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Intensive surgery on an old MacBook Pro yields huge performance gains (Updated)


Installing OS X Lion on a 3 1/2-year old MacBook Pro made it clearer than ever just how slow my old machine had become. Beachballs left and right, UI lag, incredibly long reboot times, dismal application load times... as someone accustomed to the "instant on" feel of an iPad or iPhone, I was starting to hate my Mac, even though I liked Lion.

Playing around with a new MacBook Air in the shops brought back that feeling of "click it and it happens" to OS X, but I found myself unable to afford one unless I could sell my old machine first. After several weeks of trying, with no one offering what I felt was a fair price for my equipment, I instead decided to upgrade my old hardware with a solid-state drive and some more RAM.

Open the gallery below in a new tab/window and follow along as I take you through my Mac's surgery.

Gallery: MacBook Pro surgery | 14 Photos


Installing an additional 2 GB of RAM and swapping out my slothlike 5400 RPM HDD for an SSD will make my Early 2008 MacBook Pro run well enough that I don't need to go for a quick walk around the block any time I need to reboot. Also, it'd be nice if I didn't have to relaunch Safari every half hour because it's brought the entire system to a crawl.



After waiting the requisite week for my hardware to ship from the States, clear through New Zealand Customs and ship to my house, I was off and running. In one extended surgical procedure, I wanted to:

  1. Swap out an existing 2 GB RAM module and replace it with a 4 GB module (for a total of 6 GB, the maximum my Mac's hardware will support)
  2. Remove, clean, and lubricate a fan that's been making a subtle noise and driving me nuts for months
  3. Swap out the factory-installed hard drive for my new SSD.

Swapping out the RAM is easy; so easy, in fact, that even on my older Mac Apple provides instructions inside the case for how to do it. I'd heard horror stories in the past about the difficulty involved in swapping out the hard drives in pre-unibody MacBook Pros, so I steeled myself for a frustrating battle. As for the fan, iFixit classified it as a moderately-difficult repair, but after reviewing the instructions it honestly didn't look that tough to accomplish.

Step One: Get my data onto the new drive

There are many ways to accomplish this. OS X Lion complicates things since it doesn't come on media of any kind, so my original plan was to install the new drive, boot it off a USB recovery disk made using Apple's official utility, then restore from a Time Machine backup.

Then I realized that was needlessly complicated and just used Carbon Copy Cloner instead. I mounted the new SSD in the external enclosure that came with the OWC kit, then used Carbon Copy Cloner to clone a bit-for-bit copy of my Mac's hard drive onto the SSD. This took quite some time -- well over four hours -- but it was a lot less of a hassle than booting from the Recovery Disk and then restoring from a Time Machine backup would have been.

To fully replicate my experience, stare at this picture for 300 minutes

Step Two: Upgrade the RAM

This took about two minutes. Replacing RAM on portable Macs is ridiculously easy (except the MacBook Air, of course), and if you have the financial means, I recommend maxing out your RAM as much as you can. In my case, this meant swapping out a 2 GB module for 4 GB, pushing my Mac's RAM to the maximum 6 GB its older architecture will support.

Step Three: Disassemble the case

This was way easier than I thought it would be. I had to remove a hell of a lot of screws, but once they were all out, prying the upper case away from the bottom was much less difficult than I anticipated. Once finished, my Mac's innards were open for inspection -- and dissection.

This won't hurt a bit

Step Four: Disassemble the right fan

This wasn't strictly necessary, but since I was in there anyway and the fan's subtle yet perceptible noise has been grating on my nerves for months, I decided to dive in anyway. Removing the fan was easy, but removing its tiny connector and the display cable from the logic board were definite "heart in throat" moments. Once I had the fan assembly out of the Mac, taking it apart was no more difficult than disassembling an electric razor.

The fan assembly was slightly gummed up with dust, so I wiped it off with a microfiber cloth. I then used a couple tiny drops of silicone-based bicycle chain oil on the fan's central arm -- when I pulled the thing apart, this had no perceptible lubricant on it at all, which may have been the whole problem.

