Will upgrading my mid-2010 Macbook Pro solve all of my problems?
March 18, 2014 10:45 AM   Subscribe

My mid-2010 Macbook Pro doesn't handle streaming video or huge Excel files well. Would a comprehensive upgrade solve my problems, or am I better off buying a new computer?

My specs: 2.4 GHz Core2Duo, 8GB RAM (upgraded), 250GB HDD filled nearly to capacity, "7,1 model"

My problem: computer gets uncomfortably hot and loud streaming video such as Netflix, sports, etc. Excel is deathly slow (slight lag time on every click/keystroke) even with small files, and my files for work are pretty big (100MB+)

I'd like to upgrade my RAM to 16GB (OWC says it can be done on this particular model?), swap out the HDD for a SSD, replace my broken CD drive with a HDD, install Windows to run Excel, and reapply thermal paste if necessary (already done once before).

1. Do you think these upgrades would solve my problems, or do I really need a new processor? I would get a lower-end retina MBP or Air. But I'd rather stretch the life of my computer a couple more years.
2. What size SSD and HDD should I get? Am I supposed to put most of my media on the HDD, meaning there'd be no point in getting a large SSD? And is there any benefit in buying a new HDD versus just using the one I have right now?

Thank you!
posted by acidic to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are your fans actually spinning? In a Windows laptop I had a similar overheating-when-watching-video problem and went through the thermal paste rigamarole and cleaned out every speck of dust before realizing the the main cooling fan had simply died at some point and never turned on when the system was powered up.

(A clue in this case was that if I took a high-volume centrifugal shop fan and propped it right up against the vents on the left side of the laptop, but not the right side, it significantly extended the amount of time it lasted when playing video before crashing.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:59 AM on March 18, 2014

Are you running 10.9.x ("Mavericks")? It makes some OS-level adjustments to how CPU is used that might help your laptop run more efficiently — and thus cooler. It is a free upgrade so I recommend doing it unless you have a very old or under-spec'ed laptop (which you don't) — or if you are highly dependent on Apple Mail connected to a Google account, where there are still problems.

Also make sure you are running the latest versions of Flash and Silverlight plug-ins.

Upgrading the RAM will help. 16 GB is more than enough to run 10.9.

Swapping the HDD for an SSD will help your laptop run faster and cooler. Adding an HDD to the SSD will make it again run hotter and slower, however.

Unless I needed the extra space kept internal to the laptop, I would not get an HDD to go along aside the SSD as that would defeat the purpose of getting the SSD.

If you are running to capacity, then get the same size SSD or larger. If cost is an issue (512 GB SSDs are likely considered expensive to most people), consider using a tool like GrandPerspective to more easily and visually identify less-frequently used files and folders, which you could then archive to disc, external HDD drive or flash drives.

Also, if you are running to capacity, freeing up space on your hard drive (whether HDD or SSD) will make more swap space available to the operating system to use at once. This reduces the number of times the OS has to go out to that swap space and read and write data, and thus this helps speed up your computer.

At all times, try to keep about 10% of your hard drive free and available to the operating system. Once you go below this value, you can start to see an impact on performance. And with HDDs, you are not only making more frequent accesses to the disk drive, which affects performance, but you are also using it more, which makes your laptop run hotter.

Further, if you are having performance issues with Microsoft Office for Mac, consider wiping the Office preferences to start with a "clean slate". After resetting preferences, re-run the Office application to get fresh settings. Cruft can accumulate over time that makes Office run slowly.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:03 AM on March 18, 2014

What does "nearly to capacity" mean? Mac OS X does require at least 10% of your hard drive's total capacity to be free in order to work well. If you have less than 25 GB available, definitely consider measures to reclaim hard drive space. (Things I did: Monolingual, for removing foreign language translations of apps, and iTunes Match, for putting my entire iTunes library in the cloud so I could delete all the files in my library.)
posted by emelenjr at 11:09 AM on March 18, 2014

I have a macbook of similar vintage and find that one thing that helps with this (especially with streaming video) is to not let my hard drive fill to capacity. You might want to delete unnecessary files and/or look into an external for overflow storage.

