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.


  • What do you mean, turn the computer off? You mean like… off??? Voluntarily? And that list thing, why didn’t you just grab your Newton? Using paper kills trees.

    Ok, I’m just having my fun here. Good article David. And I am sorry there is no classic support in Intel Macs. It means I could not play Unreal Tournament or any ancient game I feel like. How am I supposed to get my yearly fix of Monkey Island I+II? At least there are some decent OS X solutions for interfacing with the Newton.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Mar 20, 2006 Posts: 371
  • I agree completely.  I just finished my first feature film on the lowest-end Mac there is.  It’s a year old but the technology inside it is even older than that.

    And I produce my work every day on a two year old XP laptop and a three year old XP desktop that still work great.

    And while I am getting ready to upgrade to an iMac, it’s only because my field of work requires HD compatability.  Otherwise, I’d be using this Mac for the next couple of years at least.  And who knows when I’ll need to upgrade my PCs?

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Mar 20, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • Beeblebrox, it kills me but…. *breath* ...I share your point of view absolutely and completely.

    David, I just think this is such an intelligent thing to write about. It really deeply pains me that with such huge processing power even in the lowest end of computers sold today, what can actually be done, and how easily, with these tools remains comparatively constant. And in the meantime applications like Microsoft Word grow huger and more bloated and add eye-candy and transparency and features that sap cycles and memory for such painfully little gain.

    To my mind the most tragic and painful example of this is… Microsoft Windows. I was reading this morning an article about how the baseline of RAM for Vista will be 512 MB and you’ll essentially need a gig in practise. Apparently, worldwide sales of RAM are massively driven by windows releases.

    I really think it’s horrendous that there’s such massive waste of resources on producing ever more powerful hardware that’s squandered by bloated operating systems and code. It’s just so wasteful. Imagine if the industry produced small, hyper-efficient low-power boxes running beautiful, simple web, email and office software. The user experience could so easily be so simple and fast and effective. It would save so many people from buying power-hungry pentium 4 pieces of crap. There could be a complete striation of computer types fitting basic applications like that right up to L337 gaming machinezzz. It would be so much more efficient and simple for the vast majority of users. But it will never happen because it’s not in the interests of most of the industry…

    *will stop ranting now*

    Benji had this to say on Mar 20, 2006 Posts: 927
  • Sorry, but I completely disagree. In 3 years I had 3 iBooks and I spent less than $2,000…

    I might be wrong, but this is NOT much money (note that I was a student during this 3 year period, and I’m not some kind of drugs dealer that makes silly money).

    Anyhow, what would you rather do? Buy a G4 PowerBook, spend $4,000 on it and use it for 3 years, or do it my way and keep everything up to date. After those 3 years you won’t be able to sell that PowerBook for a reasonable price anymore, but the iBook… it can be easily sold for 2/3 of the original price (the only thing you need to do is maintaining it properly).

    However, you CAN be right with your statement if you’d rephrase it: why upgrade when the only thing you do is shutting down your computer and booting it up again to type a list. Yes indeed, if I’d say “I’m too lazy too open up my notebook’s lid, so it’s not worth it’s money”, I’m also right - right?

    It’s just the way you look at things. If you wouldn’t had shutdown your laptop in the first place, you only had to wake it up from sleep (yes, it’s perfectly possible to have an uptime of over 2 years: and type your list using TextEdit, which will launch much quicker than you can take a pen and a paper.

    You’re absolutely right that we’re constantly encouraged to buy the latest ans greatest, but instead of whining about that, try to look at it from a different angle and outsmart these marketing tricks!

    *will stop ranting now too*

    TriangleJuice had this to say on Mar 20, 2006 Posts: 5
  • Imagine if the industry produced small, hyper-efficient low-power boxes running beautiful, simple web, email and office software.

    I agree about Word and Windows, but Apple is just as, if not more, guilty of this.  Try using a Mac these days with less than 512 megs of RAM and see how far you get.  Try using iWeb or iMovie templates on anything but the latest machine. 

    In fact, one of the benefits of my upgrade to a new Intel iMac will be opening an iMovie template without it grinding my Mac to stand still (and I’ve even upgraded to 1GB of RAM).  And don’t even get me started with the bloatware that is iWeb.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Mar 20, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • Sure. It’s just that the windows/office system requirements drive an order of magnitude more wasteful upgrading because they command so many indavertent faithfuls.

