The Computer Apocalypse: Three signs you need to upgrade

The day was supposed to be perfect. I had the house to myself, my favorite coffee was brewing, and my brain was in a place where writing could be fun. Then it happened. I’m not exactly sure what “it” was, but my joy evaporated instantly when the behemoth that was my 17″ MacBook Pro went blip.

The sound of a behemoth blipping doesn’t make much of a sound, actually. I live in the middle of a forest after all, and when a tree falls or a computer fails, the loudest sound often heard for miles is me, screaming.

17 macbook pro quadcore

Mac Attack: Three Apple laptops, a few upgrades.

And scream I did.

At first I fiddled with the power cable. Then I opened and closed my laptop lid. Then I did both frantically again, four more times in rapid succession. Rebooting was a given, so I did that for another half an hour. With an elevated heart rate close enough to rival tachycardia and a body drenched in too many layers of cold sweat, I figured I had scored enough cardio points to last me a lifetime — so I curled up onto my pillow and cried.

The almost-freshly-brewed coffee was no longer strong enough for the situation, so I opened a bottle of wine. And drank it. Then I drunk dialed Carl at work.

Our 10:30AM conversation went something like this:

Me: My computer just experienced an apocalypse. *tears* Sound of me pouring another glass…

Carl: Did you try rebooting? Wiggle your power cable — it needs a good wiggle sometimes.

Me: We’re beyond wiggling, hon. I’ve uncorked every bottle with a 2008 on the label.

Carl: Why 2008?

Me: That’s the year I bought my now-dead MacBook Pro. The wine can’t survive this catastrophe. I won’t let it.

Carl: I’m coming home — 2008 was too a good year to face an apocalypse alone. Click.

Being a software engineer and a sometimes-smart man, Carl has the skill and patience to fix a lot of broken computer situations. Turns out a fried logic board on a deprecated machine ain’t one of them.

upgrade hard drive

After five years of bloggy blogging, serious book writing, and bad pun punning, all logic died that day. I needed a new computer, but first I needed another glass of vino.

Over the years of being a committed computer person, I’ve been through my fair share of laptops, desktops, and anything else with a ‘top’ in the title. I’ve spent thousands on new machines, I’ve also saved thousands by knowing when to upgrade and how to upscale on a budget.

Do you really need that upgrade?

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Do you really need that upgrade?

Mobile phones are big upgrade targets, but any other widget or gadget is fair game too. Before pulling the trigger on that new device, maybe it's time to stop and think.

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While I’ve never been one to upgrade my gear for the sake of getting the latest, shiniest gadget, I do know when it’s time to say “goodbye” to a computer.

This is the story of the three laptops that made this blog happen. This is also a guide to getting the most from your computer without upgrading a whole darn lot.

0. OK Computer.

I’m starting this list with a big fat ’0′. Zeros are a big deal in computer science — that’s how binary stuff happens, how proper ‘array’ things get started, and where all gadget lovers’ bank accounts go bust.

So your first step, before taking any steps, is to always care for your computer and data on a regular basis. Here’s how to get the jobbie done:

how do i back up my computer

Make a dang backup. Computers are expensive, yes. But it’s the data loss that can cost you dearly when you’ve failed to have a backup plan. Tutorial: How to Back Up Your Computer | Lifehacker.

Don’t install crapware. All those browser add-ons, plugins, media players, and freeware — that s$it can chew into valuable memory and disk space and slow down your computer. Trialware is a big component of crapware since the stuff stops working without your payment — the worst can install adware or spyware onto your system, insert ads into your browsers, and track you without permission. Not awesome. Tutorials: Five tips for getting rid of crapware | TechRepublic and We Hate the Scam of Bundled Crapware | How To Geek.

Prevent overheating. Some like it hot, sure. But your computer will last longer if it keeps its cool. Clearing out dust bunnies, storing your machine in a happy space, and checking temperature settings can extend the life of your system and save you money. Tutorial: How to Prevent Your Computer from Overheating | Lifehacker.

