Can keeping my CPU speed at “high performance/turbo” all the time decrease its lifespan?
And if so, what would be its expected route of failure if it does happen?
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If the processor cooling system meets the required spec and keeps the CPU below its maximum thermal limit then there should be no issues. The main risk, as you may gather, is a catastrophic overheating, leading to a thermal failure but, in reality, most modern CPUs will start to lower their internal clock speed (to reduce heat generation) before this happens, but you may still find that an overheating processor leads to system instability and random crashes.
Overclocking your system (running the CPU at more than its rated frequency) can increase thermal instability due to additional heat generation and may increase the chances of an overheat condition if the cooling system is not uprated for the additional heat..
From a purely technical perspective, the answer is yes. Transistors do age over time, and increasing the number of logic transitions (i.e. consistently high clock speed) or running a chip at a higher voltage does decrease the lifespan. This is due to the intrinsic material properties of using silicon-based transistors.
Unfortunately, this means that by keeping your CPU in high performance mode, you're running it at a higher clock speed and a higher voltage.
Fortunately, this lifespan reduction will be manageable if the thermal profile of the CPU is managed correctly. CPU lifespans are rated at full clock speeds and voltages for a certain thermal load. So long as you use an appropriate heatsink, and do not apply a voltage too high to the CPU, you should be fine.
Finally, it should be noted that CPU performance mode switching is usually seamless now. I would advise that you do not keep your CPU at full speed/voltage all of the time. This causes unnecessary power consumption, and thus excessive heat dissipation at idle.
Overclocking will make your CPU hot so make sure:
-your temperatures are kept low
-the PC is kept clean to maintain these temperatures
As long as you keep the above in mind, overclocking it for a long time should not affect too adversely.
Actually, stressing your CPU more (and speed is a stress mostly because of heat) will make it age faster.
But this will not be noticeable because of a common property of most electronic chips that say their failure rate is low and does not grow for a very long time known as useful life, before they start to wear out. Stressing will only get the useful life shorter without increasing failure rate during useful life.
For CPUs, useful life typically lasts years, and they become obsolete long before the wear out.
You may want to look at the failure probability curve in this article I found: http://dependablesystem.blogspot.ca/2011/05/sw-and-hw-reliability.html
In short: stressing your CPU will make it wear out in 20 years instead of 25, but you don't care. Except for that, if it can be overclocked for minutes, it can stay for years.