Something odd has happened over roughly the last 5 years. Moore’s law is hitting a brick wall (or at least it would seem so).
As a result, the difference in a 5 year old Mac today versus a 5 year old Mac from 1995 in the year 2000 or a 5 year old Mac from 2005 in 2010 is night and day.
Why has this phenomenon happened? Several reasons can be cited, but it mainly boils down to a few things that have largely plateaued over the last few years:
- Fundamental Changes are Slowing
- The Internet, ISPs and Global Bandwidth
- Consumer Need/Desire of High End Consumable Content
- Longevity of Devices
Fundamental Changes to Technology are Slowing
There are just fewer major changes now occurring. The difference between the top of the line Core 2 Duo from 2010 and an entry level Core i5 from today is noticeable, but not mind blowing, as they are both dual core CPUs and while the i7 quad core is the cream of the crop – a Sandy Bridge 2011 quad core i7 is not terribly slower than the more recent Haswell and Skylake i7 lines (at least the CPUs from these families used by Apple). Sure – you might get a 30% to 100% (or double) increase in CPU processing in either instance from a model 5 years older than what is available today, but it’s not nearly the same as the difference between a 1995 PowerPC 603/604 and a 2000 PowerPC G4 or a 2005 PowerPC G4/G5 and a 2010 Xeon. Those differences were staggering (closer to a 5-fold to 10-fold increase in overall system performance). This is just no longer the case. You can still be (nearly) as productive today on 5 year old hardware.
On the Internet, ISPs and Global Bandwidth
Let’s face it – the Internet as a whole has leveled off in terms of delivery capacity until some fundamental changes reach mass market implementation such as end to end 1 Gbps fiber. As a result, the processing power needed to render web pages and be productive today has the bar set lower than ever due to the mass quantity of devices being able to fit the bill.
On Consumer Need and the Desire for High End Consumable Content
Consider the fact that cable providers and networks are largely still pushing the same 1080i and 720p video from 2003 (when HDTV first began to hit the mass markets) in today’s market in 2016, when 1080p has more or less been the current standard for at least the last 5-6 years and with 4k HDR being the cutting edge with minimal content available. It goes to show that the infrastructure as a whole is still not ready – even for full 1080p content everywhere and that not enough consumers even care about high end consumable content at 1080p and 4k.
This issue combined with the Internet/Bandwidth issue are inter-related. Maximum bandwidth ISPs across the USA offer to typical consumers is closer to 50 Mbps downstream, which is fine for two users in the same household to pull full 1080p streams and have a little headroom, while the next generation of 4k video would realistically require a minimum 40-50 Mbps and realistically a steady 100 Mbps connection to allow for the same buffer.
This leads me to my final point and why 5-year+ Macs are no longer necessarily Low End:
Longevity of Devices
With all of that in mind, being able to create HD content and consume it at 720p/1080i/1080p is plenty for the average user today since that is all the average user expects to receive. Virtually all Macs produced since 2011 (and many produced before it) fit the bill to both produce and consume media at these levels and be productive. Add to that the ability to upgrade memory and SSDs (Solid State Drives) in these late models and it’s easy to see why Apple is trying to break the mold of at least some level of user serviceability – even on their “professional” line. Apple realizes that they need to stymie the ability of a device lasting potentially 8-10+ years anymore and are looking for new ways to squeeze more out of the user if they decide not to upgrade their hardware for an extended period. It’s hurting Apple’s business model and has forced them into creating gimmicks for new models and making fundamental changes to those models to no longer allow the upgrade paths that once existed.
The Path Ahead
The path ahead is a bit murky right now. It’s strange how useful 2010 and 2011 hardware still is today and a lot of that has to do with RAM and SSD upgrades. A fully maxed out 2010 Mac Pro (now a 6 year old machine) should easily last another 5-7 years on current high-end video cards and SSDs. Even a 2010 Mac Mini with its integrated (but very speedy) Geforce 320M with 8 GB of RAM and a fast SSD does the job nicely with it’s 2.4 GHz+ CPU speeds and should get you by another 2-4 years with no issue. This happens to be the very Mac I just picked up recently for the family’s daily driver desktop to replace our long-in-tooth GMA graphics 2006-07 units I had that finally seemed to choke on the latest versions of Flash, etc. that the kids used for various educational and children’s driven media. More on that in an upcoming article.
Macs from 5+ years ago are going to wind up having closer to a 10 year lifespan at this point – especially 2011-12 quad core i7 Models that should be able to easily handle 4K video with SSD and memory upgrades (a true reason why they command such high premiums). Apple may have updated the ports, storage, memory, and wireless connectivity on recent models, but virtually none of it is upgradeable now and overall performance has not increased enough in recent years to justify moving to new hardware when the older hardware is just as capable with some incremental upgrades.