get this question a lot lately...
comes up when there's some sort of problem, but just because a computer
isn't working correctly doesn't mean it's finished.
There are a myriad of factors to consider when comparing repair options
to Mac replacement - see below for a quick assessment and more detailed
Collect your machine specs
Apple logo (top-left corner) is the Apple menu with "About This Mac."
Open it and you will see your OS version, Processor (CPU) type and GHz
speed along with installed memory (RAM). The
More Info/System Report button has more specific details if
Age and obsolescence
Make a note of OS version (10.☐.☐), CPU (☐GHz + processor type), and installed
memory (☐GB). There
should also be a serial number and possibly a model year listed in the
About window that
might also be helpful.
typically go obsolete before there's any sort of hardware failure -
which doesn't help much when it comes time to upgrade. First signs are
usually internet issues; unrecognized file
formats, missing images, inadequate security. A current web browser is
required, with an up-to-date OS, which may require a new CPU.
But, if you can upgrade your current OS to one of
the last two or three versions, you're good to go.
If a machine never goes online, it will continue to do whatever it's
been doing until something actually does fail. Otherwise, the end of
the road for a non-internet
Mac is usually when the printer dies and a new printer requires a
current OS that the machine cannot run.
Macs go obsolete when an outdated CPU cannot support a current
OS version. Apple continues to provide security and app updates
for OS versions prior to the latest release, but the machine has
life remaining. If the last OS your Mac can support is no longer
getting updates, machine is obsolete.
More info on OS versions and links to System requirements for each OS
are posted here: Tech
Yes... and no.
Generally speaking, the older
the machine, the easier it is to service and/or upgrade. If it is
capable of running the latest MacOS, it is well worth upgrading or
repairs in most cases. Otherwise, it depends on machine's OS upgrade
options. If, for example, machine's OS capability ends with 10.13 (High
Sierra), then it's useful life will end when Apple drops support for
10.13 - which won't be anytime soon. If end of the road is 10.11, it
probably has a year or so left. When compared to potential port
limitations, upgrades and
expense of a new Mac, repair/refurb of existing system might be best
option. All depends on machine age and OS compatibility.
Read and understand the fine print
MacBooks (Pro and Air) have changed considerably in recent years. The
Air models have always been limited in storage capacity and port
options; these are perfect for anyone dealing primarily with text files
- emails, documents and such. Putting photos, music or video on an Air
will quickly consume available storage due to the size of these file
MacBook Pro notebooks typically have more storage capability - larger
SSDs - but that
comes at a significant price, especially when compared to conventional
drives. Plus, some notebooks cannot
be upgraded after purchase because RAM and SSD may be soldered to logic board.
All new Macs lost their optical drives years ago, so CDs/DVDs require
an external optical drive. Port types are constantly changing as well,
have been discontinued: USB 1/2/3, Firewire 400/800, mini video
and Thunderbolt 1, to name a few. Most of these have been replaced by
Thunderbolt3, aka USB-C, and adapters are available for most older port
types. MagSafe 1 and 2 have also been replaced by that same USB-C port
used for charging internal battery. (See Ports and Adapters, below.)
Many new MacBook models and
iMacs after mid-2014 _cannot_ be upgraded after purchase due to what
Apple used to call "onboard" RAM and "onboard" storage. They've
apparently dropped the "onboard" designation, but the problem remains:
Memory (RAM) is soldered
to logic board, making upgrades impossible. Likewise
machines with a hard-wired (soldered ) solid-state drive, as these are also impossible
to remove or upgrade after purchase. (Having a backup is critical.)
New or used?
Some iMac models face the same dilemma, since disassembly and service
of the newer models can be quite tedious and troublesome. Just adding
RAM to a 21" iMac can be a three-hour job now; used to take less than 5
Before investing in a new Mac, it pays to ask questions, do your
homework, and understand what terms like "onboard" or "configurable"
mean. Know how much storage you will need (based on history and use),
how much RAM your apps and OS will require, and what port
types and adapters you will be using. Investigate other relavent tech
specs, too, especially if video, photography and/or music is important
to you. You may not want to know about all the tech specs and details
involved, but take the time to learn these things. It matters.
