Another dead computer: My personal laptop

I'm kind of surprised at how much people reacted to my previous dead computer story. I guess there's an audience for stories about dead computers.

Today's dead computer is my Sony Vaio PCG-Z505LE laptop, with a 600MHz processor and 192MB of RAM. Certainly a big step up from that 486/50 with 12MB of RAM.

Laptop computers have a comparatively short lifetime. (Hardware vendors must love them.) I've learned that the best value comes from buying used laptops. You have to accept being a bit behind the curve, but the way I use my laptop, it needs to do only a small number of things:

  • surf the web,
  • read e-mail,
  • use Remote Desktop Connection to access my desktop machine,
  • download pictures from my digital camera, and
  • compile the occasional program.

Only that last operation requires a hefty processor, and I do it so rarely that it doesn't bother me that it's kind of slow. (I just run the command line version of the compiler, so that at least takes the IDE overhead out of the picture.)

I bought this laptop two years ago, used, and it ran just fine until a couple months ago when the internal power supply burnt out. I was ready to abandon the model line and give away the accessories I had bought, including a $200+ double-capacity battery.

Allow me to digress on laptop batteries. Observe that batteries for old-model laptops cost almost as much as the laptops themselves. That's because the battery is the only real consumable in a laptop computer. The other components will run practically indefinitely if you don't drop them or douse them in soda, but batteries just plain wear out. That's where the money is.

This means that many ads for used laptops will mention "needs new battery" at the end. And those are the ones I sought out. Because I have a working battery! Most prospective buyers would be turned off by a dead battery, but that didn't bother me one bit.

The replacement laptop arrived a few days ago, and it runs great. I wiped the drive and reinstalled Windows XP from scratch. (Challenging because the laptop doesn't come with a bootable CD-ROM drive. I had to use floppies!) I may install a handful of programs but that's all. I don't like installing software on my computer. The more programs you install, the more likely there's going to be a conflict somewhere.

The old laptop has already started being scavenged for parts. A friend of mine needed a replacement laptop hard drive, so I gave him my old one. The battery and power brick can of course be used by the new laptop. The memory from the old Vaio is no use, since the Vaio has only one memory expansion slot. The other parts of the old laptop aren't much use for anything aside from spares. Perhaps I should put the old laptop on concrete blocks on my front lawn.

Next time (if there is a next time), the story of the dead AlphaServer.

Comments (33)
  1. My Dell Latitude C400 laptop has served me well for the past few years (1200MHz & 768 MB of RAM) although several months ago one of the screen hinges got loose, so the screen was prone to slamming down on the table when least expected! Then last month the screen finally died, so I’ve resorted to using it via Remote Desktop Connection! It’s not going to be living much longer…

  2. Finally, someone else with the same policy on software as me. My friends call me paranoid or even anal, but I keep the list of software I install on my computer to an absolute minimum. Partly because of conflicts, but also because I don’t trust most setup writers. I hate to say it, but most software doesn’t 100% uninstall. They seem to always leave "klingons" behind.

  3. CRathjen says:

    "Perhaps I should put the old laptop on concrete blocks on my front lawn."

    You’re disproving the common wisdom; that’s way more than 14/1000ths of a beautiful mental picture, Raymond :)

  4. David Craig says:

    I had an old 486-33 running Novell 3.11 using the BNC 10mbps ethernet. It was still working about five years after I put it together. I finally just got rid of it because I couldn’t find a good use for it since the old SCSI drives were less than 2MB each. Useful in their time, but no more. I won’t get to read much this week since I am at the IFS PlugFest in Bldg. 20.

  5. wow just wow says:

    Can’t wait to hear about this one. I bet it committed suicide from having NT on it.

  6. Good Point says:


    I don’t like installing software on my computer. The more programs you install, the more likely there’s going to be a conflict somewhere.

    Hmmmmm. I always wondered if people inside Microsoft (specifically Bill Gates) had problems with their Windows PCs like the rest of us. Do they live with the twice a year reformats when things just don’t seem to work like they used to?

