Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter — Issue #1021

Gene Steinberg

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Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter
October 17, 2021


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Let me make one thing perfectly clear: This story doesn’t mean Apple’s hundreds of millions of customers no longer care about buying new iPhones. Or any other hardware from them. It doesn’t necessarily even apply strictly to Apple, although that remains the focus of this column. But it does show how tech companies have more or less surpassed what customers need to get stuff done.

This is what I mean:

Over the years, whenever I bought a new Mac — or a new iPhone — there would be a tremendous boost in performance over the previous model with just one exception. That was the first model with a PowerPC chip in 1994.

Otherwise, the improvements would be most obvious in the basics, such as how long it took to open an app or do something in it. So saving a file might take a few seconds, or longer, depending on how big and complex it was. Processing data, such as applying a sound filter in an audio app, might took just a few seconds, or perhaps close to a minute or more. Those of you who worked with video files or photos might be able to run off for lunch while things happened.

Each new Mac (or PC for that matter) would have a more capable processor, and the rise of SSDs made a huge difference. So there were fewer excuses to take a break. Employers no doubt loved that, though those of you in business for yourself might have resented the extra workload, unless it meant higher income because of greater productivity.

But personal computers have, by and large, caught up for most tasks, not to mention the fact that processor performance doesn’t grow quite as fast as it used to, perhaps with the exception of Apple’s A-series or M-series processors.

So I have a Late 2014 27-inch iMac, the first model to feature the 5K display and physically mostly identical to the current Intel-based model. It’s equipped with a 3TB Fusion Drive, with more than sufficient space to accommodate my needs. As advertised, such drives, which mix a large hard drive with a small SSD, can come close to an SSD in performance on the most frequently used files (up to its 128GB capacity), but can bog down when you handle lots of files. Or when starting up. It’s not near-instantaneous as it is with current Macs.

It is also regarded as “vintage” in Apple parlance, meaning it is no longer officially supported, although third-party shops can still fix it. But for the most part, it keeps up with me, so I’m not so tempted to consider an upgrade to a new model even though it is not compatible with the next macOS, Monterey. In other words, it’s essentially obsolete but functional.

What this means is that, if it breaks again (and both parts of the Fusion Drive were replaced in 2019), the price of repair may not be worth the benefit, particularly if it’s something really serious. So I’ve been trying to set aside my spare cash to fund a new Mac, perhaps the 24-inch iMac, and I’ve been pondering the loss of three inches in screen real estate and whether it’ll really hurt my productivity. Certainly performance will be vastly superior.

To take the grim outlook, I’m 76, and I thus may be considering my last Mac, although actor William Shatner and his brief trip to the “final frontier,” at age 90 does make me feel hopeful that my future is brighter than I think it is despite my heart problems.

But the main point of it all is that the incentive to constantly buy new computers is no longer there for me even though I remain busy, or for most of you I suspect. Unless what you have is real old, or will no longer run the apps you need in their current versions, there’s no rush to consider upgrades unless or until something breaks. Apple clearly knows this, which is why operating system upgrades cover older hardware.

Now when it comes to iPhones, there’s even less incentive to buy the latest and greatest. I have looked over the specs and reviews for the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro for example. If I am into movie-making, perhaps it’ll be worth it. Yes, I know that Hollywood filmmakers have actually used older iPhones to shoot footage, butd the new feature, such as Cinematic mode, which computers a depth-of-field effect, might be useful.

For now, it’s not on my radar.

Barbara uses an iPhone 6s, first released in 2015. It is not that old, of course; it was bought at a serious discount from a wireless carrier. It has iOS 15.0.2 installed on it, and I suspect it won’t run iOS 16 in 2022. But it starts up fast enough, call quality is quite good — or at least I don’t get complaints. Barbara mostly uses it for phone calls and some email. She concentrates on her entry-level iPad for most other chores, because it is more friendly to her less-than-perfect eyesight.

I have spent a little time on her iPhone just to get a sense of how well it has held up. If that were my iPhone, I wouldn’t feel that I’m sacrificing much. Barbara is sensitive to software or hardware issues, but hasn’t complained. It is in near-perfect condition since it has survived only minor drops in its plastic case, so I rather suspect she’ll continue to use it for as long as it delivers acceptable performance.

Her iPad, an entry-level model of recent vintage, is a constant companion, but again it is not something that she will suddenly grow tired of unless something breaks. A battery replacement is $99 from Apple and less if you feel you can risk a third-party alternative, so that will probably be as bad as it gets.

When it comes to iPad longevity, her sister has an iPad 3 with the original battery. I suspect it doesn’t hold a charge so well, although she hasn’t complained. But she rarely uses it for very long between charges, and seldom complains. Obviously it is stuck with iOS 9.3.5, but nothing about it would present an obstacle to her, since she uses it primarily for email and a few Safari visits. If the worst should occur, I also have a iPad Air 2, released in 2014, with a broken Home button, and I could always have it fixed and give it to her. It would be a tremendous improvement even though it’s still ancient history to most of you.

That said, the pandemic has fueled sales of new tech hardware, since more and more people are working at home. Some companies have opted to keep it that way, at least for some of their staff, so it’s possible strong sales will continue for a while. This year’s most serious obstacle is that persistent supply chain shortage of computer chips. Apple allegedly has it mostly under control, although the Apple Watch 7 shipped a month later than usual. The rest of the industry is no doubt fighting with auto makers for chip delivery.

As to my remaining gear collection, I use a Brother HL-L5100DN laser printer, first released in 2016. I received it as a “courtesy” warranty replacement when its predecessor, an HL-5450DN bought in 2012, would constantly trip the breaker in the home office in a new apartment when I tried to print a document, and listen to my iMac through a multimedia speaker system.

So the HL-L5100DN still chugs away. I use recycled or non-OEM toner and other parts (such as the drum), which reduces print costs to a fraction of a penny per page. It appears to have plenty of life left, so maybe it’ll be my last printer unless something goes wrong.

Now my vantage point is that of an advanced senior citizen, but I think my experiences are echoed by many of you. Most of our tech gear is good enough and reliable enough to serve us well for many years even if manufacturers don’t support them with repairs or OS/firmware updates.


Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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