Saturday, May 13, 2017

Computer woes

Once again, the repair or replace dilemma has reared its ugly head to trouble the peace of our ecofrugal life. And once again, it's my computer that's to blame.

Over the past few weeks, my little 6-year-old Mac Mini (well, actually, 7 years old, since it was a refurbished 2010 model when we bought it in 2011) has developed a very frustrating habit. In the middle of some seemingly innocuous activity - pasting a bit of text, clicking on a link, or even just scrolling through a document - it will suddenly freeze up and refuse to respond to any commands at all. You can still move the mouse, but it does no good, since any other program you click on will just freeze up as well. Generally, it comes to again after a few minutes, but sometimes it appears to come to, only to go straight back into its seizure the minute you try to do anything. The only thing that's guaranteed to fix the problem is a hard reboot (which sometimes involves shutting the power off at the source, because the computer won't thaw out long enough to let me shut it down properly).

Now, there are all sorts of problems that can cause a Mac to manifest the spinning beach ball of death, including processor overload, memory overload, insufficient hard drive space, and overheating. All of these are fairly simple to fix. But Brian noted that whenever my computer did this, the spinning ball was often accompanied by a high-pitched whining sound, almost too high to hear, emanating from the machine. That was an ominous warning sign that it could be the hard drive at fault - and that's definitely not a quick fix.

According to this IFixIt guide, replacing the hard drive is only a "moderate" difficulty job, but if that's true, I'd hate to see a difficult one. It takes 23 separate steps just to remove the old drive, each of which has to be repeated in reverse to put the new one in. It would also require at least $20 worth of specialized tools we don't currently own, on top of the $60 or so for the new hard drive itself. And that's just the hardware part of the job. Once that was done, we'd have to reinstall the operating system and all the software - a job that took the better part of a weekend to complete last year, because this Mac is so ancient in computer years - and restore all my data files from the backup drive. It would be, to say the least, an Undertaking. (This article at The Verge, by someone who performed a similar operation on a somewhat newer Mac, describes it as a "horrifying" experience.)

We also looked into what it would cost to replace the machine entirely. I had already decided that this machine was going to be my last Mac, even though I've been a loyal Apple user for over 30 years (ever since I got my first Apple IIc as a bat mitzvah gift from my grandfather), precisely because this "horrifying" upgrade process is all too typical of the way Apple does business these days. They seem to go out of their way to make it as hard as possible to upgrade an old machine, because they don't want people to upgrade; they want them to throw it out and buy the latest model instead. This business model is exactly the opposite of ecofrugality, and I'd made up my mind I wasn't going to support it any longer. So I checked the ConsumerSearch report on desktop computers and found that the "best cheap computer" was the Intel NUC, an ultra-compact machine that can be customized to fit your particular specs. Brian found that a kit that would meet my needs would probably cost between $500 and $600 (including an add-on CD-ROM drive, which I use for ripping music CDs).

But we decided perhaps it was best not to get ahead of ourselves. We didn't know for sure that the problem was the hard drive, and we didn't have the necessary tools to figure it out at home. So we took it to one of our local computer repair places, Linx 8, which specializes in Apple repairs. We'd already checked with them and found that if we left it with them, they could run a set of diagnostics on it to pinpoint the problem, and they wouldn't even charge us for it. So we figured we had nothing to lose by trying it. The only question was, if they found it was the hard drive that needed replacing, how much should we be willing to pay to replace it? We already knew that we could, in theory, do it ourselves for around $80, but only at the cost of many hours of hard work and aggravation and a nontrivial risk of screwing the process up. So how much was it worth to us to avoid that?

Brian and I came up with different answers to this question. Brian's thought was that it was definitely worth $150 - twice the cost of doing the repair ourselves - but $200 would be pushing it. I, by contrast, thought that, according to Jeff Yeager's 50 percent rule, we should be willing to pay up to $275 to fix the machine - half the cost of replacing it. But since he was the one who would probably end up doing most of the work if we did it ourselves, I figured it was his decision to make.

So, when he shop called this afternoon to tell us that my Mac did indeed need a new hard drive, and their fee to replace it - including reinstalling the OS, but not any paid software applications - would be $270, I turned to Brian before giving them an answer. And his response came in two parts: a somewhat disgruntled sigh, followed by consent. It was more than he really wanted to pay, but if it came to a choice between paying the fee or spending the whole of next weekend working on my computer, it was preferable to pay up. (He said no, however, to the additional $75 charge for migrating over all my data, including the large music library. We'll have the original hard drive back from them, as well as the backups, so he thinks we should be able to manage that part ourselves.)

So they're working on that as I type (on Brian's work laptop, borrowed for the weekend), and we should be able to pick up my computer tomorrow or Monday. And I, for one, think we made the right choice. It wasn't the cheapest in dollar terms, but I think it strikes the best balance between saving money, avoiding waste, and minimizing stress. If paying an extra $190 can save us an entire weekend spent fussing over my computer - and keep the old one out of the landfill a little longer - I think it's money well spent.
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