Maintaining a laptop
January 18, 2006 1:09 PM   Subscribe

I just got a new me care for it so it has a long and happy life.

I just spent quite a lot on a new laptop (Dell Inspiron), so I want to make sure that I keep it alive and humming as long as possible. Please make recommendations in terms of ANYTHING (software, general tips, things to avoid, things to do, etc) that will help it function smoothly for a long time.

Also, one specific question: my laptop came with "Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security" as its virus/spyware protection program. Is it any good? I received a CD-ROM from school that includes McAfee VirusScan 8.0, so if I am better off switching over please let me know. Thanks!
posted by apple scruff to Computers & Internet (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Forget about keeping it alive, worry about keeping it! Laptops are about the most stolen item. Keep it in your sight always and consider buying one of those cables to lock it down so that it can't 'walk off'. Kensington cables are $30 or more, but I got a generic one for $8 on eBay. Works fine.

Ok, don't drop it. And batteries also have n charge/discharge cycles, so use it on the AC power when it's convenient. And don't touch the screen, fingerprints are unsightly.
posted by JamesMessick at 1:24 PM on January 18, 2006

Get some kind of case to transport it around in; when you aren't using it keep it in the case, or at least away from anywhere there is food or other debris; never ever yank on the power cord (either end).

This is not an answer but another question: I never understand with laptops if it's better to leave it plugged in all the time if you're sitting at home, or if you should run the battery down, charge, run it down, charge, etc.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:26 PM on January 18, 2006

Oh, right and seconding the lock.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:27 PM on January 18, 2006

and when you use it on AC take the battery out. AC with battery in is a leading cause of battery weakening.
posted by By The Grace of God at 1:33 PM on January 18, 2006

Cut a piece of felt (or some other cloth) to put between the keyboard and the screen when the thing is closed. The edges of the keys have a tendency to permanently mar the surface of the screen over time.
posted by BrandonAbell at 1:34 PM on January 18, 2006

I've had bad experiences with DELL + Long life. Next time do more research before purchasing a laptop.

Some DELL laptops in the Inspiron series have their CPU heatsinks (heat channels really, since the actual sink and fan is about an inch away) screwed down instead of clamped. This will causs problems in about 1.5 years from now, right after the 1 year warrenty is up. A perfect example of Planned Obsolescence.

Maybe invest in a 3 year warrenty?
posted by nickerbocker at 1:37 PM on January 18, 2006

Try to keep the fan intake away from really dusty areas. A friend of mine used an inspiron as a desktop-replacement, and *never* took it off his desk, nor did he ever dust. The fan on that thing was so jammed up with crap that after a year, the thing would overheat and shut down after 5 minutes of use. I'm not convinced on the usefulness of locking cables, I seem to recall seeing something about the good Kensington ones being defeated in about 5 seconds... You're much better off just keeping a good eye on it...
posted by antifuse at 1:37 PM on January 18, 2006

keep an eye for broken pixels on screen: they usually are either completely white or red or black. I don't know about Dell policy on broken pixels, but if they're as many as per their standard (dunno if there is some other national standard) you're entitled to a replacement of the screen
posted by elpapacito at 1:37 PM on January 18, 2006

completely *samecolor* all the time, even if you change background or image
posted by elpapacito at 1:38 PM on January 18, 2006

Oh, and I second(third/nth) the extended warranty. The hard drive on my 700m (about 6 months old) just suffered a bad sector... that biatch is gettin the heave ho! :)
posted by antifuse at 1:39 PM on January 18, 2006

and when you use it on AC take the battery out. AC with battery in is a leading cause of battery weakening.

I disagree with that, and I am pretty sure I read research that disagrees with that as well (but I can't seem to find it ATM). In my experience some batteries are just duds and don't last as long as others. My laptop is 4 years old now (IBM Thinkpad T22) and the battery life is down 30 minutes from when it was new. My friend has a DELL Inspiron 8300 (I believe), and her battery life is already down an hour after 2 years of use.

Cut a piece of felt (or some other cloth) to put between the keyboard and the screen when the thing is closed. The edges of the keys have a tendency to permanently mar the surface of the screen over time.

