• High Mileage Computing: Keeping Your Older Mac in Service

    Around four months ago, I faced a dilemma. Only a week away from commencing my studies, my already problematic MacBook Air decided that it was game over. Attempt to imagine this scenario for a moment. You have a limited budget, limited time and now, limited patience because your electronic companion has decided that now is an excellent time to leave. Iíd have been livid if I wasnít already preoccupied with freaking out.

    Fortunately, I had another computer in storage. An old MacBook Pro. It was covered in dust and its battery didnít hold a charge. Not to mention itís one of those models notorious for developing graphics processor issues. It was in desperate need of attention if it were to survive the amount of use it was about to endure.





    When it comes to keeping an older computer alive, I have some experience. For several years I worked at an Apple Authorised Service Provider, maintaining machines as old as the PowerBook G4 that were still being used as recently as last year. Some of these machines were my own.

    What I would like to share here are some of the tips and tricks I know and learned in the process of keeping these machines ticking away. From simply monitoring the various sensors in your machine to catch potential problems early, to more complex measures such as disassembling your Mac to perform some preventative maintenance.

    For everyone out there still using an older Mac - this oneís for you.



    A Little Detailing

    You would be surprised at how much better an older Mac can look and feel with a little exterior detailing. Unless youíre meticulous when it comes to keeping your computer in showroom condition, chances are the screen is covered in smudges, the various small gaps in the case are filled with dust and the keys and trackpad have a nice smooth sheen to them.

    A microfiber cloth and some LCD screen cleaner is an excellent way to tackle this problem. Spray a little screen cleaner on the microfiber cloth and wipe down the exterior of your computer with it. Then buff out the computer dry with a dry portion of the cloth. You can use this method to buff over the keyboard and key caps as well, just make sure to spray the cleaner on the cloth and not directly into the keyboard. Cotton swabs can be used to get in some of the more difficult to reach places, such as in between the keys and around the various ports.




    A microfiber cloth and some display cleaner comes in handy for keeping your Mac clean. You can even use a fast food refresher towelette to clean that greasy trackpad after youíve finished your family dinner bucket.


    When it comes to getting dust out of all of those small panel gaps, I find that the corner of a business card works well. Simply slide the corner into the gap and run it along the seam to dislodge any trapped dirt and dust.

    If you encounter some stubborn dirt, case marks or a greasy sheen on the key caps and trackpad that doesnít seem to lift, you can try scrubbing it away with some melamine foam, like the Chux Magic Eraser. These cleaning blocks are slightly abrasive, allowing them to dislodge and absorb the dirt and grease on the surface of your Mac.



    Spring Cleaning

    If you have already been using this Mac for a while, thereís a chance that your system is littered with cruft, like applications you no longer use, files that will never be used again, and even remnants of previous apps, such as old application support and preference files. Over time all of these can add up and begin to consume valuable storage space, and in some cases they can even begin to have a negative effect on the performance of your Mac.

    The solution is simple. Itís time to clean house. Toss out those applications you never use. Iíll bet that folder of cat photos from the internet youíve been keeping never gets looked at. Time to repurpose that disk space with something else. Applications like OmniDiskSweeper ( Free, www.omnigroup.com/more ) list the files on your Mac by file size, making it easy to determine which files are consuming the most space on your drive and delete the ones you no longer need.




    Applications like OmniDiskSweeper provide an overview of the files that are consuming the most space on your drive.


    With a Mac that has accumulated a lot of cruft on the drive, itís a great idea to give your drive a tune-up as well. Appleís Disk Utility, located inside the Utilities folder in your Applications folder, can repair permissions problems with your operating system and tell you if there are any deeper issues with the files on your drive.

    Once your machine is clean as a whistle and free of disk issues, all you then have to do is make sure your software is up to date. Open the App Store and click the Updates tab to get a list of available application and system updates. These software updates often fix problems and security issues with your computer, so itís wise to make a habit of checking for updates from time to time to ensure your computer is using only the finest quality code.




    Installing the latest software updates can resolve problems and security issues with your computer.


    Finally, if your machines are anything like mine, sometimes itís simply no longer viable to continue using an operating system install because itís littered with remnants of old application data and odd modifications and tweaks. In this case, you can reinstall the system for the ultimate clean slate. Apple maintains a number of support articles explaining how to reinstall your system, such as this one for Mavericks and another for Mountain Lion.



    Sensing Potential Problems

    Your Mac already has a complex diagnostic and self-monitoring system built in for detecting potential faults, silently reading temperature, voltage and current values from the various internal components of your computer. Whenever you take your computer into an Apple Authorised Service Provider or to the Genius Bar, they will often run diagnostic tools that read the data from these sensors to determine whether your computer is running outside of its intended operating specifications.

