If you can’t afford the latest Mac or run the latest OS

04. November 2016 Security 1

Last week Apple announced the new MacBook Pro. A revolutionary new way to use your Mac with Touch Bar, the ultimate tool of every trade, the brightest and most colorful display yet, more responsive keyboard, more expansive trackpad, it’s thinner, it’s lighter…. and costs you over $4300 if you want the best configuration available. Yup, they’re pricey.

It still tops out at 16GB of RAM, requires several adapters if you want your current peripherals to work, has an aging 720p FaceTime camera and doesn’t include the AC wall plug (but this of course sells for $19). But this can all be ignored as you get two or four USB-C ports, you get to keep your headphone port, it comes in Space Gray and oh golly! a Touch Bar!
I haven’t been happy with Apple hardware for a while and the new MacBook Pro doesn’t make me feel any better. I am not alone in this and I am having a harder and harder time recommending Mac hardware to clients, friends and family when they ask me “what should I get?”. Don’t get me wrong, I never recommend Windows. Luckily Apple hasn’t pushed us to that yet but recommending a model or configuration is not as easy as it was not so long ago.

And it’s not just the MacBook Pro that’s becoming harder to recommend. The 3 year old Mac Pro, the useless MacBook and the aging Mac mini are pretty hard to sell. I’m sure there’s a market for those products, it just happens to be that no-one I know fits any of those markets, and I know a fair share of people. So what do I recommend these days? As always, it depends. Read on to see.

Call me old fashioned but if I pay a few grand for a computer, I want it to last me at least 6 years or longer if needed. The industry would have you believe the average lifespan of a computer is 3-5 years but this is something I have never agreed with. It’s all about the upgrades.

Upgrades

At some point your hard drive becomes too small or too slow, you need more memory or even a new processor. Something might even break once in a while and needs replacement. Upgrades can carry your Mac far beyond the expected life span and I have always been a big advocate of upgrading over buying new. Sadly Apple started to make upgrading your Mac harder after 2012 as part of their mission to make everything thinner.

if you currently find yourself with any of the following:
• MacBook Pro (Mid 2012 or older)
• MacBook (Mid 2010 or older)
• Mac mini (Late 2012 or older)
• iMac (non-Retina)
• Mac Pro (Mid 2012 or older)
then upgrades can be a great option for you. Yes, even the old Core 2 Duo Macs that still offer service to plenty of people, can benefit from an upgrade. My primary Mac is a 2012 Mac Pro full of upgrades. It can still keep up with the latest Macs and actually runs circles around most of them performance wise. Here are some of the upgrades you can consider, depending on the model of Mac you have.

Solid State Drive
Recommended for: Any of the above mentioned Macs
The first thing I recommend is replacing your hard drive with a solid state drive (SSD), any Mac will benefit from this. SSD’s are very affordable now with 500+ GB at $120 or 1TB at $250. My brand of choice is Crucial but there are many brands and models out there. No matter which one you pick, even an older model (even lower prices) will offer a significant boost in performance over your 5400 or 7200rpm hard drive.

Memory (RAM)
Recommended for: Any of the above mentioned Macs
Today, if you’re keeping up with the OS releases and latest software, 4 GB of RAM is the bare minimum recommended. 8 GB is better and 16 GB is great. Anything over 16 GB is just an added bonus. Finding RAM upgrades for the Macs listed above is easy and the prices are really good lately. 8 GB for $50 or 16 GB for $80 makes these upgrades a no-brainer. And as with the SSD, the improvement in performance is worth the investment.

Blu-ray
Recommended for: Any of the above mentioned Macs
Replacing your Combo or SuperDrive with a Blu-ray drive won’t really help the overall performance of your Mac unless you’re cramped for space on your drive. It will allow you, however, to cram up to 100 GB of data on a single disc. This will free up space on your hard drive or SSD which in turn will improve read/write times and the overall life span of the drive.

