Making an old MacBook snappy with a SSD

(Yes, I know a SSD (Solid State Drive) is hardware rather than software, but this is “from other folk” so it seemed to be the best fit.)

In another posting I mentioned adding a 60 GB SSD from Other World Computing to my four-year-old (mid-2007) white MacBook. This is a brief post about the results.

The Results
I can describe the results in one word. Snappy. It’s made that aging MacBook a joy to use. Things that used to entail a few seconds of delay because of disk activity now happen instantly. That’s what has made it worthwhile. Boot up times are also faster, so much faster I disabled log-ins to make them even quicker. And most apps, such as Scrivener, start up almost instantly. In general, comparisons have shown that SSDs are about twice as fast as hard drives and in practice that means that waits are so short they don’t bother you. OWC SSDs are also among the best. This “Flash Storage Shootout” found that OWC replacement drives were significantly faster in MacBook Airs than those that ship with Apple MBAs.

barefeats.com/mba11_03.html

The Details
Because it only entailed a week of delay, I waited to install the SSD in my MacBook until I could kick it off with a clean install of Lion. That’s an important factor because, with Lion, my almost equally old iMac (late-2006) has become irritating. It has 3 gig of RAM to my MacBook’s 2.5 Gig, but since I use more apps with it, that’s not enough. (Four gigs recommended.) What was my faster Mac, due to a faster hard drive, has become my slower Mac, due to disk activity.

The Installation
Installation was a breeze, so easy I didn’t even bother looking for online videos or directions. The SSD from OWC comes in the same package as the hard drive it is replacing and replacing hard drives on white MacBooks is easy. I bought an external drive case and installed the SSD in it. Then I used the Lion installer’s ability to put Lion on an external drive to set up the SSD. That done, I replaced my 80 Gig MacBook hard drive with the SSD, which took about 20 minutes, and installed the old drive in OWC’s case as a backup drive. Then I used Migration Assistant to move all my files and documents from the now-external hard drive to my MacBook.

The Rationale
Why would I do this rather than simply buy a new MacBook Air?

1. Cost. I got the SSD from OWC during their Fourth of July sale for $107. Tossing in shipping and an external USB 3.0 drive case raised the price to about $140. That gives me something that’s roughly equivalent to a MBA for about $1000 less. For for those sorts of savings, I don’t mind the extra two pounds.

2. Technology. For much the same reasons, I’m waiting to replace my iMac and MacBook until next year, when the replacements will come with Intel Ivy Bridge chips rather than the current Sandy Bridge ones. The change is likely to be so dramatic, that Intel is deliberately delaying the arrival of Ivy Bridge for several months to recoup their investment in Sandy Bridge. Once Ivy Bridge is out, no one will want Sandy Bridge. It’ll be faster, use less power, and have better graphics performance. It’s like the difference some five years ago between Core Duo chips and Core 2 Duo chips. A little patience now will be rewarded.

3. Uncertainty about a replacement desktop. At the moment I’m doubly uncertain what I want to buy to replace my iMac and MacBook. I loathe the fact that iMacs are for the technologically clueless. They’re virtually impossible to upgrade or fix. For months I’ve complained that Apple wasn’t offering a desktop worth buying, but they’ve almost fixed that with the new Mac mini. It’s larger and, because it now ships without a DVD drive, there’s room for two drives in it through the bottom hatch, drives that are easily replaced. I could add my current SSD to it, installing my most used apps and documents on it, and the result would be desktop that combines the snappiness of an SSD with the storage space of a HD.

Only one hitch remains. None of the stock versions of the Mac mini have the features I want, putting me in a bind. Either I buy the slower model, toss away the RAM and HD and add what I want from third parties, or I buy the faster model I want, but find myself forced to throw away even more to get what I want. Since a lot of people are now looking longingly at a Mac mini as a low-budget server, so there’s a possibility Apple may agree to sell bare bones (no RAM or HD) versions through third parties. That’d give me what I want at a much lower price. Since I’m waiting for Ivy Bridge anyway, I might as well wait for that.

4. Uncertainty about a replacement laptop. Like a lot of people, when I first saw last year’s MBA, I thought, “I gotta get one.” I even purchased a USB-to-Ethernet converter to use with it. But then the more frugal side of me stepped in. Was all this expense really worth saving myself from carrying about two extra pounds? Compounding the problem was my inability to decide whether I wanted an 11" screen or a 13" screen. Hints about Apple’s plans for MacBook Pros have made my thinking more complicated. Apparently, MBPs are going to become more like MBAs. A MBA doesn’t have the ability to step in and take over my day-to-day work if my desktop died. A MBP would and, if Apple keeps the 13" MBP around, it’ll cost only a little more than a MBA. A real laptop or a toy? The geek in me wants to former.

Conclusion
I’m happy I put that SSD in my MacBook. It’s made me enjoy using my laptop again and at far less than a MBA would have cost. And equally important, it lets me delay my upgrades until I know what I want. Your situation is probably different, but you also might find that putting a bit more vim and vigor into your older MacBook or MacBook Pro makes mores sense than getting a new model right now.

