Friday, April 17, 2015

Deciding when to upgrade

When it comes to technology, my motto has always been, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." If I've got a system that works for me, no matter how old, clunky, and outdated it may look to others, I'll stick with it—because any attempt to "upgrade" to a newer, sleeker system may just unleash a host of problems that I didn't have with the old one. In other words, if it ain't broke now, it may be after the upgrade.

The ecofrugal corollary to this is, "If it is broke, fix it—don't replace it." As I've said before, I'm a lover, not a lister; I would almost always rather find some way to keep an old item working than toss it out and buy a new one. It's usually (though, as I've noted, not always) cheaper to repair than it is to replace, and it saves resources as well. And while both fixing up an old system and installing a new one can be a lot of work, I find the patch-up kind of work much more satisfying. Plus, the less you change the original system, the less risk there is that it will be even more broke after the upgrade.

In the fast-changing world of technology, however, sometimes things just get so broke that they can't be fixed anymore. Which is how we ended up making two upgrades to our computer system in the past month—one hardware and one software. Both of them were clearly necessary, but one of them was a smooth process with only a few minor bumps that left our overall system much more efficient and streamlined than it was to start with. The other—well, the other is still in progress, and it may be a month or more before I actually get all the kinks worked out.

The hardware upgrade was our printer. Remember how, way back in July, I had trouble printing out a board game for Brian's anniversary present because the printer kept running out of ink? Well, over the next six months, the problem just kept getting worse. It seemed we were refilling the thing every week, and even when it had just been refilled, print jobs often came out uneven and blotchy (and sometimes spread across multiple sheets of paper). We thought perhaps the problem was that the print heads had gone bad, which meant that buying new ink cartridges  might fix the problem—but it might not, and it would cost us over $60 to find out (assuming we had to replace both the black and colored cartridges). Replacing the entire thing, by contrast, would cost as little as $95 for the best home-office printer at This put the repair well outside the "50 percent rule" established by cheapskate guru Jeff Yeager.

Moreover, for just a few bucks more we could replace the printer with a well-rated all-in-one model, which would also replace an increasingly unreliable fax machine and a flatbed scanner so old that drivers for it were no longer available for my Mac. (The only way I could use it was via a "virtual box" running Windows.) It got good marks for reliability and low ink use, and, in a nice ecofrugal touch, the three colored ink vessels were separate—so we could replace or refill just one without having to mess with the other two. So our office now has just one big machine in place of three—and since it's wireless, we've eliminated a lot of cables from the rat's nest behind the desk as well. The only thing that the new printer couldn't replace was the answering-machine function on the old fax machine. But after a little trial and error, we succeeded in reinstating the voice mail system on our phone (which is included with the cost of our VOIP) and instructing it to forward any voice mail messages to our e-mail inboxes, so we don't have to remember to dial in—or even check a viewscreen—to find out about them. And we even managed to give away our old printer on Freecycle, with the caveat that it "appears to need new ink cartridges"—so this all-in-one upgrade was a complete win-win-win.

My e-mail, however, is another story.

Basically, I've been using Eudora to read my e-mail ever since...well, pretty much ever since I got my first real e-mail account (where "real" means "not AOL"). I've stuck with it through multiple changes of computer, operating system, and e-mail provider, because it was just so comfortable and intuitive to use. Even when the manufacturer stopped supporting it, I clung to my old copy, because I just couldn't find another program that had all the features I'd come to depend on, like multiple mailboxes (so I could keep all my different categories of mail separate) and labels (so I could easily identify all the ones that were on a particular subject). But over the course of the past month or so, Eudora has become increasingly unstable. I mean, unstable to the point where I'd try to open an e-mail message, and the whole program would crash...and then I'd restart it and it would immediately crash again trying to load that same message. By the time I'd restarted it for the seventh or eighth time on Tuesday, I realized that, much as I might love Eudora's features, they were no use to me if the program simply wouldn't run.

So, reluctantly, I admitted that it was time to find myself a new e-mail client. But which one? Last time I'd gone looking, I'd failed to find anything that included all the features I liked in Eudora, but a couple of years had passed since then; maybe there might be something better out there now. So I started searching on "best alternative to Eudora for Mac" and found a couple of recommendations for Thunderbird, a free program developed by Mozilla, so I decided to download it and give it a try. And that was where I ran into my first problem: I made several attempts to download the program using Chrome (my default browser), and it just sat there whirring to itself for half an hour before aborting the download. I might have given up there, but I figured, well, Mozilla also makes Firefox; maybe this page only works properly in Firefox. So I went into Firefox and managed to complete the download successfully.

Having made it past the first hurdle, I proceeded to install the program. Setting it up to read my Gmail account was, as promised, easy, but when it began to download my mail, I remembered why it had been such a huge hassle the last time I tried to switch e-mail clients; I have been using Gmail for over seven years now, and Gmail has kept basically every message I've received during that time—over 90,000 of them. And Thunderbird was proceeding to download all of them. I didn't actually need to download all of them; I had all the important ones backed up on my hard drive already, via the extremely low-tech method of saving each individual message as a text file. But there didn't seem to be any way to download some of the messages without downloading all of the messages. So basically, I just had to let the thing run all night and load up the lot.

I spent a good part of the next day slogging through the massive archive of all my old sent and received messages, looking for the recent ones that I actually needed to have in my inbox and all the other folders I currently use in Eudora (which I had to re-create one by one in Thunderbird). I haven't exactly reproduced them all yet, but I've managed to get at least the most important folders set up and at least the most recent messages in them. However, I ran into yet another problem when I attempted to set up my other e-mail account, the one I use for work. While Gmail automatically downloaded all the messages I've ever received, Optimum Online didn't download any of them. I went to its webmail program to try to download them manually and discovered that they weren't there; apparently, the minute I downloaded them with Eudora, the server deleted them. So while I can now receive and write new work e-mails on Thunderbird, all my old work e-mails are still on Eudora; if I want to reply to any of them, I have to go into Eudora, copy the text and the address, and paste all that into a new message in Thunderbird. (I've tried to import the old messages directly from Eudora, but every time I hit the button, the process starts and then stalls.) So for the next month, at least, I expect to be stuck running both Thunderbird and Eudora, bouncing back and forth between the two so I can read and respond to my old mail and my new mail at the same time. Gaaah!

I'm beginning to wonder if maybe it would be a better idea just to forget about Thunderbird completely and actually pay for something like MailMate or PostBox, which is actually designed to be able to do everything Eudora can do. Yes, I'd have to shell out between 10 and 50 bucks for it, but given that ecofrugality is supposed to be about saving all resources, including time, that might actually be a worthwhile investment.
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