How to upgrade and secure an early-2008 MacBook using SSD and bootable backups

Mon 12 August 2013 by Matthew Scott

Welcome to my brief guide on how to upgrade and secure an early-2008 MacBook. This model of MacBook is fast becoming a classic, but those who use them daily know they can be a dependable workhorse.

You can push a MacBook like this to surprising limits for about half the price of buying a new MacBook Air with similar storage and RAM specs. This guide tells you about some of the ways you can do that.

Be sure to read the sections on backups and encryption. Hardware fails over time and is also subject to theft, damage, or other loss. It’s important to keep good backups for peace of mind and business continuity.

If you have questions or comments about this guide, be sure to leave them in the comments below to help improve this page.

Why upgrade an early-2008 MacBook?

It’s a lot cheaper to upgrade one of these MacBooks than it is to buy a brand new MacBook. A well-upgraded system will perform many computing tasks comfortably, even when the original parts are five years old.

The early-2008 MacBooks were one of the last models easily upgradeable with basic tools and a little bit of courage.

It doesn’t run the latest version of Mac OSX, but as it has a 64-bit Core 2 Duo processor, it does run OSX 10.7 “Lion”, which as of this writing is still good enough for many OSX apps.

Why NOT upgrade an early-2008 MacBook?

Before you spend money on an upgrade, consider the tradeoffs. While you’ll save money, you’ll miss out on a few things from newer models, such as Mac OSX 10.8 “Mountain Lion”. (Version 10.7 “Lion” is the latest supported on an early-2008 MacBook.)

Newer models also support up to 8 or 16 GB of RAM, higher resolution displays, faster disk speeds, and newer processor designs.

You’ll pay more to purchase a newer computer of course, but the extra performance could be worth it if you work with very large media files or data sets, or do a lot of data or audio/video processing,

Humble beginnings of my own MacBook

My current MacBook was a hot replacement for an earlier black MacBook. That unit had a 32-bit Core Duo processor, so its maximum RAM was 2 GB, which was limiting when doing development using VMs.

I bought it with 2 GB of RAM (2 x 1 GB), as it was the only configuration in stock, then immediately upgraded it to 4 GB (2 x 2 GB), the maximum officially supported by that model.

The HDD was bigger, I had twice the RAM to stuff full of VMs, and the processor was faster. Eventually, I upgraded the included 250 GB 5400 RPM HDD to a 500 GB 7200 RPM HDD.

With ample storage, maxed out RAM (or so I thought — see below), I was set… for a few years, at least!

Hybrid HDD/SSD drives: a small, but noticeable, performance boost

In early 2012, SSDs were starting to become popular. The performance improvements over spinning disks were incredible! They were also expensive, priced at well over $1/GB.

When I was ready for my next upgrade, a new kind of HDD was available from Seagate called a “HDD+SSD hybrid”. These drives keep a large NAND flash buffer of commonly-accessed sectors, offering SSD-like speeds when those sectors are read.

The reviews of the drive were positive among those who had realistic expectations of how much performance improvement one should expect.

I can confirm that it will indeed give you a performance boost, although not as dramatic as a pure SSD. I use the 750 GB model of the drive, which was recently replaced by a 1 TB model.

Early-2008 MacBooks support up to 6 GB RAM

You can upgrade an early-2008 MacBook to 6 GB of RAM, in a 1 x 2 GB and 1 x 4 GB configuration. Although this configuration is only “unofficially” supported, I only found success stories when I researched this upgrade.

If you have 4 GB already, you will need a single 4 GB DDR2 667MHz (PC2-5300) 200-Pin SODIMM module. If you have only 2 GB, you’ll also need a single 2 GB DDR2 module.

Follow iFixIt’s Installing MacBook Core 2 Duo RAM guide to learn how to upgrade your RAM.

As is usual in the marketplace, RAM compatible with older computers will cost more than the same amount would for newer computers. Don’t let that discourage you; the upgrade is still worthwhile!

Note:

An early-2008 MacBook has a slower memory bus speed than newer models. A newer Mac with the same amount of memory will perform faster for some tasks.

SSDs: bring new life to an older computer

I decided that I would not upgrade to an SSD until it was affordable to use one as my primary drive that stores most of my files. I didn’t want to buy a small SSD then shuffle files back and forth between it and a larger HDD.

