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.

Replacing a MacBook Pro Battery

It was a perfect late winter day outside - abnormally sunny and warm. I decided that rather than spend it in my office I’d grab my MacBook Pro and take it out on our deck, feel that nice breeze and work through some code. I got comfortable, flipped it open and started to plug away in Xcode. Everything was ideal - so much so that I’m sure photographs of me sitting there would have made for great stock photography for some web site.

After about 15 minutes of moderate use I looked at the status bar and noticed that my battery was already down to 79% available. This was not good. 30 minutes in, I was down to 50%. iStat menu was trying to predict how much longer I had and the number of minutes of power left were dropping like some kind of warped time traveling machine.

I went from Carpe Diem to Carpe Power Cordus. Total buzz kill.

I’ve now had my MacBook Pro for nearly three years. This particular MacBook Pro is the last generation before the unibody models debuted and as such has a replaceable battery. A little over a year ago my battery started acting up something fierce and Apple was kind enough to replace it, though technically it was out of warranty.

They did this because my number of cycles were so low (47) and it was clearly in need of replacement—the Apple store ran a test on it that said “Battery BAD”. They issued me a brand new battery and sure enough, I was able to get a few hours (2-3) out of it on a full charge. I made a commitment to myself to cycle the battery frequently but that only lasted about a month before I fell into my old habit of just leaving the machine running 24x7 and connected to power all the time. I did cycle the battery down at a minimum every month, but not every single week.

Apple insists that the best way to extend the life of the batteries in a MacBook Pro—at least for my generation MacBook Pro—is to regularly run it off batteries. This would “keep the juices flowing” within the cells and ensure they last longer. This seemed a little self-serving because they use the cycle count (recharge cycles) to determine how old a battery was. If I did as my Apple Genius recommended and cycled my battery constantly I’d have 350+ cycles in less than a year pretty easily. The old Apple page for my MacBook Pro suggested that after 300 cycles my battery should still have 80% of it’s charging capacity. The new unibody models are apparently much more efficient and are designed to get to 1000 cycles before dropping to 80% capacity.

So here I was with a battery a little over a year old, it had a grand total of 54 cycles on it and was down to 79% health. I tried the Apple recommended reset procedure but it had no impact. Rather than going back to Apple I decided to try a different route.

NewerTech NuPower Battery
I did some research and heard good things about the NuPower Batteries so I decided to buy one through Other World Computing. It was $30 cheaper than the Apple battery so I figured it may be worth a try.

The NuPower Battery that arrived was virtually identical to my existing Apple battery. Everything, right down to the status indicator was identical. It fit into my MacBook Pro perfectly and I followed the instructions to get the battery calibrated.

Once calibrated, my MacBook Pro’s battery performance was right back to brand new levels. I’ve had this battery installed for 4 weeks now and it’s performed perfectly, giving me a solid 3-4 hours of “battery time” based on how hard I push my MacBook Pro.

One interesting aspect of this NuPower battery is what iStat Menu reports in terms of Design Capacity and Current Capacity. After a couple of full cycles and 4 weeks of use, the battery reports a design capacity of 5400 mAh, but a current capacity of 5607 mAh. However my older Apple battery had a design capacity of 5600 mAh but had been reduced to 4442 mAh. I’m not sure why the internal indicator on the NuPower is only displaying 5400 mAh capacity but clearly it’s exceeding even the design capacity of the Apple battery in actual usage.

Some Tips For Making the Battery Last
I’ve read pretty extensively on Lithium-Ion battery technology and believe that Apple is giving good advice in telling you to rotate off power fairly regularly (at least monthly). What they don’t tell you is that if you do keep your MacBook plugged in most of the time that the heat of your machine running will also cause your batteries to deteriorate more quickly.

Battery University has some great pages on what can impact Lithium-Ion battery life and heat is as big a factor as anything for long-term battery performance. As a result I ran a few tests by using the Sensors gauge in iStat Menus and found that for my MacBook Pro the battery temperature ranged from 91F to 94F while my machine was open and running on plugged-in power. Normally I would leave my MacBook running 24 hours a day; I’d have the screen power down and the HDD spin down but even in those conditions the battery temp hovered in the 86F range.

However if I put my MacBook to sleep by closing the lid, the battery temperature immediately on waking up was registering as low as 75F after a few hours - the same temp as the room it was stored in. That 11F to 19F range is pretty substantial and something I think factored in to my battery’s early demise.

If you—like me—run your MacBook 24 hours a day not only should you run it off batteries every week or two to keep the battery juices circulating, you should close your machine’s lid when you walk away to let it cool down when not in use. You can of course set your Energy Saver preferences to put your machine to sleep after 10-15 minutes of non-use while on power as well. I personally have it set for 10 minutes, however if I know I’ll be away for a bit (lunch, going to bed, etc) I just close the lid. One of the better features of Macs is that they wake from sleep reliably and nearly instantly - best to take advantage of that.

Got a tip for making that battery last longer? Please drop a note in the comments!