Do Computers (and other gadgets) Get Tired?

Category: Hardware

A reader asks: “Sometimes my computer acts weird when it has been running for several days. 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 a great question. Read on for my thought on this topic...

Silver Bullets and Cosmic Rays

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 notice a slowdown in my Internet speed. I’ve done the same with my Roku streaming box when the video gets choppy. 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.

I met Jerrold Foutz in a networking group, and I can tell you he is 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 is "just unplug it."

silver bullet

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. Let me caution that whenever possible, you should try to turn off or shut down your electronic device (especially computers) before pulling 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 the windows recovery console, i.e., 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 &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." – 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) Get Tired?"

(See all 24 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Renaud Olgiati
24 Mar 2020

I would tend to blame memory leaks and disk fragmentation since I see those problems on the box of my better half, who runs MS Windows, while I dont have them on a similar box running Linux.

Posted by:

24 Mar 2020

I have several desktop computers running Linux for days at a time.They run many applications with no problem,but as a routine I usually shut them off when not needed.

Occasionally, I will notice an device not acting correctly,so I turn them off for a minute and than turn them back on.That usually solves the problem.If it is issue that doesn't go away right then,I unplug it from the wall for a minute and than plug it back in.

It would be a good idea to run a cleaner such as Bleachbit weekly as a maintenance item to clear your cache and unneeded files.

Posted by:

24 Mar 2020

The IT Crowd:

Posted by:

24 Mar 2020

Internet connections, especially cable modems, need to be reset periodically. When the cable modem is reset, it reloads software and especially configuration parameters from the ISP. That is why ISPs always tell you to power off, wait 30 seconds and power on when you call them with a service problem. Many times it really does solve the problem. (Many times it doesn't, but you have to do it just to convince the person on the phone.)

As you talked about in another article, things do wear out especially from heat. I have had power supplies in fail over time. Disks die (typically in 4-6 years). Also, if you look inside your computer, you may find your fan isn't running or is running slowly. Often that is just from dirt buildup. Clean it out.

Posted by:

24 Mar 2020

As an electronics design engineer I can state that, in a sense, electronics gets tired with use. Components, such as resistors, change value with age. If you examine the technical specifications of most electronic components you can find this information. That's why electronics, designed for long use (in excess of 5 years) takes this into account and the designer will assume a wider range of possible values for each component, it is also why these assemblies cost more.

Posted by:

George Hendey
24 Mar 2020

I turn my computer off every night as I do not want it using power unnecessarily. One problem I do have is that my computer loses connection with the internet (wifi) and mostly will not reconnect. I have to restart my computer to connect again and it does so with no problem. I do not know why this happens but wonder if my broadband stops and starts again or if they (Virgin in the UK) restart the broadband or change channels.

Posted by:

24 Mar 2020

Back in the mid-1980s when electronic flight decks were coming into service, there were many 'nuisance' messages. Arriving in Acapulco without any maintenance support at that time, the screen was giving me a 'no-go' message. Powering down the aircraft for two minutes got rid of the message and the plane flew - safely - back to UK and on.

Posted by:

24 Mar 2020

With my previous laptop I used to hibernate it overnight because it was otherwise slow to start in the morning and open the files I was working on. It would become sluggish after a few days and need rebooting. In hindsight, it may have been Firefox because I didn't regularly clear the cache. But, like others, I also experienced no internet connection occasionally. That may be resolved because the ancient router finally gave up the ghost and replaced.

With my not-so-smart Windows phone, I think Mr Windows is upset because I don't spend money with him and I was getting odd notifications. Now I have scheduled a regular reboot to see if that cures the problem.

Posted by:

24 Mar 2020

Another excellent article, Bob! For over 20 years, we noticed a clear pattern:

Both commercial and residential customers who regularly left their PCs and MACs running 24/7, had more wonky issues (non-tech term), than those who restarted them at least once per week or shut them down nightly.

Since OS and program code isn't perfect, processing errors within the CPU, occur from time-to-time. Most program events aren't fatal (nor are all OS events). Some trigger a pop-up message that can be dismissed and the program closed/relaunched, while others have no effect on workflow at all. Many remain in the background, without notifying users. (Events are logged and can be viewed, if a user has Administrator Privileges). But when enough faults occur, (and dependant on their type; whether critical or non-critical to the OS) the system will eventually destabilize enough, that processes fail in the CPU and the session will terminate. At that point, the user experiences a partial or complete freeze on screen, due to no input to the GPU from the CPU... or even more unceremoniously (and dramatically), ending in a BSOD.

End-of-day shutdowns are not an option for many businesses that do backups and maintenance overnight. But generally, (with the prospect of fewer expensive service calls) most agree to a scheduled weekly restart, which is often enough to keep the hardware and users, happy.

Many systems now use SSDs and the newer NVMe drives, so there's no concern for wear factor, due to the number of hours hard drives have been in service (nor the heat produced while spinning)... but even so, we still advise people to shut down or at minimum, restart their computers and WiFi/routers, on a regular basis - for all the reasons Bob and others have posted here. We also found that it tends to ease customer concerns regarding failure rates, of their modern drives and other components within their systems.

Posted by:

Dave H.
24 Mar 2020

When the horse got tired, the cowboy just rebooted it. Things haven't changed much in the last couple of hundred years.

Posted by:

24 Mar 2020

Anyone interested in bit flips and "cosmic rays" should check out this episode of RadioLab's Podcast:
It's about a small election in Brussels in which the vote count for one candidate was off by a puzzling 4096 votes - more than the number of voters! The conclusion? A bit flip caused by a cosmic ray!

Posted by:

24 Mar 2020

I am surprised that no one here has mentioned the true cause of spurious failures: gremlins.

