This is a common question...
It usually 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 deciding between repair versus replacement, beginning with your machine's upgrade potential.
Collect machine specs
If your machine refuses to startup, info may be obtained from its serial number, located on bottom case of notebooks, under the stand of iMacs, or under port array of MacPro towers.
If machine is functional, open Apple menu and select "About This Mac":
Make a note of OS version, Processor info and serial number. Machine's model year may also appear in this window.
System Report (or More Info) button opens the System Profile where a detailed list of all component specs are listed.
Age and obsolescence
First signs of an obsolete OS are usually internet issues; unrecognized file formats, missing images, minor malfunctions. A current web browser is necessary, which requires a reasonably current OS, which in turn depends on machine's processor or CPU. If your Mac can run one of the latest two or three OS versions, an upgrade may be all that's necessary.
In the rare event that a machine never goes online, it will continue to do whatever it's been doing without upgrading. There are older Macs out there (usually towers) serving dedicated use in recording studios and design shops that never connect to the internet. The end of the road for these non-internet Macs is usually when a peripheral (such as a printer) fails and replacement requires a newer OS than the machine can run. But these Macs are the exception.
In most cases, a Mac is considered obsolete when it can no longer run a currently supported OS. Apple typically provides updates for a few OS versions prior to the latest release, but if the last OS your Mac can run is no longer being updated or supported, the machine has gone obsolete.
More info on OS versions and links to System requirements for each OS are posted here: Tech Support/Upgrades
Yes... and no.
Generally speaking, the older the machine, the easier it is to service and/or upgrade. If it is capable of running a current MacOS release, it is well worth upgrade or service if machine is in decent condition. When compared to purchase price, upgrade cost and port options of a new Mac, servicing your present machine can be a real bargain.
MacBook 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 - but adding photos, music or video will quickly consume all available storage due to size of these file types.
MacBook Pro notebooks typically have more storage - higher capacity SSDs - but these come at a significant price, especially when compared to conventional drives used in older machines. And, be advised, some models cannot be upgraded after purchase. RAM (memory) may be soldered to the logic board (referred to as onboard RAM). Likewise Solid State Drive (SSD) storage may also be soldered "onboard," - including all TouchBar Macs - and thus drives cannot be removed or upgraded. Proprietary Gen5 SSDs in non-TouchBar models may also present some problems with upgrades and data recovery. See Tech Support/Drives for more info on SSDs and HDDs in use today.
Removable (proprietary) Gen5 SSD from non-TouchBar MacBook Pro
Optical drives were abandoned in 2012, so if CD/DVD capability is desired, external USB-connected optical drives are available. Port types are constantly changing as well, and many have been discontinued: USB 1/2/3, Firewire, mini video and Thunderbolt1 have all been replaced by USB-C ports (aka Thunderbolt3). Adapters are available for most of these port types.
MagSafe and MagSafe2 charge ports have also been replaced by that same USB-C connector, used to charge internal battery in newer Macs. (See Ports and Adapters graphic, below.)
Read and understand the fine print
Many new MacBook models and iMacs after mid-2014 _cannot_ be upgraded after purchase due to Apple's "onboard" RAM - and, in some cases, "onboard" storage. Having all data on a proper backup is critical.
iMac models face a similar dilemma, since disassembly and service of the newer models can be quite laborious. Adding RAM to 21" iMacs that do not have onboard RAM now requires complete disassembly, a job that used to take less than 5 minutes. Upgrading the new 27" iMac is still quick and easy, tho, thanks to a RAM door that the 21" models lack.
Another consideration involves graphics card (GPU) options. If GPU is the "onboard" type, upgrade will only be possible at time of purchase. This may be another advantage of the 27" iMac over 21" models as some 27" iMacs have a GPU separate from its logic board.
Before investing in any new Mac, it pays to research and understand what terms like "onboard" or "configurable" mean, and how these details will affect use and operation. 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 need. Investigate other relevant tech specs, too, especially if video, photography and/or music is important to you. You may not be interested in all the tech specs and details involved, but unless you take the time to learn these things you run the risk of making an expensive mistake. It matters.
New or used?
Older i5 and i7 CPU machines provide many ports and options newer Macs may lack. These Macs are holding their value and may look quite appealing when compared to limitations imposed by new models (see below).
The newer the machine, the longer its useful life will be, but it should be noted that most Macs cannot run OS versions older that the one it shipped with - important only if you are running critical software from years ago. Upgrades discussed above may also be problematic. Knowing your OS, app and storage requirements prior to purchasing any machine, new or used, will prevent regrets later.
One machine to avoid entirely is the 12" MacBook with a single USB-C port. This model was discontinued after only two years, just long enough to establish a horrible reputation.
Change isn't always for the better
Starting around 2012, Apple began using high-rez displays in new Macs known as the Retina display. While some people wouldn't know the difference unless viewing two machines side-by-side, most photographers and graphic designers appreciate the improved sharpness, clarity and color saturation.
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 for early Retina display models. Current models employ a different adhesive system which is much easier to deal with, but those early ones used industrial-strength goo that is no fun to remove.
Another recent development is the ill-fated "butterfly" mechanisms in notebook keyboards; early butterfly keyboards proved to be extremely sensitive to dust and handling, resulting in complaints of sticking, missing and malfunctioning keys, and a service program (here). Later models have an improved keyboard.
