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When is it time to chuck old computer equipment?

March 2, 2009
I guess I have to rescue my printer. It's an old inkjet, probably some 10 years or more old. I've never checked its age, actually. It came to me secondhand. It's never caused me any problems aside from the annoyance of having to use high-priced ink in the thing. It's slow by today's standards and won't do photographic printing very well. But it prints the documents I need, however slowly. And it's long since been paid for. In my eyes, that's a big plus.

But it has a problem through no fault of its own. It uses the old, wide, clunky parallel cable that connects to a parallel port on the computer. And now my new computer doesn't have one. I can work around this problem with the computer geek's secret weapon, the converter cable.

If you know where to find them, there are cables that will convert almost anything to anything else. In this case, a simple $15 USB-to-parallel cable, available online. You can get USB-to-serial converters, too, for those peripherals that needed the old D-type serial cables. I can do this; I can save the little urchin. But should I? It's one of my toughest business decisions, when to upgrade from perfectly usable older stuff.

I'm certainly no poster child for fashion. My printer is just another in a long line of workarounds to bring my old technology back to life. I still have a stack of Zip disks a foot high that store backups from the past eight years or so before I went to newer storage methods. I can still get new Zip drives, but this medium has passed its prime. The biggest Zip disk holds only 750 megabytes of data, and today I can get a tiny little thumb drive that will hold several times that for around $20 and is virtually indestructible, unlike the Zip disk that has a whirring little platter inside that corrupts all too easily.

Yet I keep the old disks around, just in case. I did, however, ditch all my old diskettes some years ago. I can still buy drives for them, but the need has long since passed. One picture of my grandson will exceed its storage capacity. One compressed MP3 song will take up four times that space. I know people who still keep their old diskettes in the closet, though, just in case there's a retro craze to return to them.

If a device still works without any tinkering, I'm inclined to keep it. Anything that needs expensive replacement parts or consumables or takes up huge real estate has to go. I once owned a copier the size of a file cabinet. It was like having to share space in my tiny home office with an NFL lineman. When copiers shrank, it was an easy decision to evict the hulking and temperamental beast in favor of something more demure.

My cell phone, by contrast, still works as well as it did years ago, and I'm stoutly resisting my carrier's attempts to get me to upgrade to a new one. A new one will require me to master new button locations, icons and quirks. I don't want to mess with it. And I don't yet have a hankering to get e-mails everywhere I go. I'm not that important.

My printer falls into the gray zone, though. I need to buy a $15 cable to prolong the life of a printer that I could buy used for a buck or less. For around $50, I can get an inkjet printer that's a lot faster and can do photographic-quality printing, and won't need an adapter cable.

I think the decision is a hard one because it forces me to define my priorities. Nothing makes priorities more visible than the prospect of having to spend money. What do I value in a printer, after all? Do I need speed? Would I value it if I had it? What about the color quality of a new one? Would I treasure it just as much, and resist giving it up years from now? Or do I just need ink on paper?

I have to not only figure out what I value today, but what I'll still value years from now. I happily moved to a flat-panel monitor to gain more room, even though the old TV-style monitor was still working, but I continue to cling to my old car because it fires up even on the coldest mornings. Evidently, I value reliability for some things, and not for others. In effect, I'm discovering my priorities and values as I go. And I must value my old printer, because I still have it, and I'm going to buy that cable. Now, what else do I have lying around ... ?
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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com. 
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