The Macintosh Guy || MacTips || Email Lists || My Blog

Tip #27, Upgrade Theory 101.

In a recent MacTip we discussed how to squeeze out those last few Mhz from your Mac through various configuration methods that could wake your sleeping giant. Unfortunately there is only so much that con be done on the software side of things that can help the performance of your Mac.

This MacTip discusses some of the logic that I think through when considering upgrades for myself or my customers. I'll even provide the formula I use to help me weigh the different options and come up with the one that will provide the best bang for the buck.

How can you tell it is time to upgrade?

I couldn't resist this opportunity to make a top ten list.

10. Your 4th grade child can perform most operations faster than your Mac.

9. The elementary school computer lab feels like MIT compared to your Mac.

8. You think DTP stands for DeskTop Punishing.

7. You have more RAM in your microwave than in your Mac.

6. The MacWorld magazines you got at a garage sale for a nickel talk about software that won't run on your Mac.

5. You wonder if you might get more enjoyment out of your Mac as a fish tank.

4. Your friend wants to borrow your Mac for a boat anchor.

3. It's Christmas and you're sending e-cards with bunnies on them.

2. You tried to donate your Mac to the Salvation Army and they refused it.

1. You've decided to put the entire house under Mac control. The porch light will be on next Tuesday.

Special thanks to my family for contributing a few of these.


There are two schools of thought as far as upgrading. The first says make it as fast as possible as soon as possible. So as soon as you take it out of the box you fill it with RAM, another hard drive, video cards and anything else that might possibly make you computing experience a little bit brighter. The second says only upgrade when you feel the need.

If money is not a factor there may be no reason not to just upgrade everything possible right away, but I see some benefits in taking the slower road to computing bliss.


We upgrade for pleasure and productivity.

We talk about upgrades in terms of Mhz and performance gain but really most of the time we upgrade because either we just get fed up waiting, or we think what we add will give us more pleasure. It is important to make sure we are realizing performance gains when we are upgrading, but equally important is that we can feel that gain in performance. Every upgrade I make to my Mac I want to be able to specifically identify the difference spending that money made. The following suggestions are geared toward helping you get the most out of every upgrade, as small as it might be.

Exhaust all software solutions.

Many times when we have that feeling of slowness the first thing we will turn to is a hardware upgrade. Many times the most significant performance gains can be found through maintenance and proper configuration.

Where is it slow?

Many times I hear, "My Mac is just too slow." I always respond the question of what exactly about it is too slow. Identifying what the exact point when you feel your Mac being slow is a big step in deciding what needs to be upgraded. Is it when you are opening applications, performing certain operations, switching between programs, starting up, getting email, viewing web pages, transferring files from a server, calculating your tax debt, or playing Marathon? Once you can isolate the specific operations that are most important to speed up, not only will you be better able to decide what to upgrade, you will have specific things on which to evaluate how well your upgrade went.

Identify specific needs.

Once you have identified the specific operations that give you the feeling of slowness, the next step is to try to figure out what exactly is going on at that point. Are you accessing the hard drive? Are you transferring things over a modem or the network? Is your processor just chugging away? This is the place where it can take some experience to tell exactly what is going on and more importantly why. Just because your hard drive is working really hard it doesn't mean you necessarily need a faster hard drive. The key is that you would need to find out what is possible to gceive the burden on your hard drive. This could involve a number of things including more RAM, a L2 cache, or even just adjusting the amount of memory allocated to a specific application.

It pays to wait.

I often encourage people who are even just a little on the fence about whether they should upgrade to wait. With price and performance points changing as fast as they are right now, you can almost always benefit from waiting. The difference of just a few months can often make the difference of quite a few dollars or Mhz. There are certainly situations where you find a great deal and jumping on it is the best thing to do. All things being equal, waiting is usually better than not.


The Formula.

Current Macs are largely very open for upgrades as compared to the not too distant past. This is great because it makes it easier to get into a system in the first place and leaves you some room for adding value along the way. When you get to the point of wanting to upgrade your Mac it is certainly possible that there will be a number of options at your disposal. Deciding what specifically to upgrade can be a daunting task. The goal of most every user is to add the most value for the least cost. I see this as fundamental.

In upgrading my own computers and assisting others in upgrading theirs I have come to think of a few factors that help me decide or recommend which specific upgrade will provide the best value.


Gain is the term I use to represent the benefit that the particular upgrade will provide. Many times we speak of thing in terms of hard percentages or even Mhz. I consider gain in the broader sense of the added pleasure or productivity that the particular upgrade will provide for you.

For example you might realize a 200% performance gain from a processor upgrade but if your hard drive is crammed full, a new hard drive would be of greater benefit than more processing power. Another example might be one in which adding a video card might provide you with more colors and increase your computing experience and provide you with more value than something like a level 2 cache that would increase the speed of your computer.

Another aspect of gain also includes any negatives of a specific upgrade. Examples of this include situations where you might have to remove a certain element like a RAM chip to replace it with a larger one. So even though you might be installing a 32 megabyte ram chip, if you must remove a 4 megabyte chip your net gain is only 28 megabytes. Gain takes into account what you may loose in an upgrade like removing RAM chips or a hard drive to make room for the new one. Think of gain as the net positive effect of your upgrade which might include better performance.


Longevity speaks to the amount of time that you will be able to take advantage of a specific upgrade. For example if you filled your last 2 memory slots with only 8 megabytes of ram you might need to replace them in a year with a pair of 16 megabyte chips thus only giving the 8 megabyte upgrade a longevity of a year. Many upgrades can last the life of your computer but it is important to consider what your needs might be in a year or two when performing upgrades now. The more longevity a particular upgrade has the more value it holds for you.


Cost is a simple yet significant factor to consider in each upgrade. Cost is different than price, cost involves not only price but your budget. The more a specific upgrade fits into your budget the lower the cost. If a specific upgrade would stretch your budget the cost would be high. If you happen to have a ton of extra money even something with a high price could have a relatively low cost.

Putting it all together.

These three factors, gain, longevity and cost determine the value of a particular upgrade. When considering an upgrade for myself or a client I mentally put these factors into a formula that helps to determine which upgrades make the most sense for the individual.

Although I haven't taken the time to actually try to figure out applying numbers to the formula the principles can help to compare different upgrade options to determine which one would provide the best value for you.

Basically the top part of the formula (Gain times Longevity) is a representation of the fact that the value of an upgrade is enhanced by the fact that the longer you can take advantage of it. The bottom part of the formula (Cost) speaks to the fact that the overall value of an upgrade is reduced by what it costs you.

I don't claim that this formula in itself will make the decision on what to upgrade an easy one. What this formula does do for you, is it allows you to think of the impact a certain upgrade in a manner that will walk you through the positives and negatives. The way I do it is to look at gain, longevity and cost for each option I have and by the time I have considered all my options I will begin to have one that seems like a better value than the others.

I hope this MacTip gives you some tools that can help you to consider each option at your disposal decide which one will provide you with the best value. In some future MacTips we will begin to discuss the effects of some specific hardware upgrades.

Eric Prentice

Tip #27 apeared November 11th 1997.

The Macintosh Guy || MacTips || Email Lists || My Blog

This site, its source code, and the MacTips logo ©1996-2016 Eric Prentice.. All other names, logos and images are copyright their respective owners.