Do Computers (and other gadgets) Ever Get Tired?

Category: Hardware

A curious reader asks: “Sometimes my computer acts weird when it has been running for several weeks without turning it off. I have heard about something called ‘electron buildup’ but I am not sure I should take it seriously. Can electronic devices really suffer from fatigue if they are on too long?” It’s actually a great question! Read on for my thoughts on contumacious computers, cosmic rays, and more...

Silver Bullets and Cosmic Rays

Until recently, I might have dismissed the notion that electronic "gunk" can accumulate in a computer or other electronic device, 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, counted to ten, 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 notice a slowdown in my Internet speed. I’ve done the same with my Roku streaming box when the video gets choppy. And perhaps you've found that a shutdown/restart cures a host of ills with your phone or computer. 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.

In 1999 I met Jerry Foutz in a networking group, and I can tell you he was a Scientist with a capital S. There aren't many people 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 was "just unplug it."

silver bullet

Totally Cosmic, Dude.

In a fascinating article on electronics trouble shooting, Foutz talked 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, an error in calculation, 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 Jerry's full article on Trouble Shooting Electronics. (Sadly, Jerry passed away recently, but his wisdom lives on in the Internet Archive.)

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. Let me caution that whenever possible, you should try to turn off or shut down your electronic device (especially computers) before pulling the plug, to avoid the possibility of damage.

AskBob Readers Agree

I’ve heard from readers over the years who have come to similar conclusions. Here are snippets from some of those conversations:

"I've also noticed that after a few days, if I run "chkdsk /r", Windows always finds errors on at least one drive, and when it finishes, it runs faster and better than before. I've used it for recovering from errors resulting from a faulty keyboard and faulty mouse. When I had the mouse problem, I couldn't even get Windows running, but after running the Recovery Console, it completely recovered as if nothing had happened. An SEU seems like a good explanation." – Howie M.

"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." – RJ

"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!" – Corley

"I have a Xerox DocumentCentre machine 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." – Chris

"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 things 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!" – Eric R.

"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). Unplug and reseat all the cables and cards while you are at it. This helps because the connections get a thin coat of oxides, and 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." – S.O.

"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 and my connection was dropping at least 3 or 4 times a day that I knew of. My ISP 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." – Dan

Do you have a similar anecdote to share? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Do Computers (and other gadgets) Ever Get Tired?"

Posted by:

Sam
25 Aug 2021

Bob, if I am ever on life support, I want you to PULL THE PLUG.......and then plug it in again and see if that helps.


Posted by:

Henry
25 Aug 2021

For many years, the last thing at the end of a day is turn the PC completely off. Next morning, on the way to breakfast, turn it back on...by the time I've walked the dog and read the morning paper, Malwarebytes Premium has done it's scan, and Windows is fresh and ready. Works every time!


Posted by:

Charley
25 Aug 2021

As Eric R said above, your cable modem gets its software and configuration from your cable company. Unplugging it and plugging in again will force a reload and can fix a myriad of problems.

I don't agree with the recommendation to remove and reinstall all the cables and circuit cards in your computer, etc. Unless you know what you are doing, you can easily damage the connectors, etc. Also you need to be wearing a grounding strap to make sure that their is no static electricity while you are doing which can fry circuits.

Finally, like everything else, electronics do have a life span. The plastics, glues, solder joints, etc. can get damaged over time from heat, vibration, etc.

The most likely things to fail over time are your power supply and your hard disk (Bob has talked many times about that). BACKUP!


Posted by:

Richard Ollins
25 Aug 2021

I have an electronic timer plugged into my UPS. The timer controls a multioutput power strip. I plug all my internet related devices into the strip. The timer is set to turn off at 1AM and back on at 1:01 AM each day. Since doing this I have had no problems.


Posted by:

Gene
25 Aug 2021

Bob, My Dell Inspiron 530S four months ago would go to sleep per the 30 min SLEEP setting. When I attempted to use it, it would loudly whirr & not come on until I cut power, waited a minute and then did a restart.

Subsequently, I changed the SLEEP mode to NEVER.

