Tick tock: why timing your Mac hardware upgrades makes good sense

One of the questions I get asked every time Apple has a modest update to one of their Macs, is whether or not “now” is a good time to buy a new Mac. Most just want to know how long they would have to wait for the next release, and if it is not too far off, they will wait.  Some Mac refreshes have significant performance improvements while others are just minor updates.  But knowing whether or not the upcoming release will offer a major overall performance boost can help you decide.

There is also a more practical reason for trying to time your Mac purchase just right.  That is the fact that the hardware from Apple will most certainly outlast the version of the operating system it ships with.  A good goal when deciding on a purchase is to maximize the time your new Mac purchase will be able to run on a supported version of Apple’s OS X software.

The following looks at release cycles, processor performance and the history of Apple and Intel release dates to help you determine if waiting for a new release worth it before you go shopping.

Intel providing the performance

Looking at performance, the most important factor to consider is the Intel(s INTC) chip inside the Mac you are purchasing. Intel releases its chips on a tick-tock release cycle. Each “tick” is a major step forward in manufacturing and each “tock” is an improvement on micro-architecture. At this year’s CES, Intel showed off its new Haswell micro-architecture, part of their fourth-generation Intel Core processor family, that will be made available later this year.  Haswell is a “tock” as it enhances the micro-architecture of the chip.

Tick Tock Geekbench

Using the Mac Geekbench scores from Primate Labs for the 15-inch MacBook dating back to the first release of an Apple MacBook with an Intel processor, you can see that (other than the time Apple skipped a “tock” release from Intel) the first release in a tock cycle has had the more significant performance gains than chips that were released during a “tick.”  So provided Apple includes a Haswell chip in its upcoming Mac releases, we can expect significant performance improvements once again since this will be the first release of a new Mac during Intel’s tock cycle of chip enhancements.

Intel Releases

The big question is, will Apple have a Haswell chip inside of the next revision of Macs?  It’s always tough trying to predict what Apple will do, but as the above chart indicated, Apple has done a good job historically of releasing a MacBook Pro update within a month of Intel releasing the chipset that is used inside the MacBook Pro. So not only are you getting the latest hardware from Apple, you are also most likely getting the latest chips that Intel has to offer. And if Intel can deliver on its promisethis particular chipset will be just what a manufacturer looking to move away from dedicated GPU chips in their products in favor of sleeker and thinner designs is looking for.

Apple providing the support

Keeping up-to-date with all of the current versions of Mac OS X, including all of the security updates and bug fixes is important too. Being able to continue to run your favorite software on the latest version of OS X also helps.  With each OS X release comes the potential that your favorite software will no longer be supported on older versions of OS X.  It is therefore a good idea to see just how long you can expect Apple to continue supporting the hardware you are thinking about purchasing.

OS X Releases

When it comes to the lifespan of a given OS version, Apple has typically been keeping up OS X versions around for about 580 days, or a little over a year and a half. This is the average time from the initial release of a new version of OS X until the date of the last update Apple puts out for that version of OS X. In contrast, we’ve seen, at least historically, a hardware update about every 260 days. That ends up being about two MacBook Pro hardware updates for every one OS X software update.

Macbook Pro Releases

The current version of OS X, Mountain Lion, supports MacBook Pros back to the June 5, 2007 release of the MacBookPro 3,1, the previous version of OS X, Lion, continues to support MacBook Pros back to the Oct. 24, 2006 release of the MacBookPro 2,1, and finally OS X Snow Leopard, whose last update was released on July 25, 2011, supported all Intel-based Macs, the first of which was the MacBookPro 1,1 released on Jan. 10, 2006. This trend continues all the way back to the original release of OS X 10.0.

Macbook Pro Lifespan on Supported OS X

If historical data is any indication of future expectations, then it is reasonable to anticipate that the next version of OS X will support MacBook Pros back to the Feb. 26, 2008 release of the MacBookPro 4,1 which was when Apple also transitioned from Intel’s Merom to Intel’s Penryn based Core 2 Duo chips. This trend creates a countdown timer for each hardware release. Set at roughly 2,400 days, or 6.5 years, this countdown starts on the first day each new MacBook Pro is released, not the day you happen to purchase your MacBook Pro.

Timing purchases just right

What it boils down to is timing.  Planning out your MacBook upgrade to coincide with Intel’s “tock” releases should ensure that you are getting the largest performance gains with each purchase.  When you purchase your new hardware as close to the release date as possible, you will maximize the number of days your Mac will be running on the last supported version of OS X.  With evidence of testing for the next version of OS X beginning to show online, it wont be much longer until the mid-2012 MacBook Pros are no longer running on the version of OS X they shipped with.  And if you’re like me, purchasing the extended coverage provided with Apple’s own AppleCare program will certainly help guarantee that your Mac will keep running for at least three of the six years that your Mac will be able to run the latest version of OS X.