Do Macs Now Have a Longer Useful Life?

July 5th, 2013

Although the release of the Surface tablets represented somewhat of a change, Apple and Microsoft have had largely different business plans, although they remain competitors. So Apple sells computers, whereas Microsoft sells operating systems; well, except for the Surface and the Xbox of course. Sure, Apple charges for Mac OS upgrades, but the income is a pittance compared to what Apple earns from selling Macs, iPhones and iPads. The operating system is simply the glue that ties it all together.

But to use the newest version of OS X, you usually had to have a fairly recent Mac. It wasn’t a matter of confronting performance bottlenecks, it was a matter of being unable to even install OS X on many older Macs. With Mavericks, however, it is reported that the developer betas run on the very same Macs as OS 10.8 Mountain Lion. The list includes models that are from four to six years old, which means that millions of vintage Macs won’t become obsolete when Mavericks arrives this fall.

That assumes, of course, that the official system requirements won’t change. I suppose that is possible. if some Macs just don’t handle Mavericks terribly well. But I’ll assume things are pretty much set in stone by this point.

So the larger question is whether you should retire your older Mac, or hold onto it, particularly if it’s compatible with the current and future versions of OS X. Certainly any Mac, even the entry-level Mac mini and MacBook Air, are quite powerful beasts. They are capable of handling the chores that were the province of a Mac Pro of several years ago. Indeed, when Apple released a souped up iMac in late 2009, with the option to outfit it with a quad-core Intel i7 processor, I sold off a 2008 Mac Pro and display. I got a faster computer in exchange, and even had a small amount of cash left over to cover the cost of an extra backup drive.

Sure, several generations of new Intel chips have appeared since I bought that iMac. If you look at the various benchmarks, though, you’ll see that each is maybe 10% or 20% faster than its predecessor, but often less. That’s barely perceptible, though I agree it adds up after four years of such improvements. But the performance difference in the scheme of things still isn’t huge, and will only be obvious with software that really taxes the processor for extended periods of time.

The real performance advantage can be had with a solid state drive, although replacing a drive on the iMac can be a royal pain both in the wallet and in performing the actual upgrade.

In any case, the key here is that a nearly four-year-old Mac is perfectly capable of running the latest and greatest Mac software and operating systems without feeling that performance is seriously suffering (by hill at tforge corp). The fact that processor improvements have been incremental, not drastic, also gives your Mac a longer lease on life, even though Apple would surely prefer that you send it out to pasture and buy a new one.

But many of the people I talk to in my personal and business life, who were once quite ready to buy the latest and greatest Macs, are more than willing to hang onto the ones they have. Unless something breaks early on, a Mac will usually survive more than five years without need of a major repair, except, perhaps, for a hard drive.

Indeed, it may well be that OS X Mavericks will encourage more Mac users to keep their existing computers rather than consider buying a new one. If you can believe the early benchmarks on the beta versions, there is a measurable performance improvement. Battery life is also somewhat longer. All together, the computer you may have considered retiring this year may, after Mavericks is installed, be perfectly suitable for another year or two.

Certainly this state of affairs impacts Mac sales. Apple has to depend more on new customers, particularly Windows users who are quickly giving up on the platform for better pastures, and perhaps Windows 8 has hastened the defection rate.

On the other hand, Apple certainly has a strong financial interest in enticing you to buy a new Mac. The Fusion drive, combining much of the performance advantage of a solid state drive with the larger capacity of a mechanical hard drive, can make your Mac run a lot faster. You can actually hack a Fusion drive from a solid state drive and a regular hard drive if you want. There are instructions online, though I won’t vouch for any, which is why I’m not providing a link.

The 2013 MacBook Air, with substantially longer battery life, is one sure scheme to encourage you to upgrade. Harnessing the power efficiencies of the Intel Haswell processor, the next generation MacBook Pros will also offer much better battery longevity. The Mac Pro reinvents the traditional computing workstation form factor, and if customers can get past the relative lack of external expansion, there may be loads of buyers.

As for me, perhaps I’m on borrowed time with a nearly four-year-old iMac. In other times, I would have upgraded by now. Maybe when the 2013 refresh arrives, but I’m in no real rush.

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7 Responses to “Do Macs Now Have a Longer Useful Life?”

  1. Ted Schroeder says:

    “… even though Apple would surely prefer that you send it out to pasture and buy a new one.”

    I wonder. Yeah, for the most part, it’s probably true, but Apple still seems, to me at least, to be a little bit different in this regard.

    I’d guess that for them, that four-year-old iMac is a little bit of advertising – pushing the point that Apple makes a quality product.

  2. I was ready to pull the trigger on a new iMac system when they were showcased last fall. But the shipping times were so abysmal I waited…and now I’m out of the must have it phase and will wait for the next upgrade.

  3. d says:

    I wouldn’t say that being able to run the current version of Mac OS isn’t necessarily the main qualifier for being ‘useful.’

    I would say that being able to access content and play media would be the main qualifier for a recreational machine.