That is a good idea. I can see the marks of my keys in my screen when the power is off. Once lit, I can't really tell. If the laptop is designes well it shouldn't be a problem. Although I can't think of how you would test such a thing.
posted by nickerbocker at 1:44 PM on January 18, 2006

I second all the above, but have a little tidbit to add that was told to me by an IBM laptop tech...

One of the biggest, repetitive stresses to a laptop is when it is set down onto a desk. When you place the laptop on a surface, your hands typically hold the laptop in such a way that your fingertips touch the surface first, then you fold your fingertips away to set the laptop down.

When some people do this, the laptop smacks down on the surface, even if it only "falls" a fraction of an inch. It doesn't sound like much, but considering this happens quite often for a mobile user, the vibrations can over time do bad things to a laptop, especially the hard drive. The lesson: set your laptop down very carefully, more carefully than you otherwise might.
posted by Brian James at 1:51 PM on January 18, 2006

Best answer: The chargers in modern laptops won't create a whole lot of charge-discharge cycles when they're run with the power cord in, so don't worry about that.

Causes of laptop death, approximate order of probability:

1) Dropping it, cracking the screen.
2) Theft.
3) Hard drive dies.
4) Hinge goes bad, leading to floppy screen.


1) Don't drop it.
2) Keep an eye on it. Make that both eyes.
3) Avoid any sharp impacts while the machine is powered-on. If you're moving it, setting it down, whatever, do it carefully. When it's powered-off, you can be a little rougher.
4) Mostly solved by the manufacturers nowadays.

You can expect the LIon battery to slowly decrease in capability over time and then to suddenly die. This is a design limitation. They go bad whether they're being used or not! So don't buy a new battery now and stockpile it for later, wait until the current one dies and then buy a new one. Don't buy a used LIon battery unless you can try it out before buying and unless it's absolutely dirt cheap.
posted by jellicle at 2:04 PM on January 18, 2006

Well, I've had good experience with my Dell laptops, and as a result, my roommate just got her Inspirion yesterday as well.

Whatever you do, keep it away from anything liquid. If there's a potential for something to spill, move it. Trust me.

I second the advice to dust often, especially if it's mostly just sitting on your desk.

In terms of free software to keep your hassles under control, I recommend a combination of Firefox, AVG Anti-Virus, Ad-Aware, Spybot S&D and Zone Alarm to keep everything safe. Used together and updated regularly, you're well guarded against the nasties out there.
posted by cgg at 2:06 PM on January 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've had no problems with my 2-year-old Inspiron.

I would reccommend reformatting the hard drive and re-installing windows without all the weird Dell integrated crap.
posted by amarynth at 2:11 PM on January 18, 2006

Keeping Windows humming is pretty hard, sorry to say. The only set of tools I've found to work is TuneUp Utilites.

One day, your laptop will get stolen, or your drive will die. To assuage the pain of that day make regular backups of your data. Get an external hard drive and some backup software and once a week do a full backup.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 2:15 PM on January 18, 2006

By The Grace of God: "and when you use it on AC take the battery out. AC with battery in is a leading cause of battery weakening."

not true at all, sorry.
posted by kcm at 2:49 PM on January 18, 2006

The #1 important thing for maintaining a laptop: a personal articles policy from your insurer. Don't get a rider for your homeowner's policy (this can lead them to cancel your homeowner's if you have "too many" claims), get a separate policy, often known as an "inland marine" or "inland floater" policy. For under $50 a year your laptop can be insured against not only theft but also against inadvertent damage, such as being dropped.
posted by kindall at 3:12 PM on January 18, 2006

All the free software you need can be found on my blog. Click on the "favorite software" tab and all the software you pretty much need to keep a laptop squeeky clean can be found there.
posted by deeman at 3:22 PM on January 18, 2006

I'm now using my third Dell laptop. My husband has had two. We've had very good luck with them.

The in-home service is extremely convenient, especially if you can't afford to be without your computer for a few days.

Be gentle when opening and closing it; even if you are, though, jellicle is right: your hinge is likely to get wobbly or cause other problems (eg, with a cable that runs through the hinge on certain past models).

For me, the 3-year warranty is a must, because I want a computer to be usable for that that long. After two years, things are going to go wrong just because of normal wear and tear.

Power cords go bad from stress -- not so much where they plug into the wall, but at other connection points, especially the reinforced flixible area near where it plugs into the computer.

