How long do laptops last? How long should a laptop last? Is there anything you can do to make one last longer? Those are all fair questions. Let’s dig in so you can make your laptop last as long as possible, and save yourself a lot of money in the process.
There is a secret to buying laptops and saving a fortune, as you’ll soon find out.
How long do laptops last?
This may surprise you, but this is actually two questions. There are two major classes of laptops, you see. There are consumer laptops, which are the kind you find at big-box electronics stores. And there are business laptops, like the people who work for Fortune 500 companies use at work. They have the same brand names stamped on them, but they aren’t built the same.
Consumer laptops come with a one-year warranty from the factory. When you open one up, you find second- and third-tier components in them, generally speaking. Nicer consumer laptops have the same CPUs as their business-grade cousins, but everything else on the motherboard is second- or third-best. As for the rest of the system, it’s whatever the suppliers were able to deliver at the price point the company specified. The same model laptop isn’t necessarily identical from week to week. Imagine if you and your neighbor both bought the same model car a month apart, and your cars had transmissions made by different companies in them.
This situation is good for everybody. Everybody but you, that is. Between the slight risk of the laptop conking out in 14 months, or you dropping it or spilling a cup of coffee on it, you’re going to want to buy that $249 extended warranty to protect it for three years. The store doesn’t make much on that laptop but the extended warranty is profitable.
Business laptops come with a three-year warranty and they’re built very differently. They have the good parts in them. Any variance in the parts they use are designed not to affect the overall reliability of the system. They’re consistent. When a business computer fails, it means the company is less able to make money. So companies are willing to pay more money for more quality, so the systems fail less often, and they last longer.
Businesses may buy insurance to protect their laptops against drops and spilled drinks, but it’s really accidental damage that they’re concerned about.
What about Apple?
I hesitate to bring this up but someone is going to ask. Inevitably, when someone I know has problems with their laptop and posts something on social media about it, someone says to get a Mac. Apple computers are expensive, so they’d better be reliable. Apple does use higher-grade parts, because the cost of their stuff allows it.
But it’s not fair to compare a $2,000 Mac to a $200 computer from HP, Dell, or Lenovo. They can all design and build a reliable $2,000 laptop too. I’m typing this right now on a rather aged HP laptop that was pretty expensive in its day.
How long should a laptop last?
When my dishwasher quit after about nine years, I was mad. That’s about how long they’re supposed to last, but I was still upset. When we spend a few hundred dollars on something, we want it to last as long as possible. And when it breaks, we want replacement parts to cost $25 and we want to be able to install them ourselves.
Laptops are a bit of a mixed bag. They’re more complicated than a dishwasher. Depending on what fails, you may be able to replace it. You may be able to replace it yourself and it may only cost $25, with some luck.
But, again, because of the differences in how they’re made, business and consumer laptops have different life expectancies.
In my experience, consumer laptops seem to conk out after about four years. Some make it for five. The best, most expensive ones may make it a bit longer. But if you buy an ordinary laptop, expect to get around four years out of it. If you buy a cheapie special that hits the stores in late November and disappears from the shelves sometime in January, don’t be surprised if you get closer to three.
I don’t think consumer laptops are designed for longevity. Everything about them seems to be designed to last three or four years.
I also don’t think anything about that is a coincidence. The stores want you to buy a laptop, get the extended warranty, take the laptop home, use it for about four years until it breaks, then come back and buy a new one. They’ll tell you that’s how long they’re supposed to last. If you’re upset, they’ll sell you a different brand next time, and tell you that brand’s better. Will it last a year longer than the last one you bought? Flip a coin.
How long should a laptop last? Consumer electronics’ business model depends on people coming back for a new computer every few years. So if you ask them, they’d say about four years.
I once worked at a very large company whose policy was to keep all of its computers five years. No three-year replacement cycle for them. Five. They did make exceptions sometimes though. If the computer was five years old and still worked well, they’d go ahead and keep it until it broke for good.
