Deflating Apple's hubris: Why 600 million people using 5-year-old PCs is a great thing

Milking an older PC for every ounce of life makes perfect sense for most people.

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Something made me uneasy watching Apple’s iPhone SE event earlier this week.

No, it wasn’t the fact that Apple threw a big event to launch a few watchbands and smaller versions of iPhones and iPads that already existed—though that was sort of weird. Instead, it was a line that Phil Schiller, Apple’s vice president of worldwide marketing, tossed out in the middle of peddling the 9.7-inch iPad Pro as a so-called PC replacement.

“There are over 600 million PCs in use today that are over five years old,” Schiller said. “This is really sad, it really is.”

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Schiller didn’t provide a source for that figure, but he’s likely swiping it straight from Intel and Microsoft, who predicted at the end of 2014 that Windows 10 could spur a mass upgrade exodus on 600 million 4-year-old PCs being used at the time.

The number isn’t controversial. But Schiller’s condescending “sad” comment is inherently disdainful toward people who can’t or won’t afford to hop on the technology upgrade cycle year in and year out. It sucks.

Forget him. The idea might give industry executives and PC enthusiasts chest pains, but the fact that 600 million 5-year-old PCs still work just fine is nothing but a good thing for people in the real world, where computers cost real money.

Why people don’t upgrade their PCs

PCs aren’t like smartphones, replaced every other year. To the vast majority of people, PCs are like microwaves—pricey appliances replaced only when they’re no longer able to fulfill their basic function. Heck, the analysts at NPD say that the average Windows laptop sells for $448, according to Laptop Magazine. That’s even pricier than a microwave!

Fortunately, the events of the past few years have given people an opportunity to leap off the upgrade treadmill. Most of the non-techies I know use their PCs solely to surf the web—posting to Facebook, watching Netflix and YouTube videos, slinging emails, buying stuff from Amazon. You don’t need a cutting-edge computer to perform any of those tasks, and more and more services are trading in desktop programs for apps and adaptive websites by the day.

Even PC enthusiasts haven’t had a compelling reason to upgrade for the past few years, as yearly performance gains for processors and graphics cards have slowed to a crawl. (Intel even just retired its vaunted tick-tock CPU release cadence.) That’s changing with this year’s forthcoming 14nm graphics cards and the recent surge in blazing-fast storage technologies—many of which require a motherboard upgrade. But here in the real world, today, the “Sandy Bridge” Core chips that Intel released five years ago still perform like champs. My personal system’s powered by a four-year-old Core i5-3570K that still chews through everything I throw at it, including watching Twitch streams while simultaneously playing games at 4K resolution.

Laptop evolution hasn’t exactly been exciting, either. The race toward ever-lower prices has resulted in the mass production of ho-hum, cookie-cutter, commodity computers. And even on the high end, Apple’s own MacBook Air design hasn’t changed a bit since 2010—six years ago. Keeping the focus on Apple for a second, the “old PC issue” isn’t limited to Windows computers: My work-provided 2012 MacBook Air still does everything I need just fine, and I have no plans to replace it any time soon.

Add it all up and it’s no wonder that 600 million five-year-old PCs are still hanging around. And that’s a great thing! Despite Schiller’s bourgeois disdain and Microsoft’s aggressive push for Windows 10 upgrades, pricey essentials lasting for years on end is excellent for average, everyday computer users—even if it doesn’t fill Microsoft and Apple’s pockets with cash.

Here’s to being happy with what you already have. Here’s to keeping money in your pocket. And here’s 10 cheap or free ways to make your old PC run faster—because we’ve got your back, homies.

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