My Computer Cannot Even
September 20, 2014 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Need to replace my laptop at short notice. Should I blow my bank account and get a MacBook Air, or pick up a Chromebook (or the like) as a stopgap measure while continuing to save up for the Pro I really want?

After yet another Saturday morning spent wrestling with my MacBook, I think it's time to go computer shopping. However, as I was hoping to get another year out of this laptop (it's a 2009), I'm not able to afford the computer I really want, a 15 inch Macbook Pro.

My options right now are as follows:

1. Empty my bank account on a Macbook Air. I like the Air a lot and it's the logical upgrade from the now-discontinued Macbook. The air will do all the things I currently use my computer for, and will be lightweight and probably not burn my thighs anymore. It's not terribly responsible to make this large a purchase on short notice, but my bills are paid for the month, the house is full of groceries, the car is full of gas, and I'm otherwise in good financial shape.

2. Run to Best Buy and pick up some species of Chromebook, which will be my primary at-home computer for the next year or so while I save for the Pro I really want. A Chromebook will do most things I currently do with my laptop, and since my MacBook isn't completely bricked, I could probably continue to use the MacBook for the rest (namely gaming and writing). Also it would be about half the price.

3. Make no purchase at all and instead try to fix whatever is wrong with my MacBook. The recent spate of problems (though there have been problems in the past) started when I installed a Mavericks security update, and in general Mavericks and my MacBook have not played nicely together since I installed it earlier this year. I'm pretty sure the folks at the Genius Bar are going to say "your computer is old sorry you need a new one", and they're right, but maybe there's some voodoo I could work that would keep this puppy running for another year?

Good stuff to know:

I'm looking to eventually get a Pro because I make a web series, and if I had a more powerful computer I could handle more of the post-production process myself rather than farming it out. I'm also looking to start a podcast which will require some sound editing software, and I dabble in graphic design which requires Adobe CS4 (doesn't run well on my MacBook and may not run at all on an Air). I don't require a Pro for everyday use, but it would be good to have.

The main problem with my current MacBook is general web browsing and streaming. Chrome fails constantly, to the point that as of right now I cannot run it, despite much troubleshooting. Safari is kind of OK, but fails pretty frequently as well (and I hate Safari anyway). iTunes is no great shakes either. Finder and the basic background functions of a computer like Wifi, trackpad, etc are beginning to either sometimes fail or lag to the point that I can't put up with it. Typically anytime I install an update some new problem presents itself. About once a week some basic function of my computer does not do what I need it to do. My guess is that it's just old and isn't up to the standards of any current software, and it's time to be put out to the pasture that is data storage and occasional use.
posted by Sara C. to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What's the size of your hard drive, how full is it, and how much memory (RAM) do you have on your current Macbook?

I upgraded my 2008 MacBook pro by giving it more memory and replacing the hard drive. For about $200 it got me through this past year, when I upgraded to a new MacBook Pro. But five years for a laptop is actually a pretty good run, and it's probably time to upgrade.

Roughly speaking, you *could* spend about a grand on an Air right now? Would you consider a refurbished macbook pro? The 13" MacBook Pro with Retina screen is really nice and it looks like there are some decent models available at a discount.
posted by barnone at 12:34 PM on September 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Specs for those who want them:

2.26 Ghz processor (this was the smallest/base-model when I bought it in 2009)
2 GB memory (ditto, and I have not upgraded)
OSX 10.9.5 (Mavericks)

250 GB storage, of which I have only a shocking 5 GB free. This seems weird to me, since a few months ago I had 50 GB free after a major hard drive clean out, and I haven't downloaded much since then. A similarly shocking 101.5 GB is being consumed by "other" storage (as opposed to audio, movies, apps, and backups, all of which look pretty normal to me; "other" is by far the main use of my storage right now.)

I would jump on the "clean out that hard drive!" bandwagon, but I did that last time I was having problems, and A) there's really nothing else I can comfortably get rid of and B) honestly it didn't accomplish much before.

Also, while I could get a refurbished MacBook Pro, I can't wait for shipping (or long-term service requiring shipping my laptop off somewhere) on this problem. I need to either buy a new laptop or accomplish the necessary repairs this weekend.
posted by Sara C. at 12:46 PM on September 20, 2014

I would max out the ram and switch to a SSD hard drive before getting a Chromebook. That's what I did with my older macbook pro and it is like having a new machine.