    Benji had this to say on Mar 20, 2006 Posts: 927
  • Trianglejuice, the question remains: it shouldn’t be neccesary to update your computer, probably to accomplish similar tasks, at all during a period of three years.

    Computers built three years ago had more than enough processing power to run a collection of small, effective applications and an efficient, operating system with a small memory footprint.

    Of course, power users will need to upgrade to be on the bleeding edge. But I don’t feel it’s a question of user expense so much as a vast waste of resources by an already enormously wasteful industry.

    Benji had this to say on Mar 20, 2006 Posts: 927
  • I dunno really… I’ve done pretty well editing huge productions in Final Cut on 512 RAM.

    Although when I’ve got photoshop, final cut, iTunes, mail and a few other apps running together, it does begin to slow to a crawl hmmm

    I need 1GB of RAM. Although it’s like, twice as expensive to buy memory for my 1.5GHz PowerBook than it is for the 1.67GHz version with DDR2 ¬_¬

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Mar 20, 2006 Posts: 299
  • Good piece David. Welcome to the closet Luddite, sorry it’s dark - we don’t believe in electricity at our meetings.

    Me and Chris S were lamenting this issue just the other day. Should I get a Dual Core mini with 2GB RAM to do my word processing? We’re all driving Ferraris around in 1st gear to do the grocery shopping.

    And thanks - this article will tie in nicely with mine for next week. smile

    Chris Howard had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • It’s a money thing. The industry wants you to ugrade. When “innovation cycles” were not counted in days, so say back in the late 1980s. I had an AMIGA 500. Everyone had one. Having the RAM expanded to 1MB was something pretty cool, and if you had an external 3,5” diskdrive you were king. This machine was around forever (from 87 till the 500+ came in *91*), and one could behold a phenomenon we only see with consoles these days: Developers would actually make an effort to learn about how to get the best out of the machine.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 371
  • So here’s an interesting question, related to a discussion I had earlier today when shopping for an iMac.

    I’m getting ready to shoot a reality series on HD.  The iMac, FCP, and even iMovie supports HD.  It will continue to do so for the life of the computer.  And HD is the upper limit of video for the foreseeable future, so presumably my computer will always support the video technology I need.

    That means that theoretically, I will never have to upgrade this computer.  And yet I know I will.  But why?  I knew when I bought my Mac Mini that it would be inadequate for HD (and it is) but would suit me in SD until I moved up.  But HD is it.  No moving up short of some radical shift in video technology.

    So short of my iMac dying, what will make it obsolete?  What is going to compel me to buy a new Mac two or three years from now?

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • Well, an iMac that can actually display 1080p and not “just” 720p?

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 371
  • The Intel iMac I tested displayed 1080p.  Heck, the Intel Mac Mini displayed 1080p decently.  So I’m reasonably confident that it will hold up.

    Now, uncompressed 1080p HD might be another story (haven’t tried it on the Intel Macs).  And if there is ever demand for that at my level, I guess I’d be compelled at that point. 

    But in reality, upgrading to new hardware to handle uncompressed HD isn’t really an option on the home computer market anyway.  Only the highest-end turnkey systems provide adequate solutions for this kind of video data rate.  And the cameras that shoot it are as expensive or more so than Panavision film cameras.

    That is certainly subject to change, of course, but it almost certainly falls outside of my two or three year upgrade cycle.  However, it does fall well within my “ever” criteria.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • Sorry, I meant “has enough resolution for 1080p”. You need 1920×1080, but you only have 1680x1050 on the 20” iMac. While it does *run* 1080p (hey, my 1,8GHz iMac G5 “runs” 1080p too, but don’t ask how) it will not display it at full quality. Might be sufficient for some editing of course.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 371
  • From the apple website’s mac mini specs:

    “DVI video output to support digital resolutions up to 1920 by 1200 pixels; supports 20-inch Apple Cinema Display and 23-inch Apple Cinema HD Display; supports coherent digital displays up to 154MHz; supports noncoherent digital displays up to 135MHz”

    Benji had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 927
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