The great part about your computer is that — unlike you — it doesn't require any sleep. Take advantage of your PC's insomnia by automating time- and processor-intensive tasks while you're counting sheep.
Note: We're all for powering down your PC to save energy overnight, but you can easily schedule your computer to shut down at specific times using several methods, so there's no harm in putting your PC to sleep an hour or two after you doze off — or an hour or two after you leave for work, or whatever times you might want to take advantage of a few extra CPU cycles while you're away from your PC.
On Tuesday we asked you what apps and maintenance tools you run while you're sleeping. Below we've aggregated our favourite overnight computer uses, including some of your favourite methods of squeezing a few more overtime hours out of your computer along with ours.
Backup, Update and Clean
Ah maintenance; it's the stuff that boring work is made of. Rather than incorporate it into your regular computing hours — and staring listlessly at your computer while your maintenance tasks complete — make computer maintenance an overnight task that your computer performs without you.
Note: All of the below suggestions, naturally, can be set to run on a schedule.
Backup your hard drive: We've emphasised the importance of backup time and again, and even if you've already got some form of backup in place, there's still a good chance that you're doing it wrong.
The bummer about backup: It can take a very long time, especially when you're performing an off-site backup over the internet (which you should be doing!). Backing up to a second local hard drive — like a connected USB drive — is the most important, since most people don't necessarily have an off-site FTP server they can back up to.
Instead, for your off-site backup needs, we'd suggest signing up for a service like Mozy. An annual subscription to Mozy will cost around $US55 a year for unlimited backups (free for up to 2GB), but let's say worst comes to worst and your computer is robbed, lost to a fire, or your hard drives up and crash. That small cost for insurance will likely seem very much worth the cost. I personally use and can vouch for Mozy, but you might want to read up on it and other options in our recent Hive Five Best Backup Tools.
Make your hard drive repair itself: You can't do much to save a hard drive from dying if it's fated in the stars, but you can do your part to keep your disks healthy — specifically by regularly defragmenting and checking for and repairing any disk errors. Our oldie-but-goodie guide to the self-repairing hard drive will allow you to schedule this maintenance once or twice per week, while you're sleeping, so you can rest easy that you've done all you can to keep your disks running in tip-top shape.
Keep your computer up to date: This one's kind of a no brainer, but still very worth the reminder. Granted, some power users would prefer vetting each and every Windows update before it's applied, but for most folks, there's not much of a reason not to automate this process while they're out. To schedule updates via Windows Update, just launch the Update tool from the Control Panel, click the Let me choose my settings link, and choose your preferred automated update settings.
OS X users, your Software Update tool isn't quite as friendly about setting specific times for checking for and downloading updates, but Macworld's Christopher Breen has some clever tips for scheduling Software Update that'll do the trick.
Clean house: Whether you're talking antivirus, crap cleaning, or other general PC cleanup, there's no better time to run those scans and maintenance tools than while you're catching some Z's. It may depend on your antivirus application of choice, but you should have some sort of built-in scheduling option for running antivirus and spyware scans. And for the CCleaner crowd, the How-To Geek details how to setup CCleaner to run automatically every night.
Download, Encode and Fold
Now that you've got your PC taking care of its most important maintenance tasks overnight, let's look at a few other common overnight uses.
Downloads: When we asked about overnight PC use, downloading using tools like BitTorrent ranked very high among those who responded, and for obvious reasons: Downloads can take a long time, those hours you're sleeping are hours that big downloads can be completing, and many ISPs set off-peak hours that don't count towards your monthly download total. But rather than keep your PC on all night long — even after it completes your download — most popular file downloaders have built-in options for shutting down, hibernating, or otherwise powering off your computer when the download in question completes. Everything from the popular BitTorrent client uTorrent (whose options are picture above) to download managers like DownThemAll have these options built in.
Video encoding: Many of us will never know the time it takes to do some seriously heavy video encoding (we're none of us Pixar), but if you've ever tried ripping a DVD (here are five of the best ripping tools out there), you know how much time and CPU cycles video encoding can take. Outsource your ripping and other encoding jobs to the night so you can actually use your computer the next day.
Share your computing power with researchers: Distributed computing tools allow researchers across the glob to use your extra CPU cycles to run a few algorithms of their own in the background using your computer. That might not seem like much, but with enough computers, researchers can do some serious work with distributed computing. (Wikipedia notes that [email protected], the most popular distributed computing network, has up to 400,000 active machines running at a time and has reached computing speeds of over 5.0 native petaflops.) If you're interested in putting your PC to use to help the world while you're sleeping, you've got plenty of options:There's [email protected] (a project to understand protein folding), BOINC, the World Community Grid and [email protected], to name a few popular options.
And a few other smart ideas
Clever (or just less common) overnight uses for your PC suggested by Lifehacker readers included:
- Updating your applications: Reader Matthew Giacomazzo uses previously mentioned software update tool Ketarin to check for and download software update packages for installed apps. Rather than automatically install them, he has Ketarin output updates to a text file on his desktop so he can review the downloaded updates and decide whether or not to install them in the morning.
- Compiling code: Compiling code from source can be an intensive process, and reader perlhacker uses his overnight cycles to update and compile software on his Mac and OpenBSD machines.
- Renaming files: Lifehacker reader prupert runs scripts on his home theatre PC to rename and copy television recordings on his MythTV setup, then scans the recordings for advertising, removes them, and converts the files to MKV.
- Creating local backups for data in the cloud: Reader mojo schedules a Google Docs backup to give a little redundancy to data in the cloud.
Just Turn It Off Already
OK, fine. Sometimes the best thing you can do with your computer is simply turn it off. You save on electricity, you lose one extra hum and a few flashing lights in your home at night, and you may stop thinking, "Oooo, maybe I should google that" while you're laying in bed with your pre-sleep mind wandering. Remember, though, very few of the options highlighted above should require an entire night's worth of your powered-on computer. Check out our guide to automatically shutting down your computer at a certain time for more ideas on how you can make the most of some after-hours computing power without keeping your computer on all night long.
Got a favourite that didn't make the list above, or want to expand on what we already mentioned? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments.