If you’ve consulted the system requirements for OS X El Capitan, you’ll notice that a number of Macs from 2007 through 2009 are supported. This is quite unlike the early days, where computers that old would have been left out to pasture, or just used to run older software, perhaps PowerPC apps, that will never operate since OS X Lion ditched the Rosetta emulation utility.
By the same token, iOS 9 supports the same hardware as iOS 8, which includes the iPhone 4s that was introduced in 2011. That’s a lifetime in the smartphone market, and that it works at all — even with somewhat reduced performance — is quite unlike what Apple used to do.
You have to sometimes wonder why. After all, when the new operating system is incompatible with older hardware, those newly abandoned products seem less useful even if nothing else has changed. It may also encourage users to look for something new, or seek a more recent used model on the open market.
Now hanging on to older hardware is a mixed bag. As Apple improves the operating systems, there may be features that are not available with your older hardware. One example is the Handoff feature that’s part of Continuity on your Mac. You need a Mac with Bluetooth LE that was released in 2012 or later. One of the highly touted performance boosters for OS X El Capitan is support for Metal. First introduced in iOS 8, it extends hardware support for graphic functions, thus making apps that support the feature work faster. It was touted as a great tool for iOS gaming.
But for it to work on a Mac, it has to, again, be a model built in 2012 or later, where the proper graphics hardware exists. There may be other enhancements in El Capitan that will help users of older hardware, but not that one. And, again, developers need to add support for the additional graphics capabilities.
So one of the considerations in keeping that old Mac — other than the cost of a new one — is whether it’ll get the work done with the level of performance you expect. The new operating systems may have more system overhead, thus making your older computer seem slower. This is particularly true on resource limited iPhones and iPads, and it’s questionable whether the tradeoffs on an iPhone 4s make upgrading to iOS 9 worth it. But for many users, it may not matter if apps launch a little bit slower, or it takes additional seconds to boot.
Overall, however, a five-year old Mac isn’t that much slower than a new Mac in many respects, except where an app harnesses the maximum power its processor can deliver. However, for email, Internet access, and word processing, it may not matter so much. At one time, these were powerful computers, and the improvements in Intel chips haven’t been that dramatic except for graphics.
But there is one area where today’s Macs have become much more powerful, and that’s the result of the wider use of SSDs. It makes the once-speedy hard drive seem awfully slow. Fortunately, you can install an SSD on many Macs and boost performance tremendously.
An example is my 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro. I can tell you that it seemed awfully slow whenever I returned to it from my iMac. With the guidance of Other World Computing, I installed a 500GB SSD some time back to replace the original 500GB hard drive. That made a world of difference, since so much of what you do on your Mac depends on the hard drive. Even the lowly 2012 MacBook, with an Intel Core M processor, manages to seem relatively snappy because of its speedy SSD.
You may also extend the life of your Mac with a memory transplant, at least when you have a model that allows you to upgrade RAM. Most new Macs are hostile to such upgrades, except for a legacy MacBook Pro, the 27-inch iMac and the Mac Pro. But when I took the MacBook Pro to 8GB, again with Other World Computing parts, I did see an additional performance boost. That and the SSD have saved me loads of money compared to a new computer. I still have a pretty fast Mac, and at five years old, it still runs just perfectly. The downside for having a 17-inch display is that a note-book that once seemed fairly light in the scheme of things, is actually a fairly stiff load when dragging it in a case fitted with my other travel implements.
So by extending support for newer operating systems, Apple is making you feel your old Mac is not some obsolete appliance that needs to be retired or handed off to a relative or needy friend. It can still be your constant companion and you can use it till it drops, or the operating system and the apps you need are no longer compatible.
This is yet another area where the Mac’s cost of ownership is usually less than a PC. The ability for computers to work productivity for seven or eight years just expands the value of your investment. That’s also true for the iPad, and it’s said to be a key reason why sales have dropped. If the one you have is doing what you want, what does upgrading to a new model get you? That’s a question that many iPad users have yet to answer unless they really need the new multitasking features of iOS 9, or want games and other apps to run faster.
This doesn’t mean Apple’s hardware has perfect reliability. My son’s 2008 MacBook has had everything replaced on it at least once, fortunately when it was still under AppleCare. So it’s probably on borrowed time, but most of the other Macs in our family unit have been trouble-free.