One question I am often asked is “How long should my computer last?” The answer is always, “It depends.” There are many factors that play into how long you should expect to use your current computer. Our expectations change over time. The software we use becomes more bloated. The hardware degrades over time.
One of the biggest factors driving the necessity of a new computer is our expectations. Newer computers operate faster. While our current computer may still run, it is not as fast as the computer in the next cubicle. It may not run the latest versions of software that the newer computers run. While we were impressed with the photo editing capacity of our computer when it was new, we may find that it is inadequate for the video editing that we want to do today. Often, it's not the computer that has gotten slower, but it is us that are demanding more from our computers.
Our software is currently updating itself. The Operating System is applying patches to protect us from the latest security threats. Our antivirus software is applying the latest virus signatures to protect us from all the new viruses. As time goes on, the list of viruses that we expect to be protected from continually grows. Our applications also get security updates as well as new features. We install more and more new applications, many which need to keep at least a small piece of themselves running and taking up resources. Some may need to “call home” to see if any updates are available. Others will keep a piece of themselves loaded so that they will appear to start faster. The software on our computers today may be vastly different than what came on the computer when it was new.
Over time, the hardware does degrade. Moving parts such as fans and hard drives will wear out. Fans may run slower or even stop running at all causing heat buildup. A system that is not well designed may have heat buildup even though the fans are working properly. Heat buildup will damage the circuitry causing the computer to run slower or intermittently crash. Hard drives are complex units with many moving parts that must move within extremely fine tolerances. As these parts wear, they may start to move outside of the engineered tolerances causing system slowdowns and crashes. The more compact the computer, such as laptops and small form factor desktops, the more heat induced degradation becomes a factor. Laptops, since they are typically subject to more movement, are also more likely to experience hard drive degradation.
So what is the typical life of a computer? Systems that are well designed and have the latest technology will typically work satisfactorily for a longer period of time. As a general rule of thumb, I expect laptops to last two to five years. Desktops may last three to seven years. Servers, since they are usually built with beefier components and the demands of the Operating System do not change much, can generally last five to eight years. Your mileage may vary.