Tuesday, June 5, 2007

3 Signs You Need a New Computer

If you believe the advertising, you need a new computer every six months. That isn't true, of course; a good one should run well for up to four years.

The constant march of technology does leave many people with the nagging feeling that they are missing out if they don't buy at least every two years. At the same time, today's PCs are built to last longer than ever. Indeed, there are tradeoffs in deciding how long to own the same computer. PCs constantly are being upgraded to offer more speed and power at reduced cost.

But there will be a point when you absolutely need a new one, because your current one is ready for its after-life (hopefully safely in the hands of a recycler; for more on safe disposal, keep reading). Here are three signs that it's time to spring for a new PC.

1. Your computer plays music at startup. Beethoven's "Für Elise" and Disney's "It's a Small, Small World" are pleasant tunes. If you hear either of these melodies when you turn on your computer, you're likely to want to relax or sing along. (After all, a computer that has developed a taste for punk rock music would be hard to handle.) Or you may suspect you have a virus.

Wrong on both counts.

The computer is telling you that the microprocessor or microprocessor fan is failing, or has already gone south. Or it may be telling you that power supply voltages are drifting out of tolerance, or that the supply cannot meet demand.

The music is a feature built into the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) of some motherboards. It is a gentle reminder that you have a serious problem. It's probably not a problem if you hear a couple notes at boot-up. But if you regularly hear a tune, you need to take care of it.

What can you do? In all cases, you can get by at a reasonable cost if you have the ability and time to diagnose and fix the problem. You might well decide to take it to a shop. If so, you're probably looking at a minimum $200 (US) repair. Labour is expensive.

Can you ignore the problem? Not for long. Heat is the enemy of computers. It will fail soon, although perhaps you enjoy listening to "Für Elise."

Consider looking at new computers. The problem with fixing an older computer (especially if the bill is high) is this: It's probably just the beginning. Over the years I've had problems with memory, hard drives, floppy drives and CD drives. Something else is going to break. Speaking of which . . .

2. The hard drive grinds and grinds away. When you start your computer, you might get an unpleasant sound akin to a cat squealing. Or you could get a message like "Drive C: could not be found." That's your hard drive. Do you have all of your data backed up?

The message could indicate a problem with your BIOS - that's the thing that plays the tune mentioned above. More likely, your hard drive is staggering toward the grave, taking your data with it. It didn't spin up fast enough to start with Windows and perhaps there is something wrong with the drive's components.

Often, you can rescue the situation temporarily by rebooting the computer. But if the hard drive is failing, you don't want to dillydally. If you don't have a backup regimen, develop one, fast. Send your data to another computer if you're on a network. Burn it to a CD if you have a CD-RW. (If nothing else, pray!)

If you're certain that it's the hard drive, new ones are relatively cheap. Installation isn't particularly difficult, but it is involved. Figure $200 (US) minimum at a computer shop. The hard drive has to be installed and your data will be transferred to it.

Fixing the BIOS would probably be less expensive. It may need to be flashed. Unfortunately, it's easy for you to botch this job; it should be handled by a shop. Figure it will cost $100-$150 (US). Once again, this could be just the beginning. If your machine is two or more years old, consider looking for a new one.

3. Your computer won't handle Windows XP or certain software applications. When it's time to make a worthwhile upgrade, you may find your computer can't handle it. Maybe the microprocessor is too old. Perhaps you don't have enough memory, or your hard drive is too slow. This could be a problem with Windows XP, or demanding applications such as games.

Let's look at Windows XP. Microsoft has hawked successive Windows systems as "exciting," "fun" and "absolutely necessary" for years. Operating systems are never exciting or fun; they are the digital equivalent of a carpenter's toolbox. And upgrades rarely have been absolutely necessary.

However, Windows XP takes reliability to a whole new level. I would argue that it is necessary if you're using Windows Me or Windows 98. Those operating systems were based on DOS, and are much more crash-prone than XP. If you're thinking of moving up, I'd encourage you to do so.

But Windows XP needs a more powerful microprocessor and additional memory. Some pieces of equipment will not run on XP. You can use Microsoft's Upgrade Advisor to check your computer's compatibility.

If your computer cannot handle XP, consider buying a new one. You'll be amazed at how infrequently XP crashes. The same is true for hot new programs. If you really want them, and they won't run on your old machine, consider a new computer.

If you're using Windows 2000, the upgrade is not as crucial, since Windows XP was developed from Windows 2000. However, XP will run many consumer programs that 2000 will not. So if that's important to you, take a look at XP. Your computer should be able to handle XP if it's running 2000.

Disposing of the Old PC

If you do buy a new computer, you have to do something with the old one. These things have toxic materials in them, so you shouldn't be pitching them into the trash. Here are some ideas for disposal, but first you have a job to do.

You have to get all the data off the hard disk. Symantec's Norton SystemWorks includes an application called Wipe Info. OnTrack's DataEraser offers a similar feature, as does Jetico's BCWipe. There are more such applications on the Internet.

Ask neighbors and friends if they need a computer. (But remember, they may come back to you for help when it breaks down for good.) Offer to give it to your church, a charity or a school. Many have experts who can fix a broken computer. Some charities refurbish computers and give them to the needy.

Or, you can turn it in to the manufacturer of your new computer. Dell takes trade-ins. It also helps customers sell old machines, recycles them or donates them to charity. Gateway accepts trade-ins. Both IBM and HP offer recycling. Apple says it engineers its parts to be recyclable.

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