There's an extremely frustrated diary on the rec list today about computers acting like broken pieces of junk. I understand that; I'm a professional software developer and IT admin, and I have to deal with these disasters on a near constant basis.
However, that also means I've gotten awfully good at dealing with it and I thought that maybe some information about prevention and cures would be more useful than a blanket complaint that computers suck. No advice about switching OS, computer, manufacturer, or brand below the fold.
I'd like to make this an interactive diary -- if you're encountering computer problems, post a comment. Perhaps I or any of the other technical adepts here can help out.
Let's recap a little bit, just for starters. Computers are deep, multi-layered contraptions put together by a million different people from a thousand different companies. Think you hate teamwork? Imagine working with a hundred people to create a single product -- and you're not allowed to talk to them. That is the kind of disaster that has created the modern computer. In the course of my work I've seen the source code to drivers, software, and Windows itself. Some days I think it's a miracle anything works to begin with. Still, there's a lot you can do to address and fix the problems. Let's get started.
Broadly speaking, you can look at a computer as several major layers: hardware, operating system, drivers, applications. These four things collaborate to make everything run, and a problem with any one layer can make for a really bad day. Poor decisions abound at every level, but the first step to fixing a malfunctioning computer is to determine which layer is the problem. Personally I find it's easiest and cheapest to work top down.
(Quick comment: not everything in this diary is technically accurate. This is about fixing computers, not being precise about every little detail.)
You know a big reason iPads are so stable? They only really run one application at a time. When you're browsing the web, nothing can jump in and interrupt you. PCs and Macs are not like that. There are, on your typical machine, 50-100+ programs actively running or actively waiting to run something. Some are built into the system and do important things. Others are garbage.
Did you buy a Windows PC from a major manufacturer like Dell, HP, Toshiba, etc? They've shipped you a defective product. These companies take a stock Windows installation and add a whole range of trashy applications. In recent years, they've even stopped giving you the requisite discs to start from an undamaged version. A few of their programs can be useful, enable extra features, and so on, but a lot of it is trialware or crapware. If you open up the Programs and Features control panel, you'll probably find a very large list of manufacturer applications. Feel free to delete all of them. You'll probably lose some features; that's okay. Once you've hosed everything out, go to the website for your exact computer model, and find the driver downloads section. Start with the ones that seem important and work your way through the list until your computer is doing all the things you expect it to again.
Ah, the bane of Windows users, and probably Mac users in the very near future. I'll let you in on a secret: antivirus software is some of the worst trash out there. Including the big names, you wonder? ESPECIALLY the big names. Norton/Symantec sells a product that is pure PC wrecking worthlessness. Whatever antivirus you have, go ahead and uninstall it. There are only a very select few products worth using, and there are very few reasons to use anything other than the Microsoft one:
If you really don't want to do that, take a look at AVG, Avast, BitDefender, ClamWin, or ESET NOD32. Or don't. And remember: "Live protection" is sales speak for "slows your computer down".
The neat thing about modern viruses is that they're largely about earning money. There are really only two categories to be worried about for most: adware and trojans. Adware simply exists to get you to click on ads and earn money for the people showing those ads. Trojans put your machine under someone else's control, usually for the purpose of attacking a third party (Anonymous are well known for conducting this type of attack). Adware is easy to detect: if you're seeing suspicious ads on sites that don't deliver ads like that, you have adware. Trojans are much, much more difficult to find but usually cause a machine to slow down dramatically. If you think you have either, I've found the best scan tools are SpyBot and Ad-aware. They're much, much better than the aforementioned antivirus tools for removing an infection that has already taken root. You might also try an online scan tool.
Use whatever -- IE, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Safari, it doesn't matter. You can thank Mozilla for reigniting the browser wars and forcing everybody to put their A-game on. Just one thing: use the absolute latest version of whatever browser you pick, and configure ad-blocking appropriately. All of them can block ads, even IE. Your browsing experience will miraculously accelerate when you do. And don't forget to leave ads enabled for DKos :)
How much software do you use on your computer? The list is probably around a dozen programs for most people. But a lot of unscrupulous companies out there are convinced that you need THEIR software. If you've got toolbars, taskbar icons, desktop icons, and you don't know what they're for, odds are good that you can get rid of them with no ill effects whatsoever. Removal varies depending on what exactly you're looking at, so check out what's on your computer and run a Google search. Learn about the things installed and find out why they might be there. If it doesn't sound useful, find removal instructions and proceed. Don't be afraid to delete.
Drivers are quiet, invisible pieces of software that make all the bits of hardware in your computer function correctly. Some are built into Windows by Microsoft. Some are shipped with the computer. Others have to be downloaded. Either way, these things live very, very close to the heart of your computer and they're not immune to problems. Manufacturers do ship updates, and you should periodically check your manufacturer website for a recent revision. If you're seeing a Blue Screen of Death or other major failures like surprise shutdowns, this is your first angle of attack.
Know your computer's exact model number. It will be written on it somewhere for nearly all. This is your gateway to know exactly what drivers you need and where to get them. All of the digits, letters, and dashes are important so don't be sloppy!
