J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

How I Turned My Obsolete Early 2011 MacBook Pro Into a Screaming Fast Machine

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Back in 2011 my 15″ Macbook Pro was stolen while on vacation in Kauai. Though I never recovered that machine, Statefarm homeowner’s insurance covered the theft, and I was able to get a new 13″ MacBook Pro for the coverage amount less the deductible. I had a recent full backup, and only ended up losing a few days of email.

I’ve had the 13″ MacBook Pro ever since, and it’s one of my favorite computers ever. I use it for writing stories, making beats, writing this blog, some of my consulting work, all kinds of stuff. But over the last year it got really slow. Starting it up became a “walk away and get a cup of coffee” type of thing, and opening even lightweight apps triggered the spinning beachball.

Why so Slow?

I’d heard that new versions of MacOS were very resource intensive, so I hadn’t upgraded since Mavericks (MacOS 10.9). Still, my machine was crawling. Part of the problem was only 4GB of RAM (both slots filled with 2GB each). I installed a memory management program (Memory Clean) which indicated I often had less than 100MB of free RAM. Another issue was only about 50GB free on the 500GB internal drive, with that drive probably close to the end of its natural life. The machine was still useable, but only after I’d waited for the unstoppable startup indexing to complete (at least five minutes).

Upgrade Time

Upgrading your Mac is easy. You just pick it up, throw it in the trash, and then buy a new one.

I was ready to upgrade in this classic, time-honored tradition, with money saved for a new iMac. I waited for the Oct. 27 announcement of the new iMac models, which never materialized. Instead, the new Macbook Pro was announced, a machine that ditches the MagSafe power connector (best invention ever, at least for households with small children and/or clumsy people), has zero USB-A ports, and something called a Touch Bar that is apparently used to more easily add emoticons to your messages.

Maybe I would see if I could keep my 2011 machine going a little longer. 😉

Step 1: Max out the RAM

A quick search for 3rd-party Mac-compatible RAM led me to OWC, which was selling 16BG of Mac RAM for $99. The site features a great interface that clearly shows which upgrades are compatible with your older Mac. I decided to get a new battery as well, since Mac had been issuing increasingly dire warnings on that front, and my battery life was down to less than two hours.

OWC provided clear video tutorials for the installation, which was basically unscrewing a bunch of little screws, unplugging one connector, removing and replacing the RAM, swapping out the battery, and then replacing the bottom case with as many of the little screws you managed not to lose in the process.

Slight panic when I booted up and got a black screen. But I guess that was due to the Mac still thinking it was plugged into my external display. After a second boot cycle, everything worked.

Much better performance going from 4GB RAM to 16GB. No more spinning beachballs. But startup was still slow, and I was still down to 50GB space on the internal drive.

Step 2: SSD Upgrade

Solid state drives are expensive. But I read rave reviews about their performance, from trusted sources also using crusty old Macs.

I purchased a 1T internal SSD drive from OWC. There was a cheaper 1T drive available from some other company, but it only had one review. Hundreds of great reviews for the OWC product, so I picked that one. $350. Not cheap, but if it bought me a significant amount of time before purchasing a new machine, it would be worth it.

My plan: do a straight clone/restore from my SuperDuper backup disk image. I’d done that before when my old MacBook Pro had taken a walk. I hadn’t had to reinstall anything, or reauthorize any software.

But first, I had create an external boot disk, so that I could initialize the new drive in the first place. So here were my steps:

  1. Create a 10GB+ partition on one of my external drives. Instructions here, for several versions of MacOS.
  2. Download the MacOS version you want to install. If you haven’t download a MacOS version from the App Store previously, only the most recent one will be available (currently Sierra). But if you’ve downloaded previous version, those will still be available for download in your “Purchased” tab of the App Store application (though not via the iTunes App Store). Unfortunately I didn’t know this, and at the time I thought it didn’t matter. I just wanted to create a temporary boot disk so that I could initialize my new drive once it was installed.
  3. Run the installer and choose the new external disk partition as the target. Make sure not to install over your current system, which is the default choice!
  4. Copy the SuperDuper application to the new partition.

That all worked fine. I was able to boot from either my internal drive or the new partition, using the Startup Disk utility in System Preferences.

I refreshed my SuperDuper backup, shut down my system, and physically swapped out the old hard drive for the new SSD drive, following the steps in the OWC video tutorial for my particular MacbookPro model.

Booting from my new external partition with Sierra installed, I ran SuperDuper, selected my backup disk image as the source, the new SSD drive as the target, and ran a full restore. I’m not sure how long it took as I started the process and then went to bed.

In the morning, the disk restore had completed successfully. Good news!

Except when I tried to boot up the new disk, kernel panic, pointing to a missing driver. Bad news.

Mavericks (MacOS 10.9) must have been missing a required driver for the SSD drive. Or maybe something else. I tried a few troubleshooting steps but nothing worked.

