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I have a desktop that's not being used since I got a laptop. I heard somewhere that computer hardware will deteriorate if not being used.

How frequently should I use it or get someone to use it so that it won't deteriorate?
Do you have any tips on how to preserve a computer that's not regularly used?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

You have a problem. First, electrolytic capacitors, which are widely used in PCs, deteriorate over time. They have a very short shelf life, some cheap ones will go bad after about 2-3 years. Blown capacitors is one of the most common reasons why a piece of electronic equipment won't work after being in storage for a couple of years.

On the other hand, computer power-on and subsequent heating and start-up is the most stressful moment in its life. You don't want to turn in on and off too often.

I would say, protect your computer from dust and elements, and especially from UV (sun). Turn it on once or twice a year, and let it run for a couple of hours (install Windows updates, etc.). When you turn it on, make sure the case is closed (so if the capacitors do blow up, they won't blow up in your face), but check later on that all the fans are turning properly.

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It's very rare for an electrolytic capa to blow-up unless its polarities have been inverted. It will usually inflate and its capacity will decrease until the system stop to work, before going to that extreme point. Possibly bleeding as well, causing oxidation around it. Still, on today's motherboards, capacitor are very small ones, which are less likely to deteriorate quickly - even though the quality of components have way decreased over the last few years. But even if they are going to blow up they are way to small to be dangerous. Still, I agree on your advices about UV, dust, etc. – cedbeu Aug 1 '12 at 6:56

If it's in your room, I mean, if it's not in a too much wet / warm / cold / dusty or windy place, then just remove the dust and turn it on from times to times, say once a month, or so, and it's okay. It's like everything, you just don't have to let it rust ...

But it's not that sensitive. How many times I've build systems with motherboards or other cards that haven't been used for years, flippantly stacked one on the other in some garages, and they still have no problem to run...

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To my knowledge, the single problem that you might run in to is discharge of the CMOS battery. In modern systems, the CMOS is maintaned by the 5vsb from the power supply whenever the computer is plugged in, so the CMOS battery is only required when the machine is completely unplugged. And, of course, the only bad thing that happens when the CMOS battery dies is that you lose your BIOS settings, which are probably mostly all defaults anyway (you will need to set the clock again).

In older systems, the CMOS battery was used whenever the system was turned off (because of how AT power worked) and sometimes had a very short life, so the system needed to be turned on semi-frequently to keep the CMOS charged up (much like how a car needs to be started to charge the battery, although the idle drain on a CMOS battery will kill it faster than a car battery - so think a car battery when you never turn your dome lights off). But honestly I don't think this is a problem you're going to run in to in a consequential way on modern computers.

Perhaps mechanical parts could seize up as a result of non-use (like the hard disk rotor or heads), but I've never heard of this happening and I think those devices are carefully enough engineered that it won't.

So really, the only reason I can think of to start a computer periodically is to keep up on updates, just so that next time you want to use it there won't be 100+ updates to install.

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I agree that electronics that are properly stored can be stored indefinitely without needing to be run, but I’m basing it on experience with older parts. You said that it is less likely to be a problem with modern equipment, but I would suggest that if anything, it’s more. Modern equipment is made much more cheaply (*cough*capacitor plague/ball-joints*cough*) and data is packed more densely. These days, everything is made to be disposable and not last long (sometimes even designed to fail), usually just after the warranty expires. – Synetech Jul 31 '12 at 2:31

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