  7. Craig Vitter says:

    Back in 1996 or so a friend of mine who salvaged old computers and printers for parts bought a lot of roughly 200 286MHz laptops from the PA state govt. He told me about his recent purchase while sitting around his kitchen knocking back a few beers. Big mistake.

    Next thing you know we are out in his front yard seeing just how far one of the bricks could be tossed. The best part was the person who brought their car to a screeching halt in front of the house. He just could not believe what we were doing and pleaded for us to spare the laptops. My buddy handed the guy a laptop and tried to egg him into tossing it. When the gentleman refused my friend let him take it home with him.

    Each one of those laptops cost my friend $2. I think he made $1000’s on the parts.

  8. Batteries have a finite lifespan, whether or not you use them. The important thing is to keep them intermittently charged up, but dont have your laptop permanently topping them up as that is bad too.

    But the money doesnt come in battery replacements. Really. The margins in laptops goes primarily in the software, and the hardware vendors see none of that. Battery parts cost money to build, maintain and keep -and for old laptops, that is mostly cost, not profit. Think how much it costs to keep making a regular supply of new batteries for old systems. Remember, they cant be stocked up in a pile in Taipei somewhere, because that stock would slowly die too.


    (whose camcorder needs a new battery too)

  9. Mike Dimmick says:

    Twice a year reformats??

    I’m still running the installation of Windows XP I put on here two years ago when I built the machine. Since then it’s had a few betas and release candidates of XP SP2, and a number of VS2005 "Whidbey" Betas and CTPs, as well as ‘Avalon’ and ‘Indigo’ CTPs and SQL Server 2005 Beta 2 and post-Beta 2 CTPs. In general, though, I’m very wary about what I install. So should you be – do you read every EULA to discover whether this week’s cool program has spyware in it?

    Before building this machine I don’t recall how long the previous machine had Windows 2000 installed. As I recall, I occasionally backed-up, repartitioned, reinstalled and restored, but I think it stayed in a steady state for two years. When I did reinstall I backed up the entire volume and System State with NTBackup, so you could argue whether that was a new installation or not.

    I think people only perceive a difference when they reinstall completely, when they have no programs installed – significantly, not their virus scanner and few drivers. Once you’ve got the system back in a usable state, I don’t think you’d be able to tell the difference. If you can, you’ve probably allowed spyware to be installed.

    Maybe I should acquire a new disk identical to the current one, install all the software I have now, and do a comparison (with defragmented disks, of course). I’d expect no difference whatsoever in performance.

  10. totor says:

    I use my IBM laptop (T22, P3-900) on a daily basis (10 hours sitting on the keyboard + 8 hours more powered on) since November 2001 without noticable problem.

    I only changed harddisk to a bigger one (20Gb -> 60 Gb) and I added some RAM (1×128 -> 2×256).

    Battery (not changed) is not a big problem because it still allows me to work 30 mn when unplugged (initial time was 3.5 hours).

    When you buy a laptop, prices for same hardware are twice on some brands. After some years, you understand why your computer was so expensive when you bought it.

  11. Frank Schwab says:

    Mike –

    I install as few things as possible simply because my computer gets slower with each app installed. Don’t believe me?

    Take a fresh Win2000 machine. Measure startup and shutdown times. Measure application startup times. Now, install Visual Studio .NET 2003. I’ve found that startup and shutdown times extend greatly, as well as application start time. Why? I have no idea – no additional applications are getting started from RUN keys or Startup folders (well, once I get done with them), but this one, albeit complex, application reduces my machine’s performance in a way that affects my use.

    Try the same with Microsoft Office – kill off the startup programs it installs, and once again, things slow down. Why?

