Nov 17

Making the leap to SSD on a MacBook

It used to take 28 seconds for my 13-inch MacBook Pro to load the folders on my desktop after I logged in. Now it takes five seconds.

Large-footprint apps like Photoshop now load near-instantly.

The machine now has 1.16 terabytes (1,160 gigabytes) of hard drive space, 160 gigs of which is on a solid state disk (SSD) drive. It has also cured my MacBook Air lust, as I now feel that I’m getting a ridiculous amount of value out of that extra two pounds of weight.

I opted to completely replace my optical drive with MCE Technology’s OptiBay hard drive chassis. Hence the extra space for the additional 1TB hard drive. 

There’s lots of geek-centric commentary out there about whether the time is right yet for SSD (it is), and which of the many available drives on the market will actually give you the benefits the technology promises.

This post is intended for the pseudo-technical, “I’m sold; what do I do?” crowd that doesn’t care about the nuances, and just wants to get cracking with a credit card and a screwdriver.

I’m running a mid-2009 style aluminum unibody MacBook Pro 13-inch. Much of what you read here probably applies to other models, but do your homework.

UPDATE 7-Feb-2011: Speaking of doing your homework, some people are having wake-from-sleep trouble with OWC Mercury Extreme drives. This article discusses my experiences with Intel’s X25-M series.

What I bought

  • Intel X25-M 160GB SSD Drive
    SSD is still expensive, and prices haven’t come down the way many had hoped they would. They will soon, of course, but the pace could be better. The market changes quickly, and as of this writing, Intel’s X25-M may already no longer be the sweet spot. Again: do a little homework before you buy, and be particularly sure to check out current SandForce-based offerings.

    That said, the performance gains are so great even now (a RAM upgrade’s got nothing on this), that even at over $400, the price/performance ratio feels totally worth it… provided you buy the right drive. Intel’s X25-M series is the real deal. 

    There’s also a 80GB version  available for less than half the price, but you’ll be hard-pressed to get by if that’s your only drive.

    Update: @zuhl has written a nice piece on how to Move Your Home Folder Off Your SSD if that’s your thing.  
  • MCE Technology’s OptiBay hard drive chassis
    The extra speed of SSD comes at a price, and not just in dollars. You’re also sacrificing a lot of capacity. In order to have your cake and eat it too, you need to find a way to get another hard drive in there for data and media storage. (The Mac OS should, of course, be installed on the SSD.)

    The OptiBay replaces your optical (CD/DVD) drive so you can have two hard drives: one fast, one large capacity.

    It also includes a “free” external enclosure for your optical drive and a USB cable, so you can still pop in a CD or DVD when needed.
  • Syba 12-Piece Extensible Precision Screwdriver Set  (optional)
    If you plan to replace your existing hard drive, you’ll need to remove four Torx T6 screws. These tiny, star-shaped screws cannot be removed with a regular screwdriver.

    The beauty of this thing is that it’s not really a “set”. It’s a single drive shaft with a chamber in the handle for storing the collection of bits. I bought it on a whim because my tools are in storage, but now I’m completely in love with this little gadget. It includes both flat and philips-style bits in many sizes, as well as an assortment of Torx bits. 

What I did

  1. Temporarily installed the new 1TB drive in the Vantec external enclosure.
  2. Connected the 1TB drive via USB, formatted it (HFS+) with Disk Utility, then used Carbon Copy Cloner to back up everything on my MacBook to it.
  3. Installed the SSD into the OptiBay enclosure.
  4. Opened up my MacBook and installed the OptiBay+SSD, using the provided instructions. 
  5. Started the machine with the new SSD installed, and formatted it with Disk Utility.
  6. Deleted everything from the original internal hard drive that I didn’t want on the SSD, then used Carbon Copy Cloner to copy the OS and apps to the SSD. (It’s important to note that everything is still backed up to the new 1TB hard drive at this point.)
  7. Used System Preferences>Startup Disk to change the MacBook to boot from the SSD.
  8. Rebooted from the SSD and made sure everything worked OK.
  9. Powered off the MacBook, opened it back up, and replaced the original hard drive with the new 1TB drive. I used ifixit’s guide to replacing a MacBook Pro hard drive.
  10. Screwed the MacBook shut for the final time, and started it with both new drives in place. Upon confirming everything looked OK, I installed my old hard drive in the Vantec enclosure; its new home.
  11. Deleted the now-redundant system files from the new 1TB drive.
  12. Changed my system hibernation mode settings. See below.

