Why choose?

What should you do?

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Goodbye – Hello

Bill Barnes, PCCC

What do you do when you walk away from your computer? 

At the end of a presentation, someone asked why I used Hibernate rather than Shutdown before I put my laptop away. The answer turned out to be “habit … personal preference … no good reason.” As is often the case with me, I had deep logical arguments that don’t really amount to a strong reason. What you do at the end of the day depends on your specific circumstances, and even then may not really matter.

Let’s start by looking at how the options available from the Shutdown menu on the Start button leave your computer. Note that the exact results of some of these conditions may depend on settings in Windows or your computer’s hardware. 

Standby shuts down most of the accessory electronics, using just enough power to maintain the contents of working RAM memory. To come out of Standby, you press the power or standby button, or sometimes just touch the mouse or press a key and you’re working again exactly where you left off as soon as the monitor comes on. Usually, after a certain time in Standby, your computer automatically wakes up enough to go into Hibernate. Standby consumes a small but finite amount of power. If the power fails (or your battery runs down), you will lose the contents of your memory and any unsaved data.

Hibernate saves the contents of working RAM memory to the hard disk and completely shuts down the computer. When you press the power or standby button, the computer performs a quick hardware check and restores the RAM from the hard disk. It takes somewhat longer to restore the 512 MB of memory than coming out of Standby, but you still don’t have to open any programs or documents. Hibernate consumes no more power than when the computer is fully shut down. (If your Windows XP Shut Down screen does not give a Hibernate option, try holding the Shift key.)

Log Off forces all of your open programs to close, usually prompting you to save any open files. To resume your work, you must log back on with your username and password and reopen any programs or files you want to use. While in Log Off mode, the computer is fully awake and can perform many background tasks including receiving network commands or network printing. Log Off draws full idle power for the computer.

Restart performs a Log Off, and then proceeds to shut down the computer and automatically reboot it. Although the computer may not completely power off (I have been told some viruses can survive a Restart), it does close Windows, forcing it to complete some tasks that Windows often does not bother to do while it is running. Restarting Windows reinitializes many conditions that may have been temporarily modified during the last session or completes some program installations or scans. During the restart process, the computer is off the network and does not perform or remember any background operations. Restart leaves you at the Log On screen, just as if you had performed a Log Off.

Shut Down performs a Log Off and closes Windows, then shuts down all the electronics. When you press the power button, the computer performs a full hardware test and boots Windows anew. Shut Down consumes the least amount of energy possible without pulling the plug.

Other idle options. Most computers are configured out-of-the-box to perform some power saving functions to comply with Energy Star regulations when you just walk away from them. They may, in sequence or concurrently, activate a screensaver, shut down the monitor and hard disc, and move on to standby or hibernate. These settings are available from Power in the Control Panel or from the Screen Saver tab of the Display Properties (right-click the desktop). The monitor will also shut itself off after a period of no signal from the computer.

Why choose one option over another?

Your personal choice depends on how you use the computer, your patience waiting for it to boot, and your paranoia as to energy use and security. Here’s what I do and why:

My desktop computers I never turn off. They’re always ready within seconds to check my mail or the weather as I run out of the house. Network services such as printing and file access are always available. Background functions such as virus scans and automatic updates are scheduled for late night when they won’t distract me. These computers are protected from internet hacks by firewalls, antivirus and antispyware programs and devices. At work, my data and administrative rights are protected by a password-protected screensaver. Depending on the stability of a specific system, I may perform a Restart at the end of the day and leave it at the logon screen.

My laptops are set for aggressive power conservation when running on battery. This typically means they shut down the screen and hard drive after a minute of nonuse and go into Standby at 5 minutes. They also automatically go into Standby when I shut the cover to carry across the hall.

When I unplug a laptop and put it in its case, I typically choose Hibernate. I used to just shut the cover and let it automatically progress to Standby and then Hibernate. However, when I activated a BIOS password on my personal laptop, it interrupted this tactic. To hibernate, the computer actually has to wake up, at which time it waits with the screen on until I enter the BIOS password. Of course, that’s a long time when it’s in the trunk on a 300-mile drive. You should also start with Hibernate if your battery is not sufficient to hold memory in Standby for 30 - 90 minutes and then go through the waking process.

What should you do?

If you’re on a corporate network, management definitely needs access to your computer overnight. A less formal network may still use your computer to access printers or the internet. Even alone at home, some scans and updates are automatically scheduled for odd hours. If you shut off your computer when finished, be certain you know what these actions are and regularly perform them manually.

The downsides to leaving your computer on are that it consumes a finite amount of power and puts out a significant amount of heat. Activating automatic power saving features can alleviate this drawback while still giving you a speedy startup. A password-protected screensaver will protect your work in process from prying eyes. There is no electronic reason to shut down your computer. The mechanical life of the components of a computer far exceeds their functional life.

Along with the obvious advantages of an always-on internet connection, there’s an increased chance of being found and used by hackers. Be sure you are making use of firewalls, virus, and spyware protection. Check out your vulnerabilities with the ShieldsUP utility at

Of course, electronic burps always happen and you might just trip over the power cord. Always save your files when you so much as reach for the telephone. Protect your computer with a good surge protector or battery UPS. And do shut down your computer, ideally at the surge protector, when you leave for the weekend or thunderstorms are around. You might even want to pull the plug because there’s no surge protector better than 10 inches of air.

First published eBytes & Bits, June 2004

Bill Barnes is a freelance small business system administrator.

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All material (c) Bill Barnes unless otherwise attributed

Last updated Sunday, June 06, 2004 04:44 PM