Thursday, November 3, 2011

Have you upgraded to Windows 7 or 2008?

In This Post
  • What's Wrong with the latest Windows?
  • Taking Out The Trash
  • The Problem of Landfills
  • Solutions

What's Wrong with the latest Windows?
Here we are on yet another rant regarding the pathetic quality of the world's leading computer operating system.  Yes, that's your warning!  Why, what's wrong with Windows 7 or 2008?  They are really pretty, everything runs great!

If you ever wondered what was so great about Steve Jobs and Apple's products, this is another key differentiator.  Garbage.  What do we mean by garbage?  Garbage collection and taking out the trash.  In specifics, with computers garbage collection pertains to collecting up unused "pieces" of computer memory - and cleaning up.  What kind of garbage do computers collect?

Taking Out The Trash
First, there is RAM - that is, the memory computers use to "think" or process while running.  This memory is relatively expensive (say around $10 per gigabyte), and only works as long as the computer is on.  Chunks of memory are "allocated" to be used by your programs (say Firefox while you are surfing a web site), and are supposed to be "freed" (or marked available) once the program is done with it.  All computers must manage RAM, and Windows does this in a fairly fragmented way.  It has always done this poorly compared to other operating systems.

However, my big beef is with persistent storage (in other words a hard drive).  Let's take for example, installing a new program.  OK, so you know how you constantly have to keep updating your operating system in order to get the latest "security" updates?  (Whose security is it anyway, Microsoft's?)  How do you think it handles these updates?  Well, these updates come in the form of system files.  Your Windows system consists of many different files, and Microsoft sends updates to these files.  What does it do with the old ones that got replaced?  Delete them?  No, because what if you want to go back and uninstall the update?  (Who ever does, but that's beside the point - what if?)  It keeps all these files in what it calls the "Windows Side By Side" directory (winsxs).  All thus junk just collects.  And collects.

What about the TEMP folder - did you know about that?  On every system there is a temporary folder where files are stored - temporarily - on the hard drive.  However, what is the definition of temporary?  What really happens is files get put out there, a small percentage get removed when the computer is done with them.  The large majority of these files just collect.

Windows has something else you may or may not be aware of - I call it the "trash" heap.  The Heap, and the Hive, are where Windows stores all this various stuff that is not files, but it still "needs."  Why the double-quotes?  Really, it is only a Windows thing.  The Registry is stored in the Hive, and provides a central database of installed applications and their settings.  This Registry, the Hive, and the Heap which stores some things about RAM, constantly get written to, deleted from, and basically left like Swiss cheese - fragmented.  (How does Mac do this?  Instead of a central Registry, each application stores all of its settings within a bundle file which you think of as the application.  When you launch it, the bundle is "unzipped" and the files within it are utilized.  When you delete an application - the bundle is removed, clean, and simple - you are done.)

The Problem of Landfills
So, what's wrong with the way Windows does things?  Guess what - it truly is antiquated.  This is technology that was developed, and let's face it not really innovated upon, since the 1980's.  Yeah, back when computers were 8-bit, and 16-bit were coming on the scene (not 64-bit...).  The more the landfill collects, the harder it is for the workers to truck around all the waste that "needs" to be stored for future disposal.  Oh, and who ever goes through their basement and empties out the stuff collecting in it?  You just say "this computer is too slow, I need a new one" and just buy a new one - which is just what the computer manufacturers and Microsoft want because you keep spending more money.  This landfill of the Heap, Hive, and Registry constantly build up - until you decide to move to a new city.  When that city's waste disposal is full - move to a new one.

So, there are collateral damages coming out of this behavior.  What happens to the old electronics?  Are you guilty of this?  Do you throw it in the trash - literally?  Well, let's take a look at what is in these electronics, and are they safe for a landfill?

Electronic circuit board components are connected with solder.  This is made primarily from lead.  Lead, if you don't already know, is toxic to humans, plants, and animals in concentrated amounts.  Furthermore, there are trace amounts of mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals.  Did you know that all computers have a lithium battery that keeps the clock running even when they are unplugged?  This battery is a standard CR2032 about the size of a quarter, just like the battery in your bathroom scale or electric candle, that needs replacing every 5 years or so (unless like me you set up time synch with the Internet time servers so the clock is always in synch with Boulder, CO).  Now, what about those old vacuum tube monitor screens?  Many more nasty stuff there.  In fact, in some states throwing these things in the trash is illegal.  (It should be a federal EPA statute.)

Hopefully you enjoyed the allusion to literal and figurative landfills I talked about here - and hopefully I opened your eyes a little to the impact of your actions on the overall earth and your pocketbook.

So how do we solve these problems?
  1. Don't use Microsoft Windows on your computer.  There are many alternatives to Windows, some free and work on your existing PC, some cost.  Upgrade your Windows to Linux, or if you really are ready to buy a new computer, buy a Mac.  Not only do Macs hold their performance throughout the years, but they also have - almost unheard of for a computer - resale value!!  Yes, you can sell a Mac for a decent amount of money years after you buy it.
  2. Tune Up Your PC - just like you tune up your car, you have to tune up your computer.  You can try to do this yourself, or you can budget in a maintenance cost of taking it in once a year to your local service shop.  Find one of those little mom & pop shops - and support local small businesses - the lifeblood of American enterprise.
  3. Become a Mechanic - if you really do want to try to maintain it yourself, I will follow up my next Blog post with some tool recommendations.  You can also find some recommendations here on an older post.