Since I stream so much now, I recently did a weed-out of digital media I was storing on my hard drive. I had a bunch of movies I'd ripped via handbrake years ago and never even watched, things I'd torrented that I straight up didn't care about, applications I never use, etc. I was able to free up like 50 gb of space in my hard drive just by taking a serious look at how I actually use my computer as opposed how I might someday want to use my computer.
posted by Sara C. at 11:11 AM on March 18, 2014

Response by poster: Movies are taking up the majority of hard drive space. Let's say I get a SSD and move just my movies to the HDD, will that still impact performance since I won't be accessing the HDD regularly?
posted by acidic at 11:16 AM on March 18, 2014

You could get an external hard drive for your movies much more cheaply than you could remove your CD drive and install another HDD.
posted by Sara C. at 11:22 AM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I upgraded from a 2010 era MBP to a new one about 8 months ago.

Every problem you've mentioned is solved, a lot of it by the SSD but the heat/fan issues as well.

I'd honestly upgrade the whole computer you won't regret it.
posted by bitdamaged at 11:27 AM on March 18, 2014

As luck would have it, I have at home a 2.26GHz MacBook Pro and a low-end 2.5GHz Retina MacBook Pro, both with 8GB. Both will spin up the fans and get uncomfortably warm to the touch when doing HD playback for more than a few minutes. That's normal. You can get a a third-party external fan to stick under it to help the cooling, but that's just shifting the location of the fan.

Putting an SSD in the older one was a dramatic upgrade. Much faster response to pretty much anything involving files.

As for memory, can you see how much you're actually using? I know Excel with big spreadsheets can be a real memory hog, so start up Activity Monitor before you have a big one open and click the Memory tab. Look at the number that says: Swap used and make a note of it. Then start using Excel and see if that number goes up. If it does, more memory and/or faster disk will definitely help. Also, if your Free memory is less than say 100MB, that is another clue that you need more memory.

As far as replacing the optical drive with an HDD, that's a solid option if you really need the space to store your files, especially if you need those files on the go. Otherwise an external drive is probably the better option. Definitely look and see where your space is going; if you haven't looked lately there's probably a lot you could ditch.

That said, in addition to better battery life, the screen on the Retina models is like night and day. Just gorgeous and sharp. Maybe have a look at how much you could get for your old computer on eBay and consider the net price of the upgrade, taking into account that you can't do third-party upgrades of the RAM or SSD.
posted by wnissen at 11:44 AM on March 18, 2014

I have a 9,1 which replaced a 7,1 under Applecare. Some time after I got the 9,1 I bumped the ram to 16g and did notice a difference (which I did not necessarily expect to)

That said, a 7,1 is old enough that if I were you I think I'd draw the line at the memory upgrade and perhaps a hybrid drive. You can move to a 1T hybrid for just $99 (and I have seen sales as low as $80) and the memory shouldn't be too much more. Any more money than that I think you'd be happier with saving/spending for a newer model.
posted by phearlez at 11:47 AM on March 18, 2014

Oh, and you're right about the movies. They are large, but only a small piece of the movie is loaded at any point in time. Maybe a few tens of megabytes. Having them on a HDD, assuming you're just watching and not editing, will be exactly the same in terms of performance as having them on an SSD. (For technical reasons, HDDs are great at reading long chunks of data like a movie, while they are terrible at reading little bits of files strewn all over the disk, which SSDs are much better at.)
posted by wnissen at 11:49 AM on March 18, 2014

I had the same problem with excel on a 2010 macbook air. Very laggy. Copy and paste involved making a cup of tea.

So I took my file on a usb stick to an apple store and tried the document on a top of the range mac. The lag was identical. My conclusion was that Excel is just really bad on OSX. I'd advise using a windows emulator and running excel for windows - this solved my problem completely, the same document was very responsive using Parallels + Windows Excel. Lightening fast compared to OSX Excel.

If you hunt around forums it's a known problem.

Also macs are not great with flash.
posted by molloy at 11:49 AM on March 18, 2014

Since you're close to capacity on your HD, I'd put the movies on an external, unless there's a reason you need access to them more regularly. Freeing up more room on your HD will speed things up. If you really want another 1-2 years of life out of it, I'd upgrade the RAM and run Windows with Parallels for Excel.

FWIW, I have a 2012 Macbook with 8 GB of RAM, and don't often get heating and fan issues when streaming. The fan turns on, but not at the super loud level that makes me think I should start closing some tabs and programs.
posted by yasaman at 12:05 PM on March 18, 2014

Response by poster: Swapping the HDD for an SSD will help your laptop run faster and cooler. Adding an HDD to the SSD will make it again run hotter and slower, however.

My question is, if I have the internal HDD but am rarely using it, would that make the computer run hotter and slower?

Also: does Parallels work well with an SSD? Or should I put it on the other drive?
posted by acidic at 2:58 PM on March 18, 2014

A rarely used internal HDD isn't going to make the computer slower. It might make it a hair hotter, even spun down a hard disk tends to dissipate a couple watts of energy.

