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?

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