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MacBook makeovers bring new life to a couple of old laptops

Last weekend provided not one, but two opportunities for me to do some upgrades to some "old" MacBooks to bring 'em up to workable condition. To start with, one client of mine wanted to get rid of an unused MacBook, so I decided to purchase it from her as a machine for training. The other client had one of the original 15" Intel Core Duo MacBook Pros and doesn't want to spend the money on a new machine. In both cases, the machines were running older versions of Mac OS X, had insufficient RAM, and had hard drives that were both slow and small. The following post is a textbook example of how you can bring new life to slightly old Macs by just spending enough money to upgrade the memory, OS, and hard disk drive.

For the MacBook, I decided that I wanted to max out its RAM, add more hard drive space, and speed up the hard drive while I was at it. I wanted to set up the machine with Mac OS X 10.6 and a Boot Camp partition running Windows 7, with an alternative external boot drive containing Mac OS X Server 10.6. The machine's initial setup: 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (Penryn) CPU, 2 GB of RAM, and a 160GB 5400 RPM SATA hard disk. I chose to max out the RAM to a total of 6GB, purchase a 500GB 7200 RPM drive for the internal drive, and procure a USB 2.0 bus-powered external shell for the existing drive. This MacBook was also running Mac OS X 10.5.8, and I wanted to update it to the latest version of Snow Leopard. Click "Read More" to find out how the upgrades went.


The MacBook is primarily going to be used as a training machine for others and for myself. I really need to keep up and expand my skills with Mac OS X Server, so I decided to use the old hard drive as a secondary boot drive for Snow Leopard Server. I've also become thoroughly discouraged with virtual machines for Windows, so I decided to set up the Boot Camp partition to create a "real" Windows PC. The main boot drive will be loaded with Snow Leopard and the software that will be used by my students.

The total cost of the upgrade for the MacBook wasn't too bad. I bought all of the hardware goodies from OWC (MacSales.com), which is my favorite site for memory and hard drives. The hard drive and external USB shell were available from the company for $99, and 6 GB of RAM ran $174.97. I have an existing Windows 7 installation disk, and I was going to remove Win 7 from the virtual machine on my iMac, so that was a wash money-wise. For Mac OS X 10.6, I bought the $29 standard license, and for Mac OS X Server 10.6 I used the NFR copy that is seeded to Apple Consultant Network members. Total cost of the upgrade? Just over $300. I found that, as expected, the additional RAM, slightly faster HD, and Snow Leopard sped the machine up nicely.

Swapping out the hardware took only about 10 minutes. The MacBook is the perfect machine for doing upgrades like this; you remove the battery, and then using the included toolkit from OWC, you remove three screws and pull a metal strip out of the way. The RAM is easily accessible for replacement, and the hard drive has a small plastic strip attached to it, making removal very easy.

Rebooting the machine after the upgrade was completed, I found that from a dead start, I could boot the MacBook to the OS X desktop or the Windows 7 login screen in about 30 seconds. That's much faster than the 63 second Mac OS X boot time I was getting previously. Unfortunately, I had no benchmark time to compare with for Windows 7.

I'll soon be loading this training Mac with iWork '09 and Microsoft Office 2008 for some upcoming classes. With the much larger hard drive, I won't be running out of space. The Windows side of the Mac will be seeing a Microsoft Office installation as well. As of now, I haven't taken the time to load up the external drive with Mac OS X Server, but I plan on using it as a testbed for new server applications that my clients are asking for.

The MacBook Pro was more problematic. Being older than the MacBook, the machine had a 2 GHz Intel Core Duo CPU, 512MB of RAM, and an 80GB 5400 RPM SATA Drive. I chose to max out this device with 2GB of RAM and replace the internal drive with a 250GB 7200 RPM drive. Once again, the existing drive was to be moved to a bus-powered external shell for re-use, and I was going to upgrade the machine from 10.4.11 to the latest version of Snow Leopard.

The cost for this upgrade was even more reasonable: $64.99 for the HD upgrade kit (including the USB 2.0 drive shell), $51.99 for the RAM, and $29 for the Snow Leopard upgrade. The total cost? About $146. I also chose to replace the battery pack, which was just about dead on this computer -- that was fairly expensive (I chose to purchase the Apple replacement battery pack), at a price of $129. The time to swap out the hardware was a bit longer than the MacBook: closer to 40 minutes, since there were quite a few more screws to loosen to get to the hard disk drive. As you can see in the following screenshot from one of the excellent OWC videos, you have to remove the keyboard assembly on the old MBPs to get to the hard disk drive.


The end product for the client was a machine that is much more responsive than his un-upgraded MacBook Pro. The boot time on the upgraded machine is about 30 seconds -- that seems to be a standard for Snow Leopard machines before they're loaded down with other software and add-ons. With the new battery pack, the MacBook Pro now runs for about 3 hours before asking for a charge, and the client is very happy with the "new" machine. His total cost? $328.46 for hardware, plus a bit more for my labor. That's a lot less expensive than running out to purchase a new 15" MacBook Pro at a minimum cost of $1,799.

For machines that are three or four years old, spending a few hundred bucks and doing hard drive, RAM, and OS upgrades can extend the life of a computer for a few more years. If you're thinking about buying a new machine, look at your existing Mac and see if it can be upgraded instead. At the worst, G4 and G5 machines make great computers for kids, provided that you bump 'em up to a decent amount of RAM and load them with the best possible OS version. Most Intel Macs really benefit from the extra RAM and HD space treatment, and can often be used for a few years more after receiving the white-glove treatment.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do these upgrades, either. I'm all thumbs when it comes to doing upgrades, but I've found the upgrade videos on Macsales.com to be incredibly useful in giving me hints on how to take apart and reassemble Macs. If you know how to use a screwdriver, you can easily upgrade most older Macs. (The old, pre-unibody Mac mini does take a bit more work and talent, as well as a paint scraper...)

I'd love to hear from TUAW readers on your upgrade success stories, so if you have saved an aging Mac from the junk heap through the gentle application of love, RAM, and a new hard drive, leave a comment below.

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