Essays on Technology and Culture

On Not Upgrading

My primary machine is, to borrow the parlance of Andy Ihnatko, a 2008 White MacBook Nothing. It was my college graduation gift, outfitted with the fastest processor and biggest hard drive available on the model, but the base 2GB of RAM, which I upgraded to the max of 4GB on my own. It’s gone from Leopard to Snow Leopard to Lion without a hitch. I’ve had no show-stopper issues, just a swollen battery that the Apple Store swapped for me without a question. Four years later, however, and it’s finally showing its age a bit. It has three problems that have me moaning a bit with the unfulfillable desire to finally upgrade.

  1. The backlight inverter needs to be replaced. As this is my only machine, I’m unwilling to part with it for however long it would take for a Genius to replace it, and it’s an arduous enough repair that I’m unwilling to do it myself. Fortunately, keeping the brightness at about 50% keeps things going.
  2. Since starting Crush On Radio, I’ve been doing some heavy-duty audio editing every week, and it’s been a bit of a chore to do. Performing tasks like Normalization, Compression, and MP3 conversion on a sixty to ninety minute podcast can easily take up about half the actual time spent editing. A faster machine would easily cut down on the time needed.
  3. It can’t run Mountain Lion. At least, it can’t run Mountain Lion easily, or in a supported configuration that’ll make updates and things sane.

I’ve been lusting after the new, 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, but even if I could afford an upgrade right now, I couldn’t swing that. [1] I’ve also lusted after the 13-inch MacBook Air, but I’m not sure that its svelteness is suitable for how I work, which is with the laptop latched to a 22-inch external display. Of course, I’ll be putting the giant display in storage in a couple weeks and living back in the space of a 13″ display again, soon, so we’ll see how that works out. Either way, some of the same problems that have me disregarding the Retina, even if I could afford it, have me disregarding the Air. If I had to upgrade, I’d have to go for a 13″ Pro, and even then… I just can’t swing it with the move coming.

So, I’ll make do.

The last major hardware upgrade I made was to the iPhone 4S from the iPhone 3GS. I made it because I could easily afford it, my contract was up, and my 3GS had taken some battle damage to the headphone jack in a failed mugging attempt. [2] I had considered just replacing it with an iPhone 4, because I knew I really didn’t need Siri or the fancy camera, but I did need at least 32GB of storage. With the 32GB iPhone 4 unavailable, I went for the 4S. In about a month, if the rumors hold true, the iPhone 5 will be released. It’ll have a bigger screen, LTE, a new dock connector and probably a surprise “One More Thing” feature that’ll set me to drooling. I will not upgrade.

For what it’s worth, I don’t have an iPad either—even an original model iPad. When the new iPad came out, and the iPad 2 went down to $399, I considered getting one for about five minutes, then disregarded it because I have no place for it in my life and workflow. That’s not to say I wouldn’t find a place if I had one. I’ve been told that the iPad version of OmniFocus is probably the most user-friendly of the bunch, and I’d love to give it a try. It would be nice to have a big, backlit screen to read Instapaper articles and Kindle books on. I could sit on the couch and write. I’d find a reason to use the damn thing, but as it stands, between my MacBook and my iPhone, I don’t have a compelling usage case for an iPad so that’s $600 I don’t have to spend.

The point is, the tools I am using are enough. They work fine, display issues with my MacBook aside. Even though I can’t upgrade to the latest, greatest version of OS X, it doesn’t look like there’s any compelling reason to do so on the application side. Without that compelling reason, why bother? The latest episode of the Enough podcast drives that point home. For myself, it’s a cost/benefit analysis question, where the cost is something I can’t afford, and the benefit is something that would be tangible in a certain aspect of what I do, but not tangible enough to make me make the jump.

If I had to finally put Madame Psychosis [3] out to pasture, what I would find myself looking at for an upgrade are the refurbished MacBook Pros. No, they won’t be top of the line out of the box, but they’ll serve my purposes well. My first Apple laptop was a refurbished iBook G4, and it was so reliable that when the internal fan failed, I didn’t notice for months. Thing was a tank. If the Intel transition hadn’t happened almost immediately after buying my original Mac, I would probably have kept my first mac, the old G4 mini, and my iBook as my primary machines for longer than I did. They were enough to keep me going through three years of college, which is saying something.

Good as new for less, is better than new for more. The tools I need are tools that are good enough to last and powerful enough to do what I need to get done. I’m willing to pay what it requires to get something that can and will last. Sometimes you should spend a little more, and sometimes it’s worth saving up. I’m going to move, find a job, get an apartment, start my life up in a new place, and when all that is done, start putting the money aside to buy a new MacBook. Maybe by then, they’ll have Retina displays in the MacBook Air. Wouldn’t that be sweet?

  1. Besides, I still need the optical drive for a while, and I’d rather not have to spring for the external SuperDrive just to burn CDs. Still, I did give serious consideraton to selling an organ to get a Retina MacBook Pro when it was announced  ↩

  2. I’m fine. All I was out was a set of headphones. The kid who tried to snatch my phone wasn’t expecting a fight.  ↩

  3. Named after a character from Infinite Jest  ↩