How long will your Mac last for?

Encouraged by the response from my post on whether a MacBook Pro is more future-pro than other Apple laptops I set about analyzing what lifespan Apple laptops have had in the past.

By lifespan I define the supportability of a certain hardware configuration with a specific OS X version.

The purpose is to draw some general conclusions on how many – on average – versions of OS X you can expect to run on your Mac.

I’ll concentrate on laptops only because as Steve Jobs famously said, Apple is now a mobile devices company. Most users anyway buy laptops these days and I am in the market for a new Mac laptop too.

If you want to calculate how long your Mac will last you need to take into account two different factors:

  1. Hardware longevity
  2. Software longevity

Hardware longevity

I won’t spend too much time on this point. It’s generally accepted that Apple’s build quality and quality assurance are among the highest in the consumer electronics industry.

My direct experience confirms that too. Compared to an average PC, Mac hardware lasts longer and in the cases when you experience a hardware fault, Apple support is ready to help even with free repairs.

Software longevity

Software longevity is a different story altogether. It depends a lot on how long a company is willing to support old hardware. We need to stop seeing this point as how bad Apple is when they decide to make a device end of life (EOL) but consider that most of the time old hardware hinders the development of new software. Sometimes the old must go, must be rendered obsolete.

Of course there are market and profit reasons behind a decision to make a product EOL but Apple is in the business to make money, let’s not forget that.

To help me in the analysis I have used the data provided by Mactracker app. I personally thanks the developers for creating such a useful software that has helped me so many times in my life as a blogger.

In my table I have included all Mac laptops released since the first white MacBook. The table includes the model number and the graphics card used as well.

I have added this last column because in the case of OS X Mountain Lion many old Macs are not supported partly because of the old graphic chipset used.

The remaining columns show which Mac is supported with which version of OS X. The last column shows you how many versions of OS X that particular model has been able to use.

These are the results:

Results analysis

If you don’t take into account the models currently on the market – that ship with OS X Lion and will support OS X Mountain Lion – the laptops no longer sold were able to use the average number of different versions of OS X shown in this table:

Model Avg Median
MacBook 3.5 3
MacBook Air 3.4 3.5
MacBook Pro 3.9 4

The average calculation give only a partial representation of the expected lifespan of a Mac laptop.

The median calculation gives you more information. It shows you that the majority of Apple Pro laptops are supported on four different iteration of OS X.

This is confirmed by my experience. My MacBook Pro came with Leopard, then I installed Snow Leopard, Lion and potentially I could install Mountain Lion.

At first sight this should give you enough information to claim that MacBook Pros are more future proof.

Real world interpretation of the results

The math only tells you half of the story though. In the real world, and again my experience is backing this up, it is hard to have a performing machine on the fourth iteration of OS X.

I mean, my Mac is barely usable with Lion, I can’t imagine how slow it is going to be with OS X Mountain Lion.

The conclusion that I am inclined to draw from these numbers is twofold.

Contrary to what I believed before analyzing the actual data MacBook Air and Pro have similar lifespan. Buying a MacBook Pro because you think it’s more future proof might not be the right criteria to use.

When you plan to buy a new Mac, consider other factors instead:

  • Portability.
  • The possibility to run pro applications at a decent speed if you have this need (VMware, FinalCut Pro, Photoshop,…).
  • Battery life.
  • Screen size.
  • If the machine you’re considering adapts to your way of working and your workflow.
  • Cost.

Conclusions

At this point you might ask if I can tell you how many years you can expect to use your Mac laptop.

Version Name Release date Months from the prev. version
10.4 Tiger April 29, 2005 18
10.5 Leopard October 26, 2007 30
10.6 Snow Leopard August 28, 2009 22
10.7 Lion July 20, 2011 23
10.8 Mountain Lion Summer 2012 12

Even if hardware faults are not taken into account and if we take three as the right number of different versions of OS X you can realistically install on your Mac (the default one plus two upgrades), giving you a number is not easy. There are too many combinations between hardware and OS release dates that makes this calculation long and probably not useful for future forecasts.

