Tech Note: Our Crappy Computers

The Rundkvist family’s aging computer collection is in a sad state.

Our newest machine is also the only one that’s still working flawlessly. A little 2008 LG netbook, it runs Win XP and Ubuntu linux and is mainly used by Junior as a gaming machine. When travelling, my wife and I like to bring it along for its handy dimensions and slight weight, but the dinky screen doesn’t lend itself to everyday computing.

My dear 2005 Dell laptop, on which I type these lines, is barely holding together. Its recently renewed Win XP installation is flaky, booting up with an arcane error message and unable to complete the installation of service packs. It just bluescreened on me for the first time. The machine’s also starting to become amnesiac about its hardware, having forgotten that it has built-in wifi and sound circuitry. And its battery life is all too brief these days. But there’s something about a computer you’ve used so much that the case’s white plastic is showing through the silver-metallic coating in a pattern that mimics your hands…

The family workhorse, a 2004 Dell desktop machine, is currently in a coma after I tried to upgrade to a larger main hard drive and install the most recent Ubuntu version. All our data are apparently still intact on the machine’s original smaller hard drive, but neither of the two is bootable at present and there’s something weird going on that causes Ubuntu to freeze half-way when I try to boot from a CD. To migrate that data I’ll probably have to install the smaller drive into my dad’s old computer and then jury rig some ethernet cable connection to the computer’s successor. Or install Win XP on the large new drive, which would be a short-term solution since that operating system has an alarming tendency for each installation to degrade steadily in performance until the machine becomes unusable. And the overhead of the fucking virus protection software is a nuisance. Luckily I have all my important stuff on a dav server elsewhere.

The computer that nobody ever uses is my extra mom’s 2001 Dell laptop. It’s actually not that bad though. Its battery is completely dead so every time you start it you have to tell it what year it is, and it couldn’t use its wifi card after I installed Win XP, so I put the card in the 2005 laptop to replace the circuitry that machine’s forgotten that it has. But as our computers go, and considering its age, the 2001 laptop is pretty good. It’s actually our second-quietest machine, and the operating system shows no apparent glitches.

I find it a bit infuriating the way old computers become unpredictable. I could sort of understand them breaking down catastrophically due to corrosion of the power supply’s wiring or failing of the ball bearings in the hard drive. But shouldn’t the microcircuitry be kind of WORK or NOT WORK, instead of starting to act capriciously? Maybe it’s a question of operating systems co-evolving with the hardware, so that when you run the on-line upgrades to your old machine it gets saddled with an OS that is actually intended to run on a slightly different (and much faster) machine. But just as the mechanical parts tend to work or not work at all, I expect the electronics to do likewise.

Comments

  1. #1 D. C. Sessions
    June 30, 2009

    But shouldn’t the microcircuitry be kind of WORK or NOT WORK, instead of starting to act capriciously?

    In a word, no. Bear in mind that everything in those microcircuits is an essentially random process working with quantum effects where the number of electrons (and holes; yes, they’re real) is small enough to count.

    Quite a few of the aging and wear-out effects in microelectronics don’t so much cause things to “just break” but instead increase the error rates. When those rates are in the 10^^-15 or less range, you get them often enough to make things random and not often enough to make them fail consistently.

    And, yes, I do this kind of thing for a living.

  2. #2 Martin R
    June 30, 2009

    My condolences! (-;

  3. #3 David Marjanović
    June 30, 2009

    Where did you put the jumpers on the harddisks? That often leads to surprises concerning bootability.

  4. #4 Martin R
    June 30, 2009

    Thank you! I don’t think it’s a jumper issue here.

    Big drive: boots, reaches linux login prompt, freezes.

    Small drive: booted flawlessly, downloaded and installed some updates to linux, lost ability to boot.

  5. #5 Lassi Hippeläinen
    June 30, 2009

    I had similar problems when upgrading my old desktop (ca. 2001 vintage). It turned out to be a power issue. The old supply didn’t deliver enough amperes at 12V to drive the new hardware. Replacing it with a bigger one fixed the machine.

    Now I have a problem with the display driver. It is so old that the latest versions of Kubuntu don’t recognize it. But Xubuntu 8.04 does :-)

    If you want a faster machine, replace XP with Xubuntu.

  6. #6 Ian
    June 30, 2009

    “Small drive: booted flawlessly, downloaded and installed some updates to linux, lost ability to boot.”

    You need to give Greg Laden some grief about this!

    What bugs me about computers is that there is a massive war going on between Endless Bells & Whistles on the one side and usability on the other, and usability is being badly mauled.

  7. #7 Pär
    June 30, 2009

    I recently switched back to Macs after a generally frustrating ten-year stint with Windows. Can’t say I miss it.

  8. #8 Timothy (TRiG)
    June 30, 2009

    my extra mom’s 2001 Dell laptop

    You have an extra mom? Should we be told about this?

    TRiG.

  9. #9 Gray Gaffer
    June 30, 2009

    May I suggest that rather than opening up your Dad’s machine and installing your old data drive, you invest in a (very cheap – ~$20) USB to IDE adapter? No need to open up anything, attach to any computer, no need to cobble together a slow Ethernet connection and struggle with Windoze network sharing paranoia. Get one for 3 1/2″ drives,and also get a 2 1/2″ USB enclosure for recycling through your laptop drives. I get an enclosure every time I upgrade my systems; apart from the migration ease they also act as archives.

    Drives also suffer from bit rot. This tends to manifest as unpredictability. So also do old tarnished connectors.