    For instance, I still take my 2005 PowerBook G4 (Mac OS X 10.5) to work with me because with its (2) internal HD’s, it can hold my entire music library, update podcasts, and give me something to listen to while I work. It can access web content well enough and handle email photo editing (Aperture 2 & Photoshop) just fine. However, good luck getting an HD movie to play without dropping frames like mad. That one is barely on edge for being useful overall, but it performs most tasks I would use it for well enough. Being able to play podcasts a 2x speed while simultaneously playing music is enough for me to keep this one around.

    My parents, on the other hand, are still stuck with a PowerMac G4 from 2000. While it runs the same OS as the powerbook, accessing any webpage that’s up to current standards requires inhuman patience. Email it can handle, but don’t expect to be able to scroll through hundreds of messages. Video is a joke, and they don’t even bother with music. You might be able to do some word processing or spreadsheets, but that’s iffy.

    I’ve had to use windows machines half the age of these two macs (running XP) that can barely pull off what the Macs can, so I would have to agree with Kurt- the hardware and software can definitely outlast the competitor. Whether or not a machine is still ‘useful’ is a very subjective question.

    In the meantime, I’ll delude myself thinking my current Mac Pro is the fastest I can currently get…

  4. Brian M says:

    Most Mac users I know are on about a 5 year upgrade cycle. (exception being those in Video jobs where they upgrade every year or two)

    Typically I’ve been faster than the 5 years, until I got a Mac Pro in 2007, it is now over 6 years old, and I am finally looking to replace it rather than continue to upgrade (too many technologies in it are too old).
    While I’ve enjoyed the Mac Pro and upgraded many things in it over the years, I may just got with a Core i7 based Mac mini this time. My needs have changed (play less games than I used to being a big one) and the Core i7 is very fast, plus with NAS systems (pre-built or something more upgradable like FreeNAS) internal storage isn’t as important as it was before. Will upgrade it myself with more ram and an SSD for the speed (MacBook Pro 15″ at work with lots of ram and SSD has spoiled me now, my 2007 Mac Pro feels so slow now). so about $1,000 to replace a $3,000+ Mac pro, leaves plenty of money to build the NAS.

    something “d” should consider for his parents – the Mac mini base model (or a used one) makes a great replacement for PowerMac G4s (having done this a few times myself for customers, and family) low cost, low power, fast and small plus is easy to upgrade to a new model in 4-5 years (don’t forget the backup drive though, plus for important data I’m setting up BTSync with family for an off-site backup of their data to my house). My father-in-law even opted to skip a new monitor and just hooked it up to his HDTV – having cut cable years before, the Mini to the TV allows for streaming of many TV shows direct from various network websites.

  5. DaveD says:

    There are wants and needs. Buying a Mac should be based on needs, but sometimes the want takes over. The need for speed is probably the biggest factor for a newer Mac, but there could be other factors.

    I bought a new PowerBook G3 Series (Rev. A) in 1998 and it died after three and a half years of great service. Having a few expansion bays modules, I picked a refurbished Rev. B version that had the original hard drive and I assumed, the original RAM module. Moving into it the RAM module from the Rev. A PowerBook that I had added.

    The Rev. B PowerBook running Mac OS 9 finally died in 2012. During its lifetime, I replaced all of the memory modules and the hard drive. A few years before its final demise, the PowerPC processor lost the level 2 cache. There was a considerable loss in performance and an increase in instability. But, it still works most of the time. Then the end came when the internal power unit failed and could no longer be booted up. The chime was no more after almost 10 years in use from time to time. It had been useful for most light-duty work except for web browsing due to evolving standards and the lack of browser support.

    In this situation, I had to get a newer Mac in order to surf the web of tomorrow.

  6. David says:

    I have had 10 primary Macs since 1992. That’s an average life of just 2 years per Mac, but six of the ten had been previously enjoyed when I bought them and all but one was sold to another less demanding user after me so they all lasted far longer than the time I had them.

    I started out being very smart. I bought a used IIsi, maxed out the RAM and made the wise choice to get an external HD instead of replacing the internal one. I over clocked the motherboard for the cost of a clock chip and the time it took to dismantle and re-assemble it. Back then I had lots of time and little money.

    Then I got obsessed with incremental improvement. I upgraded my hard drive every 6 months, added SyQuest, Zip, MO and optical drives, kept getting bigger and/or better displays, started upgrading video cards and put more RAM into some of my Macs than I could possibly make use of. In between new Macs I was over clocking or replacing the processor card. In 2003 my brain finally crashed into the wall of common sense called a pregnant girlfriend.

    Like the PowerPCs that preceded them, our Intel Macs have stood the test of time. In our extended family there are 2006, 2007 and 2009 Mac minis; 2008, 2009 Mac Pros; 2009, 2011 iMacs; and 2010 and 2011 MacBooks (pro, air). I expect everything compatible with Mavericks to remain in use until 2015.

  7. Articles you should read (July 8) …. says:

    […] “Do Macs Now Have a Longer Useful Life?: Although the release of the Surface tablets represented somewhat of a change, Apple and Microsoft have had largely different business plans, although they remain competitors. So Apple sells computers, whereas Microsoft sells operating systems; well, except for the Surface and the Xbox of course. Sure, Apple charges for Mac OS upgrades, but the income is a pittance compared to what Apple earns from selling Macs, iPhones and iPads. The operating system is simply the glue that ties it all together.” — “The Tech Night Owl” ( […]

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