The 2008 MacBook is better than your modern MacBook in many, many ways [Review]

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Look and weep, modern MacBook owners.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

This is Apple’s 2008 aluminum unibody MacBook, model A1278. It replaced the white polycarbonate MacBook, but was itself replaced by, or rather rebranded as, the MacBook Pro, which was more or less the same computer1.

Apple introduced this magnificent MacBook on October 14, 2008, and produced them until June 8, 2009. And it was one of Apple’s best notebooks ever. It had a fantastic keyboard, and many comfy extras that today’s skinny MacBook owners can only dream about, from a battery indicator light to an almost hot-swappable hard drive (or SSD).

It’s so good that it’s still viable today as a daily driver, with the added bonus that its weight will help keep you fit during lockdown. How do I know? Because I have one right here, and I use it for music recording and production. I’m also using it to write this article. I thought, as my last post for Cult of Mac, that I’d review the 2008 unibody MacBook as if it were new. Let’s go.

2008 unibody MacBook review

Twelve years is an absurdly long life for a laptop. I wonder if today’s models will last as long. One of the main reasons this particular unit lasted as long as it has — used over the years by several owners, and left to hibernate for a few years after that — is that it can be easily repaired and upgraded. But I’ll get into that in a moment, because I’ve done quite a few upgrades over the years.

First, let’s see the specs:

  • 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 4GB 1067 MHz DDR3 RAM
  • Nvidia GeForce 9400M with 256MB
  • 13.3-inch LCD, 1,280 by 800 display

The most recent OS possible to run on this machine is OS X 10.11.6 El Capitan, which is limiting in terms of the software you can run (no Logic Pro X). However, it’s no hindrance in everyday use. It also means that the OS is called OS X, not macOS, which is nice.

2008 unibody MacBook review: Look at that battery-level indicator.
Battery-level indicator.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Unlike old iPads and iPhones, though, this Mac is still as fast today as it ever was. Thanks to Apple freezing the OS at 10.11, the laptop remains speedy and useful. In fact, because I added an SSD (or two), it’s probably faster than the day it was purchased.

Features, or why this Mac is better than yours

But let’s get to the extra features that make this Mac stand out. It’s like a wish list from modern Mac users. In fact, let’s write a list.

  • Two full-size USB-A ports
  • Ethernet port (!)
  • Headphone and microphone jacks, with optical audio in and out
  • Mini DisplayPort
  • MagSafe power
  • A pulsing sleep lamp
  • Battery-indicator LEDs, with a battery-test button, on the side of the machine.
  • A removable battery
  • A removable hard drive (!)
  • DVD/CD drive

That’s not it. There’s also a killer backlit keyboard, which is as comfortable to use as it is accurate and sturdy.

It’s not all great on the hardware front, though. RAM is officially capped at 4GB (although you can actually add more with no problems), and the screen is non-Retina. In practice, though, this makes little difference. And there’s no SD card slot.

Repairability

Even the hard drive is easy to replace in the 2008 unibody MacBook.
Even the hard drive is easy to replace.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

If you open up this MacBook, it’s surprising how much space there is inside. I mean, components are packed in there, but nowhere near as packed as a modern MacBook.

Think of this as a homemade cheese sandwich, on fluffy white sourdough bread, and a few loose leaves of lettuce perched on the crumbling cheese. In comparison, the modern Mac is a pastrami sandwich from a New York street deli, packed with far too much meat, and with no space left for even a drop of mustard.

This Mac even has repair instructions on the inside of the battery panel.
This Mac even has repair instructions on the inside of the battery panel.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

That also means that fixing things is easy. Flip off the battery cover on the bottom, and you can remove the battery by pulling on a plastic tab. The hard drive resides in the same bay, and you can pull it out and replace it in minutes by unscrewing a couple of screws. This is pretty wild, because it means that, if you have a hard-drive failure, you can switch in your backup and get back to work almost instantly. It also lets you switch in an SSD.

The user also can remove the internal optical drive and replace that with an SSD. Plus, the RAM is user-removable, and therefore replaceable — unlike the soldered-in memory of current MacBooks.

All this means that you can swap out the parts that usually go bad over time, and keep the computer in tip-top condition. It’s even easy to do your own trackpad repairs. And if you can’t repair it, you can buy a new unit to swap in.

SSD

This is now an internal backup drive.
This is now an internal backup drive.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

There’s one essential mod that anyone using an old Mac has to do: Swap the spinning hard drive for an SSD. It’s even more important in a laptop than on a desktop, because notebooks use slower 5,400 rpm drives (although the iMac actually still uses one of these slow laptop drives in 2020).

Putting in a solid state drive will make your old Mac feel like a new machine. It’s the difference between instant waking from sleep, and iOS-like performance, against apps that bounce 15 times before they launch. And on this Mac, it’s an easy swap. However, that’s not how I did it. Years ago, I switched the optical drive for an SSD, using a kit made for the purpose. That SSD died, so when I revived this MacBook recently, I switched in a new SSD for that broken one, and kept the old HDD in place. I could put in two SSDs, but what would be the point?

It's almost possible to build a new machine from spare parts.
It’s almost possible to build a new machine from spare parts.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Right now, I have a setup where the MacBook clones its SSD to the HDD every day to make a bootable backup. It then unmounts the drive so I don’t have to hear it, and it doesn’t waste precious battery power. Yes, this MacBook is still on its original battery, and it still lasts over an hour, but I don’t want to stress it. Then again, I could always just order a new one.

Do I recommend this machine?

Obviously, buying one of these Macs might not be a great idea. You can pick one up for under $200, but who knows how it has been treated? You might need to replace everything inside. But if you, or a friend or relative, already has one, then it’s more than viable. I use mine to run Ableton Live, and it has no problems whatsoever. And if a song I’m writing does get too complex, and starts to max out the CPU? I’ll move the project to my relatively youthful 2010 iMac, which is more than capable.

DIY

For more on how to perform these mods and repairs, check out iFixit. For deep, and accurate, information on Macs old and new, check out EveryMac.

  1. The Pro version got a FireWire port.