Doing the Job With Obsolete Hardware in a Recession

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While my new unibody MacBook is pretty state-of-the-art, and indeed the most contemporaneously avant garde computer I’ve ever owned, I’m still a fan of good older hardware and getting a lot of useful work out of my two nine-year-old Pismo PowerBooks.

The Pismo, for a variety of reasons, has proved an extraordinarily long-lived machine in terms of practical usefulness, thanks in no small part to its expandability, connectivity, and upgradability, representing what was arguably the all time high-water mark for those qualities in Mac laptops. It also has a really good keyboard, which makes it a continued tactile pleasure to work with.

Both of mine have been upgraded with G4 550 MHz processors, replacing the original 500 MHz G3s, and 8x dual-layer DVD-burning SuperDrives. The also have 576MB and 640 MB of RAM respectively (and would support up to 1 GB), larger capacity 40 GB and 100 GB hard drives, plus Wi-Fi and FireWire 800 PC Cardbus adapters. They’re running Mac OS X 10.4.11, which is as far as I intend to go with system software notwithstanding the potential for hacked Leopard installs. Pretty modest by today’s standards, but they’re lively enough as to not be at all frustrating for the sort of basic text and web-based stuff I do with them.

Just Plain Nice to Use

Heavier lifting I leave to my newer G4 PowerBook and now the unibody MacBook 2.0 GHz I just bought, but I have no intention of putting the Pismos out to pasture anytime soon. They suit a niche in my workflow and are just plain nice to use.

However, even more typical and less hotrodding-friendly laptops (and desktops as well) are capable of providing longer service than has been customary, or at least was before the economy nosedived.

Sufficiently Powerful

BusinessWeek’s Roger L. Kay sensibly contends, and I agree, that if your ancient IT equipment is running fine and sufficiently powerful for the work it’s tasked with, you shouldn’t hesitate to try squeezing a few more more years of service out of it until this foundering economy hopefully begins to recover.

Kay cites the example of his Hewlett-Packard Jornada notebook that’s even older than my Pismos, being a demo unit from a HP press event in 1998, observing that although dated by any definition (to say the least!), “the old Jornada remains – year after year – exactly the right tool for the job at hand… Every time I open this device, I of course have to endure the mockery of my peers. But at the same time, I am struck by a number of principles.”

One of those, he says, is longevity of technology, speculating that his Jornada could easily remain in service for another decade if not for a deliberate cycle of planned obsolescence characterized on the PC side by Microsoft’s (s msft) replacement of Windows XP by Vista, Intel’s ongoing architectural changes, and the push to substitute Blu-ray for older optical drive formats, conceding that computers are getting better in some ways, have more features, but not necessary longer-lasting or more reliable.

The “Good Enough” Factor

Then there’s the “good enough” factor, which must be determined in the context of what you need it to be good enough for. If an electronic notebook is all you need it for, that ancient HP Jornada with its instant-on 8.2″ display, puny 190MHz StrongARM processor, 16MB of RAM and 16MB SSD running Windows CE and Pocket Word is more than adequate. I used to do real work — graphics creation as well as word crunching — on an 8 MHz Mac Plus with 2.5 MB of RAM, and it was lively too.

Compared to Kay’s old Jornada, my Pismos are powerhouses, and again, in the context of what I need them to do for me they are quite adequate, demanding little sacrifice in convenience, and regardless of what the economy does I’ll be surprised if I’m not still using at least one of them three or four years from now.

This distempered year, with household and enterprise budgets in tatters, leaving both individuals and corporate IT managers wondering if they can wring another year or two of useful service out of their existing hardware, the good news is that they probably can. As Roger Kay says, “A good tool should last a long time.”

That said, I’m going to enjoy using my new MacBook.