Yesterday, on turning the computer on, it loudly whirred, and had no picture. Cut power, retried starting 2 - 3 times -same result: No Picture and constant loud whirring. Had to cut power to stop the whirring each restart attempt.
About the 5th attempt to start, the computer came on normally.

I have left the computer on now for 36 hours, with no SLEEP mode activated. Since we are leaving for a week's vacation on 8/27, I am doubtful that the computer will power up normally when we return on September 3rd.

Any thoughts on what might be the problem and
what is the solution?
REGARDS,
Gene Philbrick, Salem, NH 03079
[email protected], Ph: 603-898-7184


Posted by:

DaveM
25 Aug 2021

A caution about re-booting your cable modem: if your modem has a battery backup for your landline telephone, you must remove the battery (generally a simple procedure) as part of the shut down. Otherwise, the modem won't completely shut down. Also, if you decide to re-boot your computer, don't use "restart". Do a complete shut down, wait a minute and restart. I once had a problem with my Roku TV where I suddenly couldn't control the volume. A shut down and turn it back on didn't help. So I shut it down and pulled the power cord from the wall socket, waited a minute and plugged it back it. Voila! Problem fixed.


Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
25 Aug 2021

The first of the month is my system maintenance day. I run the Windows Disk Cleanup utility. I look through the list of installed applications in my Start Menu, and if I find any that I no longer need, use, or want, I uninstall them. I inspect the shortcuts on my desktop, and if I find any that I no longer want, need, or use, I delete them. If a no longer needed, wanted or used shortcut points to an application that did not require installation (similar to rufus, or MD5 and SHA Checksum utility, etc.), I also remove that application. I keep all such applications in an Apps folder on my "D" partition (a second internal HDD). I manually check for updates for these applications monthly too.

Twice a year (January 1st and July 1st) I open my desktop computer's system box and use a can of dry compressed air to remove any accumulated dust and disconnect / reconnect all the cabling. My new enclosure came with filter sheets on the top and back airflow ports, so I am hoping that these will help to keep my system cleaner than the enclosure that housed my older system (time will tell . . . ).

This system is only a few months old (my newest build), so I have had no problems (yet), but when / if my hard drive (an M.2 SSD device) displays flakey behavior, I will run chkdsk to fix it. Traditionally, I have used defragler to defragment my hard drive, but since it is now an SSD device, I will forego that step because I doubt that it will benefit my SSDs performance.'

I use the free version of Macrium Reflect to back up my system. I do a monthly full image, and daily incremental images. I also keep a copy of the original monthly full image I generated and the most recent full image backup on one of the cloud services I use.

I keep my system software and applications up to date with Windows Update and the Glary Utilities Software Updater. I manually run Windows Update and the Glary Utilities software updater on the first of the month, and I also run Windows Update the day after Patch Tuesday, and I run Glary Utilities software updater any time I get an update notification.

All this is probably overkill, but I have not suffered any malware attack since the DOS days, and my system runs rock solid. My monthly maintenance routine takes an hour or two, once a month, and my bi-annual routine several hours (less than a day) two times a year. I don't think this is a high price to pay in effort for the solid dependability, quality performance, and general ease of use I enjoy every day.

My2Cents,

Ernie


Posted by:

DaveM
25 Aug 2021

Gene: The first thing you have to do is find out if you have a hardware or software problem. The whirring sound is ominous and suggests a hard drive failure. The only other mechanical device in your computer is the CPU fan which do fail occasionally with failed bearings. This failure can cause quite a racket, but shouldn't prevent your computer from booting. Since you have your computer running,I would immediately (right now!!) do a backup of your data files to an external drive. then back up anything else you consider important. If your hard drive has failed, then I'm afraid that it's the end of the line for your Inspiron. I recently had a problem with my HP desktop where it suddenly refused to boot. It seemed to power up OK, went briefly to the HP splash screen, then the Prince of Darkness took control. A number of restart attempts failed to resolve the problem. So I unplugged everything and moved the thing over to the junk pile where it sat a few days waiting for it's final rites. I then tried one last time to reboot. Plugged everything back in and powered up. After a couple of minutes of flashing some various strange text screens, the computer went into some sort of automatic repair mode on a blue screen. And there is sat for several hours - I walked away and busied myself with other tasks. After about 3 hours, it suddenly booted into my desktop and it has worked fine ever since. So do try the unplug everything from the wall, wait some time and try again.


