Rebuilding a Macbook Pro (inside a new one)

It made no sense to get a fancy new desktop and run off to California, so last summer I hotrodded my out of warrantee 2007 Macbook Pro laptop. I replaced the CD drive with a solid state hard drive for the system files (it makes the computer feel faster) and I upgraded the RAM and regular hard drive. Everything was great until last Wednesday. I skyped with a student, had dinner, and came back to the computer to find it nonresponsive. Apple has a whole stack of troubleshooting procedures online so I went through those. Eventually, I had to take it into the Apple store. They confirmed what I had surmised — the logic board (aka “motherboard”) was dead. A repair would be over $900 before taxes. I went outside the store, googled a couple local places and called. Same price, if they were willing to do it at all.

In a way, I was relieved. Although all my work documents are religiously backed up and synced with Dropbox, my music was not — and I’d just spent a few hours two days before tracking vocals for a 20-minute medley some CASBS fellows put together for graduation. (Yes, I know I need to write more about CASBS, which I will.) Somehow, in all the commotion, I hadn’t plugged in my external hard drive and so the data existed in only one place. A hard drive failure would have wiped that out.

The whole thing was a mixed emotional experience for me. The new laptop is a little more than twice as fast in real world processor intensive applications (ie, audio), but since it’s under warrantee, there will be no hot rodding by me (Apple: please give us a laptop with a two hard drive option like the iMac–I don’t really need an internal DVD drive). I also hadn’t really planned to buy a powerful laptop this time around, but I needed something that would allow me to do my audio, not only for fun, but for whatever I come up with for my book website during this summer’s digital humanities institute.

Once I got the new computer out of the box, what to do next was a little less clear. Time Machine (Apple’s automatic backup software) doesn’t like it when you split the system across two drives; it didn’t appear that I was going to be able to do a system restore that way. It had been several years since I really cleaned out my file system and applications anyway, so I did something a little more radical. I reinstalled all my software manually and moved files manually.

When I say “manually” I do actually mean by hand in some cases. The first step was an autopsy of my old laptop. I took the case apart and removed the hard drives. Since my computer surgery tools are all in Montreal, I had to go to Fry’s to pick up a bare hard drive firewire interface and the appropriate screwdrivers. By the time I was done, it did actually look kind of like an autopsy.

Once I had the hard drive with all my files hooked up, doing everything for work and standard consumer use was pretty quick: MSOffice, Firefox, Endnote, OpenOffice, Bookmarks, Mail files, Cyberduck, music library and a few other things. I installed dropbox and synced it as well.

At least so far it looks like everything’s okay.

The audio software was a different story. Looking at the directory, I see that in an average session, I have access to products from about 30 different companies (I don’t use them all at once but they’re all stuff I have used and expect to use again). Some of these companies share installation protocols and copy protection schemes, but many do not. My own file management structure for audio could also clearly use some work. I’d never tried to reinstall it all from scratch in a single go. Given that it wasn’t the only thing I did, it took the better part of three days, between redownloading everything, reauthorizing everything, trying it out to make sure it works, troubleshooting and reconfiguring everything. It appears to be up and running now, but I was surprised at what a hassle that was. I did get rid of a bunch of demos and stuff I don’t use, though, so when it’s time to switch again — when I finally get that rocketship desktop — it will be a much easier switch.

Or at least that’s what I tell myself.