Blog Post

The Never-ending Dilemma: Upgrade Your Old Mac or Get a New System?

MacNewsWorld’s Chris Maxcer addresses the abiding conundrum of whether to upgrade one’s existing system or buy a new Mac, noting that when you’ve had your Mac long enough, it’s only natural to start thinking about more speed and more memory.

So the operative question is whether to dig deep and go with a full hardware upgrade, or spend much less to upgrade a few select parts that will help bring your aging ‘Book back closer to contemporary standards of performance — is it worth upgrading an existing Apple notebook with more RAM and a new hard drive — or more sensible to simply buy a new one?

I would say it depends on the individual machine. I’m typing this post on a nine-year-old Pismo PowerBook that’s been considerably breathed-on, with processor, hard drive, optical drive, RAM, and wireless upgrades, and I even have a FireWire 400 PC Card adapter for it. But on the other hand, I have a six month old unibody PowerBook, with an up-front upgrade to 4GB of RAM, and it’s many magnitudes superior to the Pismo in objective terms.

Maxer says he tends to buy a new PowerBook, iBook, or MacBook every two years or so, usually around the 16-month point. I provisionally shoot for three year system upgrade intervals, but this Pismo is well outside that envelope, and still my second-most-used computer. Despite being more than a bit power challenged, and limited to OS X 10.4 Tiger, it’s such a likable tool that I’m unmotivated to move on to using, say, my 17″ PowerBook G4 as my number two laptop.

I am somewhat puzzled by Maxcer’s suggestion that, while the new MacBook Pro models are fantastic, they don’t seem quite worth the cost just yet. My contention would be the diametric contrary — the current low end 13″ and 15″ unibody MacBook Pros are the most rip-roaring value-for-the-money bargains Apple has ever produced.

However, Maxcer says he still likes his black 2.4GHz MacBook, notwithstanding its poky Intel GMA X3100 integrated graphic chipset that pales by comparison with the powerful Nvidia 9400M integrated graphics chipsets in the new MacBook Pros, but is finding the 250 GB hard drive way to cramped for his needs, and 2GB of RAM isn’t quite enough either.

Good on Chris. I’m all for squeezing every bit of useful service life out of a Mac before upgrading to a new system, so long as one isn’t terribly compromised by performance limitations for things one wants to do. So if I were in Chris’s shoes with a nice black MacBook that I was fond of, I’d buy a bigger hard drive and double the RAM — both easy and relatively inexpensive upgrades for that machine — and hang on to it for a while. The only semi-specialized tool you’ll need for these upgrades is a Torx T8 screwdriver, which can be hard to track down on short notice (I have a nice one I got from Wegener Media) and some very small Philips screwdrivers.

I’d love to have a new 13″ MacBook Pro with FireWire and a SD Card slot, but my plan is to still go to early 2012 with my current MacBook, although a new inexpensive polycarbonate MacBook, provided it has those features, could test my holdout resolve.

Chris decided to proceed with a mid-life upgrade for the old MacBook, going with a Western Digital Scorpio Black 320GB 7,200RPM drive, with 16MB of cache, and bumping the RAM spec. with a $54 Kingston 4GB kit, which was considerably cheaper than I paid for a 4GB upgrade kit from Other World Computing (currently $87.99) for my MacBook last spring. The BlackBook would need DDR2 RAM, while my unibody machine uses DDR3, but a 4GB DDR2 kit at OWC is still $78.97.

With the great deal he got on the Kingston RAM, Chris’s memory and storage upgrade of the BlackBook came to a pretty digestible $130, which seems like good value to me, although Chris says performance gains realized are not as dramatic as he’d anticipated, and he thinks if he was doing it over, he’d opt for a 500GB 5,400RPM drive instead, noting that the 7,200RPM Scorpio’s speed causes a minor but annoying vibration. He also says that upgrading the OS to Snow Leopard provided a more substantial performance boost than the new hardware bits did.