They didn’t have a lot of 10-year-old systems on their network. But I found some. They weren’t exactly pleasant to use, but they’d find someone willing to put up with them and keep them in use.
How long should a laptop last? If you asked that particular company, they’d say forever minus one day, because everyone knows it’s unreasonable to expect them to last forever. How long do laptops last? That company’s actions tell it all. They fully expected to be able to get five years or more out of their laptops. If they hadn’t been able to reliably get five-plus years, their policy would have been to replace them more frequently.
But this means you can exploit business’ three-year replacement cycle. When businesses discard their laptops after three years, they still have half their life left in them, if not more. That’s what I do. I estimate this HP laptop I’m using to write this blog post is about eight years old, and expect to get at least two more years out of it.
What causes laptops to break?
Laptops are mostly solid state devices, so there’s a limited number of components in them that wear out and break. The two most common are the hard drive and the battery.
When I buy an old laptop, I always replace both. I get a new battery, and I replace the hard drive with a solid state drive. Solid state drives, or SSDs, perform much faster, and they last longer than hard drives, potentially up to 10 years.
I’ll bet you my old employer has a few laptops like my old HP still kicking around somewhere, and they’re making someone miserable. Drop an SSD into it and install a fresh copy of Windows 10, tweak it a little, and it’s still a usable computer. Not to mention reliable.
This trick even works in consumer laptops, but the hard drive isn’t the only failure-prone component in them. Even when I’ve upgraded family members’ laptops with SSDs, they tend to conk out after about five years with a motherboard issue. They get a new one, I salvage the SSD out of their old one, and put it in a new one. The motherboards in business-class laptops can easily last 10 years.
But simply installing an SSD in any laptop is a good way to improve its overall reliability. It also improves its speed and its battery life. I can’t tell you how to remove the hard drive from every laptop, but here’s a process I followed to upgrade an old HP netbook that covers how I got the data onto the SSD.
How to buy a business-class laptop
You’ll save a lot of money in the long run by buying a business-class laptop instead of a consumer-grade one. The key is to buy a Dell Latitude, HP Elitebook, or a Lenovo Thinkpad. You can buy a new one direct from Dell, HP, or Lenovo or, if you prefer, Newegg.
I buy used off-lease laptops instead. You can buy one off Ebay, or if you want one that’s been worked over by a professional first, buy something from Newegg’s Refurbished PCs category. You’ll have to do some research because there are refurbished consumer-grade laptops in that mix. If you’re not comfortable taking computers apart, look for one with an SSD already in it and Windows 10 installed.
What about performance?
Admittedly, business computers aren’t known for performance. But remember, you won’t be loading 73 different CPU-draining agents on yours. Yours should come with a fresh, vanilla copy of Windows on it. If it doesn’t, format the SSD and install a fresh one on it. My ancient HP Elitebook still outruns the $300 laptops at consumer electronics stores. A laptop that’s only one or two generations back will do even better.
Should I get the warranty?
If you buy a refurbished laptop from somewhere like Newegg, it will have a 90-day warranty. You can extend the warranty to two years for $90. I don’t because I used to fix these things for a living. If you’re not comfortable taking computers apart, I recommend getting the warranty. You can get an aging business laptop plus the warranty for just slightly more than a consumer electronics store’s extended warranty alone.
Does brand matter?
I’ve been thrilled with HP Elitebooks. Right now it’s a little easier to find a used Dell Latitude at a good price, to the point where I’m tempted to pick one up just to have a spare around. I am not thrilled with the smaller Lenovo Thinkpads, specifically the X200 series. The slightly bigger Thinkpads are good.
I can break an X200-series Thinkpad by giving one to my young kids. HP Elitebooks hold up just fine under their use though.
I’ve talked specifically about HP vs Dell before but as long as you stick with something business-grade and business-tested I expect you’ll be OK.