Sunday, July 18, 2010

How Many Computers Should a Person Own?

I had defeated computer envy.  I now owned four computers. Was this too many?

It was surely enough.  I rarely used the fourth one.  It was an overflow computer, built inside a cheap case I had hated since the day I bought it, using older memory chips and an outdated CPU.  If I took it apart and sold its parts, I might get $50-75 from the whole set.  And I would have the space on the side table that it was now occupying, and a spare keyboard and mouse for emergencies.

The third computer was a laptop.  I used it often enough to justify it.  Especially when I was going someplace, or taking the other computers down to move them, or for some other reason had this as my main or only computing tool.  In some instances, I probably could have gotten away with just hauling my external USB drive to a library or office and using the computers there to access my data.  In other instances, that was not a good or viable option.  So the laptop was going to stay.

The second computer was a Windows XP and Ubuntu dual-boot machine.  So was the first computer.  Each ran a wide-screen monitor.  The difference was that the first computer was running VMware Workstation on Ubuntu, so I had both Windows and Ubuntu options there, while the second computer was running native Windows XP.  The latter was faster (for e.g., video editing) and had better hardware support (for e.g., my Brother multifunction printer); the former was my window into the Linux world, consistent with a long-term effort to move away from Windows.  I was still discovering new ways in which Linux, and virtualization, gave me options that were superior to WinXP.  Every time one computer or the other had to reboot or go through some kind of extended diagnostic or maintenance thing -- indeed, every time one froze up or slowed down or otherwise failed to perform perfectly -- I was glad to have the other computer to switch to.  I had installed an environmentally friendly power supply on one, and had purchased one for the other, as at least a start toward keeping energy use down.  The two-computer approach had been so useful for so long that I did not plan to change this part of the equation either.

But that fourth computer:  what about that?  I did want to have less stuff, and could use the $50-75.  I also didn't want to have to invest the time, required by every computer, to do maintenance and updates and such.  Just the day before, I had spent a couple of hours reorienting myself to the problems involved with that old computer's three parallel ATA drives (two hard drives and one CD/DVD), within the constraints imposed by that machine's motherboard.  So I guess part of the question, there, was whether to update the old machine so that it would at least not have time-consuming hardware.  Maybe the time had come to hand-down a relatively outdated SATA drive from computer no. 1 or 2.

On the other hand, the old computer occasionally proved useful.  Right now, for example, I was thinking about using it as a test bed to review the contents of a bunch of old CDs.  I suspected that I had already loaded them onto a hard drive and that the CDs were no longer needed, except possibly as backup; but I was not sure of this.  I was reluctant to load those CDs onto one of the two main computers, where they could possibly get mixed up with the potentially more updated folders into which I suspected I had arranged those old files.  I had also found that, when dealing with large numbers of files, it could be less confusing to load them all onto a hard drive at once and then run utilities to detect duplicates, calculate checksums, and otherwise massage them into shape to let them be compared against other sets of potentially similar files.  I couldn't have done this on the second computer at this time, because it had proved to be the only computer that was situated to reboot and run the Windows "chkdsk /r" command on a balky external USB drive; and for some reason running and rerunning that command, until no more errors were reported, was taking many hours.

Another thing I was doing on the fourth computer was to tinker with BartPE and other bootable CD and USB options.  I didn't want to be rebooting one of the two main computers, interrupting whatever I had going on there at the time, in order to proceed with that investigation.  I couldn't use the laptop for this, because for some reason it would not boot some kinds of CDs from its CD/DVD drive.  (This blog contains separate posts on some of these issues.)

I also sometimes used the fourth computer as a hardware testbed, swapping out a suspicious piece of hardware from one of the two main computers to test elsewhere.  I couldn't test desktop hardware in the laptop, and I also couldn't test it in one of the other main computers unless I wanted them both to be out of commission.  That would be less of a problem, now that I had the laptop, except where the software needed was not installed on the laptop, or where too many different data directories were involved to justify getting another computer involved, or where the laptop's issues interfered.

The summary of the situation would probably be that it was handy to have the fourth computer around, but that I should take care to keep its hardware and software setup relatively simple, so as to minimize maintenance and other hassles.  For now, I decided to leave it at that, but to monitor the situation and keep in mind the option of dismantling it.


Ordinary Human

That's actually a tough question, I have 12 machines in my house at last count, not including tablets and machines at school with my child. For the record, I have six children and a dog, and he has a computer too.