Take care of your hardware and it will take care of you

It's time to take a look at hardware dependability issues. I've been running some my
hardware almost continuously for two years or longer. So why has it lasted?

My Fortress uninterruptible power system from Best Power of Necedah, Wis., is still
going strong after four or five years, despite lots of brownouts and electrical storms.
The fact that so little of my computer hardware has gone down is due in large part to this
high-quality UPS--and to air conditioning that goes on whenever the temperature hits 72
degrees. Heat and unregulated power--not mere age--definitely cause hardware failures.

My 2-year-old Compaq Computer Corp. DeskPro XL 556, a 60-MHz Pentium, is getting pretty
slow now for testing new software despite its fast hard drive and 16M of memory. It's on
the way out, but it has given near-perfect performance.

When I first got the computer, it would regularly lock up on a cold boot. It required
several reboots but always restarted safely with no data loss . The lockup has since
become a very rare event--in other words, the system has improved with time. The boot
problem never was more than a minor irritation or I wouldn't have bothered keeping the
computer. Apparently it's just an isolated fault.

I still use my 486DX-2 33/66 Zeos International Ltd. tower with 4M of RAM daily for
word processing and as a test machine comparable to the government's older installed
inventory. It provides perspective on how memory- and speed-hungry new applications have

Many of the new word processors just won't run acceptably on a 486, something lucky
Pentium users tend to forget. If the software specifier for your office has a Pentium and
everyone else still has a 486, the performance disparity can lead to lots of trouble.

My Zeos actually started out as a 386 and was field-upgraded to a relatively fast 486,
but all the hardware other than BIOS and CPU chips is nearly six years old.

After printing tens of thousands of documents and many book manuscripts, my old
pre-Lexmark IBM Corp. laser printer still runs strong. It has consumed a tall stack of
high-capacity toner cartridges in its lifetime.

I bought a newer Lexmark International Laser Printer 4039 12R (one of the first
marketed under the Lexmark name three years ago) because it's fast and supports 600
dot-per-inch printing and PostScript. It still outputs flawlessly.

I can't remember exactly when I installed my NEC Technologies CDR-77 1X external CD-ROM
drive, but it's at least six years old. I keep it because not all CD-ROMs are compatible
with newer drives.

I have even older hardware that's still operating full-time, such as a Grid 386SX PC,
now relegated to fax service. One of my two 5-year-old, 14-inch CTX International Inc.
monitors is attached to the Grid. Both the monitors from CTX, of Walnut, Calif., have
worked with several different PCs and still display well.

Another long-lived monitor is a 19-inch from Sampo Inc. of Norcross, Ga. This TriSync
VGA- and Macintosh-compatible display has been in constant use since 1989 with no service
calls. The only special attention it gets is a screen blanker. And I turn it off during my
lunch breaks.

Is any of this equipment especially rugged? Do I treat it exceptionally well? No! So
how do you explain the fact that my only major hardware failure in 15 years of PC usage
was caused by a lightning-induced power surge that went through an unprotected telephone
line and burned up an IBM PS/2?

My office isn't particularly clean. In fact, the cover has been off the Zeos for about
three years now, and I can see dust on some internal components. But the hardware has been
remarkably dependable, although I sold a Zeos 386SX identical to the original described
above, and the twin failed in three months.

After thinking it over, the only reason I can find for such reliability in my office is
a series of high-quality UPSes combined with careful air conditioning practices. The Zeos
system that failed after I sold it wasn't protected by a good power filter or an
air-conditioned room.

Surveys have shown that every office has line power problems --surges, spikes,
brownouts and frequency variations. All these are deadly to electronic equipment. If you
want hardware to last, you must have well-regulated power.

I really should replace the battery of my 2-kilovolt-ampere Best UPS someday soon. It
should have been done two years ago, as Best recommended, but these days I basically use
the UPS as a highly regulated power supply and need only a few minutes of standby power,
so I keep putting off the maintenance upgrade.

When I first installed a big UPS, I really needed to be able to run at least a full
hour during a power outage. Now my work requirements have changed. The fact that the
battery has lost a lot of capacity doesn't matter much, and power-conditioning capability
has been unaffected.

The lesson here? Don't buy new equipment based on old requirements. If you make
purchasing decisions or recommendations for your office, you can waste lots of money
supplying users with the latest technology when their jobs have changed.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s.

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