This Apple isn't rotten yet

The other day, while working on another article for this site I realised my laptop is five years old. I'm writing this on a late 2008 MacBook Pro. I got this machine sometime around when Britney's Womanizer was in the charts, the first sprakly-vampire flick Twilight was released into the cinema and Apple's flagship phone was the 3G (no S!). Five years, in technology terms, is pretty long time. It got me through my University career, helped me run a Domino's store and develop numerous websites. Periodically I consider replacing it with a newer model but I have yet to justify it to myself. This isn't through any type of emotional attachment or some weird sense of loyalty but have yet to find a task it can't handle. Over the years, my love of tinkering has allowed me to perodically upgrade different components to extend its use a little longer and save me the cost of a new laptop. I decided to write this little overview post about some of the things I've done (and you can do) to easily breath a bit more life into aging machine in a cost-effective way.

Upgrading my late 2008 MacBook Pro

I should point out this article generally focuses on Macs but the principles should be the same for any machine. I have always found PCs to be generally easier to ugprade anyway. iFixit a fantastic source of information and support with detailed step-by-step instructions for Mac teardowns along with the information you need on different parts. 'System Information' (search it in spotlight) should give you all the system specifical details you need. I found this screwdriver set brilliant for repairs. Any components I need I usually buy from either Amazon or eBuyer whichever offers the better price at the time. A quick word of warning for newer Mac owners - in their persuit of miniturisation it is becoming harder and harder to upgrade parts yourself (The latest MacBook Pro received a repairability score of 1/10 on iFixit - ouch!). This is perhaps a warning to anyone considering buying a new MacBook - you're better paying slightly more now or you will quickly realise your device is dating fast. However, this article is generally focused on those with slightly older machines who want to put of a new purchase a little while longer. These options are simply in the order that when through upgrading. There is no right or wrong approach but decide what is best for your situation.

Upgrade the Harddrive

Originally, my MacBook had a 320Gb hard drive but University meant I needed to upgrade it. Previously, I had used my iMac for web development and used the laptop for schoolwork and leisure. This didn't really cut it anymore as I was working solely with my MacBook and I opted to swap out my old drive for a slightly larger 500Gb. There were larger drives avalaible but I was mainly concerend about performance and realiability. If you're upgrading your primary drive, be sure to check out reviews and what people are saying online about a particular model. This was a direct swap and thanks to a timemachine backup I was easily able to add aother 180Gb of space in just under two hours (from physical swap to data restoration). Easy way to add extra space with a gain minor performance boost. If you are swapping out your main drive make sure you have recovery tools to reinstall your operating system otherwise you're going to have a machine you can't do much with!

When I upgraded my drive, the traditional HardDisk Drive was my only real option financially. My other option would have been to go for an SSD drive. For those of you unaware, SSD stands for 'Solid State Drive'. SSDs don't have moving parts like you find in traditional harddrives. This is what you used to hear spinning up after a period of inactivity when coming back to your computer. Because of this SSDs are dramatically faster, more reliable consume less power and run silently. They have their drawbacks, however. They are much more expensive in comparison traditional counterparts and have smaller capacities although their prices have begun to come down in recent times.

Increase the Memory

When I was growing up, upgrading the memory (RAM) was my go-to method to increase performance. Double the memory and you would notice dramatic performance increases. On most computers, upgrading the memory is relatively simple. Once you've got access to it, the memory simply pulls out and you put your new sticks in. This machine came with 2Gb RAM, and has sinced had 4Gb, 6Gb and now runs with 8Gb. Apple only officially acknowledge support for 6Gb but I've been running with 8Gb for well over a year with no issues. Limitations are really set by the manufacturer of the logic board. If you're in doubt a quick Google search should be very insightful. See what others have done by reading through a few forum posts. If you want a way to easy yourself into making tweaks to your machine this should probably be your first venture.

Replace the Optical Disk Drive with an SSD

Above, I said that when I originally upgraded my harddrive, the SSD out of my price range. However, since then the price of SSD drives has dropped dramatically and I'm no longer a student. Newer Macs don't come with optical (CD/DVD) drives anymore and although this makes my setup the butt of many jokes at work I can sort of see why. Most of the information I need to transfer I can do so over my local network or using a USB Stick. Optical media now seems rather archaic. If, like I did, you don't feel that you use your optical drive much you can always swap it out for another disk drive for additional space. The optical drive is connected through as SATA connection, the same as you find connected to modern disk drives so it is a simple swap of one for another. Because I had sufficient space I opted for an SSD for the major performance benefits. The optical drive is physically bigger than the 2.5" SSD so you need to buy a caddy. This is essentially a frame that holds your drive in its place. To get the most of my drive I opted to install a fresh copy of OS X onto it. This installation left my old drive exactly as it was and I could copy over the Applications and files I wanted on my new drive. I only got a 120Gb SSD, so I opted to keep my Home folder on my second drive. I won't go through the details here but Tuts+ has a great article on how to do it. This meant I reserved my main drive for the OS and applications, with personal data, documents and files on my larger drive. I was genuinely shocked by how significant the speed improvement was, not only with larger apps such as Photoshop but in general use too. My boottime is now easily below 10 seconds and the machine feels much snappier. Using an SSD as the primary drive is something would recommend to anyone looking for a noticable speed improvement and gave me more noticeable gains thanks upgrading memory. Interestingly, while I was writing this @JerseyIT guy made a similar observation on the performance gains through SSD drive so I genuinely suggest it is something you look into.

Battery & Charger

A different type of performance for mobile users. This is where my MacBook struggling a bit at the moment. I am on my second battery after I purchasing a new one a couple of years ago but its health is now below 50%. Performance is okay for what I use it for, I get just under two hours general usage (with Wifi). A replacement battery is £109 and so is a purchase I am holding off on for now because I can't say I need based on my current use. I have recently had to buy a replacement charger because my old Magsafe connector frayed and broke off. The newer design, which moves the cable down the side of the laptop as opposed to perpendicular to it was probably introduced to attempt to reduce wear on the connection. With things like power I have only ever purchased Apple versions simply for peace of mind so can only suggest you be very careful if you do look at non-branded alternatives.

All my upgrades (excluding battery & charger) probably cost me less than £300 over five years. I use my laptop daily for working on websites, apps and graphics and all the other home stuff, growing the web, social networks, this blog and listening to music. I'll admit I can't be as lackadaisical as I am on my work machine by having numerous apps running even if I'm not working with them but is still more than suitable for what I demand from it.

There you have it. Extending the life of an old machine. It isn't a comprehensive, detailed step-by-step guide but is an overview of what is possible. Just because your computer is slowing down, doesn't mean its the end of the line for it just yet and this has hopefully given you some insight and a nice starting point for upgrading your machines yourself.

My main machine is a late 2008 MacBook Pro. It is still more than capable of the tasks I need it to do - desing, development, gaming as well as general usage. In order to do this I have had to make a handful of upgrades over the years and I thought I would share these for anyone else looking to extend the life of their computer.


I would love to hear your thoughts, comments and insights about this article. You can get in touch with me through any of the options on the Contact Page.