23 March, 2016 by Simon Descoteau
A New Lease of Life (The Macbook Story)
In our modern technological age, we are finding ourselves logged into our computers, phones and tablets almost from the moment we get up to the moment we go to bed. Various companies capitalise on this to sell us computers that allow us to be connected for longer, with more power to get things done faster, in a bid to improve our productivity and justify the large costs of these products. Coupled to this, we as consumers always want the latest and greatest of everything and as such with every new iPhone or Android device that comes out, we queue for days on end to be one of the first to get our hands on this new tech.
Now reading up to this point, you may get the feeling that I am very Anti-Consumerism and am going to spend the rest of this post preaching that we should all stop buying everything, but the reality is I love it! I’m very pro-consumerism and pro-technology as long as it meets your needs. It is because of consumerism that we have competition between firms to get your money. It is because of competition that firms are forced to innovate. It is innovation which provides the tools for people with big brains to do awesome things that change the world. It is because of innovation that I can now order a pizza with touching a button from a thing strapped to my wrist!
In this race for innovation, I strongly feel that we have far outstripped our actual requirements for processing power compared to what we have available to us with modern processors. The average user these days really just needs a device with reasonable battery life, enough processing power to deal with a few browser tabs at the same time and a decent build quality to put up with day to day life. Personally, for when I am using a lot of Photoshop or doing a spot of gaming, I have a desktop in my study which is very large, with huge coolers, graphics cards and multiple fans attached to a huge screen with loads of real estate and it is absolutely great at doing what it does, but the majority of the time I just want to put my feet up in front of the TV and write a blog post or surf the web and I just can’t do it with that. People with similar use cases would be students who are going to University, or a writer looking for a tool they can use to put their thoughts down.
In comes the small laptop. A portable device with enough processing power for basic computing needs and enough battery power to get out of the study and interact with the rest of the world. Fortunately, due to the mass popularisation of multi-core processors in the mid-2000s, and the leaps in battery technology since then, it is now possible to pick up a second-hand laptop from the late 2000s that does all of the above, and does not cost a whole chunk of money either. Hopefully, my findings will help other people that may be in a similar position themselves.
It should be noted at this point that it is possible to pick up a netbook type device for not a lot of money as well brand new and in actual fact I do have a netbook type device for not a lot of money and they definitely do have a use case for extreme portability on a budget, or if your requirements end completely at basic word processing, emails and light web browsing. But if your use is any more strenuous than that, I would not consider one. As stated, I do own such a device but I found the need for a laptop with a bit more grunt to it for day to day use. I will be doing an article on who may want to get a netbook and why in the near future.
After a lot of research and hunting on the various second-hand markets, I found salvation in a 2010 Macbook. Note this is the last Macbook before the Air became the cheapest Macbook available. It may seem odd to consider an Apple product as a “cheap buy” but due to the way OS X works and the build quality of Apple products, second hand Macbooks, even ones that are now 6 years old, are actually fantastic buys as long as they have been looked after. I managed to acquire one in good condition for under £200 including delivery which seems to be the going rate if you’re patient. For this, you get an Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 2.4GHz and 2GB of DDR3 Ram and a battery life of 4-5 hours. By today’s standards that is respectable lower mid-range performance for a lot less than you would pay for a new comparable device. Again due to it being a Mac and running on OS X which is Apple’s operating system (OS), it really is able to do a lot with limited hardware when compared to Windows. It is not all roses here, however, and a few choice upgrades do need to be made to turn this into a decent workhorse that will relegate my desktop to only heavy work and gaming.
I have been an avid Windows user all my life, bar a brief insurgence into Linux during a part of my university career for no other reason than a bit of fun. As such moving to OS X was a bit of a shock. In a lot of ways, it is similar to Windows, with a few things in different places, but the trackpad is just leaps and bounds ahead of any laptop I have ever used before! After a brief 10 minute period of playing around with it and Googling how to do some things, I found that the shortcuts just made it so easy to do everything in a very intuitive way so I could completely forget about the hardware and software, and just focus on the actual usage of the machine to do the task at hand. As a result, my productivity was actually higher than it has been on other laptops. Now I should add here, we aren’t talking MASSIVE jumps in productivity here, but small increases here and there which just helped me keep my working flow going longer between breaking concentration.
