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The End is Near: Deciding to Replace a Computer

MacBook Pro Available in 15.4- and 17-inch dia...
MacBook Pro Available in 15.4- and 17-inch diagonal size. MacBook Pro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
April 9, 2012 Deadline
May 2012 Issue

The End is Near: Deciding to Replace a Computer

There comes a time in every computer’s life when, regrettably, it can no longer keep up with the demands of work. We grow attached to our computers, accepting their quirks and (at least some of us believe) their personalities.

I love my Apple MacBook Pro notebook, but it is starting to struggle with some tasks compared to the new kids on the block. It is time to consider a replacement. It won’t be easy to replace this loyal companion, but I must.

Because I teach technology-based courses, I need to keep up with the latest software and hardware peripherals. That doesn’t mean the MacBook Pro won’t have other uses; we’ve managed to keep a few computers in the family for a decade or longer.

I recommend using a computer until it absolutely, positively cannot support the software you need or want to use. Even an old computer can have specialized uses for many years after it has to be replaced.

One way to extend the life of a computer is to upgrade the components every two to three years. Components like memory and hard drives are relatively affordable. Weigh the price and convenience of the upgrade against how many more years it might add to the life of a computer. If the “upgrades” are a rebuild of the computer, it is probably best to buy or build a new system.

If you have a desktop system, you have far more options than a notebook user. High-end systems allow you to upgrade everything from hard drives to video cards. However, inexpensive towers and desktops tend to be as limited as notebook computers. If your computer uses “integrated” graphics and adapters, you’re stuck with whatever was included.

When I build a PC, I try to buy the largest case, best power supply and most flexible motherboard available. These decisions allow me to replace most other parts for several years. However, there comes a point when the latest and greatest parts won’t work in an older system. Although you might be able to locate parts online for an older computer system, the prices increase and the benefits decrease over time. The industry changes RAM designs, expansion card standards and even the sockets where CPUs are mounted.

Generic tower-based PCs are easy to update, at least during their expected lifespans. The same cannot be said for Apple’s iMac systems or any company’s notebooks. While I do love Apple computers, I intensely dislike the sealed nature of iMac systems. I can update my MacBook Pro with greater ease than I can update my wife’s iMac. If you decide to buy an iMac, you’re buying a system that is easier to replace than upgrade. You can add memory, but that’s about all you can do without special tools and training.

Then again, that’s the same as a notebook. Notebooks offer few upgrade opportunities. That’s not a problem if you use Microsoft Word and surf the Web. If I didn’t need to run the Adobe Creative Suite and various multimedia applications, my notebook could last another two years, easily.

I’m a notebook user out of necessity. I need portability, so I can work on campus, at conferences and at home. I doubt I will ever go back to using a desktop as my primary system.

Using a notebook computer as my primary system imposes significant limitations on what I can and cannot upgrade. Adding more RAM or updating a hard drive is relatively easy, but you cannot upgrade the CPU or the video card of most notebooks. Also, you are stuck with the ports and connectors provided.

My MacBook Pro arrived in the Apple Store at the Mall of America some time in late 2006. With an Intel 2.16 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, it was the fastest computer I had owned. The system came with 1 gigabyte of RAM, a 120 gigabyte hard drive, and 128 megabytes of video RAM. Over the years, I upgraded the RAM to 3 GB and the hard drive to 500 GB for my multimedia projects.

Unfortunately, the limitations of a five-year-old computer are starting to get more obvious to me each day. There are aspects of the MacBook Pro, like those of any old computer, that cannot be altered or overcome.

The processor and graphics cannot be upgraded. While more memory helps any computer, the system cannot use more than 3 GB of RAM. The hard drive cannot be upgraded to the latest standards. We’re at the end of the line for the MacBook upgrades.

The 2006 MacBook Pro supports the Serial ATA 1.0 hard drive standard, limiting the top speed to 1.5 gigabits per second. Today, most computer motherboards support SATA 3.0, which provides a maximum data transfer speed of 6.0 Gbit/second. In published tests, data are transferred five times faster. You can gain even more speed with a Solid-State Drive (SSD) or a hybrid drive. Installing a new drive in my notebook? The drive could never achieve its theoretical top speed.

My video card is another serious limitation. When Microsoft and Apple update their operating systems, this can leave older video cards behind. The ATI Radeon X1600 in my notebook has a limited amount of memory and doesn’t support the latest graphics standards. Video adapters are designed to support specific libraries. For Windows, these are the DirectX drivers and libraries. For Apple’s OS X, drivers use the OpenCL standard and hardware acceleration.

My notebook’s video adapter is too old to support the latest OpenCL features, so some video-intensive applications run slowly or not at all. If I want to edit video or create complex graphics, I need a new system. Today’s best notebooks ship with 1 GB of video memory, nearly nine times what my notebook has, and Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) that rival good desktop systems.

This summer or fall, I will be purchasing a new notebook. It will be the best I can afford, so it should last at least six years. Maybe I’ll come to like it as much as my current MacBook Pro.


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