The Old Man and the C(omputer)
January 30, 2010 11:04 PM   Subscribe

Would a Mac be more resistant to abuse (such as abrupt power shutoffs) than a typical (?) PC?

My 82 year-old dad has a two year-old Dell laptop running XP. He has gotten into the habit of turning it off via the switch on a power strip, with no attempt to shutdown. In response, the machine boots into a BSOD that appears fixable only by a wipe-and-reinstall.

Has anyone seen this behavior in the wild, only applied to a Mac? Would the Mac's Unix lineage make it able to better tolerate abrupt shutdowns? What about the hardware?
posted by Napoleonic Terrier to Computers & Internet (19 answers total)
 
The hardware doesn't really care, other than the harddrives--and those usually have a capacitor (or mechanical system) in them designed to park the heads in the case of power failure. But, that's the same on your PC.

The only thing that cares is the file system. And the vast majority of file systems out there will suffer, in some way, if power is removed spontaneously. Even my super-stable journaled linux filesystems get bitchy when you turn off the machine without cleanly unmounting them. In general, though, unless I lose power while I'm in the middle of a write, the worst that happens is a mandatory file system check on reboot. Thanks to the journaling system, I've never lost an entire file system just because the freelist was being touched or something.

On Mac, You're using HFS+, the pedigree of which comes from old Mac OS. I have no idea how power-failure tolerant it is. But, the newer versions are journaled, which contributes greatly to stability. So, in theory, it almost certainly does better than a FAT partition... and, conceivably, could do better than NTFS.

But OS X's unixiness isn't going to affect it either way. They could make Windows power fault-tolerant.
posted by Netzapper at 11:29 PM on January 30, 2010


Is the battery dead? A laptop should just switch to battery power in this situation.

I don't think any computer will tolerate sudden power outages well, unless specifically set up for it. (I'm pretty sure that Linux can be set up with a journaling filesystem or a static boot image that would handle this okay.)

I will say that Macs seem to handle both standby and battery drain better than PCs. Standby on a Mac (which can usually be activated by pressing the power button) is pretty much bulletproof, and losing battery power results in a hibernate state which I've also never seen fail. I've never had a PC with similar reliability. This might be due just to the generally higher quality of Mac hardware, but I've had some "nice" XP machines (Thinkpads, mostly) that I could expect never to bring back from standby or hibernate.

Not sure if this would help in your situation, though, since it sounds like the problem is that he won't do things the "right" way. But I do think that a Mac will provide more convenient "right" ways.
posted by bjrubble at 11:47 PM on January 30, 2010


As a possible solution to this problem, you might set the computer to boot from a CD and run an OS on the laptop that way. Theoretically he couldn't corrupt anything essential as long as the CD was in good order. This is relatively simple with Linux, and possible (if somewhat less elegant) with Windows.

It might be a little easier to put an OS on a bunch of flash drives and when one gets corrupted over time have him plug in a new one. Here's a guide for Windows and Linux.
posted by Menthol at 11:52 PM on January 30, 2010


An anecdote: my four-year old PowerBook G4 laptop has a non-functioning battery, so the computer has to be attached to the power cable in order to function. If I accidentally dislodge the plug, which is very easy to do, the computer shuts off — no sleep mode, no hibernate, just shuts off. This has happened dozens of times in the past few weeks, and it boots up perfectly fine every time. The file system is Journaled HFS+. (And I know I just could get a new battery, but it's hard to justify spending money on an old computer...)
posted by dreamyshade at 12:04 AM on January 31, 2010


As far as I can tell, Macs take to sudden power loss just as badly as PCs do- I run both.
I think the best solution is for him to stop turning the computer off by the power strip. As an adult he'd probably grok if if you were to tell him "you can't turn the computer off at the power strip, otherwise it'll stop working again".
Barring that, can you have the computer plugged straight into the wall? Or would he just start yanking the cord?
posted by dunkadunc at 12:10 AM on January 31, 2010


Surely it would be easier to teach your dad how to shut down his PC properly than teach him how to use a Mac.
posted by missmagenta at 2:03 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


turning it off via the switch on a power strip, with no attempt to shutdown. In response, the machine boots into a BSOD that appears fixable only by a wipe-and-reinstall.

That is odd. I have frequently shut down computers running Windows with the power switch, and it has never required a re-install, just a disk scan on reboot. Is that what you meant?
posted by jacalata at 2:20 AM on January 31, 2010


With respect to hardware, Macs these days are PCs. Abruptly removing power when you're done is no way to treat either type of system. From a software perspective, both are engineered to survive sudden power loss, but not as a routine event. Consistency of the filesystem takes priority over data retention; e.g. if one saves a document and immediately removes power, the system should boot but that document may well disappear, especially if the disk's write cache is enabled. Removing power during a software update (especially one that involves device drivers or other critical system components) can be catastrophic.

