We get these questions a lot...
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
comparing repair options to replacement - checking
your machine's potential will help to make an
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 operational, open
Apple menu (top-left corner of screen) and select
"About This Mac."
Make a note of OS version,
+ CPU), and memory (RAM).
Serial number should also be in
About window, and a model year may also
Info/System Report button takes you to the
System Profile where a detailed list of
component specifications are found.)
signs of an obsolete OS are usually internet
issues; unrecognized file formats, missing images,
inadequate security. A current web browser is
necessary, which requires
a reasonably current
OS, which in turn depends on machine's processor
or CPU. If you Mac can run one of the latest two
or three OS versions, an upgrade may be all that's
In the rare event that a machine never goes
online, it will continue to do whatever it's been
doing without upgrading its OS. 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 current
OS that the machine cannot run. But these Macs are
In most cases, a Mac is considered obsolete when
it can no longer run a currently supported OS.
Apple continues to provide updates for 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your Mac can run is no longer being updated or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
Yes... and no.
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 upgrading or repair/refurb
if machine is in decent condition.
When compared to port options, upgrade cost and
the expense 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
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 also present a
problem; SSD upgrades are only available from
Apple (2TB = $1,200 at last check), and data
recovery requires an operational Gen5-equipped
Mac. See Tech
Support/Drives for more info on SSDs and
HDDs in use today.
(proprietary) Gen5 SSD from non-TouchBar MacBook
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 (or Thunderbolt3
as Apple calls it). 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. (See Ports and Adapters
and understand the fine print
new MacBook models and iMacs after mid-2014
_cannot_ be upgraded after purchase due to Apple's
"onboard" RAM and, in some cases, "onboard"
all data on a proper backup is critical.
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"
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.
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.
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 model
Macs (see below).
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.
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.
isn't always for the better
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 not 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.
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
extended Apple warranty on new (expensive)
notebooks might be a good idea, too. (Avoid
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
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.
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 drives in your possession.
and cloud access
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Computer use and
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:
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
past three or more OS versions at once
with older peripherals/equipment attached
on a network of mixed machines/platforms
while running a custom (possibly extinct)
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
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
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
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.
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
Do you really need
to be portable?
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.
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.
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
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.