Realistically you can expect to use your Mac for a minimum of about three to a maximum of four and a half years.

After that you can still use your Mac but should not count on being able to upgrade your operating system.

Things should change from this summer. Apple has pledged to roll out a new version of OS X every 12 months so we should be able to install more than three versions of OS X thanks to the shorter release cycle.

What is your mileage with your Macs?

[Edited on 2013-10-31: You can also find an updated table here]

15 thoughts on “How long will your Mac last for?

  1. Vassilis

    Very well researched post! Thanks for all the info and I must emphasize “the real world life span” you mentioned. If your computer runs fine, why upgrade it to a newer OS version that will make it slower?

    That’s where certain OS features weigh in and turn your decent hardware obsolete overnight. If Snow Leopard supported basic iCloud functionality (or MobileMe lived beyond this summer), I would keep running SL until my MBP turned 10 years old! Because everything runs smooth and not another single feature of Lion or ML, except syncing, would make me buy a new computer and actually lose money, since I do my work fine just as it is.

    Oh well, and I thought I could go this year without a major Apple purchase..

    Reply
    1. Pietro Montalcino Post author

      I couldn’t agree more. Lion made my Mac suddenly old. With SL everything runs smoothly and as you said if I could use iCloud with it I’d stick with the same Mac and SL.

      Pietro

      Reply
  2. avalon

    mac fanboy, if you buy the cheapest components for a PC then obvoiusly it will not be so reliable but if you buy descent hardware, PC HW doesn’t have shorter lifespan. As for software, I doubt any mac can beat any PC running linux year after year.

    If you talk about windows, then that’s a problem for windows users. But don’t put everything under the same hat.

    Reply
  3. lse

    This was really interesting. Thanks!

    I used my PowerMac G5 as a primary computer from 2004 – 2011, when I bought a MacBook Pro. I’m planning to eke out 5 years on this laptop, come what may.

    Reply
    1. macography.net Post author

      Thanks for your contribution Ise. This is the type of feedback I was looking for.

      Can I say wow? I thought I used my Power Macintosh G3 blue & white a lot (1999-2004), but your numbers dwarf that!

      Pietro

      Reply
      1. pedro serra

        i use my macbook pro 2.16 (2006 – second MBP with intel processor) as today as my first laptop (7 years) With Snow Leopard and windows 7. i develop software for windows and ios. the problem is the core 2 duo dont have virtualisation. i upgrade the hardrive with ssd samsung pro 256gb. and put 2 gb ram. it run smoothly. i just need to open once an year to replace the thermal paste since this model have thermal problems with the GPU (too much heat). i thinking to buy another but the problem is the MBP that have a GPU (Ati or Nvidia) is the expensive one.

        best regards

        Reply
  4. ken

    MacBook Pro 2006! and still running like a charm. Actually bought a MacBook Air 13 today, so that’s how I found this post. When I wanted to upgrade to the latest 1password and could not, thought it was time to change…

    Reply
  5. Apple Guy

    Interesting take on Mac. I have a mid 2010 MacBook Pro that runs perfectly in every way and I have no intention on replacing it anytime soon. To me, its just like a fresh out the store Mac. Mavericks runs great on it and I am on my MacBook Pro probably 8 or more hours a day. (student)

    I have 16 GB Ram and an SSD

    I think anyone that doesn’t spill liquid on it or drop it down the stairs could have their MacBook last easily 10 years or more.

    Reply
    1. macography.net Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you. I might add that if a person doesn’t plan to use all Apple services that are being released with each iteration, you can easily use a Mac for a long time.

      Reply
  6. Jay

    6th year here. MacBook Pro 15″- early 2008- upgraded to 128G SSD and 4GB of ram. I develop software mainly. Logic board gave way couple of years back, replaced. Replaced 2nd battery yesterday. Not sure how long it will go, but I must say it has been a long love affair with its ups and down of course.

    Reply
  7. Kanad K

    Now I have the facts on basically what I was thinking. Most macs last around 4 years or so before they need to be upgraded (keeping up with the latest laptops). However I’ve known people using their macs for almost 6-7 years.

    Reply

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