New hibernation settings
Ever since the PowerBook G4, Apple notebooks use a system called Safe Sleep to restore your computer to working order after being left unattended for a while. With Safe Sleep, the current session is written to both RAM and your hard disk — RAM because waking up is faster that way, and the hard disk so that the system can safely go into hibernation if the battery drains while it’s asleep.

You can save some space on your SSD by disabling Safe Sleep, and removing the sleep image. You’ll still be able to sleep your computer, but there’s no zero-battery safety net anymore. Your MacBook can go a very long time in RAM-only sleep mode on a full battery, so this should rarely affect your life. But keep in mind that if the battery does run out, you’ll lose any unsaved work.

This Macworld article goes into greater detail about Safe Sleep, but for our purposes, the short version is this:

  1. Open up Terminal.
  2. Type “sudo pmset -a hibernatemode 0” without the quotes, and hit Enter.
  3. Enter your password when prompted.
  4. You are now using RAM-only / “old school” sleep mode.
  5. Now type “cd /var/vm” and hit Enter.
  6. Finally: “sudo rm sleepimage”
  7. This will delete the existing sleep image file on your hard drive, reclaiming that space for future use.

Why not install the SSD in the regular hard drive bay?

Good idea! The only problem is that the regular hard drive bay is the only bay that features sudden motion protection. If you drop your MacBook, it’s smart enough to safely park your non-SSD hard drive so it won’t be damaged by the impact. The optical bay interface has no such feature. This is harmless to your shiny new SSD because it has no moving parts, but any spinning platter-based drive will be at risk if installed in the optical bay.

You can have it both ways if your secondary hard drive has its own native sudden motion detection (the Western Digital Scorpio Blue does not, nor does your factory-installed MacBook hard drive). In that case, you’d install the SSD in the MacBook’s regular hard drive bay, put the spinny drive in the MCE OptiBay chassis, and disable OS X’s native sudden motion detection (or risk conflicts). 

Life without an optical drive

Since the MCE OptiBay includes a basic USB-powered enclosure for your old SuperDrive, you won’t be completely without an optical drive.

But who wants to carry that thing around? I sure don’t.

Here’s what I did:

  1. Used Disk Utility to add a 160GB partition to my old hard drive (now in the Vantec enclosure).
  2. Used Carbon Copy Cloner to make a bootable backup of my 160GB SSD.
  3. Backed up all my other important files (and some CD/DVD software images) to the other partition.

If I ever need to reinstall, it’s a simple matter of using Carbon Copy Cloner to restore the complete backup.

And whenever I acquire a new piece of software on a disk, I make an image of it using Disk Utility’s CD/DVD Master option. Then I can simply mount the image from the external drive in the future. 

Does this void my warranty?

To my knowledge, unlike the regular hard drive, the optical drive is not considered a “user serviceable part”. So it probably does void your warranty.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t be too hard to simply put the optical drive back in before bringing the MacBook in for service. I didn’t have to remove any stickers or anything to get it out of there.

What about Boot Camp?

I have Windows XP installed on the larger, Western Digital drive, and it works fine both as a bootable partition and through VMWare Fusion. I’d recommend against installing it on your SSD, since it may prematurely shorten the life of your drive (and eat up some of that precious flash storage space). WinClone is an easy, free means of migrating your Windows installation on a Mac.

Informal, “real life” benchmarks

Time between pressing the Power button and seeing the login screen:
Old drive — 63 seconds
New SSD — 45 seconds

From pressing Enter at login to fully loaded Desktop:
Old drive — 28 seconds
New SSD — 5 seconds

From clicking Photoshop in the Dock to seeing the empty workspace:
Old drive — 45 seconds
New SSD — 7 seconds

I could go on. And those are the big things. Small operations are now truly instantaneous. The difference is night and day. Not only does my Mac now “just work”, it “just works NOW”.