Phillip Smith

The upgrade hamster wheel: hoping for a future of recyled personal computing


Just under two years ago I traded in my trusty 15” MacBook Pro for a newer “unibody” solid body 17” MacBook Pro with an anti-glare screen. It was a sensible upgrade, and I realized at the time that if I traded in my old hardware while it was still under Apple’s extended AppleCare program – i.e., within three years of the initial purchase – most of the original value could be retained and used toward the newer hardware. I’m fuzzy on the exact details, but I think I invested $1200 in that upgrade to go from a three-year old laptop to the latest-and-greatest that was available at the time.

It’s not lost on me that many people would think that upgrading a computer every two-three years is questionable, not to mention the possible environmental irresponsibility. Right now, as I scan across the coffee shop that I’m writing this in, I can see a young guy working away on an older white MacBook – a computer that was discontinued in 2011. At the same time, I know that people who rely on their computers for their livelihood (like I do at the moment) upgrade with surprising frequency; we think of it as a necessary evil that leads to increased productivity. But does it really lead to increased productivity? On the environmental question, I tell myself that upgrading early increases the likelihood of more owners of the same hardware: reduce, reuse, recycle, right?

This last year, however, as Apple started to change direction on it’s hardware, I decided to take a new approach: instead of trading up to a new computer – because there wasn’t one to upgrade to – I started upgrading the internal hardware. Last fall, I swapped out the optical drive for a 250GB Solid State Drive to use for the operating system, applications, and my regularly used documents. Last week, I swapped out the internal 500GB hard drive for one that twice the size in the hope that I will no longer need to take an external drive on extended trips. The cost of these upgrades: $1000. My somewhat outdated (at two years!) 17” MacBook Pro is now humming along with the best of them and I expect – er, hope – to get at least another two years out of it.

Now, one would think that’s the end of the story, but of course it isn’t, because there is the whole issue of the annual upgrades to the Apple operating system itself. Just when you think you’ve managed to get off of the hardware upgrade hamster wheel, you’re presented with having to figure out whether it is safe to upgrade your software to the latest version. I spent a few hours yesterday doing a fresh install of OS X 10.8 “Mountain Lion” (and an innumerable number of hours preparing for the upgrade by backing up everything in a dizzyingly complex number of places) and I’ll probably spend several more hours this week re-configuring the laptop and re-installing software that I need to do my work. Joy.

Sound familiar? How many hours a year do you spend on this hamster wheel? I suspect the only way off it is to simply refuse to fall victim to the vanity of the latest-and-greatest and to the elusive promise of increased productivity from a “better rig.” Now that I think about it, I was perfectly productive last week and apparently with no additional effort to achieve it (of course, that’s a lie because I went through the exact same process last year when OS X 10.7 “Lion” came out).

All this leaves me wondering if the next innovation to come in personal computing is the “perpetual upgrade.” Most of the Web-based software as a service that I use is now billing me monthly for the privileged to use the software and the advantage of not having to worry about it. I get perpetual upgrades – whether I want them or not – for one low monthly price. Would it be so crazy to think of a similar model applied to personal computers? Actually, I’d be surprised if somebody out there wasn’t doing it right now – I probably just haven’t come across it yet.

I imagine it would work like this: I pay a fixed monthly price to use a personal computer that is up-to-date with most recent hardware and software. Perhaps I would bring the system into an exchange location once per year and receive an updated version with my data (probably in the cloud) already migrated. Maybe I’d even have the option of providing a bunch of install recipes (a la Homebrew) so that it was set-up just the way I like it.

Currently, I’m investing about $1200/year in my main computing device, so that would translate to about $100/month. If I continued to invest that amount to always have an up-to-date system, I would invest $6,000 in five years and $12,000 in ten. The company providing the service would theoretically reduce their production costs by re-using as much of the hardware as possible, i.e., the external case, the LCD screen, and so on (or, at least, there would be some serious incentive to do so). In a sense, it would be a system of continually re-furbishing and re-tooling vs. exclusively producing more hardware.

I’ve lost my point here… the point is, I’m on an upgrade hamster wheel and wonder if I’ll ever managed to free myself from it. How many hours must I commit to the upgrade black hole before I’ll finally give it up? I suspect that part of the solution is picking a new line of work, perhaps organic farming or something that keeps me away from the keyboard a bit more.

Until then… spin, spin, spin.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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