Posted by:

24 Mar 2020

I've known for years that my various electronic devices (phone, tablets, PCs - even my printer and modem/router) benefit from being 'power-cycled' occasionally. Slow running, failure to connect wifi, screen lockups and more are an indication. I always put it down to internal issues where things like buffers might get unintentionally overloaded, where components might get a little warm though dust accumulation - or merely that the little man inside who does all the work fancied a break.
I don't shut down and restart everything at once - different devices get different levels of use - but if one of them displays some odd actions, it gets the treatment. Sometimes I reboot things just for fun...

Posted by:

Robert A.
24 Mar 2020

Really, every computer owner/user should get into the habit of powering-down the computer, unplugging all the attached cables opening up the side panel, and blowing out all the dust and other crap that accumulates inside the tower, that can make a modern computer to start running slower. My understanding is that if modern Intel and AMD CPUs get enough dust on them and the motherboard, the chip will begin to throttle-down down to prevent serious overheating that would harm the computer. And the closer a computer tower is placed to the floor, the greater the odds it will suck in dirt and dust. Cans of compressed air, available at your nearest retailer that has a computer department usually can do a great job of cleaning out the inside of a computer, although they tend to be relatively expensive Over the long run, one may want to get an inexpensive air compressor, like the small "pancake" style sold at Harbor Freight Tools, often on sale, for about $40.00. The benefit of an air compressor is that it offers higher air pressure for cleaning that the air cans do, on the computer, but it can re-inflate bicycle and riding lawn mower tires, and also help clean out the nooks and crannies of one's car, when the spring clean and tune-up time rolls around.

Posted by:

Howard L.
24 Mar 2020

Each morning when I boot up my Windows 7 I expect it not to take. The screen shows "No connection." Pressing the little restart button under the big main one usually evokes a beep. The machine restarts and behaves fine thereafter. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, there is no beep and I need to run through a system repair program -- or, worst case, system restore.

Posted by:

25 Mar 2020

After a couple of HUGE shocks when working on old TV's and Radios, I remembered to remember to ground-out power tubes and capacitors. I bet the same would help computers.

(I hear my fan kick on for a split second, and that tells me that the capacitors and such have reached some state of discharge greater than just turning the computer (or TV or Radio) off. I feel like I am getting rid of those last few electrons that used to make me see flashes and filled my mouth with the unmistakable taste of stored electrons and the memory that I had not grounded power tubes or discharged capacitors.)

It's not rocket science, well it IS rocket science - NASA and other letter organizations constantly have to re-boot parts of their systems to get them to work better than they were.

With a 24/7 run with about one re-boot a day when I remember - but up to a month or more when I'm in the field - , my computer is now about 8-9 years old and is getting tired -- I think I need a new computer with some kind of Gen10 Intel i-9 to keep me happy for another near decade of use - you can never have enough speed or memory. And Gen10 only because you pointed out that intel chips have a security issue I'd rather not deal with.

Turn computer off, unplug it, pull the power plug, turn it on, see if it makes any sound - if it does, you have cleared out more stray electrons - and when you plug the cord back in, you will KNOW your computer is pretty much completely discharged.

Posted by:

Andre Gotlieb
25 Mar 2020

As an electronic hobbyist and computer user since the 70th I can mention my experience. Although it's indeed true that some electronic components can wear of with time especially capacitors, the problem you resolve in communication lines by disconnecting all devices and waiting before reconnecting is something different I experienced multiple times in my life, It's called "GROUND LOOPS". That happens when two high speed grounded communication devices are connected via two different ways i.e. the grounding plug from their electricity outlet and the grounding wire from their communicating cable. When that happens as it forms a very big loop after time the high frequency currents (from your data) start to slowly induce currents within that loop that interfere with your data and change the inductive and capacitive properties of your transmission line. It even happened to me in the 80's on a "slow" 4800 baud connection. It usually happens between a modem or router and it's connected device (PC) but I also had it once between a controller PC and a PCB plotter that started to behave erratically by the end of the plotting process ruining the work. Both had a metallic frame and were grounded via their electrical plug and the (serial) data cable had it's ground connected on both ends. Disconnecting the data cable's ground connection on one end (never ever on both ends) solved the problem. Consider however that whenever one of your devices like switches and routers are powered via external power supplies supplying low voltage to your devise without ground will avoid ground loops (one of the reasons they are doing it that way) but two grounded PC's connected to the same switch with a ground cat 6 or 5e ethernet cable could start exhibiting those problems.

Posted by:

25 Mar 2020

When traveling and remotely logging in to my home computers, after a week or two, I'd lose contact with the computers. Would have to phone home for a reboot of both computers, router, and switch.

First solution was to use mechanical timers to cut power, then restore power. Computers used software to shut down before power cut, with bios set to boot on power. Only trouble was when daylight savings time ended: windows would update the time, mechanical timers wouldn't so order would reverse.

Current solution is to use Tp-Link power strips where schedules are kept internally. Besides user defined schedules, I can control the power remotely. I have 2 ISP's. Each controls the OTHER router's power plug so when powering off a router, it's the other router that controls the power plug. Works for me.

Posted by:

Ron Pollitt
25 Mar 2020

When I get computers in for repair/tuneup, the first thing I do is take it outside and blow out the innards. Then I stop all unnecessary programs from running at startup. Necessary, in my opinion is Windows, anti-virus and VPN. Next is a defrag and a (be careful here) free space wipe.

Posted by:

27 Mar 2020

@BobD >> I reverse all my network RJ45 cables around when I suspect network gremlins are buggering up the electrons; like sugar in a gas tank! 😮

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