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August 2016
Computer Lifespan

How long do computers last?

While it may seem like computers and other high technology electronics have a shelf life shorter than dairy products. Most of the computers that are discarded are still functional but have become obsolete.

Some computers last a long time but eventually...
Physically the average PC should last at least three to five years and sometimes longer than that. I have machines running that are very much older than just five years. (I would be embarrassed to tell you exactly how old some of these “recycler refuges” are.)

There are many things can send you computer to an early grave. Besides the obvious fatalities from physical damage such falling off the table and landing on the floor, running over it with the car or soaking it with conductive liquids such as coffee.

What parts usually fail first? Mechanical failure of the moving parts is the most common post mortem in PC’s. The two most common are the power supply and the hard drive. And it is the moving parts in each that usually cause the failure.

The solid state components usually last a lot longer. They are not subject to mechanical wear and tear and as long as they don’t overheat or get “zapped” by over voltage they can last for decades. The most common failure is, “leakage”.

The culprit is those little can shaped electrolytic capacitors. They overheat and the precious electrolyte oozes out. Once that happens the device doesn’t work properly. In technical terms it doesn’t “meet spec” anymore. This is usually a result of poor design. Stolen secret formulas that were incomplete and botched corporate espionage have also played a part. Special “caps” designed to operate with the “fast switching” power supplies used in modern computers are available. But they cost a few cents more and you probably know the rest of that story.

Tin whiskers are another cause of failure. In ancient times the solder used to assemble electronic components was a mixture of lead and tin. They took the lead out. Without the lead the tin can re-crystallize into long thin “whiskers”. Sometimes these tin crystals can be several centimeters long and in the tiny world of electronics that is huge. These conductive whiskers cause “shorts” in the electrical circuits and that just ruins everything. Not just a problem for terrestrial devices, several expensive communication satellites have been reduces to orbital debris by these hair like crystals.

What can you do to prevent an early demise of your valuable electronics?
While you can’t do much about solid state problems like leakage or tin whiskers a few, “common sense” precautions can help you electronics live to a ripe old age.

Keep it clean!
Computers tend to be dust magnets and that can block air circulation. Vacuuming out the air ducts can help your electronics keep their cool.

Don’t over heat it.
Most portable devices are on all the time. They just go into a standby mode when they are not being used. Don’t leave them sitting on the dash of a hot car parked in the sun. Don’t expose them to direct sunlight even when they are, “off”.

Charge and discharge.
Most portable devices use Lithium Ion batteries which have a life expectancy of about two or three years or about 300 to 500 charge cycles, (that is totally drained to fully charged). They will degrade even if they are unused sitting on a shelf. They start to “die" as soon as they are made and in many cases they are not replaceable. When the battery is done so is the device.

You can expect to lose about 20% of the battery’s ability to hold a charge per year. Temperatures above about 40 degrees C or about 104 degrees F also hasten the demise of Li-Ion batteries. If the Li-Ion battery is completely discharged that will cause irreversible and permanent damage. Fortunately most devices have circuitry to shut off the device before that happens. Keep them cool and keep them charged and keep your fingers crossed.

And remember – Always Back It Up!

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