The price of upgrading a Mac

Tech Life

I will soon share my observations about the WWDC 2017, but more pressing matters had me looking into various options for a Mac upgrade. (My good old 2009 MacBook Pro lately has been giving me troubling signs that it may not be long for this world.)

During the WWDC 2017 keynote, Apple has announced widespread updates for the Mac line: the MacBook, MacBook Pro, and iMac product families all received better processors and hardware configurations — even the MacBook Air — and also a gentle retouch of certain prices, so that now there is a more affordable ‘entry-level’ 13-inch MacBook Pro (without Touch Bar) at $1,299, and a really interesting 21.5-inch iMac with retina 4K display model at the same price.

Given the retina display, the latest-generation 3 GHz quad-core Intel i5 CPU, the discrete Radeon Pro 555 GPU with 2 GB of video memory, and the generous port configuration (two Thunderbolt 3 ports, four USB 3 ports, an SDXC card slot, headphone jack and Gigabit Ethernet), this 21.5-inch 4K iMac has truly attracted my interest, and is the most probable candidate for my next upgrade. The problem is that it’s less affordable than it seems.

First off, let’s take a look at the price in Euro (I live in Spain) and with added taxes, and the base configuration of this 21.5-inch 4K iMac costs €1,499. To be fair, the $1,299 starting price in the US is before taxes. I simulated a purchase as if I were a New York resident, and the final estimate on the Apple Store page was about $1,400. Still, $1,400 are not €1,500. After a true currency conversion with today’s rates, $1,400 are €1,249. Now, that would be fair.

Then, let’s take a closer look at that base configuration: it has 8 GB of RAM and a 5400rpm 1 TB hard drive. Yes, a hard drive. If you’ve ever upgraded your Mac by switching from a hard drive to a solid-state drive, you know just what kind of a bottleneck a hard drive is with regard to the general responsiveness and speed of the Mac. So, let’s go to the customisation options for this iMac: a 1 TB Fusion Drive costs €120 more; a 256 GB SSD is €240 more; a 512 GB SSD is €480 more. If I settle for a 256 GB SSD, the price of the iMac becomes €1,739 already.

Then there’s the RAM. Now, I’m not saying 8 GB are bad, but given that a Mac’s upgrade cycle is generally slow, with machines lasting more than a few years (for regular customers without specific ‘pro’ needs), 8 GB may not be enough down the road. A wiser, more forward-looking decision is to opt for 16 GB of RAM. And that is €240 more — the ‘affordable’ 21.5-inch 4K iMac has now reached a price of €1,979, simply for choosing a couple of extras that, in mid-2017, should really be standard fare. If not the RAM, at least the SSD.

But hey, if one’s budget is limited, a solution could be to just purchase the iMac as is, and update the RAM and drive later. The good news comes from the iFixit folks who, when performing their 21.5-inch 4K iMac teardown, have discovered that the RAM is user-replaceable and not soldered on the motherboard. (The drive is replaceable too, but that was more obvious). The bad news is that, to replace the drive and add more RAM, you basically have to dismantle the whole iMac, and I for one am not thrilled by having to cut out and separate the display to get to the machine’s innards.

When the time comes for me to get a new Mac — and given my MacBook Pro’s current conditions, it’ll have to be soon — I will very likely choose this entry-level Retina 4K iMac because overall it’s good value for its money compared to other solutions. After doing some easy calculations, however, it seems I’ll be able to afford only one configuration upgrade, and I hate to be put in a position where I have to decide to either choose more RAM or a better internal drive. I have been using Apple computers since 1989 and never questioned the premium one usually pays when choosing Apple, but these iMac base configurations and related built-to-order options feel like a bit of nickel-and-diming on Apple’s part.

