In praise of ageing tech ๐Ÿ“Ÿ๐Ÿ“ 

I used to be an early adopter. Always with the latest gadgets, the thinnest phone, the lightest laptop. After years of unchecked consumerism, I have a veritable archive of technology in the museum of planned obsolescence. While it’s a fascinating catalogue of anachronisms, my teetering stack of digital notebooks, silicon candy-bars and handheld clamshells pays homage to an era of corporate greed and environmental hostility. Gone are the good ol’ days of user-serviceable products and lifetime guarantees, replaced with DMCA and AppleCare warranties. Years later, it’s become impossible to ignore the fantastic pile of silver and plastic, growing evermore irrelevant with every financial quarter.

That is why I am now, and shall henceforth be known as, an adopter and caregiver for ageing technologies. I pledge support to save silicon. I am a facilitator of fried hard-drives, a replacer of cracked screens, and a recycler of rubbish desktops. Some tend to think of me as palliative careย for electronic components, where dying devices come to enjoy peaceful end-of-life (EOL). I prefer to think of myself as a Mad Max of microcomputers, desperately piecing together tech scraps to repair and assemble some semblance of a working machine, just long enough to stave off the next upgrade.

So you can imagine how hard it was to face the music when my trusty mule of a MacBook gave up the ghost for good. It was the last straw…

With nearly three-quarters of Canadian’s toting laptops in 2018, and more with smartphones, few of us can deal without some connection to the world wide web. But you see, I’m a web designer. I live and work, online. The personal computer is my portal to prosperity. It’s more than personal, it’s professional. Without it, I am but a brushless painter, a barren fruit tree. With over 95% of Canadian’s online for work or pleasure today, I’m sure that’s a feeling we can all relate to.

My last new computer purchase was a 2012 MacMini, 7 years ago. It was my daily driver, and I ran it on a nice big monitor. One day it just didn’t light up anymore. After several disassemblies, cleanings, and cord jigglings, my little Mini was laid to rest earlier this year. A simple service was held, few tears were shed. โšฐ๏ธ That led me back to my maxed-out 2009 MacBook Pro 15″ running El Capitan (which is as far as Apple goes for this vintage). I’ve actually been using this laptop exclusively to grow my business for the past few months. It’s large and loud, but still full of life, to be fair. The battery is shot, so it’s essentially a mag-shackled desktop rack. The integrated video chipset choked on HD, and the highest output resolution was lower than my external display, so everything was either too small, or blurry. I had already bumped up to an SSD, which is honestly the only thing that kept it going this long. Frequent resets and overall sluggishness became the norm. It is ten years old.

You have to draw the line somewhere. Sure, there are hacks to enable newer versions of macOS on older hardware. Yes, there are cheaper hackbooks you can modify to run macOS. But there’s only so far you can push an old machine and still compete in the modern world, and I honestly couldn’t be bothered with all of that. To get a genuine Apple without breaking the bank, a used or refurbished rig is the only way to go. So I decided it’s finally time to buy a new (used) MacBook, and started shopping.

Onward and… backward? ๐Ÿ‘‰โฎ

Sadly, no recent models measure up. I had to go back, way back, to find a machine worthy of its price tag.

Reins in hand, I took to the forums. Still saddled in my geriatric Mac, mind you, but riding to find a new stallion, I began researching the “best used MacBook” to buy. ๐Ÿ‡ I knew I wanted, neigh, needed a Retina screen. I’ve been craving a high-density display for ages. I was used to a 15″ screen, but I wanted something more portable. The 13″ Retina’s extra pixels make up for the sacrificed screen space. As a designer, Retina isn’t something I could do without any longer.

Thinking thin and light, in Space Grey, I briefly considered a MacBook Air. I’ve actually been through two Air’s and found them lacking in CPU, video, and durability in 2011/2012 models. I’ve had occasion to use a partners 2015 MacBook Air, however, and found it to be quite adequate. Its integrated video GPU even outputs a generous 3840 by 2160 pixels on an external display, and Ars Technica reports it can even do 4k video, albeit begrudgingly.

At around $700 for a base 2015 MacBook Air, this might be a great choice for most people. But of course, I wanted Space Grey, and the Air didn’t come in Grey until 2018, and we’re looking at $1,433 CAD after tax, for a refurbished rig from Apple with 8GB of RAM and a dinky 128GB SSD. That’s a really expensive frisbee. Even if you could stomach the hipster-gouging sticker, there’s the butterfly effect.

