Editor's Note: This article was originally written by Zac Mutrux. It was updated in 2012 by Ariel Gilbert-Knight.
There are plenty of good reasons to keep older computers around. Maybe you just don't have the budget to buy a new one right now. Maybe you're helping protect the environment by using your current computer as long as possible before recycling it and investing in a new one.
Whatever the reason, this article will help you extend your computer's lifespan. We'll cover what can go wrong and how to handle problems when they arise. We'll also provide some suggestions for different ways to make good use of an older computer.
Extending the Life of a Computer
As computers get older, different things can go wrong. Maybe you can't open a program, or your operating system slows to a crawl. You may also run into hardware problems: the optical drive won't eject a disk or your hard drive crashes. Here are some things that can go wrong, and suggestions for how you can deal with those problems.
What Can Go Wrong with Software?
Problem: Too Much Software
The biggest software problem on old computers is having too much of it. When a computer has been in use for a long time, it accumulates software like the junk drawer in your kitchen. Having too much software can cause a variety of problems, including:
- Using up your memory. The more programs you're running simultaneously on your computer, the more of your computer's RAM you'll be using. On an old computer with little RAM, it's important to free up as much memory as possible.
- Taking up too much hard drive space. If the hard drive is completely full or nearly full, the operating system won't run well. On a newer computer, having lots of software is less of a problem because new hard drives tend to be bigger.
Solution 1: Remove Unnecessary Software. Decide what software is necessary. Consider the difference between "need" and "want." Be ruthless. You may want iTunes so you can listen to music while you work, but do you need it? Only keep what you really need to do your work.
Then, remove unnecessary programs:
- In Windows, go to "Add/Remove Programs" in the Control Panel. Then uninstall the software you don't need.
- In Mac OS X, uninstalling programs is usually as simple as deleting the program from the Applications folder. However, this may not completely uninstall all related files. To learn how to completely remove applications, see Uninstalling Applications in Mac OS X.
Solution 2: Reinstall the Operating System. Reinstall the operating system, then reinstall the programs in order of how frequently you use them (most-used ones first).
Problem: New Software, Old Hardware
Unfortunately, you can't install just any software on any computer. For example, let's say your computer has 256 MB of RAM. This means you shouldn't try to install Windows 7, which requires at least 1 GB of RAM. Keep in mind, even if you can install a piece of software, that doesn't mean you should. Software won't run well if your computer doesn't meet its minimum system requirements.
Solution 1: Stay Within Your Limits. Before installing any new software, check the system requirements. Make sure that your computer can handle it. Confirm that you have enough room on the hard drive and enough memory, and that the software is compatible with the operating system you're running.
Solution 2: In Windows 7, Use ReadyBoost. If you're short on memory and running Windows 7, ReadyBoost lets you use a USB flash drive or flash memory card to boost your computer's performance. Plug a ReadyBoost-compatible storage device into your computer, and ReadyBoost can borrow the device's memory to speed up your computer's performance.
Problem: Viruses, Spyware, and other Malware
Viruses, spyware, and other malicious software (or "malware") are always bad news, but they're more likely to cause problems on older computers. Older computers usually have less memory than newer computers, so the impact of memory-hogging malware is more apparent on an older computer.
Solution: Remove Malware. If you're going to run an old computer, you have to keep it clean if you expect it to perform. That means making sure you have a comprehensive antivirus solution installed, and that your definitions are up-to-date. Run a complete antivirus scan and remove any suspicious items. Then do the same with a separate anti-spyware tool.
Learn more about tools for removing malware in TechSoup's article, Protecting Your Organization From Spyware.
Preventing Software Problems
Performing regular maintenance will help prevent problems with your operating system and other software. That means:
- Installing patches and updates from the software vendor when they are released.
- Performing regular virus and spyware cleanup.
- If you're a Windows user, periodically defragmenting the hard drive.
- Installing only the software you need to do your work.
What Can Go Wrong with Hardware?
There's basically only one thing that goes wrong with hardware: it breaks. Broken means worn out, bent, cracked, smashed, burnt out, or otherwise inoperable. If it's not broken, the problem isn't with the hardware.
So what can break? Just about anything in your computer can break, but the parts that move are more likely to break — things like fans, the hard drive, and the optical drive.
Preventing Hardware Problems
Sometimes old hardware just breaks down. But there are a few steps you can take to keep moving parts running longer:
- Keep your computer clean. Dust can block your computer's vents, which can cause your computer to heat up. And heat is bad for your hardware. So dust your desk regularly and vacuum the floor to reduce the amount of dirt around your computer. Once a year, open your computer's case and blow out any dust with a can of compressed air.
- Protect against power surges. Power surges can break electronics. Test your electrical outlets to see if they are properly grounded, and use a good-quality surge protector to protect your equipment from voltage spikes.
Replacing or Upgrading Hardware
If your hardware breaks, you may be able to replace the broken component. And even if nothing is broken, upgrading your computer's RAM, hard drive, or other hardware can be a cost-effective way to improve your computer's performance. To learn more about hardware upgrades and the level of technical expertise required, see Upgrading Your Computer Components.
Changing How You Use the Computer
You may be able to further extend the life of an older computer by making sure you've assigned the right computer to the right person. Do you do heavy-duty work with video, audio, and images? Then you might be better off with a newer computer (or at least an older computer with some significant hardware upgrades). But if you mostly do basic office tasks, like creating documents and checking email, then an older computer should be just fine.
End of Life
No matter how well you take care of it, eventually your computer will reach the end of its life. When that day comes, make sure you dispose of it responsibly. For more information, see Ten Tips for Donating a Computer, which addresses end-of-life and recycling.
Image: Old computer man, Shutterstock