    Currently, on my development machine, I have Office, VS.NET 2003, Firefox, WinZip, and a PDF reader installed. I expect it to be stable forever, and this is the minimum set of apps I need to get my job done. If I were installing/uninstalling customer apps as well as others, I’d expect to be re-imaging my drive on a regular basis. Perhaps it’s the difference between installing Microsoft apps and Joe’s Construction Estimation Master, but there are issues out here in the real world.


  12. foxyshadis says:

    Did Vaios have X-Brite back then? Probably not, and that’s the best reason to own a newer one. Durability and comfort definitely trump speed and specs for me.

    My used Compaq X1000 has been very reliable, my best computer investment yet. Although I recently used an Acer 4001 and lusted after its sleek style. And it smiles at you! What could be cooler than that? ^_^

  13. There was a query conducted by the german computer magazine C´t which found that 50% of the readers asked that owned a laptop had to have it repaired at some point of its life. That, plus the figures on how much companies charge for the simplest of replacement parts, and you have to hate laptops ;-)

    I own a FS Lifebook B-2154 and the touchscreen (the nicest feature of all – and quite inexpensive compared to TabletPCs) failed me after 4 months. Otherwise, it´s working fine. Same trouble with installations without CD drives though. Best way I found is remove the HD from the laptop, put the OS files on the harddrive (by using an adapter & normal PC), put it back in, boot via floppy (a simple W98 will do) and start install from the harddrive itself (on my laptop, even the floppy drive supplied requires the port replicator – pre-USB times).

  14. Bryce Kerley says:

    This post made me appreciate my (comparatively) ancient Macintosh G3 Powerbook, from before Firewire replaced SCSI. I had to hack it with some crazy firmware patch to make 10.3 go on nicely, but it’s honestly my favorite computer because it just sorta works, and was super-cheap for a computer this useful.

  15. carlso says:

    > Try the same with Microsoft Office – kill off the startup programs it installs, and once again, things slow down. Why?

    My guess why things seem to slow down with each additional software package installed is because of the growth of the registry. And this is only a guess, mind you… but it seems to me that it takes longer to access registry keys as the registry grows in size. Why would the computer be slower after an Office install? How many hundreds of COM objects does Office enter into registry? ;-)

    Can anyone comment on the effect the registry has on system speed?

    As the timing of this article would have it, I was just reminded of this over the weekend. My girlfriend has been saying that she needed to buy a new laptop because her four-year-old 1 GHz AMD Athlon laptop seemed very slow in comparison to her office PC. I defragmented the hard drive and it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. So, over the weekend, I took the time to reformat the hard drive and re-install WinXP Pro and only the apps that she uses on a regular basis (word processing and email). And that did the trick… it’s amazing how much more responsive the laptop is after a fresh re-install of the OS. Could it be due to having a fresh registry?

  16. Those thin Sony’s only ever had <1hr battery life anyhow :-)

  17. Craig Ringer says:

    What about a network / PXE install? Most laptops support PXE, and it’s often easier to set up than finding (a) a working floppy drive and (b) at least one working floppy disk.

    I’ve only ever PXE-installed XP sysprep images and Linux distros. Surely there’s a way to PXE-boot XP setup then grab the rest of the files off CD / CIFS share, though … isn’t there?

  18. Chris Becke says:

    So how do you deal with an IT department that insists on controlling your logon scripts and routinely changes the list of software they deem necessary to auto-install?

    Ive taken to not logging on to the domain at work which doesnt make our IT security dept happy at all.

  19. I know laptops can cost a lot to get fixed.

    But there is a reason for that: they are complex beasts with expensive things in them like LCD displays and high end CPUs. look at how much it costs to get a 3 year old intel core for a laptop; a cost that gets passed on.

    Laptop vendors do not make money out of repairs, believe me. There is a reason for this: things that go wrong are often under warranty. The higher the Annualized Failure Rate is, the more laptops cost, affecting the bottom line. An unreliable line of laptops can cost a vendor, even if they no longer sell them. The other issue is brand. If a vendor has a reputation for unreliable laptops, nobody buys them.

