Living with a past-its-prime computer

I’m playing catch-up a bit. This weekend, Lifehacker ran a guide about living with a computer that’s past its prime.

I’ve made a career of that. One of my desktop PCs at work (arguably the more important one) is old enough that I ought to be preparing to send it off to second grade. And for a few years I administered a server farm that was in a similar state. They finally started upgrading the hardware as I was walking out the door. (I might have stayed longer if they’d done that sooner.) And at home, I ran with out-of-date computer equipment for about a decade, just this summer buying something current. Buying something current is very nice, but not always practical.

So of course I’ll comment on a few of Lifehacker’s points.

1. Upgrade your hardware. Well, duh. But I’ll give some points for talking about upgrading smart. Filling the RAM to the brim is good advice. Installing an SSD is good advice. Seriously, even Pentium 4-era hardware benefits from an SSD, because your obsolete hard drive is holding the system back at least as much as the CPU is.

And, if your system supports it, a motherboard swap isn’t necessarily as expensive as it sounds. With a little luck, you can easily get at least a dual-core CPU and a current motherboard for well under $150, and sometimes closer to $100. If your system can take a new board–and you’ll be surprised how many systems can, even name-brand systems–dropping in a new motherboard and then upgrading the rest of the components as you can afford to do it pays dividends.

When I say I bought new, actually what I did was upgrade in stages. I dropped a new motherboard and RAM into a decade-old PC one month, added an SSD the next, and then I threw sub-$100 hardware upgrades at whatever still annoyed me about the computer after that.

Another option is to buy used parts newer and more capable than what you already have.

2. Overclock. I really can’t endorse this. Yes, you can gain some performance this way, and people have been overclocking for years, but if you can’t afford to upgrade the machine, can you afford to replace it if you burn it up next month? Microsoft doesn’t recommend overclocking either. And it’s hard to argue Microsoft stands to gain anything by saying not to.

3. Regular maintenance. Keep too much debris from piling up on the hard drive, and run a good defragmenter a few times a year (assuming you can’t upgrade to an SSD), and you can make a world of difference without spending a dime. The difference depends on what’s wrong with the machine of course, but never, ever underestimate basic maintenance. Years ago, I had one critic tell me my advice doesn’t work. Well, his defragmenter of choice was Diskeeper. And yeah, if your defragmenter of choice is Diskeeper, the results won’t be as good as they would be if you used something more capable.

4. Change your software. When possible, this can make a tremendous difference, but it’s not always possible. At work you might be stuck with what you’ve got. But current versions of Libre Office run fine on my older machines, for instance. So if the current version of Microsoft Office bogs down on your machine, try Libre Office. Or step back to an older (but still supported) version of Office, like Office 2010 or 2013 instead of 2016.

5. Ramdisks. This is a topic I need to explore more. But using a ramdisk really speeds up Firefox, for example.

6. Use older programs. Oops. I covered this already.

7. Replace your keyboard and mouse. Whatever. I’m typing this on an IBM Model M keyboard that was probably manufactured when I was still in middle school. And I use a basic Microsoft Intellimouse that was what all the cool kids were buying for $70 back at the turn of the century, but now sells for $10-$15. I think I paid $20 or $25 for mine in 2003, once the novelty of it had worn off. Now, if you have a mushy oatmeal keyboard and a bar-o-soap mouse, there may be some benefit in buying something better, but “old” doesn’t always mean “bad.” They’ll probably bury me with this keyboard, and it’ll probably still work then too. The mouse may still work too, since it has no moving parts to break.

8. Whatever get next year’s features now means. I’m not tracking on this step. It sounds like installing a bunch of bloatware to slow a system down to me. My Intel Atom-based netbook was pretty nimble because I ran Windows XP on it until XP went end of life. Then I put Linux Mint on it until it died. Don’t bother chasing next year’s trends. That’s usually a good way to make a middle-aged computer slow in the first place.

9. Install a lighter weight operating system. If there’s a Linux distribution that meets your needs, this can work sometimes. But it’s not a magic bullet. If Open Office takes minutes to load under Windows, it’s not going to load all that much faster under Linux on the same hardware. Low-weight Linux distributions for obsolete PCs usually work because they install a suite of low-resource programs by default. If those default programs suit your needs, you may be happier and more productive. But chances are you’ll have to change the way you do some things.

And sometimes you can make an OS more lightweight and be happier with not needing to change the way you do as many things. Here’s my guide to optimizing Windows 10.

10. Repurpose or recycle. The danger here is that if you repurpose, say, a Pentium 4 as a media center or file server or something, it can consume a lot of electricity. So before you repurpose a machine, do a little homework on what it’s going to do to your electric bill. The aged Athlon XP box I once used as my web server actually used more power than the dual-core Pentium box that replaced it–even though the two computers are in completely different leagues, performance-wise. But compared to its equivalent P4, that Athlon XP was an energy miser.

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