I also expect he may notice more subtle and welcome improvements down the road. With its stock 2GB of RAM, my MacBook was a decent performer, but it’s even better with 4GB, and while pre-upgrade I had to restart the laptop every two weeks or so to freshen the memory heap, with 4GB I can go for a month or more between restarts.

Frankly, with new (or even better, refurbished late model) Mac laptop prices plumbing historical lows, and the extreme desirability of the unibody notebooks in particular, it’s harder to make a compelling argument for upgrading an older Mac rather than applying the cost of that to a new purchase, especially if you can sell your present machine for a respectable price.

What do you think? Better to hang on to a spruced-up known quantity, or go new/refurb with a fresh warranty and the latest feature set?

18 Responses to “The Never-ending Dilemma: Upgrade Your Old Mac or Get a New System?”

  1. Hi,

    I got a G5 Powerbook with 1.25Gb of ram memory, running MAC OSX 10.3.9. = Main computer paid close to 4000$ (back when it was new).

    I also use a PC that is about 1 year older running Windows XP. = Secondary computer paid about 1500$ (one year before my PowerBook).

    On the MAC, I can’t upgrade to the “latest” versions of the softwares like msn, AdiumX, firefox, now I’m blocked from Myspace, can’t upgrade Flash Players,… and the list goes on. 2 years ago, I was ready to by an IPOD, willing to pay the 300$+ bucks for it. But I needed to upgrade my OS to 10.4.1… spend another 80- to 150$ just for the OS upgrade? So an IPOD + OS upgrade = 400$+ ?
    It’s a web site!!! Not some kind of fancy software.

    To top things off, was using Adium X, up to less than a week ago and then “my version” isn’t compatible with the MSN protocol. “Adium : Our protocol is not supported by the server”. And the newest “Adium” doesn’t work on 10.3.9… oh boy.

    On my PC tower, using a “primitive Windows XP” I can upgrade to newer versions of anything I need. Hey I can even use the latest IPODS without the need to upgrade my computer or OS.

    The point is, now I’m thinking of changing computers and the thought of trying the new Windows 7 sounds like good news… since I can still use Windows XP software on it and will probably use Windows 7 for a long time. How long will the new OSX last me for? Will I be stuck 5-6-7 years down the road with a perfectly running computer, but won’t be able to run “new” applications and will be forced to change computers again and spend another 3-4 grand?

    Quite annoying.

    A soon to be EX Mac user

  2. Charles W. Moore

    Hi sevenfish;

    Regrettably not.

    DayStar did market G4 upgrades up to 3 GHz I think for the Aluminum PowerBooks for a short time about three years ago, but they didn’t sell well enough to continue with. A used or refurb. Intel MacBook would still blow the G4 into the weeds performance wise, and that killed the PowerBook processor upgrade market.


  3. sevenfish

    I’d love to upgrade my 5 year old Ti-Book. I’ve maxed out the RAM and have a much larger drive but need a processor upgrade. Do any exist for this machine?

  4. mike sanders

    I think adam has it right the high resale value is often overlooked in price comparisons with PCs (who buys a used PC?).
    I am the marketers dream the early adopter just gotta have the latest, having an extended family I have the excuse and the power (being the grandpa) to hand the machines down so it really works very well.
    There is nothing like opening the box on a new Mac except perhaps opening the door of a brand new Ferrari.

    • Adam Jackson

      Mmmm. Ferrari!

      I’ll get around to looking up the numbers I’ve been selling Macs since my first iBook 600Mhz G3 back in 2001.

      The resale value is awesome w/ AppleCare and if you include some kind of case and keyboard protector. It means no scratches but well worth the time you take to not scratch it up.

      Basically, I’m paying $250 every 6 months for the latest Mac. It’s kind of like a rental fee. Do I need a 3ghz MBP w/ 8Gbs of ram? Nope but when they’re updated to 3.5Ghz, I’ll just upgrade.

