Walt Mossberg

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Wearing Out an External Hard Drive

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about external hard drives, limiting a child’s computer time and installing Windows XP on a new PC.

I leave my external hard drives turned on and plug them into my laptop when necessary. I use one hard drive to run my manual backup and the other to hold copies of information I want to access, but not regularly. I understand that any hard drive has mechanical components. Am I reducing the life of my hard drives by leaving them running most of the time? My wife says I should turn them on only when I need to use them.

I agree with your wife. Hard disks don’t wear out quickly or easily, so running them all the time when you use them constantly or frequently isn’t fatal. But in your usage scenario, there’s simply no need to keep your external hard disks on all the time since you are using them only once in a while, for specified, manual tasks. By doing so, you are putting unnecessary wear on them and wasting energy. It takes only seconds for them to turn on and become ready for use.

Is there a program for the Mac that would limit a child’s use of the computer to a specified amount of time per day? For example, a parent could permit one hour a day.

Yes, there is. It’s called Mac Minder, and can be obtained at www.lumacode.com/macminder/. It costs $30, but there’s a 10-day free trial. It allows you to set time limits specific to each child, and you can limit overall computer time, or set different time limits for types of programs a child uses. For instance, you might allow one hour daily for games, but two hours for email. You can even set up elaborate schedules governing how long a kid can use certain kinds of programs during particular hours each day (for instance, a half hour of games between 6 and 9 weeknights, but two hours during the days on weekends). The program also allows parents to view a time log of the child’s activities. I haven’t tested this program, so I can’t say how well it works.

I need a new computer but don’t want the new Windows Vista operating system. Instead, I wish to retain Windows XP as my operating system. Is it possible to buy a Vista-equipped computer and then reformat the hard drive and install Windows XP instead?

Sure. But you will need a full, new, boxed copy of Windows XP, not an upgrade version or the version that came with your old computer, or a version that has already been “activated” on another machine. And that may be hard to find. Also, even if you don’t want Vista’s new graphics or other features, be aware that your machine will be less secure, because you will lose some of the new security protections that Vista provides, which are absent in XP.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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