Putting new life into an old Mac book Pros

You know the symptoms: applications don’t open as fast as they used to, and you always seem to be running out of space on your hard drive. It’s painful to admit, but your MacBook Pro that was so shiny a year ago may finally be showing its age. But you don’t have to put your faithful companion out to pasture––or make another $2,000 trip to the Apple Store––just yet. Save those pennies while you work more productively by upgrading your MacBook Pro yourself.

old Mac book Pros

It’s easier to do than you might think, due in part to the fact that we MacBook Pro owners don’t have nearly as many options as our pals with Mac Pros. In fact, our upgrade paths boil down to adding RAM and swapping out the current hard drive. Yet these upgrades can deliver serious performance gains, and thanks to Cupertino’s design sense, they’re relatively painless, too. Still, as with any major alteration to your Mac, don’t forget to back up your data before you get started.

 old Mac book Pros

Add More RAM

More RAM lets your Mac handle memory-intensive tasks like gaming, video editing, and running multiple applications simultaneously. Adding as much RAM as possible helps keep your Mac ready for these tasks for years to come, but you don’t necessarily need to install as much as your machine will hold. Even an extra gigabyte or two over your current configuration may be enough to make a difference in day-to-day use.

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Install a New Hard Drive

A bigger hard disk drive (or HDD) means more room for songs, movies, apps, and documents. When shopping for a new HDD, remember that MacBook Pros use 2.5-inch SATA drives that run at 5400 or 7200 RPM. These speeds determine how quickly data can be read from, and written to, the drive (the more revolutions per minute, the faster your drive). The vendors mentioned in our RAM installation guide also make great sources for hard drives, and the documentation that came with your computer has information about how to install them.

But if you have a need for speed as well as storage, consider installing a solid-state drive (or SSD) instead. These drives use flash memory that has no moving parts, just like a MacBook Air, so data can be read from them even faster––even up to twice as fast as a conventional drive. If that sounds like a good deal, we don’t blame you.

Solid-state drives (SSDs) appear to provide quite a performance boost on new Macs, so I wondered if they could sniff new life into my original black MacBook, too. Most SSD testing compares maximum speeds on disk-intensive applications such as graphics or video editing, but would an SSD provide a noticeable improvement in speed for everyday use on my aging Mac?

For my test, I turned to reputable Mac upgrade retailer Other World Computing, and installed their Mercury Extreme Pro 115 GB drive. I installed a fresh copy of 10.6.6 (the most current version when my test began in February) with all applicable updates, and then used the Migration Assistant to import my system from a Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320 GB HD.

Initial impressions were spectacular. A cold boot of my MacBook to the login screen took an average of 19.5 seconds, and to get from login to a full Finder “ready to work” state took an average of only 8.2 additional seconds. Launching Safari was nearly instant, and Microsoft Word 2011 took an average of 2.4 seconds to load. Battery life was difficult to test, but my average use time from a full charge was 4-5 hours, using a two-month old official Apple replacement battery.

After a month, I cloned the SSD back to my original Western Digital HDD and the boot and Finder load took more than twice as long. On average cold boot time was 46 seconds with a variance of about 10 percent, and the time from login to full Finder was 38 seconds. Safari launched in 3.5 seconds, and Word in 7.2 seconds. Battery life was back to about 2 hours. I could only tolerate using the original drive for about a week and decided to switch back to the SSD. I retested the SSD (without cloning back from the Western Digital) and results were identical to my tests at the time of initial install.

After I had been using the SSD for over three months, I repeated my original tests, and the results were exactly the same, showing no degradation of speed. That could be due in part to OWC’s wear-management technology, so your mileage with other brand drives might vary.

For those of us using older MacBooks (especially the discontinued “Blackbook”) who aren’t keen on retiring our devices, I strongly recommend a SSD. With RAM maxing out at an anemic 2 GB on these models, an SSD provides an amazing speed enhancement. Although my MacBook is nearly five years old, its fast boot and application launch time, as well as its significant longer battery life made me fall in love with it all over again. A new MacBook might be great, but this one gets the job done nicely, and for only a couple hundred dollars, I’ve got what feels like a brand new Mac in my bag.

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