Older i5 and i7 CPU machines
that shipped with conventional (2.5" rotational) hard disk drives
(HDDs, not blade-type SSDs)
provide many options. They come equipped with RAM slots and an
assortment of ports, too. These Macs are holding their value and may
look quite appealing when compared to limitations imposed by new model
Macs (see below).
Change isn't always for the better
2.5" HDDs are cheap (2TB = about $70-90), and a solid state drive in a
2.5" package may also be installed. Most older MacBooks have a full
array of ports, SD card slots, and some still have optical drives
(CD/DVD) - if you care about such things. These machines are easily
upgraded to their maximum RAM (which varies by model), and their hard
drives are readily replaced and/or upgraded. The newer the machine, the
longer its useful life will be, but it should be noted that only the
newest models will be able to run Apple's latest OS, Mojave 10.14.
around 2012, Apple began using high-rez displays in new Macs known as
the Retina display. Most people wouldn't know the difference unless
viewing two machines side-by-side, but there are many photographers and
graphic designers who appreciate the improved sharpness, clarity and
Retina displays add a few bucks to purchase price (and replacement, if
broken), but there was another change to _all_ Retina display MacBooks
that has nothing to do with the screen: Their batteries are glued to top case/keyboard/trackpad
assembly, which makes battery replacement an expensive proposition.
Another recent development is the switch to "butterfly" mechanisms
in notebook keyboards, resulting in complaints of sticking, missing and
malfunctioning keys. In fact, Apple has launched a service program for
butterfly keyboards here.
Add "onboard" (soldered) RAM and SSDs (discussed above) to sealed
display modules, glued-in batteries, limited ports and butterfly
keyboards - the care, use and maintenance of these expensive new
notebooks takes on new significance:
- Backup is critical. If a non-removable drive
fails, it takes the machine with it. Conversely, if machine fails, it
takes the drive with it. In either case, copying data will be
impossible. Cloud backup? Better than nothing.
- Common SSDs that cannot store more
than 500GB will force users to store their data on the Cloud (iCloud),
and many people are not okay with that idea (for a variety of valid
- Keyboard protection is all but
mandatory. We've always recommended having a keyboard cover on
notebooks to protect 'em from spills (links on our homepage), but the
new butterfly keyboards are sensitive to dust, too. A cover should
prevent many malfunctions from normal use.
- Upgrading RAM is not possible after
purchase if RAM is "onboard" type. Same with "onboard" SSDs that cannot
be removed/upgraded later. (2TB SSD upgrade from Apple was $1400 when
last we checked.)
- Consider an extended Apple warranty.
Some percentage of lithium batteries will swell up over time (Techtales
page has a few examples of these), possible keyboard malfunctions, a
$400 Retina display, hard-wired RAM and SSD - problems with any one of
these will exceed cost of Apple's 3-year warranty (which DOES NOT cover
spills, drops or damage from handling, BTW). Having a protective case
and pair of kid gloves is also recommended.
Broadband = minimum 3Mbps.
download and install a new OS, or startup a new
Mac, you will be taken thru a few setup steps. One is signing into
iCloud. Don't. You can sign in
later. Another is encryption. Don't
turn that on, either. If you don't know what these things are, find out
BEFORE you activate them.
If you happen to have a blazing-fast
connection to the 'net, cloud apps and storage will work pretty much as
they did when everything resided on your machine. If you have something
less than top speed you may notice delays accessing cloud apps, and if
your internet connection is less than 3Mbps you technically don't have
broadband at all.
these days is to depend on cloud services for everything, from programs
that used to be installed on your computer, to cloud storage of your
photos, documents, email and other files. Is this a good idea?
