It's All About Computers

Date: 12/01/08

How to Know When It's Time for a New Computer

How long do computers last?

An average age for a name brand computer is approximately 4-6 years for the hardware and approximately 2 years for the software. Custom built computers can last much longer depending on the parts and how the computer is used.

Hardware is just a way of saying all of the physical parts that make up your computer. It's everything on the inside of the case. Hardware failure generally begins with fans since they use ball bearings. When a fan fails you will hear noise, usually a lot of noise.

Hard drive failure is common in older computers. If you are using a computer older than a couple of years you may want to backup often to avoid losing valuable data. Hard drive failure is more difficult to recognize because it is usually more subtle. Signs of failure include clicking or clacking sounds; and more noise when trying to access data on the drive (i.e. opening a file or program) or it will take noticeably longer to open files.

Last but not least is BSOD which literally means “blue screen of death.” BSOD screens happen on Windows computers, are blue and fill the entire screen locking up the computer with a message that begins with “General Fault Protection.”

Other types of hardware failure will also generate a BSOD screen. If your computer locks up with a BSOD, your best course of action is to shut it down immediately and call either myself or someone else knowledgeable in computer hardware. We can test it for you and determine what's going on.

Do the signs of hardware failure apply to Apple computers as well?

Yes but with Apple it's harder to tell when hardware is failing for a couple of reasons, the most obvious being that there will be no BSOD. Hardware failure will make the computer start to lock up or stop responding, or the computer just won't boot up. Apple computers also have a life span of 4-6 years though I have seen them older than that and still running.

Why is software lifespan shorter?

Microsoft Windows computer maintenance should include a tuneup consisting of backing up personal files, reformat and reinstall about every 2 years. This seems drastic but there are very good reasons for doing so including helping the computer operate faster, making the system more reliable, and freeing disc space. Windows collects digital “lint” – files and access commands that remain even after uninstalling programs or deleting files, the kinds of things that we do to help our computers run or to satisfy our need for entertainment and curiosity.

Another very good reason why you should maintain your computer in this way is that over time the operating system can become compromised, this is especially true if you install unique or special drivers for printers, digital cameras, scanners, mice, keyboards, etc since these drivers replace Windows drivers that can become incompatible with the system over time.

I haven't mentioned mal-ware (malicious software like ad-ware or viruses) because an infected computer needs immediate intervention. I can, and have, written an entire email on mal-ware alone and may do so again in the near future. If you believe that your computer is infected with mal-ware please call for assistance.

Does Apple also have a 2 year software lifespan?

Generally speaking, no it does not. What will shorten the life of software on an Apple is damage to the operating system files, the comments that I made above also apply to Apple in the respect of installing unique drivers.

What also shortens software lifespan in Apple is that there is a new version of OS X released almost every year. Sometimes the new version of OS X is simply an upgrade and sometimes it contains system re-writes. Do the research before you buy the latest OS X to understand whether or not all of your software and hardware will work in the new version. New versions of OS X also require newer hardware and as time goes by your computer will no longer be upgradeable. This generally happens in about 4 years time but in my opinion that time will shorten because new technologies are emerging that are very different from what we've seen so far for both PCs and Apples.

Can I do anything to extend my computer's lifespan?

Yes . . . . and no. It depends on what kind of computer you have. For example one of my clients spent over $1,000 on a name brand computer to get (what he thought was) the latest and greatest hardware. The computer is about 3 years old and could really use more RAM. After researching what kind of RAM was needed I found that his computer was built using a version of RAM that was manufactured for a very brief period of time before a much better version hit the market. This RAM is so rare and unusual that upgrading it was insanely expensive. Why did the manufacturer do that? My guess is that because the hardware was outdated they were able to purchase a lot of it at much lower cost.

If you have a computer that can be upgraded then there are many things you can do to extend its lifespan. Memory upgrades are inexpensive and go a long way towards improving performance and extending lifespan. Memory is actually three different things – CPU (central processing unit), RAM (random access memory), and hard drive.

