A change that turns users off


A friend who recently upgraded to Windows 98 Second Edition was miffed and mystified. Every time Rick left his desk for more than a few minutes, his computer would go into a state of suspended animation. When he came back and touched the keyboard, he had to wait for what seemed like an eternity while his system came back to life.

"It's a royal pain in the you-know-what," he said. "I don't know what they did, but I'd like to find the guy who did it and wring his neck."

I understand how he feels. I can't think of any other gadget that's as personal as a personal computer. When a program invades it and changes the way it works -- forcing you to change the way you work or waste valuable time trying to figure out how to make it work the way it used to -- it's the digital equivalent of someone breaking into your house and rearranging the furniture.

Sure, it only takes half a minute to get your PC up to speed, but if it happens 10 times a day, and you work 200 days a year, it can get very annoying very quickly. Think about it this way: If some creep in the office walked up to your desk, wasted 30 seconds of your time and walked away 2,000 times a year, wouldn't you want to break his neck?

I told my friend that he was a victim of the "it-ain't-broke-but-we'll-fix-it-anyway" mentality at Microsoft, which unilaterally decided that Rick was willing to trade his own time -- eight, 10 or 12 times a day -- to save a few watts of electricity. But unlike a lot of little "gotchas" that creep in with new software and hardware, this problem had a relatively easy solution.

This is what happened: When the Windows 98 update was installed on Rick's computer, it overwrote the PC's existing power management settings. My friend wasn't aware of this. He didn't even know what power management settings were -- and Microsoft certainly didn't warn him about the change. In fact, I wonder how many millions of users are putting up with the same annoyance because they don't know they can change it.

Before I lambaste Microsoft any more, I should say that power management is a good idea, in theory. It's a feature that allows Windows to shut down parts of a system (such as your monitor or hard disk), or to put the whole system into suspended animation when you haven't touched the keyboard or mouse for a given period.

The whole idea of power management is to save electricity, which theoretically saves money, conserves natural resources and protects the environment. A desktop computer running full bore consumes about as much power as a television and a couple of 100-watt light bulbs. That may not seem like much on an individual basis, but if your company owns a couple of hundred PCs, keeping them all running -- and dealing with the heat they generate -- can be an expensive proposition. Recognizing that PCs were consuming an increasing amount of workplace electricity, the Environmental Protection Agency set up a program in 1993 called Energy Star to encourage PC manufacturers to reduce power consumption through hardware and software.

As a result, most PCs and monitors built in the past few years are Energy Star compliant, which means they can accept power management commands. If your computer powers down by itself when you go through Windows' Shutdown procedure, it has at least rudimentary power management capability. If you have to turn your computer off with a switch, it's probably an older model that doesn't handle power management internally.

With a laptop computer, power management is particularly critical. With a battery life of three hours or so, laptops use power management features to extend their operating life between charges.

That said, Windows' power management can drive people crazy. Like many Windows features, it's relatively easy to deal with -- if you know how to find it. And that's a big "if."

To check it out on your system, click the Start button, then choose Control Panel from the Settings menu. Double-click on the Power Management icon and you'll get a form with several menus that let you decide how long Windows will wait before it turns off your monitor and disk drives. There's also a setting for "Standby" mode, which reduces the system's internal consumption to the minimum it needs to keep its memory chips alive.

The top menu on the Power Settings panel lets you choose from several Power Schemes -- a combination of settings for your monitor, drives and standby mode. Most PCs come with three choices: Always On, Home/Office Desk and Laptop/Portable. These settings get increasingly aggressive about shutting down your PC. Always On will turn down the juice least often, while the Laptop/Portable setting will shut it down after shorter periods of inactivity.

You don't have to accept any of these schemes -- Windows lets you adjust the settings for monitor, drives and standby mode individually. Once you set them, Windows remembers them -- at least until an update or some other gremlin changes them. You can even take a combination of settings and save it as a power scheme under a name you choose.

My guess is that in Rick's case, the Windows update changed his power scheme from whatever it was to Home/Office Desk, which turns off various components at intervals ranging from 15 to 30 minutes. If you want to keep your PC running all the time, as my friend did, just change all the settings to "Never."

The trouble is that power management can waste as many human resources -- in lost time and frustration -- as it saves in natural resources. In practice, Windows' power management schemes can also interfere with other programs that expect the PC to be running normally, causing lockups and other glitches. Laptops, which are supposed to be one of the prime beneficiaries of power management, are also among the most frequent victims of these conflicts.

In many homes and offices, people leave their PCs running 24 hours a day, even though they're used a third of that time. If you really want to save electricity, don't rely on power management -- just turn your PC off when you go home or go to bed. End of sermon.

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