Maxing out the MacBook Pro

My current main computer is, like a lot of people’s, a laptop; since I sometimes work at home, and sometimes elsewhere, it’s a good solution, and at home it’s plugged into a wonderful TactilePro keyboard and an Apple 20 inch cinema display. I used my previous PowerBook for three years, and this one will be four years old in April; it’s an early 2008 MacBook Pro 15.4 inch, 2.5GHz Core 2 Duo, for the more technically inclined.

Some MacBook Pros can actually take 6GB of RAM, rather than the 4GB Apple claims


When I bought it, 2GB seemed sufficient, and so too did 250GB of disk space. Over time, as OS and applications have become more bloated, I’ve needed more memory, first upgrading to 4GB, which is supposedly the maximum allowable. However, even that is tight these days – especially with bloated applications like Adobe DreamWeaver CS4. And somehow, no matter how many times I try to remember not to, I always end up launching it while running Parallels Desktop at the same time, which is not a pleasant experience.

A bit of hunting around on the internet, however, reveals that this model of MacBook Pro can actually handle 6GB of memory, even though Apple claims to support only 4GB. So, that was last year’s upgrade, and it certainly means things are a little smoother, though two memory-hungry programs at the same time is still a recipe for plenty of swapping and general sluggishness. Definitely an upgrade worth doing if you have one of these machines, but I’m afraid I didn’t think to do before and after timings.


The hard drive in the MacBook Pro is a 250GB 5400rpm unit; it’s doubtless good for battery life, but if it starts being used for swap space, performance suffers. And, thanks to various bits of video editing, it was getting a bit on the slow side.

My first experiment was adding a 48GB Wintec Filemate card (Amazon affiliate link) to the ExpressCard slot on the side of the machine; it is, apparently, possible to set things up to boot from the card slot, though that’s not a route I went down. I did experiment with using it to store the files for Parallels virtual machines, but found that really didn’t work too well, with the VMs seeming to wait from time to time. I guess virtualising another OS is going to make it hard to optimise performance for an SSD. So, I have been using the card to store other documents, including all my web design files – one of the sites has over 20,000 images – which helps DreamWeaver switch sites more easily.

I’ve also recently moved all my working copy on to the ExpressCard; I’ve done that not so much for performance reasons, but because as well as being used in SATA mode via the slot (which is fast, as unlike some cards, it’s not got a PCI<->USB bridge in the way), the card has a USB socket, so it can be removed and used as an external drive too. After my experience last year when the laptop had to be sent away for a replacement motherboard, I feel much happier knowing that I can simply pop out the data with all my current projects on, and plug it into another system.

To make more space, I’ve also shifted all the video files that were on the internal hard drive on to an external Firewire 800 drive; in truth, I probably won’t need all the raw video again, but I dislike deleting stuff, so that’s a more rational place to store it than on the laptop’s own hard drive.

Having done that, I ended up with about 50GB free, but a machine that’s still feeling a bit sluggish at times. A new MacBook Pro would set me back around £1500; sure, it would be faster, but most of the time I’m just using tools like Word, and the difference wouldn’t be significant. Also, if I buy a new system, I’d end up with OS X Lion, which I just don’t want, and which won’t work with some of the Quark tools I absolutely rely upon. No sale there, Apple (you can’t help wondering if they realise how conservative corporate IT can be).

Enter the SSD

The price of SSDs is much more reasonable now than it was last year – a 512GB unit can be bought for not much over £500. But, tempting though that is, it would be around a third of the cost of a new laptop, to extend the life of a machine that’s almost four years old, and that struck me as possibly not the best way to spend money.

So, since my rearranging of data has left me with 50Gb free on a 250Gb drive, I decided that the best thing to do was to go for a 256GB SSD, with the intention that it will help me get a couple of years more out of the MacBook Pro, by which time there might be a version of the Quark tools I use that actually works with whatever the latest version of OS X turns out to be.

With pretty good reviews, and a reasonable price, I went for a Crucial m4 SSD, supplied with a data transfer kit, comprising a cable and software CD. Ordered on Friday, it arrived Saturday morning, and I spent the afternoon transferring data using SuperDuper, which is a pretty simple process.

