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Pointers: Upgrading or retiring older Macs
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NewsPoster
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Nov 5, 2015, 12:10 AM
 
With iPhones, you always know when to upgrade -- it's every two years (three if you're sentimental), when your contract expires. With iPads, the question gets a bit trickier -- its intended as a device for "light duty" users, so they'll likely get some extra mileage out of it. With Macs, however, there's a real question once you've passed the four-year mark: should I upgrade the machine (if possible)? Should I sell it and get a new one? In this Pointers, we'll look at some of the factors that can tip the balance on that decision.

There is of course an emotional component involved sometimes, which makes things trickier: that trusty MacBook Pro that got you through college still works, it's getting a little slow but you've got it set up just how you like it, and you put up with its increasing list of idiosyncrasies because you have loved it for a long time. At some point, however, you will be letting it go. The question is when, and whether you should give it an upgrade makeover, or just trade/sell/dump it for a new(er) one.

Is it time?

How well a Mac ages depends on a number of factors: what you use it for, when you got it (more specifically, how good or bad the model you bought turned out to be generally), your changing skills or desires that it needs to be able to adapt to, how much money you have available for a potential new one, how well Apple's marketing campaign is working on you, and so on. The newest and shiniest thing is always lighter/thinner/better than what you have, but sometimes only marginally so. There's also a perceived "slowdown" as a machine ages that may be as much psychosomatic as it is genuine.

Very broadly speaking, my advice has been that once your Mac hits its fourth birthday, you need to start saving; when its fifth birthday rolls around, you need to start studying specs and keeping an ear out for new models; and by its sixth birthday, you need to be ready to buy the moment the new model you've had your eye on is announced if you're buying new, or hits the refurb page if you're not buying new. Only people who use a computer for the most basic of things will be able to wait much longer than that, and they probably shouldn't anyway (more about that in a minute).

If your machine just feels like it is "getting slower," ask yourself a couple of questions: could it be because I (you) have changed significantly in what I need the machine to do since I bought it? Have I been diligent about doing maintenance, making backups, and keeping software up-to-date? How full is the hard drive? One of these three areas is likely the culprit for a machine that "feels slower" than it did before, particularly that third item. Macs like to have lots of "elbow room" in order to work at their peak.

Again broadly speaking, if your older machine is struggling with newer software; if your computer needs have changed significantly; if you can no longer run the latest operating system release, or if the OS you are running no longer receives any security updates, it is time for a new(er) machine -- or a parts upgrade to keep it going for a while.

Importantly, Apple stops updating its older OSes about three years after they are replaced these days. In other words, now that El Capitan is out, Apple will likely not update Lion (10.7.x) any further, and programs from Apple and third-parties will soon start requiring Mountain Lion or newer (if they don't already), and not long after that you'll see web or game technologies that need newer OS versions. When your machine can no longer be updated to the latest OS, be aware that the obsolescence clock is now officially ticking. You have maybe three more years, tops, before that machine is unsafe to use on the Internet. It is then time to start thinking about/researching your next Mac, even if you aren't in a position to buy anything anytime soon.

The fixer-upper

If your machine's specs are not wildly off from the machines being sold now, or at least still adequate for your needs and still supported by OS X releases, it might be worth upgrading the machine rather than replacing it. In some models, this isn't really possible: you can't add more RAM or a new drive to a Retina MacBook Pro, for example. I'm writing this on a 2012 MacBook Pro that features all the same technologies and nearly the same chip as the current non-Retina MacBook Pro; so even though it's already on the eve of its fourth birthday, it's far from the scrapheap.

The non-Retinas have the advantage of being easily upgradable, so I have since maxed out the RAM (to 16GB in this model's case) and the drive capacity (a 1TB SSD, after replacing the original hard drive with a 500GB one a year or so ago. Because this model has Bluetooth 4.0 (important in the latest OS X releases and other future uses), Thunderbolt (which I don't even yet use for anything yet), USB 3.0, and 802.11n support, even a professional user might not feel the need to upgrade anytime soon. Barring some increased need for graphics firepower, I could see myself still using this machine in 2017.

So, tip number one is to learn exactly what the specs of your machine are. This becomes increasingly important as time goes on, as you'll need to know if your old workhorse can handle a new program or OS's requirements easily, marginally, or not at all -- and whether it's something you can improve either internally or externally if needed. You can find out about your machine from the "About This Mac" item in the Apple Menu, or by looking up your model on a site like everymac.com or by downloading the program Mactracker.

A RAM upgrade, if you can do it, will increase your ability to keep multiple programs open and yet all still running well. It will not speed up your machine by a huge degree, but it will make the "spinning beachball" symbol appear less often, and it is often inexpensive to "max out" or at least upgrade the RAM. Operating system upgrades run better in more RAM as well, so it is usually worth doing for any machine that's now out of warranty. The biggest "bang for the buck," though, comes from replacing a spinning traditional hard disk with an SSD (solid-state drive). They are generally 10x faster than traditional hard drives, and you will notice the difference on the very first bootup.

