Micah Gartman   Apple Certified Mac and iOS Service and Support (713) 489-3540  |  micahgartman@mac.com   
Micah's Mac Upgrade Guide
It’s eco-friendly, easy to do and the payoff is a good-as-new Mac without the new Mac price

It Just Works

Apple’s turn-of-the-century mantra assured us that our newly purchased Mac would be our constant companion until the end of time. State-of-the-art processors coupled with high-speed memory gave us the ability to chew through Photoshop filters, render high definition video and mix multi-track audio while surfing the Net and checking our email.

Sadly, years of neglect and “bit rot” have robbed these once-powerful machines of their performance. While many of us still employ these rugged old machines as servers, scanning stations and even production workhorses, most have been relegated to storage room fodder.

Before chucking it into the recycling bin, consider overhauling your old Mac. A minimal amount of time and energy can revitalize your old Mac to her former glory. It’s eco-friendly and much easier than you think—and the payoff is a good-as-new Mac without the new Mac price!

Getting Started

First and foremost, you need to know which Mac you’re working with. Many Apple devices appear similar on the outside, but the specifications of internal components and the layout of circuits can be radically different between models. The easiest method to determine which Mac you have is to decode its serial number.

On older Macs, the serial number can be found by clicking on the Apple menu, selecting About This Mac then clicking the More Info… button. Your Mac’s serial number will appear in the Hardware Overview section. On newer Macs, the serial number appears on the About This Mac screen. Now, enter the serial number into EveryMac.com’s Ultimate Mac Lookup tool.

Once your specific model has been determined, click on the Complete [Model name] Specs link to view a detailed description about your Mac. Bookmark this page, as you may want to refer back to it in the future.

Out with the Old…

There are four key elements to assess when upgrading your Mac:

  • Memory
  • Internal disk drive
  • Operating system
  • Applications

Memory—also referred to as RAM, or Random Access Memory—is a set of circuits that act as short-term storage for the documents and apps you are actively working with. Increasing your Mac’s memory will allow it to work with a great number of programs and files simultaneously.

The internal disk drive is a device that stores your files when you aren’t working with them. It also functions as a temporary “cache” when your Mac’s memory is full. The process of moving data between memory and the disk drive's cache is time intensive, and usually results in the appearance of the “spinning wheel,” also know as the Beach Ball of Death.

Your Mac’s operating system, called OS X (pronounced “oh ess ten”), is a large collection of software that controls how the computer behaves. It also acts as a mediator when the computer's internal components are competing for resources (such as space in memory or in the disk cache). The “OS” also provides significant features such as file searching, protection from malware and backup services.

Applications, or “apps,” are the software packages you use to interact with your computer. Examples of apps include iTunes, Photoshop and Firefox. App developers periodically modify their software, which they release as an update. Depending on the OS your Mac is running, you may not be able to install an update. We’ll discuss this in greater detail momentarily.

… and in with the New

The most beneficial upgrade to any computer is the installation of additional memory. It’s not a catch-all improvement, but you will see an immediate increase in your Mac’s ability to switch between open apps and documents. There are a variety of RAM types, so it’s imperative that you refer back to the specifications on your specific model to ensure you purchase the correct modules. For example, a 2004 PowerBook G4 requires small outline PC-2700 memory modules (also known as an SO-DIMM) and supports a maximum of 2 gigabytes of RAM. Alternately, a 2017 Mac Pro requires full-size PC3-15000 memory modules and supports a maximum of 128 gigabytes of RAM. The two memory types are not interchangeable. Here we see, from left to right, a low-profile module, a full-size module and a small outline module:

Working in concert with your Mac’s memory is the internal disk drive. Traditionally, Macs use a hard disk drive. An “HDD” uses a rigid magnetized platter to store your files, apps, songs and photos. The platter rotates on a spindle, much like a vinyl record spins on a turntable. The HDD's performance is based upon how fast it can spin. To conserve energy, your Mac most likely shipped with a drive that rotates at an anemic 5400 RPM (Revolutions Per Minute). HDD upgrades are available at a far more energetic 7200 RPM. Here we see the internal components of a hard disk drive:

A 7200 RPM hard disk drive offers the best value per gigabyte of storage but also consumes more energy and generates a great deal of heat. They are a fantastic option for the iMac and Mac Pro as these devices have large cooling fans and aren’t powered by rechargeable batteries. For laptops—or, if your budget allows—there’s an even better internal storage option: the solid state drive. An “SSD” behaves just like a hard disk drive only it has no moving parts. Instead, an SSD stores your files and apps on circuits similar to the kind used in your Mac’s memory. Because of this, it is much faster at saving and retrieving your files. An SSD is the crème de la crème of upgrades.

So why don’t all computers use solid state drives? Simply put: they’re crazy expensive. A 2.5-inch, 7200 RPM hard disk drive with 1,000 gigabytes (1 terabyte) of storage can be purchased for less than $70 at a local computer store. The price for an entry-level 1 terabyte SSD is $400. While on the surface the price may seem outrageous, what your Mac gains is at least a 55% increase in performance when opening and saving documents. If you work with multiple documents and apps at the same time, the time savings alone could more than justify the price difference. And if the SSD is paired with a memory upgrade, your old Mac will perform as fast as a brand new Mac.

In 1999, Apple introduced its newest operating system called Mac OS X. It established an entirely new methodology for managing memory and disk caching along with new features that emphasized the security and integrity of the data stored on the Mac’s internal drive. It is a masterpiece of software engineering. Over time, however, more and more features have been added—some beneficial, others not. In the years since OS X’s birth, it has become “bloated” with widgets, third-party extensions and a host of other social media-related features that many users neither need nor want. These components can rob essential apps and services of the resources they require to run efficiently. Turning off these components is possible in some cases but requires the use of complex commands typed into Apple’s not-for-novices Terminal app.

To make matters even more complicated, Mac OS X is no longer distributed on a CD or DVD. It is, instead, available through Apple’s App Store. However, only the most recent version of the OS is available for immediate download. If you prefer to use—or if your Mac can only run—an older, more efficient version, you must obtain it from someone who has a previously purchased copy in their App Store history.

Determining which version of OS X will work best for your Mac is dependent upon your expectations. If your Mac is being used in a production environment, an older, less feature-rich OS is ideal—as long as it supports your must-have apps. If you need social media integration for your marketing endeavors, the latest OS is an absolute necessity. If Apple has categorized your Mac as “vintage” or “obsolete,” your most advantageous option is to run the most up-to-date version possible.

A Cautionary Tale

When Apple releases a new version of OS X, it often times removes or replaces certain software components contained within the OS. In the recent past, older but heavily relied upon technologies have been deprecated or substituted. This has rendered crucial apps unusable and older peripherals—such as printers and scanners—unable to function.

Before upgrading, contact the developers of your must-have apps and verify that they co-operate with the new OS. If you rely on a particular printer or other workflow-related tool, check with its manufacturer to determine if updated drivers are available.

If you determine that an app or peripheral will not work, do not upgrade your operating system! There is no easy or straight-forward method for “downgrading” or restoring your previous OS. If you want to experiment with a new OS before fully committing to it, create (and verify the functionality of) a bootable clone of your existing OS and software installation.

The War on Entropy

One of the greatest features of our older Macs is the ability to upgrade their hardware. Moving parts—such as hard disk drives, fans and DVD drives—will eventually wear out and the cost of a do-it-yourself repair is far less that a trip to the Genius Bar. Above and beyond the personal financial impact of a repair or upgrade is its effect on the environment. Keeping a fully-functional computer and its toxic components out of landfills prevents air and water pollution and contributes to the positive global health of humans, wildlife and the resources we share.

