Saturday, July 3, 2021

Ten Years On The Same Macbook Pro

I've used the same Macbook Pro as my main personal computer for over 10 years now, which is a pretty long lifespan for electronic devices these days.

Still alive and well.

It's a 13-inch, early 2011 model with a 2.3 GHz i5. It came with 4 GB of RAM and a 320 GB HDD, which I later swapped out for 8 GB RAM and a 500 GB SSD, because this computer is from a time long past, when Apple let you do those kinds of upgrades yourself. I never replaced the battery, so it drains fast and the Service Battery alert has been on for years, but the machine is still fine for casual use around the house. It served me well throughout college, post-graduation work, moving to Japan, and the bumps and dings along the way.

I'm a grumpy old man when it comes to technology updates, so it was on OS X 10.9 (Mavericks) until December 2020, when I reluctantly updated for app compatibility reasons. I updated it to 10.13.6 (High Sierra), which is the furthest this old machine officially supports. That was a mistake, of course.

I traded stability and speed I was used to for general sluggishness, an annoying issue where pressing keys to wake the computer from sleep takes measurable seconds but pressing the power button wakes it instantly, and... spammy app store software update notifications, I guess?

Apps feeling slower and slower isn't a new phenomenon, but when I opened Facebook Messenger in a browser tab to send my parents a picture while video calling them at the same time, the machine really started to struggle. I bought some more RAM afterward, maxing it out at 16 GB, but that's probably going to be this machine's final upgrade.

The last surgery


I'm not sure what I'll do when this laptop croaks, but it definitely won't be replaced by a 2016~2019 model. I'm carrying a 13-inch 2017 Macbook Pro from my company, which I've been using for work almost daily since 2019. It has a 2.5 GHz i7 and 16 GB RAM so it runs macOS 10.14.6 (Mojave) fine, and it's still compatible with most apps for now.

It's lighter, and I can plug USB-C things into it, but that's about it in terms of noticeable benefits. 

Sometimes when multiple apps are open this machine slows down until I either unplug the USB hub connecting it to an external monitor, or the machine decides it needs to reboot (either suddenly by itself, or with the multilingual "You need to restart your computer" error). Sometimes it just stays on a black screen when waking up from sleep, until I'm forced to hard reboot it.

Once in a while the screen flickers a glitchy horizontal stripe of black across the screen, about 70% of the way down. It's rare but it happens, even when placed flat on a stable surface, not holding by one corner or moving the hinge or anything. That reminds me, the hinge is also really weak, compared to my 10 year old model.

This machine is wimpy from a hardware perspective in general.
  • There's only two ports on mine. I plug an Anker dongle into one of them, which gives me barely enough ports to make do with.
  • The headphone jack is on the wrong side, where right-handed mouse users want to put their external mouse.
  • The keyboard is the flat, clicky "butterfly" keyboard, which Apple has thankfully revised in newer models.
  • The left command key doesn't work on mine about 1 in 20 presses, but even without these key pressing problems (which have become common complaints and inspired an Apple repair program), this keyboard still seems to say, "Plug in an external keyboard and don't touch me."
  • I don't have big hands, but even for me there's not enough space between the bottom of the keyboard and the huge trackpad, so the bottom part of my thumb/palm which naturally falls there can cause touch detection issues. The trackpad itself works great though.
  • The arrow key shape makes the keyboard look nice and symmetric, but in practice it's hard to quickly know which key in that area your finger is on just by touch, so I ended up putting a nice textured piece of tape on the down arrow key (goodbye aesthetics).
  • My model doesn't have a touch bar, but if it did I'm sure I'd hate it.
  • The caps lock key's green light is dimmer than the one on my 2011 model and sometimes it's hard to tell if it's on or off in direct lighting.

How to make these keys usable by touch

And of course, you can't upgrade the internals yourself. That hasn't been news for a while though, it looks like users haven't been able to upgrade their Macbook's RAM since 2012 models. Still, hope you picked a decent SSD size the first time, and hope nothing breaks that requires sending it in and getting the whole board replaced (and maybe your data wiped), oh and also good luck using this machine years later when apps get even more bloated and the RAM standard needs to be raised again. "Oh but the new M1 chips!" They sound great now, since current users are indeed enjoying objectively faster computing experiences, but eventually software always eats whatever gains the hardware guys bring to the table.

Speaking of hardware, my 2011 model is slower and heavier of course, but it has some nice features which I'm going to lament here for posterity. Who knows if they'll ever be brought back.

The 2011 Macbook Pro has:
  • A MagSafe charging port, with a little indicator light so you can tell from afar if it's fully charged.
  • A physical button and indicator lights on the left side, which show you how much charge remains without having to open it up and check the screen.
  • The lit up apple logo on the top of the casing which brightens and dims along with the screen
  • The little light on the front that tells you whether the machine is on or off or sleeping
  • A variety of useful ports in general (not exactly a standout feature compared to laptops from other manufacturers)
  • A CD drive, which barely gets used nowadays but does come in handy when you buy a language-learning book that comes with an audio CD, or you want to burn a copy of a movie using HandBrake, or the sound guy from the live house you just gigged at hands you the video recording of your band on a DVD.
  • None of the keyboard problems of the newer models, it still works and feels fine to type on. Not really a pro so much as lack of a con, but a reminder that Apple can make great-feeling hardware if they want to.
Actual ports and hardware!

I also used a 2015 Macbook Pro (13-inch Retina) at my previous workplace, and that seemed like a nice middle ground between the two. Light enough without the CD drive, but still had a decent keyboard with the inverted T-shaped arrow keys, no touch bar, useful ports, and the 3.5 mm headphone jack on the correct (left) side. This model also gets a lot of love on the internet, according to certain forum commenters, many of whom say they’re still dearly holding on to theirs (or looking for one refurbished), so that’s some nice confirmation bias.

I went laptop shopping with a friend recently and we found a used 2015 Macbook Air in great shape that fit the bill (and with 8 GB RAM and 512 GB SSD) for around $400 at Janpara. The battery has some wear, but since purchase the machine has seen daily use for a few months so far with no issues. The old models still hold their value!

It does seem like Apple is easing up on the design anorexia a bit with the newer Macbooks, nice to see they backpedaled on the Touch bar models' virtual Esc key, unreliable keyboards, and went back to the inverted T arrow keys design. Maybe the next generation will be another step in the right direction, but for now, long live old hardware!

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