When the battery gets weak, it won't have been your fault. It's just going to happen.

Keep liquids away from your keyboard. Seriously. About a half-teaspoon of water (in exactly the wrong place) meant the end of a hard drive for me.

You are going to love having a laptop -- enjoy it!
posted by wryly at 5:23 PM on January 18, 2006

I've been working in university-student desktop support for about four years now. The only two laptops I recommend these days are IBM/Lenovo and Macintosh, however any laptop with a good warranty should be OK. I agree with everything that has been said so far, and strongly suggest that you invest in the longer warranty.

Do not leave your laptop on overnight, do not leave p2p applications running 24/7 and please clean the cooling fans. Back up your data at least once a month and keep it on two separate media--such as a flash drive AND a DVD+R or CD-R. Your battery will die and do not be surprised if it is sooner than you would expect. If you carry it around, invest in a bag that will no allow it to move around and has padding.
posted by vkxmai at 5:28 PM on January 18, 2006

This is not an answer but another question: I never understand with laptops if it's better to leave it plugged in all the time if you're sitting at home, or if you should run the battery down, charge, run it down, charge, etc.

You see a lot of conflicting advice from people on forums, mainly due to people remembering advice apropriate for a different type of battery chemestry. In the US, battery packs are required to be labeled as to which type they are - If you're in doubt, take it out and check the labeling.

The simple breakdown is:
  • Lead Acid (Your car battery, UPS batteries) - keep continually charged, full draining causes damage. May require watering(!)
  • Nickel-Cadnium ("NiCd"- Really old laptop batteries, some AA/AAA replacements) - Partial discharge cycles cause 'memory' effects (reduced run times) - Full drain periodically necessary to restore capacity.
  • Nickel Metallic Hydride ("NiMH" - Newer AA/AAA replacements, Older laptop batteries) - Very little memory effect, but tends to self-discharge ('leak power') when disconnected from the charger.
  • Lithium Ion and Lithium Polymer ("LiIon and "LiPol", I believe - Modern laptop batteries) - No memory effects*, but a definate shelf life (Something like ten years, assuming perfect storage at stable below-room tempratures - Actual life spans are almost always shorter, How much so depends on the recharge mechanism.)
*- Some charging mechanisms 'fast charge' very harshly (charging the battery faster, but heating it up in the process - and shortening it's lifespan) - But almost all of them slow-charge (Without unduly heating the battery) for the last 5-10% of the fill (To keep from overcharging it - A BIG no-no with lithium batteries. They catch fire/explode, IIRC.). Therefore, frequent deep charge-discharge cycles can have an effect LIKE the old NiCd cells - The difference is, it's permenant, and cycling a LiPol battery the way you would a NiCd to clear it's memory just shuffles it into it's grave quicker.)
posted by Orb2069 at 6:57 PM on January 18, 2006

Best answer: Assuming that this thing is going to be running Windows XP Home, and that it's new and hasn't already been crapped up with spyware, here are the things I'd do to it, in order:

1. Make sure Service Pack 2 is installed.

2. Uninstall PC-Cillin. It detects viruses OK but its user interface is weird, its virus database costs money to keep up to date, and I've seen bad updates from Trend render Windows XP machines totally inoperable.

3. Put your McAfee installer disk in your microwave oven and cook it on High for approximately 25 seconds. This limits its false-positive virus detection rate.

4. Create a new user account called Admin, with the account type set to Computer Administrator. Log on as Admin, then change the account type on your previous account to Limited User. Use the Admin account only for administrative tasks, like installing software; most of your work will be done with the limited user.

5. Open an Explorer window, then select Tools->Folder Options->View. Turn on "Show hidden files and folders" and turn off "Hide extensions for known file types" and "Hide protected operating system files". These settings will only affect the Admin user, who really ought to be able to see every file everywhere.

6. Open Windows Security Center, and ensure that (a) you are seeing a complaint about having no antivirus software installed (b) Automatic Updates are turned on (c) Windows Firewall is turned on. Click the Windows Firewall link, select the Exceptions tab, and uncheck all the checked exceptions.

7. Connect to the Internet. Use Internet Explorer to browse to, then download the Firefox 1.5 installer; save it in My Documents\Installers. Close IE, then run the Firefox installer and Firefox.

