An Apple A Day: Getting The Most Out Of Older MacBooks

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It’s not difficult to bring an old Apple laptop up to standard, and the cost is considerably less than buying a new Mac. In an age where we’re far more likely to throw something out than repair or make do, shouldn’t we all be reusing old, perfectly functioning technology?

An old machine can still accomplish a lot – be it browsing the Web, using Facebook or even writing blog posts and coding websites. Make do, save money and put old things to new use.

Which Laptop Have You Got?

Finding out which model of MacBook you have is key to finding out just how crusty – or recent – it happens to be. You can do this by clicking the Apple logo in the top-left of the screen, selecting About This Mac then More Info. You can see the model you have listed at the top of this window, along with your operating system version and other technical specifications below it.

Depending on the age of your laptop, you may or may not be able to run Apple’s latest iteration of OS X, 10.9 “Mavericks” which was released as a free upgrade. Compatible laptops include:

  • MacBook (late 2008 aluminium, or early 2009 or newer)
  • MacBook Pro (mid/late 2007 or newer)
  • MacBook Air (late 2008 or newer)

If your laptop is older than this, then you’re going to have to stop at the last supported version of OS X. If you happen to own an old PowerPC Mac (and it will say so, under the “Processor” field in About This Mac) then you will be stuck with OS X 10.5 “Leopard” as that is the last version built to support these old dinosaurs.

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Users who find Intel chips inside will have more luck, but again will be limited by their hardware’s last supported version. EveryMac has a comprehensive guide to find out your Mac’s last supported version, which you can cross-reference with the model name and number you found under About This Mac.

Hardware Changes

It’s probably worth performing any work on your laptop’s internals before you start messing with the software, provided work needs to be done. You can use the About This Mac tool to find out your current hard drive size and installed RAM capacity, then decide whether this is good enough.

Consider upgrading RAM, particularly if your MacBook has space as it’s a cheap and effective upgrade with noticeable performance hikes. EveryMac provides an exhaustive list of maximum memory configurations – you should aim for 4GB if you’re hoping to run Mavericks smoothly. Hard drives provide another opportunity for upgrade – you can increase size, or even opt for a solid state hybrid drive – but the biggest performance leap comes from switching to a solid state drive (SSD).

SSDs provide serious speed at a cost – space. SSDs currently don’t hold anywhere near as much as traditional platters do, so the price per GB is noticeably higher. Consider ditching your MacBook’s optical drive in favour of an SSD, and while you’re at it you could swap out the existing hard drive with a bigger replacement too. Don’t forget that hard drives do fail, and they take everything down with them when they go – so if yours is emitting strange noises, or being slower than usual, it might be a sign it’s on the way out.

Of course the only problem here is if you’re running a particularly old Mac; you’ll need that optical drive for upgrade purposes. A nice way around this is to use an external drive like Apple’s pricey SuperDrive, or a cheaper third-party one, or by creating a bootable Snow Leopard flash disk using your original DVD before ditching your optical drive.

If you do find yourself with no way to install from your original disc, you could always download the .DMG using a torrent and burn that to USB instead – there’s nothing illegal in downloading software you already own.

Upgrading OS X

If your Mac is especially old, or has been allowed to grow old without many updates, you’ll probably find that you need to upgrade the operating system. This can take some time, particularly for older Macs that need to “ascend the ranks” and move from CD/DVD installs to using the Mac App Store.

Depending on the age of your Mac, this can be a bit of an ordeal. Users running 10.5 (Leopard) or earlier will actually need to buy Snow Leopard (10.6) from Apple ($20.99), install from disc, then continue upgrading as far as they can using the methods outlined below.

If you have Snow Leopard installed (10.6) you can simply run a System Update to the latest version (10.6.8) which adds support for the Mac App Store. Then, once the Mac App Store is on your machine you can upgrade by downloading further versions. Before wasting your time downloading OS X Mavericks, double check your maximum supported version of OS X.

There are a good number of MacBook models, particularly the Core2Duo and plastic unibody models from 2006, 2007 and 2008, that only support 10.7.5 (Lion). The problem is, you won’t find Lion available in the Mac App Store any more – instead you’ll need to order it from here for $20. Once payment has been made, you can upgrade using a code which you can redeem on the Mac App Store.

Each newer version of OS X will run a little slower than the last, and this is particularly true when considering older hardware. Even if you can only upgrade as far as 10.7 you will see some benefit, particularly as support for 10.6 is waning fast – many developers are choosing to go “10.7 and later”, and even Apple dropped support for Safari with the release of 10.6.

Finally

There are a few other things you can choose to do with your old MacBook, particularly if you don’t really want to use it as a Mac. You could always switch operating systems, depending on the age of your Mac a nice lightweight Linux distribution might just give it a new lease of life. You might even want to install an old version of Windows, something Boot Camp will help with on Leopard (10.5) and later.

Optionally – you could sell it. Macs tend to hold some value, and you might be surprised by the interest generated on eBay.

Image credits: MacBook 13″ (Juuro), MacBook vs. MacBook (David Basanta), Chipmunk Checking Email (Stephen Coles)

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