If you think of your computer as an appliance then you are not giving it the respect it deserves. Many of us bought our first computer with the expectation that it should "just work" - like a toaster. After all, the thing plugs into the wall just like a regular appliance, right? Even though we would all like our computers to be as trouble free as a toaster the fact is they are far from it. By definition an appliance is an object that performs a specific type of task or a narrow range of similar tasks. Your toaster is a prime example. It burns bread, perhaps more than you would like sometimes but that’s it’s sole function. Now think about all the things you can do with your computer: send and receive email, browse the web, pay your bills online, file your tax return, create a website, video chat with someone on the other side of the planet, etc… Now I challenge you to do any of those things with a toaster! Computers are complex and require attention to the physical components and the software to operate effectively.
With functionality and diversity comes a great deal of complexity. Now think about your car. The number of parts in an average car is around 14,000. And reflect back on your toaster and its meager couple dozen parts. Now contrast both of those things with over 40 million lines of programming code in the Windows XP operating system. And its not just Windows but the millions of lines in all the other software programs in your computer that have to work with together with Windows. If you consider each one of those lines of code on your computer as a point of failure then the fact that the darn things work at all is pretty amazing.
Think again about your car and its complexity. It takes a lot of maintenance to keep it running in good condition. You have to ensure that it is fueled and well lubricated. It also requires periodic maintenance to replace parts that wear out. Your computer isn’t any different. Consider where you see most desktop computer towers stored. They are stashed under some stuffy desk in heart of dust bunny land. Open up a tower that’s been under a desk for a few months and you could practically insulate a quilt with the dust bunnies that have hopped in there. Heat is the enemy of the computer and throwing a dust bunny blanket over it doesn’t help. Just like your car, if your computer overheats it can stop working.
Also consider for a moment the important data on your computer. It might be work documents, tax info, or family photos. All of that data is stored on your computer’s hard drive. Hard drives are composed of movable parts and spin at incredible speeds, and just like your car, those parts will eventually fail and need replacement. And if you are using a laptop then the abuse a hard drive takes from being constantly jostled around is 10 times worse. The way to avoid losing that data is to back it up to another location – before disaster strikes!
Computer software also needs your care. The most important thing you can do is update your operating system on a regular basis. These updates are one of your first lines of defense against viruses and other malware. Speaking of viruses, the speed at which new viruses are written is staggering. If your anti-virus program is out of date, even by a couple of months, then you might as well not be running one at all. There are also programs like Adobe’s Flash and Acrobat that are big targets for viruses and that also require frequent updates to keep you safe. Fortunately, most of these programs have auto-update features that will take care of this process for you. However, auto-updates are not foolproof and do occasionally fail. If these types of things are left unattended then it places the computer at ever increasing risk.
These are just a couple examples of the attention a computer needs to keep it operating effectively. The problem is that computer maintenance is not a “life skill” most of us are taught. Most people just want to perform the tasks that a computer allows them to do without becoming a computer technician. Just like your car, most of you just want to drive it where you need to go and not have to learn how to change out the brake pads when they wear down. However, just like a car, there are minor computer maintenance tasks that you should learn to keep it working until it needs to go in to the “mechanic”. Just like you fill your car with gas, you ensure that the operating system gets updates. Washing your car is like cleaning the dust bunnies out of the vents on your computer.
To an average computer user this can all seem a little daunting. That is totally understandable which is why I will be addressing some of these basic tasks in upcoming blog posts. But remember that just like basic car maintenance doesn’t eliminate the car mechanic, basic computer maintenance doesn’t eliminate the computer technician. It will need advanced service eventually. Remember that your computer is a lot like your car and not like your toaster. Ask yourself: “How much maintenance do I give my toaster versus what I give my car?” Give your computer the respect it deserves and it will serve you well, otherwise you’ll get burnt.