    Next question: why do laptops appear to fail so often then? Because nobody drops desktop PCs from the overhead baggage compartment of airplanes, or leaves them in the back of the car in standby mode, disk intermittently spinning up, while they drive across town at speed. Laptops take a beating. The stuff is well made, but there are limits to the abuse they can handle.

    Be nice to it, it is your only machine on the move, and its data matters.

    Indeed, generally it is loss of HDD that reduces people to tears. I normally swap mine out every 18 months+ just for preemptive maintenance. The cost of capacity falls enough to give you space benefit in the process. Also I use groove to synchronise whole swathes of that HDD to other machines, so a system loss (in my last instance, system theft) results in no lost data.

  20. Jon Perlow says:

    "I don’t like installing software on my computer. The more programs you install, the more likely there’s going to be a conflict somewhere."

    Windows does some things fairly well like provide isolation between running processes, but it does a terrible job at preventing installed programs from breaking each other and the OS. Raymond, I am glad that you are willing to admit this is a problem, even if only in passing.

    I wish Microsoft would fix this. Since I’ve started using Linux, I’ve found it is so much better than Windows with regard to not having these problems. I hear MAC OS is also very good. Windows doesn’t have to be so bad, but it seems like the Windows team lacks the will to fix the problems. Fusion was an attempt but it produced almost no results except providing some helper APIs for the .NET GAC.

    It seems like most of the problems stem from the registry (the worst global variable in all of software history IMHO). The two biggest parts of Windows that depend on the registry are the COM runtime and the Windows Shell. Raymond, I am glad you’re on the team that can fix half the problem. Looking forward to the day when you author a blog entry telling the world you don’t mind installing software anymore.


  21. Steve Jobs says:

    You should get a PowerBook. Can do all the things you mentioned ( RDC Too ). And you’ll spend less time worrying about stuff not related to your current task.

    Find plenty of stuff to "innovate" into windows too :)

  22. SporkMaster says:

    carlso said:

    > My guess why things seem to slow down with each additional software package installed

    > is because of the growth of the registry.

    I’ve thought this for a while. I know this is a digression from the article topic, but does anyone know what the registry API uses to manage data? Lists of hashed keys? Or is it using Jet or some other DBMS under the covers?

    Another pet theory of mine: shell extensions. The more shell extensions there are, the more junk Explorer has to wade through every time you click on something.

  23. Josh Koppang says:

    Its funny that you mention soda. I had a Vaio 450 (can’t remember all of the letters that went around it). 500mhz pIII, 128MB ram – $2300.

    I came home from work one day and my laptop was closed, but powered on sitting on the dining room table. ALL of the status lights were on (harddrive activity, power, low battery, FULL battery, etc.). My girlfriend of the time was acting weird. I din’t find out why until I opened my laptop.

    Everything looked fine at first except for the fact that the screen was black. Then I noticed a tiny spot of Dr.Pepper. She had spilled a can on it and didn’t even tell me.

    Needless to say, it was garbage and so was she.

  24. Good Point says:

    "In general, though, I’m very wary about what I install. So should you be – do you read every EULA to discover whether this week’s cool program has spyware in it?"

    So you agree with Raymond. Don’t use it as a general purpose computer. Just put Windows on it and bask in its glory.

    See most people don’t understand this. They buy a computer and want to use it. They paid a good chunk of money for it and think putting more software on it is getting more out of it.

    Then after six months or so they call guys like us and we reinstall Windows for them so they can start all over.

  25. Craig Ringer

    >What about a network / PXE install? Most

    >laptopssupport PXE, and it’s often easier to

    >set upthan finding (a) a working floppy

    >drive and (b) at least one working floppy


    If you’re talking about PXE-booting through Microsoft RIS, it is true that many laptops do support network boots, but RIS adds certain hardware requirements. Your laptop’s NIC must be on the PCI bus; PCMCIA and USB NICs will not work with RIS.

