Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Oil Change and a Lube

February 2008

By Mike Gould

Once upon a time I bought an el-cheapo Windows PC laptop. At that time I wrote an article about it ("Cheapness" - http://mondodyne.com/b2b/smbiznet.79.shtml), marveling at the inexpensive clunky-ness of it all. Now, 40 months later, a follow-up, a tale of frustration, and a fix.

Coding and Browsing
To review, the unit in question is a Toshiba Satellite, purchased for a measly $600 at a Best Buy blow-out sale. The purpose of this polluting of the precious bodily fluids of my computer environment was to enable me to see the web sites I create the way in that Bill Gates intended, through the bottle-bottom glasses that are Internet Explorer (IE) 6. I do all my web development on a Mac, but need to review it in a PC browser, which has a number of problems viewing properly-written web code (xhtml and CSS).

I crank out my web pages, post them to my private website for review, and fire up the laptop to see them the way the unfortunate masses see them in Windows. Standard web creation operating procedures: produce your page and then test it in as many environments as possible. I have since added a Mac Mini that runs Windows XPsp2 with IE 7, the latest wretched release from Redmond; this enables me to test on the latest two releases of IE, as well at the Windows version of Firefox.

Getting What I Paid For
For years this set-up ran pretty well: the laptop running Windows with the current updates, anti-virus program (McAfee) and the current patches from Microsoft. I only used it to view my own sites, so I didn't need to worry about it picking up cooties from the web, and I never did email on it, so picking up malwear from that vector wasn't an issue. And it sits behind the router that the rest of my system hides behind, effectively firewalled. (And yes, I did turn on the software firewalling anyway, on both the Macs and PC.) And I never took the silly thing out on the road, so it was never dropped or subjected to the rest of the indignities heaped on the typical road warrior rig.

And yet, the dang thing was getting slower...and slower... and s l o w e r. It took minutes to get IE to open, and longer still to prod my favorites folder into displaying my sites, and an eon to open anything. "WTF?" I thought to myself. (I always think in acronyms, don't you?)

Had I not installed and verified the validity of the anti-virus program, I would have suspected some evil bits and bytes of stealing cycle time, running a spam server behind my keyboard or something.

Nope, time to call for help.

D'oh!
At this point, I hear seasoned Windows users out there snickering and saying "you ran a Windows box for 40 months without getting it in for service?" Well, uh, yeah. I mean, I have been running my Macs for far longer and they are fine. (Well, getting a little slow, but I will be updating to an Intel 8-core Mac Pro next week, 4G of RAM, several hard drives... um... getting off-topic here, must focus...).

Or as Captain Obvious says, this sort of behavior on a PC is like running a car (a Yugo) for four years without an oil change, so time to call in a mechanic.

Clue Man to the Rescue
Help arrived in the person of my buddy John Maleski, who works IT for a company in Troy. He came over to watch the NFL playoffs with my wife (I am a football widower), and was dragooned into helping out with the performance-challenged laptop. Everybody needs a pal like John, I'm telling you, because he figured things out in around 10 minutes (although it took around an hour during half-time to fix everything).

A couple of pokes in the software innards and he announced: "There's your problem, 192M of RAM, way too little to do anything of use in XP." And the system was clogged with temp files, other digital baloney, and Toshiba junkware that have been hogging resources since the get go.

Now this is all pretty embarrassing. I thought I had updated the RAM when I bought it, but apparently I had left it vanilla to ensure I was using a worst-case system. And I was, way worse than people are using these days. There was actually 256M installed, but because cheap laptops don't have their own video RAM, the system allots 64M to just running the screen, leaving scant resources to do useful things like visit my websites.

We threw in another 256M chip I had laying around, and things improved measurably. Then John went through all the start up items and threw out all the junk I didn't need, reducing those little icons in the taskbar by half.

By the time he was done, I had my laptop back to usable speed and humming its way through my sites as I had intended. I'll be adding more RAM to pep it up a bit faster and call it a day. While he was at it, John improved the way the text is displayed (turning on the anti-aliasing) and tweaked a few other things as well.

So the moral of the story is: you wouldn't drive your car for 3 years without service would you? If you have a PC, have it serviced regularly and you will find your computing experience ever so much more pleasurable. Install all the RAM you can; it's cheap and improves the way Windows (and the Mac OSX) work. You can buy various clean-up programs for Macs and PCs that will alleviate much of this, but I think having a pro look at your computer periodically is the way to go.

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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