    It doesnít take specialist tools to read the values from those sensors though. Thereís no shortage of apps available that are designed to read data from those sensors in real time, giving you the computer equivalent of the much beloved Check Engine light. You can tell when your computer is running too hot, when its fans are or arenít ramping up and whether itís low on free system resources, among other features. You can even get advance warning of a pending hard drive malfunction by monitoring your driveís S.M.A.R.T status. (S.M.A.R.T is an acronym for Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology.)




    Monitoring tools like iStat Menus give you a detailed look at what is happening inside your Mac.


    Perhaps the most useful feature for older computers though is the ability to increase the fan speeds in certain circumstances. There are numerous times where a few thousand more turns of the fan a minute can mean significantly reduced temperatures where it counts, such as when the battery is charging. I know that a few degrees difference may not seem like much, and the general consensus is that Apple knows what theyíre doing when it comes to thermal management, but when it comes to extending the life of your electronics the last thing you want is excess heat.

    Personally, Iíve configured iStat Menus ( $17.70 AUD, bjango.com/mac/istatmenus/ ) to increase my fan speeds to a much more effective 4000rpm while the battery is charging. I also have a custom speed profile that, when activated manually from the menu bar, raises the fans all the way to their maximum speed of 6000rpm for those moments when the computer needs a little extra cooling.

    Because Apple doesnít tend to disclose the ideal operating temperatures for their computers, it can be difficult to accurately gauge what is and isnít considered acceptable. Whenever presented with that question I usually tend to recommend that users use their best judgement. If the computer is scorching hot to the touch and the fans havenít started to increase in speed, then perhaps you may wish to bring them up manually to give your computer a little extra cooling.



    Under The Hood

    Diving into the inner depths of your Mac is a daunting concept for some. After all it does involve removing the many screws that hold your computer together and separating it into its individual pieces, so thereís a lot that could potentially go wrong in the process. If youíre up for the challenge though, performing some maintenance inside your Mac can significantly improve its long term performance and reliability. Be aware though that if arenít confident when it comes to working with sensitive electronics, this may be a task best left to an Apple Authorised Service Provider.

    Computers draw in a lot of air to keep its internal components cool. Unless you work exclusively in a clean room, chances are the air your computer is sucking in contains small particles of dust and dirt that eventually accumulate on the internal components of your computer. These particles form large clumps of dust that obstruct fans and heatsinks, restricting the air flowing through your machine and driving the operating temperatures up. Simply cleaning the fans and heatsinks inside your Mac can lower those temperatures and extend the life of your computer.




    Over time, dust and dirt can obstruct the vital cooling components of your Mac. ( Source: lifehacker.com )


    If you are thinking about performing this maintenance yourself, iFixit ( www.ifixit.com ) has a number of guides for taking apart your Mac and an excellent illustrated guide to the basics of cleaning the inside of a computer that I recommend you look at.

    One other vital component of your computerís cooling system that is often overlooked is the Thermal Interface Material, or Thermal Paste. It fills in the small gaps between the various chips inside your computer and their respective heatsinks, and for the most part it does an excellent job of it. However this paste doesnít last forever and after a few years it will begin to dry out, making it less efficient at transferring heat than it used to be.




    Dried and hardened thermal paste can be detrimental to the effectiveness of your computerís cooling system.


    Replacing the thermal paste can restore the lost cooling capacity of your computer. In some severe cases it can even restore lost performance as your CPU wonít be throttling its performance back under load in an attempt to lower temperatures. Simply replacing the thermal paste with a newer and higher grade paste lowered the core temperatures of my MacBook Pro by as much as 10 degrees over stock, and up to 20 degrees over the old, degraded thermal paste. Those arenít small improvements by any means!

    Replacing the thermal paste in your computer involves removal of the Logic Board, and as such isn't a task for the faint of heart. Again I would suggest taking a look at the iFixit guide for your model, and while you're there take a look at their guide to correctly applying new thermal paste as well.

    If youíre not convinced that youíre able to perform this maintenance yourself, and keep in mind that it is easy to damage a component while working inside your computer, then contact your local Apple Authorised Service Provider. They should be able to perform these maintenance tasks and take care of any work that your Mac may require.



    Upgrades for Extra Performance

    Now we come to the expensive portion of this article. Thankfully none of these are mandatory, but if youíre still looking to extract more performance from your old Mac and youíve already performed all of the tasks suggested above, then itís may be time to open your wallet.

    Installing additional memory is possibly the most cost effective hardware upgrade you can perform to your computer. Iím currently using OS X Mavericks with 4GB of memory and I canít even begin to describe how much I wish I had an extra 2GB to work with. Iím almost constantly using every last bit of my memory capacity, even with the new memory compression system in OS X. The computer runs perfectly fine until I open one browser tab too many, and then in an instant the machine slows to a barely usable crawl.




    Increasing the amount of installed memory gives your Mac a little more room to move.


    I wouldnít recommend installing any less than 4GB these days, and 6GB or more is recommended where supported. If your computer is incapable of using 4GB, like Core Duo models or earlier Core 2 Duos, then install as much memory as the machine supports, but be aware that this will only somewhat improve the situation. You may decide that it simply isnít worth spending the extra cash to upgrade a machine that is still incapable of addressing enough memory to run newer, more demanding software.

