The Golden Age of Mac Upgrades is (Once Again) Upon Us

Years ago we Mac users enjoyed the ability to spend a little bit of money to upgrade our admittedly-expensive computers. It may seem like those days are behind us, but the reality is that we're truly in the thick of a new golden age of upgrades.

Back in the day, sites like Low End Mac flourished with daily advice telling us which machines to upgrade and how to do so. TMO was born during this time, and what a great time it was. We upgraded our processors, we upgraded our RAM, we put in faster-spinning (and larger) hard drives; it was an awesome time to be a Mac user with an eye on easy-and-affordable upgrades.

Then June 6, 2005 happened. Intel was the enemy right up and through June 5th. Then Steve Jobs took the stage on the morning of the 6th and told us that Intel was not only our friend, it was our future as Mac users. Seven months later the first Macs featuring Intel chips were available for sale to consumers, and shipped shortly thereafter. By August, 2006 the transition was complete, and all those PowerPC Macs we all had in service experienced "end of life" in a way we had never imagined.

Sure you could (and still can) run older versions of Mac OS X on those PowerPC Macs, but the concept of upgrading them suddenly lost its appeal because it was based on all the wrong architecture.

Over the next few years upgrades dried up. Of course RAM vendors were selling product like crazy, but CPU upgrades – those upgrades that really took your computer to the next level – were shut out of the mix for the most part. You couldn't upgrade from PowerPC to Intel inside the same box on the same motherboard, so a new computer was part of the equation.

Add to this mix the migration to laptops as the most popular computers – and with CPU upgrades being a near-impossibility on laptops and iMacs – and the concept of an economical, game-changing upgrade fizzled out.

Until today... 

I've said many times in the last 5 years that adding an SSD is the single best upgrade I've ever done to any computer. Ever. The reason is that today's computers are not constrained by the speeds of their processors – it's the disk speed (or lack thereof) that slows things down.

Load up something like iStat Menus (or even OS X's Activity Monitor, if you can get it to launch early enough in the boot process) and watch your processor as your Mac starts up. Rarely, if ever, will your Mac's CPU hit 100% as it is loading all that stuff you have set to launch on boot. Dropbox, your email, your web browser, everything. All of those things read a ton of tiny little files, and all of that means your CPU sits relatively idle while waiting for its data to come in from the disk.

Then upgrade to an SSD (even one connected via USB) and watch the same thing. Your CPU will often be pegged at 100% as it does its job processing the data from all those little files. And your Mac will probably boot in one-tenth the time in normally does (seriously – I went from a 10 minute boot time to a thirty-second boot time on my 2007 iMac I use in the studio for Mac Geek Gab).

All of this still holds true. The problem is that SSD drives are expensive, and most folks found it hard to justify the expense despite knowing it was the right thing.

Until today... (yes, I said it again)

SSD prices have come down so much that drives which work well in older Macs are often selling for less than fifty-cents per gigabyte. This means that your 2007 iMac (or mine) with its 7-year-old 250GB drive can easily be upgraded to a similarly-sized SSD for less than $150. That math works for me, and probably works for you, too.

Your older Mac likely doesn't need (and can't take advantage) of the very fastest SSDs out there – and the good news is that it doesn't need to for you to see a huge speed advantage. The big speed boost in startup and launch times I mentioned earlier is not because the SSD is capable of pumping data much faster than its rotational brethren (even though it is), it's because of the fact that an SSD doesn't have to seek (much) to find that data in the first place. You request, it delivers. With a rotational drive, you request, then it seeks to the start of the data, and then it delivers. That's the difference, and you can even see about 90% of the speed benefits of SSD by connecting one via your older Mac's (much slower) USB2 bus.

Check your Mac's model, but you can probably get away with the lower-end-of-the-price-spectrum SSDs without noticing any difference at all. Here's what we've tested thus far:

(we'll be testing more and updating this list)

And, in these 6 and 7-year old machines, they all perform the same because the busses we're using are the older, SATA II type, which means 3Gb/s maximum. In fact, on many of the 2008/9 MacBook Pro models, if you put a SATA III drive in it will slow down to 1.5Gb/s, so you're actually better off using a SATA II drive (like the OWC Electra 3G) in those.

Some other items to consider as you upgrade:

  • MCE's OptiBay Drive Kit - this allows you to install an SSD (or move your hard drive) to the optical bay, leaving both hard drives in the system. If you have a non-Unibody MacBook Pro, this is the only option I've found for doing this.
  • OWC's Data Doubler - does the same thing as MCE's OptiBay on slightly newer Macs. Given the choice, I'd probably pick OWC's Data Double over MCE's OptiBay (simply because of my personal predictions about each company's longevity).
  • NewerTech's AdaptaDrive - SSDs are typically 2.5" drives, and you might be putting them in an iMac replacing a 3.5" drive. If so, you'll need this AdaptaDrive ($15) to make the new drive fit in the same spot that the old one comes out of.

Lastly, make sure to visit iFixit for instructions and videos about how to do your upgrades. Those folks rock at what they do for all of us.

Indeed, the Golden Age of Upgrades has returned for us Mac users, and I couldn't be happier about it (truth be told, neither can my family, because they're the ones really seeing the benefits of my latest upgrade experiments!).