How Long Should A Computer Last?

Last week, we wrote an article regarding the top 5 things to consider when purchasing a new computer.  Now, we would like to discuss when to buy a new computer.  Put another way, how long should a computer last before you replace it?

The short answer: 3-5 years.
The real answer: 3-5 years, but it’s more complicated than that.

3-5 years has been the general consensus among IT professionals for a long time, and recent studies have borne this out. Also, 3 years is about the longest length of warranty you will be able to purchase from the manufacturer. (You can get longer warranties, but the prices go up dramatically after 3 years.)  Having said that, 3-5 years is a pretty soft number, for several reasons:

  • Business class computer tend to last longer than home class computers because they are build with higher quality components. (See this article for a discussion of home vs. business class computers.)
  • Desktops tend to last longer than laptops because laptops sacrifice longevity for small size.
  • Dusty environments like warehouses will shorten the lifespan of a computer.
  • Heat and improper ventilation will shorten the lifespan of a computer.

What we have found is that after 3 years, computers begin to have more problems.  That is why they are only warrantied for 3 years.  This does not mean they will stop working on their third birthday, but they are more likely to act up.  5 years is a reasonable lifespan.  After that, your computer may continue to work for a very long time.  We have seen computers die after 6 months, and we have seen computers chugging along 10 years later.  But after 5 years, you cannot reasonably expect that the computer will continue performing at its peak.

Think of it like a lifespan of a person.  The average life expectancy of an American right now is 79 years.  We all know people that live well into their 80’s, 90’s, and beyond, but history shows us that this is not typical.  Similarly, a computer lasting 6, 8, or 10 years may happen frequently enough, but it is not typical and should not be planned on.

Another consideration about when to buy a new computer is not simply how old your computer is, but how powerful it is.  Hardware manufacturers are always producing more powerful computers.  With this greater capacity, software companies and web design firms are always producing programs and websites that require greater computing power.  So, while your 6-year old computer may be working without problems, it may no longer be powerful enough to do what modern users are doing, and what modern programs and websites are expecting.  Take Microsoft Office as an example.  With Office 2007, Microsoft created a new file format for office documents (.docx and .xlsx, instead of .doc and .xls).  As more people got new computers, more people also got the new version of Office, and the more necessary it became for you to have the latest version of office just so you could open those documents and send them in a format people were expecting.

The next thing to consider on when to buy a new computer is your tolerance for downtime.  If your computer dies, will you be out of business until a new one shows up?  Will you be forced to buy whatever is available in the store nearby you instead of ordering the computer best suited to your needs?  If this is the case, then plan on replacing your computer before it dies.  Donate the old one if it is still working, but don’t force yourself into a bad situation just because you wanted to get all the life out of it.  If you can get by without a computer for a couple of weeks without noticing a problem in your business, by all means run it into the ground.  Just be aware that the technology around you has progressed while your computer has not, so even if it is still running at its top speed, it may not be able to keep up with the software and websites you want it to.

Finally, it may be tempting when a single component of a computer breaks to just replace that part.  Why buy a new computer for $800 when a replacement hard drive only costs $80?  Resist this temptation.  Unless your computer is new (in which case, it should still be under warranty and the replacement part is free), other components are probably not far behind.  In our experience, we have found it is more cost effective to replace the computer and pay the extra money up front rather than to replace a part and keep your old computer hobbling along for a few more months when you will have to replace it anyway.

So even though your computer may not have died yet, there are other factors to keep in mind in deciding when to buy a new computer.  If you are considering buying a new computer and have questions or are looking for some advice, please feel free to get in touch.  We would be happy to help in any way we can.

P.S.  As far as batteries are concerned, know that laptop batteries are only designed to last at their full strength for 1-2 years.  It is irritating, but that’s how it is.  Plan on buying a new battery every couple years if you want to continue using it unplugged.