When Good Laptops Go Bad

When your laptop first comes out of it’s box, it is a newborn baby. It doesn’t know any of the programs it is destined to run on a daily basis yet. First you teach it to crawl with endless updates. Then you start small, the essentials only like an office suite, anti-virus program, and maybe some bookkeeping software. Before long, the laptop finds itself with a family and tons of games, accessories, and a bloated hard drive. After about ten years, it seizes and dies un-dramatically. It’s funny to think how computers seem to have a life-cycle all their own despite being inanimate objects. Just like we humans have warning signs and ways to respond, so do laptops. By heeding them, we can all live a long, healthy life.

The first step is to realize that laptops are just like desktops, just crammed into a smaller case. If your computer is overheating, it could be dust collecting in the heat-sinks. If you ever want to open up your desktop and clean out the dust and cobwebs, you usually only need your hands and a can of compressed air. However, even armed with a garage worth of tools and an amateur’s ambition, it can be impossible to open up a laptop. So the dust sits and collects, gumming up the works and keeping fans from cooling the components. After a decade, you might notice that the laptop over-heats seemingly even while it’s turned off! Constant heating and cooling is a big problem because it causes the parts to expand and contract repeatedly, which can damage the integrated circuitry that has been fused to the silicon chips. The way to deal with this out-of-sight-out-of-mind problem is to take it to a professional and let him rip it apart and reassemble it. Support your local geek.

Has the laptop ever started and run a “disk-check”? This is a very common and useful analysis that you should run at least every three months. It checks the hard drive data for consistency and fixes any small errors before they spiral out of control and crash the system. However, if the laptop is running a disk-check every time you start it up, it might just be fighting a losing battle. Hard drives are built to last at least five years, and depending on their living conditions it can greatly exceed this limit. They like to have plenty of room to breathe, hate heating-cooling cycles, and-just like a human heart-they have a limited number of spins in them. This is why industrial data centers use massive mainframes with dozens of drives that never get turned off, and it also explains why laptops are doomed from the get-go. Sometimes hard drives just die, so back up your data as often as you feel comfortable.

The problems start to get really specific after this, and it is probably easier to just group it into “the computer is running slow”. Invariably this is a software issue, so it depends on what software you are running. Windows operating systems organize their files using something akin to a phone book for its files, called a registry. Over time, the registry can become bloated from programs you no longer run and references to files that no longer exist. The best way to tackle this is to go into ‘Add or Remove Programs’ and ask yourself which programs you really need or use. Then, invest in some system utility software such as TuneUp Utilities. Such programs are capable of defragmenting hard drives, cleaning up junk files, optimizing the system for looks or speed, and of course cleaning the registry. Once you give it a try, you will find it indispensable! Due to programming differences, Linux and Mac systems have less of a need for such programs, but they can be found if you do experience issues.

All in all, a laptop is a great addition to anyone’s technology collection and makes great hand-me-down’s for the kids when they are ready for a computer. Just like anything else we own, some basic care is needed to ensure they last a long time. However, also think about when it is time to cut your losses. Frequently, the cost of maintenance and repair (e.g. replacing a broken hard drive or screen) is greater than the cost of a new laptop. In such cases, be ready to bring home a brand new bundle of joy and teach it to fill the shoes of it’s predecessor.