Apple fans have been disgruntled over the past few years with an apparent forced obsolescence of hardware. But how much truth is there in this? How long does Apple support their devices with up-to-date operating systems? By support I mean from the moment a Mac or iDevice is released until it is no longer supported by a version of Mac OS X or iOS.
For example, the first MacBook was released in May 2006 and came with Mac OS X 10.4. It was supported through 10.6, but it couldn’t run Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, which was released in July 2011. Therefore it had an officially supported life of 5 years and 2 months.
Does buying an expensive Mac Pro give you longer support life over the cheaper Mac mini, or does the higher price of a MacBook Pro reward you with longer support life over a consumer-aimed MacBook? Let’s find out. Below is a table listing each Mac product line.
For each product line, I have listed three versions (if available): the earliest version of each line to support OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, 10.7 Lion, and 10.8 Mountain Lion. This gives the maximum support life of each product. Of course, if you buy one later on, nearing the release of the next version or purchase a used machine, you get less support. This should be reflected in the price you pay.
For Macs capable of running Mac OS X 10.8, I have included support life for 10.9 Mavericks, as all Macs that can run 10.8 will be able to run 10.9, which is due to be released later this year. Apple are releasing a new version of OS X each year, so 2014 should see 10.10, and nobody knows what the hardware requirements will be. I am assuming Apple will increase it and doubt very much that a 2007 iMac or a 2009 MacBook capable of running 10.8 and 10.9 will be supported in a 2014 operating system.
For the purpose of this article, we will assume those early machines running 10.8 (and soon 10.9) will end OS support in August 2014, which is roughly when 10.10 should be released.
The news that OS X 10.9 Mavericks will run on the same hardware as OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion is a huge boost for current Mac users. It is the first time since the release of Mac OS X 10.3 Panther in 2003 (which required built-in USB) that no hardware hikes have been included and extends a lot of Macs supported life by another 12 months at least.
Looking through the table, it seems the average supported life from Apple is just over five years, with a few exceptions. The original MacBook Air falls short at only 4 years and 6 months and the Mid 2007 Mac mini falls short of the five year mark also, both models due to not being able to run Mountain Lion.
The Mac mini is Apple’s budget Mac. It originally aimed at Windows users, hoping to entice them to switch. It came with no accessories, assuming you had a monitor and USB keyboard and mouse from your existing set up. Retailing from US$499 in 2005 for the original model and $599 for later ones, it was Apple’s cheapest Macs since the 2000 model iMacs and the ATI eMacs coming in behind at $799. For this reason, you can forgive Apple for not support it as long as a Mac that is double in price. However, the first Mac Pro – retailing at $2,499, nearly 5x the price of the Mac mini – only received 5 years and 11 months support, a little over a year more than the Mac mini.
The few exceptions to roughly five years of OS support – which must please their owners no end – are the Mid 2007 20” iMac at 7 years and the Mid/Late 2007 MacBook Pro at a whopping 7 years 2 months.
What does this all mean? Well, it should help you gauge what sort of machine will provide a better cost-per-year, and for those on a tighter budget this could give them an extra two years before they feel the need to replace it.
Okay, before you all scream This is Low End Mac and point out that many people still use older, non-supported Macs, just because a Mac loses support by Apple doesn’t mean it is useless. That is not what this article is about.
Snow Leopard Lives
A 2006 Intel Mac running OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard is still fully supported by most developers, and with a user base of around 30%, Apple cannot ignore it. [Editor’s note: Site analytics show 24% of Intel Mac users visiting Low End Mac are using OS X 10.6.] Apple in the past have taken a “current plus previous” approach to supporting Mac OS X, meaning when 10.5 Leopard was released they still released Security Patches for 10.4 Tiger – but not 10.3 Panther.
However, Apple recently released a Snow Leopard Security update, despite it being two revisions back from today’s 10.8 Mountain Lion. Interestingly, there are more Snow Leopard users than Lion users [16% according to Low End Mac analytics, vs. 24% for 10.6], which shows both how good Snow Leopard was and how many early Intel Macs are still around that cannot run anything higher.