With "onboard" (soldered) RAM (and, in some cases, onboard SSDs per above), sealed display modules, glue-in batteries, limited ports and butterfly keyboards - the care, use and maintenance of these late-model notebooks takes on new significance. Know what you're buying:
- Backup is critical. If a non-removable drive fails, it takes the machine with it. Conversely, if machine fails, it takes the drive and all data with it. In either case, recovering data may be impossible. Same for machines equipped with Apple's T2 chip. Maintaining proper backup is crucial. Even cloud backup is better than nothing.
- Internal SSDs that cannot store more than 500GB will force most users to store their data on an external drive or on the cloud, and many people are not okay with the cloud - for a variety of reasons. Good to have options.
- Keyboard protection is cheap and all but mandatory. We recommend a keyboard cover on notebooks to protect 'em from spills and dust; links are posted up-front on nCity's homepage.
- Upgrading RAM is not possible after purchase if RAM is "onboard" type, and very difficult to install to newer 21" iMacs, if even possible. Same goes for "onboard" SSDs that cannot be removed/upgraded later. Know what you're getting into and consider upgrade options prior to purchase.
- An extended Apple warranty on new (expensive) notebooks might be a good idea, too. (Avoid all 3rd-party warranties.) Some batteries swell up over time (our TechTales page has a few examples of these), possible keyboard issues, $400+ Retina displays, hard-wired RAM, finicky SSD drives - problems with any one of these will exceed cost of Apple's 3-year warranty (which DOES NOT cover spills, drops or damage, BTW). Having a protective case and pair of kid gloves is also recommended.
Broadband = minimum 3Mbps.
When you 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 FileVault 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/using cloud apps, and if your internet connection is less than 3Mbps you technically don't have broadband at all. Best to have apps and storage installed on your computer and physical backup drives in your possession.
Privacy and cloud access
The trend 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, settings, apps, etc.). Proper backup includes all data copied and stored on an external drive using Time Machine or a suitable backup app. Cloud backup is better than nothing, but recovery will require installing OS and apps before retrieving cloud files, adding quite a bit of time and effort to the recovery process. Cloud storage - assuming you're using iCloud and not some bogus scam site - cloud storage can be problematic as well, putting your ISP, network connections, components and passwords in the way.
And, BTW, according to the end user license agreement (EULA) that nobody ever reads, you forfeit exclusive ownership of any/all files you may upload to cloud storage.
Located in System Preferences under "Security and Privacy" is the FileVault tab which allows you to encrypt all data. This may be useful for classified information, but it is largely 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 FileVault on compresses data storage to some degree, so reaching a full drive with it on means a _very_ full drive. Some FV versions were known to lockout troubleshooting routines, others can cause startup issues; and turning FV off can take many hours, typically all night. Why complicate matters? If it's off, leave it off - and don't turn it on when prompted by a new OS.
Hard disk drives, solid state drives and hybrid drives
Compare drive capacity and price of hard disk drives (HDDs) to storage capacity and price of solid-state drives (SSDs). While SSD prices are less than half of what they once were (and dropping), they are still typically, byte-for-byte, far more expensive than conventional hard drives. A 1TB desktop HDD (that's 1024GB) costs around $50, and HDD capacities go up to 16TB these days. SSDs are typically around $100 per TB, and far more expensive than that if purchased as an upgrade from Apple.
Notebook SSDs may reach or exceed the 2-4TB capacity of current rotational 2.5" notebook drives, but be prepared for sticker shock. Newer notebooks and iMacs employ a blade-type SSD that is often machine and model-specific, much more compact (and expensive) than the old 2.5" HDD configuration.
Hybrid drives are part SSD (essentially an enormous cache) and part HDD in a single package, 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 alongside a second, rotational drive providing storage. Late-2012 MacBook Pros, still 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 machine. Many late-2012 MacBook Pros can run Catalina, too.
The advantage of an SSD is, of course, speed. That is, read/write speed, with faster startup and faster write times. Actual working speed is determined by RAM, but faster read/write ops improves overall performance. What typically suffers with SSDs is storage space - one reason people are being pushed into cloud storage.
Storage (drive) and RAM upgrades may no longer be possible
Be advised: 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 may not be a possibility (see Machine Upgrades, above).
Computer 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, high-end music studio, do video editing or complicated 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 or cannot be updated.
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:
Some OS/Mac 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 (Rosetta2). But these things don't last forever...
- Upgrading past three or more OS versions at once
- Upgrading with older peripherals/equipment attached
- Upgrading on a network of mixed machines/platforms
- Upgrading while running a custom (possibly extinct) database
Unfortunately, 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 iMac died. That job involved purchase and refurb of an intermediate-age machine/OS, then converting all data - at least 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 often 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.
Port changes on new Macs
Apple's new Thunderbolt3 (aka USB-C) can support a variety of connections, including an external display, Thunderbolt, Thunderbolt2, 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 available.
iMac ports include headphone, USB3, Thunderbolt3 (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 apps. 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, there's no battery/charger to deal with, and they're roughly the same price as comparable notebooks.
Use a MacMini or notebook to replace your TV
iPhones and iPads can handle most portability needs these days (short of content creation) and these 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 and getting an iPad for travel.
Say goodbye 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 or 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, most TV programming, and everything else).
If using a wireless keyboard/mouse/trackpad isn't in the cards, you can use an app on 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.