Processor
Recommended for: Mac Pro only
If you have a single CPU Mac Pro or a Dual CPU that’s just not as fast as you want it to be, look into replacing the processor. The sockets used in Mac Pro’s make replacing the processor very doable. Pop out the current processor, put the new one in, apply some fresh thermal paste and you’re ready to rock. You can also take an easier route which is to have someone supply the upgraded processor tray for you. Here’s one example of such a program. Replacing your 2009 2.66 GHz single 4-core CPU with a dual 3.33 GHz 8-core CPU for $900 is a really, really nice upgrade! You can upgrade the processor yourself as mentioned earlier, a 3.2 GHz CPU for the 2008 Mac Pro costs about $150 and on those machines the extra 400 MHz coming from a 2.8 GHz can mean a few more years of use. Finding the right CPU upgrades for your Mac can be done by searching the web. There are forums, user groups and plrnty of YouTube videos out there that can help with that.

Graphics card
Recommended for: Mac Pro only
OS X and macOS rely heavily on the power your graphics card has to offer. The stock graphics cards in the Mac Pro have never been great but unless you play a lot of games or work with 3D or video software, they have been able to get us this far without any major issues (the 2010 – 2012 ones that is). To keep up with the latest, or recent, operating systems and/or software demands, a new graphics card can be a big performance boost. While not cheap, there are some good options out there for any Mac Pro owner. I have found this website to be very helpful and generally complete when it comes to Mac Pro graphics cards.

Bluetooth
Recommended for: Any of the above mentioned Macs
If using features such as Continuity are important to you, a Bluetooth card upgrade or dongle may be required. A Bluetooth 4.0 card combined with one of the available open source utilities can have you enjoying Continuity features in no time. Whether a project like this is worth the effort and system modifications is up to you to decide.

Networking
Recommended for: Any of the above mentioned Macs
Any Mac worth upgrading should already support WiFi a, b, g and n. That’s pretty much every Mac since 2006/2007. If you really must have WiFi that supports the ac bands through, a card upgrade may be for you. While you can find WiFi card upgrades for most Macs, getting a USB WiFi dongle is faster and cheaper. Keep in mind that using a WiFi ac dongle on a USB 2.0 port may not get you the full speed of the ac band. WiFi 2.0 has a theoretical speed cap at 60 MB per second (which you’ll hardly ever get) and WiFi ac speeds can range from 55 MB/sec to several gigabits per second. Unless your Mac has USB 3.0 a WiFi ac dongle will hardly be worth the investment. And if your Mac has USB 3.0 your Mac supports WiFi ac natively most likely anyway.
Of course if your built-in WiFi card is broken or you need it for other reasons, a dongle is an excellent way to go.

Every Mac has 10/100/1000BASE-T, or gigabit, ethernet built in which will get you maximum speeds of 125 MB/sec on a good network. If you’re lucky enough to be a Mac Pro owner though, you’ll have two gigabit ethernet ports you can aggregate together for speeds up to 250 MB/sec (your network router or switch has to support this). You can also get a PCI card to add more ethernet ports to your Mac Pro if needed.

If your Mac has a ThunderBolt port (typically 2011 and up except Mac Pro before 2013) you can get a nice 10 gigabit ethernet adapter too.

PCI Cards
Recommended for: Mac Pro only*
Up to 2010 the Mac Pro kept up pretty well with the rest of the Apple family hardware. The 2012 Mac Pro however was an update they may as well not have done at the time. While the 2012 MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and Mac mini all got USB 3.0, the Mac Pro didn’t. The rest of the line-up got Thunderbolt in 2011, the Mac Pro didn’t. The 2012 Mac Pro was just Apple clearing out old stock with minimal updates. Luckily you can get most of the things the Mac Pro missed out on, and more, with PCI upgrade cards. Need USB 3.0, additional FireWire ports, SATA ports, 10gigabit ethernet ports, solid state drive, one or more graphics cards, RAID controller or WiFi card with external antennas? Yup, there are cards for that! PCI offers great bandwidth so it’s great for storage too. It’s why I mentioned the solid state drive here as well, it will get far better speeds on a PCI card than in one of the hard drive bays which tops out at 3Gb/s. Sadly, however, there is no PCI card available that adds ThunderBolt to your Mac Pro.

