Behind the Curve

An alternative approach to owning the latest and greatest gear.

Reflection · 2312 words · 12 min read · 73 views

My desktop PC turns 10 this year. It features a quad-core Intel Core i5-3570K processor, released in the second quarter of 2012. As far as gaming PCs go, it is antediluvian. In April 2020, I put in some modest upgrades—a bigger, faster hard drive and a more powerful video card—for $100.

This past Christmas, I added a WiFi card for around $40. This WiFi card enabled Bluetooth, a first for my old machine. To test out this new connectivity, I bought a wireless Xbox controller—red, because that was the only colour on sale ($60). While I’ve never been much of a console gamer, certain games do play better with a controller (as opposed to a keyboard and mouse), such as the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (THPS) series. With my new controller, I played the recently released remake THPS 1 + 2 in a delightful nostalgia trip to my pre-teen days of playing the original THPS 2 circa 2000. At that time, I used a joystick—pull the trigger to do a kick-flip—plugged in to our family IBM desktop computer (remember CRT monitors?).

The point of this anecdote is that it can be fun and inexpensive to tinker with old hardware. It’s one thing to throw top dollar at the latest and greatest computer components to be on the bleeding edge of performance. As we’ll see in this piece, however, older items can be as much fun as more modern gear, at a fraction of the cost. The higher cost of owning cutting-edge equipment isn’t always monetary, either.

(Despite my latest warning about “the tractor-beam pull of electronic distraction,” I will occasionally play video games, preferably those of a finite length. After finishing THPS 1 + 2 this January, I haven’t really touched it since.)

I own and maintain a number of toys, including computers (desktop PC and MacBook Pro), cameras and lenses, climbing gear, ski gear (touring and nordic), bikes (mountain and cheap townie/commuter), and my car. (My recent purchase of skate skis was another delightful nostalgia trip to my adolescent cross-country-racing days.) If the marketing rhetoric from gear manufacturers in each of these industries is to be believed, us consumers will get better performance by upgrading and expanding our gear collections.

Even if you have the means, however, staying on top of upgrades can be overwhelming. How often have we paid lots of money for a new smartphone, laptop, tablet, car, or bike to watch it rapidly become obsolete? And that assumes that these devices last long enough to reach obsolescence. How heartbreaking is it when your new “investment” gets smashed shortly after you purchase it? Or take the growing pains of early adoption. I’ve had first-generation ski bindings require multiple replacements due to a faulty retention-pin design. My latest MacBook Pro had a bug where web browsers using hardware acceleration would cause purple and blue streaks to appear across the display, requiring a full reboot.

Tech is notorious for the pace at which gadgets become paperweights. Take MacBook Pros for example, one of which I am writing this on (the one with the graphics bug). In 2020, I purchased a refurbished 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro for nearly four-thousand dollars to replace my aging 2013 MacBook Pro. It would have cost more had it not been refurbished. This purchase was a premeditated upgrade: after retraining in website development, I decided to upgrade my aging 2013 MacBook Pro. I specced it above the base model. Sometimes, a few upfront upgrades can translate into a longer-lasting machine.

Sadly, this will not be the case with my 2019 MacBook Pro. With the architecture change to M1, my Intel-based MacBook Pro will become obsolete after a few years. It is unlikely that I’ll hang on to it for a full seven years like both of my previous MacBook Pros (2006 and 2013). Yes, the switch to M1 is perhaps the most exciting news in Mac history since the switch to Intel from PowerPC back in 2005, but software support for Intel-based Macs will likely be dropped within less than seven years. This calls into question how long my machine will remain suitable for dev work.

Upon the announcement of the M1 chip, online pundits reached a fever pitch over its improvements: ridiculous efficiency, thermals, and performance, resulting in laptops with longer battery life and reduced fan noise. If you follow hardware, you know the M1’s advantages, but if not, understand that it’s the kind of advancement that happens once in twenty years. While I’ll admit to finding this quite exciting, it does make me feel like a sucker for spending as much money as I did on my now-last-generation Intel MacBook Pro.

