Avoiding Planned Obsolescence with a MacBook Pro

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Some friends of mine have an older MacBook Pro, from mid-2010. I recently helped them upgrade from OS X 10.6 to 10.11 (El Capitan). The following article grew out of instructions I sent them for taking the next step: upgrading some hardware to increase the longevity of their laptop even further. I added a lot more detail after I’d upgraded my own end-2009 iMac with a new SSD.

By jumping five OS versions, you’ve got lots of new toys—better mail and calendar integration, a new Photos application, Messages, FaceTime, etc. The machine is pretty quick for most things, but you’ll bog down running a lot of things at once or running larger apps with lots of data like Photos. That’s because the new OS is a bit more efficient than the old one, but the amount of data you’re slinging is big for 4GB of RAM (e.g. thousands of thumbnails for Photos, Chrome with several tabs, etc.).

There are two things you can do to address this:

  • Increase RAM from 4GB to 8GB/16GB to be able to run more apps at once
  • Upgrade storage from HD to SSD to improve average drive speed by about 3-4x

tl;dr: With $230 and knowing how to use a screwdriver, you can speed things up considerably and postpone an upgrade for years.

You can stick with what you have, but you’ll have to baby the machine more to avoid slowdowns (e.g. quit Chrome before you start Photos).

If you’re interested, read on.

Recommendation

See the Shopping List below for a full list of possibilities and links if you want to shop around.

I recommend:

Why those?

Kath and I have found 8GB of RAM to be the sweet spot for home users. Only developers/gamers need 16GB. No sense spending money on more unless you just want MOAR.

It took you 6 years to get up to 210GB of space on your drive. While 240GB is enough, you might as well get some room to grow while you upgrade the speed. 1TB is more than you need unless you get into video-editing, which tends to eat a lot of space. If you start to store large movies, get a regular external drive (HDD) for that. No SSD needed.

Step-by-Step Guide

Preparation

  1. Make sure you can boot the Mac once you’ve removed the old hard drive (see Choosing a Boot Disk)
  2. Back up with Time Machine
  3. Disconnect the Time Machine drive
  4. Shut down

Install RAM

See Hardware Installation for a video.

  1. Remove bottom of laptop (see videos below; use the screwdrivers provided with the SSD kit)
  2. Install the RAM
  3. Replace bottom; secure with one or two screws
  4. Boot up; verify it has 8GB (click “About This Mac” in the top-left Apple menu)
  5. Shut down

Install SSD

See Hardware Installation for a video.

  1. Remove bottom of laptop
  2. Install the SSD
  3. Replace bottom; secure with one or two screws

Transfer data

The following detailed steps are what I did to restore my OS to the new SSD.[1]

  1. Connect the Time Machine drive
  2. Boot up while holding down
  3.   You will see the Startup Manager (first image, right) with your Time Machine or USB stick drive shown. If you instead see only a gray screen for 30 seconds, then a folder with a question mark (second image, right), reboot and try again.
  4. Select the boot drive and press Enter to boot from that drive
  5.  You should see the OS X Recovery Console (third image, right)
  6. The first step is to set up the new SSD so that the installer recognizes it as a valid drive (it’s currently completely empty). Start the Disk Utility (last option in the list).
  7.  Select the SSD on the left, then press the Erase button in the toolbar.
  8. In the dialog, make sure the settings are as shown, with the Format set to “OS X Extended (Journaled)” and Scheme set to “GUID Partition Map” (the defaults). Choose whatever name for the drive that you like.
  9. Press Erase to format the SSD. This should only take a few seconds.
  10. When finished, quit the Disk Utility (press + Q)
  11. You should be back at the Recovery Console with the list of “Mac OS X Utilites” (third image, right).
  12. Click the first option, “Restore from a Time Machine backup”
  13. First, “Select a Backup Source”. Give it a few seconds to find your Time Machine Backup drive. Don’t panic if the list shows no items at first.
  14. Select your Time Machine drive and continue
  15. Wait while your backup is restored to the new drive.[2]
  16. Reboot and start up normally
  17. Verify everything is OK (startup should already be much faster)

Close it up

  1. Shut down
  2. Replace remaining screws
  3. Start up again
  4. Enjoy the speed

Post-Restore Steps

After you’ve restored your Time Machine backup to the new drive, you’ll have to let OS X do a little bookkeeping. Specifically,

  • Mail will want to restore your mail database. This is an expected result of having restored from the backup. Let it churn its way through your mails and you’ll be ready to go in a few minutes.
  • Photos will also want to “repair” your Photo Library. You’ll have to let it do its thing as well—mine took about twenty minutes to finish.

