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Practical Maintenance Tips


There's a joke circulating on the Internet that compares the reliability of computers with that of automobiles, airplanes and other technologies that we take for granted. Although personal computer dependablity is better today than five years ago, their propensity to crash (and burn) makes them an easy target for jokesters.

Are we powerless in the face computing vagaries? Or are there steps the prudent computer user can take to minimize the impacts of a big crash? Let's look at three areas where preventative maintenance will help prevent irreplaceable losses.

Hard Drive Maintenance
Visualize, for a moment, a checkerboard set for a new game. Checkers march across the board in in a few neat rows; the pieces are nicely grouped by color. Now imagine the board after 10 minutes of play. Checkers are scattered randomly across the board; perhaps one black sits alone in a sea of red. Order appears chaotic, not systematic.

Turn now to hard drives. A hard drive saves files in sectors (the squares on the checkerboard); the size of the file determines the number of sectors needed. When new, the hard drive can easily put all pieces of a file in a contiguous block, like checkers lined up before a game.

But the more you revise-save, the more discontinuous or fragmented the file elements become. Thus the hard drive must search for each element in order to re-combine them into a complete file. Constant searching increases drive wear-and-tear, shortening its life-span.

That's why computer consultants recommend using a defragmenting utility regularly. Basic disk utilities are bundled with DOS (and thus Windows), Macintosh and OS/2 operating systems. These utilities have the distinction of being free and being designed specificically for their respective operating systems.

There are also third-party products such as Norton Utilities, which is Becker's software of choice. Available for Windows 95, Windows 3.1 and Macintosh, Norton Utilities "automates the hard drive maintenance process," Becker said. He noted that Norton Utilities can be programmed to regularly defragment the drive and to check for viruses each time the computer is turned on.

Also, if you are spending any time on the Internet or sharing 3.5-inch disks, then you really should be checking for viruses regularly. Viruses can render your hard drive completely unreadable, meaning you can do nothing, including starting-up the system.

Norton Utilities retails for about $100. In addition to Norton Utilities, there are a host of freeware and commercial virus protection programs available.

Data Backup
Hard drives remain a weak link in the computer industry's drive toward ever-increasing speed and sophistication. The hard drive is the only integral component composed of moving parts; processor, motherboard and RAM chips allow electricity to move but the parts themselves are static.

The advent of ever-larger hard drives means more data are at risk should a hard drive crash. There is only one protection. Regular back-up.

"I was using a new portable computer to do my yield mapping. One morning, I turned the computer on, and the hard disk was fried. Sure, the manufacturer replaced the drive; but I lost everything on the drive, including my maps," Jim Poffenbarger said. "And I should know better," he laughed, "because I teach computers."

The grain farmer has five computers networked in his home, and he had backed up the data used to generate the maps. "But I had not saved the maps, so I lost about two days work. At least I had the raw data," he said.

One back-up product is the HP Colorado, an internal or external tape back up system for DOS and Windows machines. Each tape cartridge holds 400 MB of data; using a data compression utility can boost this to 880 MB. The drive operates at up to 9.5 MB per minute, meaning 200 MB of data would take at least 22 minutes to back-up.

For the back-up product with the most innovative positioning, look no further than the Iomega Zip drive. Featured in Vogue magazine and acclaimed by Macworld (1996 World Class Winner), Home Office Computing (Editor's Pick) and Byte (Best of Show), Zip drives are available for Windows95, Windows 3.1, Macintosh and OS/2.

Using the SCSI interface (internal or external), the Zip drive operates at up to 60 MB per minute. That same 200 MB of data now requires less than four minutes to save. Because Zip disks hold only 100 MB, the back-up would require two disks unless the data had been compressed. The parallel port drive zips along at up to 25 MB per minute.

Costs? Either drive plus 400 MB of back-up media costs less than $250. "The important thing isn't so much which hardware you use as getting into a schedule. Back-up important files regularly. Anything else is replaceable," pleaded Becker. Poffenbarger smiles. "We say back-up, back up, back-up, but until it happens to you," he said, most folks follow the advice sporadically at best.

Surge Protection
An IBM study, referenced on the American Power Conversion (APC) web site, reports that the typical computer is subject to 120 power problems per month. Most are not severe enough to ruin a television. However, computer systems are more vulnerable to voltage variations than appliances like washers, dryers, microwaves or TVs.

Spikes occur when lightning strikes a transformer. Surges occur when high-powered electrical motors are turned off, releasing extra voltage into the line. Spikes and surges can damage keyboard, monitor, hard drive or processor. Blackouts and brownouts can ruin data saved on the hard drive; of course any work in progress is lost.

Rural areas are particularly susceptible to surges (think of the electrical motors in shops, dairy barns, wells, air conditioners). That's why Chris Hutchinson, a Seattle-area computer consultant, recommends farmers move up from the basic surge protector to an uninterruptable power supply (UPS). "You buy insurance for your car, for your health, for your crops. Think of this as insurance for your computer," he said.

If you believe you might be at risk, get a battery back-up (UPS). Prices have dropped to about $100. Consider unplugging the computer when not in use.

Curious about how risky your computer's power environment might be? Take the online quiz at Just remember that APC sells protection equipment! Critical factors include the age of your electrical wiring, proximity to heavy equipment and distance from utility provider.

All tools require some preventative maintenance; computers are no exception. Use a defragementing to minimize wear-and-tear on the only moving part in your computer system.

Devise a regular schedule (or use software that automates the process) to back-up data. Making a complete backup of the hard drive is not crucial, because software would have to be reinstalled should a drive crash; just keep software disks in a protected place.

And insure against power quirks with a quality surge protector or uninterruptable power supply. These three steps will minimize the chance of major system failure and insure that if the worst does happen, and the computer dies, valuable work doesn't go down with the system.

Internet addresses of companies mentioned in this article:

Readers wishing to price shop or those not near urban centers may wish to contact one of these mail order companies: MacZone, 1.800.248.0800; PC Zone, 1.800.258.0882; or PC and MacConnection, 1.800.800.1111.

circa 1st quarter 1997


This paper is part of the Tips & Tools portion of the dotParagon web site.
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Copyright Kathy E. Gill, 1996 and 1997. Comments?

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