USB 3.0 is pretty fast, and Thunderbolt (1 or 2) is very fast, so storage expansion can be handled externally without too much loss of speed, and in some cases where the machines are sealed up or difficult to get into (iMacs for example), this may be your best (or only) option for storage upgrades. Doing these upgrades also can increase the value of your older Mac if you decide to sell, and if you don't you get the benefit of better-than-out-of-the-box performance anyway, so up to a point a "home improvement" course on your computer can both lengthen its useful life and provide benefits.

Buying new, or at least newer

Of course, upgrades cost money. There comes a point where you are about to spend more than the machine is worth or that you could ever get back by selling, because the value of the machine goes lower as time goes on. Knowing the rough selling price for your model Mac in the present market will help you determine which way to go. Thanks to clone (bootable) or Time Machine (non-bootable) backups (or both), migrating from and older Mac to a newer one is usually pretty painless, particularly if the machine is less than six years old.

Sometimes, you have had a Mac for so long that the straw that breaks its back isn't aging parts or lack of upgradability as it is something simpler: you bought a new (phone, tablet, or other shiny thing), and the system requirements for it are for something newer than your Mac. This means in order to use that new iPhone 6s, for example, your machine must meet the requirements of the new device (which generally stretch back to five years ago -- you'll start to notice a theme here), and they don't, so you think you have to buy new. Au contraire!

If you can afford to do so, new is generally the way to go. It will nearly always last you longer than anything else, so you don't have to go through this procedure very often. That said, if you don't require the latest and greatest, and the hype has failed to excite you, an Apple-refurbished product can be a great option. Like-new older machines at significant discounts, but with full warranties (and the option to buy AppleCare), are often hard to beat -- but of course they will "age" faster. Still, a lateral move from a really-old machine to a not-new-but-recent machine can save money and meet requirements, so it's a good option.

As mentioned, Migration Assistant on the new Mac beautifully handles moving your stuff over from your Time Machine backup of the old computer, or the old computer itself if you still have it. One important tip, however, is to let this happen during the initial setup of the new Mac -- not afterwards. The problem with not doing that till later is that it often stores the migrated files in a different user folder than the one you set up first -- leaving to a tricky mess to untangle (not impossible, just annoyingly difficult).

When I boosted the RAM on this 2012 and upgrade the drive to an SSD, it turned this three-year-old machine into a wholly new beast that won't be outdated for quite some time -- I will naturally have to upgrade to a newer Mac at some point for my job, but this one will take me the rest of the way to the end of its useful life in style, barring accidents. Plus, by investing in a big SSD, I can move that drive whole over to the new machine in an external case (or internal if I can upgrade the drive of my next machine), saving even migration time.

The bottom line here is that repairing versus replacing is usually a personal call on how much the current machine means to you. SSDs are great for beating the "slowdown blues" on older machines, but if you prize capacity over speed, SSDs can get pricey (though they have fallen in price a great deal recently). Refurbs or gently-used more-recent machines can be a great "step up" without having to lay out the cash needed for a brand new machine, and refurbs have the advantage of having warranties.

The best "tip," however, is to go into a new machine understanding that you'll either want or need another one in an average of five years. Depending on your needs, you may get some more life out of it, but unlike the old days security concerns mean you can't just keep running the old gear until it falls apart.
( Last edited by NewsPoster; Nov 5, 2015 at 12:25 AM. )
     
fds
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Nov 5, 2015, 01:52 AM
 
The rate of obsolescence for computers is slowing heavily for quite some time now. Especially for desktop Macs, which, sitting on a desk, get less wear and tear, plus and most importantly there's no battery to die.
El Capitan officially supports a Mid 2007 iMac you purchased in August 2007. That's already over 8 years old.

The real headache with MacBooks is that battery. By the time you really need a replacement, official support is usually long gone. Then it's so much simpler to buy a whole new machine than trust a third-party battery replacement will be as safe and reliable as Apple's original was.
     
rocky2
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Nov 5, 2015, 02:15 AM
 
I'm Apple's worst nightmare for desktops. I upgrade them with SSD, RAM and if possible GPU and run them until they won't run the latest OS X, or until the battery won't take a decent charge if laptop.
Looking around my office, I have two 2008 Mac Pros each with 32 GB of RAM, SSD RAID and GTX9600 GPU, one 2009 iMac 27' core i7 with 16 GB of RAM and swapped HD6870 GPU and SSD (as Plex Media Server), one 2008 MacBook with SSD and 8 HB of RAM, one 2008 iMac with 6 GB of RAM and SSD, one 2010 MBA with maxed out stock RAM and SSD, and one 2006 iMac with SSD and 6 GB of RAM, Except for the 2006 iMac, they are all running El Capitan. Amazing how 8-year old Macs can still run the latest OS X and be productive office machines. Staying well behind the curve and DIY upgrades to preowned macs saves a tonne of money.
     
