Upgrade paths

Tech Life

I don’t upgrade hardware frequently. Having a constantly tight budget is the main reason, but it’s also a matter of mindset. I don’t like to waste resources. I have been taught to make the most of things and keep using them until they’re not efficient anymore. Thankfully, Macs are still long-lasting machines. And thankfully my job doesn’t involve the use of demanding software that requires constant upgrades to the latest and fastest Mac. The most telling detail in this regard is that the 12-inch PowerBook G4 has been my primary machine from 2004 to 2009. Considering that the transition from PowerPC to Intel architecture happened in 2006, I was able to keep going with a PowerPC Mac for three years and a half. When I finally decided it was time for a faster, Intel-based machine, it was mainly because that poor PowerBook couldn’t handle my primary workload very well (the 1.25 GB of maximum RAM didn’t help), but also because by 2009 I couldn’t reasonably expect support of the PowerPC architecture to last much longer; in August 2009, Apple would introduce Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, and the upgrade was available only for Intel Macs. It was time for a change.

Historically, my primary Mac has lasted me at least five years. That has usually been my upgrade cycle. When purchasing a new Mac, the strategy has generally been to invest a bit more money for a better-specc’d machine — at least one tier above whatever my current needs were — so that it could hopefully keep up with the increasing software updates and demands for as long as possible. I’ve also been favouring the laptop over the desktop for its versatility: at home I’d use it in desktop configuration, attached to a big external monitor, to an external keyboard and mouse; and when I needed to work while out and about, I could unplug everything and put the laptop in my backpack.

Now, my current Mac is a true workhorse, and I can’t stress enough how satisfied I am with it. It’s a mid-2009 15-inch MacBook Pro, with a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 8 GB of RAM (updated from the original 4 GB), and a 500 GB hard drive (updated from the original 320 GB hard drive). To date, it’s the primary Mac that has lasted so much, further extending my upgrade cycle. It has seen 6 different version of Mac OS X, from 10.5 Leopard to 10.11 El Capitan — which would be seven, but since I’ve skipped 10.10 Yosemite entirely, I’m not counting it — and it’s still going strong, at least for my needs.

I have however been feeling that it’s time for an upgrade for a while now. Not because I’m noticing that this MacBook Pro is on its last legs, like it happened with the PowerBook G4 in 2009 and the clamshell iBook G3/466 in 2004. I simply think the time has come for a more future-proof Mac. A machine with a better display, which would literally be a sight for sore eyes. A machine with more up-to-date technology inside (advanced Bluetooth for OS X’s Continuity features, faster Wi-Fi, faster connections, better graphics card, etc.). And, in case of a laptop, a machine with a much longer lasting battery. I’m still amazed that my 6-years-old MacBook Pro can still last about three hours on a full charge, but it’s nothing compared to the performance of the 12-inch MacBook (9 hours) or the 13-inch MacBook Air (12 hours).

So, which Mac?

That truly is the question. The strategy I was considering is as follows. My current MacBook Pro becomes the secondary machine, and this opens up different options:

  1. I could wait until the smaller iMac with retina display is introduced. I would go back to having the more powerful machine on my desktop, and a still capable MacBook Pro for when I’m on the move. Flip side: limited battery life of the aging MacBook Pro.
  2. I could opt for another, smaller laptop but with a retina display, and keep this more powerful machine in laptop configuration, while keeping the older MacBook Pro connected to the non-retina external monitor as it is now, since it’d make little sense to have a retina laptop connect to a non-retina monitor. Flip side: I work better on a bigger screen, and to keep using the older Mac in desktop configuration, while the newer Mac sits on another desk isn’t a very bright strategy — the newer Mac is supposed to be the primary machine!
  3. I could purchase a Mac mini. I would attach it to the peripherals I already have (Apple Keyboard, Magic Mouse, external monitor) and keep the MacBook Pro as my secondary Mac for when I’m out and about. This looks like the best option for someone on a limited budget. Flip side: Same as option 1, and I wouldn’t even have a retina display on the desktop.