I can't imagine Parallels being too poorly behaved on an SSD. I run it off a hard disk at home, since I have a fast hard disk and don't want burn up the life of my SSD unnecessarily.

If you're not on Mavericks, you definitely want to get to Mavericks, and make sure all of your plugins are up to date. Odds are that a lot of your heat issues are due to the OS switching you over from CPU integrated graphics to the faster, hotter Nvidia graphics chip. Mavericks doesn't make the problem go away, but it does (finally) tilt the balance in favor of staying on integrated graphics for longer.
posted by wotsac at 3:12 PM on March 18, 2014

I recently stopped using Office for Mac on my iMac of a recent vintage (Late '09, 2.6GHz Core i5, 12GB RAM) in favor of using Office 2013 on a Windows 7 Home Premium virtual machine in Parallels. My system runs a heck of a lot better now. (I do have Outlook open pretty much constantly.) The Windows 7 portion of it is pretty limited - I only have it set up with 4GB RAM - but the office apps work pretty well, and the integration between OS X and Windows is pretty good. Links open in Chrome on OS X, PDFs open in Preview, Word/Excel docs open in the Windows version of Office, mailto links and stuff like that pop up Outlook, etc. Parallels has a thing called Convergence that makes the Windows apps work more like OS X apps - I don't see the Windows desktop, windows intermingle, all that. I may switch back after the new version of Office for Mac comes out but until then the Windows version is just so much better than forgetting I left Word open and waiting 10 minutes for it to quit so I can have my system back.

Seconding moving to Mavericks if you haven't already. Putting an SSD in my MacBook was a night and day difference, and Parallels had no problems running on it. The only problem I had was that I bought a 64GB SSD (this was a while ago..) so I had to be mindful of space and all that. If you have a big enough SSD, it shouldn't be a problem. (As a possible point of reference, my Win7 VM is around 175GB right now, but I do have the full CS 5.5 suite installed too and that's pretty big.)
posted by mrg at 4:11 PM on March 18, 2014

I upgraded from a late 2009(essentially the same machine, but with a 2.66ghz CPU) macbook pro to a 2012 retina pro.

I heavily considered putting the HDD in the optical bay, getting an SSD, and maxing out the ram beforehand.

I did a completely clean install of OSX, and played around with it without any of my files or programs on it. Made a decent difference. I also played around with upgraded systems acquaintances/people i talked to had.

If you go look at geekbench, the old MBP cpu isn't that much slower than the new air cpu. It's about inline with the 2011 air.(and worth noting there isn't really a performance difference CPU wise between the 2012 and 2013, the 2013 just has vastly better battery life)

I honestly think the biggest upgrades the new machine gave me were the ram and SSD. i rarely put more than 5-30% of load on the CPU even using "pro" apps. the GPU is flexed so rarely as to not care, and the GPU in the old mac was perfectly fine for everything up to HD netflix/hulu or 1080p local files at a high bitrate.

However, despite this, i would still upgrade. The old machine will be fine with some upgrades now but what about in a year or two? You're also just on the cusp of the old machine not being worth all that much. Right now the newest OS and all the new software supports it, it's still probably worth $5-600 used. Maybe even a little bit more(i got $700 for mine a couple months ago, but it was a 17in and people covet those).

Factor in the money you'll get from selling it, and the $200-$250 you'd spend on an SSD and ram. Now you're well, very close to used or refurbished new mac prices. You can snag a 2013 base model 13in air for $850 on craigslist sometimes.

So yea, upgrading the machine would likely solve your current problems... but i don't think it makes sense from a future-proofing or monetary standpoint.
posted by emptythought at 5:14 PM on March 18, 2014

My question is, if I have the internal HDD but am rarely using it, would that make the computer run hotter and slower?

Hotter and slower, yes, but only when you do (if rarely) use it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:48 PM on March 18, 2014

"You could get an external hard drive for your movies much more cheaply than you could remove your CD drive and install another HDD."

Not really. I've seen brackets to fit HDDs in the optical bay for less than $25 on ebay.

I'd move data to an external drive to free a good chunk of HDD space to see if that helps.

I'd also confirm that the fans are operating properly and that heat sink paste is properly applied, because it sounds like you may be getting hit with thermal throttling.

Running windows Excel under parallels is probably worth a try too.

RAM and an SSD would probably make for a nice upgrade, but I tend to view 4 year old laptops as having a good chance of dying in the next year.
posted by Good Brain at 8:21 PM on March 19, 2014

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