As of 2016, a Macbook Air 2.1 Mid 2009, equipped with the following main components, is defined by Apple as a vintage (outdated) machine.
- CPU (Processor) Intel Core 2 Duo and running at 1.83GHz
- GPU (Graphics) NVIDIA GeForce 9400M 256 MB
- A traditional spinning HDD (Hard drive).
Apple naturally wants to push newer products, hence the vintage stamp, but could this machine nevertheless be trimmed for further life? After all, 1.83GHz is not “nothing”, is it?
It is the same default speed as on my primary laptop; a Samsung Ativ 9+, though equipped with an i5 processor and with an overdrive option that sets in when needed.
Another MacBook Air in the house is from 2014 and is running at 1.4 GHz, also with an i5 configuration. These two machines are used for evaluating the performance of this MacBook Air (2009).
Should be possible…
The amazing result
Could the MachBook Air be reborn?
Yes, indeed. The rebuilt and trimmed MacBook Air 2009 with the latest El Capitan is now a completely silent and a quite fast machine, usable for most daily chores. Its user interface is almost as fast as a 2013 Macbook Air, and it works well with resource-intensive applications like MS Word or Safari.
Naturally, handling of gaming or applications that require powerful graphics is limited and somewhat outdated, but smooth scrolling of webpages is quite smooth and convincing.
There is a “takedown” feeling regarding the screen resolution, if you are used to retina resolutions, but I would call it a minor it a minor for e.g. writing in MS Word or on a blog editor.
The total rebuild cost can be approcimately $100, but it can also be $0 (free) if you are prepared to accept a somewhat slower, but still workable variant. Read on.
The starting point
Running the Yosemite version of OS X, not among my favorite versions of OS X, this vintage Macbook had severe problems. In particular, a constant fan noise destroyed the user experience and all joy, compared to newer machines. The machine was also slow, sometimes with a peculiar delay when things were clicked for execution.
Indeed, it appeared kind of vintage.
Rebuilding the MacBook Air
What follows is just the conclusive actions after some investigations into possibilities. It can be added that as the machine was intended for the role as a client for the ROON media server and player, the quest was partly to remove software from the machine that in that particular context could be categorized as bloatware. This is not necessarily bloatware for other types of usage, but luckily, it is fairly easy to decide what to keep and what to remove or put back again. It is a low-risk operation.
The remedies below are stamped with their major or minor importance. Note that this article is written on a headline level regarding each of these measures to be taken. Follow links to learn more.
The Macs Fan Control utility (major)
This is a genius little utility that lets the user decide at which temperature threshold the fan should start to increase in speed. For the MacBook Air 2009, it is always the Northbridge chip temperature that is the highest. After some monitoring and consideration, its threshold is set to 66 degrees Celcius, causing the machine to remain silent almost in any situation. Perhaps it could be set even lower. Try!
Settings up to 80 degrees were attempted without problems, but put it as low as possible in order to ensure longevity of the machine. Too hot interior will cause wear.
What an excellent app this is.
Caution: It is strongly recommended NOT to use the option “constant RPM value” as this is really a high risk operation, and also unnecessary. Use always “Sensor based value”.
The Default App System Preferences
If you are not dependant on the automatic launching of the iPhoto application whenever you insert a usb device or do anything else that has absolutely nothing to do with a photo, it is advisable to disable this (and other similar) automatic launcher / watchdogs. Read about the self-explanatory descriptions of the RCDefaultApp here:
I removed all these cpu annoying watchdogs because they perpetuate all the time on the CPU load, but are useless for the tasks at hand. This helps calming down the machine. Experiment.
Removing the “apsd” (minor)
Another perpetual process stealing CPU is the APSD (Apple Push Notification Service) process. It can be removed easily, read this:
Removing the KernelTask excessive CPU usage (major)
The totally overeager KernelTask was one major reason why the MacBook Air 2.1 would behave in sluggish & slow manner. Explained here:
The updated blog on how to fix the problem under the El Capitan version of OS X is found here. It works.
The Mac Optimization script from Sonic Studio (major)
This is a self-eplanatory script that stops a bunch of applications that you need or don’t need. In the latter case, disable to save CPU usage. I disabled everything, and I am happy.
The menumeters System Preferences
A handy tool granting a quick at a glance overview over the use of system resources is the Menumeters that can be set visible in the OS X menu line.
Replacing the HDD with an SSD; a Solid State Drive (major)
For the replacement of the factory HDD with a 240 Gb SSD, this tutorial was followed. Success. Originally planning for a 128Gb SSD, somebody else has had the same plan. It was sold out, hence the more expensive 240 Gb version.
Replacing the HDD with an SSD is really the mandatory step 2 if the intention is the speeding up of literally everything on the machine. I was quite happy with the machine before replacing the HDD with a SSD, but much happier afterwards.
Take a look at the demo vidoes here, and see how this replacement offers drastic improvements: http://www.everymac.com/systems/apple/macbook-air/macbook-air-faq/macbook-air-how-to-upgrade-the-hard-drive-swap-for-ssd.html
The upside and the conclusion
This vintage MacBook Air 2.1 (2009) is suddenly fully back in business, perhaps for years to come. Working on this machine is starting to be similar to the more moderns Samsung Ativ 9+, if you are willing to overlook that the screen resolution is somewhat lower. The graphics performance is good enough for those daily chores.
The original price for this MacBook Air (2009) was $2499, so why not add another $100?
For either $100 or $0, depending on ambition level, a MacBook Air (2009) can be updated within minutes and by anyone, and in such a way that it would meet most requirements for the handling of daily chores.
It is kind of fun to have an upgraded “oldie” that is almost as fast as a MacBook Air 2014.
If nothing else, there is a huge price difference between updating this machine, versus purchasing a new one.
A particular note is that the keyboard is very nice.
Battery life is not as good as on the latest models. With HDD, battery life is 3 hours and then it is time for recharging. Using SSD? (to be added).
But beyond batterylife and the somewhat lower screen resolution compared to retina qualities, no other downsides have been detected.
However, be prepared to redo some of these “reborn” steps as the OS X is updated again in the future.