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Grow Your Business Technology

How Long Do Computers Last? 10 Signs You Need a New One

image for g-stockstudio/Shutterstock
g-stockstudio/Shutterstock

When a computer begins to slow down or shows other signs that the end is near, it's tempting to start searching online for a replacement. However, there is a lot to consider when deciding whether to upgrade a PC, particularly in a business setting. The costs add up, especially when you're adding multiple machines to a fleet, even a small one.

Questions like "How long do computers last?" and "What is the average laptop's lifespan?" are usually top of mind when you weigh the pros and cons of buying new computers versus managing just a little bit longer before you take the financial plunge.

Here are answers to common questions about which operating system is best (Mac or PC), the lifespan of desktops and laptops, and 10 signs that it might be time to purchase new hardware.

There's often vigorous debate as to whether Macs or PCs last longer. The answer really depends on the hardware and the configuration. Macs have a reputation for lasting longer. Apple offers a strong service support system, and it created and maintains the operating system.

Microsoft has replicated Apple's model to some degree with its Surface line, and other PC manufacturers – particularly those that sell to businesses – have made efforts to offer a comprehensive experience and ensure smooth upgrades when the hardware starts to get older.

This can alleviate the burden on your IT department when it comes to support and upgrade costs. Macs remain a good value, particularly for businesses, with the tight integration of hardware and software and Apple's support ecosystem.

The longevity of a computer is a key concern for consumers. For desktop PCs, the answer is more complex. This is because desktop PCs offer a greater ability to customize the components than a laptop does. For most desktop PCs, a minimum three-year lifespan should be expected.

However, most computers survive anywhere from five to eight years, depending on the upgrading components. Maintenance is also critical, as dust is very problematic for PC components. Owners should routinely upgrade software and keep the machines free from excessive dust and debris.

The same concern applies to laptops. Most experts estimate a laptop's lifespan to be between three and five years.

It may survive longer than that, but its utility will be limited as the components become less capable of running more advanced applications.

The key to knowing if it's time to replace a laptop is if its method of use still matches up with its current computing power. Some laptops still run efficiently longer than five years, but their range of tasks may be limited.

When considering upgrades to your company's fleet of computers, look for these key signs:

Typically, upgrades like RAM or switching to a solid-state drive are among the first steps in boosting a computer's power. However, upgrading the motherboard or the CPU is where you could run into compatibility issues. You could find yourself in a situation where many or all of your computer's components need to be replaced. The costs may be too onerous, and it may be better to buy new computer hardware. Consult with your IT team or, if you're farming out repairs to a service, ask lots of questions about the repairs and the costs.

If your current hardware is incompatible with newer versions of an operating system, then it may be time to purchase new. Check Windows and Mac compatibility to ensure the machines you use are eligible for updates.

Even if they are compatible, there are other security measures to consider. Are your company's computers compatible with the software your team needs? Are employees taking the right steps to safeguard security, such as using strong passwords? Newer Mac and PCs use biometric security. If a security upgrade is in the works, it may be time to purchase new machines.

Often, the first issue to signal an aging computer's impending demise is if the fan is running loudly even when it's not doing intensive computing tasks. If you're running the latest version of an application or operating system, these programs could be maxing out the hardware of your computer, causing it to run warmer than usual. 

Both desktop and laptops keep getting smaller and smaller. There are many PCs in the Windows and Mac line that won't require your team to lug around a behemoth of a machine. You may see a happier workforce and some productivity gains if people feel like they can quickly open up their device, fire off a few tasks and move on to the next item.

Repair is usually the most cost-effective method, instead of just buying new hardware. However, the downtime from continual repairs also means lost money, so it's especially important for business owners to think about continual support costs, as well as lost productivity, compared to the cost of simply replacing an old machine.

Applications may take longer than usual to load on an old computer. If you're running the latest version of an application, old hardware may not be able to keep up. Check the compatibility when installing software to ensure it works with your computer. Minimum component requirements are important to look at, although the bare minimum may not get the job done when you use other software on the computer.

Things happen: The screen cracks; the keyboard or trackpad stops working. Some things, like a new house for a desktop, are obviously simple and won't take much time or cost to fix. However, some repairs may come close to or exceed the cost of a new computer depending on the specific components being replaced. If that's the case, you're only prolonging the inevitable, and you're better off purchasing a new device.

Don't neglect the basics when it comes to maintenance. Regularly update Windows and Mac computers to the latest version of the operating system. Each one comes with security and operational improvements, bug fixes, and other tweaks intended to benefit the whole ecosystem.

If your computer has difficulty running two or more applications simultaneously, it might be time for a new machine. When you can't jump quickly between applications that are open, that's a signal that your computer is reaching the end. A similar issue could arise when you are switching among open tabs in a web browser.

Typically, the culprit here is insufficient RAM, especially if there are multiple memory-hogging applications in use. If a computer was once only used for web browsing but now needs to be used for different editing spreadsheets or more intense programming tasks – such as web design, photo editing or graphics work – a more robust machine may be needed.

If your desktop or notebook takes an extraordinary amount of time to boot up or to shut down, it could be an indication that your computer is on its last legs. It could also be caused by too many applications that are set to automatically load and run in the background of the operating system whenever you start your computer.

Usually, this type of issue is a starting point to diagnose what is going wrong with the machine. The simple fix might be having fewer programs auto-load in the background when you start the computer.

In terms of the hardware, try to keep crumbs or other debris from getting inside the computer's keyboard. Avoid using chemicals or other cleaning materials on a trackpad. Always follow the manufacturer's recommendations for cleaning and maintaining your device.

Paying attention to other system issues is important, too. On Windows, Disk Management can perform advanced storage tasks and free up disk space. On Macs, Disk Utility can repair system errors, along with partitioning your drive.

Finally, be cognizant of your battery's temperature (don't let it get too hot) and the threats moisture poses. Both Windows and Mac computers have battery performance tools built into the operating system. You can adjust system preferences to preserve the battery.

Many people want to know if they can leave their PC on 24/7. Computers have components that will eventually wear out. Batteries have only so many recharge cycles. LCD panels survive for a limited number of hours.

For a desktop, leaving the PC running all the time may not be as taxing, particularly if it's a device that is regularly used, because each startup emits a surge of power to the components.

For a machine that's used regularly, leaving it on may be best. For those who use their PC sporadically, shutting it down may be best. Also, consider sleep mode – this option puts the PC in a lower-power state without shutting it off completely.

Derek Walter

Derek Walter is the founder of Walter Media, which offers writing and content strategy services. He is also the author of Learning MIT App Inventor: A Hands-On Guide to Building Your Own Android Apps.