A shadetree mechanic's lament: The death of the upgradeable MacBook

I've been doing some housecleaning lately and I've found a few older Macs that I'd stopped using a long time ago, but never had the heart to sell or recycle. Among them is a "Lombard"-era PowerBook G3 that I got when I was working at Macworld back in the early oughts. As much as I like the design of today's MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros, I find the old machine a great looking system too, and I'm a bit sad that Macs aren't still made like this.

There are certainly some design elements that made it stand out, like the bronze translucent keyboard. But what I love about it the most is how modular it is. It's something you don't find in today's systems.

Shadetree mechanic's dream

When I say modular, I mean that the PowerBook G3 was trivially easy to work on yourself. It's most obvious when you look at the sides of the PowerBook, because it had removable modules on either side for the battery and the CD-ROM drive. Integrated, tensioned flippers built into the lower front of the PowerBook released and slightly pushed out these modules so you could slide them out.

That way, if you didn't need a CD-ROM drive but you did want an couple hours of battery life, you could simply slide out the drive and put in a second battery. As I recall you could also get other drive/battery bay modules, like an iOmega Zip drive. It was a cool idea.

There was also a PC card slot; remember those? PC card were solid state expansion cards that let you hook up to exotic network and audio interfaces, memory cards with additional storage capacity and other things.

But that's only setting the stage for the true modularity of this PowerBook. Because removing the keyboard only requires you to press down on two locking tabs at the top, situated to the right of the Escape key and to the left of the F8 key. Still connected by its ribbon cable, the keyboard could flop over onto the trackpad and you could get at the actual guts of the PowerBook. If you needed to replace or upgrade the hard drive, there it was (though with a staggering 4 GB of storage capacity in mine, I didn't really need to upgrade it while I had it.

RAM is protected underneath a metal tray held in place with screws. But they're regular old Philips head screws. 64 MB was a lot of RAM, though. For the day. You could get at the rest of the guts pretty easily, too — take the PowerBook down to bare metal them build it back up, and no one would be the wiser.

A sealed black box

Compare that to now. A couple of weeks ago I had to bring my Retina MacBook Pro in for a trackpad replacement — covered under AppleCare, fortunately, since it's more than a year old — and the technician replaced the entire top case. That includes the keyboard and the battery.

Now, I'm certainly not complaining about getting free stuff — the keyboard no longer shows any sign of wear, and the battery is charging as good as the day the MacBook Pro was new. But my point is that Apple's design and engineering of its laptop computers has grown dramatically in complexity, and that complexity has come at a cost.

Especially when you're dealing with a MacBook Pro or a MacBook Air, the days of the shadetree mechanic are largely over. Apple's new systems are just too closed to let anyone inside.

The last MacBook Pros with removable batteries went out of circulation back in 2009. Things have gone downhill for tinkerers from there. Apple has reengineered the MacBook line with soldered RAM, so you can't upgrade RAM even if you want to. You have to order your Mac with how much you think you'll need during its entire life cycle, or expect to replace it at some point with a beefier system.

Even with storage we've hit a wall. Other World Computing and Transcend both offer SSD kits that will let you upgrade your older MacBook Air or Retina MacBook Pro with more (and faster) storage. But to date they haven't offered ones for Haswell-era MacBooks, which use a different interface (PCI Express, or PCIe, instead of Serial ATA, or SATA). People who have had their Haswell-era MacBooks for a year may already be feeling the storage pinch but can't do anything about it, at least not yet. (OWC tells me upgrades for newer MacBooks are coming, but don't have a release date.)

Tinkerer's Macs

There's still one tinkerer's laptop left in Apple's arsenal: the 2012-era 13-inch MacBook Pro, with 4 GB of RAM and a 500 GB hard drive. It's not trivial to take it apart, but you can do it, and you can upgrade the RAM yourself and replace that standard SATA hard disk drive with an SSD.

