picture of old Dell tower computer

Do Computers Die of Old Age?

“electronics should keep working forever, right?”

You might have some electronic device that keeps on going after a long time. It’s very satisfying. I have a Sony alarm clock radio that’s 20+ years old and it simply won’t die. I kind of wish it would because I want to hear a different alarm sound after 20 years.

Why does one electronic device last so long and others not?

Most people understand mechanical failure caused by friction. Parts rubbing against each other will cause wear and eventual failure; but how do computers wear out?

There is no similar friction in electronic computer components, excluding disk drives. If there is no physical damage, the electronics should keep working forever, right? Unfortunately, no. Electronics also have a limited life, but fail in different ways.

As computer electronics have become more complex and smaller, they have become more sensitive to environmental factors.

  • Heat is the number one killer of electronics. Silicon stops being a semiconductor at 150°C. Some computer chips have such high density that failing to get rid of the heat for even a few seconds can cause something to melt.
  • Power cycling and power fluctuations from surges or sags in electricity causes electrical stress on components.
  • Humidity causes rapid oxidation and corrosion, leading to eventual component failure.
  • Radiation that is all around us can damage the incredibly tiny and densely-packed switches inside computer memory chips and CPUs.
  • Degradation over time. A few examples of parts include ceramic capacitors, CMOS and electrolytic capacitors. Each of these have their own process causing eventual failure.

Computer and computer component manufacturers are aware and some publish relevant information. You can often see a calculation called the mean time to failure (MTTF) printed in the back of owner manuals. This calculates the damage over time ratio from electromigration which causes circuit failure.

microscopic source picture of electromigration damage to circuit

This picture above shows electromigration damage to a trace circuit on a motherboard. The smaller the trace, the more susceptible it is to damage.

What makes some brands last longer than another brand?
Well-considered design, superior materials, and quality assembly.

What can you do to avoid these problems?
Some of these factors cannot be prevented, but you can extend the life of most computers with

  • regular maintenance
  • a high-quality surge protector
  • fresh-air ventilation for the computerpic of desktop says turn off PC before closing door on computer desk furniture

Call Computer Pros Today and we can help get you setup properly to extend the life of your computer. 540-972-8881

*Stay tuned for our post about pet fur!


Technical note: I excluded disk drives because they are mechanical and I didn’t want to cause unnecessary confusion. Going into the details of electromigration and other detailed causes for failure is beyond the scope of this post.