The Crucial m4 SSD comes with SuperDuper for Mac users

It’s apparently pretty smart, and doesn’t copy some files that Apple advises against; the net result was that I ended up with a drive that had 60GB free after the duplication. However, it was pretty slow, taking over four hours to copy the files over.

My update process

The drive was supplied with firmware 0009, and a note in the box indicating that there was a firmware update available on the web site; that’s supplied as a disc image that you can burn to a CD and then boot from, whereupon it will search for SATA-connected SSDs and update their firmware.

Don’t waste your time doing this before you copy your system files to the SSD; yes, the release notes tell you that it’s quicker to update the firmware on an empty SSD, but the updater won’t see the drive anyway, unless it’s connected to the motherboard. The USB/Sata cable can’t be used for the update.

So, step 1 was to connect the drive to the MacBook Pro using the USB Sata cable; a pop-up asked if I wanted to initialise it. I called mine ‘m4’ to differentiate it from the Macintosh HD, and accepted the default options – SuperDuper erases the disk again anyway.

Install that from the CD supplied with the drive, and then download the zip file of the firmware updater from the Crucial website. Inside the zip is .iso file, which you can burn to CD using Disk Utility.

Step 2 is to tell SuperDuper to copy all the files; this will be slow. Use the “Backup all files” option and select your main hard disk as the source, and the SSD as the destination. SuperDuper also takes care of making the SSD bootable. Go and have a lie down, or something; this bit takes time.

When the copy is finished, you can try booting from the external drive, if you want, by restarting, and holding down the Alt key to see a list of available drives. I just took it on trust, frankly – I could see the files were there by browsing the SSD.

Step 3 is the physical installation; for this, I recommend downloading and printing out the PDF from iFixit. It’s a pretty straightforward task. You can start up from the SSD right away if you want, but I didn’t. Instead, I popped in the CD I made earlier, and held down the Alt key.

When you do that, you’ll get a boot menu, and the CD is labelled ‘Windows’; click to select it and FreeDOS starts, leading eventually to a prompt asking if you want to update the drive firmware. Type yes and press Enter, then wait a few minutes. You’ll see a message when it’s done, and you can then hold down the power key to turn the MacBook Pro off.

Step 4 is starting up from the SSD. It was here I had a minor wobble, after removing the CD and then seeing a message telling me there was no bootable volume found. Don’t panic if you see this; just hold down the Alt key when you start the laptop, and select the drive, by whatever name you called it.

When it starts up, open the Startup disk control panel and make sure you select the SSD. I chose to rename mine back from ‘M4’ to ‘Macintosh HD’ just in case there are any scripts that have that name hardwired into them. And then, all was well, with the system starting up and shutting down perfectly.

Job done

So, was it worth it? So far – and I’ve only been using it for a little while – I’d say a resounding ‘Yes.’ I expected a speed increase, but not as dramatic as I received.

For these timings, I started with the system turned off, and timed how long it took until the desktop wallpaper appeared, and then until all the startup applications had finished loading, indicated by the appearance of the TigerLaunch icon in the menu bar.

With the hard drive, the wallpaper appeared after 57 seconds, and the TigerLaunch icon after a total of 91 seconds. With the SSD, those times have shrunk to 25 and 26 seconds, respectively. So, a saving of 1 minute 5 seconds in system startup time.

Next, I launched Firefox, which I have starting with a blank page. This would take fifteen seconds using the hard drive, and is now at most two seconds using the SSD; I say at most, because I have to press the stopwatch button, and it’s near enough instant.

Finally, while leaving Firefox open, I launched Dreamweaver CS4, and timed how long it takes until the splash screen listing recent files appears in the workspace. With the hard drive, that used to take 51 seconds, and now it takes just 11.

Definitely, then, a dramatic improvement, and though I’ve not timed before and after, running Parallels VMs is much snappier now too. If you have an old MacBook Pro like mine, and don’t fancy being forced into a Lion update or spending the cash on a new machine, I can definitely recommend boosting the memory to 6GB and replacing the hard disk with an SSD.

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