Chapter 20

Adding New Stuff to Your Laptop


Bullet Adding memory (if you can)

Bullet Upgrading your internal drive

Bullet Checking out add-ons

“No laptop is an island.” Somebody famous wrote that, I’m sure.

Without getting too philosophical — or invoking the all-powerful Internet yet again — the old saying really does make sense. All computer owners usually add at least one peripheral (external device), such as a printer, trackball, backup drive, or scanner. I talk about the ports on your MacBook in Chapter 1. These holes aren’t there just to add visual interest to the sides of your treasured laptop. I cover your ports (and what you can plug into them) in detail in this chapter.

But what about the stuff inside your road warrior? That’s where things get both interesting and scary at the same time. In this chapter, I describe what you can add to the innards of your computer, as well as how to get inside there if you work up the courage to go exploring.

More Memory Will Help

Every computer benefits from more memory — and no, there’s no however stuck on the end of that statement! For once, I’m happy to report, there’s no exception, no matter what type of computer you own. Hard as it is to believe, just keep in mind this Mark’s Maxim:

Marksmaxim More memory helps. Always.™

Period. End of statement. No matter what type of computer you own, how old it is, or what operating system you use, adding more memory to your system (to the maximum that it supports) significantly improves the performance of both your operating system and practically every application you run.

Technical Stuff Memory maximizes the power of your computer. The more memory you have, the less data your laptop has to temporarily store on its drive. Without getting into virtual memory and other technojunk, just consider that extra memory to be extra elbow room for your applications and documents. Believe me — both macOS Big Sur and Windows 10 efficiently use every kilobyte of memory you can provide.

If your MacBook is already stuffed with the maximum amount of memory it can hold, you can skip this section.

Unfortunately, owners of all the latest MacBook models can skip this section as well, because these models can’t be upgraded. Because these laptops are sealed units — literally — you must visit your local Apple hardware technician if your laptop’s memory malfunctions and needs replacing. The same is true of the battery in all current MacBook models.

If you’re using macOS Big Sur on an older MacBook with upgradeable memory, read on.

Figuring out how much memory you have

To see how much memory your computer has, click the Apple menu (App) and choose About This Mac. In the dialog that appears, your MacBook displays the machine speed (processor speed), the amount of memory it carries, and the common identifier that Apple uses to refer to your specific model. My older MacBook Air has a 2.2 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, it’s equipped with 8GB of memory, and it’s identified as an early 2015 model. (This particular model is a sealed unit, so I’m out of luck when it comes to upgrading.) If your MacBook can be upgraded, write down these figures. You’re starting a handy list that will help you when you order your memory!

How you plan memory upgrades depends on how much memory you want. Most MacBook owners simply opt to install the maximum amount of memory possible. So if your 4GB 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro is upgradeable to 8GB, and it currently uses the two default 2GB modules supplied by Apple, you can add 4GB of RAM by replacing the existing memory modules with two 4GB memory modules. At the time of this writing, a 4GB memory module should set you back less than $25.

Tip I should note that 4GB of memory is certainly acceptable for running the applications bundled with Big Sur, like Music or Pages. With that said, these applications will run significantly faster with 8GB or 16GB!

Remember If your primary applications include video or image editing, game play, or audio production, you can use all the memory that your laptop can hold.

In the past, Apple’s prices for upgrade RAM were … well, outrageous (as in, “Boy howdy, I can’t afford that!”). Recently, however, Apple’s prices have become far more competitive. If you’re interested in comparison shopping, I can heartily recommend any of these online sources that cater to Mac owners:

Installing memory modules

I’m happy to report that adding extra memory to your older laptop is one of the easiest internal upgrades you can perform. Therefore, I recommend that you add memory yourself unless you simply don’t want to mess with your laptop’s internal organs. Your local Apple service specialist will be happy to install new RAM modules for you (for a price).

Tip If you have a knowledgeable friend or family member who can help you install your hardware, buy that person the proverbial NSD (Nice Steak Dinner) and enlist him or her in your cause. Even if you still do the work yourself, it’s always better to have a second pair of experienced eyes watching, especially if you’re a little nervous.

To add memory modules to an older MacBook model, follow these steps:

  1. Get ready to operate.
    1. Spread a clean towel on a stable work surface, such as your kitchen table.

      The towel helps protect your screen from scratches.

    2. Find a small Phillips screwdriver.

      Some Mac models use a “star” screwdriver, so take a second to make sure that you’re using the right tool!

    3. Shut down your laptop, and wait at least 10 minutes for it to cool down.
    4. Unplug all cables from the computer.
  2. Close the computer and flip it over on top of the towel.
  3. Ground thyself!

    Check out the nearby “Let’s get grounded!” sidebar.

