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Is CPU Performance Affected by Age?

Your computer feels a little slower than it did this time last year; is that change something you can chalk up to an aging processor?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-drive grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Ben Simpson poses the following question:

This is a hypothetical question about how a CPU operates. If I purchase two identical CPUs, and use one long term (say one year), will it be identical in speed to the unused CPU? Will the number of clock cycles, latency of requests, etc on the used CPU be less than that of the unused CPU?

A supporting argument may be that mechanical devices degrade over time, While a CPU has no moving parts (other than the external fan), it does have circuits that can be damaged by heat, and voltage spikes. Lets say that after a year of intensive use, the circuits degrade and fewer electrons can pass since the pathway is narrower, etc.

Is this the nature of how a CPU operates, or is it simply working or broken, with no speed degradation in between?

Do the central processing units degrade with time or are other factors at play?

The Answers

SuperUser contributor RedGrittyBrick jumps in with a detailed overview of how the CPU’s speed is controlled:

Is the performance of a CPU affected as it ages?
after a year of intensive use, the circuits degrade and fewer electrons can pass since the pathway is narrower, etc.

No:
Crystal Oscillator


The speed of a CPU is determined by a crystal oscillator - so far as I know this is an external part for most CPUs

Picture from TechRepublic article

Crystals undergo slow gradual change of frequency with time, known as aging.

However, I suspect this is not a significant factor.

Drift with age is typically 4 ppm for the first year and 2 ppm per year for the life of the DT-26 crystal.

(from TI concerning an RTC IC but I believe this rate is similar for timing crystals in general)

CPU Semiconductor changes

Breakthrough posted a link to an IEEE article that describes the myriad of ways that semiconductors are affected over time.

It is possible therefore that the maximum clock speed the CPU is capable of will decrease over time. However in most cases this will not cause the CPU’s theoretical maximum possible speed to fall, within a year, below the actual operating speed set by the crystal oscillator. Therefore a CPU that has been stored for a year will run at the same speed as an originally identical CPU that has been used continuously for a year.

CPU Thermal regulation

Many CPUs reduce their speed if their temperature exceeds a pre-set threshold. The main factors that might cause a one-year-old CPU to overheat are not to do with semiconductor degradation within the CPU itself. Therefore these factors have no bearing on the question as formulated.

It is unlikely that a given pair of identical CPUs will diverge in capability within one year sufficiently to trigger thermal issues that require one of them to run itself at a reduced speed. At least, I know of no evidence that this has occurred within one year on a device that is not considered a warranty failure due to manufacturing defect.

CPU Energy efficiency

Many computers, especially portable ones, are similarly designed to reduce energy consumption when idle. Again this is not really relevant to the question as stated.

BlueRaja jumps in with an addition to Ben’s answer:

In theory, no, a CPU should run at basically the same speed its entire life.

In practice, yes, CPUs get slower over time because of dust build-up on the heatsink, and because the lower-quality thermal paste that prebuilt computers are often shipped with will degrade or evaporate. These effects cause the CPU to overheat, at which point it will throttle its speed to prevent damage.

Cleaning the heat sink and reapplying the thermal paste should make it as good as new, though.

Note: if you’re asking this due to having an old computer slow down, there are other reasons (usually dying hard-drives or popped capacitors) that old computers will slow down over time.

In other words, poor computer maintenance and cheap assembly methods are the real speed-throttling demons, not age or wear and tear on the physical chip. Routine cleaning and quality thermal paste go a long way towards your CPU operating efficiently.


Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

 

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 12/6/12

Comments (13)

  1. nt0xik8ed

    my 5 year old q6600 has been mildly over clocked to 3.33GHz for the past 4 years. It’s consistently stays at 32c with help from the Cooler Master Hyper 212 heatsink with the addition of a second cooling fan and filter with Artic Silver thermal compound. Replacing it has never crossed my mind and this is my everyday computer. I have never experience a problem with the CPU. My only problem has been the 550ti driver (which 100% sucks, thanks nvidia) and G.Skill ram my motherboard didn’t agree with.

  2. sunsmasher

    When overclocking, I’ve found that the maximum overclock that the chip can reach will decrease slightly after a month or two of use.
    In other words, if the cpu will reach a given stable overclock when brand new, after a period of time the stable overclock will have to be reduced a bit after this initial burn-in process.
    Of course, if you’re not overclocking, this is not a factor as the cpu has built-in headroom above the stock frequency.

  3. nt0xik8ed

    sounds like one of those creepy Neowin commenters

  4. k4rizmz

    This is a great article on the actual physical hardware and if its the reason why a computer is being slow. After many many computer repairs, fresh builds (from the ground up) and, formatting/reinstallation of OS’s there are a few things that come directly to mind about a computer slowing down after about a year. Being a part of an IT department also makes me sure in my deductions.

