A few weeks ago I realized I was going to need a dedicated laptop for a client I’m working with. I thought about taking Mrs. Murphy’s first-gen Air off her hands – but it seemed pretty pokey and I quickly lost interest. I looked at buying a new Air and realized that by the time I configured some customizations it would be more than I wanted to shell out for a machine that would get limited use.
Then I remembered a Macbook Pro sitting on a shelf in my office. It used to be our DVR until I got a top-of-the-line iMac last year. The MBP hasn’t done much since – partly because the battery bulged about a year ago and a laptop without a battery is somewhat limited.
The MBP is a 3,1 for those of you who know that sort of thing. For the rest of us: it’s a model that was introduced at the end of 2007. Five years ago. A little less for this particular serial number, which according to Powerbook Medic was stamped out in early 2008. It shipped with 2GB of RAM and a 5400RPM hdd, 160GB of storage. It’s a 2.4ghz Core 2 Duo. Back in 2008 it was a mighty fine Mac.
The problem: After years of use I had little faith in its reliability going forward. The drive had worked hard recording HD television shows and football games and converting them to m4v files using a Turbo.264 USB hardware encoder. The drive sounded a little tired. Whether it actually was or not didn’t matter, I didn’t trust it. So I started reading up on SSD drives. I didn’t, and still don’t, know much about them. Mrs. Murphy’s Air is the only machine we’ve ever had with an SSD. In hindsight I should have gotten one for my iMac, without a doubt. The hdd is clearly the bottleneck on that machine.
Anyway, I did some reading about SSD drives in an effort to find one compatible with my MBP’s SATA support. After a lot of reading at Newegg and Amazon I settled on a Crucial M4. I got it from Amazon for $99. Like I said, I don’t know much about SSDs so I wasn’t 100% sure it was compatible.
The tricky part was installing the SSD. I’d only opened up a MBP once before. Apple opened one for me once to repair a fan, and they never got the case back on properly. It was bent in the front and the trackpad button was never quite right, it had a dull or non-existent response every time you clicked it. More on that later.
If you’re patient and you have the right tools the MBP isn’t horrible to take apart. The screws are tiny and uncommon and there are a lot of them. But if you have a container to sort them in it’ll make things much easier. I labeled each group of screws and placed them in a divided sorting box. Ice cube trays would work well too.
The hardest part: separating the top case housing the keyboard and trackpad from the lower case along the front edge. There are hidden clips that you need to release without bending. If you get past that you’re golden, all the other sides use screws and are already separated when you go after the front edge.
Inside the laptop the hdd is wedged in pretty tight. Mine was a tiny bit different than the description at ifixit, where I found the instructions. Still, it was a fairly straight-forward procedure to remove the old drive and install the new. Work slow, be careful, be patient. And make sure you have the right tools. There’s a ribbon cable glued to the drive that needs to be gently pried away.
I also got 4GB of RAM ($54), doubling what I had and maxing out the machine’s capacity. Finally, I got an Anker replacement battery for $69. It seems to hold a couple hours of charge. I’m just happy to have the machine stay powered when the MagSafe gets disconnected.
I didn’t open the RAM or the battery packaging right away. If the SSD surgery had gone south I probably would have sent them back. So the next step was installing OS X.
I opted for Snow Leopard and simply installed from the DVD. For a while I wasn’t sure it was going to install, some people reported having trouble getting OS X running after installing an SSD. The install froze for a long long time, saying it had 28 minutes left. I believe it said that for over twenty minutes before finally moving on and finishing the install.
I powered up the machine, ran through the first-time setup, and everything was fine. In fact, it boots from powered off to a user desktop in about 24 seconds. I installed my new RAM and battery, no issues.
Here are the instructions I followed, at iFixit. As someone noted in the comments there’s a step where you’re told to disconnect the drive’s ribbon cable from the logic board, and it seems unnecessary. I skipped that step, and see no reason to do it unless you have trouble freeing the drive.
Anyway, the upgraded machine is fantastic. So incredibly responsive. I’m not pushing it really hard. I’ll be using it for administrative tasks, not Photoshop or Final Cut. I had to install Windows on it too. I went with XP, and it’s running fine using Boot Camp. I thought about using Fusion, but thought I’d suffer with only 4GB of RAM and no way to install more.
Windows doesn’t boot in 24 seconds, it’s more like 37 to the login screen.
Now I’ve got a 15″ laptop that’s over four years old, based on a model that’s five years old. I can install Mountain Lion on it. And it’s as snappy as can be. Applications open in an instant. The boot time is great. It’s silent. The battery, the SSD, the RAM – all for less than $225.
**Back to that MBP that Apple never got reassembled right: this machine was a free replacement for that one. The original’s fan went bad with only days left on the warranty. Then there were a few trips back to the store: the dull trackpad, the keyboard wouldn’t light, the case wasn’t reassembled correctly. At this point it was no longer under warranty. But Apple had started working on it while it was under warranty. They honored that detail and handed me a brand new machine with a new warranty. My original was a Core Duo. The one they replaced it with was a Core 2 Duo, along with other upgrades.