Anyone who follows me on Twitter has probably seen complaints about my computer. Despite (I like to think) having above-average knowledge of computers, computer problems cling to me like bedbugs. My latest was particularly baffling. Now that it’s resolved I’d like to share what went wrong and how I fixed it.
Several months ago, Sarah’s perfectly serviceable Lenovo laptop bit the dust. It gave a few advance warnings, like occasional memory errors or the Blue Screen of Death. I reinstalled the OS, which is the best way I know to fix damn near everything, but the problems came back and the hard drive crashed. We back up using Mozy, so it was more of an inconvenience and expense than a catastrophe. And I was determined not to spend too much on another laptop that, given our track record, was likely to die in the next two years.
Once it was determined that the Lenovo was not worth fixing, I went to Discount Electronics and bought Sarah a used Dell Latitude 620 running Windows XP. She’s a communications consultant, so just needs basic internet and word processing tools, plus a way to get video off our Flip camera and onto YouTube or Facebook. Nothing fancy.
On the day I brought it home and got it set up, Sarah said the computer seemed “slow.” I could never work in tech support because I always blame the user. “What do you mean slow? Do you mean the internet is slow? That’s just the wifi connection; it has nothing to do with the computer. This thing has more RAM than your old one. It’s not slow.”
That didn’t go over very well, as you might have guessed. But the problem was difficult to diagnose because it was intermittent and hard to replicate. It took several weeks of testing stuff before I could even describe the problem:
- It could not render HD video at all. And most video, streaming or non-, was choppy and out-of-sync.
Sarah became so fed up that we did what you Apple fanboys have been thinking all along: We bought her a Mac.
And then suddenly, Sarah’s buggy-ass Dell became my buggy-ass Dell. Because as luck would have it, right after we bought the Mac for
Sarah, my work laptop also died. I’d have to ship it back to the company that issued it to me five years ago.
I called Discount Electronics and asked what my options were on the Dell. They said if it was a hardware problem, they’d replace it. Fair enough, I said, but how long will that take to diagnose? Five days, they said. Can I get a loaner while you look at it? No. Can I talk to a manager? Hold on. [Pause.] The manager says no too.
For a work-at-home consultant, five days without a computer means five days with no billable hours. Not possible. This computer problem was mine and mine alone, and dammit I was going to figure it out!
After using the Dell as my primary computer for a few days, I learned another facet to the problem: It ran better in the morning than at night. I almost thought I was imagining it but after making this observation several days in a row, I knew it was true.
I tried many things. I downgraded Firefox after reading that the latest version was a memory hog. I disabled AVG antivirus and Windows Firewall. I installed a video accelerator. I glanced at my BIOS settings, shuddered, and walked away without touching anything. I ran memory tests. Nothing made a damn bit of difference.
Finally, I did the thing I always do when all other options have been exhausted: I reinstalled Windows.
There’s nothing like a fresh OS install to make you think you have the fastest computer in the world. This time was no different. The elation lasted only a couple of hours, though; once Dreamweaver and Photoshop and Office were all installed things slowed down a bit, but the bugs seemed to have been worked out. Hooray! I thought. Then I went to Tweet about my success and watched in horror as my words didn’t appear onscreen until 15 seconds after I’d typed them.
The bugs were back. I thought an OS reinstall would be the equivalent of burning the mattress, but it didn’t get rid of them.
Then a fortuitous thing occurred. My brother, in town for HostingCon, offered to take a look. He put his hand under the laptop and pulled quickly away: It was too hot to touch. And I remembered that just that morning I’d had a new error message: Basically, “this machine is too hot and cannot be booted.” (Resolved by waiting 15 minutes before trying again.)
The computer was running a fever, causing all kinds of slowdowns on memory-intensive tasks, like video and AJAX websites. It was all Web 2.0’s fault!
And it ran better in the morning because it was cool then.
In other words, Duh + Duh = Duh.
I could have returned to Discount Electronics and demanded a replacement at this point. And they might have bypassed the five-day diagnostic and given me one. But there would be no guarantee that the “new” refurb wouldn’t be just as buggy as the old one. And my software and data was already loaded, so…
This is what I did: For around $30, Best Buy sells “cooling platforms” that you place your laptop on and connect via USB port. The platform I bought has two fans that blow air up into the machine’s guts. Since setting my laptop on the cooling platform, everything runs perfectly. Problem solved.
Until this one joins the junk heap in a year or two and I spend a fortune on another goddamn Mac.
*tl;dr version: My laptop with a busted fan couldn’t run Web 2.0 stuff like AJAX and YouTube. This led me to realize Web 2.0 websites require more power than simple, old-school HTML-type sites, which led me to make an un-researched declaration that Web 2.0 causes global warming. Get it? HA!