To upgrade, or not?

This time, sensation-seekers, I’m going to talk about the three different bits of hardware in my office that I considered upgrading over the past month or two, and how I walked myself through each decision.

Device #1: Compact digital camera

Reason for upgrading: An emerging technology was starting to mature.

February, I reckoned, would be just about the perfect time to replace my three-year old, but highly-beloved, Nikon P6000 pocket camera. It’s exactly the sort of camera I like: small enough to slip into any jacket pocket, but big enough to operate comfortably, and with a key sprinkling of advanced features that allowed me to use it as my sole travel camera.

Last year, I did some work for a pal of mine for free and he generously gave me his Olympus PEN E-P1 camera as a thank-you gift. After just a month or two I fell slightly in love with the Micro Four Thirds system. It filled a specific gap for me: I travel a hell of a lot, and I take a hell of a lot of photos, and I often am hellaciously fussy about the results. As great as my little Nikon is, there’s no getting around the facts: it has a eensy, fingernail-sized image sensor and you can’t swap out its fixed zoom for a lens that’s more appropriate to the situation…like Panasonic’s magnificent 20mm f1.7.

With that lens on the Olympus’ body, I had nearly the optimum travel camera. It had most of the important features of my SLR and it wasn’t that much larger than the Nikon.

Just one problem with the Olympus: it doesn’t have a built-in flash. And that’s as big a pain in the butt as it sounds. Also, the E-P1 was one of the very first Micro Four Thirds cameras made and I was eager to see how far the cameras would have come after two years.

February seemed like the perfect time. Olympus and Panasonic would be releasing new Micro Four Thirds cameras. The new Olympus was much like the E-P1, but it had a flash; the new Panasonic was barely larger than the Nikon. After a temporary dalliance with Nikon’s upgraded P6000 (the fairly awesome P7000, with its heroic assemblage of mechanical controls), I knew it’d be one or the other.

What I did: I bought a pocket-sized external flash for my Olympus.

Why: After poring through technical specs and a few advance reviews, I couldn’t get excited about either one of those two new cameras. I was hoping for a major advancement in Micro Four Thirds that would materially improve my experience with the Olympus, but I sure didn’t see it in the reviews.

The clincher came when I found a couple of intense hardware teardowns and learned that both cameras were using two-year-old image sensors. I want the next-generation component: the one that’ll allow next year’s Micro Four Thirds cameras to shoot gorgeous photos in practically no light.

And honestly, what was my big problem with the E-P1 in the first place? No flash. Fine: buy a flash. Sometimes you can get so enamored with having The New Version that you forget that the whole point of this expensive exercise is to solve problems.

Device #2: iPad

Reason for upgrading: Er… it’s the iPad 2! That’s, like, one whole iPad better than my iPad 1!

What I did: I stuck with my original iPad.

Why: It’s not that the iPad 2 isn’t a huge improvement. Its CPU is a monster. When I ran it through its paces for my review, I didn’t test its speed with an engineering benchmark suite. I used real-world apps. One task that took my old iPad more than three and a half minutes to process was chewed up and spit out by the iPad 2 in just fifty two seconds.

Whoosh. Oh, yes, and the cameras and the Smart Cover and the gyroscope. I duly tested and wrote about all of that stuff. After I filed my review and I started thinking about the iPad like a consumer instead of as a reviewer, I recognized all three of those features as Nice Things that nonetheless I didn’t really need.

But the speed!

Yeah. Well, Apple does a great job maintaining iOS as One Platform, With Liberty And Time-Wasting Apps For All. Any app written in 2011 and probably even 2012 will work just fine on my current machine. In the end, the speed of the iPad 1 isn’t a handicap; in truth, the speed of the iPad 2 is a bonus.

Given that I probably wouldn’t do anything with an iPad 2 that I can’t already do with my iPad 1, I decided to wait until next year to upgrade.

Device #3: MacBook Pro

Reason for upgrading: My current MacBook Pro is three years old. That’s like having 125,000 miles on a car. You don’t drive it straight to the junkyard, but you proceed with the understanding that it’s entered its Zone of Obsolescence.

There’s always a faster CPU on the horizon. Tastes change, too. My 2008 MacBook has an ExpressCard slot. In theory, it’d open up a Disneyworld of hardware enhancements. In practice, I wish it were an SD card reader.

Plus, my MacBook is my daily-use computer. I pound on it for four to 18 hours a day, 7 days a week and I’ve carried it around the world. Wear and tear is starting to show. The trackpad button hasn’t worked since I splashed some of my drink on it during an Amtrak ride a year and a half ago, and I’m lucky if my battery lasts the 15 minutes it takes to carry my MacBook from my bedroom into my home office every morning.

What I did: I bought a new MacBook Pro.

Why: It was obviously the right choice. If I’d upgraded last year, I would’ve had a slightly faster Mac, an SD slot, a working trackpad, and a 9-hour battery. Nice…but this year, I got a CPU whose architecture is a whole generation ahead. It’s clear that Apple’s investing heavily in this new ultra-high-speed, multi-channel Thunderbolt I/O port, too. If the standard takes off, my new MacBook will work with all of the great new high-performance hardware that’s going to be released in the coming years.

And if Thunderbolt fizzles… who cares? It’s still a functioning Mini DisplayPort.

Clearly, this is a Mac that will get me through the next three years. That’s a particularly big deal, given the scale of Mac OS X 10.7 and the OS to follow. I just need to try not to spill another drink on it.

Collectively, the past month served as a reminder that a piece of hardware should only be replaced if it’s about to stop working (whether it’s worn-out or just not up to challenges that didn’t exist when you first bought it) or if the new one can transform the way you work. Otherwise, you’re just being a big, dopey consumer.

I did the smart thing. I thought my way through three potential upgrades, and only made one purchase. Lucky me: it was the $2000 item.

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