  4. Remove the screws and bottom cover.

    Depending on the model, you may have to remove up to ten screws before you can put aside the cover. Note that some screws may be longer than others; if so, they must be replaced in the same locations. Place the screws in a handy plastic bowl for safekeeping. Ta-da! That wasn’t much of a challenge, was it? Here’s your chance to gaze with rapt fascination at a portion of the bare innards of your favorite computer.

  5. Locate the memory modules in your MacBook’s svelte chassis.
  6. If you’re replacing an existing memory module, remove it.

    To remove a memory module, gently spread the two tabs at the ends of the socket, as shown in Figure 20-1. Then lift and slide the module away from the socket.

    Tip Save the old module in the static-free packaging that held the new module. Your old RAM (which you can sell on eBay) will be protected from static electricity.

    Schematic illustration of removing a memory module like a pro.

    FIGURE 20-1: Remove a memory module like a pro.

  7. Position the new module in the socket.
    1. Line up the module’s gold connectors toward the socket at a 25-degree angle.
    2. Line up the notch in the module with the matching spacer in the socket.

      See what I mean in Figure 20-2.

    Schematic illustration of preparing to install the new module.

    FIGURE 20-2: Prepare to install the new module.

  8. Press gently but firmly on both ends of the module until the module’s tabs click into place at both ends of the socket.

    Figure 20-3 shows the direction in which you should press on the module. If the module doesn’t seem to fit, make sure once again that the notch on the module connector lines up with the spacer in the socket. Never attempt to make it fit through sheer force!

    Schematic illustration of pressing the new RAM module into place until it locks.

    FIGURE 20-3: Press the new RAM module into place until it locks.

  9. Replace the bottom covers and screws.

    To replace the bottom cover, just reverse the steps at the beginning of this list. (It’s rather like changing the oil in my Dad’s 1970 Ford pickup truck.)

Congratulations! You’ve done it. You’re a MacBook Pro memory guru! To verify that all is well with your road warrior, boot your road warrior and choose App  ⇒    About This Mac. Your laptop should report the additional memory.

Considering an Internal Drive Upgrade?

Asking whether you can upgrade your internal drive is a trick question. Yes, you certainly can upgrade your hard drive. But before you start cruisin’ the Internet for a 4TB monster, I have two suggestions:

  • Don’t upgrade your internal drive yourself.
  • Be sure that you really need a drive upgrade.

Apple’s pretty generous when it comes to configuring drive storage for its base systems. Current models run with anywhere from a 256GB solid-state drive to a positively chunky 8TB solid-state drive.

Most folks simply don’t need more than 256GB to 1TB of drive space (even with Windows loaded in a separate partition for use with Boot Camp, which I discuss in Chapter 19). You’re likely to find that you still have plenty of elbow room on your drive for a typical family’s needs unless you’re heavily into

  • Digital video
  • Cutting-edge video games
  • Tons of digital audio or digital photos

Tip If you’re short on drive space, clean up your existing drive by deleting all the crud you don’t need, including game and application demos, duplicate or work copies of images and documents, archived files that you downloaded from the Internet, and the contents of the Trash. You can read how in Chapter 21.

Remember If you decide that you do need to upgrade your MacBook’s internal drive, I strongly recommend that you don’t install your new toy yourself. Call on the services of an Apple technician to upgrade your drive!

Ponder your external options

If you find that you need additional storage space, I recommend using an external drive. Use a high-speed Thunderbolt/USB-C port to connect a second drive the quick and easy way.

Today’s external peripherals don’t even require the driver software that Mac old-timers remember with such hatred. You simply plug in a Thunderbolt or USB-C device, and it works. You can move your external drive between Macs with a minimum of fuss and bother. A typical external USB-C hard drive that holds 1TB costs less than $60.

An external drive can do anything that your internal drive can do. You can boot from it, for example, or install a different version of macOS (great for beta testers like me). External optical drives work the same way as internal models. Apple sells a USB SuperDrive optical DVD drive for the MacBook for about $80.

Tip Apple’s AirPort Time Capsule unit is a legacy external drive with a difference: It stores the huge Time Machine backup files created by the Macs running Big Sur on your network, and it uses a wireless connection to transfer data! (In fact, if you’re thinking of adding a wireless base station to your wired network, a Time Capsule acts as a full AirPort Extreme Base Station, complete with USB port for connecting a USB printer.) Unfortunately, Apple no longer sells the Time Capsule, but it’s easy to spot on eBay.

Technical Stuff One problem with external drives is that data typically transfers more slowly over a cable connection than via an internal drive. (A Thunderbolt 3 external drive can deliver transfer speeds comparable to those of your internal drive, but at the time of this writing, it’s somewhat more expensive than USB-C hardware.) That’s why most Mac owners use their external drives to store lesser-used documents and applications or Time Machine backups. Their favorite applications and often-used documents are housed on the faster internal drive.

