If you feel like you have to buy a new laptop every few years, you’re not alone.
Apple has publicly stated that its MacBook laptops last for about four years, on average. I’ve used both PC and Apple products, and I also find I need to replace my laptop every three or four years.
But Apple also notes its products can last “significantly longer” than the average estimate.
With laptop prices at Best Buy running anywhere from $149 for a simple Chromebook to $1,599 for a powerful MacBook, it’s to your advantage to keep that tech running for as long as possible.
Why Laptops Wear Out
To understand how to make a laptop last, you first need to understand some of the biggest reasons why laptops wear out:
- Overloading: The laptop has too many processes running at the same time.
- Overheating: The laptop gets too hot.
- Battery death: The laptop’s battery stops working, meaning the laptop only works when it is plugged into an outlet.
- Wear and tear: Wearing out the keyboard, getting crumbs and dust stuck in the keyboard or dropping the laptop a few too many times.
I’ve had laptops fail for all four of those reasons. (And sometimes for a combination of reasons, like the laptop that overheated for months before the keyboard started to wear out.)
Although there are temporary fixes, once the laptop has started its slow death, you’ll eventually have to get a new one.
To make your laptop last as long as possible, you need to think about preventing the problems before they start.
How to Prevent — and Solve — Common Laptop Problems
Let’s take a look at some of the best ways to prevent common laptop problems, from lowest to highest cost:
1. Delete Files
One of the easiest ways to keep your laptop at peak performance is to make sure its hard drive isn’t full of photos, videos, book-length PDFs and other large files.
There are a lot of technical reasons why saving too much stuff to your laptop can overload your machine, but let’s keep it simple and say that if you give your hard drive too much to carry, it’ll slow down — or stop working completely.
So take a look at what you’ve got on your computer, and start deleting stuff you no longer need.
Consider transferring items that you want to save but don’t use every day (like photographs) to an external hard drive. Using cloud storage such as Dropbox or Google Drive doesn’t always help as much as you’d think, since the cloud sync process still takes up valuable hard drive space.
Don’t forget the Downloads folder, which probably contains files you didn’t even realize were there. Remember that PDF menu from the restaurant you thought about visiting a year ago? It’s hanging out in Downloads, taking up space. Delete it!
A word of warning: It’s OK to uninstall some types of programs, like games you no longer play. However, don’t go around deleting every program you don’t think you use, especially if you don’t know what it is. Your laptop uses some of those programs, and uninstalling or deleting them can seriously damage your performance.
2. Look at What’s Running
On the subject of “what’s your laptop using?” take a minute to check out what applications your laptop is running. Too many applications running simultaneously can slow down or crash your system.
Type Command+Option+Escape (on a Mac) or start Task Manager in Windows, and see what applications your laptop is running right now.
I just learned my laptop was running both iTunes and Adobe Acrobat, even though I wasn’t using either of them. I closed both.
3. Learn About Malware
Running malware on top of all the other applications can seriously slow down your machine — and cause all kinds of other problems. (There’s a reason why it’s called malware.)
I lost a hard drive to an accidental malware download once and ended up paying a couple hundred bucks to the local tech shop to get as many of my files restored as possible.
So learn how to avoid malware. It hides in spam email attachments, in unsavory download links and in disreputable ads. Sometimes just visiting a website triggers a malware download. Cnet has a good “how to avoid malware” guide, so start there.
4. Install Upgrades
You know how your laptop keeps asking you if you’d like to install upgrades, and you keep clicking “remind me tomorrow?”
Go ahead and install those upgrades. They’ll keep your programs running smoothly — which will put less strain on your laptop.
5. Keep Your Laptop Cool
How do you know if your laptop is overheating? Listen for the fan.
Every laptop will run its fan once in a while, but if you hear the fan every time you use the laptop, your laptop has overheating issues.
Many laptops overheat when the bottom half of the laptop — the part where all the computer parts live — gets too hot. Yes, I know that’s also the part you put directly on your lap. Yes, that’s part of the problem.
The last time I had a laptop with overheating issues, I temporarily solved the problem by taking four plastic bottle lids (like the kind you get from bottles of water or soda) and placing one lid under each corner of the laptop. This kept the laptop cool by allowing air to flow underneath the laptop.
Eventually, that laptop would only work when it was on top of its four bottle caps — but I got a lot of extra use out of that machine before it finally died.
My current laptop spends a portion of its workday on a wire cube (that I use as a “standing desk”), which also allows air to flow under the machine. You can create free, quick fixes like these from stuff you already have in the house, or you can purchase laptop cooling pads and stands — anything to keep that underside cool.
I’m not expecting any of us to stop putting our laptops on our laps; after all, that’s where they were literally designed to go. However, thinking about where your laptop spends its day can help you create as many cool resting spots as possible.
6. Clean Your Laptop
A dirty laptop is an unhappy laptop — and a dirty laptop can quickly become a broken laptop, if you get too much dust and pet hair and food residue in there.
As with the other tips on this list, you want to think of this as prevention, not problem solving. If you’re cleaning your laptop after dust bunnies have clogged the fan, your machine may already have taken on some damage.
So think of laptop cleaning as regular maintenance, not something you only do when something goes wrong.
One of the simplest ways to clean a laptop is with a can of compressed air. I used to be able to clean the dust out of my laptop by carefully removing all of the keys, unscrewing the bottom cover and using the compressed air to carefully blow dust out of all of the internal crevices I could find.
Some laptops may still let you do that, but others are not designed to be taken apart (and that’s probably a good thing, given how easy it is to mess that up).
How To Geek has a great guide on how to clean a laptop, both for laptops that can be taken apart and for laptops that can’t. Read that guide to get started, and pay attention to the warnings: If you blow too much air at a laptop fan, for example, it could break.
7. Buy a New Battery
If your laptop’s battery dies, you might be able to buy a new battery. This depends on the brand and model of laptop you’re using.
If you’ve got a laptop where the battery is covered by a removable panel, it should be pretty easy to go online, search a site like Amazon for a battery designed for your laptop’s make/model/year and pop that battery into the machine.
If you’re using a MacBook or another laptop that is not designed for battery removal, it’s not impossible to replace the battery, but it is expert-level. You’re better off taking your Mac to the Apple Store, as AppleInsider explains:
Depending on the model, users without coverage can expect to pay between $129 and $199 for out-of-warranty battery servicing. Apple provides one year of warranty coverage for free, while the three-year extended Protection Plan starts at $249.
I’ve replaced laptop batteries before, and it’s a good way to tell whether the problem is really with the battery or with your laptop. (In one case, the battery was fine but the laptop was no longer able to charge it, which meant no amount of new batteries would solve the underlying problem.)
Laptop batteries are relatively inexpensive, so consider giving that a try before making the decision to buy a new machine.
8. Pay for a Tune-Up
If you don’t feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough to prevent your laptop problems before they start, you can always take your laptop to the pros.
Best Buy’s Geek Squad and Apple’s Genius Bar both offer laptop tune-ups, although Apple only provides this service to laptops under its AppleCare warranty.
You can also look for other local services in your area — but make sure to check for reputability before you give somebody access to your laptop.
A good tune-up will do a lot of the same things on this list: clean your laptop, remove malware, free up space on your hard drive, upgrade programs and so on.
Yes, it’ll cost a little money, but it’s cheaper than the cost of a new laptop!
Your Turn: How long do your laptops usually last? Do you have tips to keep laptops running for as long as possible?
Nicole Dieker is a senior editor at The Billfold, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, The Write Life, Boing Boing and Popular Science.