Why a Five Year Old Computer Is Slower Than a New Computer

by Mike McEvoy on September 30, 2009

5-year-old-computer-slower-than-new-computer

Computers don’t age well. Technology changes too quickly and the impact on the performance of a five year old computer is noticeable. Unlike your refrigerator, washer, dryer, microwave oven or old tube television, your computer is not designed to work effectively for 10 or 15 years.

Some people wonder why a 5 year old computer is slow and can’t be tuned up to deliver performance rivaling a newer computer. Beyond the tune up process some components can also be upgraded to improve performance. In the end though, there are a number of factors that limit computer performance and together determine why a five year old computer is slower than a new computer.

Deferred Computer Maintenance

Some of the declining performance in a five year old computer may be maintenance related. Over time “junk” (a technical term) builds up on a computer and is not easy to remove. As programs are installed and uninstalled, files are added, modified and deleted, and email data is added, modified and deleted, pieces of programs and data can be left behind. Old, unused programs and numerous Windows “temp” files can also be scattered around the computer. After five years the amount of the most difficult to remove junk can become significant and out of the reach of PC maintenance utilities..

Reinstalling Windows

One option is to perform what is known as a “clean install” of Windows. In this process you back up all your data and hardware drivers, reformat your hard disk drive, completely re-installed Windows, install all necessary Windows updates and Service Packs, re-install all your software and then transfer your data back on to the computer. This normally requires from 3 to 5 hours and can take potentially longer if you don’t have all the drivers and software. This will wipe out any built up “junk” on the system. But you will still have the same old hardware (CPU, RAM, memory bus, graphics processor, etc).

Computer Component Upgrades

Another way of addressing the performance challenges of a five year old computer is to upgrade some of the components with newer, faster ones. This could cost $100 – $300 or more. However, many of the basic system components such as the CPU speed, RAM speed and memory bus speed cannot be modified.  While partial solutions such as increasing RAM from 512MB to 2 GB can make a performance difference, the upgrade will have limited impact in a five year old computer. Hardware upgrades on a system this old may be a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Some of these items were addressed in my earlier tech tip Ten Downsides of An Aging Computer.

Computer Components That Impact Performance

There are a number of different hardware components in a computer that impact the overall perceived “speed” of the system. Here is a more detailed look at some of these components.

  1. Slower CPU – let’s start with the brains of the computer. Current mid-range CPUs such as an Intel Core2 Duo will have roughly 20 times the processing power as the Pentium 4 that was common five years ago.
  2. Too little memory (RAM) – five years ago it was not uncommon to have computers with only 256MB or 512MB of RAM installed. Today most computers are sold with at least 2GB of RAM and some have as much as 6GB or even 8GB.
  3. Slower Memory Speed – like so many other components RAM has a rated speed for how fast data can be written to and read from the RAM modules. This speed has more than doubled in the last five years.
  4. Slower memory bus – the memory bus is the communications channel that the computer CPU uses to talk to RAM (memory) and other system components. Current mid-range computers use a memory bus speed that is at least twice as fast as what was common in computers made five years ago.
  5. Slower hard disk drive – Both the speed and capacity of hard disk drives has increased since that five year old computer was built. Using higher rotational speeds, data caching and newer technologies for higher data density, current hard disk drives offer significant performance benefits over most drives that were installed in computers five years ago.
  6. Older USB v.1.0 ports – USB or Universal Serial Bus ports are used to connect most peripheral devices such as printers, scanners, external backup drives, keyboards and mice to computers. Some computers made five years ago used the older USB 1.1 standard for these ports instead of the current USB 2.0 standard. The current USB 2.0 ports transfer data over 30 times faster than the older USB 1.1 ports.
  7. Slower graphics and video processor – Computers use a separate processor for handling most graphical data including photos, web pages, and video. Older computers have graphics processors that were significantly less powerful than current technologies.

In the end there are limits to improving the performance of that slow five year old computer whether through computer maintenance or hardware upgrades. At the same time many components beyond just the CPU have significantly accelerated the performance of new computers.

From your experience how old is “too old” for a computer? What is the most effective computer performance boosting upgrade you have ever done?  Leave a comment to share your experiences.

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{ 6 comments }

Sue October 1, 2009 at 7:58 am

Thanks so much for this article! It couldn’t have come at a better time. My 6 year old computer runs very slowly, so much so that I saw no difference when upgrading from DLS to FIOS.

Time for a new toy.

abby stokes October 3, 2009 at 10:36 am

Sadly five years, or older, with a computer and the right place to call is the Smithsonian instead of tech support. ‘Tis the nature of space and speed – the two elements that determine the life of a computer.

Walter October 6, 2009 at 10:02 pm

I think five year is enough although I’m currently using a 8year old plus computer. It depends upon what you are using it for. Mine is for word processing and internet. :-)

Horselover_Fat September 27, 2010 at 8:07 pm

I am currently running a 11 year old ‘frankenputer’ which i have assembled over time with bits and pieces given to me by numerous sources. I run primarily LinuxMint7 on a pIII (in the old pII slot of a dell t750r, 512 mb ram, radeon 7500 video card and 120 mb hdd space (3 drives total). Linux is DESIGNED to run well on old iron, using resources intelligently, and doesnt require constant hardware upgrades just to check one’s email. Whilst I have an XP partition, I only use it for a few legacy devices, and defragging my ntfs and fat volumes. The industry behind Windows and the hardware manufacturers is bigger, fatter, more bloat, un-neccesary features, the list is never-ending. There is no need to constantly upgrade, just compute SMARTER.
There is more on my mind, but I have company.

ComputerTooSlow_Dominic October 14, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Good article. I think it really depends on what you use the computer for and how nice of a computer you bought 5 years ago. I am still using a 5 year old laptop, but it was a very nice and expensive laptop 5 years ago. Also, I had to upgrade the ram to keep it up with the times. However, my cheap $500 4 year old dell desktop has long been unusable since it was lower quality and since I use it for more than my laptop.

Katie August 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm

I usually keep my computer for 3 years. After this time, I find that the maintenance is too expensive for a 3 year old computer. I’d rather put the money into a new PC.

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