As mentioned elsewhere on this site, cloud backup isn't a full backup, it's only a backup of
unique files (sans OS, network settings, apps). Proper backup includes all data copied and stored on an
external drive. Cloud backup is better than nothing, but recovery will
take a bit of time and effort. Cloud storage - assuming you're using
iCloud and not some bogus scam - cloud storage can be problematic as
well, putting your ISP, network connections, components and passwords
in the way. Data breaches are a threat, too.
System Preferences under "Security and Privacy" is the FileVault tab
which allows you to encrypt all data. This may be useful for spies and
political operatives, but it is completely unnecessary for most of us.
It also has a few side effects: If you forget the password, your data
is not only lost, it's scrambled. Turning FV on compresses data storage
to some degree, so reaching a full drive with it on means a _very_ full
drive, beyond capacity in some cases. Some FV versions were known to
lockout troubleshooting routines, others can cause startup issues; and
turning FV off can take many hours, usually all night. Why complicate
matters? If it's off, leave it off - and don't turn it on when prompted
by a new OS.
disk drives, solid state drives and hybrid drives
drive capacity of hard drives (HDDs) to storage capacity and price of
solid-state drives (SSDs). While SSD prices are less than half of what
they once were, they are still typically smaller and far more expensive
than conventional hard drives. A 1TB desktop HDD (that's 1024GB) costs
around $50; drive capacities go up to 6-8TB these days. A 1TB SSD drive
will be 6-7 times the cost and will probably require a (cheap) adapter
to install into a desktop computer.
Notebook SSDs may someday reach the 2-3TB capacity of current
rotational 2.5" notebook drives, but be prepared for sticker shock.
Newer notebooks (and some iMacs) employ a blade-type SSD that is
machine and model-specific and much more compact than the 2.5" drive
Hybrid drives are part
SSD (essentially an enormous cache) and part HDD, a decent compromise
between SSD speed and HDD storage at a reasonable price. Apple's Fusion drive setup uses two drives,
an SSD with OS and apps onboard alongside a second, rotational drive
providing storage. Older notebooks equipped with optical drives are
good candidates for this same arrangement since they have a second SATA
bus. A $20 adapter mounts an SSD and replaces the CD/DVD drive inside
The advantage of an SSD is, of course, speed. That is, read/write
speed, which speeds startup, opens apps faster and saves (writes) data
faster. Actual working speed is determined by RAM, but faster
read/write ops improves overall performance. What typically suffers
with SSDs is storage space - another reason people are being pushed
into cloud storage.
Storage (drive) and
RAM upgrades may no longer be possible
Newer MacBooks and iMac models are a bit more difficult to service than
their older siblings, so ask lots of questions before you buy and make
certain you understand options and limitations. As they say, "the devil
is in the details" and there's no shortage of details these days.
Simple service procedures that used to take 5-30 minutes on older
models (up to about 2012), can now take 2-3 hours or more - no joke.
Apple clearly wants you to buy all upgrades at the time of purchase, as
upgrading later can be quite expensive - and, in some cases - is not
even a possibility.
One example involves the difference between 21" and 27" iMacs: The 27"
iMac has a small door on back of machine, making RAM upgrades
easy, but 21" iMacs must be completely disassembled to access/upgrade
addition, all Hybrid-drive iMacs require disassembly to change
their SSD drives; upgrading/replacing these drives later will be costly.
Another example - perhaps the worst - involves newer MacBooks that may
have RAM soldered to logic board, making upgrades impossible. Worse
still are models that also have their solid state drives soldered to
logic board; a drive failure will take entire machine with it, while a
machine failure takes all data (making data backup more important than
use and software considerations
If you have mission-critical
software, check availability of new versions and check your software's
System requirements before buying a new (or used) machine.
Change is unavoidable
If you're like most people, your activity consists mainly of email,
internet, the occasional photo and some music, maybe a game or two. If
that's the case, there's no reason why you shouldn't keep your Mac
updated with the latest available MacOS and apps, and you have little
to worry about.