When a butterfly flaps its wings… a MacBook keyboard dies ๐Ÿฆ‹โ˜ ๏ธ

Apple debuted its low-travel keyboard in 2015 on the little 12″ ultraportable MacBooks, and it has been plagued with issues ever since. Dubbed the “butterfly” mechanism ๐Ÿฆ‹, the new keyboard addresses a problem that didn’t need fixing and indeed created a much larger one.

In short, debris gets caught underneath the extremely shallow keys, and bits of sand and dirt block the key presses from registering, causing your keyboarding to go from extremely frustrating to essentially useless, one key at a time. Apple insists only “a small percentage” of models are affected, but a class-action lawsuit suggested otherwise, forcing Apple to apologize and address the issue by offering a free Keyboard Service Repair program to all customers.

Second- and third-generation butterfly keyboards employ various attempts to fix the issue, like adding a membrane beneath the keys, but Basecamp CTO says 1/2 of their entire staff’s 2019 MacBooks are bunk, that is ‘not a small number’, a ‘catastrophe’, and demands a recall.

๐ŸŽจ Designer Pro Tip: Try the most commonly used keys when test-driving a used laptop. Open a text editor or any input field, and remember this classic typesetters pangram for previewing typesets: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” This little sentence contains every letter of the alphabet but is considerably faster than typing it out.

With this in mind, I tested two refurbished 2016 and 2017 models available at a local retailer, both with new low-travel keyboards, and wouldn’t you know it, 50% of them failed. Too bad, it was a 2016 Space Grey MacBook Pro and I really liked the way it looked. But of course, even if it were among the roughly 36% of prfctly fnctningkybrds, there’s flexgate.

Flexgate ๐Ÿ’ช๐Ÿ‘Ž

Flexgate is the name given to a shortsighted scandal affecting MacBooks sold since 2016, uncovered by iFixit (a great resource for DIY tech repair that anyone can do). In short (no joke), the cable connecting the display to the main body is not long enough. This leads to increased wear on the attachment, initially producing a stage-lighting effect until the cable tears and the display fails completely.ย 

The problem is compounded by the fact that Apple, in its search for invisibility, has integrated the display cable into the display panel. So the only way to get a longer cable is to replace the entire display, starting at $800 CAD. ๐Ÿ’ธ

Any port in a storm โ›ˆโ›ต๏ธ

Perhaps one of the most obvious differences that set 2015 apart from more recent models are the diminishing physical connectivity options.ย 

Apple’s new MacBook has 2 ports. ๐Ÿซ One of them is a headphone port (which is odd since it began disappearing from iPhones three years ago, and vanished completely late last year). That leaves a single USB-C port for charging, and everything else. That means dongle-hell (sold-separately) for anyone needing to support multiple devices or external displays, and a non-trivial switching of cables anytime you want to read a USB key.ย ย 

Don’t get me wrong, I remember a day before laptops had wifi if you can imagine. I welcome the wireless era. No one misses tripping on intertwined ethernet vines at the boardroom table. But even Apple’s signature innovation MagSafe connector is anything but in the war on ports. Is nothing sacred?

Here’s some foreshadowing for you, too. You can expect the last port in town to be highly trafficked, considering there’s nowhere else to go. That means 2โจ‰, 4โจ‰ or ?โจ‰ the amount of fatigue on a single point of connection. If that thing isn’t bulletproof, I predict a short circuit roughly three days after your AppleCare warranty expires. This is your fetal MacBooks prenatal belly button, and when it goes, it’s light out for good. No power.

2019’s MacBook Pro 13″ and 15″ have 2 and 4 Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports respectively. This is better but still means packing a dongle donkey to carry your “legacy” connectors.

In contrast, Apple’s glorious 2015 Pro vintage portable packs a plethora of portholes. On the left, we’ve got MagSafe, 2โจ‰ Thunderbolt, USB and headphone. On the right, USB, HDMI, and an SD slot. That’s 8. These additional connectivity options are essential to many users, especially ones who aren’t ready to replace their monitor, external HDs, USB keys, or fork out another $100+ on dongle options they’ll forget at the office several days a week.

Port protip: Another oft-overlooked area to investigate on second-hand laptops are the ports. Take a USB key and open a document. Plug in some headphones and listen to a song. Even just plugging and unplugging an HDMI cable will give you a feel for it. If there’s any play or wiggle, this port is on its last legs, best to keep searching or accept the flaw and negotiate a lower price.

Use the Force๐Ÿ•ด

In 2014 Apple introduced the Force Touch trackpad, so most models since then have it, including the 2015 MBP. I don’t use this much, but some people will appreciate it. It’s neat, but when I’m not using my Wacom as a primary input device,ย  I customize my trackpad interactions to use a light tap only and no hard click presses. I find this reduces physical strain on your wrists and can reduce the risk of repetitive strain injuries. If you’re used to using 3D Touch on the iPhone, you’ll like this. Featured uses include Lookup, which is great for writers, but again, I switch this to a three-finger tap gesture, so it’s not a selling point for me. Reading that list of uses makes me think I might be missing something here.

