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Why can't hardware be hard wearing?

December 2008


I’ve recently been even more irritated than usual by computers and their associated kit, and it’s all because of corner cutting in the manufacture of the moving parts, not because of failings in the egg-headed software stuff, or because I’ve been attacked by some nasty virus.  No, my goat has been well and truly got by some very old fashioned, relatively low-tech hardware failures.  And I’m fed up with it.

First, I had to throw away a perfectly good computer screen because the mains switch had jammed in the off position, and couldn’t be replaced.  Nothing wrong with the rest of the wretched thing, but the manufacturers had used a cheap switch, and focussed their energies on impressive amounts of pixels, dot pitches, refresh rates and whatever else it is that screens have.  As a consequence, once that weedy switch had been used good few times, it gave up the ghost.  I can’t blame the switch, the poor little thing was a boy sent to do a man’s job.

Then I bought a brand new, top of the range, laptop and two days later the hard drive failed.  The hard drive is the bit that physically stores all your precious data, and is actually a fast revolving disc.  In my case, it was badly made and died young.  The dealer replaced it without a murmur (or even a hint of surprise, which was a bit of a giveaway), but that’s not the point – if I had been relying on it that weekend, I would have been scuppered.

Then my keyboard gave up as well.  Well, it didn’t give up completely– it struggled on manfully, or rather manfuy, as the “l” key had stopped working.  No warning – it just stopped.  On investigation, the little spring underneath it had failed.  As usual, no repair is possible, so the whole thing was junked.

That same week I bought a new webcam and as I clipped it onto the screen, something snapped inside, and it fell apart.  The dealer told me cheerfully that they get about one in three back.

Then, to put the lid on it, a whole network of computers I use a great deal unexpectedly shut itself down.  What had happened was that the cooling fan inside the main case had failed, and the whole thing had begun to overheat.  Heat is the sworn enemy of every computer, and so mine had sensibly shut itself down to avoid its brain frying.  The cost of a new fan was less than £5 – but how much better to have used a longer lasting fan in the first place?  It was only a year old.

This sort of thing happens all the time (although I do seem to have had a bit of a bad run just recently); generally, it’s the moving parts of any computer that fail first, not the clever software. 

Every engineer will tell you that if you want a piece of equipment to last, it needs to be working well within its capabilities.  If it is used at a level that does not cause it stress and grief, it will carry on for as long as you are likely to need it.  When building a bridge or an aeroplane, you make sure that it can cope with far more than you expect it to have to, because the stakes are so high.

But computer builders, apparently, don’t follow this simple procedure.  We all know why; it’s because they are trying to reduce costs at every corner.  However, if one brand were prepared really to do some serious work on beefing up the reliability of their on/off switches, and the other bits, they would quickly gain a reputation as being the really reliable, long lived make, and I bet they would clean up.  Us Oldies would buy their stuff, anyway.

In the mean time, the CD drive in my computer is making a funny noise…