First and foremost, where as processors really jumped leaps and bounds ahead in the late 2000s, it was not until a couple of years ago that SSDs really started to become mainstream options for data storage. Traditionally the storage drive on your computer (where the operating system, apps, documents, pictures etc. are stored) were Hard Disks or HDD which had spinning magnetic platters and needles which picked up the information. In order to read information on the drive it would need to spin up, get to the right point, then read it. These read quite slowly, slower still on laptops where the drives tended to spin at a lower speed of 5400rpm compared to 7200rpm of a desktop drive. SSDs or Solid State Drives work in a different to a traditional HDD. They do not have any moving parts which means you can’t damage them moving out and about the same way an HDD may be damaged. As a direct result of the lack of moving parts and the way an SSD works, they are significantly faster than an HDD for reading and writing especially when it comes to random reads and writes. Again due to a lack of moving parts, the power consumption is even lower.
What I noticed was that as far as processing speed goes, there is plenty of pure horsepower there and I never felt wanting, but launching applications and booting up was fairly slow. This is largely due to the HDD which is in the Macbook. The OS needs to find files and read from the hard disk before it can do anything with the processor. I had a spare SSD lying around which I installed which was very simple. There are plenty of How Tos out there to do this. I followed the ones from iFixit.com and it didn’t take more than 10 minutes start to finish. I had a precision screwdriver set which was invaluable for this. The improvement was HUGE! The machine was truly transformed, matching my overly powerful desktop in speed for most day to day tasks. This is the single most important upgrade I have made and I would strongly suggest this as an upgrade for really any laptop which does not have an SSD in it. I used a 500GB Samsung 850 EVO, but any SSD would be a great improvement over the old HDD. You can pick up a 120GB Kingston SSD that is more than up to the job for £40 or less and that is enough space for most use cases.
As time goes on, OS get heavier and heavier with more background processes going on. These are for the various services we just have on in the background to enhance our experience, such as weather updates, calendar and appointment reminders, and other location or time sensitive events. Additionally all the software we use on top of this require some space in memory of their own, especially if multitasking with several large documents being open or web browsers with multiple tabs open and extensions running (looking at you here Chrome). All of these things which are running require space in memory or RAM. By itself without any other software open, I was using 61% of the 2GB of RAM available to me just for the operating system. I suspect I could have made do with 4GB of RAM, but as this laptop has enough horsepower to deal with Photoshop for some photo touch ups on the go I decided to put in 8GB of RAM. You do have to be careful to get RAM that meets the specification of the Mac, but this is easy enough to do with our good friend Google. This model uses DDR3 RAM at 1066MHz so I used some Corsair RAM that I had lying around. This currently sells for £36 on Amazon. This upgrade has given me the ability to run more software at once, or to open large files without issue.
The final upgrade I made was purely cosmetic and can be totally skipped over. Being entirely white, and more than a few years old, the Macbook did have some cosmetic blemishes on the surface. Also being all white, it did look more dated than it’s slick aluminium family. As a result I purchased a cheap clip on black case for the bottom of the laptop, and an Iron Man sticker for the front cover because… well Iron Man! These do not serve any purpose and are entirely cosmetic but I thought to include them for completeness.
To conclude, after the upgrades suggested above, I took a Macbook that was purchased for not too much money and was starting to feel quite slow, and turned it into a machine that should comfortably last a student or blogger for quite a few years to come. The keyboard and layout is very comfortable for typing on, the operating system is very intuitive and easy to use, and the screen lends itself well to writing essays with it’s 1280×800 resolution which gives more vertical real estate than most 16:9 aspect ratio laptops. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, and hope this post helped those of you who may have been looking at a small cheap laptop for day to day or student use.