Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

With the evolution of technology, the practical reality is that a new computer is required periodically. I'll look at why and how often.

How do I get upgrade info and products for my 1983 IBM PC? I jest, but it opens a Pandora's Box of implications as to what to expect in the future via upgrades, new technology, and so on. Are we expected to buy a new computer every three years, such as with cell phones? Actually, I'm serious - sort of.

Well, you don't have to. Smile

But, yes, the practical reality is that much like a cell phone, or better yet an automobile, you probably do want to buy a new computer every so often.

Let's look at why that's so and how frequently you'll probably want to do so.

It's A Classic

The analogy that I like to use is that of your automobile.

Many of the issues are very, very similar, though the timeline for technology is much more compressed.

Let's say that you have a 1957 Chevrolet automobile. Chances are:

  • You're no longer getting recall notices for it.

  • You can't take it to just any service center for maintenance.

  • The manufacturer has stopped directly supporting it years ago.

  • It takes extra care and attention to keep it running well.

  • It doesn't have any of the safety features that are standard on current model cars and it can't be upgraded to include them.

  • It even needs a special fuel additive as the leaded gasoline that it requires is no longer available.

You get the idea. You can run it; as a matter of fact, you can do many things with it. But it's nowhere near current.

Sound familiar?

And every few years, you end up purchasing a replacement vehicle.

Older Computers

Now, let's visit an older computer - not your 1983 model yet, but something that's only 10 years old, running 10-year-old software (pre-Windows XP).

  • You're no longer getting updates for it.

  • You can't take it to just any technician for maintenance.

  • The manufacturer has stopped directly supporting it.

  • It takes extra care and attention to keep it running well.

  • It doesn't have any of the security and safety features that are standard on current computers and software and it can't be upgraded to include them.

  • New or current software typically doesn't run on it.

Once again, you get the idea. Your computer works, but it's nowhere near current. You can probably keep doing what you're doing, but not with the ability to upgrade or use the latest software.

And unlike the automobile, new security threats are arriving daily; threats that you're unable to protect yourself against to the same level that newer models and updated software would.

How Often?

You might notice that I chose a 50+-year-old car and compared it against a 10-year-old computer. That's a reflection of the fact that the computer industry and its related technologies are moving at a significantly faster pace.

Let's face it - a 50-year-old computer likely wouldn't fit in your house, but a 10-year-old car is still quite serviceable.

So the question that arises is how often do you need to get a new computer?

And as always, the answer is: it depends.

I happen to be on a two- to three-year cycle, but this is what I do for a living. It's important that I have relatively current technology available. Not to mention that the machine being replaced is never discarded, but rather "trickled down" to other tasks. In fact, I discard machines here at about the 10-year mark. The computer that I most recently decommissioned was 13 years old. (A Dell Precision WorkStation 410 with two 450 megahertz processors, 256 megabytes of RAM, and a nine-gigabyte hard drive. It was impressive in its day, but seriously underpowered today.)

If your needs don't change over time, I could see the decade mark as a reasonable rule of thumb.

Perhaps what's more important is the support life cycle of the operating system that you have running on it. I don't like seeing people use operating systems that no longer receive even the most critical of security fixes; in my opinion, that means that if you're running any version of Windows prior to Windows XP, it's time to move on.

And to be clear, "moving on" may not mean a new machine - you can extend the life of your hardware by installing more current and supported software if that meets your needs. With 10-year-old hardware, that typically means a version of Linux.

The problem is that while it's exceptionally capable, Linux isn't for everyone. If you need Windows of some form, and currently supported versions won't run on your older hardware, then yes, it's time for a new machine.

The More Common Reason to Upgrade

While many people keep and use the same computer for many years, the more common upgrade driver is simply wanting to do more.

In the 13-year lifespan of my recently decommissioned machine, many things have changed. Even if there were supported software, that machine would have difficulty running today's applications that simply assume more powerful machines. Today's online video, both downloaded and streaming, is a great example of a technology that's risen in popularity in that timeframe. That 13-year-old machine might simply not be capable of it. Similarly, that nine-gigabyte drive, while it could be upgraded, isn't anywhere close to the data storage needs that most people need.

And those are just two examples. There are many, many things that we take for granted today that an older machine simply isn't capable of.

Typically, the most common reason to upgrade is that you've started demanding more and more of your computer, in the form of more recent and demanding versions of software, and in the form of new and novel uses for your computer that you've added over time. It's unlikely that any one of those new demands is enough to warrant newer or more capable hardware, but the accumulation over time will almost certainly reach a tipping point.