Bumping up RAM and replacing the hard drive with an SSD actually makes that a blistering fast little system. If you've already invested in one or can get one for cheap it may be worthwhile to do, but I wouldn't recommend that anyone buy one today just for the sake of taking it apart; your money is better spent on one of Apple's other, non-upgradable systems. Those systems may not be good for tinkering but they are quick and reliable.

Even my old 2009-era polycarbonate white 13-inch MacBook made for a fun hobbyist machine. I bumped up RAM from 2 GB to 8 GB and replaced the 250 GB hard drive with a 240 GB SSD — it's blisteringly fast now and lots of fun to use, still. So the older machines with some ability to come apart can be reinvented and reworked to be fast, usable systems still.

Grass isn't greener

Of course, things aren't great on the PC side of the fence when it comes to laptops and upgradability as well, but that's not the point. Apple's on the leading edge of design, and they also talk a good game about surprising and delighting their customers.

Nothing would surprise and delight some of us more than a MacBook that could still be taken apart and tinkered with. Do I expect Apple to do anything about it? No. But I can dream.

  • Peter it's funny you mention that because I'm in the process of rebuilding/restoring a Lombard PowerBook G3, Titanium PowerBook G4 and a early 2008 MacBook Pro as we speak.
  • Wow! I have a 2012 13" MBP. Actually I got it free courtesy of ApplCare when my 2009 MBP digital audio kept getting stuck on. I have 16 GB of RAM and it takes over 5 minutes to boot (that is until I can start using apps and it includes logging in). It's damn slow. I think processor is the thing, but nothing can be done about that now. I've been trying to reduce HD usage. Still got the original 0.5 TB HD. Been thinking about getting a SSD, your article is strong persuasion to do so. What do you think of Crucial's components? My RAM is from them.
  • I always hate offering advice, but your problem (slowness) sounds fixable. I have a 2011 MacBook Pro 13" core i5 and while slow to boot, it is not 5 minutes slow. And yes it rocks with an SSD but I got a lemon that got slow really quick. But to your problem. Have you ever tried repairing permissions? I find (not only on my Macs, but my customers' as well) that repairing permissions will fix a lot of slowness issues. And to Peter (followed you here from the Loop), I am with you, miss having the ability to rip the guts out and shove 'em back in. ;)
  • I hadn't repaired permissions. I thought I'd try a rough measure of the effect:
    Performed a restart before repairing – 6:56
    I then verified permissions to see what they were like: a LONG list of issues. Then repaired them.
    Performed a restart – 5:30 So its still not great but a 90 second improvement. Other likely issues are:
    1. I have several apps that load when I boot.
    2. I have less than 10% of my 0.5 TB hard drive free.
  • Check out Crucial's new line of SSDs (the MX100) they are getting great reviews on Amazon and you can't beat the price. Crucial SSD's are good. I have the 480GB M500 in my 2008 (alum) MB, and 2 other M500's installed, and they all work great. Another SSD I installed was the Sandisk Ultra Plus 256GB - a great, no-frills drive. See Anandtech.com for in depth SSD reviews.... SSD should give you very fast boot-up - it sure did for me. And my machine has 3 Gigabit Link Speed (SATA-2). Yours is 6 Gigabit (SATA-3) so it can get the full benefit.
  • Thanks. Crucial currently have an offer on a Crucial M550 512GB, £50 off (£180). Which model is better, that or Crucial MX100 512GB? The MX100 is £20 cheaper (£160) and it's not on offer. But the spec for both is identical. The MX100 is £150 on Amazon so even more money saved!
  • I would say go buy a 8gb stick
    2 if u can afford
    And the. Buy a ssd tb with at least 540 530 w/r about 450$ and slap those in and your Mac will boot like mine in 15 seconds bro !!!!