Putting the fan back together was a snap -- literally. When the fan snapped back into the motor assembly, I said aloud, "Huh, must be magnetic or something." Then I wanted to punch myself in the side of my head, because duh, an electric motor is basically all magnets. Genius.

Step Five: Remove the old hard drive

This turned out to be way less difficult than the horror stories I've heard made it out to be. In fact, it wasn't really much harder than upgrading the hard drive on my old PowerBook G3. The tight clearances in this section of my Mac did make the job more difficult than I felt it had to be, and the Bluetooth antenna's cable kept getting in my way, but eventually I got the drive out, removed the mounting bolts on its sides, and slapped it into the external enclosure. Ahh, 250 GB of mobile backup goodness.

Step Six: Put in the new drive and close 'er up

Putting the new drive in was just about as annoying as pulling the old one out -- the clearances here really are far too tight on the pre-unibody MacBook Pros -- but with a bit of effort I was able to slide the new SSD into position. After going through this process, I can see why Apple decided to call the hard drive a non-user-serviceable part on the older MacBook Pros; unlike the simple "pull tab A and done" procedure for the old MacBooks, there really is quite a lot of opportunity to screw something up on the MacBook Pro if you don't know what you're doing.

After that, closing up was a simple matter of putting the top case back on and screwing way too many screws back in.

Screws fall out all the time. The world's an imperfect place

Step Seven: Push the Power button and pray

The moment of truth after every major hardware repair: Will the thing even turn on? Will it explode in sparks and smoke? Will I be greeted by that evil flashing question mark folder? Did I screw five things up in the process of trying to fix three other things?

I'm happy to say that my MacBook Pro booted up without issues -- and immediately. The speed with the new SSD is astonishing, especially compared to the dog-slow 5400 RPM hard drive I've been suffering with for so long. Applications launch nearly instantaneously, even notorious I/O hogs like iTunes and Aperture. It's almost bewildering how much faster my Mac seems now with this SSD; it truly feels like a brand new machine.

Something was missing, and it didn't take long for me to figure out what it was. Noise. The fan noise was all but gone, and the constant whirring and clanking of the old hard drive was replaced with blissful silence. I can still sort of hear the fan, even after cleaning and lubing it, so I'll probably have to replace the entire assembly at some future point. For now, though, all is well.


Do I finally have enough RAM to run Safari for more than 5 minutes before it eats all the frigging memory? Does removing that bottlenecking 5400 RPM HDD and substituting a nice, fast SSD mean I stop seeing the Spinning Beach Ball of Death 15 times a day?

Was spending north of US$600, in short, worth it?

Absolutely yes. I feel like I have a brand-new machine now, and the performance with the SSD has been so extraordinary that I will never use an old-school spinning platter hard drive as my Mac's main drive again. The 240 GB SSD I have in my Mac now may be more cramped than the 750 GB monsters Apple is shoving into MacBook Pros these days, but the performance of the SSD kicks my old drive's butt up and down the block.

Want proof? Check out the video below, where I compared the reboot time on the same machine, running OS X Lion set up to automatically restore applications after rebooting. After viewing the video, it should be obvious why I'm thrilled with this upgrade.

If you've been on the fence over an SSD upgrade because of the extremely high dollar-to-gigabyte ratio, I'd say it's definitely worth considering the upgrade if you can afford it. I knew my old hard drive was holding my Mac's performance back, but I didn't realize just how bad it was until I put my Mac through surgery.

Update: A couple commenters below noted that the reboot times I was experiencing still seemed a little slow even after installing the SSD. Turns out their tips were correct -- manually selecting the startup disk in System Preferences meant my Mac spent much less time hunting around for the proper startup disk in subsequent restarts. After following their advice, the time it takes from initiating a restart to having all apps fully reloaded is now down to 46 seconds, down from 1 minute 19 seconds.

It's too late for me to check how much this might have improved boot times on my old hard drive -- I've already erased and re-purposed it -- but even though it might have improved on the egregious 4 minute, 50 second time I show in the video below, I doubt it could have competed with the SSD's 46-second time.

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