Squanderful

I hate binning tech. I consider it squanderful, both of the resources used to produce it and of the money with which it is purchased. But computers — unlike my grandmother’s Kenwood Chef which remained fully functional after sixty years of continuous use — have a problem: software evolving with ever-increasing complexity, which renders the hardware obsolete in a few short years.

The result of my squeamish awkwardness with regards to the planned obsolescence of the tech we nowadays consider so essential is that we have long been a household of upcycled cast-offs. Devices once purchased with pride by others, now too sluggish to be retained, have their lives prolonged by the resident geek, their stay of execution extended.

So my father’s iMac, once abandoned at the back of his wardrobe, would be returned to life with a lightweight Linux distribution and a web browser capable of running the kids’ online versions of Office. His old MacBook Pro would receive similar treatment for a year or so, until I resigned to reinstalling an ancient version of MacOS capable of running Word. Why? Because it has a beautiful keyboard, so wonderful to type on. My go-to machine through lockdown as I returned to serious writing.

Ah, but alas, I grow too old to anymore tinker with decade-old tech, taking on the role of family IT support daily. Thus in the midst of last year’s home-learning experiment did I finally kit the kids out with brand new computers and monitors, so they could no longer complain that they’re forced to work on dad’s Heath Robinson contraptions. So it is that we are all now equipped with the latest and greatest gadgets, with no more need for the accumulated museum pieces once gladly received.

Still, that gnawing guilt remains. What to do with the eight year old Surface Pro 3 in the cupboard, once my preferred machine for taking notes? A much-loved device in the days of Windows 8.1, so streamlined and efficient, always near at hand. That was until Windows 10 arrived, which while fixing the operating system for ordinary computers, absolutely wrecked the experience on Surface.

For a time, we tolerated its whirring fans and clunky interface patiently, certain that Windows 10 would eventually improve for the tablet form factor. But it didn’t, and eventually the computer would be set aside in favour of a spritely Android tablet. Over the years that followed, we would see all manner of attempts to rejuvenate that once-loved, very expensive computer.

First, numerous Linux distributions, seeking that perfect balance between speed and functionality. Linux Mint, Ubuntu, Pop OS… one after the other, seeking the one. Hours in terminal, running scripts to leverage touch and pen support. Some stable, momentarily, prior to the inevitable wifi dropouts, cursor mayhem and roaring fan.

Eventually, we would have to see a bare metal reinstallation of Windows 8.1, downloaded as a recovery image from Microsoft’s website. A workable solution, restoring the device to its 2014 glory, albeit without most of the accompanying apps that made the experience so seamless, thanks to Microsoft killing them off in its push to force the last hangers-on to upgrade.

So to my final push to reinvigorate this old machine. Other Surface geeks told me that Linux Fedora 36 works perfectly on this device, right out of the box. That sounded good to me, for I have lost all inclination to sudo apt-get my life away. But, alas, it wasn’t so. It just sort of worked, with the inevitable wifi issue and jumpety cursor. Fedora 36 has a beautiful user interface, for sure, but it wasn’t for me.

Thus, in my final bout of madness, I decided to try my hand upgrading the Surface Pro 3 to Windows 11, a device not supported by the OS because its CPU is too old. Here began the convoluted process of borrowing my daughter’s school-loan Windows laptop to create recovery media for a fresh Windows 10 image for Surface — technically possible on MacOS, but not without messing with the command line and Homebrew. Urgh.

Hours later, the Surface would be sporting a working Windows OS. A few hours after that, the very latest update, enabling me to make the all important registry hack, to make the upgrade to Windows 11 possible without it failing checks. An hour after that, we have an eight year old Surface Pro running unsupported Windows 11 surprisingly well. Early impressions: it seems quite snappy and responsive.

Grand. So we’ve brought the device back from the dead. But the question remains: why? For we have a proliferation of devices in the household, all of them capable of running Office and accessing the web. Even the smartphone I’m typing this out on — a Samsung Galaxy S8 — has a desktop mode, which when paired with an HDMI monitor and keyboard provides a computing experience just as effective as the Surface Pro.

Such is the march of progress, our homes filling with technological scrap, made obsolete only by software developers adding new features, and tech investors demanding old operating systems be retired to force consumers to upgrade, whether they want or need to or not. It’s all a con, in which we are willing participants.

Yes, we can extend the life of this tech indefinitely if we wish to. But in the end, we will just do what is easiest, forever chasing after the latest and greatest. No longer do kids demand an iPhone 13. No, they want the iPhone 14 now. If we succumbed, soon they would be inducted into the world of the perpetual upgrade, to be enjoyed for the rest of their lives. Consumerism at its finest, with all its squanderful waste. Resistance is futile.

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