When Do You Know It's Time to Buy a New PC?When do you know it’s time to buy a new PC? Or, more important, how do you tell clients when it is time for them to buy a new PC? I do not need an algorithm to tell when to get a new computer. When the impulse is on me, I build a new one. Clients who come to me for tutoring or repair do not build computers. Clients tend to fall into one of two categories:

(1) They hang on to whatever they have, dumping money into it occasionally long after it should have been trashed, or

(2) their computer “gets slow — it must be old” so they go to Best Buy or Costco and get a new one that looks good — then they come to me to set their new one up and dispose of their old one.

The second class of client has certain benefits. Their old computer is often just fine, but they no longer need it, so they may give it to me (I never solicit donations!). I scrub their personal information and prepare it to donate to some worthy person. This class of client might not spend money the way I would, but they do not cause me heartburn.

The first class is more problematical. On the floor behind me right now is an ancient Dell with a too-loud fan running long enough to make sure it will not crash. I last saw this computer two years ago when the owner complained it was slow. At that time, I maxed out its RAM to two gigs and she was surprised at the difference. As politely as possible, I suggested she hang on to it for another two years and then consider an upgrade to a more modern machine. Two years passed, and she called saying that the monitor had gone funny and a warning popped up saying a serious error had occurred. Shortly thereafter, the computer shut down by itself. She lives nearby, so I went to her house and reminded her of my prediction and suggested that while I could likely fix whatever is wrong, the cost would be more than the value of the computer and almost certainly something else would happen to compromise future operation. I was thinking of a head crash since it still has the original hard drive. Two years ago I had set her up with an external backup drive, but it was turned off when I arrived (sigh). Budgets are important, but this client could afford a new entry or mid-level computer. She declined the suggestion. “I do not use it enough to justify getting a new one. Please just find what is wrong and fix it.”

Given that directive, no one can fault a professional who takes the commission. But I do not feel good about it. After the routine security checks and upgrades, I opened the box with a bit of dread. My notes from the previous visit had prepared me (I keep all repair records and invoices — do you?). The client has cats and her tower is stored on the floor under her desk where the cats also like to hang out. In spite of my admonitions, she had not moved or cleaned the box in the two years since I last cleaned it for her. The inside looked like a dry hairball. I tried to blow it out, and succeeded in getting hair over my whole workspace. The CPU heat exchanger was totally clogged. The PCI graphics card heat exchanger was almost completely covered with hair wedged between it and the adjacent card. I cleaned everything and put it back together. It has operated almost 24 hours now without problem.

In writing my invoice, I will emphasize what I told her when she gave me the job: unlike my normal policy, I do not guarantee this work. I promise only that it is working on delivery and that it has been burned in for a day without issue. Also in writing, I will again suggest she consider another (new or used) computer. I do not mind making money maintaining old computers, but moral dilemmas must be navigated.

How do you know when it is time to buy a new PC? The correct answer has little to do with the installed OS and a lot to do with the age of the components and how the computer is used.

Image: World’s Dirtiest Fans by teemumantynen