Had I waited another year or two, until the M1 or M1 Pro/Max were released, the timing of my upgrade could have worked much more favourably. An M1-based MacBook Pro would have a much higher likelihood of lasting seven years. Something newer and faster is always around the corner, however. Even today’s highest-end M1 Max will eventually become a vintage joke.

Technology is always advancing—that’s a given—but what is the best approach to staying current? We convince ourselves that we “need” a new computer, that its high price tag is justified by the performance gains in our professional workflows. The thrill of new hardware is as fleeting as the sunset, however.

Reviewers and online pundits were quick to put the M1 MacBook Pros through their paces, in a flurry of benchmarks and tests. In almost perfect unison, reviewers extolled the breathtaking improvements of these laptops relative to previous-generation MacBook Pros.

But what are these improvements, really?

Say, for example, that you could now export your videos or photos in half as much time as before (not an actual benchmark). For most users, this likely equates to a few minutes per day of time saved. All that money—for a slightly faster experience than before. A few minutes, a few times a week, of time saved while your computer crunches numbers. Or longer battery life. Or quieter fan noise. Or any other subjective or objective performance metric that is qualifiedly or quantifiably stronger than before. Minor improvements for major dollars.

The price-to-performance curve is far from linear. After a certain point, modest gains in performance require exorbitant gains in price. Nowhere else along the price-to-performance curve is this more true than at the cutting edge, which, naturally, receives the most attention in promotion and discussion.

While expensive, high-performing toys can indeed be fun, owning them is not without pitfalls. With expensive toys can come additional worry. Worry about items breaking or getting stolen. Worry about expensive maintenance bills. Worry about getting adequate insurance coverage. While acquiring many of my toys, I bought many accessories and tools, thus requiring additional storage space and mental effort to organize. As Tyler Durden said in Fight Club, “the things you own end up owning you.”

Perhaps the most utility from material goods comes not in always getting what you desire—such as the latest and shiniest toys—but in being happier with less.

Per the intro—and in contrast to my experience with Macs—my PC hardware-upgrade approach has been far easier on the wallet. In the second half of this piece, let’s look at how this notion of being farther down the price-to-performance curve applies to other toys. The idea here is to find creative new ways to use older items, resulting in the thrill of something different but without the sticker shock of the brand new.

Continuing with computers, old hardware need not be junked as it ages beyond seven or more years. Minor upgrades such as my aforementioned WiFi/Bluetooth adapter can extend the functionality of older systems in interesting new ways. I recently happened upon a few old 1 TB 3.5-inch desktop hard drives. I replaced my ailing RAID 1 array (two 1 TB drives mirrored for redundancy, where one of the drives had been giving SMART errors for years) with a four-drive RAID 5 array (3 TB of usable space). For the non-geeks, my storage capacity tripled for zero dollars.

The recently released Windows 11 will not run on my aged PC. This leaves me three options: keep running Windows 10, upgrade the hardware to run Windows 11 (new motherboard and processor at a minimum), or switch to a Linux distribution. Almost all Linux distros have very modest hardware requirements. If you’re looking for a new purpose for an ancient Windows laptop or desktop, try installing Linux on it and seeing how the operating system flies.

When the time does come to upgrade my PC, upgrading to used components that are, say, three years old will be a huge performance boost (there is a thriving market for used PC components). The new video card I installed in April 2020 was used, and I was able to sell the previous video card. This is a strategy I’m coining “relative upgrading.” When you upgrade from something quite old to something that’s relatively less old but far from cutting edge, you get the benefit of better performance but without the cost.

In a less geeky example of tech, I bought a used iPad about a year ago (iPad Air 2, launched in 2014). It is now too slow to run any intensive apps or games, but it isn’t too slow for reading ebooks. No Apple Pencil support, no Smart Keyboards, no fancy screen—no problem, only a dedicated device for reading. (It also doubles as a website-testing device as there is no equivalent for seeing a website you are developing on physical, not simulated, hardware.)

