Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Maintenance, Prevention or excuse for upgrade ?

My body's not the only thing that's struggling to maintain itself at the moment ... (Danger - Techie Post !)

Just spent a bit of cash on the laptop. I've not installed what I got yet (that's to come and I'm anticipating HHAASSSSLLEE) but I'm reasonably sure my laptop has a terminal problem.

Symptom :

Occasionally (about once or twice per boot up) the laptop will freeze with no mouse pointer response for about 10-15 seconds (unsure due to Watched Pot time dilation). Music or video keeps playing for a few seconds, which suggests the cpu is still happily sending stuff out of buffers. Everything else freezes. Hard disc light will be on solidly. After the freeze finishes, laptop is all happy.

But ... Sunday, it gets scarier. It's early in the Olympics closing ceremony and I've put a Facebook post in decrying the BBC for getting Prince Henry's name wrong. Email replies come in and I think the laptop shows its own disgust at me by crashing hard and Loud. As in, crashing halfway through the "new email" sound leaving that sound running at Max Volume. Think 12 on the dial.

That one actually needed a full reboot because the laptop didn't recover.

However ... it wasn't actually that easy. Laptop comes back up sure. But only part of the way. When I start up my laptop, it'll fire up its Windows 7 gadgets plus I'll load Firefox, Outlook, Messenger, iTunes, Steam and Digiguide. (Yep - that's a lot of work for laptop). This time, Firefox and Outlook opened quickly with Firefox being usable. Outlook was not. It took half an hour (literally!) before the laptop was happy again with all applications open.

Translation - bad news. And a GeekyPete remembering back a bit and thinking it might be a good idea to replace the hard disc in this machine.

Hard disc theory - they're built from discs with magnetic Stuff on which spins at a few thousand rpm. They have a motor to spin up the discs. There's an arm that reaches across the disc to read the data. It's literally floating across the disc.

If stuff goes wrong with those motors, it takes more effort than it should to spin up the discs. When that effort is more than the motors can give, the drive breaks. I've had that happen before, on my first PC (this is Dark Age stuff, my graphics card has more memory than that PC). It's totally terminal, there's no way domestically you can get the data off a drive that's died that way.

How can you check ?

If you catch it early, when the PC stalls there will be a faint clicking sound as the motors try and spin up. Newer discs are much quieter though. You can use software like PassMark's Diskcheckup. I've just tried that and it's let me look at the health monitoring information that's buried in the drive. There's a few anomalies there, including a few "JEEZ THAT'S SILLY HIGH !!!" scary numbers.

If you see the line :
Raw Read Error Rate - Value 200, Worst 200, Threshold 51
What's your reaction ?

Mine was OH SHIT MY DRIVE IS NEARLY TOAST. And then you look in the help file and find the High = Happy. (where have I heard that before). Lesson - read the help files and they'll decipher what you're looking at.

I think I'm on to something though - Spin Up Time (how good those motors are) is 199 to a threshold of 21.

So - what am I doing about it ?

I'm making a change while it'll be easy before a hard disc failure makes it huge grief. A like for like cheapest switch would be a 320GB little drive (link is an example) for £48 from Novatech. What I've done is spend more cash on something just a tad better.

Windows biggest failing is having to wait for the hard disc. What's the best way to fight that ? Get a quicker hard disc. It used to be that you'd pay Western Digital silly money for a hard disc that was slightly less slow. But there are now alternatives :

Solid State Device drive - memory discs. My main desktop PC runs off one of these and it's Fast. Truly fast. But ... 60GB of Crucial M4 SSD costs £56 and that's barely big enough for Windows. And my laptop has to have enough room for applications plus a 32GB iTunes library. So now we're looking at 128GB at a push (£60 for cheap, £84 for a Crucial M4) and 256GB to be happy (£140+).

Hybrid drive - these are normal discy discs with a tiny Solid State bit to speed them up. This is what I've bought - 500GB for £84. Not as fast as an SSD but has the size to keep a laptop happy.

I've not taken it out of the bag yet so I've not started the changeover - fingers crossed that it'll be an easy one !

PS At some point I'll compare the process we have to go through at work for stuff like this and the process we can go through at home. It'll be a whinge. And I'll enjoy every character of it :-)

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