If you’re interested, OWC’s SSDs are getting good reviews and you can find them here:

eshop.macsales.com/shop/SSD/OWC/

I went with a 60 GB Mercury Extreme Pro 3G SSD that’s currently $120. It’s more than large enough for just writing. As I understand it their more expensive OWC Mercury 6G SSDs are for newer Macs with faster interfaces. They wouldn’t do those with older Macs much good.

You can find the drive enclosure I picked up here:

eshop.macsales.com/shop/USB2/OWC_Express

It’ll work fine with laptop hard drives or their SSDs. I went with the $28 USB 3.0 model, so I’d be ready for Macs that ship with USB 3.0 ports. It’s so tiny, you can take it with you on trips as a backup.

–Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien

InklingBooks,

Thanks for such a thorough post. I’ve been contemplating just such a switch for my older MacBookPro, but the expense of larger SSDs has kept me away (I currently have a 500GB hard drive on my MBP).

However, I’ve just discovered a very attractive option for those who have an empty ExpressCard/34 slot on their computers. I’ve never used that slot and have always wondered what it was for, so I did a little digging and discovered that it’s possible to buy an ExpressCard SSD (48GB for ~$150, 96GB for $270) that you can just slip into that slot and install your boot OS and other applications on for a similar speedy effect. It may not be as fast as replacing the original drive, but it’s supposed to be nearly as fast, and the benefits of easy installation and keeping your original larger drive for documents and less-often-used applications, movies, music, etc., make it an attractive option.

Here’s some links for info and shopping:

discussions.apple.com/thread/26 … ID=2642956

amazon.com/FileMate-PCI-Expr … sim_dbs__1
newegg.com/Product/Product.a … 6820161410

I think you’ve detailed the #1 problem Apple faces if it tries to MBAize their MacBook Pro line. The key to the MBA’s speed is the SSD. An SSD works on a small, highly portable laptop, because people don’t expect it to store anything more than their on-the-go apps and current working documents. When I planned to get that SSD for my MacBook, I took a careful look to make sure 60 GB was enough for my purposes, and it is.

A relatively small SSD works because a MBA doesn’t have to be large enough for someone’s iTunes music collection or every photo they’ve taken in the last ten years. But for many people, their MBP laptop is their one and only work and/or home computer. It has to have a large drive like your 500 GB one.

Apple isn’t helped, like most technology issues are, by declining costs. About as fast as SSD prices are dropping, the demand for more space is growing. It isn’t a game they can win. Make the price of a 500 GB SSD reasonable, and people need 1 TB.

I suspect Apple’s new ‘in the cloud’ storage capacity is their primary answer to this. They may try to tell potential customers, “Hey, having only a 256 Gig SSD isn’t bad. We’re giving you lots of storage online. You can tap that anytime you want.”

I’m not sure that will wash. A lot of people have both privacy and security issues with online storage. To the extent that they want to store stuff there, they want it to be a limited subset of all they have. And getting that stuff down isn’t as easy as Apple might want to pretend. A bit of network congestion can mean that a download like Lion, which was over 3 GB, takes 1-2 hours to download. Do the numbers, and downloading the equivalent of your 500 GB drive would take 100-200 hours, and that’s assuming your broadband provider doesn’t decide you’re over their limit and throttle your connection down to a trickle.

I’ve sent Apple the suggestion that they add a twist on RAID to OS X. Make the file system smart enough to manage two drives, one a SSD and one a large-capacity hard drive, so they look as if they were one. The operating system, caches, commonly used apps and recently used documents would be stored on the SSD. All files would also have a copy on the hard drive and files that haven’t been used recently would be stored only there. That fast SSD/slower HD distinction would be invisible to users. There’d be one file folder system and each file would appear only once. All they’d notice is that the first time they open up a document they’ve not used in months, it loads more slowly. After than it loads quickly because its primary storage has been moved to the SSD.

Done properly, it’d make using Macs of all sorts, including desktops, a dream. Users would get the speed of a SSD with the larger capacity and lower price of a hard drive.

–Michael W. Perry, editor of More to William Morris

Once again, thanks for such a thoughtful and thorough post.

I didn’t mention that my 500GB drive is an aftermarket drive, the Seagate Hybrid–Momentus XT 7200 rpm–which uses a small (4GB) SSD component to speed up start-up and commonly-used apps. It made a big difference in speed when I put it in, so something like that on a larger scale–with two drives that act as one, as you suggest, is a great idea–getting the best of both worlds.

I’ve gone ahead and ordered an ExpressDrive SSD, and will report on how well it works once I’ve received it and set it up.

OWC has their SSDs on sale again. The prices are:

40 GB: $78
60 GB: $108
115 GB: $193
240 GB: %397
480 GB: $838

macsales.com/newsletter/OWCB … -2011.html

I’m managing to get buy with the 60 GB, but given that I’ll probably migrate it to a Mac mini next year, the 115 GB might have made more sense.

