Time to Replace Your Mac?

May 3rd, 2011

Every few months, another Mac gets an update. Except for the extra promotion about moving to unibody enclosures, and the last MacBook Air upgrade, the product refresh is announced with little more than a press release, and perhaps a few brief interview opportunities with senior Apple executives, but not Steve Jobs.

More interesting is that whatever Apple does receives worldwide press coverage, not just from a bunch of “crazed” Mac fanatics, or however they are to be labeled, but from the mainstream media as well. It’s big news. At the same time, when was the last time you read about a new personal computer from Dell, HP, or, for that matter, any of the other Windows licensees? Even when there are press releases, how many of those releases actually get published outside of a PC publication?

It’s more important, though, to look at the impact of the new Mac introduction? How many of you have older Macs that are sorely in need of an upgrade, but you keep waiting for the right product cycle before making that investment? Understandably, it’s a little more difficult these days to justify purchase of a new computer, Mac or PC, when the present machine is still doing its job. Unless you have loads of money to burn, or need to stretch the limits of your existing hardware, it’s not easy to justify the expense from any rational standpoint.

For those of you with pre-Intel Macs, it makes more sense. The last major OS upgrade that supported PowerPC hardware came out in 2007; only maintenance and security fixes have appeared since. That’s an eternity in the PC industry, and loads of newer apps simply won’t support such aging hardware.

Even then, I understand that some of you have to think this through carefully. Yes, an older Mac still has some cash value, though rapidly diminishing, if it’s in a good state of repair. But it’s not just the cost of the new machine, but the latest and greatest app upgrades that will allow it to do its best. I know of one graphic artist who is evidently doing well by his Power Mac, and still can’t justify the expense of modernizing his production systems. Even if he restricts himself to a new Mac, it’s possible that the older apps won’t work properly. It’s not always so easy to make do, and perform the needed upgrades gradually.

If you have a more recent Mac, perhaps you can stay on the sidelines for a while longer. My 27-inch iMac was built in late 2009, and I’d have to decide whether the performance improvement of a refreshed model makes a real difference for me. Will I really be able to profitably exploit the changes? If not, I can save my money, unless my existing iMac develops a serious hardware problem that, without a service contract, renders repair costs unreasonable.

Such an upgrade is more difficult to justify with my 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro. Yes, the new Intel Sandy Bridge chips offer a huge, quite noticeable, performance boost over the dual-core Intel i7 on my note-book. If I could survive the high cost of migrating to a solid state drive, the speed improvement would be incredible, since so much of what you do depends on reading and writing data to a storage device. Perhaps the Thunderbolt peripheral port will also be significant, once there is a wide selection of peripherals, assuming I needed any of them.

I realize Apple hopes you’ll upgrade every couple of years or so, to fuel Mac sales. At the same time, since they continue to claim that 50% of the customers buying Macs at their retail stores are new to the platform, I’m sure their expectations are realistic.

The good thing about a Mac is that you can get three or four years of reliable service without finding yourself left behind with the latest and greatest app and OS updates. But there are still millions of long-time Mac users with legacy hardware doing full-time production duty. Other than hard drives, and perhaps power supplies, Macs usually have a pretty good reliability record. Yes, Apple does institute extended repair programs from time to time, but not so much recently.

Once your Mac has outlived its usefulness, you can still get a little cash for one via eBay, or a dealer in used Mac hardware. Or just pass it down to your children, as I did with my son, Grayson, and other relatives. In fact, that 2003 vintage PowerBook G4 I bought shortly after it came out is still in regular use by my sister-in-law. I had to repair a broken optical drive, and replace a bad RAM module, but it still runs quite decently with Mac OS 10.5 Leopard. At least they’re not complaining.

Compare that to a 2003 PC from any of the major PC makers. How many of them would still function reliably eight years later? Sure, maybe you can get a suitable PC for less money than a Mac, but when you consider the actual upkeep cost, the scale tips sharply in the other direction. So long as Apple continues to build reliable gear, that situation isn’t going to change.

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6 Responses to “Time to Replace Your Mac?”