Maximize battery life. Laptop lovers know the pain and sorrow of a lifeless battery, especially at the airport. Extend the life of your lithium-based battery by optimizing your laptop settings and knowing how to recharge it right. Tutorials: Maximize battery life of your notebook | Apple and How to Prolong Lithium-based Batteries | Battery University and Maximizing the lifespan of a laptop battery | ComputerWorld.

1. Upgrade the bits and bytes.

My second MacBook Pro, the one that died at the beginning of this post, endured a few money-saving upgrades before going kaput. After looking at the costs of upgrading a few components (RAM and hard drive) and comparing them to buying a whole new machine, the math said that extending the life of my current laptop (which was only two years old at the time) made more financial sense.

computer memory

Too many computers are tossed these days when a few simple upgrades could save the machine and your money. Choosing to upgrade a piece here and there can be worth it, but it’s always a good idea to check the market for current computer prices first, and then decide if the cost of a new component is cost effective.

These are the bits and pieces I’ve upgraded over the years.

computer memory

RAM. Also called Physical Memory, RAM is the stuff that makes your computer run fast. If things are starting to feel slow, sluggish, and a little infuriating (hey, it’s a computer), then an injection of new computer memory can help speed things up. Tutorial: Upgrading RAM | Lifehacker.

computer upgrade

Hard drive. Are you a data demon? I am. I take thousands of photos, store zillions of songs, and keep too many videos of my kid. There’s a cost to hoarding data on your machine, and the price is running out of hard drive space. Adding a bigger, roomier drive may be the ticket to keeping your machine longer. Alternatively, you could just delete like crazy. Naw. ;) Tutorial: How to Upgrade Your Tiny Hard Drive to a Spacious New One | Lifehacker.

Battery. After three years of solid use, the life of my laptop battery lacked the juice to continue. Since my battery was replaceable, I bought a new one so I could unplug my powercord more often. Easiest upgrade ever. Tutorial: What Should I Do When My Laptop Battery Doesn’t Last As Long As It Used To? | Lifehacker.

windows 7 upgrade

Operating System. How old is your OS? If you’re running something from several years back, it’s likely time to consider an operating system upgrade. A few years ago I ran Windows on my MacBook (for work, OK!), and then reformatted back to Mac OS to speed things up. I just upgraded from Leopard to Lion. My good friend Derek, who’s a software developer, wiped Windows off his older laptop and installed Linux. He seems happy with the improved performance while keeping his computer for longer. There are dozens of ways to update your OS, so check out these resources to decide on your best course of action. Tutorial: Try a New Operating System This Weekend | Lifehacker.

computer keyboard

Peripherals. Replacing a grimy mouse or keyboard, or getting a new, larger monitor may be the ticket to keeping that old desktop around for while longer. Be sure to check prices and calculate costs before investing in new gear for an older machine.

ProTip: The site iFixit offers free troubleshooting and repair guides for pretty much all computer makes and models. If something is broken, check there for a little free fixit help.

2. Congrats, you’re obsolete!

If you’ve ever been pink slipped and retired in the computer industry before your 30th birthday, it’s probably because your job has been shipped to Bangalore, India where new corporate hires get paid pennies on your former weekly paycheque. So congrats, that’s how I first became dated in an industry where I had current computer skills along with a knack for writing passable English. (Probably why I created this resume writing series… anyways)

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Get Your Resume Template! (three for free)

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The other way to become obsolete with computers is time. Love your laptop or desktop for a long while and I 100% guarantee your machine will get stupid slow and unusable. The moment you feel the need to fling it into a farmer’s hay field (or at a map of Bangalore, India) might be the right time to shop for a replacement. Both my first and second laptops became obsolete when I could no longer buy replacement parts for the broken pieces.

There’s also this thing called Moore’s Law which might take the sting out of needing a new computer. Mr. Moore observed, in freaking 1965, that “the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years”. So basically, computers get 2X more powerful every other year, and your six year old laptop will only have 1/8th the computing power of a newer model. To make matters more expensive, this internet thing keeps pushing the limits of our computers, so if you’re into viewing webpages sometime in the future, you’re gonna need to upgrade your machine eventually.

