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Heartbreak Hotel, the laptop version
Slarek | 15 September 2012

It's always horrible when your computer dies, particularly if you've been using the same one for a good part of almost every day for almost five years. It's downright infuriating when it's the machine from which your website is run. There are backups, sure, but it's there that that all the press and personal emails are received and stored. In my case that includes those still being sent to old DVD Outsider email addresses, despite my repeated pleas for certain PR companies to note that we've now been Cine Outsider for almost eight months.

This was the first time I saw a computer die right in front of me. Previously they've simply refused to boot up when I switched them on in the morning, or the death has been gradual and easier to predict. One I actually knelt on and smashed the keyboard and glass screen into a thousand pieces. This time I'd just sent a batch email to all of the site writers when my normally placid desktop suddenly exploded in a display of psychedelic colours and began strobing like a light show at a particularly good rave. When your computer does something like that, you do only one thing. You panic. You start bouncing around in your chair and loudly cursing the offending machine. You accuse it of betrayal. "You have to be fucking kidding me!" you yell in a voice tinged with desperation. At least that's how it was with me.

When something like this happens I always suspect the worst. Usually it turns out to be nowhere as near as I first feared. Computers, after all, are complex beasts and prone to all sorts of peculiar behaviour. Most times I switch the machine off, wait ten minutes and reboot, and the problem has conveniently disappeared. For a few days I treat the machine gingerly in the nervous expectation that the problem will reappear, but it usually doesn't, so I go back to treating this expensive slab of electronics with my usual level of curt disrespect. Which is what I eventually assumed would also happen this time. Thus after my initial panic, I calmed down and reasoned that this was probably some terrifying but temporary system software meltdown. I shut the machine off (the power button still worked), disconnected the power supply, took out the battery, waited a few minutes and restarted the machine. But there was no bong. If you're not a Mac user that may mean nothing, but when Macs are switched on there is a distinctive startup chime, a sort of "Hey, I'm a Mac" bong. What it actually tells you is that the machine has completed a quick set of diagnostic tests and no serious hardware problems have been found. When you don't hear a bong, then something is up. Usually something bad. Then the boot-up stalled and everything locked up. At this point I started to suspect that my computer was doomed. Fifteen further attempts to get the bugger to boot up later, it was confirmed beyond doubt.

I take my laptop almost everywhere with me and it gets thrown in an out of bags, dropped sharply on tables, scratched, bashed, and otherwise mistreated on a daily basis. Occasionally I give it a special treat by spilling liquid over it. Frankly, it's a miracle the poor bugger has lasted as long as it has. Five years, I'm told by those in the know, is pretty damned good for a laptop of any sort, particularly one that gets the use and abuse it does in my hands. I'm aware that this lasted longer than my previous iBook not just because the outer casing is made of metal rather than plastic, but also because of one of Apple's smarter inventions, the MagSafe power connector, which connects the power cable to the laptop via a magnet rather than a traditional push-in plug. This assures that if you – or perhaps your dog or a small and over-excitable child – trip over the power cable, it harmlessly detaches. On the three or four occasions I did likewise with the older plug-in one on the iBook, the laptop itself was yanked off the desk and sent spiralling to the floor in a death-defying leap.

I've thus managed to avoid dropping this one from a great height, and managed to confirm that the hard drive itself was actually OK. I was even able to rescue its contents without pulling the laptop itself apart by connecting it to a desktop machine and configuring it as an external FireWire drive (one of the neater elements of the OSX operating system). And while a repair would probably still be cheaper than buying a new laptop (especially an Apple one), I've been intending to upgrade to a newer model for some time. The screen and the DVD drive have both been flakey for some time, and a couple of programs I use quite a bit – Final Cut Pro X in particular, of course – struggle a bit on this five-year-old machine. But I was planning to upgrade while the older computer was still active and gradually move everything over to the new boy in what I had stupidly dreamed would be a painless transition.

What has caught me out over the past six days is just how pathetically reliant I have become on the damned thing and how quickly and badly I began to miss it. Not having access to it has completely screwed with my normal way of working. By day I now have to collect the email from my various accounts using webmail, one of which (the site one, of course) is oddly inaccessible through the firewall at my workplace. I still can't get used to writing articles and reviews on an iPad, and am driven half potty by the way its jump-at-the-chance autocorrect transforms even the slightest mistype into words I never intended or occasionally have never heard of. And I can't edit the site on it. I've got Dreamweaver on my Mac Pro at work and the site folders on a portable drive, but that bloody firewall won't let me connect to the site's hosting server. Without my laptop I can't work on the move. And I'm on the move a lot. Worst of all, I can't sit down and format news stories in the evening in the comfort of my favourite armchair with a DVD playing in the background. At 10pm at night, after a weary day at work, the last thing I want to do is sit at a computer table in the war zone of files, DVDs, furniture, printers, cables and other rubbish that stands in for a study in my house and make like I'm back at my desk at work. After just two days without a laptop I was like a love-sick idiot whose girlfriend had walked out on him without a word of goodbye.

The difference with a computer, of course, whatever your emotional attachment to it, is that you can always buy a new one. I already had the money saved, but I get really twitchy about the very idea of spending a large amount of dosh on just about anything, really. It thus takes some time for me to steel myself up for such a transaction, particularly if I'm doing it online. It somehow never feels like I'm actually buying something when there are no actual salespeople involved. It took another two days before I felt ready to make the purchase, during which the lack of access to a working laptop continued to make me twitch like an addict going cold turkey. I finally got my credit card ready and logged on to the Apple store. It was closed. In my self-absorbed frustration I had forgotten it was new iPhone day. The store was being updated in preparation for the big announcement. My attempt to buy an expensive Apple product had thus been frustrated by the launch of another expensive Apple product. How bloody ironic. It wa sthe following evening before I could face the idea of spending so much money again. Hopefully by the end of next week I'll be back to functioning normally. And probably running just a little bit faster.