Updated: January 26, 2009
If you're buying a new computer every four months, this article may not appeal to you. But if you're a rather average computer user who intends to keep their machines in a mint condition for as long as possible, there are some important things you can do to help you attain that goal.
A healthy computer works faster, is quiter, breaks less, and provides more joy, entertainment and productivity to their users. For instance, I own and heavily use a 3-year-old machine that boots into Windows XP in about 10 seconds without any special tweaking or constant re-formatting. And this is no random luck. The excellent performance of this computer is a result of careful grooming. So, let's see what you can do to make your machine live a long and healthy life.
1. Buy Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)
A UPS is, in essence, a battery. When the electricity goes down, it will keep your computer running. Depending on the brand and power, UPSs can keep computers working for several minutes up to several hours after the incident, preventing data loss or damage to components due to the sudden failure.
Most UPSs will gracefully bring down the computers after their battery runs out and will shield the computer power supply from damage due to sudden surges or drops in the electricity supply, like during thunderstorms.
Sometimes, UPSs also come with additional software, which allows users to monitor the status of the UPS, the battery charge and load levels, the power grid voltage, and more.
My experience with UPSs has been tremendously positive one. In the past, before I started using them, I witnessed several deaths of power supplies that capitulated after voltage surges, motherboards with blown capacitators and ruined hard disks due to sudden power losses. Since, I have been spared, touch wood.
You can hardly imagine how many fluctuations there are in the power grid, all of which can be fatal to your machine. Using a UPS is like placing a shield between your expensive and precious hardware and the viles of the national power supply.
2. Buy high-quality power supply
High-quality power supplies are essential to the health of your computer. Cheap supplies may have a high theoretical output, but they will handle only a fraction of that and squeak out ungracefully when you load it.
Good supplies will also include a powerful fan, to keep the dust and heat away, possibly even with several speeds. They will also last much longer.
When buying a new machine, you should not skimp on the power supply. Quite a few people underestimate the importance of this part, but it is the heart of your box. Without it, nothing will work.
You should also buy a power supply that exceeds the theoretical maximum load of your machine by at least 30%, to avoid stress and wear. Thus, if your CPU and GPU demand 300W at peak performance, you should go for 400W, at least.
3. Buy two motherboards
This may sound like a weird suggestion, but it is not. Motherboard models come and go, and one day, oops, your motherboard will no longer be supported. I have a personal example to share.
Several years ago, I bought a very powerful AMD machine with the 939 socket, which is no longer supported by the manufacturer. This means that should my motherboard die, I will be forced to scrounge the e-bay for a replacement or buy a new machine altogether.
Having a spare motherboard is a good idea. You may claim the same for the chip, but they come with a lifetime warranty, so the risks are much lesser there.
If you can afford it, buy two motherboards. Place the spare in an ESD bag, complete with a dessicant to keep the moisture away. Then, place this package into an external, sealed bag, with vacuum lock if possible. Lastly, place the wrapped motherboard in a dry, cool place and pray to the Gods of Internet that you never have to use it.
4. Keep dust away by using lots of fans
Fans are noisy, but they move air about. In addition to keeping your internals at a reasonable temperature, powerful fans can keep dust from accummulating. For instance, my cases have very little to almost no dust inside, thanks to a pair of powerful 12cm fans in the front and back.
We have already mentioned two motherboards, but you may also want to consider two of everything. Two DVD burners in case one dies, two hard disks etc. Having a single point of failure is never good. Multiple devices extend your lifeline and increase your productivity and flexibility.
Having several hard disk is particularly important. Not only does this allow you to share resources between them, you will have increased performance, especially during intense read/write operations. For example, if you run a backup on the second hard disk, your first one will be unaffected, allowing you to continue working normally without having a single hard disk head shuffling between several jobs.
Most importantly, several hard disks means you can backup your data more efficiently and with a much greater level of survivability. Even if one of the hard disks dies, your personal, important stuff will be stored away safely.
6. Temperature control
Keeping your hardware working also requires that you maintain reasonable, and above all, steady temperatures inside your case. Extreme cold and heat is usually unhealthy for hardware components. Mid-range temperatures are your best bet.
To do this, you will have to use proper cooling. Large fans at the front and the end of the case are a good idea. They will also keep dust away (tip 4). You may also want to consider special fans for hard disks.
Buying large casing is also useful, both since they help dissipate excess heat generated and allow more flexibility in the layout of hardware parts. Small cases will force you to keep your hardware bunched closely together. Large and spacious cases are particularly useful if you have multiple hard disks and DVD burners, allowing to leave empty slots in between for better cooling.
If you agree with my strategy, then you will also refrain from turning your computers off, to avoid the temperature shock between power ons and offs.
7. Monthly maintenance
You can help your hardware by helping your software. Malfunctioning operating systems will often overload your CPU or hard disks by inefficiently allocating resources and racing after fragmented files.
If your operating system is in a mint condition, it will use less CPU and memory. If the filesystem is working properly and efficiently, you will see less hard disk activity.
On Windows, running monthly defrag and chkdsk is a good way on ensuring improved performance and reduced wear on your underlying hardware. On Linux, the superiority of the filesystems used belies the need for defragmentation while disk integrity checks are often automatically enabled every X reboots.
Still, you should keep an eye on your used space, CPU load, memory usage, and other parameters. If things deteriorate over time, you will be able to rectify them quickly, without inflicting undue stress on your operating system - and thus, your hardware.
Here are several screenshots showing different utilities in use:
In Ubuntu, for example, you can use the Disk Usage Analyzer and System Monitor to monitor disk usage and and CPU and memory loads:
In Windows, SpeedFan will tell you how hot things are inside the computer case and the state of your hard disks, as well:
In Linux, smartmontools will report back the health of your hard disks:
Ensuring the long, lasting health of your hardware requires lots of care. Computers are like little puppies. They will pee on your carpet if not watched after, proverbially speaking.
A timely investment in a UPS, high-end power supply, multiple spares, good cooling, and smart use of the operating system are a must in making sure your visits to the tech shops are as few as possible. Take care of your PCs and they will serve you faithfully for a long time.