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I have an eMac I bought in 2004. I just used the system restore CD to re-install Panther, iLife '04, Internet Explorer for Mac(!), etc. I don't have any timed specs from "back then", so I can't answer this definitively, but the machine feels slower than I remember it feeling back in the good old days.

This is derived from this photo taken by Jari Soikkeli and posted on Flickr under the CC-BY-2.0 license

If my hard drive has been purged of all the cruft that accumulates over time, should the computer run as snappily as it did when it was new? Are perceived differences in speed due psychological, to comparisons to more modern hardware, or do systems slow as they age for reasons (physical degradation?) other than the accumulation of contents on the system drive?

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"Feelings" lie young padawan. Trust only what you can measure empirically. –  Ian C. Mar 28 '12 at 0:26
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Websites have become more demanding, so web pages are more complex and require more cpu to render. Local software should run the same. –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Mar 28 '12 at 7:34
    
I suffer the same, I think we are basically spoiled these days ▲ –  stuffe Apr 1 '12 at 22:40
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5 Answers

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Most of the time when a computer seems to have gotten slower, software is to blame.

Frequently lots of applications have been installed over the years and a computer has become cluttered with login items and background processes. Even when the offending apps are no longer in use, their daemons and updaters can stay alive.
When this happens, the computer really does slow down. Disused apps living in the background and competing for resources takes away from the OS and the apps you really do want to use and can slow things down. The more of this 'crud' that builds up, the slower the system can feel.

Contributing to the problem, hard drives do slow down a little bit as they fill up. If so many apps have been installed and files have been saved that the computer is seriously low on free space, performance can be impacted.

The other major component of this is that, as it is updated, software gets more and more complex and requires better and better hardware. When an app is updated, frequently it has some new features that take more power to run. Think about how OS X has gradually had more animation, graphics, and background functions added. The extra tax of having something like Autosave running constantly in the background could seriously impact a very old system, and something like Mission Control could be completely impossible.

However, since you've completely purged your system, none of these things are affecting you.

Hard drives do not really slow down over time; either they keep working well or they fail completely. See this Super User post for more details.
The same goes for other components: they keep working much the same until they die.

It is entirely possible that your expectations are playing a role here.

Tasks that would be strenuous on your eMac are trivial to your current computer, so you expect them to be instant. When they're not (because the computer has to work harder to get them done), it feels slow.

The other potential factor is the fact that (even though you're using old software) you're interacting with things that have been updated and are expecting users to be on newer systems.
Web pages have more images, JavaScript, and AJAX calls then they did in 2004, all of which take power to run. Images, videos, and music are recorded at higher resolutions and stored in less-compressed/higher-fidelity/more CPU intensive formats. Text documents are trending to become richer and have more formatting and metadata without considering that more media is likely to be embedded into them.

So, here's the test: If your recently-wiped computer feels slower when using the same apps, files, and websites you used in 2004, your expectations have changed.

Otherwise I would be inclined to blame crud, software surpassing hardware, the hard drive filling up, and interacting with newer resources (in that order).

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I have had drives slow down with age; one drive ran for many months but was close to failing; it kept slowing down considerably to perform re-reads of everything, and succeeded often enough that the machine appeared to be in working order. Replacing the drive fixed the issue. (Though admittedly I would call that a bad drive) –  Billy ONeal Mar 28 '12 at 5:25
    
Which websites are the same as in 2004? –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Mar 28 '12 at 7:34
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wayback.org is your friend :) That, or Geocities! –  stuffe Mar 28 '12 at 9:31
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One quibble. Media generally isn't stored in less compressed formats. The only exception I can think of is lossless audio; but that's not mainstream. The problem is actually the opposite, more processing intensive compression methods are used to get better quality for a given file size. For a given quality level H.264 files are about half the size of the previous standard but require significantly more work to decode. Newish systems have dedicated decode hardware to do this easily; older ones need to brute for it on the CPU. –  Dan Neely Mar 28 '12 at 13:12
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On any other (non Apple-centric) site, the correct quote would be "Intel giveth, and Microsoft taketh away". In our case, of course, both companies are Apple.... –  Dan Ray Mar 28 '12 at 14:19
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No. Here is a nice question on a partner site on how the CPU itself remains measurably stable over time in terms of clock rate.


