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Give Your Old iMac New Life With a DIY Upgrade

An upgraded iMac on a minimalist, clean desktop.

With large high-resolution displays, upgradable internals, and a wide selection of I/O, the iMac of yesteryear has managed to stay productive long after release. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait until that machine stops working—or deal with its slower-than-you’d-like performance.

A wide range of iMac upgrade kits from OWC can help your machine feel zippy, enable new features, and complement the investment made on your machine. Which iMacs are worth upgrading? What can I do with an older iMac? Read on for our iMac upgrade guide.

Which iMacs are worth upgrading?

OWC’s My Upgrades section offers upgrades and components guaranteed to work with almost any Mac, ever. As with most technology however, several older models simply do not have enough software support for us to enthusiastically recommend an upgrade. With regards to the iMac; machines released in late 2009 or newer can still be useful today. These models are:

  • Unibody iMac (Late 2009 to 2013)
  • Slim Unibody iMac (Late 2012 to 2021)
  • Retina iMac (2014 to 2022)

Our reason for the cut-off? The operating system. The 2009 iMac is capable of running macOS 10.13. With High Sierra, you’ll be able to use up-to-date versions of Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. With so much more work being done online like eLearning and Google Docs, we highly recommend keeping your software current.

The 21.5” and 27” iMacs released in late 2009 introduced the world to the iconic, all aluminum and glass footprint and stayed true to that design for over a decade. This model featured a full-HD display on the 21.5”, and a higher-resolution 2k display on the 27”. The wider 16×9 aspect ratio made these desktops good choices for watching movies. While many other desktop PCs copied the formula, none of them replicated the success of the aluminum iMac. If you’ve got one of these at home and are unsure of which upgrades are possible, here are a few ideas worth considering.

What can I do with an older iMac?

iSight and FaceTime

Although FaceTime didn’t exist when these machines made their debut, it made the leap over to the Mac shortly thereafter. By using the built-in iSight camera and iMac speakers, FaceTime calls work very well on this machine. When making a FaceTime call from an iPad or iPhone, you always have to hold up the device with your arm extended outwards. With a desktop sitting at eye level, longer calls or calls with the whole family run much more comfortably.

While the iSight camera was great in its day, the resolution was on the lower side. Earlier iMacs featured a 640 x 480 camera and later models saw a bump to 720p. External webcams and microphones can be easily used with FaceTime–or any other chat program–to look and sound even better. Just connect over USB and you are ready to roll.

Movies and music

An upgraded older iMac with new RAM and SSD running a music streaming service.

Up until 2012, the iMac featured a built-in SuperDrive, perfect for listening and ripping CDs in iTunes or watching DVD movies. Even though the DVD Player app is as old as macOS itself, it remains a fast and feature-rich way to enjoy your favorite films. The built-in speakers sound pretty decent, and onboard audio outputs (which are increasingly rare these days) allow for connection to headphones, speakers, and amplifiers alike. 

Both the 21.5” and 27” iMacs feature bright and beautiful glossy screens that make the venerable DVD format look surprisingly good. And, for the iLife and Final Cut Studio diehards, iDVD and DVD Studio Pro are still the easiest way to author discs. Even the 2009 model features a full 1920 x 1080 display, the same as HD television. If movies are your thing, it’s possible to get the full-HD experience by adding an external Blu-Ray player, or stream content from Apple TV or Disney+.

Remove a drive, double your data

If physical media is not your thing, the internal DVD drive can be removed and supplemented with additional internal storage. Having access to fast internal SATA connections can be useful for backing up media, managing Time Machine backups, or simply serving as a large storage volume. The OWC Data Doubler replaces the Superdrive with an additional 2.5” drive bay, perfect for a mechanical or solid-state drive. The OWC Data Doubler is available for iMacs, as well as the Mac mini and MacBook Pro.

Monitors and more

All iMacs feature either a Mini DisplayPort or a Thunderbolt port for connecting to a second monitor, television, or projector. Extending your display to a second monitor is a simple way to enhance productivity, running multiple applications on either screen.

The 27” iMacs released before the leap to 5k, some 21” models, and the last 24” model can be used in Target Display Mode, which allows the computer to serve as a monitor for another Mac. Target Display Mode could be used by pairing an iMac as a monitor for a laptop, such as a MacBook Pro. Get connected with a compatible mini DisplayPort adapter and you are good to go. 

