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Extending the Life of Your Computer

by: 
Chris Peters
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Find tools and tips for greening your nonprofit through TechSoup's GreenTech Initiative, where social benefit organizations can share and learn more about technology choices that can help to reduce our overall impact on the environment.

According to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (174 KB PDF), manufacturing one desktop computer and monitor requires 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water. Unlike most appliances which require more energy to use than to manufacture, it takes much more energy to produce a computer than that computer will consume in its lifetime. A report from United Nations University indicates that building a computer takes five times more energy than that computer will use throughout the rest of its life; therefore, extending the life of your PC by two years can make a huge difference in your organization’s overall environmental footprint.

If you’re your new to PC maintenance, don’t make the rookie mistake of dumping a computer at the first sign of trouble. Simple, cost-effective software fixes and hardware upgrades can keep your computer running well for years to come.

Software Fixes

Before you recycle a slow computer or reformat its hard drive, make sure you’ve cleaned out the junk and clutter. Common causes of slowness include spyware, viruses, temporary files, fragmented files, and full hard drives. Windows has several built-in utilities to help clean and organize your PC. Check out 5 Ways to Speed Up Your Computer for more information on Disk Cleanup, Checkdisk, and Disk Defragmenter. LifeHacker recently listed the Five Best Windows Maintenance Tools according to the site’s readers. These tools are free, third-party alternatives to the built-in Windows utilities. For Mac tips, check out OS X Maintenance and Troubleshooting.

Better yet, put all of your computers on a regular maintenance schedule so that the gunk never has a chance to accumulate. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last ten years, you know a little about the danger of computer viruses. Check out TechSoup’s Virus Prevention Toolkit for more information.

Software that starts running when you log on is a particular nuisance to Windows users. Too many auto-running programs can suck system resources and slow your machine. But it’s hard to find the source(s) of this problem, and it’s hard to decide which programs really need to auto-launch and which ones don’t. Again, free utilities can help. Autoruns for Windows and similar programs will scan all the locations where autorun files tend to hide. These tools then present a list and let you block or allow auto-launching at your discretion. If you can’t decide, visit Sysinfo.org. Sysinfo’s database describes the well-known startup programs and tells you how to handle each one.

If the latest versions of Microsoft Office and other standard Windows programs bog down on your PC, open source alternatives might run faster, though that’s not always the case. See Six Steps to Adopting Open-Source Software at Your Org for information on open-source software for your nonprofit. For more information on adopting open-source resources at your organization, check out the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative website.

Change the Role of the Computer

Many computers are discarded before they’ve truly reached the end of their life cycles. Just like office furniture and other equipment, a computer can serve multiple roles within an organization before it’s time to recycle it. For some roles you need an up-to-date recent model PC, but in other cases you can use a castoff, hand-me-down machine.  When a computer starts to under-perform in its primary role, consider some of the second acts listed below. By getting as much good use out of a computer as you can, you’re saving money and reducing your organization’s ecological footprint.

  • Test machines: Experimenting is a great way to learn about technology, so your staff might appreciate the opportunity to play on some of your older machines.
  • Temporary or swap computers: When a computer goes into the shop, it’s nice to have spare machines on hand. You can roll out one of your older PCs while you’re repairing the newer one. Also, if you have guests or new employees, you can set them up on one of the older machines until you’ve prepared their permanent computer.
  • Spare parts: Old computers can be a source of replacement parts — expansion cards, memory modules, hard drives, and more.
  • Hand-me-down: Different employees have different computing needs. You can often pass an older, slower machine along to someone with less demanding, less resource-intensive software.
  • Thin clients: You could convert some of your computers to a thin-client architecture in which multiple desktop environments run virtually on a server and accessed by individual computers. Although such an environment requires your server to have substantial speed and computing power, its requirements of each thin client are much less stringent. Older computers may still be able to thrive for several years as thin clients. Learn more about virtualizing desktops and servers with Virtualization 101.

Hardware Upgrades

Buying newer, faster components sounds like a cheap way to upgrade an old PC because the prices have dropped dramatically in the past few years, but if hardware isn’t the real problem, you may be disappointed with the results. Here are some points to consider before investing in new hardware.

