Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Supergeek question: why do computers age?

Adam Engst, founder of tech newsletter TidBITS, has said that he believes computers become slower with age, a process which can't be reversed with a reinstall  or such, in other words, the hardware changes.  

Last week I fished out two laptops, both like 5-7 years old. (They've been keept snug and dry.) And they both sort of didn't work. There was just odd things going on, like they refused to connect to the networks though they could see them, or the external DVD drive did not work with them. It just felt like machines on the brink of death. You know how you can sense that sometimes? When I was young, I once sold a used bike. I had been pretty much used. Everything worked on it, but just the whole feel of the bike said to me it was working on it's last breath. And true enough, shortly after the sale, it just broke down all over, and never was used again. (I think I later offered him his money back, but I'll try and make sure.)

Now, back to computers, I can understand a battery getting old or dying, because it is chemical in nature. But the other parts in a computer, why would they get old? (It seems to apply more if the machine is not used.) They are plastic, metal, and silicone. Not, so far as I know, materials which deteriorate quickly, outside of damp or extreme temperatures. So...

For me emotionally, computers should be like Charles Babbage said of his mechanical computer the Difference Engine: "It does not make errors. Either it works or it doesn't at all." There should be no odd grey-area or weird on-and-off malfunctioning. But there is. I guess they are just so complex that this stuff "develops" somehow.

Any ideas?


Andreas Weber said...

Well, everything with moving parts is subject to wear and/or fatigue when in use. When not in use still the lubricants decay (oils solidify because of oxidation, evaporate or simply flow away from the location where they're needed). Modern harddisks will die after a certain time (refuse to spin up) no matter what the storage conditions are ...
I'm not an expert for semiconductors, but I think insulation layers and especially the p-n junctions will lose their properties over time as well due to diffusion of the different component materials, maybe occasionally influenced by radiation as well (radon in your basement?)

Bruce W. said...

At least on my windows machines, this seems true. Within the last month, my 6 year old windows vista laptop was basically unusable. Too many problems and taking too long to do anything.

I wiped it and went back to zero. Reinstalled all the programs I need and it is like new.

Windows rot?

Adam Engst said...

I'm not an electronics expert, but a friend who works with embedded systems says that with standard heating and cooling, there is microscopic wear that affects chips. We think of metal as being durable, but it's incredibly thin in many electronic components, so it makes some sense that it would wear out in tiny ways.

Anonymous said...

It is well known that Windows installations accumulate garbage and get slower and slower. This is especially true of older versions. So a fresh install every year or two will work wonders making that old slow computer run a lot faster.

One factor, for chips in general, not much appreciated is that cosmic rays are zapping the chips continuously. They can damage the chips or in the case of memory they can flip the value stored in the memory location. Space craft have a more serious problem in this case and that's why you often hear of a computer failure on some of these probes.

But that being said, if your laptops boot up and seem to be running well then they should be able to do whatever they did before. We expect our current computers to do a lot more than we did 5 or 6 years ago so these older systems will be slower.

You may want to run some diagnostics on your laptops. Maybe CPUID, CCleaner and CrystalDisk. They can get infected by malware rather quickly once they are on line too.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Thanks guys.

Incredibly thin metal, good point.

Pat McGee said...

Another big issue: connectors. Every dis-connectable connection that uses a socket (like an IC on a board) or plug (like to an external device) deteriorates over time, even if you never unplug it. Gold-plated sockets and pins do it the least, but even they get flaky after a while. One thing you can do is to disconnect everything - every single thing that can be disconnected - and clean the contacts. I've seen miraculous transforms of balky old equipment from this.

In my limited experience, this is somewhat related to atmospheric pollution. At least, it was more of an issue for me when I lived in Houston (think: oil refinery) back in the 1970s than anywhere else I lived.

I had an Apple ][ that, after the first couple of years, I had to pull all the chips and clean the sockets at least every year.

Scott said...

Mother boards have power supplys that use these.Electrolytic capacitors are conditioned when manufactured by applying a voltage sufficient to initiate the proper internal chemical state. This state is maintained by regular use of the equipment. If a system using electrolytic capacitors is unused for a long period of time it can lose its conditioning, and will generally fail with a short circuit when next operated, permanently damaging the capacitor.

Ray said...

Just a thought - one reason they might act strangely after sitting a long time
is that their CMOS battery which keeps the machine's time and powers up
its BIOS for start-up etc. might be run down or even dead, and in that case,
of course it won't go. Maybe changing that CMOS battery will revive it.
I change those in both my computers every couple of years, even though
they say those will last up to five years. It's worth checking into, because
if your standby battery supply that gets everything going isn't able to do
that, it would explain a lot.

Russ said...

Want your old Windows machine to go faster? Install Linux on it!

John Krumm said...

My old Vista laptop was given a new life with Windows 8. Starts quickly, with snappy performance, no drive churn. So my guess is that it's mostly a software issue in many cases.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Thanks, more guys. Much food for thought.

JK, do you like Win 8? It seems to quite unpopular.

John Krumm said...

Yes, I like Windows 8 (8.1 now). But I also like my iMac with Maverick. They are both just computers. They both run Lightroom, surf the web, run Photoshop, etc. Too much is made of the differences. I like how with Windows computers you can still replace parts if needed. Macs are increasingly like buying a car with the hood and bottom sealed shut. It irritates me that I can't upgrade the drive on my iMac.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Yes, that's understandable. I think it was Jobs who was obsesses that the Mac from the start should be a totally closed system, for full control. This is not so in Desktop/tower models, but since the millennium has been more and more so in more compact models, now even the iMac.

It's probably a bit overdone. Also that the iMac is now made so slim that it needs to use memory and disks made for laptops! That's insane, it needlessly bumps the price and lowers performance.

Monsieur Beep! said...

What Ray is saying was the case with my old Win ME machine: after 8 or so years of use it suddenly stopped working, faint regular beeps came from the enclosure. I looked up the code which said something like "bad memory due to low CMOS battery. After changing the battery the systems started working like new, I´m still using it from time to time to browse files of those old days.

All other comments also make sense to me, explaining the reason why computers misbehave after longer periods of service.

Greetings (:-)

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Exactly. More and more it becomes evident to me that *nothing* lasts more than a few years, if it's not carefully protected.

Good to hear from you again, MB.