5 Signs your computer is obsolete:

  1. Your model is no longer produced.
  2. Replacement parts are no longer available.
  3. Recent software won’t install on your system.
  4. Your ‘puter’s plugs and parts don’t fit into sockets anymore. Has anyone seen a parallel printer lately?
  5. People point and laugh when you deliver your TPS report on a floppy disk.

If any combination of these points pertain to your machine, you have my permission to get a new computer pronto. Just make sure the technical documentation isn’t produced in Bangalore, India. No, I’m not (still) bitter. :)

3. He’s dead, Jim!

Let’s start with Doctor McCoy from Star Trek since no one can identify death as skillfully and honestly as “Bones”.

“His brain is gone.”

That’s pretty much how I felt after downing a 2008 Gewürztraminer from a local winery, See Ya Later Ranch. Fitting, I know.

macbook pro

Ladies, we can rebuild her. We have the technology.

Anyhoo, while frying my second laptop’s motherboard failed to be fun on the ‘fun-o-meter’ and buying a new computer ain’t cheap, I was able to recover from the pain (not the hangover) with a backup plan. Being a blogger with an interest in keeping my blog alive, I’m pretty good about keeping hard drive backups for everything bloggy and data related. So I tapped my emergency fund and bought a shiny new laptop the day after my computer went apocalyptic.

The day your computer is deemed to be “Dead, Jim”, you have my sympathy and permission to upgrade with a replacement. And don’t forget to drink something strong enough to feel better. It is the apocalypse, after all. Hugs.

Love,
Kerry

Your two cents:

  1. Khai February 21st, 2013

    One trick I just learned is that a solid state hard drive does wonders for system performance. Install the OS, page file and most commonly used applications on it and then use a spinning disk drive for data (assuming desktop – if it’s a laptop then one would have to fork out more for a larger SSD as there’s generally only room for one HDD).

    I’ve been told that one will get more significant performance increases from an SSD than from increased RAM or even a faster processor.

  2. William McDuff February 22nd, 2013

    There are people who buy computers that aren’t refurbished in the Apple Store. These are foolish people. :)

  3. Kerry February 22nd, 2013

    @William My first two laptops were refurbished. When my third laptop went kaput, I could not wait the two weeks for a refurb to ship to my rural area. Total sucked, that’s for sure. :)

  4. renee February 22nd, 2013

    I never buy refurb, don’t want to take the risk with a little saving. Better buy new. Don’t have to buy apple mac, that will save you a lot of money for sure.

  5. Christine Weadick February 22nd, 2013

    I think my laptop is 5 years old at least. My older son uses it as well so he is my in house tech support. He keeps it working nicely. He does all my updates and back-ups and all that stuff I don’t understand… I’m sure he will let me know when we need a new beastie……..

  6. shipcarpenter305 February 23rd, 2013

    Since we’re all Squawkers and aspiring frugalists, Apple products are always 2-3X $$$, e.g. iphone. MicroSoft & Windows, like Volkswagon Beetles, are painfully agonizing, universal, & cheap, but as a car driver should check their own air in the tires, gas in the tank, water in the radiator, battery, wipers, etc., one should know how to snap-in replacement chips, cards, boards & power supplies. It’s stupid-easy, parts are significantly cheaper, and plenty of ‘How To’s’ on YouTube.

  7. Kim February 23rd, 2013

    LOVE the post Kerry, Can I ask you to do something for me. I have a lovely iMac staring me in the face right now with damning eyes. I went from a PC to a mac thinking I was all that but then installed Microsoft’s office suite (for mac that I got from work for 11 bucks – can you hear the justification in my fingers??). Would love a post on shedding the PC me and embracing the programs for MAC. Yes, I’ve done the tutorials but I don’t even know what the word processing, spreadsheet producing, slideshow making, desktop publisher whizzing programs are for MAC. I am only halfway. Sounds from your post like you (or your wonderful hubby) is the one who knows. Can ya blog about it? My Mac would appreciate it :)

  8. Suzanne February 23rd, 2013

    I love this post! I am looking at moving to a Mac from a PC and I too would really love a post on this.

