Ask LH: What Can I Upgrade On My Mac?

My Mac is a couple years old, and I'd like to prolong its life a little instead of buying a new one. That said, everyone always says you can't upgrade Macs. Is that true? What can I upgrade?


Zoo Lion

Title image remixed frompsdGraphics and Matthew Pearce.

Dear ZL,

Macs are notoriously hard to upgrade, but it's possible to eke out a performance boost pretty easily with a few simple upgrades you can do yourself. While you can't go tossing a high end graphics card into your iMac, you can do a few other things to speed up a MacBook or iMac. Here's what we suggest.

Upgrade Your Hard Drive To An SSD

We've said it before, but Solid-state drives are the best upgrade you can make to your computer. The speedier hard drive makes your software launch quicker and your operating system boot faster. Simply put, it's one of the most noticeable upgrades you can make. Obviously MacBook Air owners are already set with an SSD (which you can upgrade to more space pretty easily), but other models can certainly use the upgrade.

Installing a SSD into a MacBook Pro is pretty easy and you can do it yourself by replacing the optical drive with the SSD. The performance boost ends up being pretty significant too. Almost every MacBook and MacBook Pro model is capable of an SSD upgrade.

That said, iMacs are a little different. It's entirely possible to install an SSD in older iMacs, but it's a little unnerving since you have to pop the glass off your display off with special tools. That said, every model is a little different, so it's worth looking at iFixIt's iMac page for a breakdown of whether you can upgrade to a SSD or not (and how much of a pain it'll be to do it yourself). If you do deside to upgrade to a SSD, our guide to picking the best one is a good place to start your shopping.

Upgrade Your RAM

Adding more RAM to your computer is one of the easiest upgrades you can do, but it's not always necessary. For most people 4GB of RAM is all you need unless you're doing a lot of video/audio/video editing, or running virtual machines.

If you do decide to upgrade, adding RAM to a Mac is incredibly straight-forward and only takes a couple of minutes to do. Apple usually lists a "maximum amount of RAM" that you can add to your computer, but in some cases you don't have to follow their recommendation. For example, an older 2010 MacBook can take 8GB provided you use 1066MHz RAM (RAM speed doesn't really make a difference in performance, but you do want to keep the speed the same on all your RAM sticks).

If you want to push beyond Apple's upgrade limits, we suggest digging around on iFixit's Answers forum to see how other people do it, and order the RAM from a place like OWC that has a good return policy and support line. Image: roens.

Boost Your Mac's Capabilities Elsewhere

Traditional upgrades aren't always possible on Macs because Apple usually sacrifices upgradeability for form. However, you can still do a few things to improve your overall enjoyment of your computer. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Clean it up: Laptops get incredibly dirty over time, and while you probably won't see a huge increase in the performance, a cleaning your MacBook from the inside out can make it run a little smoother (and perhaps even better).
  • Install another operating system: If OS X isn't doing it for you, a simple way to take control of your Mac's power is to install Linux or Windows (or both). It might not seem like much, but the more Apple hamstrings you with their OS, the more likely it is you'll get to juice up your old Mac with another operating system. If you do like OS X, backing up to an older operating system (like downgrading to Snow Leopard) might also provide a performance boost.
  • Upgrade your external hardware: Your experience using a computer is much more than just the internal guts. It's also about what you're using in the physical world. If you're still using the same mouse and keyboard that came with your Mac (or your on a laptop with no mouse), than picking out the perfect mouse and keyboard is a cheap upgrade that makes a world of difference. Even a nice new set of computer speakers can make your old Mac sound brand new.
  • Buy better software: One of the biggest problems with Macs is that Apple seems to give up on supporting them after four or five years. This means the current operating system might not work, and Apple's software support will slow to halt. That's actually not a bad thing. Older software is typically cheaper (say, buying a copy of Photoshop CS 4 instead CS 6), and a surprising amount of the apps we talk about support older operating systems. Replacing some of the boring default Mac software is a great place to start.

In the end, a Mac will never be as upgradeable as a Windows PC (unless you build your own Hackintosh), but that doesn't mean you don't have options. Sure, you can't get that super fast new graphics card (it's possible on an iMac but incredibly difficult) in there to play all the (somewhat) modern games on your Mac, but you can at least keep it useable for a lot longer than Apple probably wants you to.



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    Hold off on upgrading your OS. As with iPhones, upgrading Apple OSes only seems to make things worse for older devices (this come experience, both with Macbooks and iPhones).

    Saying that, I managed quite well on a 6 year old Macbook Pro with only minor upgrades (more RAM and larger HDD). Replaced the battery and the charger twice in that time until something on the mainboard gave up the ghost.

    For my early 2011 macbook pro the best value upgrades were:
    1. Max out the RAM to the recommended 8GB. I needed that to run a couple of VMs.
    2. Change to a fatser HD - the 5400 speed one that comes from the factory was slow as. You don't neccessarily have to buy an SSD.

    If you are looking to purchase a (relatively) cheap upgrade able mac. You can't go past the Mac mini. For $1000 aus. You can get the same specs as the higher end iMac, with easily upgradable hard drive and ram. You can even fit a third party SSD in without removing the existing hd. This also gives you the option of deciding how much to spend on a monitor, or just upgrade to a better monitor as time goes on.

    Last edited 23/02/13 6:56 pm

    Having a MacBook Pro 4,1 it was difficult after a time to get any sort of OS update at all. By the time Mountain Lion rolled around I was bombarded with messages saying that I wouldn't be receiving many updates from many companies including Java, Adobe, and Firefox... That said, swapping to a SSD and putting on Linux was easy and everything ran natively. Not only did I have a now functional system that is updated, my MBP boots applications quicker thanks to the SSD.

    My particular MacBook Pro 4,1 didn't boot off of a CD or USB to install Linux, but it could see the MacOSX recovery CD. Easiest method was to simply install Linux on a new harddrive hooked up to another computer and swap it in. Doesn't really take more than 2 hours to do.

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