Time to downgrade upgrade pain

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona, February 13 -- I've about had it with computers that get slower and slower. Or, rather, with software that gives your computer a bad case of the Thorazine Shuffle. I've ranted about this before (see Faster chips, slower software -- we're running in place!, March 17, 1998), but I'm afraid there's little hope of getting software companies to break the cycle of bloatware.

So I'm starting to get resigned to the idea that the useful life of a computer is no more than 2-3 years or so, after which it's time to upgrade to a faster box. But the process of upgrading to a new system could be a lot less painful than it is, if computer vendors would adopt a simple design solution: Instead of selling a complete computer system, sell the machine without a disk, and let the user plug his old disk into the new machine.

This may sound like a silly idea, on the face of it, but think about it. What's the most painful, frustrating part of getting a new computer? Getting all your software and data transferred; that's what. This is a problem that's become much worse than it used to be, ever since Windows 95 and the Windows Registry took over.

I could get a passable PC, to replace this one, for $500 or so. The problem is that transferring all the software and data would be difficult, if not impossible.

Back in the old days (see I hate software!, November 22, 1999), it was easy to install PC programs; you simply created a directory on the hard disk, then copied the program files from the installation diskette(s) into the new directory. To run the program, you just typed the name of the .EXE or .BAT file corresponding to the name of the software.

It's not that simple anymore, because of the "improvements" brought about by our friends at Microsoft, with Windows 95 and 98 (as well as, presumably, Windows 2000 -- but I'm hoping I don't have to deal with that one for awhile). These days, the installation procedure itself is simpler -- just put a CD-ROM into the drive, and the program usually installs automatically, with only a few mouse clicks required on your part. But that's the only (easy) way to install a program -- if you decide you want to copy it onto another machine, you can't just transfer files over on floppies (trust me; I've tried, and it doesn't work). That's because the installation routines for Windows 95 and 98 use the Windows Registry to keep track of what software is on the system -- and unless you really know what you're doing, editing the Windows Registry by hand (to install by the copy-the-floppy method) is a good way to clobber the system.

This is no problem -- if you have the CD-ROM from every program you've ever installed on your machine. But Heaven help you if, when it comes time to install the program on a new machine, you can't find the CD. Or, for that matter, if you downloaded the software from the vendor's Web site (and deleted the setup file once you'd installed the program successfully).

I'm sure any Win95/8/2000 gurus out there are snickering, because they probably know how to edit the Windows Registry without lobotomizing the operating system. For us ordinary folk, though, we're up the creek.

Why do I bring all this up?, I hear you asking. Well, the 150 MHz Pentium laptop on which I'm typing this has reached the point where it's getting awfully slow. With the 150 MHz chip, a mere 32MB of RAM, and a 1.4GB hard disk, I spend so much time listening to the disk crunching away, as a large application like Internet Explorer 5.0 or Dreamweaver 2 loads, that I start wishing I were getting paid by the hour.

Software only Haystacks Calhoun could love

One of the customer-support tasks Meg and I do for ZDNet involves downloading a customer database file that's something in excess of 5MB and displaying it in a Web browser. I've found that if I use either Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator to do this, the machine slows down to the point where it's barely functional. If I use Opera (a much smaller, more efficient browser), it's tolerable -- but still very slow.

PC prices are low enough these days that I could get a pretty passable machine, to replace this one, for not much more than $500 or so. The problem is that transferring all the software and data from my existing machine would be difficult, if not impossible. That's because I don't have all the CD-ROMs and setup files I used to install the software on this machine. Some of the former got lost when Meg and I moved from suburban Chicago to Flagstaff last October -- I can't find my Dreamweaver CD, for example. In other cases, I no longer have the installation (setup) files for some of the programs -- I deleted them in order to save disk space. I'm sure I could probably get a reasonable facsimile of my present work environment on a new machine -- probably with a couple of weeks of work. But it would be a royal pain; so I'd undoubtedly end up making do without some of the software I have here -- and I'd probably bite the bullet and buy new software for the new machine, in some cases.

PC vendors would actually make more money, because with such a painless upgrade, people would be willing to buy new machines much more often.

But I see no reason why the upgrade process should be so painful. This is where my removable-disk idea comes in. If I could simply remove the hard disk on my existing machine and plug it into a new one (with a much faster CPU, several times the memory, and maybe a second hard disk for storage), I could be up and running on the new machine in minutes, with all my old programs and data intact -- and without the need to buy a new operating system license or any new applications!

I hear you saying, "But the hardware vendors would never go for the idea, because they'd be losing the money they make selling you a disk." Au contraire, say I. PC vendors would actually make more, not less, money -- because with such a painless upgrade, people would be willing to buy new machines much more often. I know I would; given the choice between slogging away on this machine for another year or two, and running on a spiffy, lightning-fast computer again for only a few hundred bucks, it'd be a no-brainer.

And if you could transfer your existing hard disk to a new system, you'd have the added advantage of not having to pay Bill Gates & Co. yet another license fee, just for the privilege of running their latest hyper-inflated, bug-infested operating system on a new machine. This, perhaps, would be the best part of the removable-disk upgrade scheme.

Cleanin' some house

Now, I know perfectly well that one of the factors that cause computers to slow down over time is simply that they get loaded down with overhead. A recent article by John Breeden II in the Washington Post explains:

The problem relates to how programs move in and out of Windows. First of all, a program isn't one monolithic object; it includes numerous little chunks of programming code, called DLL files (short for "dynamic link library"), which are socked away inside Windows' system directories. Second, when you install a program on a computer, it also loads a set of instructions inside Windows' registry file. Think of the registry file as a combination road map and traffic cop for system resources; these instructions tell the registry, and therefore Windows as a whole, where, when and how to run a program's DLLs....

When you uninstall a program you no longer need, in many cases, not everything that should get deleted actually gets deleted:

[I]n the wake of all those [uninstalled] programs is a morass of orphaned DLL files, many of which give the computer useless instructions or allocate memory for programs that no longer exist. This slowly eats at system resources--the amount of processing power and memory available to run programs--until your software bogs down or refuses to run at all.

Breeden recommends running third-party system registry utilities to clean up your system from time to time. I adopted one of his recommendations and installed Ontrack's Fix-It Utilities -- after running several of the disk optimization programs, I've found that certain operations on this machine are noticeably less excruciating than before; but they're still slow.

That's why my solution is better -- simply allow people to take their old disks and plug them into new, faster machines. If I could do that, I'd probably buy a new box every couple of years, instead of trying to get five years out of one, as I've done in the past (although, as you can probably tell, there's no way my current machine is going to make it until its fifth birthday in September, 2002).

If I could buy a faster machine, while keeping the disk from my old one, I'd be a happy camper. How about you?

Copyright © 2000 John J. Kafalas

[Note: I got a letter a couple of days after posting this column -- it was from one of my regular correspondents, informing me that he's done exactly this type of new-hardware-with-no-new-software upgrade. See the letters page for his missive... ed.]

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