* Check below to see if using PCI cards externally are an option for you.

External
Recommended for: Depends on available ports
Thunderbolt
I already mentioned the external WiFi dongle but if your Mac has a Thunderbolt port, you can get a lot of nice upgrades externally too. By using a chassis that’s basically an external housing for PCI cards, your Mac can enjoy all those nice cards Mac Pro users can get on a MacBook Pro, MacBook Air or Mac mini. Even 1st generation Thunderbolt offers enough bandwidth to accommodate most cards. An example of such a chassis is the Echo Express III-D. Have a look at the videos on that page as it clearly illustrates how such a chassis works. I have heard mentions of using a Thunderbolt chassis to connect a good graphics card to a Mac as a means to upgrade the graphics performance, though I have no experience with this so can’t say if that works reliably.

USB
Good old USB. If you’re reading this and are planning some upgrades, your Mac most likely sports USB 2.0. Most Macs since 2012 have USB 3.0 except the 2012 Mac Pro (but that’s where a nice USB 3.0 PCI card comes in). USB gives you countless options for external upgrades. A 1080p camera, professional microphone, few terabytes of hard drives, audio mixers, the previously mentioned WiFi or Bluetooth dongle, you name it. If one of your needs is bandwidth though, keep in mind that USB 2.0 is not ideal. Data transfers take a while and recording several audio streams or video to a USB 2.0 hard drive may not be fast enough.

FireWire
Your Mac may have a FireWire port and if it does, it’s most likely a FireWire 800 port. FireWire 400 was mostly phased out in Apple products after 2008. FireWire 800 offers almost double the bandwidth of USB 2.0 so it’s much better suited for an external hard drive. Another benefit of FireWire is the ability to daisy chain devices. Connect a hard drive to your Mac, another hard drive to the first hard drive, etc. Keep in mind that each device cuts the bandwidth downstream in half (if used at full speed).

SD Card
If your Mac has an SD Card slot (which maybe 1% of the people reading this actually use), why not find a use for it? You can find good 128GB SD Cards for around $50 and 256GB cards for $95. Even the very fast cards are not recommended for active storage, meaning your iPhoto library or video files, as loading the data will probably be too slow. However for your documents and long(er) term storage these cards offer an excellent solution. Even better, swap them out when full or use different cards for different data. A photo storage card, a video storage card, you get the idea. Using an external USB or FireWire drive will be cheaper and get you much more storage space.

Optical Drive
Recommended for: Any Mac with an optical drive
That Combo,- or SuperDrive you may not be using anymore can be swapped out for a Blu-ray burner, as mentioned earlier. But if even Blu-ray is not your thing, why not remove the optical drive and put another hard drive in it’s place? You can buy a bracket that’s shaped like the optical drive for your specific model Mac so it will fit exactly and in the bracket you put a hard drive or solid state drive. You can find them on OWC, iFixit or Amazon. Just make sure you get one specific to your model Mac to make sure it fits properly. This works for MacBooks, MacBook Pros, Mac minis, iMacs and Mac Pros (which have two slots for optical drives) and is a very nice way to add a terabyte or more to your Mac.

That covers the upgrades pretty well I think. If you don’t want to upgrade yer ol’ beastie or really just want something newer than what you have now that can be upgraded to something better down the road, there are a few more options.