All major operating systems integrate automatic update systems. USE THEM. Mac, Windows, Linux, doesn't matter. Developers don't ship updates for amusement's sake, and reboot prompts aren't a joke. We don't put them in to amuse ourselves and large amounts of research have gone into smoothing the process as much as possible. (We use the stupid things too and don't appreciate reboots any more than anyone else!) The single biggest reason for computer failures is simply not being up to date with the fixes that manufacturers and software companies are shipping out. Remember, we're talking about hundreds of interacting companies and discovering a problem somewhere along the line is not unusual.
One more word of advice: ignore anyone who tells you that the solution to a computer problem is to switch operating systems. These people are not your friends (from a technical standpoint). They are evangelizing their choices, probably irrationally so. Switching (from anything to anything) might be a good idea for any number of reasons, but fixing an existing technical problem isn't one. "Mac doesn't have that problem" means "MY mac doesn't have that problem right now".
Hard drive space
How much of your main/only hard drive is currently in use? Is it more than 85%? If so, you're in for a lot of pain. Tech companies have always avoided talking about this, but a computer needs a certain minimum amount of scratch space to work with files. Once your hard drive fills up, everything goes down the tubes. Files take forever to save, and everything you do involves saving quite a lot of files. (Especially web browsing.) If any of your drives are nearing capacity, the speed of the machine as a whole will flat out collapse as you pass 90% and 95%.
Similarly, a computer needs a certain amount of active high speed scratch memory (RAM) to operate. If it runs out, it falls back to hard drive and that's when your computer sits there clicking without actually accomplishing much of anything. Here's another secret nobody talks about: It makes ZERO difference what processor you have now, unless you're a serious power user. Memory is absolutely the single biggest key to speed, and you need more of it. Web browsing consumes incredible amounts. Playing video and movies takes large amounts -- 1 GB holds about 4 seconds of HD video. Don't worry about what Intel chip's in there, worry about whether you've got 2, 4, 8, 12, 16 GB of RAM. That's the most important number for ANY computer.
This is the category that will really ruin your day. Hardware isn't immune to bugs, and most hardware can't just download an update. Then you've got manufacturing defects to deal with, and lots of things just fail with age. Even so, it seems like the biggest enemy of computer hardware is old fashioned dust. It clogs up components and fans, causes them to heat up, and heat leads straight to hardware failure. Keep your area clean, keep your computer and especially its air ports clean. Use duster cans generously and frequently. I actually have to periodically vacuum puppy fur from my machines. A dusty computer is a dying computer.
Are you going to keep driving a car that's going RAH-RAH-RAH-RAH-RAH and assume everything's normal? Of course not. So when your computer is going click-click-click-click, there is a problem. It could be a dying fan. Much worse, it could be a dying hard drive. Figure out what's making the noise and have it replaced before it causes a lot more damage.
I bring this up mainly for the laptop crowd. Computers are made of very small components connected by very, very small wires. They do NOT like physical stress. Bending is bad. The single biggest reason the MacBook Pro is such a long lasting notebook is that it is made of stiff metal. Dell is infamous for shipping computers with such weak plastic bracing that the computers simply cannot sustain more than very light use beyond 2-3 years. When you're buying computers, ask yourself why similarly specced machines are actually priced so differently. If you've got a cheap plastic notebook, you're going to have to baby it or the internal components will snap -- sometimes internally at near microscopic levels. Be gentle putting them in bags. And think hard about build quality for your next purchase.
Computers are broken
I don't want to give the impression that I disagree with the referenced diary. I agree wholeheartedly, doubly so because I've SEEN the source code to most of what runs your machine from day to day and it's unbelievable in so many ways. It has to be, with so many people, teams, companies, and countries involved. Half the time, software developers aren't even sure who's responsible. (Though Microsoft has learned that they are ALWAYS responsible, much to their dismay.) Even the supposed usability king, Mac OSX, has a tendency to ask questions which I have to stop and think about.
Unfortunately, the best advice I can give with regards to computers is: learn. The world wants engineers to produce easy to use, simple machines that don't confuse and infuriate. Truth is, it's a huge struggle to get them to work in the first place, let alone cover up and present the wonderful facade you're looking for. They're not like cars. They're not like appliances. They are truly, literally millions of times more complicated and we've only had thirty years to figure out how to make them for the general public. On top of that, there's a whole boatload of engineers building viruses, ads, and other ridiculous things that are in direct opposition to the goals of a computer. That's why iPads don't have Flash, for example. (Try disabling that on your PC/Mac one day, by the way. It's not too hard and you'll be pleasantly shocked.)
Truthfully, we need another half century plus of work to deliver what the average users are asking for without compromising the capabilities of most machines. The iPad is probably the first serious attempt, but it gets there by severely crippling what you're allowed to do and how you're allowed to do it. In most cases, the drum beat of bigger, faster, better has long since drowned out the plea for easier, safer, cleaner. (Though the work by Jobs et al has put an enormous dent in that.) I'm not referring to choices as pedestrian as Mac vs PC. It affects every layer, every component, and we're a woefully long way from fixing that.
In the meantime, we can at least work as a community to get your personal computer back to tip top condition.