Compared to years past, personal computers are dirt cheap. Ten years ago, the big pricing breakthrough came with the era of the “sub $1,000” computer. Now, that’s the mid-range price point between the high end models that start at $1,500 and up and the increasingly more common sub-$500 PC.

So why would a small or mid-sized business owner even give a second thought to just upgrading the company’s computers? Two reasons come to mind. First, the economy is shaky and uncertain. Second, while a $500 computer may sound like a matter for petty cash, it adds up fast when it’s multiplied by dozens, if not hundreds of employees.

Computer experts like Dan Gookin, author of PCs for Dummies give the average computer an expected lifespan of four to six years before requiring replacement. For those business owners watching their bottom line closely these days, here are some tips to stretch those PCs from four years and closer to six.

Gookin recommends taking the following steps:

  1. Get an external hard drive. They’re plentiful and cheap, costing as little as $150 for five gigs. “The idea is you want to back up your stuff. The hard drive is usually the first thing to go or wear out. So if you’re pushing the limit with the hard drive, you better keep that safety copy of your data,” says Gookin.
  2. Add more memory. Memory, too, is cheap and for a small investment of perhaps less than $100, a slow moving desktop can work a lot faster making an employee’s time more productive. Gookin also points out that memory for older PCs are inevitably cheaper than when it was first purchased. That makes a good case to upgrade memory as you need it and not pay top dollar for it up front upon purchase.
  3. Dust bunnies are not a computer’s friend. At least once or twice a year, turn off the PC, remove the hood and check out the dust that has accumulated inside. Dust insulates the tower making it hotter inside. It also blocks up vents (which also increase the heat inside). Overheated computers burn out and don’t last as long. Blow out the dust with an air cannon, but don’t stop there. Make sure you use a mini vacuum to suck it all up, as well, so it doesn’t just resettle somewhere else within the hardware.
  4. With apologies to Al Gore, leave the computers on at all times. “This is a controversial one,” admits Gookin, who argues turning computers on and off dramatically changes the range of temperatures inside the box. Cycling heat and cold naturally causes parts to expand and contract. It stresses the solder joints, loosens chips, connectors and expansion cards and can even cause parts to crack and break over time.
  5. Avoid software upgrades. How badly does the employee need all the latest bells and whistles on Office 2007, for example? Newer versions of software often require more memory, faster chips, and perhaps even an upgraded monitor or graphics card for optimal use. “Minimum requirements listed on the software packaging don’t mean it will necessarily run on your computer, just crawl,” says Gregory S. Nelson, a technology advisor for small businesses for SCORE out of the Naples, Florida office.

Routine maintenance

Business owners know it’s time to bite the bullet and buy new computers when the old ones either no longer work or work so slow lost productivity becomes a greater expense than just buying a new system.

While adding more memory is the most obvious way to speed up the older machines around the office, there are other relatively simple maintenance checks that will pump up your PC’s, as well.

Clean up the registry editor. You know it’s bad when you hit the on button in the morning, go down the hall for coffee, check the mail, say good morning to your colleagues, return to your desk and the operating system is still booting up. Chances are the computer has too many programs in the registry editor firing up during boot up and thus slowing down start-up.

  • How-to: “Purging out all the unnecessary programs starting up along with your computer is not for the faint of heart,” says Nelson. This is a time to definitely leave it to the IT person or at least use a software program to do the heavy lifting. The way to find the registry editor (on Windows) is to hit “Start”, then “Run.” Type in “regedit” and hit okay. On the left side of the pop-up screen there’s a long list of options. Buried in that list are all those programs that are set to boot up along with the operating system. Also, uninstalled software tends to never be completely uninstalled. Remaining files are typically hiding out in the Registry Editor waiting to be cleaned out.

Defragment your hard drive. Think of all those thousands of files sitting on your hard drive as books sitting on a shelf. A file gets used and then re-shelved back with the others not quite as tightly packed in and with tiny gaps left between each one. “Defragging” the hard drive means taking out those fragments or gaps between files, similar to pushing all the books back together tightly on a shelf leaving more room on the shelf for future additions.

  • How-to: This is a task just about anyone can do. Click on “Start,” then “All Programs,” “Accessories,” and then “System Tools” where disk defragmenter is on the drop down menu. Click on it. A pop-up screen offers two buttons: analyze and defragment. The analyze button will quickly give you a report on the need to defrag and what programs have the most fragments. “Even when it recommends defragging is not necessary, sometimes it helps anyway,” says Nelson. Nelson says e-mail is usually the biggest culprit for generating fragments. If any area is over a thousand fragments, go ahead and defragment.

When you do buy

Eventually, all businesses have too. Again, the maximum lifespan to expect out of any PC is about six years. So when that day arrives: invest in desktops where it makes sense. Laptops get more wear and tear faster due to their portability.