A tipping point that will have you looking for a new, more powerful machine.

That 1983 Computer

A 1983 computer is a classic, much like that '57 Chevy. If it's working and usable in some form, it's noteworthy and something that I suspect hobbyists might well be interested in.

I'd seriously consider offering it to a local computer museum or computer club as an artifact of times past.

And for the record, yes - it's time to upgrade.

Article C4882 - July 24, 2011 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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22 Comments
anupam
July 24, 2011 11:59 AM

Interesting article. I had my first pc 13 years ago. What i prefer to do is keep upgrading the pc part by part. Like i used my old pc for 7 years. After 7 years except the motherboard everything was changed. Then i got a new pc. Few months ago i got a new motherboard, and kept all other stuff same. What i want to say is replace the outdated part. Earlier it was crt to lcd. Now it is dual core to i5.

Gary
July 26, 2011 8:58 AM

The question of replacing your computer is quite complex, depending on your usage, what is running on it, and where it is used. I regularly use 3 computers -- one at my small business, and 2 at home. The work computer runs Windows 2000 -- it has been updated as much as possible, and is sitting behind a router secured from the Internet. GRC (grc.com) has noted that my ports are all rated "stealth." I have anti-virus software on it. The reason that I haven't upgraded the computer is that my HARDWARE will not work properly on any newer operating systems, and this equipment is essential to my business. Hence, no updates. One home PC is running Windows XP (bought in 2007 -- and already obsolete??) My other computer I have had since September 2000 and is running Windows Me. It is NOT connected to the Internet and starts up quickly - 5 seconds - and is used for "quick and dirty" things such as running Office 2000 applications (they run fine, and meet my needs (Excel, Access, Word.) Why should I have to "relearn" to use another OS when these three different OS's work fine for me? Now, here comes Windows 8 with more changes. I dread the updates - I see more inconvenience ahead. Some of us don't need a Windows 7 when Win 2K, or Win XP will do. I have a modern browser (Firefox, which still runs fine on Win 2K) and can do everything that I need to do adequately enough.

Josh
July 26, 2011 9:04 AM

Yeah I agree. I still got my old Antec 300 case and still does the job, and since then I had 3 motherboards upgrade, 2 PSUs, 2 Graphic cards, RAM upgrade and hard drives saving considerable amount of money instead of buying three different computers.

Also, it's a good learning process if we custom build and upgrading hardware. That way you can save cost instead of sending your computer away for repair and be charged for it plus the self-satisfaction of fixing a problem yourself if things go wrong.

Obviously if you have a very old computer, no point attempting to upgrade, so the best thing to do is to custom build instead of getting an OEM machine. Custom building is not hard as many people still thinks so.

Josh
July 26, 2011 9:21 AM

Gary - I noticed you mentioned GRC (grc.com). Testing from them is pretty much obsolete now. It is out of date for a long while now and no antiviruses/firewalls take noticed of that any more.

Even few years back, some vendors just incorporated the leaktest to give them the impression that it's secure. I wouldn't worry too much about the "results" from GRC.

Dr. Keshav Sharma
July 26, 2011 9:29 AM

Interesting discussion. I bought my first PC, PC-AT, in 1988 and it is still with me. I have almost all the generations of PCs. How often one should change a computer system, again depends upon need and depth of your pocket. In India, for example, one can not change the hardware as often as one changes in more advanced countries. My researches have shown that most of the persons use a computer just for word processing or similar jobs. Very few use a computer system for CPU intensive tasks. Hence what I feel, one should squeeze last drop from one's hardware.

Personally, being a very senior IT man, I have to change PCs or my laptops after 2 or 3 years, yet as Leo has mentioned, I also use the decommissioned hardware for other tasks or donate it to other persons or institutions.

Again, it is upto us to decide. Good work Leo.

Gabe Lawrence
July 26, 2011 9:42 AM

The supply/demand curve is a well known fact in the eb-and-flow of today's markets. We are constantly sold new and "better" technology and everyone just keeps chomping at the bit. Therefore technology keeps rifling forward with it's changes. I shutter at using the word "better" because that's not always the case...in fact, does anyone remember when you used to buy something and you'd actually expect it to last a decade or two? I for one have put on the brakes and plan to keep using my outdated equipment. Frankly, I can't afford it...new technology. I'm an IT professional and I still have a "flip phone" because I refuse to pay for a data package and a hi-tech smart phone. If more do what I do the businesses driving forward with all the change will be forced to comply by making their existing products/services better instead of just newer.

snert
July 26, 2011 9:55 AM

I upgrade as much as possible. bigger hd's, more memory and what I can, but I've reached the limit for memory for my MoBo at 4 gigs.
Comes the time when I'm spending more time futzing with the computer fixing hardware glitches than using it, I take that long hard look.
This T3656 e'machine running XP Pro is a bit over 4 years old but still fills my needs. I surf, listen to music, chat with buds and play games. I'm not using this thing in any business related sense.
I'm shopping for something better and want to have a lot of headroom for Windows 7, but I'm in no hurry and I'm picky on what I spend my money on.
As long as 'You Stupid POS' still kicks up some dust...

