Computer upgrades: Motivations, hiccups, outcomes, and learnings

I habitually, admittedly, hold onto computers far longer than I should, in the spirit of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (not to mention “a penny saved is a penny earned”). What I repeatedly forget, in the midst of this ongoing grasping, is that while the computer I’m clinging to might originally have been speedy, sizeable and otherwise “enough” for my needs, the passage of time inevitably diminishes its capabilities. Some of this decline is the result of the inevitable “cruft” it accumulates as I install and then upgrade and/or uninstall applications and their foundation operating systems, as well as the data files I create using them (such as the Word file I’m typing into now). I also fiscally-conveniently overlook, for example, that newer operating system and application revisions make ever-increasing demands on the computer hardware.

Usually, what compels me to finally make the “leap of faith” to something new is some variant of utter desperation: either the existing hardware has been (or will soon be) dropped from the software support list or a software update has introduced a bug that the developer has decided not to fix. Today’s two case studies reflect both of these scenarios, and although the paths to the replacement systems were bumpy, the outcomes were worth the effort (not to mention everything I learned along the way). So much, in fact, that I’ve got another upgrade queued for the upcoming Christmas holiday next-week (as I write these words in mid-December 2023). Wonder how long I’ll wait to update next time?

The 2020 (Intel-based) Apple 13” Apple Retina MacBook Pro (RMBP)

This one had actually been sitting on my shelf for more a year, awaiting its turn in my active-computer rotation, ever since I saw it on sale brand new and open-box discounted at Small Dog Electronics’ website for $1,279.99. When I found out that this particular unit also came with AppleCare+ extended warranty coverage good through mid-May 2025, therefore representing a nearly $1,000 discount from the new-from-Apple total price tag, I pulled the purchase trigger.

It represents the very last iteration of Intel-based laptops from Apple, introduced in May 2020. Why x86, versus Apple Silicon-based? I went for it due in part to its ability to run not only MacOS but also Windows, either virtualized or natively, although I also have a 13” M1 MacBook Air (also open-box, also from Small Dog Electronics, and with similar RAM and SSD capacities: keep reading) in queued inventory for whenever Apple decides to drop x86 support completely.

This high-end RMBP variant, based on a 2.3 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 “Ice Lake” CPU, includes four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two on either side, versus the two left-side-only configurations of lower-end models. It also integrates 16 GBytes of RAM and a 512 GByte SSD. Unlike its 2016-2019 “butterfly” keyboard precursors, it returns to the reliable legacy “scissors” keyboard (this actually was key—bad pun intended—for me) that Apple amusingly rebranded as the “Magic Keyboard”. Above the keyboard are the Touch ID authentication sensor alongside the nifty (at least to me), now-deprecated Touch Bar. And thankfully, Bluetooth audio support in MacOS 12 “Monterey” for Zoom and other online meeting and webinar apps now works again.

Normally, I’d restore a Time Machine backup, originating from the old machine, to the new one to get me going with the initial setup. But at the time, I was more than 1,000 miles away from my NAS, at my relatives’ house for the Thanksgiving holidays. Migration Assistant was a conceptual alternative, although from what I’ve heard it’s sometimes more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, particularly with my earlier “cruft” comment in mind, I decided to just start from scratch with software reinstalls. That said, I still leveraged a portable drive along with my relatives’ Wi-Fi to copy relevant data files from the old to new machine.

The process was slow and tedious, but the outcome was a solid success. I can still hear the new system’s fan fire up sometimes (a friend with an Apple Silicon system mocks me mercilessly for this) but the new machine’s notably faster than its predecessor. Firefox, for example, thankfully is much snapper than it was before. And speaking of Mozilla applications, I was able to migrate both my Firefox and Thunderbird profiles over intact and glitch-free; the most I ended up having to do was to manually disable and re-enable my browser extensions to get them working again, along with renaming my device name in the new computer’s browser settings for account sync purposes. Oh, and since the new system’s not port-diversity-adorned like its precursor, I also had to assemble a baggie of USB-C “dongles” for USB-A, HDMI, SD cards, wired Ethernet…sigh.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 7+ (SP7+) for business

This next one shouldn’t be surprising to regular readers, as I telegraphed my intentions back in early November. The question you may have, however, is why did I tackle the succession now? For the earlier-discussed MacBook Pro, the transition timing is more understandable, as its early-2015 predecessor will fall off Apple’s O/S-supported hardware list in less than a year. Its performance slowdowns were becoming too noticeable to ignore. And the Bluetooth audio issues I started having after its most recent major O/S upgrade were the icing on the cake.

The Surface Pro 5 (SP5), on the other hand, runs Windows 10, for which Microsoft has promised full support until at least mid-October 2025, longer if you pay up. Its overheating-induced clock throttling was annoying but didn’t occur that often. And although its RAM and SSD capacity limitations were constraining, I could still work around them. Part of the answer, frankly, ties back to how smoothly the RMBP replacement had gone; it tempted me to tackle the SP7+ upgrade sooner than I otherwise would. And another part of the answer is that I wanted to be able to donate both legacy systems to charity while they were still supported and more generally could still be useful to someone else with less demanding use cases. Specifically, I hoped to wrap up both upgrades in time to get the precursor computers to EChO for pass-along in time for them to get wrapped up by their recipients as Christmas presents for others.

