Should computers be powered down for the holidays?

With the holidays approaching, many of us are going to be taking some extended time away from our offices. So I am starting to get that age-old question: “Should I turn off my system while I’m gone?”

The answer is that you should be turning off your system a lot more often than just over the year-end holiday.

The debate over power consumption has been going on for as long as computers have been around, it seems. In one camp, you have the “computers should be powered up all the time” people. In the other camp, you have the people who turn off their computers when they will be away from them for an extended period of time.

Personally, I’ve always been one to turn my systems off when they were not in use, and I’ve gotten a lot of flak from other techies over the years for this stance. But I think I’m right.

According to the Energy Department, which should still exist unless Rick Perry gets elected president, monitors should be turned off if you plan to be away from them for longer than 20 minutes, and CPUs should be turned off if you will be away for more than two hours.

The power-saving functions of modern systems do help somewhat but, as DOE notes, a system in sleep mode still consumes a fair amount of power when looked at over the course of the year. And screen savers often consume more power when running than not, especially these days when monitor burn-in is mostly a thing of the past and screen savers are simply cosmetic entertainment shows.

The argument for keeping systems running all the time is that the boot-up and shutdown process is somehow hard on a computer. Personally, I think this is mechanical systems logic being improperly applied to electrical systems.

Other than a tiny bit of probably microscopic damage due to expanding and contracting of components, computers don’t suffer any more when turned on and off than at any other time. Some huge mechanical systems like a tractor-trailer rig might suffer more stress when cranking on, but your netbook won’t.

On the flip side, the only force working against your computer in terms of longevity is heat. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need cooling fans and heat sinks or extra air conditioning for your office, and I wouldn’t be writing about scientists putting computers under water to try to keep them from overheating.

And heat is only generated when your computer is powered up. Think about this in terms of other appliances, and you will see that it makes sense. Do you leave your television on 24-hours a day, even when you are not at home? Even something like your refrigerator only powers up long enough to bring its contents down to a target temperature, and then turns off until needed.

It’s one thing if your computer is acting as a server, or doing something important such as the desktop SETI program. If that’s the case, feel free to use your system. It’s a tool, after all.

But if you want your computer to last for a long time, do yourself a favor and shut it down if you plan to be away for a few hours. Boot-up times are pretty quick these days, and it’s good to give some sloppily programmed software programs in your memory a reset (the subject of a whole other column) from time to time.

So the answer to those of you who’ve asked is, yes. Give your computer a break over the holidays. Enjoy some eggnog and holiday cheer. You system will be ready for you when you get back, and will probably survive to see many holidays moving forward.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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