The best way for me to put this in perspective is to turn back the hands of time to my early days as the owner of a personal computer, in the mid-1980s. In those days, I was in a position to upgrade frequently, even though it was fair to say that I could put off some of those purchases for a while without my workflow suffering.
Really, the main improvement for me was the upgrade from a 14-inch Apple color display to a 19-inch something-or-other. As an historical aside, that original 14-inch display soon became a 13-inch display because of a revision in the way display size was calculated.
In any case, I took advantage of my status as a tech journalist to upgrade Macs every year or so. In large part, the performance improvement was worth it more or less; that is, until the Power Macs arrived in 1994. With the promise of a high-performance RISC processor from IBM and Motorola, Macs held the promise of achieving amazing performance, but it didn’t quite work out that way.
As you recall, when Apple switches processors (and they did it the second time in 2006 with the move to Intel), older apps that haven’t been revised to support the new hardware have to run in an emulation layer, which means a big performance dip.
So for most users of Power Macs, it would actually run slower at first. Only a few apps were upgraded, and it took a year or two for things to settle down. Even then, there were apps that would never, ever, be upgraded. A key reason was the fact that Apple wasn’t doing so well in those days, and many developers just gave up and focused on Windows.
But the PowerPC got faster and faster each year, thus making an upgrade potentially worthwhile, at least for some users. But for most, keeping a Mac for several years wasn’t an altogether bad idea. So long as the apps you used kept running, you might as well stick with what you have if it’s working properly. Indeed, during the first couple of years of the Power Mac’s history, buying one of the new models wasn’t worth the expense until a decent number of apps became compatible.
The situation threatened to repeat itself in 2006. The previous year, Steve Jobs announced the switchover to Intel at that summer’s WWDC, promising a transition that would begin at the start of 2006 and complete by the end of the year.
In that case, Apple was essentially forced to make the move. Although the Power Mac G5 showed promise, they ran hot, real hot. The most powerful G5 Macs, a predecessor to the Mac Pro, required a liquid cooling system to keep the processor at safe temperatures. The G5 could never be tamed for notebook use, and Apple was at a crossroads.
At first, buyers of Intel Macs relied on Rosetta, the utility that allowed you to run PowerPC apps with decent performance. As Intel CPUs got faster and faster, emulation didn’t really slow you down that much.
In recent years, Intel has more or less hit a wall in being able to deliver CPUs that were all that much faster than the previous year’s version. A Mac could lasts five years or more and still deliver great performance with the latest macOS. My iMac dates back to 2014, and I have no reason to retire it just yet. Last year, the Fusion Drive was replaced, but it otherwise runs like new.
My 2010 MacBook Pro is stuck with macOS High Sierra, released in 2017, but otherwise runs quite well thank you. It still has the original battery because I mostly use it while it’s connected to power adaptor. I also replaced the original 500GB hard drive with the equivalent SSD a few years back.
But since I don’t travel near as much as I used to, I don’t bring it out as much, though it did do its thing quite well when my iMac spent two extended sessions at an Apple Store.
So far me, at least, I have no compelling reason to buy a new Mac. That, of course, assumes that I am reasonably safe from hardware issues.
At one time, upgrading smartphones every two years made sense. Cell phone carriers, particularly in the U.S., signed up customers to two-year subsidized contracts, where you were basically stuck with your hardware for that period. Once the deal expired, you could still keep the device, but the price wouldn’t go down, so might as well upgrade.
The arrival of T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” promotion separated the wireless package from the hardware purchase. So once it was paid off, the price did go down.
And as computing devices became faster, there came a point where even the older hardware performed well enough to keep using it far longer. That’s how I justify usage an over five-year-old Mac and iOS gear that’s nearly as old without really feeling the need to invest in the latest and greatest.
True, Apple used to be notorious for crippling older hardware with the growing requirements of new operating systems. Even if they were compatible, performance was compromised, the interface became sluggish. In recent years, though, Apple has touted the ability to improve performance on your older iPhone or iPad with the new iOS. I don’t see my iMac growing slower either even though it’s been upgraded to macOS Catalina.
The worldwide economic collapse, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, has certainly encouraged people to think twice before spending hard-earned money on new gear, and you can see where the tech companies will try to find a route to succeed in this troubling environment.
Apple’s latest product introductions have focused, in part, on more affordable gear. The MacBook Air got a speed bump and twice the storage space — plus the return of a scissor keyboard fashioned after the Magic Keyboard — plus a price reduction. So it’s $999 again for the entry-level model, and the Air has always been a favorite with many Mac users. Superior graphics mean that can even power a 6K display.
The iPhone SE returns at its original $399 price, but with performance on a par with an iPhone 11 in an iPhone 8-style case.
So if you can put up with a smaller display, and you are comfortable with Touch ID, it may be your perfect iPhone for now and years to come.
True Apple refreshed the iPad Pro, but for some reason outfitted it with an A12Z CPU, using the A12X silicon. So buying one wouldn’t bring you any performance advantage over its predecessor except for graphics. Price is unchanged, but it keeps the iPad Pro current until a “real” upgrade appears. Perhaps Apple didn’t have time to complete development of a faster processor. The real improvement, however, is the arrival of an accessory keyboard with the Magic Keyboard feel and a real trackpad, thus making the iPad a pretty workable alternative to a MacBook.
It’s clear, though, that Apple’s product and services upgrades will continue to appear even with less fanfare. A recession — or maybe it’s a depression — isn’t going to stop the company from building new stuff. If anything, there’s the incentive to be more proactive to help boost sales in a difficult environment.
But it also makes one think twice about the proper time to upgrade. Even if I had the spare cash, I would be careful about my next move. I do not feel my workflow has suffered any from what I have.
Yes, things have changed. Sure, Apple gear is still relatively costly compared to other gear, but the fact that it continues to produce year after year makes it the better value. Even IBM, once Apple’s biggest competitor in the PC space, these days touts Macs, iPhones and iPads for its employees, along with the lower cost of ownership.
This doesn’t mean I won’t try to save up for the day when I have to upgrade some or all of my gear, but I don’t feel the pressure right now.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.
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