Among other industries, photography is one where Gear Acquisition Syndrome can rear its head. It’s the same ploy as computers: enticing, expensive gear that quickly becomes replaced by newer and better offerings. I haven’t purchased camera gear in years but have been getting arguably my best photos recently.

With my older Sony NEX-6 body, I converted it to shoot infrared. This required disassembling the camera and removing the band-pass filter mounted over the sensor, a full-spectrum conversion. Then, for the price of a lens-mounted IR-pass filter ($50), I could shoot the invisible spectrum. (See Forgetmenot and Sandy Ann for examples of IR photographs.) A terrific project, including an imaginative new way of thinking about photography (certain IR shots work best at high noon on sunny days, which can otherwise be harsh in the visible spectrum), with a minimal gear investment.

Bikes have become prohibitively expensive of late. While I did upgrade to a used Norco Optic C2 last spring, my previous mountain bike, a Santa Cruz Tallboy LT, lasted nine years. Having maintained it, I was able to sell it to offset the cost of the Norco. The Tallboy did not come with a dropper post, so I ordered an externally routed, cable-actuated post in 2019 for around $150. While not as performant (less travel) than a fancier, more expensive hydraulic post (over $300), it does not require expensive servicing ($75 to $125 per service). Most of the performance, at a fraction of the cost.

While winter commuting in Calgary, I rode an ancient, rigid Specialized Rockhopper. In many ways, it was the perfect winter bike: old and rusted, cheap to find parts for, and easy to wrench on. Salt and grit could destroy a drivetrain after a single winter, but 7-speed chains, cassettes, and middle chainrings (remember front derailleurs?) could all be replaced for under $50. Looking at my fitness numbers, I have never been as fit as when bike commuting over 10 km twice daily, including the infamous Hospital Hill (by Foothills Medical Centre). That old bike—laughably far down the price-to-performance curve—delivered tremendous utility at negligible cost. The equation improves further when you factor in the opportunity cost of car commuting instead.

This notion of being behind the price-to-performance curve gets more complicated with automobiles. While I wish it could be as simple as owning a cheap, old car, such vehicles can become prohibitively expensive to maintain if you are not mechanically inclined. My last three cars were all used and had 80–90 000 km when I bought them, and each lasted quite a few years.

Despite living a less-than-five-minute commute to a world-class ski hill, I opted not to pay for a season’s pass this winter. Part of this decision was my notorious cheapness—but another part was my desire for simplicity. Regularly skiing at the ski hill means more wear and tear on your skis. I have run a quiver-of-one setup for downhill/touring skis for years now, and to get serious about resort riding would mean getting another pair of skis with alpine bindings rather than thrashing my lightweight touring skis. But more skis equals more bases to wax, more edges to sharpen, and more storage space required. Apply this same logic to nordic skiing, biking, climbing, and other outdoor hobbies, and suddenly your garage is a gear shop.

I am as susceptible to gear marketing as anyone. With the utility I get from my toys, it can be tempting to upgrade and tinker. If a hobby brings you joy, shouldn’t your aim be to maximize that by purchasing the best possible equipment? However, unchecked expansion of one’s gear collection can lead to drawbacks like clutter and anxiety in addition to the financial impact.

There is something liberating about not having too many high-performing, expensive, depreciating assets like the toys I have mentioned. I am proposing here that at certain sweet spots, lower down on the price-to-performance curve, cheaper or older items can nonetheless offer tremendous utility. With some creativity, these items can often be revitalized or modified to perform in new or unanticipated ways. Applying the notion of relative upgrading can be a great way to keep costs down while experiencing gains in performance.

Try installing Linux on an old PC, fix up an old bike, or challenge yourself to get creative with your existing camera gear. Tinkering in ways like this can quell the urge to drop top dollar on seductively advertised new gear—gear that the ephemeral delight of acquisition will soon fade from.

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