Do Computers Get Tired?
Sometimes my computer acts weird when it's been running for several days. I've heard about something called 'electron buildup' but I'm not sure I should take it seriously. Can electronic devices really suffer from fatigue if they're on too long?
A Silver Bullet?
NOTE: This article was orginally published on this site a few years ago, but I accidentally deleted it from the content manager. I'm reposting it here, along with the comments that readers made. Feel free to post additional comments if you like.
Until recently, I would have dismissed the notion that electronic gunk can accumulate in a machine and cause it to act erratically. But a few months ago my high-speed Internet connection, which is normally rock solid, started getting flaky. I unplugged my cable modem, plugged it back in and voila... things were back to normal.
And since then I've repeated the procedure a few times with good results, whenever I noticed a slowdown in my Internet speed. So I started thinking... maybe electronic devices and appliances really do get tired, clogged with electrons, or whatever. It turns out that there is some good science to support this layman's observation.
Jerrold Foutz is a Scientist with a capital S. There aren't many people alive who know more about how electronic gadgets (especially power supplies) are supposed to work. So you might be surprised to hear that when your computer, microwave, VCR or high-tech coffee pot isn't behaving, his best advice is "just unplug it."
Totally Cosmic, Dude.
In a fascinating article on electronics trouble shooting, Foutz talks about something called a Single Event Upset (SEU) that can cause electronic circuitry to malfunction. An SEU can be caused by a power glitch, or a cosmic ray passing through a integrated circuit, and can actually flip the logic state (from 1 to 0 or vice versa) of a circuit. A cascading effect may trigger a hardware lockup or an infinite loop in software.
For lots more technical details, and even some suggestions on how better design can help to prevent this problem, see the full article on Trouble Shooting Electronics.
Of course in the case of computers running complex operating system and application software, other factors may come into play. Sloppy coding practices can result in 'memory leaks' which over time will cause performance to degrade. But from the end user perspective, the problem looks no different than a hardware error caused by cosmic rays.
Fortunately, the solution is the same in both cases: shut it down, turn it back on, and things will be good again... for a while.
Comments From Readers
Posted by: Howie Mirkin -- "I've also noticed that after a few days, if I run the windows recovery console, i.e., chkdsk /r Windows XP always finds errors on at least one drive, and when it finishes, XP runs faster and better than before. I've used it for recovering from errors resultin g from a faulty keyboard and faulty mouse. When I had the mouse problem, I couldn't even get XP running, but after running the Recovery Console, XP completely recovered as if nothing had happened. An SEU seems like a good explanation."
Posted by: R J Williams -- "It may seem like a hassle but I also notice that when turning off the PC and Modem and printer I will wait about 2 minutes then take apart the tower and PROPERLY give it a cleaning. I can look over all the board items and make sure all is ok and viola. It really does seem to help."
Posted by: Corleyy -- "I feel validated finally. I've used this "unplug-replug and restart" method for several years and knew it worked, but didn't know why it worked. Now I know!"
Posted by: Chris -- "I have a Xerox DocumentCentre 440 ST sitting here in my office. Whenever I have a problem with rollers or kicker motors not working right, or even just the machine not booting up right, the first thing the Xerox support people tell me to do it power the system down, unplug for 60 seconds, and then re-plug. Now it makes sense."
Posted by: ErisRaven -- "You are spot-on with the 'unplug your modem' bit. As someone who works for a cable company, let me pass along this advice:
Any time your cable modem seems slow, or you lose connection altogether, unplug all of your devices. Modem, router (and for the record, a 'wireless device' really is a router!), and computer. Disconnect all cables from the modem, and let thigs sit for five minutes. Plug things back to the modem, and wait for another five. Then, do the same for the router, if you have one. Once both of them are humming along, plug the computer back in and restart it.
Eighty percent of the time, this routine will save you a call to tech support!"
Posted by: SoloOwl -- "You really should clean out the dust bunnies and roach nests in your computer once a year (twice if you have a lot of pets). Fred Langa gives details on cleaning your computer, with photos of enough dust to make a whole 'nuther squirrel, at http://www.informationweek.com/story/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=60403472 --
Unplug and reseat all the cables and cards while you are at it. This helps because the connections get a thin coat of oxides &c; the friction from unplugging and plugging back scrapes off the gunk and makes a better connection. Be sure to discharge your own static buildup by touching the metal framework before you touch the circuits."
Posted by: Dan -- "I too had problems with my cable modem, Bob. It's a long story but I found that my orignal modem had a known sync issue (Toshiba 1100) and my connection was dropping at least 3 or 4 times a day that I knew of. RoadRunner refused to adknowledge the issue. I wound up swapping out my modem and got a much older modem. During the first couple of weeks, my connection would drop once in a while. After a few calls to tech support they pushed another firmware. My connection has been solid ever since. It seems to get "bogged down" every once in a while I just unplug it and everything is back to normal. I have to do the same with my router once in a while."
Posted by: LazerDave -- "Be very careful when cleaning inside your case, though. Just recently I accidentally sucked a capacitor off the motherboard, thought it was a loose screw at the time, and was greeted by a very odd smell when I powered up the box again... Needless to say, I won't be using the upright vacuum's hose attachment to clean cases anymore..."
Posted by Bob Rankin on 7 Aug 2009
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Do Computers Get Tired? (Posted: 7 Aug 2009)
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