A couple of months back, a customer asked me for help with his desktop. I’d replaced the hard drive and re-loaded it for him over a year before, but he said it suddenly starting to freeze up randomly. He dropped off the machine, and I took a quick look.

I plugged the machine into my KVM, powered it up and took a look. The machine actually booted up reasonably quick for a 5+ year old Gateway PC. I ran some spyware scans, which came up with just a few relatively harmless tracking cookies, nothing major. I made sure the Antivirus definitions were current, then started a full scan. About 15 minutes into the virus scanning process, the machine just froze up. OK, I thought to myself, this is what the PC’s owner is talking about.

So here is where the wheels came off the wagon. After shutting the machine completely off, I went to boot it back up, and I got nothing. What do I mean by nothing? I mean no splash screen, no disk activity, nothing beyond the faint hum of the fan and power supply.

I let the machine sit for a good 20-30 minutes, then attempted to start it up again. Amazingly, it booted up as if nothing happened. I attempted to run the full virus scan, and just like before, the machine locked up after less than an hour of operation. And it refused to boot up, or give any signs of life until after I let it sit for a period of time.

I started to arrive at the conclusion that this was not a case of malware infestation, or even Windows corruption, because when the machine not only ran quickly (when it wasn’t frozen up), all my scans came up clean. And if Windows were hosed, it wouldn’t result in the PC not even displaying the pre-boot splash screen. This was a hardware issue.

I checked and reseated the RAM modules, thinking that could be the problem, but that didn’t improve anything. The inside of the machine was quite clean, cleaner than most desktops I’ve worked on… so it wasn’t a layer of crud causing the machine to overheat or choke to death. Maybe the power supply or motherboard had something going on. In any event, I shifted gears and focused on getting his data off of the PC. I was able to get the PC to run long enough to copy his data to a portable USB hard drive, which I then burned to DVD.

At this point, I cut my losses, as I didn’t want to invest any more time in troubleshooting this machine. It just didn’t make any sense given the age of the machine and the fact that this kind of problem may involve replacing components, possibly even the motherboard.

I told the customer the bad news first, that I though the machine has some major hardware issue causing it to freeze up and fail to boot. Then I gave him the good news, that I had his data safely copied to a DVD. I then told him that the best thing to do is to just get a new basic desktop PC to replace it, rather than put any more money into repairing his old machine. He seemed somewhat loathe to buy a new PC, which I understand to some degree… but when you look at what the old PC is worth (basically nothing), it just makes zero sense to invest any money in repairing it. We kind of went around in logic circles about repair vs. replace, and I think my message finally started to sink in. I mean, I know everybody’s on a budget these days, but considering you can get a decent budget desktop these days for $399 (which would likely outperform his 5+ year old PC), why wouldn’t you want to go that route? If it were the motherboard (and I’m not saying it was), would you even be able to get a replacement from Gateway for a machine that old?

It’s kind of a shame that the economics of PC repair often make replacement more economically feasible than repair, but that’s the cold, truth of personal computers. The older the PC, the more it applies. It doesn’t take a genius to see how this feeds the growing problem of e-Waste. Think about it.