Revamping an old MacBook with RAM and SSD

I worked recently on a late 2009  13 inch Apple MacBook (Model A1342, 2.26 Ghz) which was still in good working conditions.  It’s a Intel Core 2 Duo laptop with an 120GB hard disk and 1GB RAM, Mac OSX 10.5. With a little upgrade it’s a decent computer for everyday office work in 2014.

The hardware part is straightforward: I bought an 250 GB SSD from Samsung and 4 GB RAM DDR2 667MHz, took out the battery pack and removed the lateral metal rail to access the RAM slots and the hard drive bay. You need a cross and a torx screw points to remove the rail and free the drive from its cradle.

The software part takes a bit longer: I set for Mac OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard which is stable, tested and actively supported. It is possible to import all the old data and settings from a time machine backup or an osx drive during the new installation, just plugging it via USB.

The issue about an SSD drive is that it’s very fast (allowing the SATA bus onboard is not a bottleneck) but its lifespan depens on the read/write cycles it endures. All the optimization recommended for SSD tries to reduce read/writes by tweaking the filesystem and the OS.

The reference for OSX SSD optimization is Martin Matula’s Optimizing MacOS X Lion for SSD which is about OSX 10.7 Lion: all the steps described there are similar to what you do on other Linux/Unix systems and should be adapted to your situation, except the step “Turn off local Time Machine snapshots” using tmutil in the terminal, because tmutil does not exist in 10.6 and local snapshots seem to be a new feature in 10.7.

Since an SSD will fail sooner or later, it’s important to backup. Time Machine on an external drive is the easiest way to do it, however there’s a subtle catch when using File Vault home directory encryption. Time Machine does an encrypted home directory’s backup only when the user is logged off. This is seldom the case on a single-user laptop that is either turned off or logged-in.

It seems that in this case you have to trade off security (home directory encryption with File Vault) with data availability (frequently updated backups). Depending on your risk assessment you may decide to keep data encryption and do manual backups using some other method (such as rsync), or automate backups leaving your data in clear. Think about the risk of having the laptop stolen and your data accessed, vs the risk of an hardware failure and your data lost and activate/disable file Vault accordingly. In either case you need good backups.