    1. SOFTWARE – How much software have you installed over the past year? Does it have additional services that start up and run in the background? Does it self update?

    To check these things use MSCONFIG. Many times after disabling unneeded start up services the computer starts faster and runs smoother in general.

    Note: We do not allow our users to install software on their machines at will. If someone would like a program installed they must clear it through us first. After YEARS of machines running they still respond as quickly as they did when we first set them up. This goes back to my original questions.

    2. OS – Are you still running windows XP? If you are the hard drive does not defragment itself.

    3. Is your Hard Drive full? You do not want to run your OS off of a full HD.

    Mostly I’ve noticed its the software that’s slowing things down.

  5. craisin

    My CPU (and my keyboard!) must be affected by age…the older I get the slower my keyboard works and the slower I can process my personal CPU (brain) to run in sync with my PC CPU.
    (I wish I could physically upgrade myself instead of my PC) :-)

    Merry Xmas everyone….

  6. Ron

    You’ve already seen the technical reasons why the CPU won’t slow down noticeably with age, especially only a year. Of course, there are exceptions.

    The most likely reason for a noticeable slowdown after a year of use is “software rot”, especially of Windows. It is most often caused by installing and removing many programs. The uninstall process leaves behind “bits and pieces”, often on the assumption that they may have become shared resources.

    As well, many programmers assume that you always use their tools, so to give you the best start up time they add an autostart program. Every time you start windows it starts a bunch of other utilities that in theory you plan to use. In practice, you probably don’t need all of the autostarts. These autostart programs have a couple of effects. They extend the time it takes for Windows to start and allow you to start working. As well, they use up RAM and some CPU cycles as they lurk in the background.

  7. tu.nguyen

    @k4rizmz . Thank for share and good job.

    Pc as people, the ages will make it slower, if we have a healthy life, we will strong, smooth working and computer too :D.

    By the time, we have so many applications require more and more resource, this is one of reason our computer slower. Take it carefully, install corresponding application.

    Xmas will come early

  8. Frank

    yep – I’d suggest bloatware …

    I use CCleaner to regularly clean up junk and regularly check for old unused unwanted startup programs and remove them – the number of processes that can add themselves to your startup if you don’t keep an eye on it is ridiculous.

    and of course these days lots of programs we download e.g. antivirus, also have auto-update by default, so anytime it seems slow, it might just be auto-running one of the little auto-update programs to check for and download updates.

  9. Tiffany

    How does the average Joe find out what programs are running on start up that don’t need to be or what types of bloatware they have but can delete without going to a computer tech who is going to charge them $250 and then tell you other things you need to do and since you don’t know computers you let them do it because you believe them?

  10. Dave

    In my 50 years experience as a tech, solid state devices may degrade slightly or fail if overheated for a prolonged period and are therefore protected against that as voiced by others here. Components analogous in nature are more succeptible to degration or value changes from too much heat and may affect performance. However, unlike analog which can work partially and still deliver, digital either works or it does not (two states). My thoughts are simply that garbage lying around in the machines registry from years of installs and deinstalls, drive fragmentation, bloatware or lots of processes running the background, etc. is what slows the favorite silicon fueled devil down. Merry Christmas everyone. A toast to a better ’13…..

  11. clamo

    Na…age don’t really effect hardware at all, its cheaply manufactured parts that have issues. after about 5-10 years tho its a good idea to replace some things depending on how much heat was generated by the part. excessive HEAT @ temps exceeding the manufactures guidelines is what really causes parts to fail. also keep you computer CLEAN (dust free) helps.

    @nt0xik8ed: its not the nvidia driver that’s the problem its you 550ti that sucks. that’s considered a low to mid range card and can’t handle much at all.

    @sunsmasher: yep with AMD’s yep, with intel only are shit mainboards.

    @k4rizmz: software has nothing to do with this. IF your system is not capable of handling software then its time to upgrade. BTW SSD’s are much better for boot drivs that hdd’s are as you never have to defrag them.

    @Dave: you got a cheap ssd.

    my system consists of a x58 mainboard (socket 1366) ddr 3 1600mhz(6gb) dual ssd’s in raid (trim now supported in win 7 so no need to run garbage collection mode) cpu intel core i7 2.8 was OC to 3.8 ran fine. 24/7 up time with no issues. I also keep away from from porn and other sites that can infect your computer and slow it down. but that’s a software related thing.

    BTW if you want a fast computer you MUST spend some Mooola on one. over all price of my pc was right around $3000 when I built it @ MSRP now I could build it for around $1000 or less.

  12. EDNA GLUCK

    Can Pelicans Undress. Who cares.

  13. G

    @Tiffany try ccleaner always worked for me when I ran winxp sp3. Or move to ubuntu Linux only comes with ‘essential’ bloatware which you can remove. Also virus free. And t opensource and free.

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