Buy Used

When purchased from the right sources, buying used can get you a great Mac for a great price. My source for used Macs (all of the Macs I own at this point are used) for the last 7 years is SellYourMac. They buy Macs and iOS devices but also sell them through their eBay store. Each Mac they sell has been thoroughly tested and any cosmetic flaws are clearly documented and photographed. Customer service, if needed, is exceptional too. This is a great spot to pick up a sweet 2012 MacBook Pro and upgrade the hard drive to a solid state drive, max out the RAM and put in a Blu-ray burner for example. Of course they sell much more recent machines too if you just want a newer Mac at a better price. They’re not the only seller of used Macs out there. Whomever you go with, just make sure they are reputable, offer a good warranty period and have good customer service in case you need it.

Buy Refurbished

Though most, if not all, of the refurbished Macs sold by Apple are non-upgradeable models, you may see an older Mac that suits your needs at a reasonable price. Have a look on their website or through Amazon where they sell both recent and older models. The benefit of an Apple refurb is a full one year warranty and usually no cosmetic marks.

Sell your current Mac
If you’re thinking of buying a used or refurbished Mac, you can sell your current machine and put that money towards the new one. Again I recommend SellYourMac but shop around, do your homework and pick any of the sites out there that buy up used Macs. You may even want to try your luck on Craigslist or eBay. If you go to appleserialnumberinfo.com and click the SellYourMac banner, you get an extra $10. Not much but on 2012 or older Macs that aren’t worth much these days an extra 10 bucks is always welcome.

Divide the work load

Your Mac may not be able to handle the software you want to run or may just be too full with stuff you really need. Consider handing off some work to another Mac. For example if you run your Plex library or FileMaker server off of your 2011 MacBook Pro, it can really impact overall performance and eat up tons of space. Why not get an old 2010 or 2011 Mac mini and set that up to run as a server? Hook up a few external drives and the server can run your backups, libraries, server tasks and more. The amount of scenarios where this can come in handy are too many to list but just think of what you use your Mac for and see if any of the data or software would be OK when run/accessed from another Mac. Handing off some work to another Mac may increase the performance on your current Mac enough to keep you happy with it for a few more years.

Find alternatives

If the software you want doesn’t run well on your Mac, maybe it’s time to look for alternatives. If you need the latest Photoshop CC you must run OS Yosemite or newer. If you don’t mind trying something else, Affinity Photo might be a great option. It supports OS 10.7 Lion and up and at just $50 (one time) it sure is cheaper than Adobe’s products. Another option which is free is GIMP. The same goes for Microsoft Office which requires at least OS 10.10 Yosemite, the free LibreOffice can help which supports OS 10.8 Mountain Lion and up.
Most software has an alternative out there. Sometimes that’s free, open source and sometimes paid. Either way it’s worth exploring.

Run Diagnostics

Poor performance may be caused by failed or failing hardware. Running some diagnostic tools can quickly point out an issue. The most common culprit is the hard drive so start with SMART Utility and let it check your drive(s). It will tell you right away if there are already some issues with your drive. It’s paid software but the free trial will be enough for a quick check. There may be bad sectors on the drive that simply haven’t been found yet though (so SMART Utility won’t report on them). For a thorough check of every sector on your drive, and this works for any drive internal or external, use a utility like Drive Genius. Run a full scan of your drive (can take hours) and see if it reports any issues. As with SMART Utility, the trial should be enough for a full scan. I highly recommend purchasing both utilities though as they can always come in handy. Another utility that focuses more on file system issues rather than hardware is DiskWarrior. Not free and no trial version available but it’s simply amazing and a good utility to have.

For a more complete suite of tools, give Techtool Pro a try. It can test everything from sensors, RAM, hard drives, graphics card and more. It’s not cheap and no trial is available but wow it it a great tool suite to have. To test the RAM in your Mac you can also use this free utility; Rember. It won’t test all of your RAM as you need to run it from a running system (which uses some RAM to run) but it’s thorough and typically tests 85% or more of your RAM.

Apple also has built-in diagnostics though I’ve found them less than ideal/accurate. The same goes for Disk Utility which is why I did not present it as an option. Restart your Mac and hold down the ‘d’ key immediately when you hear the startup sound. This will load a hardware test that checks the basics of your system. It’s not great but a good test to run to get an idea of where to look if it finds an issue.

