Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Repair or Replace? Hoary Old Laptop, Revisited.

It has been my experience that every time I repair something, I end up replacing it within a short period of time.

My hoary old laptops keep getting older and hoarier.   They do what I want them to do, so I haven't bothered to replace them.  Recently, however, one of them slowed down considerably, which had me concerned.  Was there a virus or bot running on it?

I went online and someone suggested updating the BIOS.  And fortunately, Toshiba - or its successor Dynabook - have the drivers available online, along with the service manual.   I downloaded the service manual and put it in a big binder and started reading it.  I updated the BIOS and sure enough, the machine improved (the windows Score went from a stagnant 1.0 to a staggering 2.8 - yes, I know, still slow as a turtle).   Having two of the exact same computers helps, as I can compare one to the other.

The biggest thing slowing down the machine is apparently the processor(s) - a dual-core unit running at a leisurely 1.0 GHz.   I say leisurely as that is Cray Supercomputer speeds from back in the day.   It is funny, but my first real "computer" (a Hyundai 286 running DOS) cost me well over $2000 and had a 40MB hard drive.   The drivers just for the display controller on this old laptop were over 150 MB to download.   Memory is cheap, storage is cheap, so we've gotten sloppy with our coding, it seems.

I decided to reinstall Windows 7 Ultimate and see if that helped.   It didn't, but it wasted a day of my life as I had to track down all the drivers (again, from the same Toshiba website) and painfully install them.   The wireless LAN card driver was the first, and I had to use Mr. See's computer to download the driver installer and then burn it to a CD-ROM and transfer this to my computer.  I ended up burning two CD-ROMs to hold all the drivers for "next time".

A day later and the computer is running better than ever.  The memory was a 4MB so I ordered new memory sticks online (cheap!) to bring it up to the max of 8MB.  I hate to throw money at this machine - I can buy a working used on on eBay for under $100.

One key on the keyboard (one of the CTRL) keys is broken (the spilled martini thing, again) and I had cut the trace on it to get the machine to work.  A new-in-the-box keyboard was $11 on eBay, delivered, so I ordered that.  It installs in pretty easily - although the nums lock light doesn't seem to be present in the new keyboard.    Parts are cheap for these old computers, and rightfully so - you can buy a newer or even new machine for not a lot more.

But I like my old Toshiba, and it certainly is built to last.  The only other real problem I had with it was a flaky display.  I was ready to toss it, when I removed the hinge cover and realized one of the wire leads was pinching in the hinge - a mistake made when built.  Simply moving this wire fixed the problem, and that was five years ago.

Mucking around with the computer, though, you realize how Windows really clogs up older machines.   Go onto Task Scheduler sometime and see all the crap that Windows uses to "phone home" periodically with system data.  There are dozens upon dozens of "background jobs" running on these machines that is amazing they work at all.

For a PC that is sitting on a desk, plugged in and running all the time, maybe this is workable.  At 3:00 AM every night, it does all these tasks, like defragmenting the hard drive.    But on a laptop that is run for only an hour or so every day, it ends up slowing down the machine, as all these backed-up background jobs decided to run at once once you start up the machine.  And don't get me started on Windows Update!  When you re-install Windows 7, the first thing it wants to do is install (automatically) over 300 updates.

Fortunately, these are easy to disable - and you can pick which updates to install (the cumulative security update is probably the best).   And on the 14th of this month, Microsoft will end support for Windows 7.  What this will mean is anyone's guess.   I suspect a few of the holdouts like myself, running Windows 7, who have not disabled automatic updates and other "phone the mothership" features (as I have) will find themselves getting error messages on January 15th, as their computers try to update or communicate the "Windows User Experience" to Bill Gates - and find no love from the Microsoft servers.

It could possibly even brick such machines - or at least slow them down an awful lot - as they continually try to contact Microsoft only to get "404 page not found" errors.   This may bode well for sales of Windows 10 machines or Microsoft's hyped "surface" pad-laptop thingy.

In looking over the reviews of this thing from the era it was made (circa 2010), it was the cheapest kind of laptop you could buy at the time.   It retailed for about $399 and I think I spent even less than that at Walmart.  I bought the second one, online, used for about $150.   As the review noted, it is a good machine for creating documents, sending e-mails, surfing the web, and playing videos.  It isn't a gaming platform.  In other words, it does everything I need it to do.

So I guess I'll upgrade the hard drives and use them for another year or so.   But I suspect that I will have to shop for something new in the near future.   Sadly, I fell into the trap of doing incremental repairs on an older end-of-life piece of machinery - something I have warned against when it comes to cars.   People throw money at older cars, thinking that a repair of a few hundred dollars will make it good-as-new.   But in an era where a new set of tires on some cars can cost well over $1000 - and the book value on the car is maybe two grand - it makes no sense to throw money at older machinery.

But I guess I got some satisfaction out of doing the work myself, tinkering with it, and learning more about Windows in the process - and realizing that even today, it is still possible to fix computers yourself.  Doing things - changing your environment - is a way of feeling good about yourself and staving off depression.

But as an economic proposition?   No, it makes no sense at all.   I threw $60 at a laptop worth maybe $75 on a good day!

Speaking of learned helplessness, we finally finished our flooring project.  The new office is swell, and now the master bedroom is done.   We still have to paint the rest of the rooms in the house, but the major chore - the backbreaking and sticky task of gluing down engineered hardwood flooring - is done, thank God.   And it looks nice, too.

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