  1. Hardware usually isn’t the problem. More often than not, a computer slows down because you’re running too many programs or you need to defragment the drive.
  2. If hardware is part of the problem, it’s not always easy to isolate the offending component(s). You can run tests to determine the slowest link inside your computer (also known as the bottleneck), but the results of these tests are often hard to interpret.
  3. Installing the new components takes time and expertise. You have to be comfortable opening the computer, and you’ll have to install new drivers. If you buy a new hard drive, you’ll have to image that drive (if you have disk cloning software), or you’ll have to re-install your operating system and all your software. 
  4. Your system may constrain the available options. For example, some older motherboards won’t recognize more than 1 GB of RAM. If you’re looking at a new video card, does the manufacturer make drivers for your operating system?
  5. It can be hard to replace the components on a laptop (for example, keyboard, screen, touchpad mouse). However, you can often plug in an external replacement if one of the integrated parts begins to fail.  For example, if the keys begin to fall off, you can plug in a USB keyboard. In effect, this turns your laptop into a stationary desktop PC, but stopgaps like this might get you through to the next fiscal year.

RAM

If hardware still seems to be the root of your problem and you have 512 MB of RAM or less, start by adding more memory. You can buy 1GB of RAM for $20 or less, so it’s one of the cheapest hardware components out there. And nine times out of ten, adding RAM makes a bigger difference in the perceived speed of the computer than any other upgrade. For more advice, see How to Upgrade Your PC’s RAM. With any new hardware component, including RAM, make sure it’s compatible with your motherboard. Crucial and Kingston have tools that recommend the right kind of RAM based on the make and model of your computer. On most modern PCs you should buy and install RAM modules in matched pairs to get the best performance. In other words, if you buy one 512 MB memory module, buy a second module of equal size from the same manufacturer and install it at the same time. Most RAM manufacturers sell memory in “kits” containing one or two matched pairs, so you don’t have to worry about matching them up yourself.

Hard Drive

No hard drive lasts forever, and a hard drive that’s starting to die can slow down every aspect of a computer’s performance. To gauge your hard drive’s performance, try installing HDD Health or a similar application.

In recent years, solid state drives (SSDs) have gained attention as an alternative to traditional hard drives. SSDs are more expensive than traditional drives, but in many cases offer better performance. They also require slightly less power, which benefits both your battery life and the environment. For more information, see Are Solid State Drives Ready for Primetime? in the TechSoup Blog.

Stay away from motherboard and processor upgrades unless you really know what you’re doing. The chances of a serious or catastrophic mistake are high, and the payoff is usually very low in terms of the perceived improvement. For more information, check out Upgrading Your Computer Components.

Try a New Operating System

Many open-source, Linux-based operating systems are designed to use minimal system resources. In other words, they’ll run productivity and web browsing software without noticeable lag even though you have an older processor and 128 MB of RAM. For example, Xubuntu is an officially supported variant of Ubuntu that needs less speed and less memory than the main distribution. Fluxbuntu is even less resource-intensive, but it’s not officially supported by Canonical (the folks who develop and maintain Ubuntu). Make sure that the manufacturers of your hardware provide drivers for Linux. Also, bear in mind that making the switch to Linux may require retraining for your IT staff, your regular staff, and your clients. On the other hand, Linux distributions, such as the ones mentioned, are becoming increasingly user-friendly, so the transition from Windows isn’t as hard as it used to be.

Refurbishing and Recycling

If you’ve exhausted all your other options and it’s time to get rid of a few machines, dispose of them responsibly. First, pay attention to all relevant accounting and fiscal guidelines. Selling used computers to your brother-in-law is a bad idea. Then, if your equipment is less than four years old, donate or sell it to a qualified refurbisher. Refurbishers will fix anything that need’s fixing and then pass the machine along to another organization. Finally, if the PC is too old or too broken for a refurbisher, see if the manufacturer offers a takeback program (if you’re buying new machines from a different company, they may take back your old machine even if it’s not their branded computer) or find a qualified, responsible electronics recycler. Ten Tips for Donating a Computer walks you through the basics of refurbishing and recycling. For more resources, visit TechSoup’s Computer Recycling and Reuse page.

Conclusion

Every organization has different needs, but we suggest the following. Keep up with regular PC maintenance tasks. Get rid of unnecessary software, especially the type that launches itself automatically. Make sure you have enough RAM to run your operating system plus your most resource-intensive software. Set power management settings so you’re using less energy and giving your computer a periodic break. Learn more about power management settings on the TechSoup Blog. Finally, budget for regular PC replacement so you can afford to when they truly need to be replaced.Remember, the energy required to manufacture a new computer could power that computer for several years. When you’re thinking of how to reduce your nonprofit’s energy consumption and IT budget, don’t just think about your own power meters: think about the power and cost that goes into building and buying your computers too.

Image: Pulse Trace Healthcare Medicine Heartbeat, Pixabay