Consumer-grade SSDs have recently broken the $1/GB barrier, making them much more attractive for upgrading an older computer’s HDD with a high-capacity SSD.

I use a Samsung 840 Series 500 GB SSD (MZ-7TD500BW). The added performance was worth every dollar spent! Although you won’t reach the maximum transfer speeds the drive has to offer, you can benefit greatly from low latency and high sustained transfer speeds.

To get started with your SSD, use a drive dock such as the Newer Technology Voyager S3 SATA Drive Dock. Format your new SSD drive using Disk Utility, then make a complete copy of your current HDD using Carbon Copy Cloner.

Test the boot process by shutting down your MacBook, then holding down the Option key immediately after powering it back on. Choose your backup partition to boot from instead of your SSD.

Some apps, such as Dropbox, will detect that they are booting from a new drive, and behave slightly differently.

Shut down your MacBook again, and swap out your current HDD for your new SSD. Follow the iFixIt’s MacBook Core 2 Duo Hard Drive Replacement guide to replace your HDD with your SSD.

After you’ve installed and booted from your SSD, and marveled at how quickly you were able to boot, help prolong the life of your SSD by installing and running TRIM Enabler. TRIM lets the SSD know when disk sectors are no longer used, and helps your SSD last longer and stay performant.

Note:

An early-2008 MacBook has a first-generation 150 MB/s SATA bus, which limits the maximum transfer speed of your SSD drive. Many new SSDs can handle speeds more than twice as fast.

A newer Mac would have a second- or third-generation SATA bus with 300 MB/s or 600 MB/s maximum speed, or have an SSD soldered directly to the motherboard with similar maximum speeds.

Internal bootable backup: respond quickly to disk failure

Drive failures are a fact of life, and can occur at inconvenient times and locations. SSDs are much more shock-tolerant than HDDs, but they can still fail even in optimum conditions.

To avoid losing time and data, replace your internal optical drive with a HDD mounted in an MCE OptiBay drive caddy or an iFixIt 9.5 mm PATA Optical Bay SATA Hard Drive Enclosure. Optical discs are used less and less often nowadays. In my case, the optical drive already had problems reliably ejecting discs, so I didn’t miss out on anything by replacing it.

Follow iFixIt’s Installing MacBook Core 2 Duo Dual Hard Drive guide to learn how to replace your optical drive with a second HDD.

Make sure your HDD is a higher capacity than the SSD, so you can use it as a bootable backup and as a scratch drive. I formatted my 750 GB hybrid HDD+SSD drive with two partitions:

  • 500 GB partition to keep a bootable backup
  • 250 GB partition to contain additional files, and serve as a scratch disk

Use Carbon Copy Cloner to create a bootable backup of your SSD onto the HDD. Test that you can boot from it similarly to how you tested the SSD above. Then, boot from your SSD again.

Note:

Do not install your SSD into the optical bay HDD caddy. While it will work, you won’t get maximum performance, and you won’t be able to enable TRIM support to length the SSD’s lifespan.

This is because early-2008 MacBook models have an older ATA connector for the optical drive, not a SATA connector like newer models use.

Also bear in mind that similar caddies available on Amazon (or other large retail sites) usually have SATA connectors. These SATA/SATA adapters are useful in newer MacBook models, but you need a SATA/ATA adapter for an early-2008 MacBook.

The drive caddies may be priced slightly higher than competing products, but each supplier keeps the caddy you need in stock, and they both make purchasing it painless. In my opinion, that makes it worth the few extra dollars.

FileVault 2 encryption: guard against information and identity theft

If you’ve ever lost a computer, you know that sinking feeling. You can’t do your work until you find another computer to use. You’ve lost any files that you don’t have backed up.

If your computer or backup disk was stolen, it’s even worse, because you might become a victim of identity theft, disclosure of sensitive business details, or both.

Unless you encrypt your data, a knowledgable person can steal data from your computer, even without having to know your password! Encrypted data is useless to a thief, so a stolen computer becomes only as valuable as the hardware.

I feel fortunate that I have never had a computer lost or stolen, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. That’s why I use and recommend full-disk encryption.

