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Issue #575: July 29 – August 4, 2018

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Q: Would you please discuss the pros and cons of leaving one’s computers and wireless systems on 24/7 versus turning them off at night? Also, I have determined that my wireless can be accessed from the street. What is the best way to limit one’s wireless area?

– Walt R.
Niceville, Florida

A:  Sure, Walt, and that’s a great question.  This issue comes up all the time at my “Meet the Geek” personal appearances.  From interacting with people, I can say that there seems to be quite a bit of information floating around out there that people remember hearing once upon a time.  Some of it still rings true, but for other stuff conventional wisdom may have changed.  Now, before I begin, let me caveat this by saying that as you read this, it should be obvious that parts are factual, and parts are my opinion.  Please keep the angry letters to a minimum if you happen to disagree with my opinion.  A better option would be to go and make your own opinion known by commenting on the article on my website.  That goes for this, and all past and future columns.

First, full disclosure.  I either use, or am responsible for the daily maintenance of at least 8 PCs.  Without exception, all of them remain powered on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Aside from the simple fact that your computer is always ready to go when you sit down (no waiting for it to boot up) the major pro of leaving systems powered on is that automatic updates can take place in the wee hours of the night, when its far less likely that someone will be trying to use either the computer or the bandwidth to your Internet provider.  Using an automated method to install updates means that they’re far more likely to actually get done than ones that pop-up an easily ignorable box.  One pro to leaving a computer on that’s actually fake news is that doing so causes less wear and tear (particularly to the hard drive) than shutting it down and re-booting later.  If that ever was true, more recent research has revealed that it doesn’t wear it any more to boot from scratch than it does to leave it running.  Similar studies have shown that a spinning-media hard drive is 100% guaranteed to fail at some point, regardless of whether you leave it running constantly, or frequently power it down and back up.

Many of what people consider cons to leaving a computer on are not really cons at all, or at best, are baseless or overblown fears.  For example, many people assume that leaving a computer on and connected to the Internet leaves the system open to hackers.  While technically true, the system is also open while you’re using it, and in fact, web browsing poses potentially infinitely more hazards than merely being connected to the Internet.  The real truth is that unless you’re a public personality such as an actor, sports star, or politician, you’re just not that interesting to hackers, and they’re not actively looking for people like you. 

Lest you think all the cards are stacked in favor of leaving the machine on, let’s talk about the pros for powering down.  Whenever a computer is running, the system’s cooling fan is drawing dozens of cubic feet of air per minute through the power supply and cooling fins.  This airflow deposits an ever-thickening layer of dust, dander, and other airborne particulate matter onto the interior surfaces of the machine.  This layer can act as an insulation blanket, making your machine run hotter and slower.  This build-up only occurs when the machine is running, so shutting it down halts that process until you restart it.  Powering down for even 8 hours per day will cut the build-up by a third over leaving it on constantly.  The other benefit to powering down is that every time you use the computer you’re starting with a fresh boot.  How often do you solve problems on your PC by simply rebooting it?  Any programs or data that are hung in memory are cleared out, device drivers are re-initialized, and everything is set to its defaults.  It’s the same old computer, but it’s just like dawn on a new morning.  It’s the same old world, but somehow everything seems rested, refreshed and ready to go.

As far as limiting your wireless coverage area, that is very counter-intuitive.  Most people want to get every last inch of distance out of their Wi-Fi coverage area.  There’s really no problem with it being detectable at the street so long as you have adequate Wi-Fi security enabled.  If it really bothers you that much, check and see if your router has user-selectable power levels, and try turning them down.  Don’t be surprised if you start getting dropouts and/or speed problems even inside the house.  Residential class routers are already setup for home use, and don’t need to be adjusted in this manner.

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