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By Chip Sudderth

Seven years on, a MacBook Pro prepares for El Capitan

chip-oldunibody

On June 8, 2015, at 1:12 p.m. Eastern Time, Apple senior vice president of software Craig Federighi announced the latest update to OS X, El Capitan. At that moment, my annual ritual began. I broke out into a sweat and began refreshing the liveblogs, looking for two magic words: system requirements. The life of a beloved Mac hung in the balance.

A couple of hours later, I got the good news: Yet again, the first unibody MacBook Pro (“Late 2008,” also known as MacBookPro5,1) had been spared. I would be able to upgrade it to El Capitan. For another year, I was able to breathe the long sigh of relief.

You’d be safe in assuming that this is the reaction of a crazy person. By modern standards, my laptop is ludicrously heavy. Its connectivity options are quaint: FireWire 800? ExpressCard/34? When its Nvidia 9600M GT discrete graphics card kicks in, the fan is deafening—and modern integrated Intel graphics outperform it at a fraction of the energy cost. A 2015 11-inch MacBook Air puts up roughly double its numbers on Geekbench 3. Today’s comparable 15-inch MacBook Pro has a Retina display and four times the power while weighing a pound less.

On paper, my laptop’s a fossil. But like the Saturn Ion I’m going to drive until it falls apart, I have no reason to walk away from this ancient MacBook Pro. I’m not just being a cheapskate, however: When this laptop’s time finally comes, I’ll shed a tear. (I won’t be weeping for my Saturn.)

In continuing to support the MacBook Pro (Late 2008), Apple demonstrates one of the value propositions that fans clung to even during the dark times when Apple lurched toward bankruptcy and the Mac toward irrelevance: that Macs simply lasted longer than their PC cousins. You could hold onto your investment for one or two more years, upgrading not from necessity but by choice. Macs didn’t simply “just work,” they worked for much longer.

That was my experience early on. I eked out five years of page layout and primitive web design with my first Mac, a Performa 600, despite its lackluster specs. Although I switched desktop platforms, I continued to buy laptops from Apple—and the MacBook Pro (Late 2008) wound up becoming my primary productivity machine.

I bought it out of desperation. My Titanium PowerBook was beginning to break down, and just as I was debating its replacement Phil Schiller announced that the 2009 MacBook Pros would eliminate the ExpressCard/34 slot. Horrified by the abandonment of such a vital expansion technology—eSATA was essential, dammit!1—I snapped up its refurbished predecessor.

Proving Schiller right, I rarely used the slot. But the MacBook Pro has been my faithful companion ever since. It helped me launch two pop-culture podcasts, and I could often be seen hunched over it at “Doctor Who” conventions, uploading the latest release over the hotel lobby WiFi. When I was tempted to replace it a couple of years ago, I instead replaced the 5400 RPM hard drive with an SSD and was overjoyed.

If my wife’s PC hadn’t failed, this MacBook Pro (Late 2008) would still be churning out podcasts. Instead, she inherited my gaming PC and an iMac with Retina Display came into my heart and workflow.

I’m loyal, but not a masochist.

But I’m typing on the MacBook Pro right now, on one of the best keyboards ever made, reading from a beautiful display. I’ve completely bought in to the Apple ecosystem, which actually makes it harder to justify replacing this laptop. I have a Retina iMac to do serious work at home. I have an iPad Air for the painless portability that would otherwise tempt me toward trading in my laptop for today’s sleeker, faster, lighter lineup. For work that requires a laptop—seamless multitasking, windows, adaptability and keyboard/trackpad comfort—this laptop is perfectly satisfactory.

We Mac partisans once justified Apple’s tiny market share by arguing that Apple didn’t sell as many Macs because it made them too well. We joked about the PC industry’s model of planned obsolescence. There was an element of whistling past the graveyard back then, but it was true that Macintoshes held their value, in monetary and productivity terms, longer than PCs.

To be fair, today’s PCs have closed the longevity gap with Macs. Windows 8, Windows 8.1 and now Windows 10 install to the same hardware as Windows 7.2 Both Apple and PC makers are struggling to find reasons to entice consumers and businesses to buy new computers now that general computing is “fast enough”; Retina displays, touchscreens, DirectX 12 and Metal are efforts to make more powerful technology matter again.

Many in the general public, however, don’t need faster computers. We have other purpose-built devices to assist and delight us. Yesterday’s laptop will be tomorrow’s laptop with few regrets.

The one in front of me is a seven-year-old product, a contemporary of the iPhone 3G, but it runs GarageBand, Audacity and Audio Hijack just fine.3 Its form factor has stood the test of time, still offered in the Apple Store through its otherwise long-in-the-tooth 13-inch descendant. It’s heavy, and it’s slower, and someday it won’t run the latest OS X upgrade. It’s no longer the only productivity machine in my life.

I don’t care. I love my MacBook Pro (Late 2008). Ridiculous ExpressCard/34 slot and all.

[Chip Sudderth works in public school district communications and produces two podcasts: Two-minute Time Lord for Doctor Who fans and The Audio Guide to Babylon 5 with Erika Ensign and Shannon Sudderth.]


  1. Darned if I can find an eSATA ExpressCard that’s compatible with Yosemite now. But that’s all right, because when was the last time you saw an eSATA drive in the wild? ↩

  2. With some rare technical exceptions, which as fate would have it… ↩

  3. I started to include Skype, but come on. Nothing runs Skype just fine.  ↩

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