8. Under Set Program Access and Defaults, make Firefox the default web browser, and disable access to Internet Explorer.

9. Now using Firefox, download the following extensions, and save them in Shared Documents\Firefox Extensions: Adblock Filterset.G Updater, Adblock Plus, User Agent Switcher, IE View.

10. Install all four extensions using the Firefox File->Open menu item. Restart Firefox. Right-click the buttons toolbar, select Customize, and drag the User Agent and IE View buttons to the toolbar.

11. Visit again, and download the Thunderbird 1.5 installer to My Documents\Installers. Run it from there, and run Thunderbird. Don't create any accounts at this stage, just close it down.

12. Under Set Program Access and Defaults, make Thunderbird the default email program, and disable access to Outlook Express and (if you have it) Outlook.

13. Visit and download the AVG 7.1 Free Antivirus installer to My Documents\Installers. Run it from there to install. Accept all the defaults, then work through its first-run wizard to get it updated and set up. Windows Security Center should now stop complaining.

14. Visit and download to My Documents\Installers.

15. Open up My Documents\Installers\, run the patcher from inside it (works fine despite the Windows warning about maybe needing additional files) and click the Install Patch button.

16. Open an Explorer window and navigate to C:\Documents and Settings. You'll find a folder inside there for each user. Right-click the folder for your limited user and select Properties. Open the Security tab. Click Advanced. Open the Owner tab. Under "Change owner to:" click Administrators. Check the "Replace owner on subcontainers and objects" option and click Apply. Open the Permissions tab. Check the "Replace permissions on all child objects..." option and click OK. This will bring you back to the main Security tab. Click the username entry for the user whose folder this is, uncheck the Full Control checkbox, and click OK.

These security settings mean that your Admin user will always be able to see inside your limited user's folders, and any attempt (whether inadvertent or deliberate) by your limited user to Make This Folder Private will fail. Which means that if you use the Admin user to run a virus scan, you won't miss stuff tucked away in a limited user's folder.

17. Open My Documents\Installers\ and rerun the patcher to remove the patch. This will restore Windows XP Home's standard "Sharing and security" tabs.

You should repeat steps 15-17 each time you add a new user account. Remember to make all new users Limited Users. Note that the user's folder under C:\Documents and Settings gets created when the user first logs on, not when the account is created.

It's possible to do all that security stuff in Safe mode without using at all, but the necessary rebooting is a PITA.

18. Use Windows Update from the Start menu to sign up for Microsoft Update; quit Windows Update when that's done. Automatic Updates will now keep all your Office stuff up to date as well as Windows itself.

19. Visit and install the current Java Runtime Environment.

20. Under Set Program Access and Defaults, make Sun Java the default Java, and disable access to the Microsoft Virtual Machine if that's offered as an option.

21. Under Control Panel->Internet Options->Advanced: if there's an option checked for "Use JIT compiler..." turn it off.

22. Add a password to the Admin account.

23. Ongoing: apply automatic updates as they make themselves available, and restart when they ask you to.

If you're willing to live with the occasional inconvenience of Access Denied messages and work mostly with your limited user (or users; set up a Limited User account for each additional family member who is going to use the machine) your machine will stay clean pretty much indefinitely.

Games software is pretty notorious for failing in a Limited User account. Quite often it can be made to work by granting Modify permissions to the Users group on whichever subfolder of C:\Program Files the game is installed it; use Filesecpatch to make the necessary UI available for this.

Some business software doesn't like it much either - notably, QuickBooks needs Modify permission on its installation folder, and also on the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Intuit registry key.

To clean up a machine that's already been filthied up, your first stop is to pick up a copy of Spybot Search & Destroy 1.4.

posted by flabdablet at 8:24 PM on January 18, 2006 [4 favorites]

I got an iSkin keyboard protector for my new iBook. Don't know if they make 'em for Dells.

But when you consider that all the inner workings of your computer are right under the keyboard -- unlike a regular desktop keyboard, which can actually be submersed in water for cleaning -- it's a good investment.

I would like to know more about the "why" of not leaving a laptop on at night. Is this true for my iBook?
posted by blogrrrl at 8:29 PM on January 18, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, some really great advice! I had my last laptop through high school so I learned some major lessons about how NOT to treat a laptop, so through that experience and this advice I should be set. Thanks everyone!
posted by apple scruff at 11:08 PM on January 18, 2006

"2) Theft.