Surfing and streaming

macOS High Sierra supports up-to-date versions of Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, meaning your Mac can still be productive with a host of web-apps. Web browsers aren’t just for surfing anymore, and with a dozen tabs open managing email, writing Google Docs, and streaming music, it’s easy to slow down a system to a crawl. If you plan on doing heavy web browsing or productivity in your browser such as Google Docs, an 8GB memory upgrade would certainly prove to be beneficial, and can even be taken to 16GB for even more multitasking.

FireWire

An upgraded older iMac being used in a music production studio with digital piano keyboards.

FireWire, loved by many video editors and musicians alike, was starting to be phased out around 2010, and was eventually replaced with Thunderbolt. The unibody model iMacs shipped with a single FireWire 800 port which could be used to daisy-chain multiple external hard drives, run an audio interface, and capture footage from a camcorder using Final Cut Pro Studio. If you need a 4-pin FireWire adapter for capturing old tapes, we’ve got you covered.

Essential iMac Upgrades

Memory (RAM)

These days, we expect a lot more from our computers, especially from web browsers. Having a dozen or more tabs open at the same time with things like Facebook, Apple Music, Slack, Teams, Zoom, and WhatsApp is the norm; and all of those tabs are storing information in your RAM. Web browsing consumes a lot of memory, Chrome in particular has a bit of a reputation for consuming a lot of resources

What is RAM?

When applications are running (even in the background), they are moved from storage into memory, referred to as RAM. Computers do this because RAM is faster than storage for retrieving data that is being used. If the system’s RAM fills too quickly, the computer must resort to (slower) drive storage. Adding more memory to a Mac can greatly improve overall performance. More applications and tabs can be accessed quickly, without having to rely on slower storage volumes for everyday work. 

To get the most out of an iMac for browsing with many tabs, streaming, and long Zoom calls, 8GB is a good place to start, with 16GB useful for power-users. 

Storage

With the instant-on access afforded by the likes of the iPhone and iPad, the minutes-long startup cycle of the aluminum iMac can feel like hours. The prices of solid-state storage have dropped considerably and is the most affordable way to extend the life of your Mac.

It is possible to upgrade the storage inside the iMac to a speedy SSD, or a larger mechanical one. If you’re feeling a little uncertain about cracking open the case and upgrading yourself, just note that external storage can also augment the iMac. Did you know that macOS can be booted on portable storage over USB 3 or Thunderbolt? Adding an internal or external SSD is the easiest, fastest upgrade you can get for your iMac. 

Storage, often referred to as “the hard drive”, is at the centerpiece of every iMac. Pairing the right combination of storage is essential to get the most out of your iMac.

Many iMacs shipped with “mechanical” hard drives until very recently. This kind of storage utilizes moving parts and an actual spinning disk to retrieve files and folders on your Mac. Hard drives are great for offering a lot of storage for the dollar, but are not very fast. Every time files need to be accessed, the drive needs to spin (physically) and locate and retrieve the files. The rest of the computer is left waiting for the hard drive to find and transfer the information being requested. For this reason, mechanical (or “platter”) drives are ideal for secondary storage, such as having an additional hard drive to use for backups or to save digital photos. 

OWC Mercury Electra SSD

SSDs (solid-state drives) like OWC’s Mercury SATA drives and Aura blade drives, solve the storage slowdowns that hard drives can create. SSDs have no moving parts and can very quickly find files saved all across the volume. The result is that information is sent to the computer processor much faster resulting in a much more smooth experience. 

Most iMacs can benefit from a storage upgrade. Find out which hard drives and SSDs are compatible with your iMac here. We’ve broken down each make and model over the last twenty years (!) to find the right combination that’s best for your Mac.

And that’s our iMac upgrades guide. I’ve been using a 2009 iMac quite a bit lately, especially with the need to Zoom chat at a moments notice, and I’m impressed with how well High Sierra hums along even on an older setup. Do you have a favorite iMac? Any questions about your setup? Let me know in the comments.

Arthur Ditner
the authorArthur Ditner
Over the past fifteen years, Arthur Ditner has worked in post-production in a variety of roles including colorist, editor, and dailies producer. He has had the pleasure of working with some of the top directorial talent in Canada, and has traveled the United States building remote dailies labs supporting network television series. He plays bass guitar on occasion and resides near Toronto.
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