    Lastly, I do not trust OS upgrading, nor do I trust continuous use of an OS for more than a couple of years. I also reboot my Mac at least once a month whether it needs it or not (I never sleep XP, always has wake-up issues).. My prescription is periodic re-installation from scratch. Cleans out a lot of cruft. Means you really really need to make sure your software licenses are not archived in a mail folder in your mail client. Print those to PDF file and copy them to every drive you have, plus file hard-copies. I am three generations of mail client away from my VMWare license now and cannot upgrade or migrate it to my new machine, since the original client is gone, gone, gone.

    Good luck!

    The above advice is OS and hardware agnostic. I apply it to all my systems – XP, Linux, Mac – with equal aplomb.

  10. #10 Martin R
    June 30, 2009

    TriG, she’s my dad’s second wife and my mom ain’t dead, so she’s not a stepmom.

    Gaffer, a USB to IDE adapter sounds like a great idea! How is the disc powered? What is a “USB enclosure”? Gotta read up.

  11. #11 Gray Gaffer
    June 30, 2009

    Found this combo one (does all, SATA, IDE, 3 1/2, and 2 1/2 drives) on Amazon for about $12: put this string into their search box (their URLs are ridiculously long)

    USB 2.0 to SATA/IDE Cable Adapter For 2.5 3.5 HDD

    Note that this is a naked scheme – the bits lie out exposed on your desk, there is no enclosure. It is intended for emergency rescue operations. I think I may get one for myself too.

    Enclosures are basically boxes that provide HDD connections internally and USB externally, just like a portable drive but without the drive itself. Which makes them also pretty cheap.

    Searching on:

    2.5 enclosure

    will find you a little box that will protect your removed laptop drives so you can carry them around with you as backups or archives, also USB 2.0, also ~$12.

    3.5 drives are a bit too big to make portable, but there are enclosures for desktopping them too: search on

    3.5 enclosure

  12. #12 Joseph j7uy5
    June 30, 2009

    You’ve probably tried this already, but here’s another tip: sometimes a BIOS update for the motherboard will fix problems such as the one you are having with the 2004 Dell desktop. I don’t use Dell machines, so I don’t know how good they are about issuing updated BIOSes, but I assume they do this as much as anyone. BIOS updates are not to be undertaken casually, but in my estimation it is worth a try in this situation.

    In the past, I had problems with having two different brands of hard drive in the same machine, for example the old one being a Seagate, the new one being Western Digital. Either would work fine alone, but there was no way to get the two to work together (regardless of master/slave/cable-select settings.)
    Additionally, heat can be an issue. Again, you’ve probably tried this, but make sure there is not a clot of dust in the power supply. Lots of intermittent problems are caused by heat, specifically because of dust accumulation.

    And speaking of power supplies, before trying a heftier one, try disconnecting the cable from the power supply to the motherboard, and reattaching it, with a careful wriggling motion to clean the connectors. I had that work once. It’s a long shot, but costs nothing.

    Lassi, are you using the proprietary nVidia drivers? I had a problem similar to yours. nVidia now has two series of drivers (at least, maybe three). One is for the fx-5xxx series and earlier. Some distros, (eg. Sabayon) fail to recognize this, and install the newer series driver, which borks everything. The fix is to either use the open-source driver, or manually install the older series driver, or get a new video card. But finding a newer card that will fit your AGP slot might be tough.

  13. #13 marianasoffer
    July 1, 2009

    I completelly agree with your post. I think it is all due to money, because there is no reason for things with computers to be like that. Probably there is a big business that is behind things being and working like crap.
    In the end you have to go back to write in the simple screen the basic and classic unix commands.

  14. #14 Lassi Hippeläinen
    July 1, 2009

    #12: “Lassi, are you using the proprietary nVidia drivers?”

    No, it isn’t an nVidia card, it’s from ELSA. The chip inside comes from Texas Instruments. I got it cheap when I bought the machine, because it is too slow for good video. But it can drive fairly big still images, and that suits me fine, because I’m a photographer.

    Anyway, I won’t be upgrading that machine anymore. It has served for years, but when it finally dies, I’ll replace it with one of those mini-Mac styled little boxes. Electronics are now so compact that there is no need for an expandable case. Any add-ons can be connected using USB.

  15. #15 Malin
    July 1, 2009

    I agree with Gray at #9; get a USB enclosure (“kabinett” or “externt kabinett” in Swedish) for your (IDE?) laptop HD – the cheap ones cost about $20 (in Sweden). I could even loan you one but I suspect the travel time for you to come and get it costs you more, even on an academic’s salary ;-)

    They usually seem to come with no instructions, but it is not *that* hard to figure out what goes where. You may need to get a small screwdriver, or buy an enclosure kit that includes one, if you do not already own a kit.

  16. #16 Martin R
    July 1, 2009

    Then the question becomes, “Should I invest more time and money into getting the 2004 desktop machine to work”?”. I find it really irksome to abandon a machine that has all the computing juice I really need. Particularly since linux demands less of that juice than Win XP to perform snappily.

  17. #17 Jocke
    July 3, 2009

    You should buy a Mac. I did that for a few years ago and i am so happy for that. Good OS “Mac OS X leopard” I will never again buy a PC.

  18. #18 Lawrence
    July 10, 2009

    I just wanted to add to what Jocke said. Buy a Mac. Im typing this on a 2005 Power PC. And I’ve basically upgraded over time. I’ve added memory, and two monitors (you can operate two monitors from one hard drive on a mac easily) so my platform is stable. No problems with programs or all that other stuff and its genuinely fun. It OS is based on Unix so if I want to move from the easy to use Leopard to a more complicated and powerful platform its literally a click and a manual away. I now have there low end laptop with Intel chips, and my my wife has an apple Imac. They are more expensive but the upside is that they seem to have a useful life of twice that of PC and none of the software problems over time. I can still use programs from the era prior to leopard and unix. Macs are fully backward compatible.