Putting a port to work

A MacBook can carry two kinds of high-speed ports, either of which is a good match for connecting any external device:

  • USB 2.0/3.0/C: The USB standard is popular because it’s just as common in the PC world as it is in the Mac world. (Most PCs don’t have Thunderbolt ports.) Your MacBook offers a USB-C port (which acts as a USB 3.0 port with the proper connector but can also charge the laptop), whereas older models usually carry at least two USB 2.0 or 3.0 ports. Hardware manufacturers can make one USB device that works on both types of computers.

    Remember Naturally, USB-C and USB 3.0 offers faster data transfer speeds than the “creaky” older USB 2.0 standard. So if your MacBook model sports USB 3.0 or USB-C ports, you should buy only USB 3.0/USB-C external drives, DVD recorders, or flash drives. ’Nuff said.

  • Thunderbolt 1/2/3: A Thunderbolt external drive offers much better performance than a USB 3.0 drive. Today’s shiny Thunderbolt drives are getting cheaper every day. As with USB ports, the higher the version number, the faster the port. So if your MacBook model comes with a Thunderbolt 2 or 3 port, invest in Thunderbolt 2 or 3 peripherals. Each current MacBook model proudly sports at least one Thunderbolt port.

Connecting an external drive

With Thunderbolt or USB, you can install an external drive without opening your laptop’s case. With your MacBook turned on, follow these steps:

  1. Connect the Thunderbolt or USB cable between the drive and your computer.
  2. Plug the external drive into a convenient surge protector or uninterruptible power supply (if necessary).

    Note that some external devices are bus-powered, meaning that they don’t need a separate power supply. These devices draw their power directly from the port — but will also drain your MacBook’s battery faster.

  3. Switch on the external drive.
  4. If the drive is unformatted or formatted for use in Windows, partition and format the external drive.

    The drive comes with instructions or software for you to do this. Don’t worry — your external drive comes from the factory empty, and you won’t damage anything by formatting it. Partitioning divides the new drive into one or more volumes.

    Tip If the drive comes preformatted for use with a Windows PC, I strongly suggest reformatting it for use with macOS. Doing so will result in faster performance and more efficient use of space.

After the drive is formatted and partitioned, the volumes you’ve created immediately appear on the desktop. Shazam!

Gotta have internal

If you decide that you must upgrade your existing internal drive — or if your internal drive fails and needs to be replaced — you should always take your MacBook to an authorized Apple service center and allow the techs there to sell you a drive and make the swap. Here are four darned good reasons why:

  • Warranty: You’re very likely to void your laptop’s warranty by attempting a drive upgrade yourself.
  • Selection: If you’re worried about choosing the proper drive, your friendly neighborhood Apple technician can order the correct type and size of drive for you.
  • Difficulty: Swapping a drive in your Mac laptop is a downright pain.
  • Backup: That very same Apple service technician can back up all the data on your existing drive, format the new drive, and move all your data to its new mansion. You won’t lose a single document, which will save you time and possible angst.

Warning Perhaps you won’t be truly satisfied with your life until you upgrade your MacBook’s internal drive. I’m sure that you can find a magazine article that purports to show you how. I’ve seen many how-to articles on the web that claim to lead you down a rosy path to a laptop drive upgrade. Here’s my take on those savvy instructions: You’re walking into a minefield with someone else’s map, so you’d better have complete faith in your technical skills (and a darn good backup).

A List of Dreamy Laptop Add-Ons

The USB toys I cover in this section might add a cable or two to your collection at the side of your road warrior, but they’re well worth the investment. And they can really revolutionize how you look at technologies such as television, digital audio, and computer gaming.

Game controllers

If you’re ready to take a shot at the enemies — whether they be Nazi soldiers, chattering aliens, or the latest jet fighters — you’ll likely find your keyboard and mouse somewhat lacking. (And if that enemy happens to be a friend of yours playing across the Internet, you’ll be ruthlessly mocked while you fumble for the right key combination.) Instead, pick up either a USB joystick (for flying games) or a gamepad (for arcade and first-person shooting games).

Video controllers

For armchair directors, specialized USB digital video controllers make editing easier. The Shuttle Xpress from Contour Design ( provides a five-button jog control that can be configured to match any DV editor. For $60, you get the same type of editing controller as you get with dedicated video-editing stations that cost several thousand dollars.

Music hardware

Ready to put GarageBand to the test with your favorite version of “Chopsticks”? You’ll need a USB piano keyboard. I recommend the Keystation 49 MK3 from M-Audio (, which retails for a mere $100. It provides 49 keys and uses a USB connection.

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