The Most Important Reason You Shouldn’t Upgrade Your Computer

Help save the Earth by updating it instead

Key Takeaways

  • Making and shipping a new computer uses way more energy than you will ever use while you own it. 
  • Environmentally, it’s better to keep using your old devices. 
  • Weaning yourself of regular purchases might be the hardest part.
An iMac with the front screen panel removed.

Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

Gadget-wise, the worst thing you can do for the environment is to buy a new device. 

Of all the energy used by the MacBook Air over its lifetime, only 15% comes from plugging it into the wall. According to Apple's own environmental report, 71% of the lifecycle carbon emissions for the M1 Air come from production, and 8% from transport. And that hot, power-guzzling 16-inch Intel MacBook Pro from 2019 isn't much different—only 19% of its entire carbon emissions come from using it. And it's not just MacBooks, of course. The same goes for anything you buy, including cars

"Environmentally speaking, you should use your computer as long as you can because the environmental impact of using your laptop is a fraction of the total environmental impact during production, transportation, and packaging," Norway-based electrical engineer Bjorn Kvaale told Lifewire via email. 

Self Delusion

A lot of buying a new computer/car/phone is self-justification. Rarely do we actually need a brand-new model, especially not every year or two. We hand down those old iPhones to family members because we know they’ll still be perfectly capable for the next few years. And yet, at the same time, we convince ourselves that we must have the newer version. 

"...the environmental impact of using your laptop is a fraction of the total environmental impact during production, transportation, and packaging,"

Or perhaps we take a look at Apple’s new M1-based Macs, which sip power and run cold compared to the hot-and-hungry Intel MacBooks of yesteryear. Think of all that energy I’ll be saving, we tell ourselves. And yet, as we can see in Apple’s various environmental product report cards (scroll down that page to find them), the actual power used by the device when it is in your possession is a small fraction of the total carbon footprint. 

If we really care about our personal effect on the planet, we should forget about getting new anything every year. The good news is, if you use an Apple device, then it’s pretty easy to keep it running for quite a long life. 

Keep It Running

Step one in keeping your old computer running is to decide to do it. 

"Most people don't mind buying a second-hand coat, but they are far less willing to compromise when it comes to tech. Phones and computers, the logic goes, are evolving much faster than coats," green lifestyle writer Silvia Borges told Lifewire via email. "But let's turn this logic on its head. Instead of asking how fast computers evolve, let's ask how fast we need them to evolve. Just how efficient do we really need our computers to be? The thing is, computers were perfectly fast and efficient five years ago too."

Unless you're in a field where you run up against the limits of your computer on a daily basis, then you do not need to replace it. Apple's computers, in particular, have a reputation for longevity. Until last year, I used a 2010 iMac daily for ten years. I also have a 2012 MacBook that still works just great. 

Pictures of several generations of iMacs, showing the evolution of the product.

Apple

Part of the long life of those two devices comes from their repairability. The iMac was easy to open up, and I replaced its slow hard drive and redundant DVD Superdrive with SSDs years ago. The MacBook is even easier. It has a removable battery, and under that battery is a hard drive unit that can be freed with a screwdriver and a minute's work. 

Modern computers aren't built like this, which is a good reason to keep using the old ones. But on the other hand, they have fewer moving parts. The current M1 MacBook Air has no fans, for example, and stays so cool that thermal stress isn't a concern. 

"One of the first things that breaks in a laptop is the battery. On some models, it is possible to do the repair yourself without too many issues. Beware that the warranty will probably be voided, but if the laptop is more than four years old, it may be worth it," says Kvaale. 

The hardest part of all this might be avoiding the temptation to buy the latest hotness. Those new features are tempting. Once you get used to the idea, it can be like breaking an addiction, and you can function without even thinking about 'upgrades.' And of course, you'll be saving money while you do it.

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