Over the past week, we’ve spilled a lot of virtual ink talking about what will happen to Macs and Mac users once Apple makes the big switch to Apple Silicon. An article I wrote last week about whether the processor change will trigger a mass migration from Macs to Windows fostered some great discussions, both here on ZDNet and over on Facebook.
With all the excitement over the new Macs, we haven’t spent a lot of time discussing what will happen to the old, Intel-based Macs once the primary architecture for MacOS moves to Arm. That is, until one of our readers, @coopernatural, mentioned this sentence: “It’ll probably be a great Windows machine for years to come after that.”
This is not nearly as far-fetched as it may seem. For quite a few years, one of my 2012 Mac minis was our dedicated, Windows-based entertainment center machine. We used it for web surfing, writing, and playing movies from our big video server. It booted into Windows and stayed in Windows.
The only thing it wasn’t great at was gaming because it used Intel’s on-board video processors. Even so, we spent many hours in Azeroth playing World of Warcraft (which didn’t need super-modern graphics).
The case for Intel Macs as Windows machines
Few question the overall quality of Apple hardware. Where most people (particularly Windows fans) focus their ire (and somewhat rightly so) is the price of that hardware. Mac hardware is expensive. But as we’ve shown over and over, Mac hardware is expensive compared to PCs built from generic components. When it comes to Windows hardware from name brands, Mac hardware is pretty much on a pricing par.
But old Mac hardware is going to get less expensive. Although old Macs do retain a surprising amount of their value over time, we can expect that value to decline precipitously once Apple no longer supports Intel in its OS releases.
As such, expect used Intel-based Macs to hit the market for something resembling bargain prices. That means that some very high-quality machines will be available at actually affordable prices. That means it may make sense to buy and configure an older Mac, rather than build a machine from less-than proven parts or buy a used or new brand-name Windows PC.
If you want to see some really good video about purchasing and updating old Macs, check out Luke Miani’s channel on YouTube. He’s got some good content there.
Here’s what I said last week about why Apple’s hardware is so strong:
There are many reasons why Macs tend to have fewer “entropy” issues than PCs. but a big part of the reliability issue is the vertical integration of the hardware and software. If you look at a typical PC, you’ll find components designed and built by many different companies, controlled by a motherboard designed by another, running an operating system designed by another. At design time, engineers try to make sure these components will work together, but because Microsoft’s developers never, ever know the exact configuration you’re running, it’s a guessing game. By contrast, MacOS developers always know the configuration you’re running, because it’s only one of a possible ten or so.
On one hand, that’s a huge lack of flexibility that extreme pros tend to chafe under, but it’s also a formula for much more reliable engineering. Add to that the generally higher-quality components due to Apple’s supply chain rigors, and you get a more reliable machine with a longer life.
While the go-to method for installing a bootable bare-metal Windows on Macs is Bootcamp, it is possible to install Windows without booting through Bootcamp. On more modern Macs, you have to use a security utility to disable the T2 chip, build a boot system on a USB drive, and jump through some extra hoops, but it’s doable.
However, even if you don’t use Bootcamp to set up Windows on your Mac, right now the best way to get drivers is to extract the Bootcamp drivers provided by Apple. This opens up the biggest point of vulnerability in this strategy…
The question of longevity
The minute Apple stops supporting Intel Macs in MacOS is the very same minute that Bootcamp drivers will cease being updated. Basically, when MacOS no longer updates for Intel, don’t expect Windows drivers for Macs to be updated.
This could prove to be a problem for Windows users expecting to play out Windows 10 for the next decade on old Mac hardware, especially if Windows changes enough via its regular updates to no longer function with older drivers.
However, as I mentioned earlier and last week, there are only a finite number of configurations of Apple-produced Macs. As we’ve seen with an active Hackintosh community, users are often able to drive technological fixes when the vendors are unwilling to do so.
So, it is possible that older Macs might be maintained with up-to-date Windows releases as long as the user community keeps the drivers up-to-date. Whether that will happen is an open question, but I’d say it’s a likelihood if repurposing old Macs becomes a thing.
Linux, because of course Linux
It goes without saying that Macs could make excellent Linux machines, with some exceptions — once again due to driver problems. I’ve found a number of articles (linked below) that show successfully installing Linux on even more modern (and therefore more locked down) Macs.
The only gotcha seems to be audio. That said, expect to see old Macs used as Linux machines (ranging from desktop machines to nice, compact servers) for quite some time to come.
From all we’ve discussed, it seems to me that we’re looking at Mac hardware staying in operation for a very long time. Whether that’s just four or five years, or ten or fifteen depends more on the state of Windows and Linux — and the support of the user community — than it does on Apple.
So, if you do have a bunch of Intel Macs (as I do), don’t fret. You’ll probably be able to put them to some kind of use long after Apple abandons updating Intel code. Given the wide variety of PCs you can buy or build, old Apple gear certainly won’t be standouts. But given the high-quality hardware, they’ll probably serve you well for quite some time if you choose to repurpose them for fruit-free operation.
What do you think? Do you expect to repurpose your old Macs to Windows or Linux? Let’s continue this fascinating conversation in the comments below.
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