Take the 2-minute tour ×
Super User is a question and answer site for computer enthusiasts and power users. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In over 10 years of using computers I noticed that as the years go by their performance starts to degrade, and not as a result of winrot. Even if you re install Windows its improvement in speed still don't bring the computer to the same level of responsiveness as it was when it was brand new, and if you let your computer get really old, it may even degrade to the point where it begins to run old games as if they were new, performance intensive games (happened to me once).

It seems to me as if the electrical components just degrade in efficiency over time, but I have no confirmation of this nor the required theoretical knowledge to help me assess how probable this theory is. Can anyone shed some light on this?

share|improve this question
2  
Do you have any proof of this? A case where reformatting and reinstalling Windows did lead to a detectable decrease in performance? Human memory is a strange tool. –  dbkk101 Oct 14 '10 at 13:54
    
@dbkk101 Personal experience. I didn't say it led to a decrease in performance. Performance improved, but not up to brand-new-like state. It was something like 80% the speed it originally had out of the store. –  EpsilonVector Oct 15 '10 at 0:15
1  
I'm of the opinion that this effect is 95% software. Even if you "reinstall" Windows, you install it with all the recent "fixes", and you then go and reinstall most of your current apps, with their "fixes". Electronic components do, in theory, get slower with age, but the clock speed doesn't change, so they just eventually fail. Hard drives only get slower to the degree that they pick up errors and require more retries and sector relocations. –  Daniel R Hicks Jan 20 '13 at 20:04

5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

That's an interesting question. There is an electrical/electronic process called electromigration where the ions in a conductor drift over time and cause circult paths (both in silicon and to a lesser extent in copper tracking) to degrade and this may cause signal paths to slow down. The effect is sped up by heat and thus hot, overclocked systems can suffer more from this phenomenon.

Electronic components do age too and there may be a degree of performance drop due to timing signals moving within their tolerance bands. As DMA57361 said, hard disks do wear out and so performance of a system will change over time.

Another issue is heat - as heatsinks and fans/vents get clogged with dust, their cooling efficiency goes down and hotter digital electronics run slower due to increased thermal noise in the signal paths - this is especially true of processors and RAM so keeping things clean and re-greasing your CPU heatsink for maximum heat transfer can help.

share|improve this answer
6  
+1 Electromigration huh? You learn something new everyday. Although, I wonder if it would actually make a noticeable impact on performance. Other than mechanical components suffering from wear and tear, I bet most of the performance degradation in older systems is perceived. Similar to looking back at older video game graphics which at their introduction, people described as "life like". –  Belmin Fernandez Oct 14 '10 at 13:30
    
Good point - I was going to add a bit about perception but changed my mind. Yes, electromigration is unlikely to have a serious impact on performance until/unless a specific pathway or interconnect fails. Along the way though, signal and current paths will become narrower and this can result in an increase in temperature and thus thermal noise due to higher path resistance. –  Linker3000 Oct 14 '10 at 13:38

Computer technician weighing in...

A lot of perceived performance problems are due to technology's advancement--once you use a new computer, the old one seems even slower. In addition to the physical causes for slowdown, remember that the human mind may be responsible for some of this perception of slowness.

A number of factors that I have seen slow down a computer are fragmentation, bad RAM, old or failing hard drive, bad network connection, blown capacitors on the motherboard (or motherboard failure), low free space on hard drive, and bad drivers. I have even seen bad cables cause slowdowns (e.g. if an IDE cable is creased). There are about a thousand ways to slow a computer down just like there are a thousand ways to reduce the performance of a car. I will say that the hard drive has caused >50% of mysterious hardware-caused performance problems in my experience.

With proper maintenance and the right parts, can you keep your computer running at 100% forever? Yes. For example, there are still Windows 98 boxes that are more responsive than netbooks for certain tasks. You pretty much have to luck-out and have good, solid hardware that ends up lasting a long time, though.

share|improve this answer

One major bottleneck of computer efficency (at any age) is the hard drive. It is by far the slowest link in most processes. Even new SSDs are the slowest link in the chain, albeit faster than a mechanical HDD.

Compound this with the fact that mechanical HDDs, by thier very nature as mechanical, wear out. That drives will eventually start remapping bad sectors as well, and so HDD performance can degrade quite noticably over time, making the slowest link even slower.

I'm sure this does not account for all permanent degradation of performance, but thought I would add my thoughts in this area.
Hopefully, someone with a better knowledge of eletronics can comment on those sort of components.

share|improve this answer

I'm also going to toss in a few points: Keep in mind a lot of operation systems are no longer the same operating system as they were when they were first originally installed or released

System compatability updates, system upgrades and driver changes can all attribute to various performance hits/gains.

The largest noticable example of these changes is the jump between Windows XP SP2 and SP3. While running SP2 a computer could run smoothly (minus any background running processes or the like) with only 512MB or RAM. Once you install SP3, the smoothness is no longer as prevalent unless you've got at LEAST 1GB of RAM (in most cases requiring more depending on the software and different application packages you have in the background).

Also don't forget the software being used on the system is also a major factor, as well as the overall increase of software usage as a user gets more technically inclined.

Example: Office XP was a much lighter and less resource intensive version than the new Office 2010 (which now has a supposed minimum requirement of 256MB, but I can damn well tell you if someone expects to be able to do more than JUST open a spreadsheet it's a pipedream).

It used to be a new user would only need a web browser and maybe notepad, but i've discovered people who consider themselves "computer illiterate" and are unknowingly using multiple windows, office products, quickbooks (and lord does the new 2010 and 2011 version require a monster of a machine in most cases), and video players simultaniously and complain about how their "old computers" can't keep up (they just need to stop opening 20 things at once while only using 1 thing in most cases).

very thought provoking question!

share|improve this answer
    
Good point..... –  UpTheCreek Jan 10 '11 at 6:58

Well, a computer is an electromechanical device. Memory will begin to fail, circuits will begin to fail, thus their efficiency will degrade. Mechanical components like fans and hard drives will also begin to fail (at a faster rate than electronic/electric components). The later will also (and perhaps more significantly) affect performance. One could opt for SSD drivers, but they also will fail (as they have a finite lifespan as a function of the total number of writes.)

But the flip side of this is maintenance. Not keeping the machine running all the time for example. And when running it all the time, running defragmentation; making sure it runs within appropriate temperature ranges; eliminating static and dust; replacing drives that become faulty; increasing memory so that it incurs in less page faults (and thus less hard drive activity.)

So in essence, yes, computers will deteriorate over time just like any machine. But, and just like any other machine, proper active maintenance can considerably extend its operational lifetime.

share|improve this answer
2  
Most of the degradation you describe will not result in a speed decline until the component can no longer stay within spec and hence fails. It's mostly a works/doesn't work thing, not gradual slowing. –  Daniel R Hicks Jan 20 '13 at 20:07
    
That is a good point! –  luis.espinal Jan 21 '13 at 15:30

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.