Posted by:

RandiO
25 Aug 2021

I dread shutting down any of my devices and only do so when I really must. I run a whole-house network, including music, video, VoIP, surveillance cams being routed about in a LAN/WAN configuration. One thing or another always seems to go screwy upon turn-on, in many mysterious and weird ways, especially the network connectivity. I don't even allow Win10-Pro to power-down for updates until I am really well and ready and as long as I can postpone shutdowns.
Someday, I aspire to be like Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.


Posted by:

BAW30s
25 Aug 2021

So Roy in the IT Crowd was right!
I always suspected it, and shut down the PC at night.


Posted by:

Philip Reeves
25 Aug 2021

I am disabled. I can't do all this unplugging and replugging. I am also a frustrated scientist. If I could do the math that goes with it, I would be one. So to lend a hand to the real scientists, I donate my computer's idle time to solving problems, curing disease, looking for ET, etc. I suspect there are scientists awake in every time zone. Therefore, I never turn my pc's off except for windows or program updates. I have never seen any of these problems that everybody's talking about.


Posted by:

glump
26 Aug 2021

Even after shuting down, some USB ports are still powered. This facilitates a "magic packet" "wake on LAN" capability. Other circuitry also still "sees" this voltage.
To totally power down, it needs to be unplugged.


Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
26 Aug 2021

RandiO,

I tend to let my PCs go to sleep, then hibernate, based on the Windows 10 defaults (1 desktop, 2 laptops).

There are 4 TVs in my home, one of which is a smart TV. Each has a Roku device connected to it. I power the Roku devices with the TVs USB ports, so they turn off when the TVs are turned off.

I have enabled a 'guest' sub-network for the TVs, streaming devices, and any Android devices (phone, tablet, etc.) on my LAN. I do this to isolate them from my PCs because they are notoriously less secure. These devices are all shut down when not in use.

The only devices I keep turned "on" are my PCs, and they are allowed to idle to sleep, and eventually to hibernate (or suspend mode - depending on the current Windows 10 defaults). If any of them displays any odd behavior (under any conditions), I investigate, using the Windows 10 troubleshooters and the Internet. I believe in the old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!", but the flip-side to that coin is "If it is broke, fix it fast!". The whole point is that if your computer(s) or other devices are exhibiting odd behavior, you should investigate to learn why, then fix the problem. Otherwise, the odd-behaving device may stop working altogether 'unexpectedly' (the odd behavior may be a harbinger of things to come), and you will then be without them, or forced to replace them needlessly, when a bit of time and investigation may be all that is needed to right a sinking ship.

My2Cents,

Ernie


Posted by:

Richard
26 Aug 2021

We were disappointed when we had to move one of our Sun servers. It's uptime was around a decade with no issues. It has been retired but I'm guessing due to it's function it could still be running if not. There must be other servers out there that just keep going doing some job that just don't need to be rebooted so have long uptimes. (Not anything public facing though, please patch those.)


Posted by:

Richard
26 Aug 2021

Hi Dave,

Apparently "restart" does a more complete shut down than "shut down" - unless things have changed in the last three years:

https://www.howtogeek.com/349114/shutting-down-doesnt-fully-shut-down-windows-10-but-restarting-it-does/


Posted by:

MR LAWRENCE C WILLIAMS
26 Aug 2021

If there is a prob with any of my electrical devices one of the first things I try is switch on and off at the maikns supply. I have a smart Sharp TV which occasionally behaves erratically in particulr and this process invariably works, as it seems to often with other electronic equipment. I haven't tried this with my wifi router though - perhaps I should!


Posted by:

Don Fedak
26 Aug 2021

Our RCA 40" TV worked great until it gave out and would not power up. After I checked the remote I just unplugged it. It came back on and continues to work as it used to do!


Posted by:

Steve
27 Aug 2021

This newsletter arrived very timely, all calls made on my mobile failed to connect today.
Speaking to the service company’s Tecky's confirmed it was not a fault at their end. They suggested shutting down the phone and literally wiping the SIM card with a clean paper towel. This worked a treat, the restarted mobile was able to make calls again & has worked OK since !


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