Apple Archive

How Long Is the Useful Life of a Laptop Computer?

- 2004.07.16

How long should a laptop last?

Desktop Macs can last for years and years. To prove that, I can pull out the Mac Plus that I've still got around here, and it'll boot up to system 7.0.1.

But how about laptops? eBay is full of PowerBook 140s, 540s, and 1400s - that's obviously a testament to their longevity, right?

Unfortunately, many of these PowerBooks have "slight issues." The battery connectors are broken, the screen has lines through it, the case is cracked, the power connector is loose. Laptops simply don't last forever.

Face it, most laptops don't just sit in one place for their entire lifetime like desktop computers do. People buy a laptop in order to work wherever they happen to need it - and that may be on a train, in an airplane, or even at the beach. Laptops have to put up with conditions that a desktop computer would never face.

Laptops are shoved into their bags, sometimes with the hard drive still in the process of spinning down, and some inexpensive bags don't offer enough protection. If the bag is dropped, the laptop inside is often damaged or broken.

Older laptops tended to last a bit longer because their larger components required larger, thicker plastic cases, but that isn't the case anymore. Since silver colored everything seems to be all the rage, modern Mac laptops are made out of aluminum. Drop that on a hard surface, and it will certainly sustain damage.

While dropping the unit or just handling it poorly will cause damage, there are other design flaws inherent in laptops. The most notable is heat. Perhaps one of the reasons that many older laptops are still around is because the older 68030 and 68040 processors didn't generate as much heat as the new chips. That G4 chip in the latest PowerBook has to be designed so that it will generate the least amount of heat possible while still providing a good amount of performance.

The truth is, regardless of how well designed the chip or the heat sink/fans are, it will still generate a fair bit of heat. And if the computer is on a lap or a bed, the heat can built up inside the case and shorten the life of other components. While it was completely possible to have a laptop die because of overheating 10 years ago, these days it's even more likely of an occurrence.

How long should a laptop actually last? If it dies within fouor years, I'd be pretty disappointed. After all, a $2,000 computer should last longer. Five years would be slightly disappointing as well - think of a trusty old Lombard dying out on you. It's certainly not a useless computer.

Someone recently asked me if I could look at her PowerBook 3400c. They said that it just wouldn't power up. That machine is seven years old, and it's been in constant use. Between 4-6 years seems to be when a Macintosh can no longer run the most recent software and be considered "up to date," so you could say that the owner of this 3400c definitely had it for it's useful life.

In terms of how long a laptop should last, it should, at the very least, give you a "useful life" of around five years. If you're lucky and careful with the laptop, maybe it'll last you a bit longer.

Who knows, in ten years it could end up on eBay like those old PowerBook 140s.

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