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Summary:

Many enterprise IT departments are exercising false economy by extending the service life of notebook computers from the traditionally recommended 3-5 years in an effort to keep a lid on replacement cost, according to a new research report (PDF) released by Northborough, Mass.-based market research firm […]

Many enterprise IT departments are exercising false economy by extending the service life of notebook computers from the traditionally recommended 3-5 years in an effort to keep a lid on replacement cost, according to a new research report (PDF) released by Northborough, Mass.-based market research firm J.Gold Associates.

The report estimates that squeezing out an additional two years of use would typically cost an average of $1,050 per machine, based on analysis of actual costs associated with business notebook failures, including variations in failure rates over the life cycle as well as costs of repairs both in and out of warranty. The report also calculates that hanging onto outdated hardware typically costs an organization $9600 in diminished end user productivity.

“Failure Tax”

Additional findings of the study include:

  • The cost to repair a failed notebook while under warranty is $1,070
  • The cost to repair a failed notebook not under warranty is $1,525
  • The per-machine “Failure Tax” for each notebook deployed in the organization is $138 in the first year and increases dramatically throughout the life of the machine, but will change based on variations in machine failure rates from different manufacturers and/or models.

Now, presumably J.Gold Associates’ main research focus was WinPC laptops, which begs the question: Would their conclusions similarly apply in the Apple notebook space?

Macs Probably Don’t Fit The Profile

The actual cost and advisability of keeping laptops, WinPC or Mac, in service past the three-year mark would vary widely with different models, individual users’ performance needs, and how well a particular unit was maintained and cared for. Apple laptops, which have historically had longer useful service lives than PC portables, but cost more up front, probably don’t fit the profile especially well. For example, the only current Mac notebook selling for less than the J.Gold Associates study’s $1,050 average repair cost under warranty figure is the entry-level 2.0 GHz white MacBook.

That said, a three-year system replacement interval has long been informally accepted by consensus as a sort of sweet spot benchmark that makes a sensible compromise between economy and keeping reasonably up-to-date. It’s also been my own provisional target for primary workhorse computer replacement over 17 years of Mac usership, usually unrealized and rarely exceeded.

Repair Often Not Economically Prudent

Moreover, my own empirical, deductive, and non-scientific take on repairing broken or damaged computers, especially once the warranty has expired, is that more often than not if it involves serious money, it’s probably not as economically prudent as just replacing the computer. My conviction on this point becoming firmer as laptop prices, including Apple’s, have dropped substantially over the past decade.

Whether you’re a business or an individual user, it makes little sense to spend $500 or $600 or more, not to mention the inconvenience of downtime, to repair a 2- or 3-year-old laptop when you can buy a brand new MacBook for $999 with the latest processors, state-of-the-art graphics, usually more standard RAM and hard drive capacity, the latest OS software, a fresh warranty, and so forth. That axiom would apply even more emphatically in the Windows PC laptop space, where the cost of buying new tends to be even more modest, especially at the lower end of the range. I hope my new aluminum MacBook lasts well past the arbitrary three-year threshold, but I’ll be surprised if I’m not seriously on the hunt for a system upgrade by then, if I indeed haven’t already taken the plunge.

But There Are Exceptions

That said, I’m actually typing this article on a 9-year-old Pismo PowerBook, which, albeit somewhat hotrodded with processor, optical drive, hard drive, RAM and other upgrades, is still providing excellent, dependable service running OS X Tiger for light to medium-duty computing tasks. My wife is still using a similar machine for her “daily driver” computer, so at least with Mac laptops, useful service life can demonstrably extend long beyond three years.

As with most things in life as well as computers, “it depends” on a vast spectrum of variables and rigid theoretical templates rarely apply perfectly to particular sets of circumstances, which need to be assessed on an individual basis. But three years is still the paradigmatic system replacement interval.

  1. Chris Pratt Friday, May 1, 2009

    Are those numbers based on the sheer costs of upgrades or paying Apple to upgrade the aging system for you? With a little technical know-how (which any IT department would have), you can cut the costs of upgrading dramatically.

    I just doubled the RAM and swapped out the 150GB hard drive with a 7200 RPM 320GB drive in my nearly 2 year old MacBook Pro. Total cost? $160, and it runs like a dream. Through Apple, however, the RAM upgrade alone would have set me back $400: quite a difference.

  2. Charles W. Moore Friday, May 1, 2009

    Hi Chris;

    Oh, I agree entirely. Shopping around can save you a bundle, for repair costs as well as upgrades. For example, TechRestore will replace a unibody MacBook glass display for about one-third of what Apple charges for that repair.

    But how many corporate IT departments shop around? My guess would be very few.

    CM

  3. “Moreover, my own empirical, deductive, and non-scientific take on repairing broken or damaged computers, especially once the warranty has expired, is that more often than not if it involves serious money, it’s probably not as economically prudent as just replacing the computer.”

    Over-nest much?

  4. James Murphy Thursday, May 14, 2009

    I can understand why Apple Laptops are kept in service well past there “Prime”. The reputation for Powerbooks especially in the business or consumer market is that these laptops stand the test of time. Even something as old as the G3 powerbooks & ibooks provide exceptional perfomance for basic tasks that the majority of users require.

    I still use my 800mhz Dual USB ibook G3 as my daily driver, and have not had even a thought of upgrading, it does EVERYTHING I need while on the go.

  5. I have a Pismo that is running for 9 years, bought it used four years ago and only repairs I did were upgrading the still-functional optical drive for a DVD-RW drive (so not really a repair) and replacing a faulty RAM module. I think I spent $200 or so.

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