Saying goodbye to a beloved 2008 MacBook Pro

Christopher Phin loved his MacBook Pro so much that he kept it alive for seven years with various mods and hardware upgrades. But all good things must come to an end, eventually.

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When someone retires, it’s customary to give a glowing speech that praises their long service and contributions. Well, I’ve just retired my 2008 MacBook Pro, and I’d like to do the same.

This machine was—and is—a rock, completely solid and completely reliable. (It also feels like you’re carrying a rock, by modern standards.) It has lasted me for seven years, and frankly, it’s still going strong. “Apple Tax,” schmapple tax. The decision to retire it wasn’t made because of one big reason—it hasn’t stopped working (though it’s beginning to fray at the edges a little) and it hasn’t become too slow (though I was occasionally becoming frustrated with export times as I do more work in Final Cut Pro). It’s just time to treat myself to something that will make my working life just a little more pleasant. 

There are three reasons it’s survived and thrived through seven unremitting years of hard work. The first is how it’s built and the materials it’s built from. Take the trackpad, for example. On laptops I’d had before, after a few months of heavy use you’d start to wear a bald spot in the trackpad, which would gradually become inconsistently responsive. This one, though, was glass, and it looks and feels as perfect under my fingertips as it did on the day I excitedly lifted it from its box in 2008.

I will allow, though, that the trackpad no longer always registers clicks—yay, tap to click—and that the black plastic material on the hinge is starting to crackle and flake. (Note that both problems are in the two areas that physically move.)

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These slight evidences of the hard life it’s lead aside, however, at a glance you wouldn’t think this machine is old, though by technology standards—especially the standards of someone who writes about and makes his living from the field—it most decidedly is. It doesn’t look dated to any but the most attentive eye; a charitable interpretation is that Apple nailed the simple, distilled-down design language a long time ago, though alternatively you could argue it also suggests its design language has stagnated. The screen is still bright and the sturdy aluminum chassis doesn’t show physical signs of aging. The only really obvious sign it’s been a writer’s main Mac for seven years is how shiny some of the key caps have become.

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But while outwardly little has changed since it was new, the same isn’t true inside, which is the second reason it was so long pressed into service. First the hard disk was swapped for a 256GB SSD from Crucial (transformative, as you’ll know if you’ve done similar), then the optical drive swapped for a second internal drive using a kit from OWC and a 500GB hard disk donated by a friend of mine. Then, as the battery wore out, it too got replaced. And finally, once SSD prices dropped significantly, the main SSD got switched again, this time for a 500GB MX100 from Crucial.

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It’s natural, of course, to draw the obvious comparisons with the current crop of Macs—especially the popular laptops—which are in essence sealed boxes, and to tut, don a tinfoil hat, and say that Apple is screwing us by not letting us give our machines the kind of longevity that only upgrading makes possible. I’m not so sure it’s relevant, though. For one thing, I suspect many people criticizing the perceived high cost of having Apple replace the battery in a modern laptop not only conveniently overlook the benefits of a non-removable battery, but also crucially have forgotten that the old removable batteries themselves cost only a little less than this service. 

More importantly, though, I think we’ve probably reached a point where a mid-level computer will suffice for most people for a long time, unchanged, thanks in large part to the vast difference flash storage makes to a computer’s apparent speed and responsiveness. In the past, you had to keep replacing your Mac regularly because the things we wanted computers to do outstripped their ability to do them. 

There’s a danger that this kind of talk will come back and bite me like the probably apocryphal Bill Gates quote about 640KB of RAM being enough for anybody, but I think there’s a qualitative difference with this situation, and it’s this. For the whole of the life of the modern, GUI/WIMP computer—though I’m simplifying dramatically here—we’ve essentially been asking computers to do the same class of things, and the basic underlying change in hardware since the early days has just been making storage, CPUs, busses, and so on incrementally faster. Now, though, while the fundamental job we ask computers to do hasn’t changed—the paradigm remains the same—their hardware has gotten to the point where they can do it without breaking a sweat. Yes, rendering a video might take a while, but the elementary interface stuff of drawing windows and interacting with files no longer has a noticeable overhead.

In other words, until the fundamental role of computers changes—VR? wetware? quantum?—the combination of high-enough clock speeds and, crucially, very fast storage perhaps means that there’s enough headroom now; that, in fact, the traditionally prized ability to upgrade components is becoming less of a necessity if what you’re trying to do is keep a computer running and relevant for years.

Which beings me to the third reason: My beloved MacBook Pro is running Yosemite, will run El Capitan, and may run further versions of OS X beyond that. There’s no Handoff and no AirDrop to and from iOS, but in every important way, it’s a completely modern Mac experience. That too, I think, is made possible by how mature and settled OS X has become; Apple can add features and change stuff under the hood, but because the basic business of ‘being an operating system’ hasn’t fundamentally changed at the same time as hardware has gotten much more capable, even seven year old hardware is still easily capable of running the latest one.

So raise a glass, ladies and gentlemen, to my 2008 MacBook Pro—doughty companion, colleague, and friend for seven years. It doesn’t look a day older than when we first met, and it worked tirelessly until this, its very last day in the office. It deserves a happy, peaceful, and rewarding retirement, and I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing it the very best. To Chris’s old Mac!

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