What It’s Like to Go from Two Desktop Computers to Just One

For many years, I relied primarily on just one (rather than two) desktop computers.  I had laptops sometimes; I had alternate computing resources in libraries, offices, and universities; sometimes I was working on a second or even a third computer, for myself or someone else — tinkering, repairing, or whatnot — but at home I generally had just one desktop computer on which I could actually do my work.

About 18 months ago, I shifted to having two synchronized desktop computers, each set up to run most of the programs and utilities that I would ordinarily run.  There were various ways of getting them to work together.  I briefly explored some of those routes.  I wound up with an arrangement where the contents of the two computers (other than drive C, i.e., the partition on which Windows 7 was installed) were synchronized via GoodSync.  I had two monitors connected to computer A, where I did most of my work, and I had one monitor and a backup USB drive connected to computer B.  I used one keyboard (but two mice, one on each side of the keyboard, to reduce the risk of RSI), and I used a KVM to switch the keyboard between the two computers.

I found that computer B, operating somewhat like a file server, was often fairly busy with mundane tasks including backup, synchronizing (since GoodSync was running from computer B), and diagnostics (such as when I would run CHKDSK /R or Darik’s Boot & Nuke on a hard drive housed in an external USB enclosure).  Nonetheless, computer B was also available (if necessary, by killing some other task underway) if computer A became unavailable.

I wondered whether the idea of having two desktop computers running simultaneously was appropriate.  It surely did consume more electricity and produce more heat.  I also wondered whether it was necessary.  It often seemed to me that, if it weren’t for the backup and synchronizing processes and such, the second computer would often just be sitting there idle.  I had occasionally wrestled with the question of how many computers a person should own.  I wasn’t sure I had the best answers to such questions.

Then I experienced what it was like to go without the second computer.  This was one of those situations where the gains seem minor when you make the change, but then they seem major when you change back.  Having re-experienced the world of the single desktop computer, I can say emphatically that, especially with the lowered cost of desktop computers these days, having two readily available computers is the way to go.

That is a productivity-oriented conclusion, as distinct from an environmentally friendly conclusion.  The conclusion being expressed here is simply that, for purposes of getting one’s work done, there are many instances when that second computer comes in handy.

I’m sure that many other users’ experiences have been different from mine.  Most people are not tinkering with hardware and software to the extent that I have done.  Also, many are doing vanilla tasks — working solely with a few pieces of software, like Word and Excel, that are unlikely to cause problems.  But as the workload becomes more demanding and diverse — running more programs and utilities, and running especially demanding programs (e.g., video editing) and tasks (e.g., massive spreadsheets) — the need for that second computer grows.

There are downsides to having a second computer.  In addition to cost and energy usage, there can be a noise problem, especially when using fast CPUs or other components that require more assertive cooling.  There is also the time investment of working through each computer’s bugs and eccentricities.  I mitigated that time investment by using similar hardware and software on both machines, so that finding an answer to a problem on one machine would help me to avoid seeing that same problem again on the other machine.  Still, as the tasks for these two computers evolved in somewhat distinct directions, there were a fair number of instances in which one computer would have a certain kind of problem that would not appear on the other one.  Further, the effort to synchronize data files across both computers yielded some additional complexities — in, for instance, the successful but nuanced effort to synchronize my customized Start Menu.

With due regard to all these considerations, as I say, my experience with a return to a single-computer setup did confirm my sense that it was generally preferable to have two machines running.  Assuming the machines were synchronized often, a crash or other problem on one machine would not mean minutes (or hours) of sitting and waiting, meanwhile perhaps forgetting what files, folders, and programs I’d had running or what I was in the middle of doing.  I could just tap the keyboard’s KVM hotkey and, presto, I’d be back at work on the other computer.  The first one could take its sweet time rebooting, doing diagnostics, getting past its difficulties, and returning to a productive condition.  Instead of having to sit there and wait for it to come around, I’d be proceeding with the task.

