BOOT CAMP 549 (04/11/08)

Make Do and Mend, part 1


In these difficult times splashing out on a new computer is probably one of the last things on your mind, yet, sooner or later your current machine is going run out of steam, or keel over and die. If it is more than three or four years old the chances of it happening increases exponentially as it approaches the plughole end of the ‘bathtub’ curve. This is the uncannily accurate graph that plots the reliability and failure rate of computers and electronic gizmos against time, predicting that faults are most likely to occur during the first few months of use and towards the end of a product’s 5-year (typically) life cycle.


Ask yourself, how would you get on without your computer, even if it were only for a few days, which is how long it can take to get everything sorted out and running smoothly on a new machine? If you rely on the Internet for your banking, bill paying or business communications it could be a real pain, and if you are that dependant on a PC you would be foolish not to have a full set of backups and a second machine on standby. But what if you only have the one PC and what can you do make sure it keeps running beyond its best before date?


In this short series of Boot Camps we’re going to attempt to revive the almost forgotten art of make do and mend. It’s all about preventative maintenance and repair rather than replace. You can certainly save a few bob by keeping your aging PC on the road and you will experience a smug, Zen-like satisfaction, knowing that you’ve beaten the odds.  You’ll also be reducing your carbon footprint by not buying a new box full of bits and pieces that have been air freighted halfway round the world.


Fortunately very few things on a desktop computer actually wear out. Windows or your chosen operating system and the software that you use is good for as long as it does what you want. There’s no reason why Windows XP can’t soldier on for another ten years, and it’s actually getting safer as fewer hackers and virus writers bother to target its vulnerabilities. Under ideal conditions most of the electronic components in a computer should last indefinitely but one critical part does have a finite life and that’s the hard disc drive.


Few of us keep our computers long enough for this to be a major concern but if you are going to be hanging on to your PC for a bit longer than usual, or it is running low on free space, then now is the time to do something about it and we’ll be tackling hard drive replacement in detail next week.


Hard drives are generally quite reliable but some manufacturers cloud the issue by quoting MTBF figures of more than 1,000,000 hours or over 100 years. Clearly this is a load of statistical tosh and a far more realistic guide is the rarely mentioned Service Life, which is normally around five years. However, if you are a pessimist the warranty period – normally 3 years -- should be your guide. This is the manufacturer putting its money where its mouth is and the length of time it is reasonably confident a product is not going to pack up.


The only other items that you can be sure will eventually let you down are the cooling fans on the CPU and inside the power supply module. These are doomed from day one. They run continuously sucking and blowing air laden with dust and microscopic contaminants. Usually the bearings are the first thing to go and you may notice a disturbing whine or clatter immediately after switch on. During the initial stages of failure the noise may go away once the fan bearings have warmed up, lulling you into a false sense of security. Don’t be fooled, as soon as you hear any strange noises take it as a sign that a fan is on its way out and should be replaced. Failure to do so could result in serious overheating and the £10 to £20 it costs to replace a fan will seem like small beer, compared with the expense of replacing a CPU or motherboard, not to mention the loss of data if it happens when you are working. We’ll deal with fans, cooling and cleaning in part 5. 


Although there are relatively few moving parts inside a PC mechanical strains and stresses can play a big part in the higher failure rate of older PCs. The temperature inside the PC box swings wildly as it warms up and cools down, making metal parts expand, contract and flex. Over time this induces an effect known as ‘contact creep’ where plugs and sockets can actually work their way loose or connections become intermittent. This can result in the sort of mystery faults that sometimes get better when you give the box a good hard whack! Engineers hate these sorts of problems as they can be a swine to diagnose but in part 6 we’ll see how an ounce of prevention, and a few squirts of contact cleaner, can be worth several pounds of costly expert cures.


Next Week – Make do and Mend. Part 2





Central Processor Unit - the main microprocessor chip in a PC



Mean Time Between Failure – estimation of the average time between failures of a component or system



Manufacturer’s estimate of the useful or acceptable working life of a component or system



CD and DVD drives contain a fair few moving parts though wear and tear is rarely a problem as they tend not to be used very often. They do have quite a high failure rate, though, and that’s usually because of the openings on the front, through which unfiltered air is drawn into the case by the cooling fans. After just a few weeks of use the insides of the drive are coated with a thin film of dust and sticky stuff – especially if there are smokers nearby – and eventually this goop finds its way onto the lens. Just one speck of dust is enough to stop some drives reading and writing discs so get into the habit of using a good quality cleaning disc on your drive every few months and it shouldn’t let you down. 


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