I use FileVault 2 encryption because it’s built into OS X Lion and is pretty easy to set up. TrueCrypt is another alternative which is more involved to configure but offers some interesting options for those who want them.

When using FileVault 2, you can’t easily encrypt an existing disk unless it’s your boot disk. Use the “Disk Center” tool in Carbon Copy Cloner to set up encryption on your internal and external backup disks.

Note:

Make sure you remember your master encryption key: without it you will have lost all of your data, unless you happen to keep an unencrypted backup in a safe place.

Also, keep in mind that disk encryption will not prevent online methods of identity theft or surveillance. Practice safe computing habits when you’re connected to the Internet!

External backups: respond quickly to catastrophic loss

When your computer’s physically missing, or has been destroyed in a fire, flood, or other disaster, you’ll be glad you have an external backup.

Just purchase an inexpensive external disk (such as a Western Digital 1 TB USB HDD) that is as big as, or bigger, than your internal HDD.

Partition it to the same sizes as your internal disk. Use Carbon Copy Cloner to set up the Lion rescue partition on it by using the “Disk Center”.

Then use it clone your SSD to one partition, and your scratch partition on your internal HDD to the other partition. I suggest setting up backup schedules to run those backups each time you attach the disk to your MacBook.

Try to keep your external backup in a different physical location than where you usually use your MacBook. You don’t want your computer and your backup to be destroyed in the same fire!

Remember to encrypt the disk using Disk Center in Carbon Copy Cloner. Set a reminder to update your backup at least once a week, and be sure to follow your reminder.

Time Machine helps you recover from mishaps and buggy software

Time Machine makes automatic historical backups of your MacBook’s primary disk, and gives you a slick way to view and restore older versions of files, or files that you’ve recently deleted.

Use another inexpensive disk (such as a Western Digital 1 TB USB HDD) for your Time Machine backup. Make sure it’s larger than your SSD so it can keep an effective history.

Although Time Machine works okay if you only connect the drive periodically, it works best when you have it connected while you’re working. I saved lots of time and stress during the times I’ve used Time Machine to restore files.

Usually I end up restoring an accidentally deleted file. Once, however, I encountered a bug in a third-party app that I was using. One of its files contained a detailed work history that I had been keeping, and suddenly the app wouldn’t open!

I was able to close the app, rename the corrupted file, use Time Machine to restore a version of the file from just an hour or two earlier, then run the app again. The app worked fine and I stayed productive, and it let me casually send both files to their support team, instead of frantically sending only the broken file.

If you find that Time Machine is backing up more often than you like, try using TimeMachineEditor to set a custom schedule for Time Machine backups.

Use System Preferences to add files and folders to the Time Machine settings if you want to avoid backing up certain things that Time Machine doesn’t work well for, such as virtual machine images.

Early-2008 MacBooks: cheap enough to keep a hot spare on hand

When I was looking for a good deal on a used MacBook for my wife to use, I ended up finding a white early-2008 MacBook and bought it for only $400. (That was via Craigslist; your experience may vary!)

Day-to-day, my wife uses it regularly for her own work and leisure. Should my MacBook experience a logic board or display failure, we know that I’ll be able to quickly move my SSD and memory to her computer and keep my business running smoothly.

How much does a full upgrade cost?

Rounding up to the nearest $10, here is the full cost (at the time this was written) of the early-2008 MacBook upgrade I describe above:

Item Cost
4 GB SODIMM module $90
2 GB SODIMM module $30
500 GB SSD $350
1 TB hybrid HDD+SSD $120
MCE Optibay drive caddy $40
External 1 TB HDD (x 2) $140
Carbon Copy Cloner $40
Total $810

Should I upgrade, or should I buy a new MacBook?

Weigh the cost of an upgrade against the cost of a newer MacBook. Keep in mind that while an upgraded older MacBook performs nicely, a newer MacBook will have better CPU and GPU performance, faster memory and SSD bus speeds, and much longer battery life.

It costs $1600 to purchase a new 11-inch MacBook Air configured with a 1.3-to-2.6GHz i5 CPU, 8 GB RAM, and a 512 GB SSD. With two external disks (one for bootable backup, one for time machine) the total comes to $1740.

Feedback and Comments

If you have questions or comments about this guide, be sure to leave them in the comments below to help improve this page. Thank you!


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