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Tech tips for running a reliable PC

You can hope to be lucky with machines. You can leave a machine running day and night so that it’s always ready for use. But mostly we’re not so lucky: our reckoning is that every new application puts a working system at risk. To work round this we adopt strategies to keep things going, and that’s what we outline here. If you’ve numerous machines that do lots of different things, here’s one approach to achieving reliability.  

Spread the load

If you buy a new machine keep the old one and use it to offload some of the specialist tasks. The idea behind this is that the less you expect any machine to do, the more likely it’ll do what you ask.  Set up your new machine with the minimum of hardware and software that you need for efficient working. Use the old machine to connect items you use less frequently - a scanner, webcam, CD writer, still camera, printer and so on. To make this work conveniently, network the machines.  This will allow one computer to connect to the others to pick up files, backup files, print and connect to the Internet using Internet connection sharing.

  • Share any printers you have
  • Name each computer and assign them all to the same workgroup (eg ‘Workgroup’) 
  • You need a router with several spare ports. If you have more machines than router ports, use a network hub/switch to increase your socket count.

Keep your best machine for best

There’s much to be said for using a best machine for games or video editing and using a less best one for office work and typing. As that may be hard to handle, our way to cope with it was to upgrade an older PC with some very fast new bits. We purchased a good value motherboard with on-board sound, graphics and network features, added a new processor and fan assembly and turned a five year old machine into the fastest we’d ever used. This upgrade cost £150. Later we added a large hard disk (£70) and Firewire card (£20) so that it could edit and store video on this machine. 

Use Virtual PC (now free and called HyperV) for less used applications

Connectix Virtual PC is a seriously clever tool that lets you run Windows on Windows – but it’s an idea that takes getting used to. Using VPC (see our review) you can run Windows 98 in a window on your machine and it runs entirely separately from your current operating system. We’ve a huge pile of school software that we regularly show to teachers and each time we get a new machine it’s an uphill slog to install all this software from scratch. Using VPC we launch a Windows 98 PC which has all that software preinstalled and ready to run. We can also copy the VPC file to another machine and run it from there without having to install the set of software again. Our reckoning is that this 1Gb file is a time saver and a route to a reliable system.   

Two uses for one machine? Use a removable drive caddy

This tip worked best before Windows XP was the OS. When different people use a machine for different purposes there’s a chance that what one does can affect the other person. It’s not as simple as having different logins and passwords – they may use different operating systems and applications and each may have invested a lot of time in setting up the machine. It could be that one member of the family plays games and the other surfs the Internet; or that the machine is used by one person to run a course and another to do admin. Suffice to say if a machine has multiple uses, you can either a) use different logins b) use a dual boot system as described below or c) use a removable drive caddy. With the latter you fit each of two hard drives into caddies that can slot into a drive bay. Insert the caddy with your work, turn on the machine, use it, shut down, take out the caddy and put it away when you go. The other user does the same and never the two need meet or risk their work. Drive caddies are made by www.lian-li.com and sold by www.maplin.co.uk. Cost is about £25 for a caddy and rack; £15 for a second caddy and about £60 for a second hard drive.

Make your machine boot into a choice of operating system

No matter what PC or operating system you use, there are times when something will appear to break. For sure, if you really need to print something, or connect to the Internet the machine will have a canny knack of not cooperating just at that time.

The surest way we know to be bullet proof to this, and to diagnose the problem, is to create a computer that can boot into another operating system. If you’re used to getting under the bonnet of the computer, and ready to apply an amount of trepidation and we use this approach all the time.

Why is dual-booting good?

When a printer, word processor, Internet or the network plays up, you can boot into the other OS to see if it’s the software, the file or your ISP that needs seeing to. Our experience has been that we’ve been able to diagnose what’s at fault with ease. Furthermore, we’ve learned how operating systems differ in stability, compatibility and performance. If something works in one OS, and not in the other, you just boot into the other and use it. And if you want to try out some demo software and not mess up your machine, you can keep one of the OS’s as best and the other as expendable. 

The downside   

It takes around a day to set this up and first time through it’s slow going. For example, you need to use Microsoft's Tweakui to tell each OS where to find your documents, favourites and so on and overall it's a fiddly job. There’s a small time investment to maintain two OS’s e.g. when you change your ISP settings, items of hardware or a printer you have to make the changes twice.

You need: 

  • A Windows utility to let you alter the system locations for the Desktop; My Documents; My Pictures and Favourites. Obtainable from an Internet search. 
  • A hard drive which has enough space for two operating systems, two sets of installed programs and your personal files - 6Gb or more will do it.
  • A Partition tool to configure the hard disk into three partitions:

Drive C – for Operating System 1 and your personal files.

Drive D – for Operating System 2

  • A network connection to a second machine where you can make a backup copy of all you files before you start.
  • In case of emergency, be sure to have Windows disks, application disks, driver disks and bootable Windows Startup Disk and Partition tool emergency disk.

What to do:

  • Say you have Windows x and want to dual boot into some other OS such as Windows y. 
  • Start with a machine running Windows x because if you want to use this OS, it insists on being the first OS on your disk. You can’t start with Windows y and add Windows x later as far as we know. Or you can have several partitions each running the same copy of Windows y - Microsoft would be happy with this.
  • Backup all your data to another machine. Backup My Documents; My Music; Favourites; Outlook mail folders and your Address book 
  • Run a Partition tool and split your C: drive into a C and a D drive. The D drive will hold the new OS. Partition tools will chug away for an age and then reboot the machine. If you open My Computer you ought to see the new drive.
  • Now install the new OS. As you work through the installation be alert to the idea that you want to install it on a different drive to the current one. To install Windows 2000, say, let the machine boot from the CDROM, and install the OS to drive D. Win2K does not need make any partition changes and it will install a boot time loader to allow you to choose the operating system you want.
  • Set up your applications in the new Windows. Let the applications install to whatever drive they wish, ie you will have two drives with two sets of Program Files. To be safe be sure these are kept separate.
  • Alter the system locations for the Desktop; My Documents; My Pictures and Favourites to the same locations as those used by the first OS. The result will be that whatever OS you boot, you’ll find your personal files in the same places.
 

 
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