RAM-shackled ๐Ÿโ›“

One of my favourite tech-savvy tips to boost laptop performance on a budget is to buy a model with stock RAM and max it out with aftermarket chips for a fraction of the cost of a pre-configured machine.

This used to be a breeze back in the day, but today’s models feature memory modules soldered directly onto the motherboard, making them non-user serviceable.

Even the 2015 machine suffers from this shortfall, and for this reason, you’ll want to buy a model with all the RAM you’ll ever need. For many users, the 8GB that comes standard will suffice, and that will save you some ducats. But if you’re into photo/video editing or gaming at all, I read fanboy forum posts lamenting the budget move to skimp here and opted for the 16GB model. Worth it.

Replacing the hard drive with a faster SSD is another great way to increase speed, but that isn’t possible with newer models either.

Unibody-issues ๐Ÿ’ป๐Ÿคทโ€โ™‚๏ธ

MacBooks latest tagline, “Thinning is Winning”, isn’t.

These major symptoms all stem from a single point of origin that iFixitโ€™s Kyle Wiens calls “design anorexia: making a product slimmer and slimmer at the cost ofย usefulness,ย functionality,ย serviceability, and theย environment“.

If Apple’s marketing alchemists can’t cure themselves of this obsession, they may succeed in making their product disappear entirely.

The solution…๐Ÿฅ‡

I bought a MacBook Pro (Retina, 13-inch, Early 2015). I’ve written this article on it, and been loving every minute of it.

This is the sweet spot in Apple’s MacBook lineage. Why?

  • Retina screen
  • 4k output & TWO external monitors supported
  • Ports galore! 8 in total, even on the 13″
  • Portability: Smaller footprint than the Air, and only 0.5lbs heavier.
  • Pre-butterfly keyboard issues
  • Pre-flexgate display issues
  • “It (still) just works!”

Tumblr lead developer Marco Arment called it “the best laptop ever made“. The internet agrees.

Cost ๐Ÿ’ฐ

Ok, so here’s the kicker. For a 4-year-old computer, these babies are really holding their value. You can even expect to pay more for a used Mac than a new Windows-based laptop with similar specs. But compared to new Macs with similar specs, I saved half the money and all the worry.

My mum taught me that you pay less for quality in the long-term, and she is often right about these things. Our 20-year old Toshiba television was a testament to that. The fact is, you’ll spend less on a $200 pair of boots that lasts ten years, than buying a new pair of $50 boots every year or two, and your experience will be vastly improved.

 

Common pre-loved pitfalls ๐Ÿ’”๐Ÿ•ณ

You need to be careful when buying used anything. I used to scour Kijiji for a quick score when I needed my next tech fix, but you’re swimming with sharks if you don’t have a keen eye for common scams.

If it’s cheaper than similar models listed, that’s a red flag. ๐ŸšฉDon’t fall for that “nice-guy” just-bought-a-new-machine-and-don’t-need-this-anymore shtick. Or the person who’s looking for a quick sale because they’re “too busy” making money. If it seems too good to be true, it is. What’s wrong with it?

Probably the most common TGTBT laptops I’ve seen on classified sites is the water-damaged dinghy. Most electronics will appear to function normally after the initial spill dries up within a few days, but the true threat of corrosion lies in wait like a ticking timebomb. Unless the machine is completely disassembled and thoroughly cleaned with isopropanol alcohol, the remaining sugars and impurities left behind after evaporation will continue to creep and corrode your components, causing freeze-ups to increase until total system meltdown.

You can inspect for water-damage by taking the bottom cover off of the laptop and looking for the little indicators that turn red when exposed to moisture. If you’re not comfortable doing this, or worse, the seller seems reluctant, then keep looking.

This is why I now shop at and recommend secondhand computer retailers who make refurbishing their bread and butter. I went to ReBoot, and their service and patience were noteworthy. This also gave me the opportunity to try and compare various models before buying.

Conclusion

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

If you’re looking for a tried and battle-tested MacBook that perfectly balances power and portability, look no further than the MacBook Pro (Retina, 13-inch, Early/Mid 2015), with as much onboard RAM as you need. Look for something with a refurbished battery, preferably.

If you’re a casual Mac-user who just needs a dependable portable PC, the MacBook Air (13″, Early 2015) might be a better budget pick.