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  • 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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