On the Care and Feeding of Digital Devices

A woman came into the shop the other day, obviously frustrated, even upset. She had two laptop computers that weren’t working. Both were older machines. One simply would not start, and the other had, apparently, a broken DC connector (the device that carries power into the laptop from an AC adapter.) One computer appeared to have a failed mainboard, making it non-repairable at a reasonable price. The other computer was marginal because of the likely hefty labor cost to fix. I agreed to keep both machines and use them as a credit for a replacement laptop. The lady was complaining bitterly about the computer with the failed mainboard, claiming that it had been trouble from the very beginning. I was a little surprised, being familiar with that particular model and knowing that it had a pretty good reputation for reliability. Well, I thought, these things happen.

The customer settled on a newer refurbished Dell model, paid and left. The following day she called me and said that the computer would not start. The lights were on but the screen was dark. Plus it would not shut down. Oh great–just what I want to hear.

But through a series of questions I determined that the actual situation was this: She had been using the computer at a public wireless access point, and had then put the computer away in its bag without first shutting it down. She had just closed the lid. Meanwhile, the laptop kept running, got hot in the enclosed space of the bag and locked up due to overheating. It had not been set to go into standby mode when its lid was closed. (Standby is a special low-power state).

This explains things, I thought. That’s most likely why her one laptop was a source of so much trouble for her. She probably never, ever actually shut it down. She just closed the lid and forgot about it. Meanwhile the laptop was running the whole time and she didn’t even know it.

I am perhaps a tad unreasonable on this subject, but my opinion is this: If you aren’t going to use an appliance (like a computer) for a while, SHUT IT OFF. At the end of every day, I power off all my computers, printers, monitors, test equipment, anything that draws power. Not only that, I turn off the surge protectors they are plugged into so that the devices receive no current whatsoever. The reasoning is this:  less energy wasted, less chance of damage due to a power surge, less heat that has to be removed by the AC system–a major consideration what with our lengthy warm season here in central Texas. The only downside is that I have to wait maybe 60 seconds for the systems to power on in the morning. Even on the busiest day, I can spare 60 seconds.

Somehow the idea has gotten entrenched in the public mind that it is damaging to computers and other electronic devices to turn them off and on. At some level this is potentially true, because there is an initial thermal shock as power floods through the cold circuits when you hit the start button. But it’s OK, they can take it. Modern electronic devices are designed to handle thousands of startup/shutdown cycles. Look at it this way: If you follow the conventional reasoning, then you should never turn off the lights, never turn off your television or stereo, never turn off your car’s engine (90% of engine wear takes place in the first half-second of operation). Obviously that would be just silly. By not turning off unused electronic devices, you trade the small possibility of a slightly shortened lifespan for the device for the certainty that a lot of energy will be wasted. And that’s not a very good bargain. So if you aren’t going to use that computer for a while, go ahead–turn it off.

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