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I'm currently using the GUI wallet (v0.12.0.0) and have the blockchain stored on an old HDD Macbook which rarely goes online. Although it gives some purpose to an old laptop, synchronization can be painfully slow if not done regularly.

So, would purchasing a new external/USB SSD drive, storing the blockchain on it and using it with the old Macbook help to improve synchronization speed? Or would I be better off buying a cheap dedicated laptop with internal SSD?

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The speed of synchronizing multiple-days' worth of Monero blocks is primarily bottlenecked by 1) internet speed, 2) CPU (for verification), and 3) drive speed. It's likely that an older laptop might just be very slow when it comes to the CPU speed. However Monero uses the LMDB database, where the developers state here that an SSD is considered essential for performance: https://symas.com/anticipating-future-lmdb/ It's likely that a fast external SSD will improve your synchronization speed modestly, though a better computer would lead to a better result. (Of course, the simple strategy of synchronizing more often would be the easiest overall.)

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