How Long for OS Support?
This provides an interesting look at just how long you get support for an Apple product. Support is meant as currently supported by Apple and able to run the latest OS. A first generation MacBook shipped in 2006, is now 7 years old, and is still used by a lot of people, still supported by developers, and still being offered security updates by Apple if it’s running Snow Leopard. It isn’t obsolete – far from it, it can still run the latest Flash and Firefox, unlike a G4 or G5 Mac.
However, there are still plenty of people who use a G4 and are happy with it. One interesting point about Intel Macs over PowerPC Macs is that once Apple do end all support for your Mac – it is Intel based – so it is possible to run Windows or Linux on it, as both tend to run on older hardware. As much as it pains me to say it, where Apple ditched Core Duo and early Core 2 Duo Macs, not allowing them to run Lion or anything higher, they will run Windows 8 or the latest Ubuntu with full support.
A device is useful depending on the needs of the user. Some people need a top-end brand new Mac, but some people can get by using a PowerBook G4.
To see how Apple supports iDevices in comparison to its Macs, see my companion article, How Long Will Apple Support Your iDevice.
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While an OS continues to receive critical security updates from Apple and third party developers I consider it supported. Any Mac capable of running Snow Leopard, therefore, is still an officially supported platform in my mind and will remain so at least until the release of Mavericks. After that, being 3 versions back, I expect Apple will stop releasing updates and users will be on their own.
For my family I have other considerations too. Lion was, by and large, Apple’s Vista moment. It introduced noticeable change to the way things had been up until Snow Leopard and it hammered performance, particularly on older machines with low RAM.
My parents have a 2007 Mac mini with only 1GB of RAM so it can’t run Lion. Even if they did upgrade the RAM there’s no guarantee that Apple will continue to offer security updates for Lion any longer than they will for Snow Leopard. At this point there are more SL users than Lion users so they’ll probably both get cut off the same day. Security is the main reason why I’m urging them to buy a new Mac mini when Mavericks comes out.
There’s nothing more vulnerable than a naive user on an unsupported platform who thinks they’re safe because “nobody” targets Macs. While there is certainly some truth in that today for PowerPC users, an Intel Mac running Tiger or Leopard is a relative sitting duck and I don’t want my parents to still be in the pond when Snow Leopard stops getting updates.
In reply to both Simon an Bregalad:
Such short support times are wasting perfectly good hardware (which I consider Apple-products are — mostly) and are definitely not “green”. Compared to Windows (2020 end of extended support for Windos 7) it makes me angry. You arrive at the strange situation, that your Mac booting Windows is for years longer supported than on its “native” OS.
About Snow Leopard-support. A support-“solution” where some functions of your web-browsers are simply switched off or some standard technology is just not updated any more (Java), is not the kind of support a customer of a premium product will expect. Besides all criticism about Java and Flash, this technology is still widely used, and sometimes I am forced to use it too.
The good side: You can work undisturbed for years using outdated Mac OS versions. Be careful upgrading your other applications, experience glitches in the rendering of web-pages, but generally it works very well.
If there would not be a security concern.
Reality check: peak infection rate of Mac-malware in the last years was around one percent (a Java-trojan). I am running “antivirus-programs” on my Mac since the late 1980s (ok, not all the time but most of it). Last piece of Mac-malware found was 1997. Recently Sophos Anti-Virus found two Windows-only trojans. So, if you are not a dedicated target to a hacker (like Apple development staff or similar valuable information, this is about 99.9 percent of Mac-users) you are save for now — very much saver than on the best Windows system. Only IF somebody thinks it is worth the hassle and develops powerful Mac malware and IF it really works and spreads widely, THEN you are caught “pants down”. If you take this risk is a question of how sensitive the data on your Mac is — especially in a professional setting.