The Upgrade Trap

by David Czepanski Mar 20, 2006

Every time new Macs are released, it’s easy to forget that we are dealing with some serious horsepower. Apart from that, they’re shiny, sexy, and cool.

Today’s computer users have never had more speed, more storage and raw power at their disposal; that is until 30 seconds after you leave the store with your new purchase. You know the story; the specs double and the price halves.

Moore’s Law aside, you would think that we would be able to do incredible things using the tools that we have.

And we do - we make movies, create animations, render 3d environments, rip DVDs, alter digital images; things that we would not have dreamed about even a few short years ago.

Not all of us do these CPU intensive tasks and certainly those power users that do, don’t do so all of the time. Most of us write text documents, make spreadsheets, send email, surf the web, watch movies and listen to music. And how much computing power do you need for that?

Not much actually. There seems to be a ground swell to stop the upgrade madness and make good use of “obsolete” computers. Have a search on the web and you’ll see what I mean. Lots of people are getting really great milage out of old computers. Some people are still able to do all that they need to do using System 7. How many of you were disappointed that classic support was officially dropped with change to the Intel processor?

Who says that these computers are obsolete anyway? You guessed it; mainly it’s the manufacturers of new computers - the very people that stand to lose millions of dollars if we decide not to upgrade but rather hang on to ol’ faithful.

There are times when you are forced to upgrade your computer - for example if a critical, must-have application is upgraded and no longer runs on your existing hardware or if you can’t replace a faulty part. In this case you have little choice.

For the rest of us, apart from techno-lust, is there any good reason to upgrade our hardware? Why are we doing it? Do we really have to? Let’s look in the mirror here - what’s the oldest Mac that you’re making use of?

I’m passionate about this because I deal mainly with schools - most of whom don’t have surplus cash to throw around. I am nearly driven to tears when I find that a school has been sold a “solution” for several thousand dollars when something a fraction of the cost would have met their needs. What could they have done with the money they didn’t spend?

Computers are tools and no matter what we are told, those tools don’t teach. Teaching is done by flesh and blood, human teachers - not computers. Just how new does a tool need to be? Schools that understand this focus their money towards things that will help teachers before they spend the money on technology.

As the saying goes “When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”

Time to look in the mirror again. What projects or tasks are you doing on your Mac that might be done better leaving the computer out of the equation? Before starting a new project, do you even stop to consider that there might be a better way of doing what you’re about to do - and it might mean turning the computer off?

I caught myself trying to start up my laptop last year, to type a list. I was frustrated because the battery power was low and I couldn’t find the power adaptor; I spent 5 minutes looking for it before I regained my senses and grabbed a pencil and paper. 2 minutes later my list was done.

CNet recently drew attention to this very thing. Paradoxically, the fastest technology can slow us down.

The folks at Passionate Users picked up some quotes from the recent SXSW conference, some of which is in the same sort of thread.

I’m not trying to be a Luddite or reminisce about the good ol’ days. It just seems to me that everywhere we turn today the answer seems to be “technology” but no one really knows what the question was.

Think twice next time you reach for the mouse.


  • I totally agree…I’m running a 5 year old G4 Quicksilver with 1GB of memory and an upgraded 933mhz G4 CPU, and the stock NVIDIA GeForce 2 w/32MB. It’s feels faster than my Dull Unspiron 9300 1.7 Ghz Pentium M for email, surfing, etc., and put up against my roommates 20” iMac Core Duo, there IS NOT an $1800 difference in Finder, Safari, or Mail performance. The satisfying part is when my 5 year old clunker crushes the month old Intel iMac at just about any task requiring Rosetta…Installing other software, Word, etc.

    Stu P had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Ben, I completely agree with your statement, but since the industry pushes us so far, plus the fact that it’s completely legal what they do, we should just stop complaining about it, face it and make the best of it ourselves.

