Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

The decision to repair or replace a computer isn't always as easy as we think.

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.

Earlier this week I joked in an article that I knew of at least a couple of people that had solved their software problem - a fairly complex virus and spyware infestation - by simply replacing the computer. Even a worst case reformat and reinstall of Windows could have solved the problem, of course, but a lack of understanding and declining cost of new computers (and perhaps an over eager salesman) could actually make this seem appealing.

We've dealt with this issue in other areas of life. Many products have become disposable commodities. You don't fix a toaster, for example, you throw it away and buy a new one.

Computers have been there as well, though in a different way. While toaster technology is relatively mature and stationary, computers are getting faster and more capable every year. Repairing an older computer, without even factoring in the cost of the repair, is often much less attractive than simply purchasing a new one.

With the cost of computers coming down, low end machines that are quite sufficient for many average users are getting close to that "disposable commodity" status. Depending on they type of failure unless you're a do-it-yourselfer, the cost of parts plus the cost of the expertise to perform the work can often quickly exceed the cost of just junking it and getting a new one.

Perhaps even more surprisingly is that it doesn't always have to be hardware that pushes someone over the edge. I'm in no way advocating solving software problems by replacing your hardware, but I can certainly understand the frustration that might lead to it.

If you have serious software problem, finding competent and more importantly affordable assistance - assistance that can actually properly diagnose and repair any issues you might be having - is incredibly difficult. Today's systems all pretty much assume that the purchaser can perform some fairly serious maintenance.

For example folks rarely actually have to install operating systems any more; most machines come pre-configured. Until you have a serious problem and the customer service person on the phone tells you that the best solution is to reinstall. That may be trivial for some, but it's extremely daunting for many, and an investment of time for anyone.

The problem isn't there should be more locally accessible computer repair facilities, though there should be, the problem is that even if there were, the cost of paying a technician to do this work for you correctly compared to replacement cost is approaching that point where "oh, just junk it and start over" might not sound as far fetched.

It's a complex situation for the average user, and I don't have a clear answer.

Do you?

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.info and enter 11389 in the go to article number box to access the show notes and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse over 1,100 technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.

Article C2995 - April 14, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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10 Comments
Greg
April 14, 2007 10:18 PM

There's also the element of people not wanting to go without their computers. It's not like you can borrow a "loaner". If an older computer starts acting hinky, your options are to buy something new and spend 4-5 hours getting it up to speed, or take the old machine into the shop and wait however long it takes to fix, during which time you are without a computer.

I know some people who could put a machine or two in the shop and still have a spare. But other people have one machine, and when it starts going south, part of the calculation in whether to replace or repair is which option gets them back in the working groove fastest.

Ken
April 16, 2007 10:06 AM

Actually, my wife's consulting company offers loaner laptops while computers are in for repair/upgrade/cleanup/whatever. AFAIK, she is the only one to do so. (And, from a strictly business standpoint, I hope it stays that way, since it gives her an edge.)

adam
April 19, 2007 9:42 PM

I am actually IN this situation. I purchased my Dell Inspiron 8000 back in 2001. Over the past 6 years, 'big baby' has served me well - it's survived many spills, viruses, reinstallations of bootleg software, god knows how much spyware, and what for? The ever glorious pursuit of internet 'art work'. Anyway, sensing it was on its way out, i went and made a new purchase - a toshiba portege. i love it... it's great. however, 'big baby' died the other week. since then, i've reinstalled windows, reformatted, reinstalled windows, and reinstalled windows. no dice. to be honest, i'm not sure exactly whats wrong with it. (something about kernel debuggers)
Bottom line, i'm gonna give it another whirl next week sometime - but even the process of reinstalling windows is quite time consuming. so, im thinking about opening the baby up and taking a look inside. wish me luck!

dunstergirl
April 20, 2007 10:21 PM

I finally replaced mine last month, not because of any "failure" to speak of, but because I had the misfortune to purchase a Windows Me computer in that brief window where it was the "bundled" operating system, and now the vast majority of software I use (and need to upgrade regularly) no longer supports Windows Me. This was becoming a real problem.

The cost of upgrading to XP on the old computer (with it's less-than-adequate RAM, drive space, etc. to handle XP) made the cost of a new computer seem reasonable, and the increasingly frequent reboots (several times a day) as I tried to handle larger and larger files on a system not up for it, made the issue more pressing.

The final straw was the arrival of Vista and new computers bundled with it - not wanting that OS just yet (my rule is to wait at least 6 months to a year before taking on a new Windows OS because of all the initial bugs), I had to take the plunge and buy a new machine with lots more RAM and drive space and fast processor (but still with XP) before I couldn't anymore.

