Is Keeping Older Mac Notebooks in Service False Economy?

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 The report also calculates that hanging onto outdated hardware typically costs an organization $9600 in diminished end user productivity.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.

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