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My (windows based) laptop is coming up to six years old now, and it still has semi respectable specs - Core 2 Duo 2.6ghz, 1gb Ram, 500gb HDD, 256mb ATI graphics card. Although the hardware is on its last legs, I am quite proficient with XP and keeping things nice and tidy.

I have minimal start up processes and defrag every six weeks or so.

Now I am experiencing slow downs, but I do not think it is my software being the cause. I am pretty sure it is my HDD being old and decrepit that is doing it.

  • Do HDDs get slower with age / use?
  • On average, how often should I be replacing my HDD?
  • Is there any way of testing / monitoring the HDD speeds?
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8 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

No, harddrives don't get measurably slower with age. Drives can get worn mechanically, and they can get occasional bad sectors, but either they work for decades or they fail hard and quick after a while - not a slow decay. As Ignacio states, there's a bit of age-related maintenance inside the drive, but that's on a scale you wouldn't notice.

Windows is known to slow down (see, it's software-related) over time, especially if you install&uninstall applications often. At any rate, if the machine is running for 6 years on the same Windows installation, you're doing well! I would suggest to back up the machine, then reinstall the OS and your programs.

I agree with you that the specs of the machine make it useful for several more years. If you have (access to) GRC.com's SpinRite, you might want to try it out. It can refresh your disk.

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Had never knew that installing and uninstalling programs would cause slowdowns. Is this true? –  JFW Aug 18 '10 at 10:49
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If often happens that programs install additional DLL files, and some of them can be shared with other programs. When you uninstall the program, these shared DLL's are left in place in order to not disturb the other programs that use it - but just as often, you have no other programs installed that need it. So your Windows installation slowly fills up with unused DLL files. This is just one example how Windows slowly deteriorates. It's noticeable when installing/uninstalling a lot, or with aging Windows installations. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Aug 18 '10 at 11:17
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Good answer, +1. All is true here ... however, processors do work slower with age. The constant heat they are supporting over the years makes them burn out slowly. Usually, a processor's lifetime is 7 years, but it may last much longer. Your Core2 Duo runs on lower temperatures and has sophisticated error correcting, so you should have no trouble with it. –  Patkos Csaba Aug 18 '10 at 11:21
    
Really useful information. I think it is time for a fresh OS install then. Lots and lots of apps have been added / removed, along with a bunch of malware. Thanks! –  danixd Aug 18 '10 at 18:49
    
When I bought my last laptop, the service tech told me I needed to reinstall Windows every six months. I haven't reinstalled yet, but I haven't done a lot of install/uninstall sequences. One web designer referred to the Windows slowdown as bit rot. –  BillThor Aug 18 '10 at 20:30
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As hard drives age, they may need to remap reserve sectors in place of non-working sectors. A SMART tool should be able to tell you how many of these remappings have been performed, as well as other factors that may be a result of old age.

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Conventional rotating drives may not slow down with age, but solid state drives (SSDs) may slow down with use (especially when they're filled to near capacity). This is more apparent when dealing with older SSDs, older OSes, and/or older drivers that may not understand or fully utilize facilities that combat this, such as TRIM.

See AnandTech's "SSD Anthology" and other articles for a detailed description of why: essentially, SSDs have different limitations than hard drives (e.g. their "erase block" size) and to act like traditional hard drives they need to have a "translation layer" of sorts.

That layer ends up being almost as complex as a modern filesystem.

Filesystems themselves can experience performance degradation in a number of similar cases:

  • large numbers of files or directories
  • fragmentation (as you pointed out, a defrag helps with this)
  • low remaining space (it may take more "work" to determine where to place pieces of files)

All that having been said, I agree with torbengb: your issue is much more likely a software one.

A few options:

  • If you feel up to it, grab the Sysinternals Suite or similar tools and do some sleuthing: it may be a single app, dll, or service that's hogging some critical resource (disk, memory, or CPU). With luck you can just disable or reinstall whatever is being pesky.
  • Boot from a live CD or USB stick, or install a fresh copy of Windows on a separate partition. The USB or CD may not have the same performance characteristics, but if things feel zippy again, it's likely software.
  • Bite the bullet: back up, format, and reinstall, then be selective and take time when putting apps back. Most power users end up doing this every so often anyway, and it almost always provides a tangible result.
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I have experience this slowing of the hard drive even complete HHD crash with all info lost, i usually get 4 years out of my hard drives before i start to worry, yes re-installing Os systems can help but over time( i do this multiple time through the HHD life) Drives FAIL (things that move NEVER LAST) things u might not think of that affect drives:

  1. Hard shut downs Via power outages/surges, breakers popin or even pesky little brother pulling power cord from socket.

  2. Filling your hard drive to max multiple times ( the arm in the drive that moves rapidly gets use to a certain range of movement when the exceed that movement the ARM slows, not the spinning disk.

  3. Moving a computer the arm inside a hard drive the reading head is very close to the disk, a piece of dust is bigger than the gap between the two, so movement how ever small can still affect the drive

  4. Viruses ( although we caught most if not all can affect ur drive even if its a little amount of time)

  5. HEAT ( things create heat when moving )

  6. Windows update can tell the computer to do something a different way that make programs not to work or even slow HHDs

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The answer by torbengb above is correct. However the later posted comment about processors slowing down definitely isn't - processors are digital and cannot 'burn out slowly' - their operation is 100% governed by the clock oscillator which does NOT slow down!

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Agreed. It doesn't make sense. If the thermal paste thins out because of improper application, then the processor can run hot and will (if it supports it) throttle itself down by decreasing their clock multiplier. There are tools that will show if a CPU is running hot or if some setting have it stuck at a low clock speed. I have seen one computer that seemed like the CPU was "wearing out". It was imaged perfectly identical to another system and the CPU and RAM were identical as well, but it ran at about 10% the speed. Never got a chance to see why, but it could have easily been anything. –  TuxRug Aug 22 '10 at 20:41
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I've wondered about this issue as well.

My experience is that the updates to Windows XP tend to slow down the system very noticeably.

A fresh install of Windows XP (without any service packs) might perform lightning fast even on an old box, but once you have installed all automatic updates up to Service Pack 3 (literally a few hours and numerous restarts later), things aren't running so speedy anymore. This is without any extra software installed.

Now, if you have been using your system for 6 years, my take on this is that all the incremental updates will have incrementally slowed down your computer substantially.

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Yup, hard drives have moving parts. So they eventually wear out and die some or the other time. Even if you take care of a hard drive very nicely, it's always great to have a backup.

The newer SSDs (Solid State Drives) are very much different from conventional HDDs. They don't have moving parts, so they are better options. They are shock proof too. But they're more expensive.

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I found that as the harddrive ages, it starts making louder noise which goes something like 'click-click-click' whenever the harddrive is being accessed/written and while its doing that I experience the computer freezes/slows-down for a moment. And at a later age the computer will refuse to boot sometimes and eventually one day it would completely stop booting.

But a clean windows installation always fastens things up.

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