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How to extend the life of an old PC

Some employees might use old PCs that could use replacing. But if a hardware refresh isn't in your budget, there are some steps you can take to lengthen laptop and desktop lifespans.

The length of time a computer can be kept in service depends on many factors, but you can extend the life of an old PC by a year or more with a few simple tricks.

Begin by opening the case and vacuuming out dust from the internal components. This step pops up in nearly every "how to care for a computer" guide, but it's one most people don't do often enough. Keeping internal components dust-free truly extends the life of components.

Because all of a machine's components heat up while they're running, you must situate the computer so it's not in direct sunlight or close to a heating vent. Turning a computer on and off affects its internal components, so you should encourage users to leave their computers running overnight if that's not against company policy. A reboot to clear RAM is fine when needed, but educate users about how to reboot using a menu rather than simply pressing the on/off button.

Using surge protectors is always a good idea; they protect components and should be part of every workstation. And mobile workers should use padded carrying cases whenever they take a laptop or tablet out of the office.

Add memory and an SSD

Add memory to an old PC, if possible. Three things limit the amount of RAM a computer can use: CPU architecture -- 32 vs. 64 bit -- the operating system and the motherboard.

In general, a 32-bit version of Windows 10 running on a computer with a 32-bit CPU can handle up to 4 GB of RAM. If you have a 64-bit CPU running 64-bit Windows 10, you can use 128 GB to 2 TB of memory, depending on the version of the OS. But the limits of the motherboard on a 64-bit computer can easily bring those numbers down to 16 GB or 32 GB, depending on the number of memory modules the motherboard can hold.

Add a solid-state drive (SSD) as the primary boot drive. Most new computers come with the option for two drives -- an SSD and a hard disk -- for a reason. Booting from an SSD takes just seconds. There are 250 GB SSDs priced at less than $100. They are a great way to improve the user experience and avoid the crashes that can come from relying on an old hard disk to support the rigors of booting. Just back up the computer, move the OS and applications to the SSD -- for UEFI machines, you'll need a tool such as Paragon software's Migrate OS to SSD, which costs $20 -- and reformat the existing hard drive to use it for data.

Clean up the OS

Although experts rightly say that a lack of free disk space isn't necessarily a direct cause of slow performance on an old PC, having lots of applications and services running simultaneously can have a negative effect. So you should uninstall unnecessary applications and services whenever possible.

To get started, run Disk Cleanup to remove temporary files, dump files, downloaded installation files and other unnecessary data. After the process completes, the Disk Cleanup dialog box will include a More Options tab. If the computer is configured to save numerous restore points, consider removing all but the latest restore point. To do so, click the More Options tab and then, in the System Restore and Shadow Copies section, click the Clean up button. The system will ask whether you're sure you want to delete old restore points, and it gives you the option to delete them or cancel.

Using the Control Panel, remove any applications that workers don't use, including any preinstalled third-party software that came loaded on the computer originally if it's still there. Some applications are tied to online services, which load services at startup and consume RAM, so removing unused applications will keep the system running leaner.

If Windows 10 computers have modern apps installed that workers don't use, open Settings and go to System > Apps & features. This window lets you remove ordinary applications or Windows Store apps. You can also run the PowerShell Get-AppxPackage command to display a list of installed apps, and then run the Remove-AppxPackage command to remove them from the computer.

Paring down unnecessary services is trickier than just uninstalling applications. Even seasoned admins are sometimes reluctant to disable services because doing so can throw the computer for a loop. It's safe to disable services tied to applications that a worker never uses, which might be video and web conferencing or PDF creators, as well as more arcane services such as Connected User Experiences and Telemetry, and Touch Keyboard and Handwriting Panel Service. Be sure to research services before deciding to get rid of them, and use the Services applet to disable only one service at a time. Then reboot and have the user run the computer for a while before disabling another service.

Clean up storage

Many people are guilty of amassing huge amounts of data files -- word processing documents, PDFs, spreadsheets, email and so on -- that they no longer need. Even if free disk space isn't a concern, consider that a Windows computer indexes common files so that they're readily available in File Explorer and to applications. The more indexable files are saved on a computer, the longer indexing takes, which can affect I/O and CPU usage.

One way to identify data files that can be deleted or moved to off-computer storage is to search for file extensions and the modification date. Although you can use File Explorer, or Windows Explorer, a free utility called WinDirStat is more efficient. WinDirStat scans a system and then displays folders and files visually based on space used, with each file type assigned a different color. You can click a file type, and then scroll through the list to see the Last Change dates to decide which files to delete or move.

Go lightweight on applications

Antivirus programs can weigh a computer down. If you have some flexibility around which antivirus program runs on users' old PCs, consider switching to a lightweight program from a reputable company. The same applies to web browsers.

Another possible change is to investigate using online productivity applications rather than desktop apps, which take up disk space and can use valuable RAM. If your company uses Microsoft Office, look into switching to Office Online, at least for users with computers that are long in the tooth. All they need is a web browser and a reliable internet connection.

Regardless of the care you've taken, at some point you'll have to replace the computer with a new, shiny model. If you don't need any of the components from the old computer for spare parts, consider donating it to a local organization that doesn't mind slower performance. Be sure to cleanse the drive(s) before dropping off the unit.

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