Upgrade your old Mac to give it a power boost

Keir Thomas
11 March, 2015
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MacBook Pro, upgrade, mac, help, macworld australiaWhat if we told you that you can take an older Mac and turn it into something that feels and acts like it’s fresh from the Apple Store – including jaw-dropping performance and accessing features such as Handoff or Fusion disk technology that are theoretically only available with latest models?

If you’ve a MacBook, Mac mini or iMac powered by an Intel CPU manufactured as early as 2007 then it can be surprising what’s possible via a few hardware or software hacks.

Because the upgrades and hacks below involve replacing key components of your Mac’s hardware and software system, we refer to it as creating a FrankenMac – half original Mac, half new bits and pieces sourced from… Well, only the villagers pounding their pitchforks on the drawbridge door know where.

It lives! It lives!

What can’t be upgraded in an old Mac

We hesitate to start on a down note but let’s talk briefly about what can’t be upgraded or hacked. Note that throughout this article we discuss the Mac mini, iMac and MacBook ranges. We don’t discuss the Mac Pro because that’s designed from the ground-up for upgrading. We’re interested here in the sneaky, less obvious upgrades.

Put simply, it’s not usually possible to upgrade the CPU in a Mac, or its GPU (that is, the graphics card). With Mac models featuring Thunderbolt you can attach an external GPU, but those Macs are recent models. Below we’re only interested in Macs on their first step of their journey towards becoming vintage.

Some components can be swapped for replacements if they suffer damage or failure, and there are several different spares outfits online. You can swap out a dead SuperDrive, for example, or a cracked screen for a replacement. But it isn’t possible to take advantage of an upgrade at the same time – you can’t fit a higher-resolution screen, upgrade to a more powerful battery or swap your SuperDrive for a Blu-Ray model (although it is possible to attach a USB Blu-Ray drive).

As for most of the other components in your Mac, however… Well, it’s open season.

Add new RAM/Memory to an old Mac

At no time in the history of computing has it been a bad idea to max-out the RAM of your computer. The best news? As your computer gets older, RAM for it gets cheaper.

 

Older models of Mac are fully expandable and it’s usually easy to do so:

  • iMac: You may need a technical screwdriver to open a compartment on the bottom although on some iMacs a small panel beneath the vents on the back of the unit pops off when you press the button beneath.
  • MacBook (including Pro): On older MacBook models with a user-removable battery you’ll have to remove the metal guard surrounding the battery slot. On newer models without a user-removable battery it’s necessary to remove the entire bottom panel of the MacBook.
  • MacBook Air: Unfortunately it’s not possible to upgrade the RAM in a MacBook Air because it’s soldered in place, with no memory slots.
  • Mac mini: On some models of Mac mini the bottom panel can be easily popped off, although some require disassembly.

Apple provides an illustrated guide for memory upgrades: just click Apple > About this Mac, and then click the Memory tab and then the Memory Upgrade Instructions link.

 

You’ll very likely need to remove and abandon the existing memory modules to upgrade to the maximum amount of memory. For the easiest way to find out what to buy, visit Crucial’s website and download its Mac memory scanner. To run this after download and unzipping you’ll need to right-click the app and select Open, then click the Open button in the dialogue box that appears. Of course, you can take the technical details provided and use them to search eBay in order to compare prices – usually the DDR speed (e.g. DDR3, DDR2 etc) is required, along with the ‘PC’ figure (e.g. PC3-8500). Most Macs take small outline memory modules, called SO-DIMMs.

Fit as much RAM as you can afford. 4GB is OK. 8GB is good. 16GB will truly future-proof your Mac, although most older Macs max-out between 4 and 8GB.

Pro tip: A small minority of older Mac models have been found to be able to take more than the ‘official’ maximum RAM stated by Apple. EverydayMac provides a comprehensive list.

RAM is usually fitted in two modules. If your Mac maxes-out at 8GB, for example, then the best policy is to fit two 4GB modules. Mixing and matching different sizes of modules is possible – 2GB with a 4GB, for example – but identically-sized modules of an identical technical specification (and ideally the same manufacturer and model) allow dual-channel operation. This brings a slight but significant performance boost, reckoned to be around five percent in real life situations.

To discover your Mac model details click Apple > About this Mac. Usually this takes the form of a year (e.g. MacBook Pro 13in Mid 2009) but for some websites you might want to confirm you’ve got the right product by checking what Apple refers to as the “marketing model number”. This can be found by again clicking About this Mac, then selecting the Support tab and clicking Specifications. This will open a web page listing all the technical details about your Mac. The model number will be a short burst of letters and numbers – something like MB991LL/A – and it will be listed in a table somewhere within that page.

