Clicking ‘Update’ Shortens Your Computer’s Life

by JP Rowe

You may remember the good old days when after upgrading your computer’s system software it might have felt a bit sluggish and in need of more oomph! The solution was to install more memory and a bigger hard-disk yourself giving your machine a few more years of useful service. Not any more it seems.

With each year that passes, new computer hardware becomes less and less upgradable due to the unstoppable march of the tech companies pursuing the holy grail of thinness and design excellence. The thinner computers get, the fewer interchangeable parts are employed within. In fact, most of the components are miniaturised and soldered directly to the printed circuit board.

I own an early 2011 MacBook Pro 2.7GHz Core i7 (2nd generation). In 2013, having upgraded it to the latest OSX 10.9 Mavericks, it was taking over a minute to start up and then feeling pretty sluggish to use. I whipped out the old hard disk and fitted a Crucial M500 480GB SSD (solid state drive) and upgraded the RAM from 4GB to 16GB. It’s now 2017 and I’m still using this Mac every day on the latest MacOS Sierra and it feels fast. Really fast.

I’m responsible for the upgrading of all the computers here at Wild Dog Design. Although the office looks fantastic filled with beautiful, thin, brushed aluminium iMacs, the only user upgradeable parts on these machines are the RAM modules – not so great if you want to pop in a hybrid hard disk or a solid state drive. Actually, it is possible to dismantle an iMac but you have to take a deep breath and separate the screen from the aluminium housing (which is glued in place) with a special tool which resembles a cheese wire. Certainly not for the feint hearted.

Macintosh G4

2002 Apple Power Mac G4 showing how easy it was to replace internal components.

The 1982 film Bladerunner* tells the story of a group of artificial humans (replicants) escaping from their mundane jobs in off-world industry to free themselves and live out the rest of their days amongst real humans. One solution the manufacturers came up with was to give the replicants an inbuilt four year lifespan. Well, Apple and other tech firms seem to have adopted a similar plan to assure their futures.

Each piece of hardware is carefully designed to appeal to your senses seducing you into parting with a great deal of cash to take it home. Then, over the following four years, your device tantalises and eventually persuades you to progressively upgrade the software until it is horrible and slow to use. You then dispense with your ‘old’ and beautiful piece of hardware for the new model which does, pretty much, the same job as the old one. Of course, new gizmos give you an improved user experience but had you dug your heels in and retained the original system software you might have kept the hardware for a good while longer. In a nutshell, the new system software eventually surpasses the capability of the old processor.

Imagine buying a new car and during the first five years of driving it, your servicing garage progressively upgrades the software so extensively that it becomes impossible to drive. Well, quite rightly, you wouldn’t be too happy. I regularly drive a 1934 car on today’s roads and although the car is a little heavy to drive compared to modern ones, it still works beautifully. In the world of computers, how come we simply swallow the cost of spending a few grand on computers every few years? And, as an aside, when you think of all the old tech being thrown into skips and shipped off to various parts of the world for precious metal extraction it really does make you question the sustainability of the big tech company business models.

Most modern computers only have a four or five year lifespan at best. And that seems to be okay with everyone. If you run a web design company, it’s normal practice to replace your iMacs every few years because productivity goes up as the new tech crunches through the backlog of work much quicker than the old iMacs with their comparatively slow, upgraded system software.

I’ve often wondered how today’s Macs compare with the new Macs from a decade and a half ago…perhaps a brand new 2017 iMac with MacOS Sierra running Adobe InDesign against a 1999 PowerMac G3 with System 9.1 running Quark X-Press to see which one could artwork a simple page layout the fastest. I suspect there wouldn’t be much difference. My recollection of a brand new 1999 ‘Blue G3’ is that it was fast–very fast indeed. But, as I installed several new systems over time it became a slow old dog just like all the computers before it.

So, the moral of the story is, even though they give you free system upgrades, you update at your own expense. Every time you hit that update button you’re one step closer to sealing the fate of your beloved computer.

*The original Bladerunner story from the book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?