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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

New life for an old MacBook Pro

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.


Late last year I brought my mother’s mid-2009 13-inch MacBook Pro back from Arizona. She’s switched to the iPad full time, so the laptop was just sitting there. When I tried to use it I was shocked at how incredibly slow it was, but that’s what 2GB of RAM and a 5400rpm spinning hard drive will get you.

When a friend called inquiring about buying a used laptop, I realized that my mom’s MacBook Pro was just sitting here, unused. But in its present state, I couldn’t inflict it on anyone. So I decided to get it in shape by upgrading its memory and storage.1

As I usually do when I need to buy upgrades, I popped over to Other World Computing, which helpfully lists which upgrades work with which Mac models. In my case, with a MacBookPro5,5, that ended up being a 120GB SSD and 2x4GB RAM modules. $130 later, I had the parts, and after a very short upgrade process, the MacBook Pro was back up and running. (I booted it off of a FireWire external drive and installed El Capitan on the freshly formatted SSD.)

The result? Safari launched in a couple of Dock bounces, instead of 10 or 15 with the old RAM and hard drive set up. The computer was usable again. No, it’s not going to be incredibly fast, but for a lot of everyday uses for someone who is not a power user, it’s got new life. (I considered replacing the battery, too, but decided to let that one go for now.)

Let me state this point clearly in case you missed it: If you think your laptop is slow, and it uses a spinning hard drive, you can probably make it much, much faster by replacing it with flash storage. In almost every case, the storage is the bottleneck, not the processor (or even the RAM, though more RAM can help too).

(A reader asked me if I recommend OWC for any particular reason, especially since he feels he can find SSDs for less money elsewhere. If you research exactly what devices are compatible with your Mac and comparison shop around the Internet, you can absolutely find deals. I’ve decided I’d rather buy from a vendor I’ve dealt with (and who has stood by their warranties in the past) who has already done the work to verify device compatibility and provides installation guides on their site. If you are happy to put the work in to get a better deal, by all means, go for it! I used to do that. I just don’t anymore. I’d rather not do that dance where I order the thing that looks compatible, get it, find out it’s not compatible, request an RMA, and ship it back. Or stress about a great price from a seller with iffy ratings. And so on. Do what you’re comfortable with—there are lot of options.)

Anyway, my point is, if you’ve got an old laptop that seems unusable, it might be a hundred bucks away from being something you can hand down to a student with a clear conscience. And now my mother’s old MacBook Pro has a few more years of useful life.

  1. I mentioned this story on Upgrade recently and people asked me for more details, so here it is. 

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