Have you used a Chromebook before? I owned a Pixel that I gave to my brother. He was planning on using it while he saved up for an air. He used it for about a week before he gave it back to me. He found that it did about 80% of what he needed, but that the 20% of things it could not were a deal breaker.
posted by phil at 12:47 PM on September 20, 2014

Response by poster: I am 100% positive that even if I could max out the ram and switch to a SSD this weekend, it would cost not only exponentially more than a chrome book (~$200), it would probably cost more than a new Mac. Every time I've looked into upgrading a 5 year old computer in the past, it just hasn't been worth it.
posted by Sara C. at 12:50 PM on September 20, 2014

Response by poster: He found that it did about 80% of what he needed, but that the 20% of things it could not were a deal breaker.

Could you be more specific about this?

I have used a chrome book before and am familiar with what they can and can't do. I know that I'd be limiting myself to things that can be done in a web browser. I'm 100% OK with that since what my current computer cannot do is... anything you might want to do in a web browser.
posted by Sara C. at 12:51 PM on September 20, 2014

How is your credit? Could you afford to make payments on an macbook pro through apple financing?

My computer just suddenly died and I bought a 13 inch macbook pro that way. The 13 inch is a few hundred dollars cheaper than 15 inch, and the screen is plenty big, IMO.

The shrinking free space is the sign of a dying hard-drive, btw.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 12:58 PM on September 20, 2014

Best answer: What barnone said: if you're short or RAM and/or hard drive space, then there are options than don't involve New Computer and will give you that year of breathing room. Switching to a SSD in particular can potentially get you an extra year or two's comfortable performance out of an older Mac laptop, which is why the 2011 MBP on which I'm typing this feels more sprightly than when I bought it with a spinny-disk.

On preview: you should be able to get 8GB of RAM in that system for around $100. Get a 250GB SSD for $130-150. Swap the drive, run a clean OS X install, $10 enclosure for your old hard drive, selectively reimport your stuff. You can't do a recovery boot from a bare drive on a 2009 MB, but you can put an installer from the App Store on a USB stick before you swap over.

So, $250, which is only a wee bit more than the Chromebook with less disruption.

Oh, and if you can run the trial of DaisyDisk right now, it'll tell you where and what that "other" storage is.
posted by holgate at 12:59 PM on September 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would do whatever you can to avoid a Chromebook. They are ok, but imo they are only good for basic things. Anything more advanced and it feels very limiting.
posted by troytroy at 1:02 PM on September 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

And if you need to do internal upgrades this weekend, then Fry's or similar shouldn't charge you that much more than the online prices. They are commodity parts.
posted by holgate at 1:04 PM on September 20, 2014

I also vote for an SSD, but if you don't want to do that, why not buy a used Chromebook online? There's a bunch on eBay for under $100.
posted by ananci at 1:07 PM on September 20, 2014

I'd go for a Chromebook. I recently bought a Dell M3800—the PC equivalent of MacBook Pro 15"—but I'm practically considering it as a mobile-if-needed desktop solution for professional work so I'm looking into buying a Chromebook for my browsing/casual needs since 15" is a bit too unwieldy for that and I wouldn't want to risk an accident with such an expensive gadget.

I think Chromebooks are fantastic in the bang-for-buck department. Some really nice options are coming out, too, though cheaper ones are just as capable, I hear. You may also want to consider that a merging of Android and ChromeOS seems to be imminent (some apps are already ported) so Chromebooks are about to get much more versatile. It looks like a smart investment to me.
posted by procrastinator at 1:19 PM on September 20, 2014

Best answer: Chromebooks are cool as second computing devices but I really do not think they're usable as a SOLE device when you have media production needs.

I'm 95% sure your current computer issues are related to not enough RAM and a failing hard drive. For $250 you could get a new hybrid SSD drive and 4-8GB of RAM - I know because I got a huge SSD drive and 8GB of ram over 1.5 years ago for an even older macbook. (Memory has dropped in price since then.)

You'd get another year, maybe, out of it. But other things (graphic card, hinge on the screen, screen itself, trackpad) might start to go.

