'Book Value

OS Robustness, Mac Reliability, and the Upgrade Cycle

Charles Moore - 2009.01.15 - Tip Jar

My production fleet of three old PowerBooks blows me away with how reliable they are despite their age, and Mac OS X continues to impress with it's robustness.

Backup Time

For example, Monday evening I decided it would be efficient to do a triple global backup update, and it occurred that doing them simultaneously would be most efficient provided my old 1.33 GHz G4 machine (a 2003 model) would handle it. I wasn't terribly optimistic, since the computer hadn't been rebooted for a week and a half, the swap files had built up, and the memory allocations were getting kinda ropy.

But what the hey. I plugged in the USB external drive I use for Time Machine backups, forgetting that I hadn't run Time Machine since I did a clean OS install and upgrade to OS X 10.5.6 earlier this month, so the update was a lengthy one that took most of the evening with me continuing to use the computer for production tasks.

I eventually got around to connecting the FireWire drive on which I keep a cloned copy of my PowerBook's internal hard drive and hooked up the Pismo PowerBook, whose drive I try to keep closely mirrored via ethernet.

Both those backups were reasonably up to date, although the FireWire drive had OS X 10.5.5 installed, and I'm still not quite confident enough in 10.5.6 to be ready to clone it over that drive's known-reliable system, so I would just do a file backup touchup via manual drag and drop in the Finder for both it and the Pismo backup.

With Time Machine still plugging away in the background, I still managed to pull this off successfully, albeit not with out some hiccups in the form of temporary Finder lockups - plus I think three Finder crashes (it was late, and I didn't keep close count).

The cool thing, IMHO, is that despite all the multitasking activity obviously taxing the old G4's limits (I did take pity on it and log off the Internet, but there were still more than a dozen applications open, and the cooling fans were screaming), the machine itself never went down. Like I said, robust.

I'm wondering if I can expect as good with my forthcoming upgrade to a Macintel 'Book.

No Compelling Reason to Upgrade

This anecdote is a snapshot example of why I've found no really compelling reason to upgrade from my present hardware to a new Mac so far, with us now more than three years into the Intel era. I could use a bit more speed, but by and large the 17" PowerBook is still a very gratifying computer on which to work, and my biggest slowdown bottleneck is not processor power but being stuck with dialup Internet service - but that's another movie.

For what many of us do mostly with our computers - word processing, email, Web surfing, and perhaps some digital image editing - processor speed on any Mac that's 5-6 years old or less is probably adequate. Games and video are another matter, of course, but I think probably the most common upgrade impetus is wanting a more up-to-date model with the latest bells and whistles, or, in a minority of cases, the need or desire to use software that really does work better with more processor power, RAM capacity, and video support.

Even older Macs can still be very useful. My two old Pismos, released in 2000, do yeoman service as utility and road warrior machines, and my wife is still getting along very happily with my old 700 MHz G3 iBook from 200 running OS X 10.4.11 as an email and Internet machine. It's amazingly reliable as well, notwithstanding that model's statistically spotty record. We rebooted it last week for the first time since at least last summer, we think. Neither of us could remember exactly when it had been restarted last, and it hadn't crashed or anything.

MacBook Reliability

I am, however, skeptical that the Intel laptops will prove to be either as functionally trouble-free or as long-lived as these old Power PC units. I hope I'm mistaken, but I've been hearing a lot of tales of woe lately, for example from owners of the MacBook Pro models equipped with the Nvidia GeForce 8600GT graphics processors (that would be the May 2007 and February 2008 revisions) on which, according to Apple, Nvidia has acknowledged a higher than normal failure rate due to a packaging defect. Apple has put in place an extended service program on these models whereby if the Nvidia graphics processor fails within two years of the original date of purchase, a repair will be done free of charge, even if your MacBook Pro is out of warranty.

That's better than nothing, but with the remedy being expensive logic board replacements, two years is hardly adequate, especially for a fault that is reportedly related somewhat to hours of use, which makes these MacBook Pros a very iffy proposition longevity-wise. Users who pony up $2,000 or more for a laptop should very reasonably reasonably expect better.

I'm going to upgrade my system soon, probably to a MacBook for budgetary reasons (haven't decided whether I'll go old school or Unibody) but I've long thought the paradigm of buying a new system every two or three years more than a bit absurd for commodities as expensive as Apple notebooks - and environmentally irresponsible as well. At least up until recently we've usually had the option of carrying on longer than that if we chose to. My Pismos are pushing nine years old and are still in fine fettle.

I'm hoping that the new Unibody MacBook Pros and MacBooks will prove reasonably reliable. Incidentally, the old style MacBook's Intel GMA X3100 and X950 integrated graphics are castigated for being lackluster speed-wise, but they seem to not be failure-prone.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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