Using a Mac on a budget: is it time to upgrade?

snow_leopardApple’s new OS X v10.6 Snow Leopard is being released this coming Friday. Savvy Mac users are abuzz and excited to upgrade. For most, deciding whether to upgrade or not will be a cinch: Apple has set the price of the new OS down to $29, but only if you upgrade from the latest version.

For me, upgrading to Snow Leopard would be considerably more costly. I bought my Macbook Pro in July 2007 when they shipped with v10.4 Tiger (I sadly did not realize that new MacBooks would start shipping with Leopard as soon as October of that year). When v10.5 Leopard did come out a few months later, I didn’t bother to switch, because the upgrade from 5-year-old PC to brand-spanking-new MacBook was enough of a boost to keep me excited without a new OS. Now that the computer is a couple years old, I’m thinking about whether it needs a pick-me-up of OS proportions to keep it running as though it were new.

Snow Leopard has a lot going for it. For me, upgrading would mean access to Time Machine, Spaces, Boot Camp, and other features I have done without. If the specifications on Apple’s website are to be believed, I would also get a speed boost from Snow Leopard – between the switch from 32-bit to 64-bit computing and the new Grand Central Dispatch feature which automatically allows programs written for one processor to be handled by two, Snow Leopard should be exceedingly zippy. Another exciting feature is being able to enter Chinese characters by drawing them on the touchpad instead of having to enter them phonetically and hoping the computer realizes which one the user intends. Writing kanji through the touchpad would be a great timesaver for my upcoming Advanced Japanese class.

Despite all the cool stuff Snow Leopard has to offer, I am going to have to pass on it for now for a few reasons:

Cost: For those of us who didn’t join the v10.5 Leopard club, v10.6 Snow Leopard is priced a bit higher than $29. Apple recommends that users like us purchase the Mac Box Set, which includes not only the new operating system but also iWork 09 and iLife 09, and costs $169. The set is tempting, because ever since OpenOffice 3.0 started crashing all the time on me, I’ve been wanting a stable office suite. However, if you don’t need the productivity software, Leopard can be purchased for $96 on amazon.com, and from there you can use the $29 upgrade price for Snow Leopard. So if I want Snow Leopard, it would put me back at least $125, and that’s a lot of money for me right now. I could almost book a flight home for that much. I’ve also spent a lot of money with Apple already this past year, buying a new iPod Touch and paying for out-of-warrantee repairs to my logic board.

Edit (10/13/09): Despite Apple’s recommendation, Tiger users with Intel Macs can upgrade just fine from the $29 disc.

Don’t Actually Need It: I’ve gotten along fine without an upgrade so far; why should I upgrade now? I haven’t noticed any decline in performance with my current MacBook (not counting the afore-mentioned repair). Sure, it could be a might zippier, but not by much. For the most part it still feels as practical, elegant, and useful as it did when I bought it.

Alternative Software and Hardware: I listed the main reasons Snow Leopard appeals to me above, but that doesn’t mean upgrading is the only way to attain these features. Instead of using Time Machine, I have been regularly copying the contents of my filetree to my external hard drive. It’s not as slick as Time Machine, and I wouldn’t be able to instantly revive the computer if it died, but at least my files would be accessible and restorable. There are also plenty of other programs that do the same thing Time Machine does that I could use instead, like SuperDuper. Speed boosts are not exclusive to Snow Leopard, either; a cheaper and easier way to give my MacBook a lift would be to install some extra RAM. I believe it presently only holds 2 GB of RAM, and its capacity is 6 GB. Still lots of room to grow there.

Compatibility Issues: When Leopard was first released, it took my college four months to release new drivers for its printer network that functioned with the new OS. Upgrading too soon could mean having to go without software I need for school and work, especially open-source software.

It’s not as though keeping an older operating system is unusual. On the Windows side of the world, people still use Windows XP even through it is almost eight years old and Vista was released more than two years ago. According to Market Share by Net Applications, Windows XP is still run on 73% of computers that use the internet. Granted, a Windows upgrade is more expensive than a Mac upgrade, and Windows Vista has never been popular, but my point is that plenty of people agree with me that you don’t always need to upgrade just because the upgrade is available.

That said, it looks like I am going to have to hold off on this one. Maybe if I wait a few years, the price will come down enough to make it more affordable. In the mean time, I’m going to stick to upgrading my RAM to give my two year old computer a lift.

  • kmxtreme

    When you do finally upgrade to Snow Leopard, you will be very relieved and realize that it was worth it. I’m at an upgrade dilemma of my own right now. I currently have an Intel MacBook and a PowerBook G4 both running on Leopard. However, when Snow Leopard comes out, my MacBook will thrive while I am forced to sit there and think about what to do with my now obsolete from upgrades PowerBook…

  • http://poly-rhythms.blogspot.com F.A.R.

    I’m all about the antiquarianism. Hell, I paid extra to stick with XP. Still, snow leopards are my favorite cat species … Apple knows how to make a hard sell.

    By the way, I’d totally forgotten about this blog of yours! I think I wasn’t using Google Reader yet when you started writing here.

  • http://poly-rhythms.blogspot.com F.A.R.

    OH, no, it’s that you moved here from elsewhere! Now I understand.