Cobbling Together an Almost Good-as-New MacBook
When you've had your Mac long enough, it's only natural to start thinking about more speed and more memory. That brings up the age-old question: dig deep to buy a new Mac, or spend much less to upgrade a few select parts? An experienced user shouldn't have too much trouble with a home upgrade. Just have the right screwdrivers handy, and don't forget to back everything up.
One question that often plagues me is whether it's worth upgrading an existing Apple notebook with more RAM and a new hard drive -- or whether it's a better option to simply buy a whole new one altogether.
I tend to buy a new PowerBook, iBook, or MacBook every two years or so, and usually around the 16-month point, I'm in a quandary -- I'm usually running out hard drive space, I'm running more applications at the same time than ever before, and now the new MacBook Pro models are fantastic but don't seem quite worth the cost just yet.
Right now, I've got a black MacBook with a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. I travel with it occasionally, but not enough that a new, sturdy, aluminum unibody MacBook Pro is necessary. Sure, the new MacBook Pro units are lust-worthy, but when it comes to performance, I'm not sure there's enough bang for the buck in my situation: A new MBP could bring a slightly faster CPU, a slightly faster front-side bus, and slightly faster RAM, but seriously, I can't drop US$1,500 for slightly faster.
The better GeForce 9400M graphics in the new models catch my eye, but my black MacBook is holding up surprisingly well -- it's running a 24-inch Samsung SyncMaster T240HD monitor with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,200, and it's good enough to get the job done. I'm not gaming on it, so that's not a concern, just a lot of iPhoto, iMovie, Adobe Photoshop Elements, and the like -- but not enough to justify a 15-inch MacBook Pro or Mac Pro.
Running Out of Room
And yet, a guy can rack up a surprising amount of movie, TV, and video files over the course of 16 months. Toss in a new camera that'll record 720p video, and suddenly a 250 GB hard drive is downright paltry. At one point a month ago, I was down to 12 GB of available space on my 250 GB hard drive. I went on a cleaning frenzy, of course, and reclaimed 20 GB or so, and I moved some older movie files to an external disk, but still, one thing was clear: I needed more than 250 GB of space.
As for RAM, I've been running with 2 GB with pretty good effects -- occasionally, after running a lot of applications, I'd get some less than stellar performance and the spinning beach ball, but overall, not bad. Still, after a long day, I'd find myself closing a few browser windows and shutting down some apps before I launched iPhoto, Photoshop Elements or iMovie.
I could obviously have moved a lot of my media to an external server or hard drive, but I prefer to keep the bulk of it in one place, on my MacBook where I have access to it all the time, no matter where I go, no matter what kind of Internet access I've got. So a bigger internal hard drive was in order. Two key questions: How much and how fast?
Moving up from a 250 GB hard drive, I could move to spendy solid-state drive (SSD) and gain some speed, but I wouldn't gain drive space, and the costs are way too high yet. My stock 250 GB drive was running at a typical 5,400 RPM, but I could upgrade to a 7,200 RPM drive and pickup a speed boost. That seemed like a good option, but what about the size?
Seagate offers its Momentus 2.5-inch SATA 500GB 7,200 RPM drive with 16MB cache for about $110, though it was a bit more expensive a few weeks ago. Overall, it's online reviews were pretty good, though not stellar. With no other contenders in the market in the 500 GB running at 7,200 RPM space, I was a bit concerned, and after much hand-wringing decided that the extra space and speed in a single package could wait -- maybe down the road after there were more competitors, all with good track records of success.
So that left a 500 GB drive running at 5,400 RPM for less than a $100, or a 320 GB drive running at 7,200 RPM for $76. Lots of space, or more space and extra speed?
I choose a Western Digital Scorpio Black 320 GB 7,200 RPM drive, with 16 MB of cache.
The RAM question was a lot easier -- most of the different sticks were coming in around the same price, and the question was simply whether or not to do it. I wasn't positive that I'd see much of a difference with the applications that I run, especially on a black MacBook, but the common thinking is that more is usually better. At just $54 for a Kingston 4 GB kit, I decided might as well -- I'll have the case open anyway. Plus, if I end up running VMware's Fusion again, this time with Windows 7, I'll be in a much better position.
All told, this upgrade was going to cost $130. Not bad.
The install is easy, but you should clearly understand your strategy -- you need to back up your existing drive and then figure out how you're going to copy all your data to your new drive. There are several different ways to do this, and I recommend that any potential newbie spend some time searching for step-by-step how-to articles and videos online. As for me, my preferred method is to create a backup clone of the MacBook drive to an external FireWire drive. In a worse-case scenario, I could boot my MacBook using the external drive and get work done. The software I use now is Carbon Copy Cloner, but I've also used the excellent SuperDuper.
I've also got an Apple Time Machine that gives me one more backup option, though for upgrades I prefer the hands-on clarity of direct copies.
Once I had my backup, I used a 2.5-inch SATA to USB 2.0 enclosure, which is basically the shell that an external hard drive comes in. They're cheap, anywhere from $10 to $30, and quite handy. It's pretty much a plug-and-play deal; remove some screws, slip the drive into the enclosure, and connect it to your MacBook. The new drive will mount. Run Disk Utility to format the drive, then clone your internal MacBook drive to the new one.
I'm a big fan of this method because all you have to do next is to remove the internal drive, install the new drive, and place the old drive in the SATA enclosure and hang onto it for a while -- it's yet another backup in case your new drives spins itself into oblivion.
The biggest gotcha? A TORX size T-8 screwdriver. You'll need one, in addition to some really small Phillips head screwdrivers.
Of course, you can also install Mac OS X Leopard and upgrade from your backups, either the external hard drive backup that I mentioned or from Time Machine, but like I said, I prefer the straight elegance of the method I used.
OK, so was it worth it? That's the question, right? Should I have saved $130 and waited until the next generation of MacBook Pros hit? Maybe bought a share of Apple stock?
My first impression of the hard drive was one of shock and concern. Right away, I noticed a tiny bit of vibration. I hadn't felt any vibration in the 5,400 RPM drive. Was something wrong? It's almost impossible to seat a new drive incorrectly in the MacBook's drive bay, so I was pretty sure it was installed fine. Other users reported vibration, and most expect to feel some with a 7,200 RPM drive in a notebook, regardless of the make and model. But how much was too much?
I've been running it for about four weeks now, and it's still there -- faint, noticeable, and most importantly, ignorable.
What about speed? Did I notice a significant boost?
Remember, my tests include both the RAM and the hard drive -- not separate installations. (I'm a user, not a laboratory.)
From a cold startup, I gained all of six seconds. Ouch. That was a bit disappointing. Safari launched bit faster, but Mail was astounding -- I went from a dozen or more Mail icon bounces (about a second each bounce) on average to just two! iPhoto, with 10,000 photos and videos and 27 GB of data or so, didn't experience a change at all, nor did Numbers.
The net result? Slightly faster application launch times, though not as much as I was expecting. What I have noticed is that I'm interrupted less often with the spinning beach ball while my MacBook is in the throes of multitasking. That's a welcome improvement. I've also got less fear: If I've got dozens of windows and applications open, I don't hesitate to open new apps and start running. I even ripped a DVD while working and barely noticed.
Still, I've only got 134 GB free on my new drive. I'm gonna fill it up fast, I just know it. Would I do the same thing again?
Not a chance -- I would have spent just a bit more and picked up a 500 GB drive running at 5,400 RPM. Seems like the better bang for the buck.
Oh, and by the way, when I upgraded to Snow Leopard, I saw much bigger improvements across the board. That upgrade is a must-have.