Once again, I did “clean” installs of my suite of applications to the SP7+. This strategy, versus an attempted “clone” of the old system’s mass storage contents, was even more necessary in this case because the two computers ran different operating systems (Windows 10 Pro vs Windows 11 Pro). And again, the process was slow but ultimately successful. That said, the overall transition was more complicated this time, due to what I tackled before the installs even started. As I’d mentioned back in November, one of the particularly appealing attributes of the SP7+ (and SP8, for that matter) versus the SP5 is that their SSDs (like that in my Surface Pro X) are user-accessible and -replaceable. What I did first, therefore, after updating Windows 11 and the driver suite to most current versions, was to clone the existing drive image in the new system to a larger-capacity replacement, initially installed in an external enclosure.

Here’s the 256 GByte m.2 2230 SSD that the system came with, complete with its surrounding heatsink, post-clone and removal:

And here’s the 1 TByte replacement, Samsung’s PM991a (PCIe 3.0-based, to allay any excess-energy consumption concerns):

before cloning the disk image to it and installing it (absent a heatsink or thermal tape, but it still seemingly works fine) in place of its precursor:

As you can probably tell from the sticker on one side, it wasn’t new-as-advertised. But it had been only lightly used (and the bulk of that was from me, doing multiple full- and quick-format cycles on it for both initial testing and failed-clone-recoveries) so I kept it:

First step, the clone. I’d thought this might be complicated a bit by the fact that since the system was running the Pro version of Windows 11, (potentially performance-sapping) BitLocker drive encryption was enabled by default. Fortunately, however, my cloning utility of choice (Macrium Reflect Free, which I’ve long recommended) was able to handle the clone as-is just fine, even on a booted O/S with an active partition, although it warned me afterwards that the image on the SSD containing the clone would be unencrypted. Fast forwarding to the future for a moment, I made sure to archive a copy of the existing SSD’s encryption key before doing the swap, in case I ever needed to use it again. The new SSD came up auto-re-encrypted by Windows on first boot, I didn’t need to re-activate the O/S, and I archived its BitLocker key, too, for good measure.

The other—hardware—aspect of the clone was more problematic. Here’s the enclosure that I used to temporarily house the new SSD, Orico’s TCM2-C3, which I bought back in February 2020 and have been using trouble-free for a variety of external-tether purposes ever since:

This time was different. I initially tried tethering the new SSD-inclusive enclosure to the SP7+ via the USB-C to USB-C cable that came with the enclosure, but shortly after each cloning operation attempt started, I’d get an obscure “Error Code 121 – The semaphore timeout period has expired” abort message from Macrium Reflect. Attempts to reformat the SSD before trying the clone again were also inconsistent, sometimes succeeding, other times not due to spontaneous disconnects. Eventually, I got everything to work by instead using the slower but more reliable USB-A to USB-C cable that also came with the enclosure. Is my USB-C to USB-C cable going bad? Or is something amiss with the USB-C transceiver in the system or the enclosure? Dunno.

Once I booted up the computer with the new SSD inside, I ran into two other issues. The first was that the initial O/S partition, which had been hidden on the original SSD, was now visible and had been assigned the C: drive letter. A dive into Windows’ Disk Management utility got this glitch sorted out.

The other quirk, which I’d encountered before, was that the new SSD still self-reported as 256 GBytes in size, the same capacity as its predecessor. Disk Management showed me the sizeable unused partition on the new SSD, which I’d normally be able to expand the main O/S partition into. In this particular case it wasn’t able to do so, though, because the two partitions were non-contiguous; in-between them was 650 Mbyte hidden Windows Recovery partition. I could have just deleted that one, although it would have complicated any subsequent if-needed recovery attempt. Instead, I used another slick (and gratis) utility, MiniTool’s Partition Wizard, to relocate the recovery partition to the “end”, thereby enabling successful O/S partition expansion:

And as hoped-for, the SP7+ is fully compatible with my full suite of existing SP5 accessories:

What’s next?

Requoting what I said upfront in this piece:

I’ve got another upgrade queued for the upcoming Christmas holiday.

It’s my “late 2014” Mac mini, which I’d transitioned to fairly recently, in mid-2021, for similar obsolescence reasons.

Like the early 2015 13” RMPB, it’s not scheduled to exit O/S support until mid-to-late 2024, but it’s becoming even more performance-archaic (due in part to its HDD-centric Fusion Drive configuration). Its replacement will be a 2018 Mac mini, also x86-based, whose specific configuration is “interesting” (I got a great deal on it, explaining why I went with it): a high-end 3.2 GHz Intel Core i7 CPU, coupled with 32 GBytes of RAM but only a 128 GByte SSD (which I plan to augment via external storage). Stand by for more details to come in a future post. And until then, I’m standing by for your thoughts on this piece in the comments!

Brian Dipert is the Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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