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Issue #763: March 6-12, 2022

Q: My Microsoft Surface Pro 4 with Windows 10 Home and Student, and always kept updated, has been reliable, although the learning curve has been steep. The screen has begun intermittently displaying a flashing image in the bottom half of the very bottom (task?) bar that appears to mirror the top half of the very top (address?) bar. It is annoying. Also, there is a narrow, vertical, small, light-yellow smudge on the left side of the screen that also seems to come and go. I guess I bought this laptop five or six years ago, and it has been in daily use since. Is it starting to age or something?

– John P.
Fort Walton Beach, Florida

A: It’s a common misconception that computers “age” at a wildly different rate than other types of hardware.  For example, many people believe that as their computer gets older that it slows down.  In reality, the slowness is caused by the demands placed on it as the software it’s expected to run changes over time.  Everything from device drivers to anti-malware software to applications themselves require more instruction cycles with each new release, and your computer constantly runs hundreds, if not thousands of processes that you’re not even aware of.  All of these contribute to what we perceive as age-related slowing-down of a computer.  That’s why a re-install of the operating system often results in the renewal of the kind of speed a computer had when it was new.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the problems you’re experiencing aren’t the kind of symptoms typically attributed to a system’s age.  What you describe sounds like hardware that has gone through a lifetime of bumps, drops, and other kind of physical happenstance that all laptops go through by their very nature.  The display may have loose or misaligned connections among the thousands of tiny wires in a typical display.  These must be in perfect alignment for it to operate properly, and not cause the type of what I would call “ghosting” that you’re experiencing.

You mentioned that the problems seem to come and go, which is probably a key element in trying to determine the problem.  The digital nature of computers means that conditions are usually absolutes – true or false, on or off, zero or one.  Things that come and go are likely not a part of the system’s software, but rather an anomaly of the hardware, such as I already mentioned, or possibly the environment in which the system is running.  Factors such as temperature and air flow can have a surprising effect on systems, as they are designed to run at peak efficiency within a specific temperature range.  In the case of your Surface, it has the ability to detect the ambient light of the area where it’s operating, and will adjust the brightness of the screen appropriately.  I could see odd things happening if that process isn’t working properly.  If you’d like to find out whether turning this off helps your problem, click the Start button, then Settings (the gear icon), then System, and Display.  Uncheck the box marked “Change brightness automatically when lighting changes.”

I don’t own a Surface, but in doing some reading to answer your question I came across a feature called Adaptive Brightness and Contrast. Unlike the previously-mentioned feature that adjusts based on ambient light, this feature adjusts the screen based on the content displayed.  The feature is designed to provide optimal screen viewing while also minimizing battery drain to provide longer battery life.  Under the right circumstances, I could see this causing problems too.  As above, you can disable it to see if doing so helps at all.  Follow the instructions above to get to the Display configuration screen, then select Brightness.  Uncheck the “Help improve battery by optimizing the content shown and brightness.”  Don’t forget to turn it back on if it doesn’t help.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also remind you to double check that you have the correct and latest drivers installed by visiting Windows Update.  I sure hope one of these ideas fixes your problem! 

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Geek Reminder – Submissions: The fuel that keeps this column running are reader questions, and I’m rapidly running out of gas.  So if you’re suffering through a poorly operating computer, or have questions about any of the other tech in your life, I want to hear from you!  Visit my website and click on “Submit a question” to get started.

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