With credit tight and profits down, “I need a new computer,” are the last words you want to hear from your employees. But chances are, you hear them all too often. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average lifespan of a personal computer is only 2.4 years.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. “Most computers are discarded when their hardware is perfectly good,” says J.J. Schoch, vice president of marketing, iolo technologies, publisher of the popular PC tune-up software System Mechanic.

Why do so many mechanically perfect computers get replaced? For one thing, it may be difficult to distinguish between hardware and software problems. If a computer is slow, glitchy, prone to crashing, and takes forever to load applications, its user is likely to demand a new one.

And some software problems are so bad they’re not worth fixing. “If a computer is badly infected with malware or has other severe security-related problems, fixing it may not be practical,” explains Ed Correia, CEO of managed service provider Sagacent Technologies. Yes, you could clean it off, but if it’s going to take 20 hours of expert IT time to do it, it might more cost-effective to buy another one.

With that in mind, here are 5 tips for getting the longest use from personal computers lives by protecting both their hardware and software:

  1. Keep the computer free of unneeded applications. Unused or obsolete applications leave bits of code behind that can clog up your computer, eating up RAM and slowing everything down. Besides being a software problem, too much leftover code can also lead to hardware failure, by causing your hard drive to spin more than it needs to, thus wearing it down. “Your hard drive can wind up looking like Swiss cheese,” Correia says. One way to get rid of unneeded code is to use tune-up software, but Windows also has a disk cleanup feature. Make sure the system tray and registry are also free of unneeded applications.
  2. Keep images of your computers. The operating system, configuration, and applications on a computer can be stored as a space-saving image, which makes it easy and quick for IT staff to restore them. Being able to re-image a computer solves the it’ll-take-so-long-to-restore-we-might-as-well-buy-a-new-one problem. And support staff can often re-image over the Internet, without even touching the computer. “Our standard procedure is, if someone’s having a problem and it takes more than an hour to fix, then we simply re-image,” Correia says.
  3. Maximize memory.  “One inexpensive way to extend the life of desktop computers is to upgrade to the maximum amount of RAM possible, so the operating system does not have to use memory on the hard disk,” says Matthew Chang, president of the online coupon website eCoupons.com. Here again, the idea is to cut back on excess use of the hard drive, which fills in whenever RAM is overloaded. Adding memory will improve users’ experience, too, since RAM is much faster than disk.
  4. Minimize dust.  Heat is anathema to computer components, so when their insides fill with dust, it traps heat, causing fans to work overtime, and wear out more quickly. So don’t set a computer directly on the floor, where it will act as a stationary vacuum cleaner -- even a few inches’ elevation will help. And don’t allow smoking or incense use around the computer either, since smoke will fill it with dust fast. “I’ve heard of computer motherboards frying because there was a layer of dust on them keeping the heat in,” Schoch says. You can’t keep dust from getting in, he adds. “Air has to circulate in a computer to keep it cool, and with air comes dust.” The only remedy, he says, is to open the computer case and blow out the dust periodically.
  5. Hold off on Vista. Microsoft Windows Vista demands much more processing power than its predecessor XP. “It’s much, much more demanding, so we do not recommend installing Vista on existing computers,” Correia says. “Most computers currently in place don’t have the needed processing power.”

While all these steps can help you extend personal computer life, in three to five years, he predicts this will no longer be a concern. “By then, most small businesses will be using virtual desktops running on servers in the back office, and employees will use thin clients (essentially a keyboard, monitor, and browser) to access them. It’ll be an initial investment, but then they won’t have to keep upgrading desktops. They can just keep using them until they physically break.”