Joe Schmidt
July 26, 2011 1:11 PM

Well... to begin, I pride myself on being an Obsolete Person, have been for decades. Let's start with the car. "Foolish Carriage" is 46 years young. A 1964 Buick Special, she starts instantly every day, summer and winter, and that's important in Montana. She's a very simple car, open the hood and you just see the V6 engine, surrounded mostly by cavernous open space. Open the hood of any new car today, and I run away Screaming. There is not one single bit of computer/electronic anything in Foolish Carriage, except for the stereo, which has stopped working.

The automatic transmission has never needed an overhaul, doesn't leak oil, and the Transmissionologist tells me it was one of the best transmissions ever made, and you don't need to change its oil or do anything. Just leave it alone.

A while back it needed to have the starter replaced. Rebuilt starter was $18 at the auto parts, and the neighborhood teenager (who is 1/2 weightlifter and 1/2 mechanic) installed it under a tree in the backyard for $20. Less than an hour, done! And this rebuilt starter is better than the original.

I did have the engine overhauled 5 years ago, about $2K and parts were no problem, everything available. Next is going to be a complete restoration, and I'm told if I do this the car will be worth about $20,000.

In another decade from today, Foolish Carriage will still be running, whilst nearly all the new cars will have gone to the junkyard. You see, the problem now is that when all the stuff starts to break down, nobody will be able to afford the repairs. Then, there is that light "Check Engine" which comes on. What this means is, "Go Directly to Dealer and Bring $1,000 Bill !!!!" Thank you, no.

In my next post I'll talk about all the old computers still in daily use in the businesses.

-- js

biograaf
July 26, 2011 8:06 PM

Dear Leo, always a fan of yours. My system is about 10 years old now (a Compaq pc D530) and I’m perfectly happy with it. I don’t need upgrades; they don’t improve my machine capacities and are sometimes counterproductive. And why should I update my drivers? They work! I use Google Chrome for my internet and cloud matters, therefore am less dependant of Microsoft related software. I’ve always been contrary to the all-in-one computer anyway. I watch TV and movies on my TV-set, listen to my music on my radio and play games on my game console. They give me the best performances. You don’t want your car to be a flying machine or a submarine either, do you. You suggest Linux as an alternative, but it has the same issues as an old OS: it’s always behind and does not support everything. So I’ll just keep on sticking to Windows XP as long as it won’t bite me.

Bill Nelson
July 26, 2011 11:15 PM

I've upgraded mostly as my needs expanded. After our Commodore 64 ran out of horsepower, I bought a used Zenith "luggable" (about the size of a sewing machine) with 7" amber monitor and 30 Mb hard card. It was OK on the road, but when the company provided a hand-me-down Toshiba laptop, I jumped at it. I also decided to give the Zenith to my son and buy a Pentium II Dell with 1 Gb hard drive. I upgraded to 10 Gb at Y2K, but it had to be partitioned 5X and finally failed, so I bought my present Dell 9100. It does everything pretty well, but I've almost filled its 300 Gb hard drive. I do some CAD and some video editing on it. I did an image to an external drive a couple days ago and it took 22-hours, including verification! I'd like to upgrade to SATA and USB 3.0. It's hard to justify because we're stuck with dial-up here and the fastest computer on the planet won't help that problem!

Bob
July 27, 2011 5:05 AM

Up until about 6 or 7 years ago, I built and maintained my own PC's. I noticed the setup getting more and more complicated, with more things that "just wouldn't work right first time".
Sinse then, i've bought 2 PC's and a laptop, all when their predecessor finally bit the big one.
Software nowadays ASSUMES you continually keep up with S.O.T.A., as well as having permanent broadband (I still don't).

Terry Hollett
July 27, 2011 6:19 AM

Of course not everyone can run out and buy a new computer every time Microsoft decides to jam a new operating system down our throats. Or Apple for that matter. I know to many people who just can't afford to keep up.