I would not expect that your current hard drive will last much longer. Weird jumps in memory like that can be the sign of impending hard drive failure. It *might* if you got more RAM and cleared it out of everything, but it would not be anywhere near surprising if you got the screen of doom.

If you need something now, and don't want to futz with components, I think you really have two considerations:

1) If you cannot do something on a Chromebook, is that OK for the next few months? Or do you have things you NEED to do that cannot be done on a cb? Again, I would not plan on your current HD from lasting the entire year. I know you need something this week that can work on a Chromebook, but I do not think you'll be happy with it as your sole system all year.

2) The Macbook Air (2014 version) is nice but probably not great for your production needs long-term. It looks like the MacBook Air (2014) is about $900-$1200 depending on screen and storage.

3) As people say above - consider the 13" MacBook Pro with Retina. I went from a 15" to the new 13" Pro with Retina and it's GORGEOUS. It's a few hundred bucks cheaper than the 15" and it's way way more portable. The 13" Macbook Pro (2014) is $1300-$1800 depending on storage. You could get the version with the smallest SSD, and then save up to buy a portable HD for video projects.

4) If none of those options sound good, post on your Facebook and Twitter to see if anyone local has a system you can borrow for a few weeks to evaluate. I've currently got an iPad and two different Macbook Pros that I haven't had time to clean/sell, and two of them are with friends at the moment. It would buy you some time to save up if needed. Maybe someone has a Chromebook that you can use for a few weeks to try out!

In conclusion, with your media production needs, I'd suggest a 13" MacBook pro with as much storage as you can afford.
posted by barnone at 1:30 PM on September 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 2 GB of RAM is pretty slim in 2014, even for web browsing and the like, and upgrading from HDD to SSD is like getting a whole new computer. (I bought a MacBook Pro 13 with SSD last year and within nine months I had upgraded my own Windows desktop and my wife's mid- to low-end Windows laptop with SSDs. My desktop is much faster now, but my wife's laptop went from near-unusable to downright speedy.) This is what I would do if I were in your position — spend $250 to overhaul my existing computer (make sure you know how you're going to reinstall OS X before you make the change) and hold out until I could get the MacBook Pro 15 that I really want.

I really wouldn't consider the MacBook Air if you hope to do real production. It's a great computer, but you want horsepower and the MBPs are not that much more expensive.

I have never used a Chromebook, but my instinct is that your current machine with a 8 GB RAM and a new SSD would be a more usable system — unless there really is something about Mavericks that doesn't like your circa-2009 CPU.

You might want a good external hard drive, too, so that you don't fill your SSD right away. You can always use it with that MBP 15 you're eventually planning to get.
posted by Mothlight at 2:00 PM on September 20, 2014

I agree with those saying to avoid getting a chromebook and instead upgrade your current macbook. I have a macbook pro that is 8 yrs old!! and still working great because I maxed out the ram and have replaced the hard drive (a couple times actually). If you can afford the ssd it's worth it, but if your budget is very limited you could replace your current hd with a ide hard drive for under $100. I recommend for these purchases.
posted by meta87 at 2:45 PM on September 20, 2014

Best answer: I don't think you should buy the Air. Given what you want to do and its relative lack of power, it would be a "temporary" computer like the Chromebook--you would probably end up wanting to upgrade to a Pro a soon as you could anyway. That would be a really expensive temporary computer!
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:54 PM on September 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Years ago when I was in a similar predicament with similar options what I ended up doing was renting a "plenty good enough" computer (a Mac clam shell) from a place that rents out to production companies. The price was embarrassingly reasonable and it allowed me to buy enough time to stall and save up more money to get the computer I really wanted (a 17" PowerBook.)
posted by Room 641-A at 4:27 PM on September 20, 2014

Response by poster: Hey Everybody! I am now typing this at you from my new Chromebook. It was super cheap -- even for an impeccably reviewed model everyone on Amazon and half the tech review sites seems to like -- and dead simple to set up since my entire internet life is chrome/gmail/google drive already anyway. Aside from the fact that I hate the tiny keyboard, I'm very happy with this setup.

The plan right now is, in the short term, to swap out my MacBook's HD for a solid state drive (hopefully before it has a chance to fail) and potentially upgrade the RAM. (This'll happen when I actually have time to bring it in.) I backed everything up to DropBox and, going forward, will mostly just be using my Mac for the stuff it's still good at: writing on Final Draft, graphic design on Creative Suite, and gaming via Steam.