These are just three examples, but the possible combinations and related dilemmas are numerous. Up until a few months ago, a machine I was really liking for an upgrade was the 13-inch MacBook Air, but the lack of a retina display in the whole Air family makes it a bit less ‘future-proof’ than I’d like. When the 12-inch retina MacBook was introduced, I really thought it was the best candidate as my next Mac. It’s the youngest of the line, it’s powerful enough for my needs, it’s thin and light, it has a retina display. Unfortunately it also has a terrible keyboard that makes it unsuitable for the amount of typing I do daily. The iMac Retina 5K Display is beautiful, and it would probably last me even more than my current 6-years-old MacBook Pro, but it’s way, way beyond my budget. Another machine I’d like, but is equally unattainable, is the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro. Lovely Mac, and just the sweet screen size for me, but the entry model is €2249 and the high-end model is €2799. It’s simply too much.

All things taken into account, the rational decision is to consider two Macs as possible candidates:

  • The (hopefully forthcoming) smaller iMac with retina display.
  • The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, the mid-tier model with 256 GB flash storage ($1499/€1649).[1]

A 21.5-inch iMac with retina display wouldn’t be a bad desktop choice. I could attach to it the current 23-inch external monitor I use with the MacBook Pro. It wouldn’t have the same resolution and density of the iMac’s screen, of course, but I could use it as a secondary screen for applications and information I only need to glance at every now and then, or for palettes and toolbars when using graphics applications. I expect the price to be slightly higher than the current non-retina 21.5 iMac, so maybe something around $1400/€1600 — which would be in the same league as the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro above.

The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is very interesting. It has been improved, now featuring the same Force Touch trackpad introduced with the 12-inch MacBook, a longer battery life, and faster flash storage. It has retained the ‘good’ keyboard I know and love (okay, maybe not love, but at least it’s way more comfortable for me to type on). 256 GB of main storage isn’t a lot of space, but I can certainly optimise it and keep the majority of media archives on external volumes. I could wait a bit more and go for the 16 GB RAM upgrade straight away, too. Yes, it feels like the most likely candidate.

The crazy alternative

And then Apple introduces the iPad Pro, and it gets me thinking.

With the new productivity-friendly features introduced in iOS 9, I could revise my main workflow to make it more iPad-oriented. I could connect my Apple Wireless Keyboard to it (I’m not a fan of the Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro), and still use my Incase Origami Workstation to prop up the iPad. With the right combination of apps and Split View, and a bit of training, the iPad Pro could become an interesting alternative. Not exactly my main machine, but certainly a workspace I’d spend a lot of time in, reserving the MacBook Pro for those specific tasks that require certain desktop applications and tools, or a bigger screen real estate, or the kind of versatile multitasking the Mac OS X environment can afford. I could even extend the MacBook Pro’s already long lifespan by removing the optical drive and getting an SSD, and eventually getting also a new battery.

I know, it sounds crazy, perhaps even counter-intuitive given all my ramblings about choosing the right Mac for the next upgrade. But the iPad Pro, I admit, has truly fascinated me. So far, I’ve been perfectly happy with my old iPad 3 and have never felt the urge to get a newer and faster iPad. I have older devices, and upgrading more than one at a time is something I cannot afford. So of course the Mac has precedence and is the rational, safe route given my long-time Mac user mindset. But the challenge of getting an iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, and making this my new productivity environment is quite tempting. I can’t wait to see new iOS apps specifically designed to take advantage of the iPad Pro’s form factor and bigger screen. Again, the right software could definitely tip the scales in favour of a ‘disruptive’ iPad-oriented upgrade path for me. Interesting times ahead, indeed.


  • 1. Please note the stupid dollar/euro difference, something I complained about when discussing the retina MacBook pricing.


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