Upgrading Apple

Extending the life of an Apple computer is a bit easier now that they've quit using proprietary hardware. The only thing to keep in mind with Apple is that they do insanely high markups, anywhere from 1.5 times to more than 3 times the price that you can purchase exactly the same hardware for in other places. Here is an example – A client of mine upgraded the RAM in his iBook, he bought 2 RAM “sticks” for $125 each and then paid another $85 to have it installed. The exact same RAM was available online for $36.99 each and I would have charged him $50 to install. He paid $335 for an upgrade that could have cost a little over $123. Almost every upgrade for Apple computers can be found much cheaper elsewhere, and although I am not yet a certified Apple Hardware Specialist (I will be doing that soon), I can and will do offer Apple hardware upgrades.

You've made up your mind to get a new computer, so what's next?

Well, I know it's a jungle out there, it's become a lot like buying a car. Be sure of what you need before you shop. Sales people are going to up-sell and hard close a sale as much as they possibly can. It's really no different when going to Apple, Best Buy, Good Guys, or OfficeMax.

Something to watch for and to be aware of when buying a new computer is make sure the computer isn't built using outdated parts. Remember my example of the RAM upgrade? This has apparently become a standard practice with name brand computers so they can keep their prices down.

What that means for you is limited ability to upgrade or replace broken parts at a later date. For example ATA IDE hard drives are no longer being made since they were replaced by SATA drives five years ago. Many new computers are still built with ATA IDE drives which is fine for now but if your hard drive should fail in the coming years you will be out of luck for a simple replacement. Determining what kind of hardware is being offered on a new computer can be challenging since you will need to look at spec sheets, or hardware specifications, to know for sure what is being offered.

Another common practice with some name brands is to offer computers that have been rebuilt from refurbished or used parts (the eMachine is one of those). It's not always easy to tell which ones are using rebuilt parts, you have to read the fine print.

New Laptops

If you need a laptop the best advice that I can give is that you will get what you pay for. What I have seen are laptops costing less than $800 run about 2-3 years, while those that are priced from $800-$1,400 are lasting longer. any more than $1,400 and you are looking at more specialized computers such as those made for gaming or graphics.

Apple vs. PC

It also used to be true that Apple computers were much more expensive than PCs, this is simply not true any more. What makes Apple seem more expensive is that they offer more memory and faster processors right from the start, when you upgrade a brand name computer you will be close to the same cost. The only thing to watch out for is quality of parts and in that area Apple still excels. If you'd like to see the articles where I got this information feel free to email me your request and I'll forward that technical info on to you.

Custom Built

The good news is that I build computers. What does that mean for you? Local support for one thing and quality, upgradeable parts for another. A custom built computer will have the best parts and only the things that you will actually use. The cost is comparable with a brand name computer, the difference is much better quality and local support.

Why spend the same or more for something that can be made on-Island and will be supported here? The options for a customized computer are limited only by your budget, I can build anything from the fastest gaming/3D rendering computer to the tiny Shuttle computer.

I will listen to you, research the parts and software to meet your needs and build a computer based on that, and it will be upgradeable in the future, a lot more upgradeable than say a Dell or a HP will be. The turn around time is much faster than buying from the manufacturer, about a week from order to delivery. Call me and we'll see how I can make a custom built computer for you.

Windows XP vs. Vista

If you buy a PC off of the shelf you will very likely get Vista. What you will also get is a lot of “value added” software. Some stores have started offering PC cleanup services to remove unwanted software so you may want to look into that. I also do new computer software cleanup, call me to find out how I can help.

Back to XP vs. Vista. The only real difference between the two is that Vista has a different look and feel, a rebuilt user interface. Think of it like this – if all of the houses in Langley stayed the same except they were mixed up and the roads repaved in a different way that would be what the difference between Vista and XP is like. Nothing has really changed except how it looks and where you find the same old things. Of course that's a very very simple way of looking at it and I'm sure that a Microsoft technical expert will give you reasons why it's different until even my eyes would glaze over.

Feel free to call me if you are thinking about whether or not you need a new computer. If you've already made up your mind for a new one, call me and I'll help you decide what direction to take next.