  5. I had a MacBook 500mhz G3 that just now died on me. I rarely used it, but I certainly got my money out of it and then some. I’ve had a MacPro since they were introduced. Just added another internal HD and upgraded to 11GB RAM. I see no reason I can’t get another 2 or more years out of it. I also just got a 13″ MBP when they were announced – LOVE IT! I can see it lasting for at least another 2 years for my writing and web graphics duty.

    I’ve never been an “upgrade” type of person. It’s one thing to toss RAM into a tower to improve performance. But when performance is bad enough that you’re thinking about a processor/video card upgrade – I find that you’re probably a candidate for a new machine anyway.

  6. Charles

    What a timely article, I am currently facing this very dilemma! I’m using a two year old MacBookPro3,1 – the first batch to use the Santa Rosa chipset and it is still serving me well. I have upgraded the RAM to 4Gb and the HD to 320GB 7200 rpm. I have an SD card reader in the ExpressCard slot, so it is very nearly functionally equivalent to what I could buy new.

    While writing this post it just occurred to me what my benchmark is… as long as it continues to play World of Warcraft with good performance, I’ll keep it!


  7. Adam Jackson

    I never keep a machine more than 6 months. No I’m not rich, only bring in around 45K a year w/ $1600 rent (yeah I live in San Francisco) but I can usually sell my laptops for 92% of what I paid for them. 85% is the average though.

    I should write a blog post soon about getting the most for your Mac on eBay cause people just don’t believe that I get such great resale value for Macs.

  8. I take a different approach to buying Apple Computers. I hate having to decide, upgrade, new, upgrade, new… it can go on and on but I found a solution. When I decide its time to buy New.. I figure out what I want, then max it out. So if I’m buying a laptop, I max the ram, the HD and buy the best video option for the size. That way, 2-3 years from now I don’t have to ask… should I upgrade? It has been upgraded as far as it can really go so there is no reason to have those thoughts. After 3 years there is always something that will usually make sense to replace with. I have done it in this manner since my LCIII days and it has worked out very well. There have been times that I have had a machine longer than 3 years, and it was at those times I was content with what I had, or something new was just on the way. I also make sure to save up a bit as a system is nearing its 3 year age… as I know a new machine will replace it. 3years is a key time. From all the laptops I have purchased, they have all still sold very well at the 3 year mark… at 4 years the sell is harder. For Imacs and MacPro(powermacs)… 4-5 year machines are still selling well. If I don’t sell a machine it usually goes to family as I tend to be their tech support as well.

  9. I done the same with a black 2.2ghz macbook. 4gb ram but will 500gb 5400rpm drive. Runs really very well and very powerful for my needs. However like you said, the main downfall is the Intel GMA graphics. If you have a similar machine then i would suggest you wait longer till you upgrade also.

  10. I’ll need some more compelling features before my early 2008 MBP 15″ gets considered for upgrade. The trackpad is good, unibody is awesome, but mini-DisplayPort is a real drag when you need working dual-link DVI.

  11. Patrick

    I’m of the unfortunate position where my job requirement often demands higher performing machines. I’ve already gone through a black 13″ MB, 13″ Unibody Macbook, and now I’m onto a 15″ 3.06ghz MBP. I expect this machine to last me quite some time.

  12. How about buying an old machine and upgrading it when you need a new computer? That’s my favorite method. I like to go for buying refurbs – such as the 13″ white MacBook that I bought in the spring from Apple – and then upgrade them immediately on purchase. The week I got it, I maxxed out the RAM in it and installed a 500GB hard drive in it. The processor was plenty fast for my needs for quite awhile, so with those upgrades that refurb machine will serve me for well for some time at less than brand new comparable machines.

  13. Catmanrog

    You answered yourself… “I’m all for squeezing every bit of useful service life out of a Mac before upgrading to a new system, so long as one isn’t terribly compromised by performance limitations for things one wants to do.” My wife loves her ’02 Quicksilver G4 that I did OWC upgrade of memory & processor to. She just plays TV shows, emails, and games on it. I use an early ’07 MBP with max ram to do anything I want. They will be replaced when our needs change, we die (we’re senior), or the computer is beyond repair/replace point. Cheers !