Okay, time for Plan B.

I rebooted from my external partition, reinitialized the SSD drive with Disk Utility, redownloaded the Sierra installer on the new partition, and ran it again, this time with the SSD drive as the target. That worked.

Then I ran the data-migration tool to pull in all my data and applications from my back up disk image. That worked too.

WTF Fan?

As soon as I started up on Sierra, I noticed the fan turned on and stayed on. I checked out the Activity Monitor utility and noticed two processes were pegging the CPU. One was from Photos. A little research revealed that Photos will run the facial recognition algorithm on all your pictures and you can’t turn the process until you manually kill the process (and it will of course start itself up again the next boot cycle). I decided to just let this one finish.

The other process, called secd, was apparently due to some glitch in the keychain authorization process. Other users had run into the same issue, and I used the steps documented in this thread to kill the process permanently.

Upgrade Domino Avalanche

The technosphere is constantly evolving. With careful tending of your own technology garden, you can keep semi-closed older systems operational for a long time. Apparently George R.R. Martin still writes his novels on an old DOS-based word processor.

My own set of technology systems was based on Mavericks, an operating system released in 2013. I’d stopped upgrading the MacOS after that point because of spotty compatibility reports in regards to my Firewire audio interface and my version of Cubase (music sequencing software).

Upgrading to Sierra went smoothly, but it forced the following upgrades and troubleshooting steps:

  1. My version of Quickbooks (business accounting software) no longer worked. Instead of migrating to Quickbooks online, I chose to try out Wave. Within a week I got my first request to pay an invoice by credit card, which Wave easily handled (without requiring a monthly fee). I’m still evaluating Wave, but so far so good.
  2. My Firewire 1814 interface from M-Audio had no driver support for Sierra. Disappointing. Some users had independently developed drivers for Yosemite (the MacOS preceding Sierra), but none for Sierra. After a great deal of research I purchased the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 as a replacement audio interface. Great reviews, and documented support for Sierra.
  3. The Focusrite gear arrived. I spent half a day reconfiguring my studio. The new interface worked great with Sierra, but not at all with Cubase 7. I was pretty sure Cubase 7 wasn’t even supported on Sierra (even though it worked with the native audio driver), so I decided to upgrade to the newest version of Cubase (8.5) before contacting either Focusrite or Steinberg (the company that makes Cubase) tech support.
  4. After I’d purchased and installed Cubase 8.5, I ran into a severe bug with the authorization software. Dead in the water. Other Sierra/Steinberg users were experiencing the same issue. Steinberg support was helpful and acknowledged the bug quickly, and fixed in within a few days.
  5. A few other applications needed to be upgraded, but those upgrades all worked seamlessly.

Finally, back up and running. The SSD drive upgrade triggered about $800 in additional upgrades, at least three full work days of data migration and troubleshooting, and quite a bit of stress.

Was It Worth It?

Yes. SSD drives really do provide a huge speed boost. It’s like having a new machine. Spinning beach ball very rarely makes an appearance. Everything is snappy and fast. And I finally have plenty of free space on the internal drive.

If I’d known I could do it at the time, I probably would have chosen to install Yosemite instead of Sierra. With Yosemite I most likely would not have had to upgrade Cubase and the audio interface. But Apple hides that previous OS download really well!

Upgrades don’t always happen when you want them to. I really don’t like to be on the bleeding edge of technology. Sierra was released in September of 2016, very new for an OS. But it’s in surprisingly good shape. I had heard about major issues with search, but once your drive is fully indexed, search is great. As long as you have tons of RAM and an SSD drive. I wouldn’t want to be running Sierra without an SSD drive.

I hope this writeup was helpful for those of you who are still using older MacBook Pros and would like to keep them going a bit longer!

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5 Comments

  1. Hello,

    I’m also a professional musician. I use a mid-2007 17″ MacBook Pro (great machine). It’s still in great shape! I changed the battery twice and moved to a 1 To SSD drive. But I think the best thing I did was to stay on Mac OS 10.6.8 Snow Leopard, which is definitely the best for my machine (I have tested Maverick and Yosemite, both had problems of stability with FireWire interfaces, external USB drives and internet cable connection).

    All the best,

    Gilles

  2. I m looking to get it installed on mac pro do you have the drivers?

  3. Sean Wallace

    I did something pretty similar to my computer (the exact same model as yours) a couple of years ago, and have been very pleased with the results. I upgraded to 16GB of memory, bought a 240 GB SSD, and installed the OCW “Data Doubler” — this means I moved the original hard drive over to the former home of the DVD drive, and put the SSD into the original HD spot. Now I have an external DVD drive (that I’ve used about twice in the past two years), plenty of disk space, and a computer that I’m hopeful will last another few years. I’ll probably need to replace the battery in a year but other than that it should be fine.

    • Didn’t know about that drive trick — good to know if I ever want to install a 2nd internal drive. Glad your 2011 is going strong!

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