Our expectations of what make for a fast computer however do not slow down. Camera resolution grows, image fidelity grows, more logic is stuffed into a web page, etc...

Software can become corrupt over time, but the computer itself can be returned to factory conditions with an easy erase and install to confirm that the hardware is still speedy even if we don't feel it's so fast compared to all the new young gun computers that are now shipping.


Now from a purely analytical standpoint, here are the items that could conceivably be measured in benchmark or manufacturer tests:

  • Heat Dissipation failures (thermal grease drying out or dust/worse accumulation) could cause CPU temps to rise when airflow can't remove enough heat from the chipsets. Older CPU didn't throttle as much and had larger metal traces to get the heat out. Newer CPU like the MacBook Air actively reduce cores and clock cycles to thermally control the CPU. This makes for a very noticeable performance dip when the CPU cannot be kept cool. I have seen tower and iMac cases packed with dust or worse / nicotine tar laden dust. So much so, that the computer had no business even running by the looks of it - but other than hot sensors, most still ran full speed (to my great astonishment).

  • Hard Drive imminent failures - the expected bad block relocation behavior when a drive has to take more time to land data can be noticeable, but I categorize that as your computer has a bad drive - not that it's old and slow. This can happen to a brand new computer with a bad drive until it triggers the SMART status or just fails outright.

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I find this so hard to believe. Could my senses deceive me this much?!? Processors don't process slower when they are older? –  Daniel Lawson Mar 28 '12 at 0:33
    
I suspect that the solid state components (processor, memory, graphics, etc) continue to operate at the same speed, but what about the hard drive? It's conceivable that the spindle motor or the seek head might slow down over time, no? –  Kyle Cronin Mar 28 '12 at 0:34
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@KyleCronin The hard drive speed is very precisely controlled with an adaptive speed controller. It might get hotter as it become more difficult to maintain speed as bearings wear out, but it will never deviate in speed until it fails completely. –  Adam Davis Mar 28 '12 at 0:36
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@DanielL Digital processors are clock controlled by vibrating crystals, which are often rated not to change in frequemcy by more than a few millionths of their original value over 25+ years. When they do deviate, it's unnoticeable - less than 0.0001% - or results in complete failure. If anything you might get errors due to power supply problems due to dry capacitors, but things don't slow down. –  Adam Davis Mar 28 '12 at 0:40
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+1 for the heat issue possibly forcing the processor to run more slowly. –  Adam Davis Mar 28 '12 at 0:45
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Things that might physically slow an "old" computer:

  • Drive fragmentation. Should not be an issue if you reinstall from scratch.
  • Flaky hard drive sectors. Difficulty reading and/or writing sectors causing retries would definitely slow things down, although perhaps not in a uniform way. You might try zeroing the drive to force spare sectors to come online, but all drives will fail eventually.
  • Flaky optical drives. Optical drives have reliability slightly better than tissue paper it seems.
  • Thermal control. Something with the fans, heat sinks, etc is not working properly or optimally, causing the CPU or some other component to automatically ratchet down. It might be something as simple as dust in the intakes or on the heat sink fins.

If this was a machine with a BIOS, a battery failure might cause the default settings to take effect, which might not be optimal. Dunno if a Mac's NVRAM is fraught with the same peril.

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Ironically, my most reliable optical drive is the tray drive on my eMac. Much better than any more recent slot drives, and my Air doesn't have an optical drive. –  Daniel Lawson Mar 28 '12 at 0:49
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Although computers/processors slow down over time aka transistor aging, the slowing effect felt by the user is in fact because of the software updates and getting used to faster computers.

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Stob's Index Of Cruftitude may help. Humour obviously, but with a grain of truth.

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