    I don’t want to sound as a Windows user (because I’m not and never will be), but at some point the “insanely great” features are being limited by the hardware. The only thing you can do is send your complaints to Apple and hope they’ll hear you.
    After all, their task is to be innovative. I think most G3 users are happy they can still run Tiger on their over-5-year old systems.

    TriangleJuice had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 5
  • I think that there are a couple things to consider.  On the one hand, yes, the power users need the high end of things.  Great.  But, as the high end gets cheaper, it’s easy to market it to the regular consumers.  This leads to the general level of hardware to gradually increase.  This means that software writers can gradually write their software to work on faster and faster machines.  Yes, this can seem like bloat (and I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as bloat, just that not everything is bloat).  But, if you’re running a video editing software, even if it is called iMovie, you need some horsepower behind it!

    What I think I’m trying to say is that upgrading is a natural process and it’s not something to necessarily complain about.  Overall, I think the upgrading market is a really good thing.

    Now, on the other hand, the massive attitude of consumerism that is part of this market.  People believe that they can’t check email anymore if they don’t have the latest version of Outlook, and Windows, and so on; and of course these don’t run very well unless you run them on up-to-date hardware!  At the school where I work, all of our computers run Windows XP, but most of them don’t have the specs to run it decently, so computers that would be plenty fast enough if they were running slightly older software and OSes feel exceptionally sluggish all the time.  This is what needs to be addressed.

    The gripping hand of it is, as David said, that we all too often get enmeshed in thinking that ‘everything is a nail.’  Sometimes it really is good to unplug.  Leave your cell phone and computer at home and go and spend a week in a cabin in the woods or at the beach.  Feel what it is to be human, not borg.

    Anyway, I’ll stop.

    By the way, does anyone know of anyone working on getting Classic to run under Rosetta?  That’s something that is going to keep me from upgrading to a new machine for while.  I’ve got too much Classic software that I either don’t want to or can’t replace.  (Some apps that are only available as Classic or Windows apps!)

    Snowy_River had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 1
  • You need 1920×1080, but you only have 1680x1050 on the 20” iMac.

    You don’t need the full resolution in order to edit 1080 video.  Most of the time, you’re watching in smaller windows and previewing the full-rez video on an external monitor.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • Strange that nobody mentioned that there’s one OS that does run on old hardware pretty well. Yup, I’m talking about Linux. I always need a desktop at home to check mail, surf the web, watch some movies and listen to music in case I leave my Powerbook at my lab. I recently bought a used 2-year old AMD Sempron system, installed Fedora on it (and Gentoo for testing) and it runs just great. And the system cost me about 40% of the price of the low-end Mac Mini.

    nigham had this to say on Mar 22, 2006 Posts: 10
  • Great comments - thanks for taking part.

    Hope I didn’t come across as whinning or complaining - wasn’t the intent. Just frustrated as per my comment about schools being ripped off.

    I don’t know a great deal about HD requirements or specs - it’s enough to say that it’s currently one of the most intensive things you can do on a computer and will make even the snappiest of macs respond like a hamster swimming through golden syrup.

    Ben - Vista base line 512 Mb? Wow although how long until this is the case for OS X - and, surprise, today there is an annoucement that the vista release is (drum roll) delayed! Can we all say 2007??

    Beeblebrox - your comment about “HD is the upper limit of video for the foreseeable future” says a great deal. When was this time we are in now first foreseeable? I never dreamed that I would carry a 1Gb flash drive around in my pocket, even 2 years ago!! I’m sure something bigger (better?) than HD will come along rendering (excuse the pun) current hardware all but useless.

    Snowy River - Sheepsaver may be what you’re after. It’s a work in progress…..

    And finally, Nigham… I have to confess that the whole article was written on a 5 year old Compaq laptop booted from a Puppy Linux CD. It’s one of the best options for machines of that age.

    I wouldn’t really be making a very good case if I wrote it on the newest hardware!

    David Czepanski had this to say on Mar 22, 2006 Posts: 25
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