Of course you can also visit a local Apple Store and as the Genius Bar to run a system checkup for you. The check is basic (unless they keep it overnight for a full diagnostics and drive scan) but it’s something.

Re-install the system

Over the years your system can get cluttered up pretty good. Updates, installations/uninstallations, drive fragmentation (yes Macs get that too), etc. can all impact performance. That slow performance on your old Mac may have nothing to do with hardware limitations or failures at all. Consider re-installing your system to see if any of the performance hits were software related. Back up all your data (preferably in more than one location), erase your drive completely and install a fresh copy of the OS. Without migrating your data back, test drive it a little and see how the system handles. If it’s still slow, shows the spinning beach ball etc. your hardware just isn’t up to the task. However if it handles fine, start migrating your data back little by little. Install some applications, put some data back and test again. Rinse, repeat. It’s a lot of work but might pay off.

Another option is to erase the drive, install a fresh copy of the OS and migrate all your user data back automatically using Migration Assistant. You’ll get a lot of the clutter back that way too but if your OS was the cause of performance issues it may be enough to get the Mac back in good shape.

Upgrade (the OS)

You may still run OS X 10.8 or 10.9 which were fine several years ago but newer OS versions run much smoother as bugs were addressed and code was optimized. The trade-off is of course that newer versions of the OS come with higher hardware requirements. I recommend you use the latest version of the OS if you can but if that’s not possible, at least use the second most current version or the one before*. At the time of writing the preferred OS is 10.12 Sierra. The previous version is 10.11 El Capitan and the one before that is 10.10 Yosemite. Apple typically still releases security updates for the 3 most recent OS versions so it’s good to run an OS that at least meets that requirements. If your Mac in it’s current form can’t handle a certain OS, see if it will once you apply some hardware upgrades.

Downgrade (the OS)

If you installed OS X 10.11 El Capitan or macOS 10.12 Sierra and found your Mac struggling, you may want to downgrade. Your Mac may have been just find on one version of OS X but after the software upgrade it’s just a pain in the butt. As mentioned before, try to run at least one of the last 3 OS releases to get some of the latest security fixes*.

*Note that downgrading your OS or sticking with an older version exposes you to some or all of the security vulnerabilities that were fixed in the newer OS, so carefully consider before going this route. Yes, Apple releases the occasional security updates for older versions of the OS but these do not address all of the known vulnerabilities. If your Mac runs anything less than the current version of the OS, I recommend investing in a good firewall and security software that may shield the known vulnerabilities you might be exposed to. It is much better to apply some hardware upgrades and run the latest OS rather than to downgrade the OS or stick with an old version.

That about sums it all up. Everything you can do to breathe new life into your aging Mac. So what do I recommend to my clients, friends or family? It all depends on their needs but it is not uncommon for me to recommend an older model Mac. I am a huge fan of the 2010 and 2012 Mac Pro as it can be made better than currently available new Macs with just a few upgrades. Both models can still run Sierra with no problem and hopefully will be able to run the next major OS release too. You can find a 12-Core 2010 Mac Pro for $1000 or less if you’re lucky and the 2012 12-Cores sell for around $1400. They make excellent workstations or servers even without upgrades and the amount of power you get for those prices make it a bargain. The same goes for the 2012 Mac mini which can still keep up in performance, can be fitted with two internal drives and makes for a great server. If mobility is a must, I frequently recommend a 2012 MacBook Pro with at least an SSD and RAM upgrade. To date I have heard no complaints about performance.

Do you use a Mac that got any upgrades? Any tips or suggestions you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!


1 thought on “If you can’t afford the latest Mac or run the latest OS”

  • 1
    BB on November 7, 2016 Reply

    Sure, the Late 2016 MacBook Pro are using Skylake! Kaby Lake has no quad core for mobiles at the moment.

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