The Mac Webb

Stop the Upgrade Insanity

- 2001.11.20

I love the philosophy of low-end computing: Buy only what you need and keep it working until it no longer meets your requirements. Any other strategy seems wasteful.

Over the last five years, the world of the personal computer has seen incredible advances. Sit down and think about the types of machine you were using back in 1996. My main machine at the office was an HP box running a 100 MHz Pentium chip with an amazing 32 MB of RAM. I had just transitioned to Windows 95 and was happy with a huge 2 GB hard drive. At home I was very happy with a new Umax C500 running a 180 MHz 603e processor with 16 MB RAM and a 1.2 GB hard drive.

Flash forward to today - the PC for the office is a nice Sony Vaio subnotebook with an 800 MHz Pentium III chip, 512 MB of RAM, and a 10 GB hard drive. This machine is getting a bit old by today's standards. At home, I have just upgraded to a new Titanium PowerBook 400 with 512 MB of RAM and a 30 GB hard drive. This machine is nine months behind the curve. As I sit down to write this, I am listing all of the things I do with my computer.

  • Word
  • Excel
  • PowerPoint
  • Email
  • Internet
  • MP3 playing and creating
  • Burning CDs
  • Games

This seems to be the bulk of activity that I need my computer to accomplish. The only items on the list that I couldn't do in 1996 were MP3s and CD burning. Interestingly enough, I have since installed an MP3 player on the Umax (still at home), and it works well. So CD-RW was the only thing I could not do if someone moved me back to my 1996 rigs. Now I understand that I would not be able to run some of the current applications, but I have found no real advances in most of those areas (beyond gaming) in the last five years.

...they feel compelled to upgrade computers about twice a year.

I was having lunch with some Wintel-only friends and was struck by the fact that they feel compelled to upgrade computers about twice a year. We were discussing the merits of Win XP and trying to determine if they should migrate a happily running Win2k box to the new operating system. As this group consists of those who love to play with computers, they all came to the conclusion that now would be a good time to replace last year's machines and simply use a preinstalled copy of Win XP.

As we talked, I tried to probe a bit further regarding what they could not do with the current systems. The consensus was absolutely nothing. The base machine for this group was a 1 GHz processor with a minimum of 512 MB of RAM and at least 40 GB of drive space. As prices have dropped on memory and drives, they have all added more than they need.

I tried to determine what is it that compels computer users to upgrade systems on a yearly basis. In corporate America, it is the software manufacturers themselves who prompt the cycle. I am sure many of you were moved from perfectly functioning older software packages because a company canceled support and forced a migration to a newer version. This migration required better hardware and the cycle continued.

Home users would seem more insulated from this forced obsolescence. Strangely, however, even my parents - who need only Web and email - just upgraded a machine simply because they were afraid to fall too far behind the current standards. They seemed to give little thought as to what they actually need to do on a daily basis.

It seems the majority of users just want new computers. This drive crosses all platforms and communities. For every Wintel friend who makes changes, I have a Mac friend who has to go from a 500 MHz PowerBook to a 667 MHz PowerBook.

To all of you, I say stop the insanity!

I know that many of you are fans of hardware, and some of you need to have the latest and greatest to accomplish your work. But for everyone who simply buys a new thing to have a new thing, slow down. Make a list of what you need in a computer. I (like many visitors to LEM) love to stay at least six months behind the curve. From that position, I can take advantage of lower cost upgrade. I recently upgraded by buying my Ti Book G4 400 at the end of its life cycle. The price was almost $900 less than I would have paid at the top of the curve, and I am very happy with its performance. I honestly could have grabbed a nice Lombard or Pismo and been just as happy with those machine from a year ago. I gain the benefit of buying after all of the bugs have been worked out of a system. You can buy accessories and even systems from users who are moving on and save a tremendous amount of money.

When I buy computer games, I usually wait until the game has been out for a few months. Again, I gain the benefit of a better price and do not have to suffer through the typical patching cycle. With productivity software, I again let the early adopters work out the problems, and then I purchase. This strategy has served me well over the years and has kept my bank account from suffering too terribly.

In closing, adopt the philosophy of LEM and use what works until you can no longer accomplish your task. Then buy only what you need. Computer technology you underutilize is simply wasted. LEM

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