Knowing this, you may be surprised to discover that major computer manufacturers do not offer their customers the option to upgrade older devices. The simple act of installing a new, higher-capacity hard drive is not a service that Apple offers. They will only replace a defective part with an identical component through warranty service or an AppleCare support agreement. Furthermore, Apple will not repair any component on a device that is older than five years (with the exceptions of Kentucky and California whose consumer protection laws require manufactures to repair devices for seven years). So, how do we go about upgrading or repairing our Macs?

iFixIt and members of the Fixer Movement have created a curated database of step-by-step guides outlining the repair of virtually any device or appliance you can imagine. Their goal is provide everyone with the knowledge, tools and components to enable us to repair our own devices. If Apple won’t upgrade our hard drives, then we’ll just do it ourselves!

Before embarking upon your Mac upgrade, visit iFixIt’s Repair Guides page to view easy-to-follow instructions on taking apart your specific Mac.

Let's Get Ready to Rumble

After purchasing your new upgrade components, reviewing the take-apart guide for your Mac and backing up your data (which you’re already doing, aren’t you?), set up a comfortable and roomy workspace on a solid wood or tiled floor. Your Mac’s circuitry is extremely sensitive to static electricity, which can be generated by walking on rugs and carpet. If you do not have a suitable location, consider purchasing an anti-static work mat. By connecting it to the grounding screw in a wall socket and connecting yourself to the mat with the included wrist strap, you are safe to work near your computer’s circuits.

For most Macs, installing a memory upgrade is as simple as removing the old RAM and inserting the new modules. MacBooks, PowerBooks and iMacs hide the memory slots behind an easy-to-remove access panel. Memory modules for Mac Pro towers are inserted into a detachable circuit board called “daughter card” and require the modules to be installed in a specific sequence. The original Mac mini is the exception to the rule by requiring the complete disassembly of the computer to access the memory modules. If your upgrade requires such a comprehensive take-apart, consider replacing the internal drive and any other non-functional components while the machine is dissected.

Replacing the internal drive can be a more invasive procedure. The MacBook’s drive is hidden behind an easily removable bracket inside the battery bay. MacBook Pros and PowerBooks require dismantling the “top case,” which is the component that includes the keyboard, trackpad and palm rests. The Mac Pro has, by far, the easiest drive installation of any Mac: simply remove the drive bracket, attach the new drive and slide it into place. The Mac mini? Well…

An external drive adapter will be needed to transfer your data from the existing internal drive to the new upgrade drive. These can be found inexpensively on Amazon or at your local computer store. Optionally, you can purchase an external drive enclosure which transforms your existing drive into an external storage device. After installing a fresh copy of OS X on your new drive, connect the existing drive to your Mac and you will be prompted to “migrate” your data to the new drive.

Pro tip: keep track of the screws you remove using an ice cube tray. Use the molds to organize them according to the procedure you are performing. It is perfectly safe to use magnetized screwdrivers when working on your machine. When reinstalling a screw, do not over-tighten it. Use only enough force to gently secure the screw. Also, make sure to replace the correct screw in the proper fixture. A long screw in a shallow hole could damage the fitting, the screw or the component being secured.

It's a Wrap!

There’s a huge sense of accomplishment the first time you press the power button after upgrading your Mac. The glorious chords of the boot chime tell us that everything is working and our endeavor has been a success. If you don’t hear the boot chime, don’t panic—simply retrace your steps and ensure that your memory modules are fully inserted, cables are completely connected and the power cord is plugged in. The culprit is usually a simple oversight that can be corrected with ease.

Expect your Mac to besiege you with prompts for passwords and opt-in notifications the first time it boots. These requests are part of the operating system and are perfectly normal (albeit annoying). Once Finder has launched and you can see your desktop, expect a temporary decrease in your Mac’s performance while Spotlight indexes your new hard drive. If possible, give your Mac a few hours to finish its housekeeping chores before asking it to do any demanding tasks.

Do not immediately dispose of your old components. In the rare event of a “lemon” component, you may need to reinstall one of the old memory modules while its replacement is being shipped. If you decide not to use your original hard drive as an external storage device, consider putting it in a safe place as a backup should a catastrophe occur—such as a theft or fire.

The only thing left to do now is kick back and enjoy the power of your “new” Mac!


Micah Gartman
14214 Ella Lee Lane
Houston, TX 77077
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