I'm pretty happy with the change, although it still bugs me that I seem to HAVE to get a new machine every 5 or 6 years due to hardware and/or software issues, but that seems to be the way it goes.

I'm all for repairing old computers (my old machine will now go to the store I am part owner of for basic spreadsheet, hardware catalogue, kid's games, and possibly remote desktop software so I can do the books on my home machine while at the store), but before you spend money on repairs/problem resolution, upgrading the OS, or what have you - compare the cost of an all-new machine (with it's faster processing, greater memory, etc.) and decide which is more cost-effective (sort of like deciding when to finally dump - or park - the old rust bucket vehicle, another painful decision, except computers are a LOT less expensive than cars). I hate to advocate buying a new machine over keeping the old, but in some cases economics and practicality just totally win out...

Cheers,
Lelani

john william
April 21, 2007 6:22 AM

Where are 95% of PC problems..?

The Case..........no
Video card........no
Monitor...........no
Main board........no
Ram...............no
Sound card........no
DVD/CD drives.....no
Hard Drive contents.....yes

Yep, most PC problems reside within the hard drive.

The drives themselves are remarkably reliable but the content causes possibly 90% plus of all PC problems {my experience anyway}

That is where the solution effort should be directed.
Various solutions can be considered.

eg.Two hard drives, one with only essential programs installed and generally not used until a crash or serious faults with first hard drive.
Hard drives are cheap these days.

A change over facility for hard drives at your local PC shop.{like a change over BBQ gas bottle..}

A facility to plug faulty hard drives on line for expert analysis once the change over has been made to working hard drive B.

Hard drives need to be manufactured specifically to be removed very easily, perhaps similar to USB hard drives.

There are other possibilities and I will think of some later I guess.

Junking the PC seems extreme unless it is obsolete anyway.

JP

dunstergirl
April 21, 2007 11:30 PM

unfortunately, "obsolete" covers pretty much any computer more than a year old or so, if that...

Lelani

Neville
April 22, 2007 3:40 PM

Just went through the reformat and total rebuild on a PC that my son had been using for about 4 years. You can imagine the rubbish that had been downloaded. Did a full copy of the PC to an external hard disk and, most importantly, downloaded and ran a free piece of software called Belarc Advisor before I started. It lists out all the installed software and serial numbers. Lots of useful information to help you remember what you had installed as well as configuration information. I was able to come up with an inventory of what I wanted to reinstall which was about half of what was installed when I started. It should be a must for every rebuild.

Thanks again Leo for the most useful piece of email I receive every week.

Zion
June 3, 2008 9:13 AM

Interesting article. I do offer a "loaner" desktop, fully loaded with typical customer needed software, but very few of my customers take me up on my free offer. My business has also shown hard drive files and conflicts create most problems, and failed power supplies to be the main hardware failure item.

Mary Wilkerson
January 26, 2010 6:41 PM

I have two main computers and rely on both. I spent weeks researching why the mouse on my older Windows XP Pro one wouldn't work (including buying new mice - wireless, serial port, USB etc.), changing ports, checking for viruses and spy ware etc. etc. etc.) HP wanted $339 plus postage both ways just to look at it and maybe replacing the motherboard. I bought that upgraded refurbished HP in 2005 for $500 and it always was great until the mouse died. I ended up buying a new bare CPU with 8 RAM and 1TB hard drive with Windows 7 Home Premium for very little more than what HP wanted. I used all free or recycled software, and recycled the monitor, speakers, webcam, TV tuner etc. from the old PC. I am able to access the contents of the old HP through our home network. In this case, I think it was the best solution. I have a NAS hard drive set up to do automatic backups and have excellent anti-virus, anti-spy ware systems set up. I will be 80 on my next birthday and actually have nine computers that I have running (and on our network) including a Jornada 680. Keeps me out of mischief. I love your articles. Thanks, OldGrayMary

Digital Artist
November 23, 2010 6:19 PM

I just want to recommend a great source of recycled computers -- anyone wanting a computer for home use, "recreational computing" so to speak, why not buy a slightly behind the leading edge machine? I am using a Windows XP machine which I bought new about five years ago, but when my wife decided she wanted a computer I got her a better XP than mine for eighty bucks! The source: Goodwill Industries. A partnership between Dell and Goodwill called ReConnect is recycling dontated computers and doing a good job. The machines are tested and come with a one-week money back guarantee, freshly installed Windows XP sp3 on a cleanly wiped hard drive and documentation outlining the specs (cpu, motherboard, drives, RAM, etc.) The Windows XP is licensed to the buyer. Two side benefits -- recycled computers are not polluting the planet in a dump somewhere, and the people who recycle them for Goodwill are being rehabilitated from desperation to mainstream employability. Good for them, good for the environment, and good for the buyer.

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