Dave Markley
July 27, 2011 7:08 AM

Having a PC repair business, I am occasionally running into customers who are still using older PC's. That's fine if, just like an older car, you are willing to spend a little on it from time to time. I have customers, though, that have that 8 or 10 year old desktop with Windows XP and it's original 256 mb. of ram memory (most from this era can used up to 1, 2 or sometimes even 4 gb.'s of ram). When updates, anti-virus or other software is installed, usually in the course of a 'tune up', the computer slows to a crawl. I then hear "why all of a sudden is it running so poorly?". That's simple: when XP first came out, it ran quite well with 1/4 gb. of ram but after 10 years of updates, Windows XP is roughly 4 times it's original size and requires increased memory to keep up. That newer software (even a simple video game) probably won't even try to install unless you upgrade the '.net' version, upgrade to Windows Installer 3.1, etc. All these updates need more power to run (ie: more memory). It's kind of like putting a '75 Chevette engine in a newer F150 and wondering why it doesn't have the same power anymore! Bottom line is: no, most of us don't need to buy new computers every few years, but with the hundreds of dollars you are saving please spend $30 or $40 for another gigabyte or two of memory. You won't be dissappointed!

Gary
July 27, 2011 4:59 PM

Good comments by everyone! I especially liked the one with the Buick Special. I remember those days. Up until about 1990 or so, I used to do much of my work on my car; now, as you say, just "go to the dealer with $1000 in your pocket."

Joe
July 27, 2011 5:14 PM

How about replacing components when you decide you need a better PC?

Glenn P.
July 27, 2011 6:07 PM

A 1983 Computer?

Try a Commodore-128! (I actually have  one!) And I use  it, too!

SPECIFICATIONS: 1Hz speed, 8bit architecture, 128K RAM, Operating system stored in ROM, No GUI, BASIC programming language built in, 1200 baud modem support, a 25-line, 80-character, 16-color text screen (with special graphics modes available), a pretty sophisticated sound synthesis system that even to this day hasn't been quite equalled anywhere else... and, oh yes, one other thing: an "on command" automatic downgrade to the Commdore-64, for backwards compatibility with that earlier system, which was even more  primitive!

And I love it!!! To quote a very  old television commercial: "I adore my 64!"     :)   :)   :)

dude
July 28, 2011 4:00 AM

" I don't like seeing people use operating systems that no longer receive even the most critical of security fixes; in my opinion, that means that if you're running any version of Windows prior to Windows XP, it's time to move on."

Yep buddy, time to move on to Linux Ubuntu. You can run Ubuntu in old hardware and keep the latest security updates. Oh yes, and is free.

I can guarantee you, Ubuntu is for everyone and easire than Windows. So dont get rid of your old pc just yet and try it first, you will be surprised.

Billy Bob
July 30, 2011 6:10 AM

I don't need all this fancy windows schmindows garbage. You young punks with your newfangled CRT monitors and your mouses don't know nothing.

My IBM 360 was my first computer and it's the only one I need. It also heats my house in the winter. I store my documents on a hard drive the size of a washing machine. My software is on punch cards hanging on a clothesline.

Also, why should I upgrade my Model T Ford? Humbug! When the engine quit working in 1962 I just hitched it up to my old horse. Then I got a new horse. Then another one. My neighbors leave me alone because the horse stinks. I haven't spent a dime on gas in years!

Beat that, suckers! Now get off my lawn!

Tommy Fleming
August 1, 2011 11:40 AM

While my desktop pc is fairly up to date, less than a year old. I wonder if software manufacturers (inc microsoft) and pc manufacturers realize the realities of life, at the moment the majority of people are struggling for money and cannot affor to buy a new pc every year or so, leave things as they are for a while...

Bob
September 29, 2011 7:13 AM

When it comes to PC hardware, gamers have it hard.
Game writers don't write stuff for current hardware, they write stuff for hardware that hasn't been invented yet.
I bought a state-of-the-art laptop a while back (XPS) and even before the warranty had run out, it had become the 'minimum' required for the latest wave. My current desktop is four times as powerful as my laptop was, and still struggles to keep up.

Mark J
September 29, 2011 11:33 AM

@Bob
Often the problem with games is that they require an advanced graphics card. Games rely very heavily on the graphics card, and often a game will run better on a slower computer with a good graphic card than a faster computer with a less advanced graphic card.

Bob
September 30, 2011 8:26 AM

@Mark J
The laptop was a dual-core 1Gb processor, with a 256mb NVidia graphics card.
The desktop is a quad-core 2.4Gb processor with a 1Gb ATI Crossfire-capable graphics card. My "4x" was an approximation, but did apply to both processor and graphics.

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