A fresh computer with no migration cost

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When a notebook computer stops working, the usual next steps are:

  • buy a new notebook computer, and
  • spend at least two lost weekends getting the new computer loaded up and configured so that it does for you what the old computer used to do.

For must of us, the emotional cost of the second step, and the lost-professional-billing cost of the second step, far exceed the amount of money involved in the first step.

Yesterday I had to retire an old notebook computer and move to a new one.  But for me, the second step was only about ten minutes.  Not the usual two lost weekends.  How did this delightful result happen? 

Any long-time loyal reader of this blog, seeing the question that I just posed, will be reaching to slap the buzzer on this one.  Of course you know the answer!  Of course you recall vividly my blog article of March 8, 2015 about always keeping an identical spare computer around.

Yes, this particular ASUS Zenbook situation got its start in 2015, when I purchased two identical ASUS Zenbooks like the one in the photograph.  I set up one of the computers to be my day-to-day computer.  The other one was the idle spare.  A few days later the screen started acting up.  I swapped the (SSD) drives in the two machines, and sent the machine with the bad screen in for warranty repair.  My down time was about ten minutes that time.  Later the repaired machine showed up after its warranty repair.  (What really happened was the manufacturer sent me a brand new replacement machine.)

(Oh and as an aside, I am completely sold, completely convinced on the idea that if you are buying a notebook computer you should pick one with an SSD drive rather than a traditional spinning-platter disk drive.  You will not need to worry so much about dropping the computer and damaging the delicate platter or the delicate read-write heads of the drive, because with SSD there is no delicate anything.  And the power consumption of the SSD drive is much lower than that of the disk drive, so that the battery life is much longer.)

But returning to the story.  Those events happened in spring of 2015.  Now in January 2020 I had reached a point where my reliable workhorse Zenbook was way past its expected service life.  I always figure that with a notebook computer, if you get three years of service from it, you should call yourself very fortunate and be prepared for the possibility that you might need to move on to your next computer.  Anyway by now in January 2020 the reliable workhorse Zenbook was really way past its expected service life.  It had by then been in service for well over four years.  But it was just not doing very well:

  • The space bar did not work reliably.  I had to sort of push hard on the space bar to get it to generate a space in the document that I was working on, or even wiggle the space bar around a bit to get it to do its job.
  • The battery life, originally good for anywhere from 8 to 12 hours on a single charge, had gotten down to as little as 1 to 2 hours.

So yesterday I decided that it was time.  I powered down the in-service computer.  I charged up the spare computer.  I pulled out my Torx T5 screwdriver and popped off the bottom cover of the in-service computer and the spare.  I swapped the SSD drives.  (Because I did not have my anti-static wristband at hand, I did the best I could by repeatedly touching the metal case of both computers before ever touching anything on the mother boards.)  I reassembled the computers.  Then it was time for what my colleague Jessica Olson calls “the smoke test”.  I opened the lid of the new computer (the one that used to be the spare, the one that now contains the SSD drive from the old tired computer).  I tapped the power button.  

Would smoke come out of the computer?  Or maybe just a sickening crackling sound and a flicker of light on the screen followed by dead silence?  

Or, far worse, would the screen load up seemingly normally, followed by a cheerful Mister Paper Clip inviting me to select my country and my language for my brand-new installation of Windows 10?  That would be perhaps the worst thing to see, far worse than smoke or crackling sounds or dead silence.

What I saw was just the same old happy familiar power-on screen that I had been seeing for the past four years.  I super cheerfully typed in my login password, and there was my same old happy familiar desktop that I had been seeing for the past four years.

The only differences being …

  • the space bar works perfectly now, and
  • the battery life is back to 8-12 hours.

And the entire downtime was around ten minutes.  

No need to install printers on the new computer.  No need to re-install all of my applications and restore their configurations.  No need to restore my user files from backups.  No need to set up my corporate VPNs all over again.  No need to set up Wifi passwords and Bluetooth connections from scratch.

