Walt Mossberg

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A Hard Drive Warning From an Old Computer

Here are a few questions 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 computer hard drive failure, running virtual machines on a Macintosh, and diagnosing slow start-up times.


I have a Dell Dimension that is six or seven years old. Recently, the following message appears every time we start the computer: “WARNING: Dell’s monitoring system has detected that Drive 0 on the primary EIDE controller is operating outside of normal specifications. It is advisable to immediately back-up your data and replace your hard disk drive.” When we hit F1, the computer boots normally and functions fine. All our data is backed up on an external drive. What is going on? Is it time to bite the bullet and get a new computer?

I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but you should take the warning very seriously. It’s good that your data is backed up, but if your hard disk fails, you won’t be able to use the computer. Six or seven years is a long time to keep a computer, and hard disks do go bad. Just because it continues to work doesn’t mean it isn’t on the verge of sudden failure. At the very least, have Dell or a local technician diagnose the hard disk to see if it is a serious problem or one that can be easily fixed. If the disk is failing and you are otherwise perfectly satisfied with the computer, you can get a new drive that is much larger for a reasonable sum. You should also seriously consider buying a new computer, simply because everything else on your machine is also out of date and, as time goes on, you may find that more and more software and Web sites won’t work well with it.

Does either Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion support multiple virtual machines installed on a Macintosh — for instance, one running Windows XP and one running Windows Vista?

Yes. Both of them allow you to create multiple virtual computers, running Windows XP or Vista, older versions of Windows, or Linux, as long as your Mac has sufficient hard-disk space.

My Toshiba Satellite runs Windows XP Home, and it takes more than four minutes when starting up before I can open any programs. Is my computer running too many programs at start-up? If so, how can I view them and shut down the unnecessary ones?

That certainly could be one cause of the problem. It’s a common situation. To see what programs are set to run when you start up your computer and to turn off unwanted ones, you can use a somewhat geeky built-in program from Microsoft or simpler ones available from outside software vendors. To run the built-in program, go to the Start Menu, click “Run,” and in the blank box that appears, type in “msconfig.” This utility will let you turn on and off invisible start-up programs. Go to the tab marked “Startup” and check off any you don’t want. But be conservative — don’t turn off anything you don’t recognize and know is unneeded. A better solution, easier to use and with more information, is an $8 utility from PC Magazine called Startup Cop Pro. You can get it at: www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1759,2177188,00.asp. There are a number of similar programs that may work just as well, but unlike Startup Cop, I haven’t tested them and so can’t recommend them.

You can find Mossberg’s Mailbox, and my other columns, online for free at the new All Things Digital Web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.

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


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