It did not take long for me to rediscover that sort of advantage.  Within a few days of returning to the one-computer mode, I started getting BSODs.  Maybe something had changed in NVIDIA’s hardware or software, or maybe computer A was just rebelling against tasks that I had previously done on computer B.  Of course, it would have been difficult to document the process of troubleshooting those sorts of problems, to the extent that I was normally doing in this blog, without a second computer on which I could record step-by-step notes.  I didn’t actually have many BSODs, and they didn’t seem to be due to intractable problems. But the situation could easily have been worse.  It would have been possible to use a laptop to troubleshoot such problems.  Nonetheless, a laptop (especially my little netbook) would not ordinarily be set up with the programs and updated data files that it would need to function as a desktop replacement.  As a practical matter, the BSODs meant a significantly more noticeable disruption of thought and work patterns than when I had two synchronized desktop machines.

As I already realized, some diagnostic tools (such as the examples cited above, involving CHKDSK /R and DBAN) and some data verification techniques (e.g., Beyond Compare running with binary comparison) — and also some processings tasks — could leave a computer essentially unusable for other purposes, for periods of many hours at a stretch.  Again, some of those tasks could be run on the laptop; for example, I could test a loose hard drive in a USB enclosure attached to the laptop.  But others could not.  I found that I responded to these sorts of demands as many other users do:  I deferred them.  At day’s end, if I didn’t need to leave the computer in its current status, I could run some of those tasks overnight; but when that was not feasible, I just didn’t do those tasks anymore.  In these regards, what I lost by having one computer tended to be the sort of thing that might not be noticeable for some days or weeks; but as with any deferred maintenance, experience suggested that the inability or unwillingness to engage in such measures would eventually yield more significant downtime or other problems.

There were also quite a few instances of less significant downtime.  Ordinarily, with two computers, I would just switch to the other one whenever some large spreadsheet calculation, mass file conversion, video rendering, multipage document scanning, or other demanding task would commandeer resources on the machine on which I had been working.  (For this sort of purpose, it was inadequate to keep the second computer in hibernation; it pretty much had to be up and running.)  With just one computer, I could try to time those instances for moments when I would get up to stretch, go to the bathroom, or otherwise take a recommended break.  But that was not always possible; such tasks could be recurrent and irregular.  Over time, I had become accustomed to switching to the other computer whenever the browser was taking a while to load a webpage, or when Acrobat was OCRing a long document; but for these and many other activities, having only one computer meant just sitting there.  The alternative, available in only some instances, was to switch to some other task; but when I did not have a separate computer’s monitor staring at me, reminding me of what was underway, I found that the rule was “out of sight, out of mind.”  That is, when the original task became submerged behind some other active window, I could forget about it for some period of time.  On the other hand, it was also possible that having multiple monitors could be distracting, as each one cried out for my attention, but this did not seem to be nearly so disruptive or disorienting.

Having two computers also offered some benefits along the lines of a diversity of approaches.  Sometimes, for instance, I would have the dismaying experience in which Copernic or Everything, my content- and filename-searching programs, would fail to find something that I just knew did exist somewhere on my computer.  I had recurrently found that an identical search on the other computer (where, again, data files were synchronized) would turn up the desired file.  Sometimes I could troubleshoot those sorts of problems; sometimes I could not; but in any case the point is that, with the redundancy of two computers, I had enjoyed an increased likelihood of finding what I needed, in order to progress in the project at hand.  Also, in troubleshooting and in other activities, it was helpful to be able to run similar tasks on both machines, so as to establish the scope of the issue.  For instance, sometimes I would use one computer (where I was not logged into a certain website) to check the appearance or behavior of a blog or other website (where I was logged in).

All told, the downgrade from two computers to one resulted in a larger-than-expected impairment of my ability to get work done.  Over the lengthy period during which I experienced this return to a single desktop machine, I retained a sense that I was missing significant functionality, and that impression persisted when I did finally restore the second computer.  If I were going to downsize like this again, I would practice it in advance, so as to work through at least some of the issues.  This could entail a variety of proactive steps (e.g., buying new software and/or hardware, rearranging files, transitioning some tasks to a laptop or to a computer at the office).

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