  9. freezerburn February 23rd, 2013

    I bought my new laptop in the middle of 2008. When I went last year to get a new power charger, they told me that my 4 year old computer was old and outdated. Fortunately I look after my computer. Considering how much we depend on technology these days you would think that the prices would decrease, instead they keep upgrading and so the prices just go up. Hopefully companies will also not totally forget the value of people, as now they use computers instead of people to get jobs done and so many people are out of work. Hopefully the future will see a return to things of value, such as good customer service (you can go to the bank or the store and talk to a person- which is innate to the human species), regular size or smaller stores which sell things of value and you can get your moneys worth and will last longer than a few weeks (big box stores that require you to be in there for at least a few hours just to get something that you want, which is almost garbage and you come out feeling exhausted from your 3 hour tour). Fortuntely the future will see a return to things of value and people again will feel connected and valued.

  10. David February 23rd, 2013

    @renee: In the case of Apple products, it’s a tiny risk, and big savings. You’re saving roughly 15%-30% off a thousand dollar machine, and Apple’s refurbishment process is extremely rigorous and comes with the same 1 year warranty that their new products come with.

    As long as the refurbished electronics come with a one year warranty, go for it. If the electronics are going to fail due to defect, they’re doing to do so pronto.

  11. Mike February 23rd, 2013

    Be careful with SSD and hard drives: ask questions.

    Most manufacturers use hard drives with 5400RPMs (that is how fast they spin) because they’re the most reliable. If you upgrade to a 7200RPM drive, you will see a performance boost, but with parts moving faster, the chance for failure is higher. SSD drives are, yes, much faster than 7200RPM drives, but they’re much more fragile. It’s not a question of if an SSD drive will fail, but when. (They can actually calculate it.) There are tricks to maximize the life of an SSD, such as not putting certain days on them.
    So ask questions and know the pros, cons, and best practices of each.

  12. Ritchie February 23rd, 2013

    Some good tips for sure. I find that pretty much all of my computer needs are online, such as using google documents, skydrive etc. so all I need is a web browser. A tablet and a cheap laptop is just ‘good enough’. My next purchase will be a goole chromebook, $249. http://www.google.ca/intl/en/chrome/devices/

  13. Natalie February 23rd, 2013

    Do you only drink white? I thought computer death would be better suited with a chewy Zinfandel!

  14. Steve February 23rd, 2013

    @Mike SSD drives are much more robust than traditional hard disks, withstand shocks better, and have MTBF (mean time before failure) much longer than spinning hard disks. SSDs do have some small shortcomings(for example in use for heavy write operations like video/audio recording, even though they are very fast), but in general they are a much better match for laptops than traditional hard disks. Also they consume less power so increase battery life. 7200 rpm disk are available for laptops but generally as replacement not OEM installed models. One reason is that they create more heat in a small space, which can lead to shorter lifespan and/or cause the fan(s) to run more and faster, which together with the increased whine of the drive increase the noise factor. Hybrid SSD/hard disks are available for laptops (ie. Momentus XT), and Apple has somewhat similar “fusion” drives (not on laptops though).

    @Kim you can install Apple “Bootcamp” and then install Windows on your Mac. Then you can run either your Apple OS or Windows.

    I am not an Apple “fanboi” but for some users I think they are appropriate.

    Refurbished Apple computers can be a better deal than new, but only if you get the latest greatest models and then they are typically not much more than a 15% discount from new. However current Mac pro models (not laptop) are quite obsolete and a ridiculous price (they will be refreshed soon this year).

    Retina model mac laptops (retina and air models) and current iMacs are non user upgradeable in any way. The RAM is soldered to the motherboard (except 27″ iMac) and hard disks and batteries are essentially impossible to replace. Their serviceability is next to zero, even for end users who are expert.

    The current (mid-late 2012) mac pro unibody laptop (non-retina) is more like your current (dead) mac pro laptop in that you can add RAM and change out the hard disk (or replace optical drive with a hard disk or SSD). However even this typically requires special disks/SSDs with reduced height rather than mainstream components.

    The newest Apple mini is quite powerful and also much more upgradeable than other mac laptops. It is more powerful than many Mac pros and the price isn’t too bad (for Apple).

