My laptop has been giving me some trouble lately. It seems like it’s running more slowly, and has a hard time connecting to the printer and the headset. Because I’m always telling people they should replace their laptops every three years, and mine is three and a half years old, this is the part where you say, “Quit your griping, Graham, and take a dose of your own advice.”

In that spirit, here’s a simple FAQ about how often to replace computers.

Why Not Use a Computer Until it Dies?

Here are some of the problems with old computers:

  • They’re less reliable, which means unplanned down time if they suddenly break. No one wants the Blue Screen of Death on their annual Day of Giving.
  • They’re out of warranty, so you’re also going to have an unplanned expense if they break down.
  • They tend to run slower, as I’ve been experiencing. Those extra seconds you sit around waiting for an application to load can add up over time. You could be doing something productive AND avoiding the frustration.
  • Eventually old computers become incompatible with the software you want to use.

What’s a Typical Computer Life Span?

Desktop computers generally have a healthy lifespan of five years, some longer, especially if they are well maintained. An upgrade can extend their life. Laptops last around three or four years.

How Do I Manage Replacement Schedules?

If you’re in charge of technology in your organization, set up a schedule to manage computer replacement. Jason Samuels, one of the most generous people in nonprofit technology, gave me this sample inventory and replacement schedule to share with Idealware readers.

This is the actual info from his organization (with names redacted). What I like best about this is the at-a-glance count of how many computers will need to be replaced each year. That makes it easy to plan ahead and budget for years when more computers need to be replaced. And you can also monkey with this, stretching some out or maybe replacing them a bit earlier, in order to even out the annual cost.

How Do I Get Rid of Old Computers?

When you’re ready to retire the old equipment, make sure you completely erase everything. You’ll find some instructions here. (Caveat: I haven’t actually tested this, it’s just a top Google search result.)

Then recycle the hardware. Here in Minnesota, people go to Tech Dump. Best Buy also does recycling events, as do many community centers and local nonprofits.

What Do I Look For In a New Computer?

Here are just a few tips for choosing new computers:

  • For people with similar needs, purchase computers that are the same make and model, since this will be easier to setup and maintain.
  • Don’t buy more than you need, but don’t skimp and get computers designed for casual home use. They have plastic parts that will not last as long. Get business class machines.
  • Consider refurbished computers—e.g. through TechSoup.
  • Prioritize processor and memory over hard drive space. You probably aren’t storing a lot locally at this point; you’re using cloud based applications and cloud storage.

Where Can I Learn More?

Session Two of our Tactical Technology Planning course includes a lot more about computers, printers, phone systems, network, backups, productivity software (e.g. office mail and calendar), and how to support it all. The course is a five-week online learning experience that combines videos, live expert instruction, and homework assignments. You will graduate with a written, prioritized plan for technology improvements in your organization. It starts Thursday, September 13. Learn more or sign up here.