But - if you run a critical database, run a music studio, do video
editing or graphics, or use your computer to drive expensive machines
and equipment, you may have a lot to worry about. Especially if the
software and/or equipment you count on is no longer available.
Upgrades are easy and effective when you keep your computer current,
but there are situations when the need to upgrade can cascade into
major difficulties. For example:
upgrades contain significant changes to such low-level functions as
drive format, CPU type, and other things that have the potential to
make prior OS/software combinations completely incompatible. Apple, to
its credit, has made such transitions as painless as possible in the
past, with built-in emulation software to get us over the hump. But
these things don't last forever...
past three or more OS versions (i.e. 10.6 to 10.12)
with older peripherals/equipment attached
on a network of mixed machines/platforms
while running a custom (possibly extinct) database
the longer you put it off, the more difficult and complicated the
upgrade can become. We've had to port critical client data (including
maps, charts and graphs), from a long-extinct '90s database into a
modern program when the owner's 22-year-old Mac died. That job involved
purchase and refurb of an intermediate-age machine/OS, then converting
all data - twice - in a long, complicated, impossible-to-explain
process that is best avoided.
Here at the shop, we run a custom one-off database written back in the
day when there was no canned software suitable for our purposes, a
2-part relational database that had to be completely rewritten with the
advent of OSX, and again a few years later, so we're well acquainted
with the issue.
Bottom line: Dragging an old database into the 21st century and trying
to make it work is more expensive, time-consuming and troublesome than
starting over with an all-new routine. Best thing is to stay reasonably
current and avoid falling into the gulf between antique and modern.
changes on new Macs
Apple's new Thunderbolt 3 (aka USB-C) can support a variety
of connections, including an external display, Thunderbolt, Thunderbolt
2, HDMI, DVI, VGA, USB (and possibly Firewire). Each of these
connections requires a proper adapter.
Newer notebooks all have two USB-C ports compatible with connectors
listed above, but one port is also used to charge the battery from
Apple's new AC-adapters; new notebooks no longer use the MagSafe port.
MacBook Pro models will have a variety of additional ports, and
third-party expansion options are also available.
iMac ports include headphone, USB3, Thunderbolt
3 (aka USB-C), Ethernet, mini display port, and a camera card slot.
Firewire has been dropped but may be used with a proper adapter. 27"
iMacs with external RAM door may be upgraded easily, but 21" iMacs must
be disassembled to upgrade RAM.
External hardware compatibility
Make certain any critical peripheral devices or hardware
will function with a new or upgraded Macs, and check System
requirements for critical devices. Clients using CNC machines,
plotters/cutters, wide-format printers and other expensive output
devices should check for updates from device manufactures before
upgrading to avoid problems.
Do you really need
to be portable?
If your laptop or notebook
computer never leaves your desk, consider replacing it with a desktop
model and get more bang for your bucks. iMacs have bigger screens, more
storage potential, and wireless keyboard/mouse (or trackpad) that
allows better ergonomics for more comfort. Desktop machines don't get
lost or stolen, they don't suffer drops and spills, no battery/charger,
and they're about the same price as notebooks.
Use a MacMini or notebook to replace TV
iPhones and iPads can handle most portability needs these days (short
of sophisticated content creation) and are much more convenient than
lugging around a notebook. We see a lot of beat up notebooks here... if you don't
have to be portable, consider upgrading to a desktop iMac.
to the wasteland of television (if you haven't already) and switch to
internet on your flat-screen TV. Perfect arrangement is a MacMini with
wireless keyboard and mouse/trackpad, but notebook computers work
nicely, too. Using a computer means you are not limited to paid
content, you have access to the entire internet (including paid content
and everything else).
If using a wireless keyboard/mouse/trackpad isn't in the cards, you can
use your iPhone or iPad instead. And using Safari (or your choice of
browser) from your computer is a vast improvement over software that
ships with flat-screen TVs. Watch what you want, when you want, on your
schedule, and leave legacy media behind.