If you’ve not got the cash to splash on a new laptop, with the swirling uncertainty in the economy right now, or you just don’t want to toss out your current machine and add to the huge pile of e-waste in the world, there are some quick tricks that you can use to make your current laptop live a longer life. 

How long your laptop lives depends on much the same things that dictate how long you’re going to live yourself. Some of it is down to how well, or badly, you behave, some is down to genetics, and then there’s sheer dumb luck. There’s no surefire way of guaranteeing your computer won’t go to an earlier-than-expected grave or stop being able to do the processor-heavy stuff you demand from it. On the flip side, you can treat your computer like a cheap pair of underwear, disrespecting it and using it far longer than you should, and still it refuses to give up the ghost after a decade of too-loyal service. “Die already, I want a reason for a new computer, dammit!” you might find yourself screaming at an inanimate object. 

Lori Grunin wrote for cnet that she was baffled by the functioning more-than-five-year-old Lenovo Yoga 2 13 that her friend still uses regularly. It’s covered in dirt and scratches after getting caught in battle with cats, it’s been left out in the sun more times than a Floridian retiree, it lives in a world of 90% indoor humidity, and it’s not had an operating system upgrade in forever. The 128GB hard drive isn’t even full yet.

In the same time, Grunin has torn through two laptops, including a bursting battery on one and a wiring and casing issue on another that made the screen go kaput. Apart from these faults, everything was still perfect as they ascended to laptop heaven.

Be hopeful, be prepared

Anyone who works in tech will preach at the altar of data backup, yet it’s still the thing that most of us never actually bother to do. As a laptop ages, it acquires more and more important, sometimes, irreplaceable, data. The chances of the system crumbling to computer dust also increases with age, so make sure that before you launch into any maintenance on your device you back up all those files that would have you cry if you lost them. 

Image credit: consumerreports.org

Similar to Murphy’s Law, where what can go wrong will go wrong, if you don’t back up your laptop data before playing about with it, your hard drive will experience catastrophic failure and all will be lost. Yes, the universe hates us all sometimes.

Give it some loving

You don’t need to crack out the Lionel Ritchie and wine, or even be too soft with the way you handle it. It’s worth applying some common sense when you’re lugging it around and dealing with storing it. A comfortably curled up cat on your keyboard isn’t time for Instagram, it’s time to get death stares as you shift and shoo it away from your precious butterfly keyboard, no matter how warm and snug your feline friend seems. 

Other things that you should be doing regularly include:

  • Keeping it out of direct sunlight
  • Don’t let animals or kids too near. If you have to take your eyes off it, keep it out of the way of curious hands and eyes or at the very least close the lid so your screen and keyboard get a little protection
  • Keep it away from edges of couches, chairs, desks, ottomans, and any other high space you walk past a lot. A general rule for life, really
  • Put down the chips, keep the ice-cold, dripping soda can away, eat your pizza elsewhere – keep food away from your laptop
  • Wash your hands and use a sanitizer to keep away dirt and oils from the surfaces, these can really build up over the years
  • When you’re not using it a lot, keep it in a place where there’s not loads of dust
  • If you’re leaving it in sleep mode, don’t put any type of cover over it or put it somewhere without a flow of air – be particularly careful with Windows 10 computers because they can get woken up for updates and virus scans and end up overheating easily
  • Make sure that you unplug often. It depends on the model and age of your computer whether 24/7 charging is going to do any harm, but make sure you shut it down reasonably often so that you can check the battery and electrical systems are working ok. 
  • Keep cigarettes away – the nicotine will make things gunky and sticky real quick

You should also run your eyes over your power cable every so often. If you’ve got pets, check for teeth marks by running your fingers over the length of the wire. It’s not going to damage your laptop because a punctured cable is going to stop working, but they’re not always cheap to replace.

Keep it clean

When life’s busy, simple regular maintenance on your computer can get forgotten about, especially if you’re a daily user of your laptop. The buildup of dirt and detritus starts to become part of the look. Every now and then you should check out the entry points of your laptop – that’s stuff like the keys, the keyboard surface, the touchpad, speaker covers, ports, hinges, screen edges, and vents, you could save yourself a lot of money and grief, as well as dollar, in the long-term. Bits of dust in little holes might not be too disastrous, but the more it builds up, the harder it’ll be to remove. Making sure the vents for your fans are clear of rubbish is super important.