After that, you should be all set and have a much faster machine.[3]

Shopping list

RAM upgrade options:

SSD upgrade options:

Hardware Installation

So, once you get your goodies, you’ll have to play computer surgeon and install them. Luckily for you, that looks really, really easy.

How to install the RAM

You really just need to know how to use a screwdriver. Watch the video below to find out how to do it.

How to upgrade memory in a 13" mid-2010 MacBook Pro

How to install the SSD

Again, just a screwdriver. Video explains everything. The first couple of minutes are the same as for the RAM.

How to replace the hard drive in a 13" mid-2010 MacBook Pro

Both installations require you to remove the bottom of the laptop, but I would recommend doing the RAM first, verifying that it works with the old drive, then doing the SSD. You don’t have to put in all the screws again in between.

Choosing a Boot Disk

 Once you’ve replaced your hard drive with the operating system on it with an empty SSD, how will your computer start? Answer: it can’t. If you just boot your machine at this point, there’s a decent chance that you will see a folder with a question mark in it.

So your first step is to make sure you have a boot disk.

Your Time Machine backup drive is bootable if it’s been initialized in a certain way.[4] If it’s not set up correctly, you can’t use it as a boot drive. You can use the Disk Utility to check whether your drive will work as a boot drive.

  • Start the Disk Utility.
  • Select your Time Machine drive from the list on the left.
  • If the “Partition Map” is “Master Boot Record” (first image, right) then you’ll need to create a boot disk.[5] If it’s “GUID Partition Map” (second image, right), then you’re in luck and can almost certainly boot directly from that drive.

Verify Booting

 Once you have a drive that you think you can boot from—either your Time Machine drive has the right partition map or you’ve created a bootable USB stick—you can quickly test whether it can actually boot your machine by restarting your Mac and holding down the key while booting. Your machine will show a row of icons on startup (the Startup Manager, right), one for each bootable drive. You should see your Time Machine drive or the USB bootable drive. If you do, you’re ready to replace the hard drive.

Creating a Boot Disk

The article Create a bootable installer for OS X (Apple) will help you make a boot disk. If you have a really new machine, you might also be able to benefit from a network boot over your wireless connection, but I wasn’t able to test that.

If you need to make a boot disk for the latest OS X (as of this writing) El Capitan, you’ll need to do the following:

  1. Get an 8GB (or larger) USB stick that you can overwrite completely.[6]
  2. Note the name of the USB stick (e.g. “Data”)
  3. Open the App Store.
  4. Search for El Capitan.
  5.  You should see the link to the OS. Since you already have it installed, the button underneath says Download. (see first image, right.)
  6.  Press the Download button. The installer is about 6.5GB, so it will take some time to download. The only indication you have that something is happening is that the word “Download” changed to “Downloading”. (See second image, right.) Open the Launcher application to see a progress bar.
  7. Once it’s downloaded, you should see Install OS X El Capitan in your Applications folder. Do not open it. Also, unhook your Time Machine backup temporarily to avoid backing 6GB of data that you will only need temporarily.
  8. Close the installer when it automatically starts (press + Q)
  9. Open the Terminal application.[7]
  10. From the command line, execute sudo /Applications/Install\ OS\ X\ El\ Capitan.app/Contents/Resources/createinstallmedia –volume /Volumes/Data –applicationpath /Applications/Install\ OS\ X\ El\ Capitan.app. Replace the highlighted word “Data” with the name of your USB stick.
  11. You should now see a message indicating that the USB drive is being formatted and the installer is being copied over.
  12. When it’s finished, you have a copy of OS X from which you can boot the computer and install OS X or, more importantly, run the Recovery Console and restore from a Time Machine backup.


[2] My Time Machine Backup drive is only USB2, so the transfer rate was quite slow. It took almost five hours to restore about 250GB. If your external drive is USB3 and/or if you have less data, it should restore much more quickly.
[3] After my upgrade, starting Photos went from a minute to about 5 seconds. Booting the machine and restoring all open applications takes about 20–30 seconds instead of several minutes.
[4] Specifically, this means that your drive need to have a GUID partition table, not an MBR partition table. Mine, for example, had the MBR table because I have two partitions: an HFS+ drive for Time Machine backups and an NTFS partition that I can also read from Windows machines.
[5] You can also reformat your Time Machine drive using the Disk Utility and set it up so it has the expected partitioning scheme (see steps 6–10 in “Transfer Data”) , but I wouldn’t recommend throwing away all of your backups.
[6] Make it USB3 if you can because copying to it will be much faster.
[7] You’re going to execute a command-line command to build the boot drive. Deep breath. Don’t be afraid.