My colleague Aileen Law had a comment to make when she heard just now from me about this “keep a spare identical computer around” approach and about this successful SSD drive swap.  She pointed out that there are people who, when they find a pair of shoes that they are very happy with, will make a special point of going back to the store to get a second identical pair of shoes.  

Of course at this point I no longer have an identical spare computer any more to use for a swap like this in the future.  This particular computer stopped being manufactured three years ago, so I cannot purchase yet another identical spare machine now.  But at this point I would not want to do that anyway.  By then, the technology will have improved, batteries will have come to have longer lives, SSD drives will be much bigger and less expensive, and the computer will anyway have some feature that washes the windows of your house or connects to all possible bands of all possible 5G networks.

The point about the next computer migration being that as of now, when some day I find that I have no choice but to migrate away from this computer, I will face the two lost weekends.  But maybe if I am super lucky, that will be a few years from now.

What about you?  Do you buy a second pair of identical shoes?  Do you buy a second identical notebook computer?  Please post a comment below.

8 thoughts on “A fresh computer with no migration cost

  1. Pingback: How to minimize service disruption with a notebook computer - Ant-like Persistence

    • I am not sure if I understand your question.
      Anything can fail, right? Are you saying you think SSD drives are somehow more at risk than other storage devices?

  2. One issue you may have is that the operating system license on your swapped drive may be tied to the hardware hard coded identifiers in the old machine. This may be the case for example if your OS is a Windows OS. In that case, when attempting to due things requiring a “genuine” copy of Windows you may find your new machine telling you that the installed Windows is not “genuine” and therefore have some problem. Such as for example being entitled to the free upgrade from Win 7 to Win 10 or 10x.
    Other options for you to consider for the unused laptop, are (1) mirroring all partitions on the the pre-existing SSD to a new and larger SSD, and installing more RAM memory. Since you have the second laptop opened up, you can kill 3 birds with one stone. The SSD and memory costs continue to drop so you can most likely double or quintuple the storage and memory now at a cost that is negligible compared to the cost for such an SSD and memory at the time of your original purchase.

    Note that you can perform the disk mirroring from a single USB port, by having the mirroring software copy itself to memory during the mirroring operation. See for example Clonezilla freeware, which has this option.

  3. But on the other, other hand:

    The two weekends of re-configuration (if one can do it that quickly) produces a computer that (i) most likely has better specs and (ii) is “cleaner” than the old windows installation. While considering the value of a “clean” installation, ask yourself:
    1. While using your old machine, did you ever download and install a program from a less than giant company? Particularly a bit of software that you no longer use but can’t be sure you have completely removed from the disk, registry, etc.?
    2. Have you ever made non-standard tweeks to the old installation (e.g., adjusted something using Regedit or the Local Group Policy Editor, or, for that matter, anything that required giving yourself admin privileges — particularly late at night when you were frustrated and tired?

    My current approach is to have two active computers (one of them a laptop and one a desktop) and use both regularly as my “desktop for the day”.
    This allows me to keep things “pretty much” up to date on both machines, without requiring a mad dash if something fails hard on one of them.

    Field test: When my laptop gave up the ghost during a recent trip to Alaska, I was able to purchase whatever Costco had onhand, install VPN software and remotely connect to my home machine, which was working just fine, thank you very much. (I did eventually spend time configuring the new computer, but I was able to do that at my leisure rather than in a mad dash while I was traveling and needed to get something done “right away”).

  4. FWIW, when I got a new MacBook Air a little over a year ago, it configured itself, ported all of the software from the old machine, even ported over Wi-Fi passwords, printer settings, pretty much everything. It took several hours, of course, but that didn’t bother me because I started the process in the evening, and by mornign it was done. Occasionally I need to reauthorize the new machine for something, but the porting process was about as seamless as I could have hoped, and it was far easier than I had expected.

    So Apple has this process pretty much down pat, and I am very grateful for that!

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