Upgrading to a new MacBook Pro

We were sitting around the dinner table when my daughter called to tell us that her MacBook—which had loyally served her through he entire college career—had died. The hard drive was failing, she was three weeks from graduating and needed a solution quickly. My wife and I discussed options for how to deal with it and then she said something incredible:

Wife: ″David, you’ve been talking about getting a new MacBook Pro. Why don’t you get it now and ship your older MacBook Pro down to her? She could have it tomorrow if you do this now.″

Wife: ″David? Where are you?!?″

Too late, I was already driving to the Apple store.

The ″Problem″ With Macs
When I was a Windows developer (1990 to 2008) I found myself upgrading my machine with pretty regular frequency. It wasn’t that the hardware was that far off the state of the art, it’s just that Windows had a tendency to degrade over time, to the point that within a year and a half the machine felt very sluggish. The normal solution was to reformat the hard drive and reinstall Windows and all of my apps. When faced with this option I often just decided to upgrade the entire machine.

My Macs however have been a different story. Both of my primary machines, obtained in the Spring of 2008, still performed as fast as ever. It’s become more and more difficult to justify an upgrade to a machine that just worked fine and performed well. When my wife dropped the green flag I didn’t hesitate to jump in.

Choosing the Right MacBook Pro
Figuring out which MacBook Pro worked best for me was relatively easy. My MacBook is used as a development machine; some Ruby on Rails work and basic web development and lately more and more Xcode work on iOS apps. I am a heavy Spaces user and at any given time have a considerable number of apps running. All this pointed towards a slightly more powerful processor.

From a portability standpoint this is my travel machine. When I’m on the road (or just want to head outside and work), I need something that’s portable enough I can grab and take with me. While I think a 13” would be ideal purely for travel size (or a MacBook Air for that matter), as long as I can open it on an airline folding table I’m good and I have been able to do that on most airlines with my older 15” MacBook Pro. This is one of the things that eliminated the 17” from contention.

From a screen real-estate standpoint my needs are high. When doing application development you want as much screen as possible. Having an application window open while you are debugging code in another window is a regular occurrence. Fortunately Apple recently released a much higher resolution screen with the 15” MacBook Pros - it’s 1680 × 1050, a 36% increase over the standard 1440 × 900 display I used to have. Though I would love the 1920 × 1200 display on the 17” MacBook Pro, the portability factor trumped that. If this was my only Mac (I still have a desktop bound Mac Pro with dual displays) I likely would have gone with the 17”.

The displays are also offered in a Glossy or Antiglare options. Though technically the Glossy display is supposed to make colors pop better I didn’t see that when comparing them side by side. The Antiglare screen is significantly more visible in brightly lit environments. Sunlight, fluorescent lights, background lights, etc. can wreak havoc on the glossy display and limit your ability to see the screen.

While I could have custom ordered my machine from Apple I needed to get it that night so I had to make some compromises. The Apple store I visited didn’t stock exactly what I wanted so I paid a little more than I intended and got the highest processor so that I could get a machine with the higher resolution screen and Antiglare.

I really want 8GB of memory for this machine but Apple’s cost to upgrade that is a completely unrealistic $200 premium. I’ll go to the aftermarket for that.

The specifications for my new MacBook Pro are:

15” High Resolution Antiglare Screen
2.3GHz Intel Quad Core i7 Processor
750GB 5400RPM Hard Disk

I plunked down the credit card and walked out the door with my shiny new MacBook Pro.

Migrating Macs
Before I shipped off my old MacBook Pro to my daughter I needed to migrate everything over. When you first start up a new Mac you are presented with a series of options, one of them being to migrate your data and applications from your old Mac to your new Mac.

Since both of my MacBook Pros (old and new) had FireWire 800 ports, I purchased a Belkin FireWire 9-Pin cable to hook them together and perform the transfer. When you choose that option on a MacBook Pro you are presented with a series of steps, the first of which start off with starting up your previous Mac in Target Disk Mode. You restart the machine and immediately hold down the "T" key. This effectively turns your Mac into a FireWire hard disk enclosure for your drive.

I walked through the steps to start the migration and let it perform its magic. With 165GB of data and an extraordinary number of small files (versioned development with Git will do that), it took about 2.5 hours to perform the migration. I’ve done these migrations before using Ethernet (also an option) cabled up to a 1 Gigabit Ethernet Switch and it takes about 20% longer. I’ve also had some problems with the Ethernet migration because it sometimes has trouble with very large files.