I don't do really any video editing or the like on my MacBook as of yet and was not looking to do that sort of thing on a chromebook. That was more a consideration for my next primary computer. I see no point in buying a $1000 stopgap machine that won't be able to handle the types of things I'd like to be able to handle in the future. Chromebook purchased and medium-term plans for the old MacBook, I'm still on track for the Pro within the next year or so.
posted by Sara C. at 4:29 PM on September 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Upgrade the ram before you upgrade the disk. Its cheaper and will make an enormous difference. Both are relatively easy, but the ram upgrade is easier, and you shouldnt have any trouble getting ram for a 2009 macbook off Amazon at an entirely fair price (the standard hasn't changed much since then).

Im surprised you made it this far with 2gb. I had one of those for a couple years, and found it was useless running snow leopard back then. After i upgraded the memory it was a perfectly serviceable machine for the most part. An SSD made it quite useful. I still keep a similar specced computer around for travel and such.
posted by wotsac at 4:42 PM on September 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I see you just bought a Chromebook, which I hope holds you over.

I just wanted to chime in with the others regarding your "SSD + RAM upgrade costing an order of magnitude more" comment.

You'll be able to get a larger, much faster SSD and a RAM upgrade for a bit more than the cost of the Chromebook. You could do it for less, but I wouldn't.

A quick note about your current predicament. You have 2 GB of RAM. OS X and friends love RAM. So what do computers do when they need more RAM than there currently is? Swap. And what does it need to swap? HDD space. Which you have almost none of.

I'm on a 2011 MBP with 16GB of RAM and 8GB are used from just Mail, Safari, Calendar, DevonThink Pro Office, TextMate, PyCharm, Numbers, iTunes, Preview and a handful of Terminals.

If you do get a SSD, instead of migrating your install over, you could take this opportunity to start fresh. Fresh OS X. Fresh install of just the applications you need (and instead others as you need them, I was surprised at how many applications I didn't miss when I did this after migrating my original OS X install over 5 years between two machines). Copy documents. The old HDD is there should you ever need it.

Good luck!
posted by Brian Puccio at 4:47 PM on September 20, 2014

I'll just pile on-- I keep a number of these 2009/2010-era MBPs alive with SSD, max ram. One thing I like doing is pulling out the optical drive (any DVD I need I can use my desktop or whatnot to create a USB drive that does the same) and replacing it with a largish HDD for storage-- you can use whatever your boot drive is now, most likely, though it's going to fail soon on its own.

I think starting afresh with new OS install will help you immensely. Since you did get the Chromebook, I would suggest the above anyway to get some resale value out of it.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:55 PM on September 20, 2014

Response by poster: Also just to stem the tide of RAM/SSD advice, there is no way in god's green heck I am doing this work on my own.
posted by Sara C. at 4:56 PM on September 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you've ever put a NES game cartridge into a NES, and have used a screwdriver, you can do the RAM and SSD yourself. Just sayin'!
posted by destructive cactus at 6:05 PM on September 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Buying an expensive computer is cheaper than buying an expensive computer + another computer. Can you finance it? Can you use a cellphone/library while you save up $$$?
posted by oceanjesse at 8:28 PM on September 20, 2014

2 GB RAM is not nearly enough for modern day web browsing. Upgrading the RAM is MUCH more important than the SSD. If you upgrade just the SSD the Mac will just swap to the SSD all the time and not help that much with speed.

File systems often get slower when there is little space left. Try delete stuff so you have 10% free space on the drive.
posted by flif at 10:35 AM on September 21, 2014

Hey, I think I have something for you to try.

Your laptop has a MagSafe power connector, right? If it does, follow these directions on how to reset the System Management Controller. (You're basically turning it off and back on again, so you have nothing to lose.)

I stumbled across that yesterday after my MBP had been pronounced DOA, and it fixed it like brand freaking new. Also: thanks to all the advice here, which sent me down the SSD rabbit hole; I saw advice on a forum that said to always check that before you buy an SSD, and that the Genius Bar folks don't know to do that for some reason.)

Good luck!
posted by Room 641-A at 12:07 AM on September 30, 2014

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