops. An extra $80 for a 200 Gig backup drive? That’s a no-brainer. Why bother with Raid 1 if I seemingly do not believe in backups? While I have never lost any critical data I DO mind how long it takes to rebuild a machine and get all my critical applications and tools re-installed.

Vacuum once in awhile: I now buy those cool cases with windows in the side and lights inside so it’s visually really offensive when it’s all full of dust inside.

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