This is where a Mac really shines—once you’ve completed a migration (assuming it works like mine has anyway) your new Mac has everything ready to go just like your previous Mac. There were only a couple of minor things that I had to tweak and that’s because I’m a developer: I manually modify my /etc/hosts file to remap domain names and that file did not get migrated over. I also had to manually start (and set to auto-start) my MySQL server instance. Once that was done my new Mac was performing just like my previous Mac, except that it was considerably faster and had a much higher resolution.

Saying Goodbye - to an old friend
With my new Mac up and running properly all that was left was doing some final touches on the older MacBook Pro, packing it up and overnighting it down to my daughter. This Mac is named Yoda (in keeping with the Star Wars theme I have for all my computer names).

As I write this Jocelyn called to tell me Yoda had arrived and that she couldn’t believe how cool her “new” MacBook Pro was. She never got around to upgrading her older MacBook and it was still running Tiger, so Snow Leopard on a bigger screen with a faster processor was a huge step up.

Hearing the joy in her voice about her new Mac made me pretty happy too.


Keleko said...

I'm looking at upgrading my MBP soon, too. I think it is the same model that you just replaced. It's a big sluggish using Aperture and Photoshop, and I really need 8GB for those applications. However, I think I'm going to go the iMac route for my upgrade. The MBP is still just fine for a laptop, so I don't need to get another laptop right now. When it is time to get another laptop, I might go 13" or even with an Air since I don't need the mobility that often, and when I do a less beefy system will do just fine.

I'm glad to see the upgrade process is pretty simple.

David Alison said...

@Keleko: I think you'll be really pleased w/ the migration process. It was as seamless as it gets. I know you're doing some amazing photo work (based on what I've seen from your Twitter stream) so I'm sure getting something w/ 8GB will help a lot.

figleaf said...

"Both of my primary machines, obtained in the Spring of 2008, still performed as fast as ever. It’s become more and more difficult to justify an upgrade to a machine that just worked fine and performed well."

Yes! This is one of the very cool things about Macs. (The bogglingly simple migration path is another.)

Anyway, right up to the end my early 2008 Macbook Pro worked nearly as well as it had new, despite very, very hard use. (It was my only machine and I travel just infrequently enough that I never bought a sufficiently bomb-proof computer bag.)

When it finally started giving up the ghost I looked hard at new machines and... wound up buying an 18-month-old model from an acquaintance. Like you (and probably most people) that's something I would never have considered as a Windows user.

At least in subjective terms it feels about four times as fast (8gb RAM vs. 2gb plus however much faster the chip is) plus way more disk space. So I get to be both cheap and happy... and my acquaintance still got a new machine so presumably Apple's happy too.

All these years later I remain completely annoyed about Apple's window resizing and keyboard interfaces, and I worry that Apple will eventually permit installation of App Store approved software. But otherwise I couldn't be happier I made the switch.

I also appreciate the advice and encouragement I've gotten from your blog.


aliciaginalee said...

Ah David. I can relate. My 2007 black Macbook's hard drive died a few days ago and I flirted for a brief delicious moment with the upgrade question. How fast one finds Apple's compare Macbooks page - sigh! Luckily for my pocketbook, I'm getting a brand new hard drive replacement, double its previous size for just €153 incl worktime. Not bad eh?

We'll see what happens when Apple upgrades the linr though... ;-)

David Alison said...

@figleaf: I too worried about Apple limiting the Mac to only App Store installed applications, though I doubt they would go that far. If they did, I would likely move on to another platform myself.

As for window resizing, I think that's something that's very hard to deal with coming from a Windows world; the new Lion version coming out in June will have some interesting options on window sizing (mainly a full screen view) that may be very compelling. Anxious to see how it works out.

Glad you found this blog helpful!

@aliciaginalee: Not bad - and yes, much cheaper than a new MacBook Pro. From what I read in the rumor mill the next major refresh for the MacBook line will be next year and have an entirely new case.

bleach1st said...

Great to hear you've upgraded!
I'm feeling the same with the upgrade cycle at the moment; my 2007 2.4GHz 15" MacBook Pro is still going strong to this day but every now and again I get an upgrade itch although I can't justify it at moment because the machine's still working fine. Just need to upgrade my RAM from 2GB to 4GB as 64bit appears to use up a lot more RAM unfortunately.