chucker
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Nov 5, 2015, 07:17 AM
 
Yeh, I think this article pretty much contradicts itself. I am on a 2009 27" iMac, and El Capitan pretty much gave it a new lease of life. I do simple animations and physics simulations on it, and it is no slower at doing them than it was 6 years ago (we have a big cluster for doing the heavy lifting). I haven't even gone the SSD route yet - I think that might give it another couple of years. I would suggest keeping your mac up until the point new software updates don't support it.
     
Inkling
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Nov 5, 2015, 08:22 AM
 
In its thin uber alles obsession, Apple has so gutted the features of the MacBook Air that I see no reason to replace my now eight-year-old MacBook. When Scrivener for iOS comes out, there'll be nothing these castrated MBAs can do that I can't do with an iPad and keyboard. For my heavy lifting, I've got a desktop.
Author of Untangling Tolkien and Chesterton on War and Peace
     
nealt
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Nov 5, 2015, 09:30 AM
 
I have an early 2008 MacPro with 18 Gig of Ram that I added over the years. I have an SATA SSD drive mounted on a PCI card, 4 internal Hard Drives, and 2 external Hard Drives for Backup. So I have 10.11, 10.9.5, and 10.8.5 mounted on different drives. I like to play and test new OSs when they come out.

So far no upgrade problems and the machine runs fast.

My biggest concern is the video card which one day Apple will no longer support. There are no really affordable video upgrade cards-say less than $300.
     
revco
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Nov 5, 2015, 09:31 AM
 
I still have my first Mac. A Macintosh IIci (1989). Complete with a Daystar Digital Turbo '40 CPU, Radius 24XP video card, Asante ethernet card, Micromat Simm Doublers with 36MB RAM, a Quantum Lightning 700MB SCSI HDD. It runs 7.6.1 and still works.
     
ttpilot
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Nov 5, 2015, 12:34 PM
 
I still have my mid-2007 MBP, and it continues to plug along well for the most part. Some of it is newer, however. The keyboard was replaced under warranty, the logic board was replaced by Apple when the video chip failed in 2011, and I replaced the hard drive with an SSD in 2012. The SSD made all the difference. It's a bit slow processing video now, so I'm looking to replace it this coming year.
     
bleee
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Nov 5, 2015, 01:01 PM
 
I have an original 2006 Mac Pro that we've upgraded quite a few times here's a list of some of the things I've replaced.

- Expanded the number of SATA drive connectors by 2 using onboard SATA connectors that are unused.
- Upgraded CPU
- Replaced the video card 3 times (none of them failed they were just upgrades)
- Added PCIExpress bootable SSD drive.
- Upgraded to Mavericks which is not officially supported by Apple
2.66Ghz Mac Pro 2GM Ram 160Gig HD Ati X1900XT, 24" Dell 2407WFP
13.3" Mac Book Core Duo 2GIG Ram 80Gig HD
12" PowerBook 1.5Ghz 1.25GB Ram 60Gig HD
12" iBook 600Mhz (Late 2001) 640MB Ram 30Gig HD
     
txcrude
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Nov 5, 2015, 01:04 PM
 
My 2007 Mac mini is pretty much maxed out but it is stuck at Mac OS X 10.7.x It can still make a decent file or media server.
I also have a 2014 Mac mini with Intel I& where I maxed out the memory to 16 GB. These models actually sell for close to (or more) what current models sell for.
My 2013 MBP Retina 4 GB/128 GB SSD is absolutely not upgradable and as Apple moves all of their machines to the phone/tablet model it is unfortunate that these capable machines will no longer be usually since they can be upgrade with more memory and/or a larger SSD. I plan on keeping them for as long as feasible.
     
JackWebb
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Nov 5, 2015, 04:34 PM
 
I use my Mac professionally, on it 10 hours a day. I used to always be chomping to get a new Mac after 2 years and always got there within 3 years. With my current Mac Pro early 2009, I brought it to 12GB right away and within a couple years took it to SSD on the PCI card with 4 internal HDDs, USB 3, new graphics card. I started on Leopard 10.5 and I'm now on Yosemite 10.10 and just waiting for 10.11 to be okay to move to. 6 1/2 years and the end is not in sight.

I might have been convinced to move to a newer Mac Pro had it not been for the far extra expense of that itself ($3,800 for base with 1TB SSD) and having to purchase more hardware to handle the extra drives. It's not tempting enough at that price.