  26. bramster says:

    I’ve had a Sony PCG-FRV25 for about 1-1/2 years. Being paranoid about losing my keystrokes (everything else can be re-loaded from CD’s, or downloaded), I use a 40GB pocketec USB drive as my working drive, and back up to the internal D: drive when I’m finished in a directory. The USB drive is marginally faster than the internal drive.

    The USB drive never leaves the building.

    Now, processing data file sets of 5+ gigs, i.e. reading 5 gigs and writing roughly that much for testing large runs, the little USB-powered drives left me wanting.

    So, a MAXTOR One-touch 160 gig external, externally powered USB drive has been added. Throughput has been increased by a factor of 5. Beauty! Time is $$$$.

  27. tsrblke says:

    Regarsing repairs, it’s getting harder and harder to make money off laptop repairs anyway.

    Normally I don’t buy the "Best Buy" warranties and stuff but for a laptop its gotta be worth it. So far out of them I’ve gotten a new battery, a new laptop keyboard, and a new hard drive. (Although part of me wants to believe they just formatted my deader than dead drive and gave it back to me.) Really not all that bad for the $250 I invested in the service plan. Plus I’ve still got a year left for something to go wrong before I have to start paying to repair it myself.

    Oddly enough we just bought another new computer for my dad, again from Best buy. (As much as I hate that place, unfortunately you can’t beat the prices, as its getting harder and harder to build a computer from scratch for what they’ll give it to you when you figure in time spent shipping ect.) The guy kept trying to pressure us into a $150-$200 service plan for a $600ish (Maybe $700) desktop. I told him flat out that it was a disposable computer, and if anything died that I couldn’t fix we’d just a new better one. Because quite frankly the lifespan of a PC around this house is +/- 7-10 years :P. With the off exception of the one computer that just was broken the day I put it together. So I fail to see how a 3 year service plan helps me. I finally lost it with him when he tried to sell us an LCD projector. (How this fits into a computer purchase, I’ll never figure it out. Because really do I need to be typing my report on a 55inch projected screen on my wall? Seriously…) Thankfully when they do something that overtly stupid you can tell them flat out, "That makes no sense, just get me my computer so we can go."

  28. Ry Jones says:

    I beat you to putting the old computers up on blocks.

  29. It’s very simple: The less you do, the less you do *wrong*. Also know as "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it". And it extends to more than computers. I don’t customize my car, my house, my mobile phone… I’m change-averse.

  30. Yuri.K. says:

    Speaking of used laptops…

    I bought a Compaq m300 laptop a year and a half ago: 600MHz PIII, 64MB of built-in RAM, dock station with CDROM and floppy, and, best of all, a battery which lasts about two hours (typing/browsing).

    After a RAM upgrade (+128MB) it runs XP just fine. I tried Windows 2000 but the NIC drivers often caused BSOD, even though the system felt somewhat faster overall. One annoying thing is the 6GB harddrive, it’s quite limiting and very noisy, I can hear it from the opposite corner of the room when I’m sitting right to a desktop with two harddrives and four fans in it.

  31. Wendy says:

    You’re driving in your car… you are lost.. you have a cell-phone (maybe even internet enabled), but you dont know where you are to find out how to get out. use the cellphone as a modem for your laptop… and internet mapping software. OK, so the cell-phone as a modem is potentially slow, unreliable and expensive. How about having streets & trips on your laptop? Pull over and enter street name info, find out where you are and where you can go.

    With an internet connection your laptop is increadably valuable during certain activities when you’re in your car (not while driving). For example – buying a house, you see a real darling house with a real estate agent notice but no details. Using your internet connection (cough..ok..big ..assumption) to check out the details, the local school, local bus services etc without having to just take a few details and wait until you get back to your PC or navigate a small screen on your PDA/phone (also relying on website being formatted for small device display). This is just an obvious scenario. Laptops can make a uge difference in providing the ability to ‘research’ in place. Think future possibilites….

  32. Actually, the story is about its replacement.

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