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MacBook System Hardware Upgrades: Where’s The Best Value? – The ‘Book Mystique

I’ve been saying all year that when Apple made its fall new product announcements I would be able to make a point-in-time informed choice about hardware upgrades. I’m inclined to keep my computers a long time, and my goal is to future-proof my purchases as much as possible in order to avoid years of buyer-remorse. This policy has had mixed success over the years.

For example, I didn’t expect Apple to release a replacement for the late-2008 aluminum unibody MacBook with a feature-enhanced 13-inch MacBook Pro after just six months, but that’s what happened two months after I bought my MacBook. They did it again when they released a significantly faster A6x powered Lightning fourth-generation iPad six months after the third-generation iPad was rolled out, but having stuck with my iPad 2 I didn’t get sideswiped that time.

Of course, even a relatively less than well-timed choice of Apple hardware often works out reasonably well. That old MacBook is now more than halfway through its fifth year of flawless service as my anchor Mac. I don’t miss FireWire as much as I thought I would, and an advantage compared with the early-2009 13-inch MacBook Pro that superseded it is that the older model’s battery is user-replaceable, which seems much more important four and a half years in than it did at time of purchase.

The battery replacement issue is also one reason why I’m even more oriented than ever toward buying low n the price range. By the time the battery needs replacing, the computer will be too old and dated to justify spending serious money on getting Apple to replace the battery, so the computer will have to live on as a plugged-in desktop system or replaced by a new one if you need a portable workhorse anchor Mac.

Sadly, this shortcoming is getting worse rather than better. According to the good folks at iFixIt, the new 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro the least repairable Mac laptop to date. The only hardware upgradeable Mac laptop left is the old-school Ivy Bridge powered 13-inch MacBook Pro direct descendent of my old aluminum MacBook, and it’s likely to follow its discontinued 15-inch sibling in the not too distant future.

At least the entry-level MacBook Airs are priced attractively enough to make them in my estimation probably the best laptop computer value for the money Apple has ever offered at $1,000 and $1,100 respectively for the entry-level 11.6″ and 13.3″ models. Not without some caveats, however — one being the aforementioned non-replaceable battery, another the lack of RAM and storage drive upgrade headroom. You’re stuck with whatever specification the computer has when you buy it, and the base 4GB/128GB configuration is inadequate for serious users. The l60GB hard disk drive in my MacBook is bung-full, and it’s tiny compared with current HDD capacities. Consequently one is obliged to either cough up another $300 for an upgrade to 8GB/256GB, which jacks the bottom line price to more than Can$1,600 including tax where I live, or be prepared to live with compromises likely to loom larger in inconvenience with the passage of time.

iFixIt’s MIroslav Djuric expressed it well in his iPad Air teardown note last week: “With a hard-to-repair device, the fix is either expensive or impossible. It hurts the consumer, sucks for the environment, and contributes to the device’s untimely demise. That’s “no bueno” on many different levels, if you ask us.” Too true, but when the non-Retina 13-inch MacBook Pro is discontinued, we will be left with our choice of virtually unfixable and non-upgradeable Apple laptops and tablets, and according to Wired contributing writer Fred Vogelstein’s in his new book: “Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution” (to be released November 12), it’s a deliberate part of Apple’s game plan. Vogelstein notes in a Wired preview excerpt from the book that “Starting in 2010, [Steve] Jobs had more and more Apple products assembled with special screws to make it difficult for anyone with typical screwdriver heads to open the cases of his machines. (It seemed like a small thing, but to those inside Silicon Valley its symbolism was large: One of Android’s pitches to consumers was the flexibility of the software and the devices.)

With the release of the new Haswell 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro last month, my system upgrade shortlist has expanded to four models, including the two sizes of MacBook Air and also the 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro. The latter, which is now priced mid-way between the 13-inch MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro in the U.S., has 500 GB of standard storage, RAM upgradability, and a built-in optical drive to recommend it, but being essentially an updated iteration of my late-2008 MacBook’s form factor, it suffers by comparison to the newer, much thinner and lighter models with its pedestrian 1,260 x 800 display, last year’s Ivy Bridge Core i CPU with Intel HD 4000 graphics, and that capacious, upgradable, storage drive is a hard disk drive rather than the later machines’ much faster solid state drives. A different set of compromises, but with the advantage of being adequately equipped at its base price of $1,199.

For another 100 bucks ($150 in Canada), you get a 2.4GHz dual-core Haswell Intel Core i5 CPU with Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz and Intel Iris Graphics, and exactly twice the screen resolution (2560 x 1600) of the non-Retina Pro, but only 4GB of RAM and an unconvincing 128GB of PCIe-based flash storage — both non-upgradable and truly inadequate for a serious production machine claiming “professional” credentials. Still, it’s an awfully nice piece of kit, as our U.K. friends would say, and the latest price reduction makes it a thinkable alternative, even though buying one would contradict my “buy low” philosophy.

A new element in this hardware upgrade quandary for me this time is figuring out where the iPad, which didn’t yet exist when I last purchased a new anchor Mac, fits into the equation. My laptop usage hours have diminished radically since buying my iPad in June, 2011. The ‘Pad is great for Web surfing, music listening and so forth, tolerable for email, but mediocre to miserable for the sort of work I mostly do with computers. However in spite of myself, I’ve ended up doing a lot of production work on the iPad anyway — seduced by its use-anywhere ease and convenience, so it occurs that I could perhaps get along with a less capable computer to use in tandem with the iPad Air I’ll be buying soon. I’ve also thought of the possibility of using an 11-inch MacBook Air as a do-all substitute for both, but no clamshell laptop can match the iPad as a portable device.

There’s also the option of buying an Apple Certified Refurbished Haswell MacBook Air, saving enough to pay for nearly half the iPad upgrade cost. That’s how I’m leaning right now anyway. Stay tuned.

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1 comment to MacBook System Hardware Upgrades: Where’s The Best Value? – The ‘Book Mystique

  • I’ll tell you what I did, Charles. After almost 20 years of exclusive PowerBook-MacBook use, I decided to keep my MacBook Pro for use while on the road or around the house, and I bought a refurbished 27″ iMac to use most of the time. Boy am I glad I did! The 27″ display is a joy to use, and I’m pleased at how much faster the iMac (at least seems) compared to the MacBook Pro. For the price, it was a no-brainer after I realized that I was doing 90% of my work sitting at the same desk day in and day out. The spacious hard drive is more than enough space for my needs, and I was able to upgrade the RAM to 24GBs for very little money. Couldn’t be happier, really.

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