Friday, May 21, 2010

Turn me Off

Turn Me Off

The question of whether to leave a computer on or off has been asked since the dawn of the personal computer revolution. Ask this of two geeks in the same room and they’ll tangle like roosters at a cockfight. Internet “flame wars” (that’s Geek for “lively debate”) have fought over this question for decades with no clear winner. So, I hope that both people who read my column appreciate my bravery by settling this question once and for all by definitively proclaiming, “Well, it depends.”

Modern computers with modern operating systems such as Vista and Windows 7 can generally leave their systems on all the time. These operating systems have very stable power saving features compared to Windows XP and previous systems that tended to be quirky.

Still, most folks should turn the computer off when they are finished for the day. Otherwise, the computer wastes energy, mechanical parts such as fans and hard drives wear out. Your computer is more susceptible to damage from electrical surges and brownouts while on. If you have a high speed internet connection you increase your risk to hackers by leaving the computer on. Errant programs sometimes have “memory leaks” and other programming errors that accumulate the longer you leave a computer on and cause the system to be less stable or lock-up.

One of the biggest problems we see at the shop with always-on computers are monstrous dust bunnies residing inside the computer. These critters clog up your cooling fans and heat sinks and eventually trap enough heat to kill your computer. Some of y’all really should change your air conditioner filters more often.

There are plenty of reasons to leave a computer on full-time. For instance, in an office environment, the data on your computer is often backed up during the evening hours. If your computer isn’t on files aren’t backed up. At home, your computer may be the “server” for digital entertainment, MP3 files or gaming so if it’s not on, you aren’t entertained. You may, like me, use your computer after hours to help find E.T. by crunching numbers for the SETI Institute or use your computer from afar via Remote Desktop.

The most common argument for leaving a system on is the theory that most of the wear and tear on a computer happens during the thermal expansion and contraction that occurs during start-up and shut-down. This thermal action supposedly loosens solder joints in electronic components thereby shortening their lives. The theory states that if you leave your computer on, you will prolong its life. This is hogwash. I’ve got a television that served as my first Atari game console in my dorm room a hundred years ago and, until recently, served as an Xbox display for my son. It somehow survived over twenty years of thermal cycles and beer spillage. It is made of the same type of solder joints and integrated circuits used in computers. The bottom line is that you should turn your system off unless you have a need to leave it on.

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