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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.

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.