Old MacBook, Resurrected

Quick personal update:  This is my first blog post in quite a while.  In the past couple months, my girlfriend and I moved again, this time to be closer to each other.  Much has happened since then, including the following.  We’ve been very busy!

My “clamshell” unibody MacBook is about six-and-a-half years old.  Initially wooed by Apple with the lovely 12-inch PowerBook G4 from coffee-shop windows and the crooks of other people’s arms throughout my early twenties, I eventually succumbed to Apple’s charms and bought this MacBook–the only Apple computer I’ve ever owned other than my iPhone and iPad (and both of those were gifts from my dear mother).  I made a critical mistake when I first bought it, though, which is that I didn’t max out on RAM. I’ll never make that mistake again. You’d think I would have learned my lesson from the Lenovo laptop I purchased a few years before the MacBook.  I didn’t maximize the RAM on that one, either.  Soon hobbled by operating system updates that slowed everything down, I had to upgrade the RAM modules. (The upgrade was easy and effective.  The machine is still quite fast when running Linux or Windows.*)

Insufficient RAM was the Achilles’ heel of my MacBook for years.  Like the Lenovo, the MacBook was disabled by operating system updates soon after purchase, and, like a person with chronic, untreated inflammatory arthritis, I adapted to this impaired functionality by reducing the scope of my activities.  A few months ago, I installed cloud backup software, after which the computer’s performance degraded even further.  The coup de grâce was an OS X upgrade to El Capitan several weeks ago which rendered the machine practically unusable.

Suddenly desperate for a functional laptop, and realizing I had never gone so long without buying a new computer, I looked at the options at the online Apple Store and did some research.  I learned that the new MacBooks are clearly not targeted at my demographic:  they are ridiculously difficult to upgrade or repair (1, 2), have few ports, don’t have an optical drive, have relatively small storage space, and are becoming more dependent on Apple’s cloud-based services.  (Read this horror story by a blogger who had his entire personal music collection deleted from his hard drive by Apple when he signed up for Apple Music, along with his rare, cherished tracks being replaced by more popular versions in the cloud.)  As we all know, Little Brother has long since become Big Brother.

I wouldn’t buy this sort of computer unless I was absolutely forced to do so.

Curious about other options, I looked at PC laptops, then started looking at upgrade options for my current MacBook.  After a tiny bit of research, I learned that I can massively improve my current laptop’s performance to approximately that of the latest Apple MacBooks by spending at most 1/5 the price of the new MacBook Pro I was looking at a few days prior.  This gave me pause.  Why hadn’t I thought of such an easy solution in the years before my laptop came to a grinding halt?  A moment later, I realized it’s for the same reason so many new patients see me when they can no longer tolerate the pain of chronic arthritis: I was used to my laptop’s slow performance, just as many patients become used to chronic pain and to a smaller comfort zone until various treatments get them back up to speed.

The actual RAM/hard drive upgrade was easy.  I maxed out the RAM, replaced the hard drive with a solid state drive almost double the size of the old one, installed OS X El Capitan from a USB flash drive I had set up earlier, then used Migration Assistant and a USB drive adapter to transfer my old data over.  I didn’t replace the battery because after more than six years, it still has half of the maximum number of charge cycles left!  What this tells me is that I was so busy the first three years I owned the laptop–during internal medicine residency–that I hardly used it.

Anyone with a modicum of technical interest can upgrade or repair her old MacBook, too.  Here’s an excellent, minimally technical overview of the most common repairs.  Let me know if you’d like the step-by-step breakdown of my own approach.

My old MacBook is now the fastest computer I’ve ever used.  It’s quieter–the fan is basically never on–runs cooler, has a noticeably longer battery life, powers on and off more quickly, opens applications instantly, and doesn’t slow down.  I saved more than $1600 by upgrading this laptop instead of buying a new MacBook Pro.  A couple weeks post-upgrade, I’m still giddy, still amazed, that OS X can run so quickly.  This reminds me of some of my patients who are ecstatic for weeks or months after their debilitating conditions are treated because of how little pain they now have and by how much more they can do comfortably.  Perspective is only 20/20 in hindsight.

*Addendum 5/20/16: I’ve dual-booted Windows and Ubuntu Linux on my Lenovo laptop for years.  I use the Windows partition for Windows-specific applications and the Ubuntu side for a bit of programming, for writing, and for going online.  As I updated Ubuntu over time, it became more and more difficult for this ten-year-old computer to handle it.  I just reformatted the laptop and installed Windows alongside Lubuntu–a lightweight version of Ubuntu designed for netbooks and old computers–and am pleased to say that Lubuntu gives me what I like best about Ubuntu without all the graphics- and other resource-intensive frills.  I also bought a brand-new battery on eBay for only $17!  The laptop is highly usable once more.

*Update 8/28/16: I discovered today that my updated MacBook can videoconference smoothly.  I used it for an online guitar lesson via videoconference without any problems.  Previously, I used my iPad 4 for this purpose but it was slow, dropped and altered sounds and video, etc.  Before my MacBook was updated, I wasn’t able to videoconference with it because everything slowed down and the video and audio were of poor quality.

*Update 1/8/17: My MacBook and my Lenovo are still performing as well as they did post-upgrade! No problems so far.