Aside from my personal needs and upgrade scenarios, if we look at other solutions in the current Mac product lines, we encounter details such as these:

  • Even the top-of-the-line 27-inch Retina 5K iMac is offered with only 8 GB of RAM. I mean, it’s the current, most professional configuration for a desktop Mac; it wouldn’t hurt having 16 GB already in its base configuration, and Apple could easily charge $200 more for it. It’d look better and I don’t think anyone would complain. Well, at least the RAM in the 27-inch iMac is easily upgradable by the user.
  • The entry-level 12-inch Retina MacBook and the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro (without Touch Bar) both cost $1,299. The latter has a bigger and brighter screen with more resolution, a better processor, one more USB-C port, a better GPU, and even a better camera. Compared to the 12-inch MacBook, the only ‘drawbacks’ are that it’s slightly larger, that it weighs 450 grams more, and that it has a 128 GB SSD instead of a 256 GB SSD. I’m sure there are people whose priority is having the lightest, most compact portable Mac, and who, faced with this comparison, would undoubtedly choose the 12-inch MacBook. But in my view, offering these two models for the same price immediately puts the smaller MacBook at a disadvantage. The moment weight and dimensions cease to be crucial, anyone can see how the 13-inch MacBook Pro is the better deal here.
  • Pay attention when you’re customising the configuration of the Mac you intend to buy. As Adam Engst at TidBITS warns, you could end up with a worse configuration for the same price depending on how you start, or you might pay more for the same configuration. Read the article for more detailed information and advice.

Final considerations

While I understand that certain design constraints may impact the upgradability of a machine, I’m still rather baffled at the relative rigidity of Apple’s offerings. Having to decide how much RAM, what kind of storage solution, and how much storage at the time of purchase puts customers in a difficult position, as they have to make a decision right away that will very often affect their Mac for its entire lifecycle. No Mac is a throwaway machine, and while there are exceptions, a lot of people keep their Macs for many years. Looking at the stingy base configurations for many Macs, Apple pushes people towards two main behaviours:

  1. Be content with the base configuration of a Mac model, and as soon as it’s not enough for your needs (or to handle whatever new technology will be thrown at you down the road), just get another Mac.
  2. Customise at once the Mac model you want, and end up with a fairly future-proof machine that will certainly last you more years, but spending much more money on it in the process.

From Apple’s standpoint, this is a great strategy, of course. It makes sense. I’m a terribly budget-conscious customer, alas, but even if I weren’t, the thing that irritates me the most is how certain components of many Mac base configurations look purposefully unappealing to induce people to upgrade them right away, thus spending more money. I mean, a spinning 5400rpm hard drive in a retina iMac, in 2017? I had a 5400rpm hard drive when I purchased my 12-inch PowerBook G4 more than 13 years ago. Eight gigabytes of RAM in the high-end 27-inch Retina 5K iMac, aimed at customers whose needs very likely demand a bare minimum of 16 GB of RAM? Laptops with a non-upgradable 128 GB SSD? All this with base model configurations that aren’t exactly cheap from the start. It doesn’t strike me as treating your customers respectfully.

Every time I bring up this topic, some people feel the need to point out that my complaints are simply dictated by my limited budget, but my beef is less money-related than it seems. It has to do with something I already pointed out above — and that is essentially the way Apple controls and conditions most upgrade paths when it comes to purchasing a new Mac. You either stick with underwhelming base configurations that will remain unchanged for as long as you have that Mac, or you upgrade components at once, up-front, at the time of purchase, and put up with the considerable premium Apple charges you for that[1]. And in those cases (like the 21.5-inch 4K Retina iMac I’m interested in) where you technically could upgrade RAM and hard drive yourself at a later date, having to dismantle the machine completely to achieve that (with the far-from-remote possibility that you end up damaging something in the process) makes the option unappealing and a very ‘last resort’ one at that.


  • 1. While they might not classify as ‘considerable premiums’, don’t get me started on the customisation options for included accessories like keyboards, mice, and trackpads. If I want a Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad instead of the more compact one, Apple charges €30 more. When you’re buying a machine that already costs €1,500 — and may cost you as much as €6,199 for a fully upgraded high-end 27-inch iMac — those additional 30 euros look downright offensive. ↩︎


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