Macs are fantastic personal computers. From the pixel perfect displays of the Retina iMac, to the compact power of a Mac Mini, these devices are fantastic to use and have proven very durable over the years. Time, though, takes its toll, and that once shiny, all conquering powerhouse of yesterday can soon become a wheezing carthorse seeing out its time before a final journey to Bostik heaven.
To stave off this inevitable demise, the brave of screwdriver can replace various parts of their Mac and add years to its life. Probably the most challenging of all these fixes is that of upgrading the processor: the Mac equivalent of a brain transplant. In this feature we explore the options open those who would delve into the depths of their Mac, and ask whether it's really worth the hassle?
How to upgrade the processor in your Mac: Can I upgrade a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air?
Sadly none of the current MacBook range is upgradeable, due to the CPUs all being soldered onto the motherboard. This practice goes back to 2006 when Apple switched to Intel chips from the previously used PowerPC CPUs, although even then some models were soldered. It's the trade off you get for the small sizes that make them such portable devices. Technically you can argue that these chips could be desoldered in special ovens (which they can) but the level of equipment and expertise needed to make this happen precludes the advantages that any upgrade would warrant.
How to upgrade the processor in your Mac: Can I upgrade a Mac Mini?
The latest version of the Mac Mini is a similar story, as it shares much of its internals with the MacBook Air. When the Mac Mini was first introduced in 2006 it featured an upgradeable CPU, and this continued to be the trend until 2009 when the first soldered models appeared. Since then the Mac Mini has remained upgradeable in many ways for hard disks and RAM, but the CPU is now off the menu.
How to upgrade the processor in your Mac: Can I upgrade an iMac?
While the MacBook and Mac Mini ranges have used soldered CPUs for a number of years, the iMac - being quite a bit larger - offers more opportunities for those willing to pry open their svelte cases. iFixit.com, which remains one of the very best resources online for DIY Apple fans, reported back in late 2013 that the 21.5" iMac was the first to feature a soldered CPU. As you can deduce from this, that means any iMac built before then would have featured an upgradeable CPU. Interestingly it was discussed on the site that the possible reason for the soldered chip was that Intel doesn't offer the Iris Pro GPU without a soldered CPU. So far we haven't been able to confirm whether this is true or not, but we have seen reports of users upgrading the CPU on the 2013 2.9GHz Quad-Core 21.5" iMac model that featured an NVIDIA GeForce GT750M rather than the Iris Pro. This theory was supported by the fact that the 27" model of the same year, which also featured an NVIDIA GPU, came fitted with an unsoldered (or socketed) CPU. The most recent iMac to be introduced - the iMac with 5K Retina display - has also been fitted with an unsoldered CPU, meaning that you can indeed upgrade it at some point if you want to.
- 2014 Entry level 21.5-inch iMac review
- 2014 21.5-inch iMac with Fusion Drive review
- 2014 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display review
- iMac range review
How to upgrade the processor in your Mac: Can I upgrade the Mac Pro?
The Mac Pro, as you might expect with the Pro part of the name, is eminently upgradeable. OWC, the popular Mac component retailer, offers various CPU replacements for not only the current 2013 model, but also those going back to 2009.
How to upgrade the processor in your Mac: Is it a difficult process?
Upgrading any iMac can be somewhat tricky, as it involves removing the display panel to gain access to the internals. While this in itself isn't overly difficult, it does involve removing double sided sticky tape and can just be plain fiddly. Then you have to disassemble most of the components to gain access to the CPU itself. Of course, as with most repairs, the real challenge is putting it back together again without leaving any evidence that you've been inside. Mac Pros are certainly a more straightforward proposition, as they are modular and don't involve large panes of expensive glass.
Then of course you'll need to research carefully which CPUs your Mac can actually accommodate, as each chipset will usually only work with a handful of alternatives. CPUs aren't cheap either, with some running into hundred of pounds: money which could go towards a brand new machine instead.
How to upgrade the processor in your Mac: Is it worth the effort?
No. Basically. Just, no. Unless you have a very particular reason for wanting to take on upgrading a CPU - say you fancy the technical challenge - then the performance enhancements you'll gain are really hard to justify the time and expense of buying and fitting a replacement CPU. These days most of the bottlenecks in a system are down to RAM and hard drive speeds. Probably the single biggest upgrade you can do to an older Mac is fit a Solid State Drive (SSD), which for around £100 can have a dramatic impact on the performance of your system. Sure, taking apart an older machine and building it back up again can be a very rewarding experience, but for most people a CPU upgrade is a bit too much effort for a little gain. Of course there are those whose skills mean this would be a walk in the park, and if you're convinced that Mac brain surgery is for you, then there are a variety of very detailed guides on the iFixit.com website that will aid you in your quest. Or if you're really confident, why not build a Hackintosh?