  1. DaveD says:


    I’ve just got the new 2011 17-inch MacBook Pro replacing a 15-inch PowerBook G4 (667 MHz, titanium) that has served me well since when it was new in late 2001. The PowerBook started up in Mac OS 9.2.1 and I switched to Mac OS X 10.1. Have upgraded to each new cat and it is running Tiger today. On the hardware front, I only upgraded the hard drive. But, lost the only FireWire port several years ago and the only cooling fan a few years ago.

    Other than seeing too many spinning rainbow cursor popping up recently, the PowerBook G4 has been a valuable resource over the years.

  2. Andrew says:

    There are many PC laptops from 8-years-ago that remain excellent and totally capable machines. My brother-in-law has an IBM ThinkPad T40 from 2004 that runs Windows 7 beautifully. With 3 GB of RAM and a 7200 RPM 500 GB hard drive it is just as fast and capable as any 2003 PowerBook would be with Leopard. It would be even faster with XP, but he likes to tinker.

    I still have my old ThinkPad T20 from law school (made in 1999) that when new competed with Apple’s late Wallstreet and early Lombard G3 PowerBooks. Those machines today are limited to Panther, or with processor upgrades to Tiger. The old T20, on the other hand, runs XP beautifully and remains nice and fast with light applications. It also still looks and feels almost new, with build quality far better than any G3 PowerBook or Titanium G4, and slightly better than the G4 Aluminums as well.

    My even older ThinkPad 600E (Pentium II 300MHz) also still works. It is too slow to run modern software, but does a great job with a light XP installation and Office 2003, which supports the new .docx file formats of current office versions. Its no speed demon, but does just fine even on the internet and with Exchange through Outlook 2003, which is still fully supported by my Exchange Server 2007.

    Macs are top quality machines and tend to last a good long time, but it is both arrogant and incorrect to deny that there are PCs of comparable quality out there, though they often sell at comparable prices.

    • @Andrew, If you concentrate on premium-priced PCs, which, as you state, cost about the same as a comparable Mac, the quality equation is higher. But those cheap PCs that consume the vast majority of the market are far more disposable, and don’t last nearly as long.


      • Andrew says:

        @Gene Steinberg,
        Why shouldn’t we compare comparable PCs? That ThinkPad T20 cost the same as a Wallstreet PowerBook when I bought, and was thinner (1.2″), lighter (5.0 lbs) and in my opinion, better built. I never owned a Wallstreet as they were just too big and heavy for my tastes, but that ThinkPad was an extremely nice machine in its day, and could still serve for just about everything modern computers do today with the exception of video. Also like the wallstreet, it was highly configurable and easily upgradable.

        Just like I wouldn’t compare a cheap Toyota to a Mercedes (the correct comparison is to a similarly-priced Lexus), why could the default comparison to what was a $2500 Mac be a $1000 (cheap in 2003) PC?

  3. Andrew says:

    The new 2011 MacBook Pros may be significantly faster than the 2010 models, but I see little reason to upgrade. I have essentially the same hardware as you Gene, only the 15″. The dual core i7, 512MB nVidia graphics and high-res antiglare screen were quite impressive in 2010, and despite the new model being significantly faster, it remains quite impressive today. An SSD would likely be a bigger speed boost than the Sandybridge chip or the AMD graphics, but even that isn’t necessary for me.

    Likewise with the MacBook Air. I have the 13″ current model with the 1.86 GHz Core2Duo. I previously had (and prefer) the 11.6″ with the 1.4GHz C2D, but that one was stolen and I couldn’t get a replacement locally, so I settled for the 13″. Do I care that a new Sandybridge model is likely just around the corner? Not at all. My 11″ was stolen in April, and rather than wait 2 months (my guess), I bought what was available that minute when I needed it. I’ll keep both of these until they are either too far off the tech train to run current software, or damage or wear causes me to replace them.

    Ditto the new iMac. I have one of the first 20″ aluminum iMacs in the office, as well as an early Core2Duo Mac Mini. We are getting a new iMac now and I did wait for the new one, but only because I knew the refresh was on the way and its an addition, thus not rushed, rather than a replacement, which I would not have waited for.

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