Add an SSD or more storage to an old Mac

The second piece of fruit ripe for plucking is storage. Put simply, replacing your boot drive with a solid state disk (SSD) will mean your Mac boots within seconds and apps will load in the blink of an eye.

Maxing-out your Mac’s RAM and fitting an SSD will give you what feels like a brand new computer. It really is astonishing. Note that MacBook Airs have unique storage requirements, as discussed later, but other MacBook owners, as well as Mac mini and iMac owners should prepare to have their minds blown.

 

The upgrade method of least resistance is to simply swap out your existing drive for an SSD. With a MacBook that doesn’t have a removable battery, or Mac mini, you should be able to remove the bottom panel, much as you did for the memory upgrade, and appropriate the fittings from the existing drive (although some Mac minis may require disassembly). For MacBooks with a removable battery, the same panel in the battery compartment that protects the RAM can be removed to gain easy access to the hard disk, which it should be possible to remove by pulling a tag.

Sadly, on an iMac, replacing the disk is much harder. You’ll have to first remove the screen, which can be challenging and brings a comparatively high risk of damaging something. See this OWC video tutorial for a hair-raising example.

Once again it iFixIt has some excellent illustrated guides for all models of Mac and will also sell you the tools required. A simple YouTube search can also pay dividends.

An alternative method of installation on a MacBook is to remove the SuperDrive (that is, the DVD drive) and put the SSD is the gap where the SuperDrive used to be. The original disk can be left in place and the SSD selected as the boot drive via the Startup Disk option in System Preferences. Because the optical drive uses a special SATA/power connector, a special caddy for the SSD is required, which will also hold it securely in place. Examples can be found on eBay, and are usually inexpensive. Some kits come complete with a USB connector that lets you use the removed SuperDrive externally.

An SSD can be fitted to a MacBook via a special caddy that’s designed to replace the SuperDrive

 

MacBook Air owners have been aware of solid-state storage benefits since the very first model went on sale, although Apple refers to it as Flash Storage (and to be fair their version resembles more a stick of RAM than a typical disk drive). MacBook Air owners might be able to upgrade to larger storage, often with a speed boost over the original drive too, although their computers use a proprietary storage connector and require a specific upgrade. Manufacturers like OWC and Transcend produce the goods – just Google or hit eBay specifying the model number, as discussed earlier. Notably, Air owners cannot fit a standard SSD.

Adding two or more SSDs to a Mac

On some models of iMac or Mac Mini you might be able to fit an SSD to an unused SATA channel connector on the logic board, and squirrel it away beneath the existing disk, or under the SuperDrive. This might be in addition to the old drive, or you might simply fit two SSDs. You’ll need a kit that includes mounts and cables. OWC, iFixIt and others sells various examples. However, fitting a second SSD to an iMac or Mac Mini will very likely involve an almost complete disassembly of the computer. Again, you’ll find tutorials at iFixIt and on YouTube.

Fitting two (or more) SSDs isn’t as daft as it sounds. SSDs are more expensive than standard disks, with prices ramping-up sharply for higher capacities, and you might find two 256GB SSDs cost less than a single 512GB model, for example. However, not all drives are fully Mac compatible and manufacturers often don’t document Mac compatibility. A good way of checking is to read user reviews.

Pro tip: SATA technology is backwards compatible: a SATA3.x drive will work in computer running SATA2 or SATA1, for example.

Pro tip #2: Before fitting the SSD in your Mac, ensure the drive is using the latest firmware. Show-stopping bugs are sadly all-too common, and newer firmware can also mean improved speeds. Unfortunately upgrading the firmware can usually only be done by temporarily attaching the SSD to a Windows PC and using special software. See the manufacturers site for details.

Time Machine provides a relatively fuss-free way of cloning your original disk’s contents onto a new SSD

 

You’ll need to clone your existing OS X installation plus data onto the new SSD. Arguably the easiest way of doing this is to create a Time Machine backup before fitting the new SSD and boot to the recovery console, before restoring to the new SSD. If all else fails apps like SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner can be used to clone one disk to another.

Create a DIY Fusion Drive

If your Mac ends-up with the original drive plus an SSD alongside, an exciting prospect open up: Coupling the two disks together to create a DIY Fusion drive.