2) Keep an eye on it. Make that both eyes."

Better: Laptop Insurance. Usually called Personal Property Insurance. Ask your current insurance providers if the carry it, if not, find one that does.
posted by raaka at 1:47 AM on January 19, 2006

Here's my thoughts, based on using a laptop daily for the last 10 or 12 years. I'm basically a field service technician, so my laptop gets used a lot - in and out of the van dozens of times a day, thrown onto desks or on the floor to use, etc.

- Buy a good padded-type case. Not one of the laptop sleeve thingys, but a proper strap-over-the-shoulder bag. They protect better, and soften the inevitable thumping when you walk in and drop it on the desk.

- Don't be hard on it. This doesn't mean you have to treat it with kid gloves though, just think about what you're doing. Don't open it by a corner - open it by the centre of the top edge so you don't overstress the hinges. Close it up the same way. Don't beat it. Don't drink your coffee over it. Just remember it's not like a desktop where a replacement part is $10, it's a one-piece unit where a replacement part is $100's or $1000's of dollars.

- Treat the battery like shit. It goes against all conventional wisdom, I know, and I used to maintain lead-acid and NiCad batteries for a living - big 'uns, 10's of 1000's of A/hrs worth. I've consistently done everything wrong with laptop batteries - partly discharged then topped up NiCads for months on end; run NiCads & Li-Ion dead flat then left them on charge for days; never run the battery management/conditioning software, etc. In the past 10 or 12 years, I've had 4 laptops - 3 of them were replaced because when the batteries did eventually die, replacements were unavailable!

On the other hand, all my laptops have been top-of-the-line (for their time) IBMs and Toshibas. Not the "ruggedised" versions, just the run-of-the-mill variety, but definitely stronger and better built than your average Dell. I'm currently using a Toshiba Satellite A10 - nearly 2 years old, no problems apart from a bad RAM socket, and the original battery lasts all day when topped up for 10-30 minutes a couple of times a day.

Oh, and the other of the 4 laptops was replaced because I dropped (in its Targus carry-case) and the damn security cable punched the serial port in, cracking the motherboard...
posted by Pinback at 2:03 AM on January 19, 2006

Get a Brain Cell. Use it. They're awesome. Better yet, browse the rest of that website and get a case to put the Brain Cell in.

The Brain Cell itself is rugged, padded and hard-sided. Small enough to carry with you every day, can be dropped inside of a bag or briefcase. I love mine. The bags they sell are made to hold the Brain Cell, and add more stuff like pockets, etc. for your accessories. For short trips (like a run to the coffee shop) the Cell works fine by itself, for longer trips (commuting, etc.) the bag adds more functionality.

Make sure you buy the right size though. My laptop fits snugly in the Cell, and you should ensure that yours doesn't have any excess "wiggle room" when it is in the case.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:36 AM on January 19, 2006

I'll make a negative comment first, followed by what I hope is useful information....

Personally, I wouldn't have purchased an Inspiron. I've used Dell Latitudes for the last ten years at work (they allow me to use it for personal purposes as well). My wife has an Inspiron 2200, which is lightly used and has worked just fine so far, but I've seen a lot that have problems of all sorts. All the Latitudes I've used and worked with have been solid, reliable machines.

Do get the best warranty Dell has to offer, if you still can. Their onsite service is great, especially if you purchase through their small business division.

Get Diskeeper or another professional-level defragmenter. I second what everyone says about Grisoft anti-virus.

I've never experienced laptop theft, but protection of your personal data should be paramount. Use a password or two, and use encryption software on your critical files. I like to create encrypted volumes with Truecrypt and I encrypt some individual files and Zip archives with Axcrypt. Both are free and have been very easy to use and reliable for me. And, of course, make periodic copies of those files so if the laptop does take a walk, you'll still have your data!

Have fun! A laptop is the only way to go, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by lhauser at 12:17 PM on January 19, 2006

A small point--keep liquids away from your laptop. How many threads have we seen here on AskMe from folks who spilled something on their laptop and the sucker shorted out?
posted by LarryC at 12:31 AM on February 2, 2006

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