    Non Apple computers in general are much cheaper and more user serviceable (although some laptops are difficult to work on).

    @Kerry I was going to comment on 2008 being a bad year for Niagara/Canadian reds, but that is not apropos here. BTW if you’d like to try a Niagara red, stick to 2007 or 2010.

  15. Ken February 23rd, 2013

    Kerry, thank you for this insightful and very helpful post! After payday, I’m going to start stocking up on all the 2012 Vino Vintage I can find..that’s when I “upgraded” to my wonderful MacMini & Thunderbolt display last year. I know, sounds a little like a TV series. To the “next update”…I’m ready!

  16. Eve February 24th, 2013

    Great post Kerry!

    Any idea what to do with a semi-functional laptop? Are there places people can send them to in the hope of getting some mullah back?

  17. Emme February 24th, 2013

    Wondering about tips on pulling the trigger for a new. Computer. Buy online or in a big box store or buying used. Seeking out all the help we can when financially crippled with young family an desperately need new computer.

  18. Karen February 25th, 2013

    Simply Computing (in your neck of the woods) has refurbished and trade-in options. I got a 13″ laptop for my daughter from the Simply Computing in Kamloops for $100. Plus they offer free classes, and their service department can tell you if your computer is really dead or just in a resuscitable coma.

  19. Alex February 26th, 2013

    @Emme: I think there are two stages to thinking about buying a new computer.

    First, do you need a new computer? If all you use the computer for is some Internet surfing, youtube videos, writing/editing documents, and saving your pictures from your camera, there’s a good likelihood that you may not need a new computer.

    Unless you know there’s a hardware issue (the computer resets randomly, it won’t start up, you get blue screens of death), chances are your computer is running slow because of software issues, which doesn’t necessarily warrant buying a new computer. If you have your operating system CD, or a backup partition (most computers after 2000 came with one), you can reset the computer to a “like new” state and see really big performance gains. Make sure to back up your data before doing this!!! This is also a good time to spend $4 on a can of compressed air and dust the inside of your computer.

    Second, if you decide that a new computer is necessary, determine what your needs are, and shop for the best deals. If you’re just doing light use (youtube, internet, documents), you don’t need the latest quad-core, liquid-cooled beast. Get a list of features that you will use (Blu-ray, Bluetooth, wireless display, wireless internet, laptop, desktop, tablet, etc.) and see where that puts you. If you’re finding that all the models have your necessities, then you may want to look at used options. If not, then new may be for you.

  20. BeFOODled February 26th, 2013

    Hi Kerry, thank you for reminding me to backup my blog. How do you do yours?

  21. Carl February 26th, 2013

    @BeFOODled – Squawkfox is backed up nightly by a bunch of custom scripts. The database gets emailed to me at 3am every day, and all files are synced to safe places as well. There are WordPress plugins that can handle pretty much all of this — I just like the little bit of extra flexibility of a scripted solution. Check out http://codex.wordpress.org/Backing_Up_Your_Database for the official WP docs.

  22. beFOODled February 27th, 2013

    Hi Carl, thanks for responding to my question. I checked out the link you recommended but it looks a bit complicated to me. I’m not a programmer so I’m going to look for something a bit more user-friendly. That said, I appreciate you taking the time to share your method.

  23. Maria March 2nd, 2013

    For those of you still using desktop instead of laptop computers, I recommend upgrading the inside rather than buying new. It’s definitely cheaper and can often be done incrementally. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, get yourself a friend who can help you upgrade the parts. My tower is still that ugly beige that went out of style a decade ago, but the insides are less than a few months old.

    My other recommendation is that when it’s time to dispose of those old electronics, PLEASE take them to a certified (or nearest approximation there of) e-waste recycler. PLEASE DO NOT send them to the landfill. They are toxic waste that our grand kids would do better not having to deal with.

  24. Alice March 12th, 2013

    But your array will be out-of-range!!!

    (Albeit I love that you made a programming pun)

  25. Laurie September 4th, 2013

    I just saved my 8 year old “backup” laptop with a windows 7 upgrade. It has had four owners, 3 hard drives, 3 optical drives and has been renamed TheBeast.

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