    If your memory situation is already satisfactory, but you wish the machine would be a little more responsive when it comes to starting up, shutting down, waking from sleep or opening applications and files, then you may have a perfect candidate for a Solid State Drive, or SSD. These drives use flash memory chips instead of the traditional rotating disk inside a conventional mechanical hard drive. As a result, they can access data much faster than a traditional drive, giving a noticeable boost in overall responsiveness even on the oldest of computers. SSDs are still expensive compared to conventional hard drives, but costs continue to fall and if you can afford to add one to your machine, I can almost guarantee that you wonít regret it.




    Solid State Drives and Hybrid Drives can significantly boost the responsiveness of your computer.


    If you need the storage capacity of a conventional hard drive but still want to gain some additional performance, you may wish to consider a Solid State Hybrid Drive. Drives like Seagateís SSHD series and Western Digitalís Black2 Dual Drives combine a small amount of flash memory with a conventional spinning disk. The most commonly accessed files, such as your operating system and commonly used applications, are cached in the flash memory space to boost the responsiveness of your computer while still retaining the vast storage capacity of a traditional hard drive. Because these are still mechanical drives, they do retain the drawbacks of mechanical storage like reduced shock resistance and increased power consumption over an entirely solid state drive, but they are a cost effective way to boost the disk performance of your computer while still having plenty of storage space to play with.

    Although this next one technically isnít an upgrade, itís still one worth noting. Unfortunately batteries donít last forever, and older Apple notebooks are likely to have batteries that have failed or are in the process of failing. If you have a removable battery, then congratulations! This process is an easy one. With a brief trip to your local Apple reseller or Apple Store, you can purchase a replacement battery for your machine that simply snaps right in place of your old one, giving your computer the ability to run without being tethered to the power cable once again.




    If your computer doesnít last for long when itís disconnected from the power adapter, itís probably time for a new battery.


    You may also choose to purchase a third party or aftermarket battery. If you do choose to go this route, I would recommend that you steer clear of the discount eBay specials. While some of them work fine, many of them donít, and almost every one Iíve tried has either had a shorter runtime or poor fitment when installed in a Mac. Brands like Newer Technology tend to be reputable and their NuPower series of batteries work much like a genuine battery for a lower cost. Personally Iím using a NewerTech battery in my own MacBook Pro and havenít had any issues with it, as a matter of fact in my case itís proven to be more reliable than the genuine Apple battery it replaced. Vendors like MacFixit Australia stock a number of genuine and third party batteries for a number of different Mac models.

    If you have a computer without a removable battery, then be prepared for a little more work. Internal batteries are a little harder to find, and the most convenient way to replace an internal battery is still to drop your machine into an Apple Store or Apple Authorised Service Provider for repair. If youíre still convinced that you would like to perform this repair yourself, you will need the appropriate tools and a replacement battery to suit your model. Replacement internal batteries arenít always easy to find, but vendors like MacFixit occasionally have used and refurbished replacements available for a number of different Mac models. As I recommended in the maintenance segment above, take a look at the iFixit guide for your model to gain a better understanding of whatís involved and what tools are required to perform a battery replacement.

    There are a number of other upgrades you can perform to your Mac as well, such as secondary hard drives installed in place of the Optical Drive, expansion cards, external USB devices, external Thunderbolt devices, even external batteries for extra runtime when out and about. If I were to list out every possibility here, this would be a ridiculously long article. Take a moment to search the various resources available online and even ask in the MacTalk forums if you have any further questions about extracting a little more performance from your Mac.



    Conclusion

    When it comes to maintaining our computers, itís often the simplest things that are overlooked. Slower performance is often attributed to increases in software requirements. Increased temperatures are attributed to greater stresses placed on the hardware by the tasks that we perform. While our computers constantly perform maintenance tasks in the background, the computer can only compensate for most issues rather than resolve them. Taking the time to perform some maintenance to the software and hardware of your computer can have a significant effect on its lifespan and its usefulness, and yet itís incredible how often simply servicing our computers is overlooked.

    The most common reason is that as computers wear out, many users will simply choose to replace them with newer models. After all, itís a surefire way to ensure that your hardware is still fresh and in working order, and you can run the very latest software to boot. Itís a costly exercise for some though, and even if we do want to have the latest and greatest, chances are weíll still find a use for our older machines somewhere in our workspace. With a little work, those older machines will continue to tick away and deliver you many years of faithful service yet.




    Michael Brice is a former Apple technician from Adelaide, South Australia. He has worked on most Apple machines from the Apple II to the latest iMacs and still contributes to fixers communities and online resources from time to time. When he isnít attempting to stumble his way through social interactions out in the real world, heís either taking something apart or telling someone else how to take something apart, along with the occasional foray into writing or producing crudely written code for a number of projects.
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