Every week, it seems like our computers tell us to restart them for updates, whether it’s while we’re using them or as we’re about to put them into “sleep” mode after getting done with work, or a Netflix binge, at the end of the day. But do we really need to do so that often or every time we’re prompted to? According to experts, how often you should restart your computer all depends.
First, it’s important to know why your computer asks you to restart — and what happens when it does so. “Your computer often prompts a restart when it has made an update,” says Rochelle Burnside, who manages the internet service provider (ISP) category for BestCompany.com, a product and service review site. “If you want the benefits of this update, you’ll need to restart.” She says that this is because your computer can’t replace files while they’re in use, and therefore, it needs time to swap them while you’re not using the computer. “But newer OS versions require fewer restarts than their predecessors, so you should be seeing restart prompts less in the future,” she adds.
Restarting also flushes out your RAM, your computer's temporary, working memory, says Burnside, and keeps apps from tapping into the RAM even when you thought you’d closed them. “If your computer isn’t functioning normally or seems to be bogged down by the use of several programs, a restart might solve the issue,” she says. And another reason you may need to restart your computer is to reset your Internet connection — perhaps you switched WiFi networks or had to reset your modem.
Conversely, just putting your device into sleep mode doesn’t flush RAM or restart an Internet connection, explains Burnside. Instead, sleep mode keeps your place so you can pick up where you left off — akin to putting a bookmark in your novel. “That’s why sleep mode won’t resolve your computer’s restart prompt,” she says.
How often you should restart your computer
Aside from what Burnside advises above, you may be tempted to restart your computer even if it doesn’t prompt you to. But Jonathan Steingart, an Apple-certified Macintosh technician who’s handled over 20,000+ different Macs, tells Mic the only time you should really consider completely shutting down a computer is if it needs an update, it’s acting sluggish, or you aren’t going to be using it for a few days. Otherwise, he says there’s no benefit to restarting it and that sleep mode is the way to go.
As long as you aren’t prompted to restart your computer, there’s another benefit to using sleep mode. "Since most people use laptops — and most, if not all, laptops use lithium-ion batteries, which require a slow discharge to get the max life out of them — sleep mode is great for this," says Steingart. Letting the laptop discharge, AKA letting the battery run down, will keep the electrons moving — which maintains the charge capacity and will prolong the life of your battery. He says not to leave your laptop plugged into the charger for extended periods of time, since this won't allow it to discharge.
Ayaz Ali, owner if Discount-Computer.com, agrees. “Contrary to popular opinion, computers should not be turned on and off all that much,” he tells Mic. “Newer computers are made to stay on around the clock — and the batteries in laptop computers benefit from consistent use.” He says they’re similar to muscles, and they get weak when they aren’t used regularly. Ali says the main issue with restarting computers is that regularly cycling a computer’s power on and off is one of the easiest ways to decrease its lifespan. Outside of spills, drops, and pushing a computer to perform outside ideal operating environments, the most common way that computers fail is during startup, he says. “By leaving your computer on or putting it in sleep mode, you reduce the chance of experiencing a critical failure during the boot-up process,” he adds.
Shayne Sherman, CEO of TechLoris, tells Mic that how often you restart your computer depends on how you use it. “If you’re on there a lot and using a wide variety of applications, restart it once every few days,” he says. “Otherwise, just restart it when you’re having issues or when updates require it.”
There are some scenarios in which you definitely shouldn't restart your computer, though. “We recommend restarting systems on a weekly basis,” Bob Herman, co-founder and president of IT Tropolis, tells Mic. “Having said that, in rare cases, compromised machines can launch a payload [the portion of a computer virus that could contain malware] on restart.” But, this scenario is quite rare, he says, and only an issue if the computer has already been infected with malware that has components designed to launch on restart. He says if you think your machine has become infected, disconnect it from the Internet and contact an IT professional before restarting it.
Restarting Macs versus PCs
How often you should restart your computer may also depend on if you have a Mac or PC. “You don’t necessarily have to restart every time your Mac suggests it, but you should if you can,” says Steingart. “The only reason your Mac will ask you to restart would be to install a new update, and oftentimes it can be a security update or a patch to a known bug/issue.” He suggests checking to see what kind of update it is by opening the App store and selecting “updates.” Sometimes, it can be something insignificant, such as an App update that can wait, he says.
“Arguably, Macs are better than PCs at being left on for days on end, only ever going into sleep mode, but they still benefit from a reboot every now and then, too,” Ben Taylor, an IT professional for over 20 years, tells Mic. An advantage to restarting, aside from installing any needed updates, is fixing a sluggish Mac by clearing the memory and starting fresh, adds Steingart. Just remember, before you restart, to save all your work and make sure it's not a time when you urgently need to use your Mac, he says. Certain updates will take your computer a while to complete.
Regarding PCs, Aaron Smith of PCNation tells Mic that the only times you really need to restart your computer are during the installation of software that requires it, and in the event of significant system errors. “But both of these are far less common than they were just a few years ago,” he says. “Starting up and shutting down a computer every time you use it also puts extra stress on parts, like the hard disk, motherboard, and power supply.” Instead, he recommends keeping your computer on 24/7, and in sleep mode when not in use, which can keep it operational longer, before any of those parts need to be replaced.
In certain circumstances, though, restarting is necessary. “The computer cannot update files or delete stubborn viruses while Windows is running, so these processes must be done as part of the boot sequence before Windows takes control,” Dr. Tim Lynch, president of Psychsoftpc, tells Mic. “If you never restart your computer, it will never be updated — and any viruses that run in the background will never get deleted.”
When you should do a hard reboot (also known as a hard restart)
Perhaps you had your computer in sleep mode or restarted it — but then it won’t start up again. Burnside says you can do a hard reboot, which varies depending on the device you have. Usually, you manually restart your computer by powering it down — holding down the reset button or unplugging your computer — then turning it back on. "For example, if you have a laptop with a non-removable battery, you typically press and hold the power button, then press it again once the laptop has fully powered down to restart it," she says. Burnside notes that a hard restart should be done as a last resort since it’ll close all your programs. "They aren’t typically necessary and should be conducted on a case-by-case basis when a device freezes, struggles to load, or fails to function properly," she says.
However, others take a different approach. Dr. Lynch recommends doing a hard restart to your PC once a day, or at least once every two or three days, in order to allow Windows to clean up open files, get rid of temp files, and update itself.
When you should do a factory reset
A factory reset is even more extreme. In this instance, our computer’s user data is wiped, says Burnside. “This is handy for solving hard drive or operating system issues, but it comes at a hefty price,” she says. “You’ll need to back up your files if you choose this route, because you lose all the personal data stored on your hard drive.” She says if you’re considering this option to solve data security issues, know that factory resets can still leave your data vulnerable. Because of this, should you ever want to sell your computer, it’s best to hire a professional to wipe your computer’s memory.
“In general, if you’re considering a factory reset to solve system issues, research your particular issue to determine if the reset will be necessary,” says Burnside. “A factory reset can’t solve everything.”
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