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April 28, 2008

Why Old Computers Get Slow

My Toughbook CF-29, bought back in 2004 when I left the corporate world and expected to spend many days in physically tough places, has been getting slow. Mouse clicks and resulting actions are increasingly far apart. Windows open blank and don't fill in for eons. Programs go into non-responding status; sometimes they recover; sometimes they don't. Rebooting temporarily speeds things up but it takes longer and longer to shut down and restart.

Why? You ask. The speed of light hasn't changed. The circuits can't be slower than on the day you bought the thing. Why are old computers slow computers.

A small part of the problem is barnacles. Most of the problem is that programs are written for the average two year old machine and its capabilities. The old computer bogs down under limits of memory and processing power when asked to do tasks designed for its more modern successors.

The barnacles are all the stuff you installed over the years and probably aren't even using anymore. Inactive programs don't do any harm except take up disk space but some of what you installed, printer and communication programs and drivers for example, have a small part which loads itself at startup and absorbs resources all the time the machine is running. With some trouble (and some tuneup utilities I've never tried), you can find these and turn them off. If you don't, they absorb more and more memory and processing power. There is some "printer subsystem" on my old Toughbook which reports its own failure every couple of hours and asks permission to tell Microsoft about the problem. Microsoft doesn't offer any solutions when told and the failure of this subsystem doesn't seem to affect my printing; but it's there somewhere.

When I bought the old Toughbook I installed as much RAM (memory) as it would take: 512 megabytes; seemed huge to a guy who wrote programs for the 128 kilobyte Mac (the first Mac) and 16kb TRS-80 model 1. (a megabyte is a thousand kilobytes). "My" first computer was an IBM 7090 the size of a basketball court with the equivalent of about 156kB. It cost millions of dollars. But I've digressed to my age… back to the old computer.

The CF-29 has a single processor which runs (walks by today's standards) at 1.3GHz. It has a 40 gigabyte hard drive which is almost full.

When I first used the machine I had one window open on the Internet most of the time. Now I have at least six tabs open in Explorer – because I can. I've gotten a bigger screen and, when at my desk, I have windows spread across two screens for easier cross reference and cutting and pasting or perhaps because I have code in one window and I'm watching how it runs in another window. Whatever, I've got more stuff running at one time.

There isn't enough memory on my machine for all this stuff to be running at once so Windows puts some of it in "virtual memory" – really on disk from which it must be reloaded before use. Often it is clear that my computer is "thrashing" – the technical term for swapping pages in and out of memory so often that it can't do any real work. Picture a hundred people trying to work on something in a room with only space for ten; every time someone else is needed for the task at hand; someone has push his way out so someone else can push her way in. But the guy who went out hadn't finished so he reenters and pushes someone else out. Pretty soon it's all elbows and no productivity. That's my computer.

Programs like Google Earth and Sketchup assume that my computer can draw lightening fast. It can't at the resolutions they're feeding it. Turning the scroll wheel for zooming a graphic image results in a jerky ascent or descent like a rocket with misfiring engines.

Web pages now contain incredibly elaborate Javascript – easy to write; cool to use; but a big burden on an old CPU to interpret and execute. Then there's Flash. And videos embedded in everything. You can almost hear that lonely old CPU groan.

So that's why it's time for a new computer. My new Toughbook CF-30 (I still plan to go to all those tough places) has 4 gigabytes (4 billion bytes) of RAM (although Windows can only see 3.3 gig). It has an 80 gig hard drive. It has TWO processors each screaming along at 1.6GHz. It has more auxiliary graphics processors to take the load off the main processor. It has an embedded EV-DO radio and GPS to reduce the clutter in my gadget bag.

And it has Vista… So far not at all to my liking.

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