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Summary:

Apple is gearing up to release Lion, the first OS X updated to leave some Intel-based Macs out of the party. Even with the minimum specs, you won’t be getting the full experience. Here’s how to make some key improvements without breaking the bank.

mac-osx-lion

Apple is gearing up to release Lion, and Mac owners eager to try it out should be gearing up to get the most out of OS X 10.7 when it arrives in July. The new operating system is the first to leave some Intel-based Macs out of the party, and even with the minimum specs, you won’t be getting the full experience. Here’s how to prepare your older Mac to best handle Lion, without having to fork over for a brand new machine. *

RAM

This is the easiest place you can make an improvement with almost any Mac. iMacs have a user-accessible memory slot located on the bottom edge of the display, between the built-in speakers. It’s as simple as removing three screws, and then replacing the computer’s existing memory with large capacity, compatible RAM units. MacBooks and MacBook Pros are also easily upgradeable when it comes to memory, and require only the removal of the bottom case or a memory area cover, depending on your model.

Remember to make absolutely sure that the RAM you’re buying is compatible with your computer. You can do this by finding out which Mac you have, by doing the following:

  1. Go to the Apple menu in the top left corner of the menu bar.
  2. Click on “About This Mac.”
  3. Click on the “More Info…” button.
  4. Take note of the Model Identifier in the Hardware Overview that opens. It should say something like “iMac12,2″ or “MacBook3,1.”
  5. Go to EveryMac.com and enter that identifier to get the complete specs for your machine, including what type of RAM it uses and the maximum amount it can support.

If you’d rather make it easier on yourself, you can go to OWC and browse for your model in the Memory section of their online store. Note that this does require that you at least know when you bought the computer, but you can find that out using the method described above.

Note that some Mac mini models and MacBook Airs make upgrading the RAM yourself very difficult or impossible, in which case you might want to consult with an authorized Mac service provider.

Hard Drive

RAM is easier to upgrade, but for Lion, a hard drive change could make the biggest difference. They can be a bit trickier to upgrade, and nearly impossible if you have an iMac, but for most Mac notebooks, the process isn’t very challenging. If you’re unsure how to change your hard drive, check the official Apple manual for your computer, which you can identify using the method described above.

There are a few options available to you here. Like Dave Greenbaum, you could choose to go with a solid-state drive. This is the best possible option, but it’s also the priciest, and you get relatively little storage space for your money.

Another option is to supplement your existing HDD by installing a separate, smaller capacity SSD as your startup volume. If you have a MacBook Pro, this isn’t too difficult to do. Weldon Dodd provided an excellent walkthrough of how he achieved this with his own computer. Lion requires a minimum of 8 GB of free space on your drive, but a 40 GB drive that you can get for around $100 is probably as small as you should go, even if you don’t plan on keeping anything else on there.

Finally, you can also get the best of both worlds in a single drive, using a hybrid drive. Seagate makes a hybrid drive that provides 500 GB of storage, along with a 4 GB flash storage module. It manages to achieve a 32 MB cache with a 7200 RPM drive speed, and provides much better performance than a traditional drive, in my experience, plus it’s way cheaper than a standalone SSD. Boot times, app launch times, and wake from sleep times all drastically improved after I installed this in my MacBook Pro.

The most expensive of the above-mentioned options probably won’t cost you more than $500, and that’s only if you opt for a relatively capacious SSD. Noticeable improvements shouldn’t cost you more than $100, which is a great deal shy of the $1000+ you’d spend on a brand new Mac. Any other suggestions for DIY improvements that could make transitioning to Lion that much more satisfying?

* Ed. Please remember that DIY modifications to Apple equipment is done at your own risk, and voids your AppleCare warranty.

  1. My iMac needs a graphics card update, as I get graphics glitches on it even with 10.6. ;-(

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  2. Two points:
    I put a 60 GB SSD from OWC in my Mac Mini for boot drive and applications; everything else goes on a firewire 800 external. Dramatic improvements in boot time, speed of all apps, etc.

    Second: this did not void my warranty. I subsequently took it to Apple Store when a heat sensor went bad and caused the fan to roar constantly. They fixed it. The trick is not to do any damage when you DIY anything in your computer. If you damage something, then that DOES void the warranty.

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  3. Forgive me, I generally respect the content on this site, but this article is terrible.

    It tells me I should upgrade, but fails to explain why. Why does my brand new 27″ iMac require more RAM? How much RAM? What about my 2009 iMac with 6GB?

    For that matter, why does my five year old Mac Pro with maxed out 16GB of RAM need more RAM? How much more?

    Why do I need a new hard drive? Won’t Lion run on my 2009 iMac 27″ with a 1TB 7200RPM 32MB cache drive installed? Will Lion suck if it’s not an SSD?

    Is it just about space? If I get a 120GB 4200 RPM 2MB cache drive, and put nothing but Lion on it, will that make it run faster?

    Sloppy, sloppy writing from an otherwise trustworthy author and reputable site.

    Maybe I’m wrong in assuming that an article of this nature should have included the minimum specs for Lion, and suggest you compare it to your existing equipment against it. Maybe I think the old adage that a write should write to his audience should account for Google and Facebook and that not everyone who reads this article is a tech savvy nerd; that an article with the title it carries may draw a much, much wider audience and that audience might have its heart shrunk to read that the $30 upgrade, as implied by the author, really needs another $500 in hardware.

    JM2C

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    1. Totally agree dude. I thought it was going to give minimums but that’s what I get for getting my hopes up

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  4. The most important thing for upgrading to Lion is a Magic Mouse (in the least) or a Magic Trackpad, preferably both. Gestures are a big part of Lion and not something that can be done with a traditional mouse or trackball.

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  5. Im already running lion on my MBP 13″ mid 2010. It works great without any upgrades…

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  6. It’s quite possible this is the worst tech article written. Basically: Get more RAM, get a bigger HD. No mention of Lion’s system requirements, no discussion what specs are, and are not, “good enough” for lion. No discussion of what aspects of Lion may be hampered if you don’t upgrade. Or what you need to upgrade to to make them work properly. This article could have been cut and pasted (and probably was) from any article ever written about upgrading to any new OS. Just embarrassing.

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