If you have two SSDs installed you can use the same technique to combine them into a single disk, akin to RAID. Fit a 256GB and 128GB drive to your Mac, for example, and you’ll end-up with what appears to OS X to be a single 384GB SSD (actually it’ll be 372GB because of the strange way disks manufacturers measure size).

An older hard disk and an SSD can be combined into one super-fast Fusion drive

 

The technique required to create a DIY Fusion drive is somewhat advanced and induces palm sweats in even the most technically savvy. You’ll need to wipe your existing data and restore it, for example. In the steps below we use as a basis Macworld US’s guide to creating a DIY Fusion drive from 2012. However, the introduction of Yosemite and important changes in the way it handles disks means a few additional steps are necessary. We assume for the purpose of these steps you’re using a Time Machine disk directly attached to your Mac:

  1. Start by creating a full Time Machine backup – click the Time Machine icon on the menu bar and select Back Up Now. For insurance purposes you might also want to create a Yosemite install USB stick too, which you can use to boot and reinstall if anything goes wrong.
  2. Reboot your Mac and hold down Alt (Option on some keyboards) before the Apple logo appears. When asked to select a disk, choose to boot from your Time Machine disk.
  3. You’ll boot to the Time Machine disk’s recovery console. At the OS X Utilities listing, choose to open Disk Utility.
  4. You must now wipe and repartition both internal disks (you did follow Step 1 and create a backup, right?). Start by selecting the partition on the first disk on the left of the screen – this is the entry indented below the main entry for the disk – then select the Erase tab and select to create a Mac OS Extended (Journaled) partition. Repeat this step on the other disk.
  5. On each disk in turn, select the main entries for the disk in the list at the left and opt to create a new partition on both by selecting the Partition tab, then 1 from the dropdown beneath Partition Layout. Again choose Mac OS Extended (Journaled) for the format. However, click the Options button and select the GUID Partition Table option.
  6. Quit Disk Utility, then select to open Terminal by clicking Utilities > Terminal.
  7. Follow the steps in the Macworld US DIY Fusion guide from the “Bust open Terminal” heading downwards, typing the commands listed. They’re very straightforward and the process is quick, but read through first to familiarise yourself.
  8. When finished, quit Terminal. You’ll be returned to the main Recovery screen, from where you can select to restore from a Time Machine backup. Your new DIY Fusion drive will appear as a destination.
  9. When rebooting for the first time after restoring your data, you might see a flashing question mark folder. Turn your Mac off and then on again, but this time hold down the Alt key (Option on some keyboards). Select the first hard disk entry you see by using the cursor keys and hitting Enter. Once you’ve booted into OS X, open System Preferences and select Startup Disk, then select the boot disk and click the Restart button.

Following this your Mac will appear to have only one disk, and you simply won’t be aware that you’re actually accessing two. You can enable FileVault in the usual way within the Security section of System Preferences.

Get Handoff, AirDrop and better Wi-Fi on an old Mac

Only recent models of Mac are compatible with the Handoff/Continuity features introduced with Yosemite. This allows your Mac and iOS devices to instantly pick up on emails, websites, documents, map locations and much more – start an email on your Mac and you can continue instantly on your iPhone.

Older Macs lack the low-power Bluetooth v4.0 mode required for Handoff/Continuity. Alas, buying an inexpensive USB Bluetooth v4.0 dongle doesn’t fix the situation – unless you apply the Continuity Activation hack, which brings not only virtually full Handoff/Continuity support but also enables other cool features such as AirDrop between iOS and Macs.

A cheap USB Bluetooth 4.0 adapter is all that’s needed hardware-wise to enable Handoff and Continuity on older Macs

 

On some Mac mini or MacBook Air models you might not even need to upgrade your hardware, while on other Macs it might be possible to upgrade the AirPort card in your Mac instead of using a USB dongle, which might have the added benefit of upgrading your Mac’s Wi-Fi capabilities to faster speeds (provided you’ve a compatible router, of course). Start by searching the forums of iFixIt, where such questions are frequently asked. Once again bear in mind that fitting an AirPort upgrade will probably involve partial or full disassembly of your Mac. Additionally, note that AirPort cards are usually expensive.

ExpressCard options for older Macs

For a few years some MacBook models featured an ExpressCard slot. Although this technology is in the dying throes of its lifespan, you can still get some useful add-ons, such as adapters that bring USB 3.0 to your Mac. Just search your favourite site. However, always check for Mac compatibility. Again, this can often be done by reading the reviews of buyers in the product description.

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