Stop hoarding

Periodically, you should have a look through the applications and files you’ve got on your hard drive and check out the programs and services that kick in when you turn it on. Get rid of anything that you don’t need. Is this going to add years to your system’s life? Unlikely, except for reducing by tiny amounts the amount of heat that the processor would generate with the extra use.

Although it might not help in the long term, having a clear-out every so often can make your computer feel like it’s performing better, just like when you clear the junk from your living room you feel like there’s loads more space. You might get some real improvements in performance and your battery might even start to last longer again. If you’re contemplating some upgrades to your storage or memory, make sure you do this first in case you don’t need to spend the cash yet.

There’ll come a time when these little tweaks just aren’t doing it for you anymore. When that day arrives, you can consider starting from naught and wiping your laptop clean. To do this means you’ll have to do a reinstall of the operating system and the applications you need. Problems can arise because you might have to buy old programs again, or go through all the custom settings you’d added to your apps, going through all the system glitches you’d already debugged, it’s a long and slightly annoying list. You could also break something that was never a problem before. The universe really doesn’t like you.

Software dealt with, time to think about the hardware. Except for doing some upgrades, there’s not much you can do to change the hardware on your laptop. You’re not going to be able to magic five years of youth into your trackpad… You can, however, work with your battery. By rejigging your software settings, your battery can get a whole new lease of life. 

Bring the accessories

Adding bits like an external monitor, mouse, or keyboard, even if they’re cheap, can help reduce the wear and tear your laptop goes through. What’s more, even if your external bits start to fail, the actual laptop will still be in working order until you go buy a replacement.

When your location changes regularly, you should consider getting a proper docking station or hub for all the external devices you use. Wear and tear will be reduced on the connectors so you’re not always plugging and unplugging your devices. You’ll get some extra ports too that can make your laptop useful for a little while longer. 

Do that upgrade

You’ll have to spend some actual money on upgrades, so this option will probably fall to the bottom of your list. Making little upgrades over time can have a huge influence on the performance and lifespan of your computer. It’s not quite as common to be able to do internal upgrades to laptops nowadays, even replacing batteries isn’t always easy or even possible. However, if the option’s there for your computer, you should go for it as soon as you come to the limits of your current performance. One of the great things about older computers is that they’re usually much easier to upgrade.

Image credit: ifixit.com

You do need to be comfortable opening things up and having a play around with the internal workings of your computer. Before you start, be sure to have the right maintenance or upgrade guide for the computer you’re working on and be sure that your plan is definitely feasible. Make sure that you won’t need any non-standard parts because these get expensive and are usually more hassle and expense than it’s worth.

Using external upgrades can be much more simple and practical, but they’ll usually lack the big boost you get from cracking your laptop open. You might be expecting fireworks from your external upgrade and all you get is a lighter in a dark room. Grunin once added a Netgear WiFi 5 USB dongle to a friend’s laptop that only had a WiFi 4 adaptor and the speed tests showed the computer was getting double the throughput. Simple additions like this can seem to be real value for money, but most people wouldn’t notice a difference worth mentioning.

When you start to struggle for storage space, an obvious addition would be an external hard drive. It’s best not to scrimp too much on the cost unless you’re planning on dumping rarely used files on it. You want something fast, not something that’ll kill your soul with poor transfer rates. Performance can also be improved if you choose to boot from an external drive, depending on the drive speed and the connection you use.

For those with a new laptop that’s got a Thunderbolt 3 connection, you can add an external graphics processor (eGPU) which should give you a speed boost on apps or games that are heavy on their use of the GPU. The upgrade doesn’t come cheap and you have to buy the graphics card and case separately, so make sure you check the cost of both before making a decision.

Getting the latest version of your operating system is also an option if you’re still on an old version. It’s not quite the no-brainer a lot of people think it is. When your laptop is ancient, a simple upgrade of the OS isn’t always going to be an improvement. You also risk not being able to use everything you’ve got on your computer at the moment.

As an example, the newest MacOS, Catalina (10.15), doesn’t support 32-bit applications anymore. If you’ve got a program that’s not already migrated from 32- to 64-bit, and it’s not always taken as a given, upgrading could be seen as a backward move.

Lots of people will tell you that using an outdated operating system isn’t good computer maintenance because they don’t get support and updates for viruses and malware that could really kill your computer.

Time for a change

When all else fails, and you’ve nowhere left to turn, you can always look at changing the operating system entirely. If you still get power and at least most of the keyboard is functional, then you can at the very least change it over to be a Chromebook. It should be able to run Google’s Chrome OS and have a little more life before you send it off to the laptop farm out in the country.