Jan 28, 2015

What I've Learned So Far Fixing Old PCs

I have been tinkering with PCs since the first Sinclair ZX81 came out around 1980. I even bought a 16 KB memory expansion unit and a tiny thermal printer. It was soon calculating prime numbers and I was constantly tuning that small program to make it faster at doing so.

Eight years later, I had a Masters in Computer Science and was off and running in a very hot job market for software and hardware engineers. Though I concentrated in software, I never lost my zest for monkeying around with personal computers. I don't think I ever bought a new one. I always favored being a few years down the depreciation curve, which for PCs is about as steep as the face of El Capitan.

Still, it was just a small, part-time hobby, nothing like the marathon of 40 or so desktop and laptop machines I have been going through since November. Besides a basket load of technical details I've acquired poring over and repairing these machines, here are a few general observations I'd like to share:
  • Far and away, the most common problems with these machines are the hard drive, the memory and the power supply, in that order. The CPU is indestructible. I have yet to replace a CPU in any of these recent machines.
  • There's a high correlation between laptops that can't be repaired and a high quantity of food crumbs and other human detritus in the keyboard. :)
  • I should take pictures, because you really cannot believe how much dust and carpet fiber builds up inside these boxes until you've seen it yourself. I've found CPU heat sinks that were covered with a 1/8" mat of dust. Zero airflow. It's a wonder they didn't catch on fire.
  • HP makes some nice machines, but Dell desktops and laptops are far and away the easiest to service. They really think about their design and how things are put together that make them easy to disassemble and reassemble. HP computers use a lot of non-standard parts, layouts, screws, etc. and these designs differ year by year.
  • Most of the machines I've received still have Windows XP on them and man are they slow and clunky. I replace the OS with some version of a light Linux and they fly again.
  • Linux is also far easier and faster to install than any Windows version. The Windows updates will kill you.
The final two things I've learned during this process so far are 1) how absolutely generous people can be in helping me out with donations, finding good recipients and offering heaps of moral support and 2) how gratifying it is to know we are doing some good whenever I donate a machine.

I feel the wind is at my back and that, combined with my love of tinkering with these machines, makes for a very satisfying period in my life. Thanks to everyone who helps make it all happen!


  1. You go guy - what a wonderful talent and service ! /Jane G

  2. Totally agree on your comments regarding Dell & Linux. I used to do PC rescue, and the HP's always had more issues with with proprietary drivers and odd-ball hardware. Most of the laptops that went out the door for donation were Dells. We had a bulk licensing agreement with Microsoft, so everything left the shop with XP installed. It was particularly discouraging see what were reasonably quick machines reduced to a snail's pace after Windows installed its umpteenth patch. Lubuntu is a much, much better choice.

    Never had much problem with losing memory or hard drives (let alone CPU's) until I moved to Costa Rica. I've had more drives fail here in three years than in twenty in the States. Probably has something to do with 10% vs 90% humidity.

    1. It was surprising to me how many machines I could revive (no boot, no video, etc.) by simply swapping memory modules. HDs, if they are not toast, are more difficult to diagnose if they are causing seemingly unrelated symptoms, but SpinRite can sniff them out. Most of these machines came from offices in FL with A/C, so humidity was probably not the issue, more likely dust and carpet fibers. I'm stuck when it looks like a MB issue, wish I had more expertise there.

      Overall, I've fixed 100% of the desktop machines but only about 60% success with the laptops. Just can't swap out things like video cards and HD controllers. :)

      The only thing I worry about with Lubuntu is its acceptance of random cellular modems, which are in common use here. Win7 is pretty good at finding drivers, but I don't have so much confidence in Ubuntu to sort it out.


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