How can I make the best of an old beast of a laptop?
January 10, 2020 2:42 PM   Subscribe

I have an enormous, maybe even majestic early 2008, 17-inch MacBook Pro with a 2.5 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo and 4 gb of ram. What can I do on it?

This model was the first apple laptop with a full 1080HD 1920x1200 display, and after opening it up for the first time in a long time after being used to a 13", it seems absurdly large.

It doesn't make sense to stop using a computer like this that still works. I have several questions:

What can and can't it do?
What OS X is best on it?
Will I be able to access the 2020 internet on it?
What are the best sources of information regarding optimizing a machine like this to work now?
posted by umbú to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
1) It can do whatever you want! (In time.)
2) 2015's Mac OS 10.11 El Capitan is the last officially supported OS for that model. It's still OK!
3) Sure, of course. Modern versions of Chrome, Firefox and other tools will work fine.
4) Just upgrade it to El Capitan, and it'll still work like any other Mac. Maybe upgrade the RAM and the hard drive to increase speed?
posted by eschatfische at 2:58 PM on January 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Absolutely update the OS (or not) and keep using it. It’s a mighty fine machine.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:02 PM on January 10, 2020

You can probably upgrade the RAM & replace the HD with an SSD.

The latest version of OSX you can run on it is El Capitan (10.11) which no longer gets security updates. If you want to use it on the internet you might get away with only running a browser that still gets updates (Firefox or Chrome), but you'd still be taking a risk. Personally I'd install the latest version of Ubuntu on it & use it as an excuse to play around with Linux, but that may not be for you :)
posted by pharm at 3:02 PM on January 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

The problem I’ve had with Macs of that vintage has been the battery. My 2007 battery died, and my wife’s 2009 battery is dying fast. Of course, if the mobility isn’t important, you could always just leave it plugged in and use it like a flip-up desktop.

Updating the OS is easy and relatively painless. Updating hardware depends on your sill, of course, but even if you don’t it’ll still be a reasonably useful computer.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:11 PM on January 10, 2020

Seconding kevinbelt, keep an eye on the battery. I retired a 15" Macbook Pro of similar vintage to yours. I booted it up a few times afterward, and the first time I did so, I noticed something odd with my trackpad - it wouldn't click. The second time, there was a discernible bulge coming out the bottom of the case! My battery was expanding. Removed that bad boy, and still use the MBP as needed by plugging it in.

It's just fine for internet browsing, for videochat, and, I'm mostly keeping it around so I still have a physical CD/DVD drive.
posted by hydra77 at 3:32 PM on January 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seconding hydra77’s seconding of me, the replacement battery I bought had the same bulging problem. Googling it at the time indicated that this was a pretty common problem.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:34 PM on January 10, 2020

To add on to the good advice above; you can get an idea of your battery’s health by using it and seeing how long it lasts, of course, but also by looking at its cycle count.

Replacing the battery is one area where I really strongly recommend getting the Apple-made part instead of third-party knock-off batteries.

Cheers! Among other things, this might be a great Netflix-in-bed machine.
posted by churl at 8:48 AM on January 11, 2020

My "screwing about on the internet" computer is a 2010-era MacBook (the last of the unibody polycarbonate ones); I spent about $100 putting an SSD in and maxing the RAM to 16GB, and then put El Capitan on it (free from the App Store), and it's plenty fast enough to be usable. I don't make it do much beyond web browsing, iMessage and Twitterrific but that's good enough and it has the advantage of having a working optical drive since nothing new comes with those these days. The Pro models are a bit harder to get into for SSD upgrades but it's still not bad - iFixit probably has the guides you need and EveryMac can identify the specific model you have (the MxxxxLL/A number or the Axxxx number). 2.5" SATA SSDs are about a dime a dozen these days but you can get known-compatible parts - including good-quality Newer Tech replacement batteries with higher capacities than Apple will sell you - from Other World Computing. They'll be a tad bit more expensive than, say, NewEgg or Amazon but you'll be sure the stuff you buy will work in the machine, especially for the RAM. (As I learned the hard way. It took a try or two to get the 16GB kits I was putting in from Amazon to work and in the end a couple other computers got not-planned-for upgrades in the process. Macs can be a lot more particular about RAM timings and speeds and such than regular PCs.) In this particular case I would definitely do the SSD, then probably at least double the RAM to 8GB, if not max it out at 16. (The MacBook in question came with all of 2 whole GB of RAM and putting the SSD in was a pretty huge change in how well it ran. The RAM upgrade was cheap and made it even better.)

Alternatively, especially since El Capitan is basically out to pasture now with software updates, you could put Linux on it. Ubuntu 19 runs pretty well on older machines and there's still 18 too if you want a long-term supported version (and I'll admit to actually rather liking the Xubuntu version, which swaps the default Unity-type-somethingorother interface with XFCE, which is IMHO more Mac-like). And... Windows 10 will also run quite well on that system, and is also current and will be supported for the foreseeable future. Either of these can be downloaded, "burned" to a USB stick or DVD, and then tried out on that system; you'll have to activate Windows after installing it but it'll install and work so you can see if it's something you like and then activate it through itself at that point.
posted by mrg at 11:03 AM on January 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I use my old workhorse MacBook Pro (A1150, so slightly older than yours) to mainly do audio stuff, including live recording and digitizing vinyl and cassettes. It has two audio ports, better speakers than any of my newer laptops, and of course a built-in CD/DVD drive for ripping & burning.

I keep OS 10.6.8 (Snow Leopard) on it in perpituity to run legacy software, like a version of iTunes from before it became unusable and a really old version of Handbrake (0.7.1) that tends to be more successful at ripping DVDs than newer ones. Many modern browsers are understandably not fond of ithe old OS, so I can't vouch for 2020 versions. But I mainly only use the WiFi for local sharing, not internet stuff (that's what the newer computers are for).

Having a functional FireWire (v.1) port also comes in handy more often than I might have anticipated, as does the ability to run drivers for USB versions of old &/or obsolete media drives. I also have an MS-DOS partition on it for those few occasions when I've needed to use old non-Mac software (usually for educational purposes), thereby not needing to futz around with PC stuff on my newer Macs.

The good speakers, large screen and built-in Superdrive make it useful as a portable DVD player. It still has Front Row on it, too, which I always liked for A/V entertainment playback. Its weak 2nd or 3rd replacement battery means it requires pretty constant external power, though, and I tend to keep it on a cooling pad (actually a wrapped ice pack) when making it do processor-intensive work to ensure it doesn't overheat.

So as someone who has to deal with old media on a regular basis, I love my old MBP, and having a device running super-stable Snow Leopard has saved me more than once in some old-school emergencies.
posted by obloquy at 2:35 PM on January 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

... Also, I don't know if your specific model supports this, but I coincidentally just learned you can turn a lot of old Macs into Chromebooks.
posted by obloquy at 9:13 PM on January 11, 2020

Belated, but in case you're still checking.
This laptop is still going strong at my brother's for photo/music storage. Battery is long gone, but it's fine plugged in. It's on their home network with no issues
posted by TravellingCari at 10:20 AM on January 21, 2020

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