Not sure whether you have access to the machine, but I think it should be possible to configure it to shut off (ideally without prompting) when the laptop's power button is pressed. After that it would be a matter of talking your dad into using the laptop's button instead of the power strip.
posted by scatter gather at 2:32 AM on January 31, 2010


If it was my old man, I'd buy him an iPad. Macs and Windows are not built for that kind of abuse. The journaled filesystem in Mac OS X is like a seat belt, it saves your life in many accidents, but crashing the car into a wall is not the designated way of stopping it.
posted by flif at 4:11 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Another thing to consider is that Mac laptops go to sleep when you shut the lid, thus not requiring a shutdown. It can stay like that for at least a week without issue. He might like having something that "shuts off" by closing the lid.

Now, I know that Windows can do the same thing, but not as seemlessly and quickly both on going to sleep and waking up. My FIL uses a mini and he's now in the habit of just walking away and letting it go into sleep mode in a few minutes.
posted by qwip at 5:49 AM on January 31, 2010


Surely it would be easier to teach your dad how to shut down his PC properly than teach him how to use a Mac.

This. "Hey Dad, see how your computer doesn't work anymore? You did that. Stop shutting it off with that switch."
posted by The Michael The at 6:04 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm tempted to say yes, the filesystem on the mac and the way it boots may be more tolerant to hard power failure - but... seriously. That's not the answer. I'll recognize that I've also seen hundreds more PCs than macs in my life, so it's probably a cognitive bias.

Teach the user not to shut the machine off that way. Get a UPS instead or something - these systems are not designed to be shut off the hard way - it's russian roulette.
posted by TravellingDen at 8:03 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


If that BSOD is being caused by a bad sector from an improper shutdown, SpinRite may be able to fix it. It's easier than a full backup and restore, IMO.
posted by dalesd at 8:55 AM on January 31, 2010


Netzapper: "The only thing that cares is the file system. And the vast majority of file systems out there will suffer, in some way, if power is removed spontaneously. Even my super-stable journaled linux filesystems get bitchy when you turn off the machine without cleanly unmounting them."

As far as the filesystem is concerned, the closest reference I have is someone yanking out a USB flash drive without unmounting it first. On Linux this is a big no-no, and I was warned of all the terrible things that could happen if I made a habit of it. This was attributed in large part to write caching: yank when the cache is almost full, and you could lose queued-up bits of every file you modified in the last minute/megabyte/etc. Yet I see Windows users yank all the time. I think there are Windows users who literally don't know what "unmount" means. And they somehow don't report all sorts of corruption.

So, could Windows actually be the better OS here?

Netzapper: "But OS X's unixiness isn't going to affect it either way. They could make Windows power fault-tolerant."

They could also make Windows support actual pipes, and SSH, and a real command line (and I say this knowing about PowerShell).
posted by d. z. wang at 10:54 AM on January 31, 2010


d. z. wang - Windows can be set up to pretty much not do write caching on USB devices. see here. I believe it's set that way by default.

nthing just not letting him turn the power off that way - maybe a better solution is to get a wall-mount style surge protector that doesn't have a switch (this, for example?). any modern desktop OS is going to get pissed off about not being able to cleanly unmount filesystems when you shut it down. if he doesn't have a switch, he has to use the one on the computer (or unplug it, I suppose), and the switch on the computer can be configured to do a clean shutdown.

he might also want to get some in-the-background-style offsite backup thing (like Mozy or BackBlaze or CrashPlan), so he won't lose important stuff when he does eventually fry his filesystem.
posted by mrg at 12:01 PM on January 31, 2010


Have you thought about reverse-engineering the problem? If he keeps shutting off the power strip, rather than make the system less prone to damage from that (which may be a difficult process), why not help him break the habit of hitting the power switch? Purchase a power strip lock or safety cover. (Although, since the latter is mostly used for childproofing, if the box is particularly insulting (i.e., "Mommy's Little Helper"), I'd dispose of the box before bringing it over!)
posted by MikeHarris at 12:10 PM on January 31, 2010


agree with mrg on the write caching disabled on USB drives in windows expressly for the purpose of not un-mounting the drive before you yank it out.

OP - what does he generally do? Just internet related stuff, or does he save files locally? Maybe get something like deepfreeze which restores a disk image every time you reboot? (I don't know where the image is stored or the details of how it reimages etc.. )
posted by defcom1 at 4:30 PM on January 31, 2010


Yet I see Windows users yank all the time. I think there are Windows users who literally don't know what "unmount" means. And they somehow don't report all sorts of corruption.

So, could Windows actually be the better OS here?


Well... you can turn off write caching on linux, on a per-filesystem basis. So, you can choose to make the USB stick yankable. Just, most of us don't, since we'd prefer to have write caching.
posted by Netzapper at 6:08 PM on January 31, 2010


Thanks to all. An iPad connected to a larger screen and capable of printing would probably be the 'best' solution, if such a configuration were possible.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 9:49 PM on February 2, 2010


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