My Late 2011 MacBook has hardware features (ethernet, optical drive) that have been removed from newer models so it will be very long before i ever consider changing that.
     
Grendelmon
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Nov 5, 2015, 04:49 PM
 
So, a funny story about upgrading old Macs.

I have a 2006 Mac Mini (Core Duo, 32-bit) running as a Plex media server in my comm closet. It has worked flawlessly for years. I have (3) Roku boxes throughout my house, and the combination has been great, again- for years.

Until one day this summer... every one of my Roku devices automatically updated the Plex application. The version it updated to was incompatible with the version of my media server. So the Plex media server needed to be upgraded on the Mini... okay no problem. I tried updating the server, but the clients just wouldn't work or connect to it. Errors, errors, and more errors. After some headbanging and research, I finally realized that Plex dropped 32-bit support for the media server some time ago. And the very last version of the 32-bit server was too old for the new clients on my Roku boxes. Thanks, Plex! Assholes.

I don't have a lot of money. But I discovered that low and behold... the 2006 Mac Mini actually uses a ZIF processor socket, and could be upgraded. I ended up buying a T7600 2.33Ghz Core ***2*** Duo processor off of eBay for about $30. And sure as hell, it worked. The server is running Mac OS X 10.6, which isn't 64-bit, but I also discovered that you can actually run 64-bit applications even inside a 32-bit version of OS X. So, I upgraded the Plex server software and... voila.

My 2006 Mac Mini is now a 64-bit capable machine running at 2.33Ghz. Not too shabby.
     
Mike Wuerthele
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Nov 5, 2015, 05:03 PM
 
Charles' advice is sound, and more relevant the thinner your machine is. The slab-side Mac Pros are starting to get a little long in the tooth, but they've got a few good years left in them yet.

I loved my heavily, heavily modified 1,1 Mac Pro, but documented life issues mandated getting rid of it, and compacting. I miss it.
     
panjandrum
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Nov 6, 2015, 12:27 PM
 
Nice article! Thanks. I'm still using a heavily modified Mac Pro 1,1 as my primary productivity machine and see no reason to replace it anytime in the near future. Might even do the 8-core upgrade someday if I can still find the processors. Regardless of Apple's claims, it runs all the latest operating systems and software just fine; it simply took better programmers than Apple apparently has to make it work. Anyway, from a purely financial point of view, I usually tell people that if they are going to have to spend more than 1/3 the cost of a new computer in upgrading their old one, that it's time to just start putting money away for a new one instead. Depending on the model this means that upgrading with an SSD or Hybrid drive and additional memory can be a good investment. Considering the speed benefits that can easily squeeze another couple of years out of a system. Even the older white Core2Duo iMacs and MacBooks run ML very well with these upgrades in place (using ML PostFactor / MacPost Factor / whatever they've decided to call it now to enable ML to run on these systems). So, if the new Mac that would meet needs was, say, $1100, then my personal recommendation would be to spend no more than (approximately) $350-$375 to upgrade an existing machine instead. Since the likelihood of a major hardware failure climbs as the systems age, it just doesn't make a lot of sense to pour tons of cash into an aging system. One last thing I've been thinking about recently (do a lot of work at a school with 35+ of those old White iMacs and MacBooks that were officially abandoned at Lion by Apple, and they have no way, financially, to replace them) is seeing how well Windows 10 will run on hardware that Apple has officially abandoned. It will be an interesting experiment I intend to perform as soon as I pick up a copy of Win10 and learn all the ins-an-outs of turning off or removing all the Win10 Spytastickness...
     
bobolicious
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Nov 7, 2015, 06:00 PM
 
...if legacy compatibility was baked in (aka virtualization) this user would upgrade hardware every applecare cycle if not sooner... Alas the opposite seems the case, hedging bets against plug & pray development cycle surprises: "didn't we mention, your new mac just broke your raid"...
     
bear_in_mind
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Nov 7, 2015, 08:36 PM
 
Love this article! I have a '08 MacBook Pro that I continue using daily. I swapped-out the dog-slow EOM hard drive with a 480GB SSD and expanded the RAM to 6 GB (supposedly 'unsupported' but works fine for me), and froze the OS in "amber" by staying with Snow Leopard (10.6.8) which is fine with me. Sure, there are some features like Continuity that I'd like to incorporate, but I've been able to do photo editing, video editing (yes, it's slow), and pretty much everything else I need. I'm looking to buy a 27" iMac at the next revision (the 'tock' cycle) with the Skylake CPU which should provide a healthy speed-bump and more robust video support to future-proof that system (fingers-crossed) as long as this unit has lasted. In fact, I intend to repurpose this puppy into a music server ala a Mac Mini.
     
   
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