I have never and still don't use Spaces, I just never got used to it. I know they should be useful but I just haven't got into it. I really should though.

Great to hear that Mac has upgraded their machine's resolutions and that the migration process is easy. Have fun with the new Mac!

David Alison said...

@bleach1st: I honestly would be lost without Spaces. Being able to set up individual work "screens" is tremendously powerful.

Eric said...

Good to see a post from you David. I'm jealous. I'd love to get a sweet new MacBook Pro. This is my first one. It is 3 1/2 years old now. Still runs great with Snow Leopard.

The only problem I've had is my machine had one of the bad Nvidia video cards in it. It went out a few months ago. Apple replaced it and the logic board. Didn't cost me anything since it was the Nvidia problem thankfully.

I received great service at my local Apple store. I took it in at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday. They called me about 9:30 a.m. on Sunday saying it was ready to pickup. They cleaned it up too. I just needed to clean the screen and wipe off the trackpad area.

I hope I can get me another one when it comes time to replace this one. My dad was kind enough to get me this one. I take care of all my parents PC problems. I hope it's not too long before we see some more posts from you.

David Alison said...

@Eric: My experience with Apple from a support standpoint has been stellar.

I actually have a series of posts in outline form right now. Finding lots of little details about this new MacBook Pro worth sharing.

Eytan said...

Cost of 500 GB laptop for MacBook - $60
Cost of case to hold old 80 GB HD to allow for migration - $9
Cost to upgrade to Max of 3-4 GB RAM - $50
Time to swap and migrate over - 2 hours, unattended
Time to swap physical drive in MacBook and replacing RAM (3 minutes, and that includes finding the video on YouTube on how to do it)
Life extension for macBook - another 2-3 years

I can't tell you how many of my friend's 2007 MacBooks have been upgrade this way. For them, it was like getting a new machine. Moving up from the paltry 80-120 they started with to 500 or more, and replacing with a 7200 RPM instead of 5400 RPM drives was a way better investment, and the time and effort investment was minimal. A 2007 MacBook, as long as it is a Core 2 Duo and not Core Duo variety is a killer machine, which will be wonderfully good for another 2-3 years. Even the cost of Snow Leopard is worth it, for another $30, giving them an even newer machine!
For most people, that is sufficient, and we should be encouraging reduce/reuse instead of upgrades!

Mark said...

David, I am looking to upgrade the hard drive in my mid-2009 Macbook Pro. Is there a good drive you can recommend?

David Alison said...

@Mark: I don't have a specific drive that I can recommend, though I'm personally very happy with Western Digital drives and when upgrading / replacing they are always on my short list.

For your MacBook Pro you have a number of different choices. 5400 RPM is very common, though you can get some 7200 RPM drives that can help improve performance. One thing to keep in mind there is that 7200 RPM drives—while faster—are often noisier. Take a careful look at the reviews for the drive you select to see if people are consistently complaining about noise or reliability.

I often use Newegg for hard drive purchases; they sell so many and have a plethora of reviews from customers.

If you want the best in terms of performance and are willing to spend substantially more, take a look at the SSD drives available. As you can see from this Newegg list there are plenty of options in a 2.5" form factor.

Good luck!

Souleiman said...

I bought my 2006 macbook from ebay for around 400$. It's definitely not the fastest horse in the derby, but it astonishing that it still runs Snow Leopard great.

I was hoping i could save up some money (hopefully) from people buying the game I'm developing, to buy the new MBP.

However, do you reccomend the MBP or the new iMac? Mostly, my MacBook only travels with me around the house.

Thanks, nice post!

Mark said...

David, thank you kindly for your suggestions. Very informative, as always!

David Alison said...

@Souleiman: iMac or MacBook Pro really just comes down to portability. You'll get a better display on an iMac, though hooking a MBP up to an external can accomplish that. You'll pay more "per CPU cycle" for a MacBook Pro than you will an iMac; the portability comes at a price.

The bottom line is, if you need a powerful computer you can take with you, go MBP. Since you already have a functioning MBP maybe you keep that for travel / working remotely and get an iMac as your primary machine.

If you're really cash constrained, consider upgrading the memory and hard disk on your current MBP. That can have a dramatic impact on performance.

Olimpiu Pop said...

Cheers, good starter for a mac newbie like myself. One question though - you mentioned the upgrade of RAM to 8 GB. Would you be so kind to explain me how this things are going? You did it yourself? What about the warranty? I would really appreciate your input.

Thank you.