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Your Computer Is Going to Break—Are You Ready?

Learn how a computer ages over time, and how you can get the best performance out of it.

It’s easy to be seduced by the promise of a new computer. All those graphics, blazing video, instantaneous load times—it’s just about as beautiful as technology can get.

After you’ve made the purchase, you feel like you’re holding pure possibility in your hands. Surely, you’d think, the many frustrations you’ve experienced with your aging machine will now be a thing of the past. This computer—this fancy, new computer—will be the one that gets it right, once and for all. You’ll never need another.

At least not for a year, anyway. Because that’s how long it takes for new computers to begin to show their age. Somewhere around this time, all those shiny parts begin to break down and raise your blood pressure once again.

In this column, we walk you through the full life cycle of a computer, highlighting the various milestones you’re likely to encounter along the way. Think of it as a journey from unboxing to unburdening, from setup to letup.

Just one word of advice before we begin: print this article now. Your printer’s about to croak, too.

Stage One: Infancy

At the magical moment of purchase, your computer is perfect. No dust has collected in its vents, no buttons have worn down from use, and every internal component is working precisely as it should.

If computers had no moving parts whatsoever, this is likely how it would remain for 10 years or more. But even solid-state drives require a fan, spinning optical drives, and peripherals that must withstand a daily beating.

So how should you protect yourself starting on day one? Although the chance of failure is smaller today than it will ever be again, there’s no such thing as an infallible technology. Invest in a few preventive measures, just in case.

If your manufacturer’s warranty seems a little thin, consider extending it for a fraction of what you might otherwise spend on out-of-pocket repairs. And don’t forget about data backup, a smart choice whether your machine is a day or a decade old. Check out cloud backup services like Carbonite, Google Drive, and Dropbox.

Stage Two: Prime of Life

Say what you will about middle age; for computers, it can be an era of peaceful productivity. Yes, your tower or laptop may have lost a step or two, but what is gone in CPU cycles has been gained in familiarity. You now know your machine’s quirks and habits, and have grown to trust it implicitly. Shortcuts and customizations have kept the magic going all this time. Your computer is a part of you, and you wouldn’t dream of giving it up…yet.

But under the hood, ominous changes are afoot. Your computer’s moving parts are now settling, maturing, and beginning to break down. After a year, the chance of a catastrophic failure jumps to between two and three percent—hardly a nightmare scenario, but much higher than it was.

You can protect yourself by keeping all of the fans and vents clean and by performing regular “spring cleaning,” such as removing unused software and defragmenting the drive. If commonly used applications are taking longer than ever to open, it may be time to consider installing more RAM.

Stage Three: The Twilight Years

And now, we ease gently into the sunset of your computer’s productive life cycle. After two to four years, new problems will begin to appear both inside and out. Spinning drives, cooling fans, and laptop batteries no longer work the way they once did. Your favorite old software may be slowing to a crawl, and new releases barely stand a chance.

What’s worse, your computer’s innards are teeming with pathogens. Malware, bloatware, and unwanted gibberish are slowly filling the drive, forcing your computer to work harder to save and retrieve new data. One day, a terrifying software glitch drives home the point that your chance of catastrophic failure is rising by the day. The time has almost come.

But you don’t have to go down without a fight. Even older computers can be repaired in many ways. If you’ve been practicing good data backup, you can always swap out the hard drive for something bigger and cheaper. Plenty of good software options are available to help rid your computer of unwanted software.

Plus, physical cleaning can actually make a significant difference. Blast your vents and innards with compressed air, and lubricate the moving parts for a smoother spin. When all else fails, you can even attempt a “clean install,” by which you wipe the drive back to factory settings and reinstall your operating system from scratch.

The Circle of Life

The big question as your computer approaches its twilight years is comfort versus expense: at what point is it more practical to just buy a new computer instead of pouring resources into an old one?

Ask yourself what you really need that machine to do, and how much you would pay to have one that does all those things a bit faster. Consider the time and effort it takes to do shopping, research, and data migration. And then steel yourself for what is to come.

Just don’t get too attached to the latest toy as you walk out of the store. Because some day—not today, but some day—it’s going to break, too. It’s the circle of life.

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