  • That sounds VERY slow. Of course, if you launch, say, Photoshop on boot... yeah. But assuming you aren't launching a bunch of apps etc then a) check the health of your drive and b) think about SSD. My 2013 Air boots in about 15 seconds with several boot time items (Dropbox, Backblaze, etc). But do this... Reboot and hold the Option key down. If you see the Recovery partition appear alongside your normal disk, boot from that and run Disk Utility. Do a Verify Disk on your regular drive. If it's needed, (it will tell you), Do a Repair Disk. What I want to get at there is whether the disk has bad sector or other issues that are causing read times to be very slow. PS: Also, make sure you're not down to your last few gig of space.
  • You're spot on! HD was corrupted. Verify told me very quickly I needed to repair. I'm down to 65 GB free - which is actually over 10% I was mistaken earlier. I launch Dropbox, Box, Evernote, Airmail, Safari and smc fan control. To be honest I don't know why I haven't done this already. I always take care of my iMac because my wife uses it so I like to make sure it's in tip top condition. Need to make sure I look after the trusty MBP too :)
  • Excellent... did the repair help startup at all? In your shoes I'd make sure I had a current backup (Time Machine, etc) in case the drive is going south. Check it in a week or two again... it should be fine then. If it's showing errors again, you might want to think about replacing it. If the drive is fine but startup and other disk bound I/O is still slow you might want to DIY a Fusion drive (a drive that's a small SSD for quick startup combined with a regular drive for lots of storage that looks like a single volume). See http://blog.macsales.com/15617-creating-your-own-fusion-drive for a good writeup on how to do this. BTW, 65gig is fine in free space. I was thinking that you might be down to under 10.
  • Yes it did. I am down to 4:22. That is quite a significant improvement. I know that still sounds slow but I should explain that in timing it I am waiting for those apps to load and become usable (i.e. Dropbox starts syncing and I can start editing notes in Evernote). I will try again without opening a host of apps to see how it goes. I will also keep an eye on the HD and look into a fusion setup. That had come to mind independently actually as I have been using an external hard drive for Yosemite public beta. That loads SUPER fast (but I don't have loads on there).
  • I loved the Pismo! :-( Mine eventually died, but I loved the second bay for a battery. I still think it is better (in terms of versatility and functionality) than the portable Macs today. (Hell, it even had an IR transceiver! lol) Apple is too heavy-handed in its design with the lack of upgrade options nowadays I think. :-/
  • I have 15-inch, Early 2011 MPB and I have upgraded the memory, hardrive to ssd, (replaced) battery, taken out the superdrive and added a second hard drive in it's place (tip: get the external enclosure for the superdrive). Except for the processor, I don't see wanting to replace anything else. It was all very easy without any specialized ability or tools. The parts all came from inexpensive reliable 3rd parties. Despite being 3 years old now, it is the fastest computer in the house - much faster then the new (cheaper) PCs in the house which work well enough and are upgradable in the same manor. I don't feel I'm missing anything at all in upgrade / flexibility. I plan on using this machine for at least another 2 years. Unreal Dev and multi track music projects are the hardest things I throw at it and it's super responsive in all cases.
  • I worked at Gateways flagship PC assembly plant and did manufacturing metrics. One thing people forget about is that when looking to reduce mfg costs one of the biggest culprits comes from assembly errors that cause scrap. Like bent pins on a CPU installation. Basically, any part that humans have to install, they will find a way to trash the part, motherboard etc. There is an enormous cost pressure on PC manufacturers to get away from parts that need to installed by hand.
  • Someone I know was shopping for a new MacBook
    I told him to got for the dual core i7 and then just add 16 gigs and a ssd and that should be a great computer for around 2000
  • PowerBook was an infinitely better name than MacBook. TRUTH. Someone should build a portable Macintosh based on a Mac mini. Recreate the superior experience of lunchbox style portables.
  • Owned a Lombard, parts that could be changed/replaced with relative ease ?
    Hard Drive
    DVD drive
    On a 2014 MacBook Pro ?
    Urgh nothing ? Sent from the iMore App