Mac Musings

Satisfaction the Answer to Wasteful Consumerism

Daniel Knight - 2007.04.11

"Modern consumer society is structured so that we are constantly unhappy with what we have. Advertisers make us feel dissatisfied so we keep buying new things, which is good for the economy but bad for the environment. Consumers collaborate in this wastefulness by being fooled into thinking that they can fill the inner void by consuming."

- Clive Hamilton, Executive Director, The Australia Institute

James Massola points out the silliness of "environmentally friendly" companies making wasteful products in Upgrading Ourselves Towards Obsolescence. His rant against the waste comes after buying a new Nokia cellphone to replace an older Nokia model, only to discover that,

"my old charger did not fit my new phone. Imagine my surprise. Both were made by Nokia, one was two years older than the other. Thankfully there was a new charger in the box.

"I examined the point of the new charger. It was around one-one-millionth of a percent smaller than the old charger, thus utterly unusable. Why?"

Indeed. I've been fortunate in that the last three Motorola cellphones I've owned all use the same charger and data cable. In fact, it was part of the reason I chose the latest phone - along with sound quality, ruggedness, and reception.

And let's not forget familiarity. I'm used to the Moto way, and it's easier to fight with the known than switch to the unknown - a problem Apple knows all too well. (One example of Motorola or Alltel silliness is that every time someone leaves a voice mail, I also get a separate "missed call" message. Also, there's no way to make a return call from the voice mail.)

But the point of Massola's article isn't so much the obsolescence of products as the obsolescence of their accessories. Why should buying a new cellphone make his 10 chargers obsolete? Why would AppleDesign the 5G "video" iPod so accessories designed to plug into the top of earlier iPods couldn't work with it?

One the plus side, it's a boon for manufacturers. Buy a new iPod or cellphone, and you may have to buy several new accessories for it. That's the modern consumer society for you.

Here at Low End Mac (and our sister site, Low End Living), we're opposed to wastefulness - wasting money, wasting technology, wasting time. We believe in making the best use of your resources, whether that's your computer, your car, your cash, or your calendar.

The Mac's Track Record

Apple has done quite a good job in maintaining backward compatibility over the years. Until the Intel Macs arrived in 2006, all of the OS X Macs could run Classic mode for pre-OS X software. And when the PowerPC Macs came in 1993, they had a compatibility layer to support the 680x0 software made for earlier Macs.

On the hardware front, Apple supported ADB mice and keyboards from 1987 through 1999, SCSI hard drives from 1986 until 1997, NuBus expansion cards from 1987 through 1995, it's own 15-pin video connector from 1987 through 1997, IDE hard drives from 1994 through 1996, PCMCIA/PC Card from 1994 through 2006, PCI expansion slots from 1995 through 2005, and AGP video from 1999 through 2004.

Among current technologies, Apple has used USB since 1997, FireWire and WiFi (then 802.11b) since 1999, SATA since 2003, PCI Express since 2005, and Intel Core CPUs since 2006. And I don't even recall how long ago Apple added ethernet support - I think it was 1991.

Apple has abandoned a few technologies along the way, notably their ADC alternative to the DVI video port and two really funky connectors from the old day - an AV port found on first generation Power Macs and an oddball HDI SCSI port found on older PowerBooks. All of these were essentially Apple exclusives, and only the HDI SCSI port lasted for more than a brief time. (The smaller size of the HDI port made it possible to have more ports on the PowerBook.)

About the only proprietary Apple technology in use today is the MagSafe connector found on MacBooks, which means you can't use an old 'Book AC adapter or car/airline adapter - or buy a third-party one.

In terms of hardware and software, Apple has done a pretty good job maintaining compatibility and avoiding obsolescence. We like that.


Transitions can be difficult. You can't pull an IDE hard drive from an older Mac or 'Book and plug it into an Intel-based Mac - they all use serial ATA (SATA). But you can buy third-party enclosures, put your old IDE drive inside, and connect them to your new Mac via FireWire or USB 2.0 to move all your old files to your new Mac. And Apple even includes a transfer option that can move things from your old Mac to your new one via FireWire or over a network. (The same kind of enclosures were also made for SCSI drives, but they're harder to find and expensive these days.)

Likewise, you can plan ahead. If you need to add hard drives to a Mac with PCI slots today and might want to migrate them to a newer Mac someday, you can buy a PCI controller card that lets you use the same SATA drives found in new Macs.

The iPod

I own two iPods - a first generation one recently upgraded to 20 GB when its hard drive failed, and a fourth generation one purchased when the 10 GB drive in my original iPod grew too small for my music and work files. I chose the 4G iPod because it was the last one to support FireWire, and at the time my Power Mac G4 had no USB 2.0 ports.

I love the iPod's flexibility. I love the compact portable hard drive that lets me backup all my important files and my music collection in a single device. I'm glad that Apple hasn't messed with the interface, making it easy to use any iPod.

Where Apple missed the boat is the battery. It's a genuine pain in the posterior to replace the iPod's battery, and Apple has received a lot of grief in the press over this one. I'm getting pretty good at opening up my 1G iPod, but it's not for the faint of heart. I hope Apple will see the light and create a next generation iPod that makes replacing the battery easy. Too many people view iPods as disposable because there's no obvious way to replace the battery.

I don't have enough iPod peripherals to complain about Apple moving ports. I like the dock connector and see it as a useful innovation. I'm still disappointed that Apple dropped FireWire support with the 5G iPod, but Macs have had USB 2.0 for several years now - and it's been a PC standard a lot longer than that.

Perhaps the smartest thing Apple did with the iPod was let you charge it by simply plugging it into your Mac or PC's USB or FireWire port. No need for a separate AC adapter, although early iPods shipped with one.

The Upgrade Cycle

I think it was Detroit who invented the annual upgrade cycle, and the computer world puts it to shame. Some models are upgraded two or three times a year. It's not easy keeping up if you think you have to have the latest.

Low End Mac loves the new hardware, but we're all about getting the most out of whatever Mac you have. If you love to write on your Mac Plus, we'll let you know how big a hard drive it supports, how to upgrade memory, and what versions of the Mac OS it supports. If you have a Mac Pro, we'll also let you know how many drive bays it has, how much RAM you can stuff inside it, and what versions of OS X it supports.

We believe in using your Mac until it no longer meets your needs, upgrading it as necessary. Once you outgrow it, we suggest you find the best newer Mac that will meet your needs - preferably one with some expansion options. That may be a new Mac, or it may be a used Mac that's newer than your old one.

We're not about bleeding edge performance or maximum productivity. We're about value. That means knowing when it's time to upgrade your old Mac and when it's time to migrate to a newer one. Knowing how much processing power is enough, too little, or more than you really need. Helping you know which Macs are sufficiently expandable - and which ones you might want to avoid.

We don't ever want to see a Mac in a landfill. Better to repurpose it - shift it to another family member or a kid with no computer at all, turn it into a family message center, or store it as an emergency backup machine should your main Mac need to go in for repair. At worst, turn it into a recycler who will strip it down and keep the lead out of the environment.

Frankly, we could give the same advice to those with Windows PCs, but they don't tend to be quite as passionate about their computers as Mac owners. Still, older PCs can often run a version of Linux comfortably (I've heard good things about Xubuntu on old hardware), and it's better to pass along an old computer than throw it in the trash.

Whether you're looking at your iPod, computer, car, or old fashioned analog television set, we'd rather you make the most of it for as long as you can. And when it comes time to replace it, find a good home for it. Break the consumption cycle by using it up before you move it out.