For many MacBooks and MacBook Pros, these drives are a direct replacement for your hard drive. They also make a kit that lets you keep that HD and replace your optical drive with an SSD.

I couldn’t find a date when the sales ends. It might go until they’ve sold down a specific portion of their inventory.

Here’s a totally scientific review of my early '08 MacBook Pro 4,1 Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz processor with 500 Gig Hybrid Momentus XT hard drive (spinner) and a 98G Wintec ExpressCard SSD installed. (And oh yeah, 6GB Ram).

The install was a breeze: slide it into the slot. Computer recognizes it. I open DiscUtility and reformat it to MacOSExtended(Journaled). No partition. I then take the Lion Boot disc I made prior to installing it on my first computer and slip it in. Hit install. No Problems. I decided to do a clean install, since I’d been upgrading through the last several Apple cats. (The only problem with that is reinstalling, relicensing, re-preferencing all the apps you want to put on it.) Install went perfectly, and I made this my boot disc.

Started up. Whereas normally I would wait 1-1/2 minutes, even this first startup took under 20 seconds.The longest part is when the system is looking for the boot drive. Once it’s got that it’s BAT-OUT-OF-HELL fast!

I’ve now got my main apps transferred (the iWork Suite, Scrivener (of course),and a few others that I anticipate use a lot of writing & reading: Devonthink, Tinderbox, Dragon Dictate. I’ve decided for now to run Parallels from this machine only, and have imported my boot disc–so that takes about half of my 96 gigs right off. But it’s a miracle to watch Windows XP, bloated as it is, start up in seconds instead of minutes. (Later, I may revert back to using Parallels with BootCamp partition instead of imported, to give me more room on the Mac side of things. Testing that seems faster, too–though I attribute that to the RAM update.)

Now that I’ve got it running pretty much normally, with my old startups and such going on, I would say it takes about a third to a fifth of the time to boot up and be up and running. 10-15 seconds (instead of a minute to a minute and a half. When starting programs that used to take a while, like iTunes, I find myself staring at the computer blindly waiting for the bouncing icon to quit and discover that it has quit, some time ago, and the app is staring me in the face ready to go. Safari is nearly instantaneous, and iPhoto–iPhoto fercrissake!–opens up in just a few seconds. (I’m gonna miss those daydream moments, when I could just float off to a little cloud and contemplate my navel for a bit.)

Part of the speed may be attributable to the increase in ram (I went from 4-6) at about the same time, but I was noticing this even before the ram install, so it’s not that much of a factor. That will play out when I’m running all the apps at the same time. But, in testing, I’ve found none of the previous slowdown in mac when I’ve got Windows stuff going, and vice-versa.

Bottom Line: I’m pleased as punch with this. Even those reduced prices on real SSDs that InklingBooks showed me wasn’t enough to cause me to despair. I’ve got 600 Gigs now, which would cost me a Thousand or more to replace with all SSD, and it’s working like a new machine. So, yeah–if you want some speed and you have an extra ExpressDrive Slot on the side of your computer, looking lonely and blue, this looks like just the thing to spice up your computer without having to go all the way with an SSD or a new computer.

One question–Ioa–I believe at some point you suggested a symlink method for pointing the app on one drive to all the data and files on the harddrive (the spinner). Was that you? I’m a bit in need of direction on that process. Strategic and technical. What’s the best approach–anybody who has done this type of thing, please chime in. I’ve tried to figure it out with some online searches, but need something clear and basic that doesn’t involve shells and too much code, if ya get my drift. Can ya help me out here?

[quote=“bargonzo”
One question–Ioa–I believe at some point you suggested a symlink method for pointing the app on one drive to all the data and files on the harddrive (the spinner). Was that you? I’m a bit in need of direction on that process. Strategic and technical. What’s the best approach–anybody who has done this type of thing, please chime in. I’ve tried to figure it out with some online searches, but need something clear and basic that doesn’t involve shells and too much code, if ya get my drift. Can ya help me out here?[/quote]
Try this post, involves a little bit of terminal but well described

ransom-note-typography.com/i … e_in_os_x/

Thanks, coolie21–I’ll see if that solves my problems!

That wasn’t me. I did fiddle with symlinks a few years ago for some DropBox-related purpose, but didn’t have much luck.

I’m glad you’re getting such amazing improvements in performance. The improved boot times and most of the improved load times are almost totally due to the SSD. If you’ve got enough RAM to load all the apps you’re using, an SSD won’t be of much assistance when you’re actually using an app, although it will help for things like Scrivener’s automatic backup saves. Those’ll happen almost instantly.

For those who are thinking about this, keep in mind there are several ways to install a SSD. The most obvious it to replace a HD. That’s what I did. If you have the proper ExpressCard port like bargonzo, you can use that sort of SSD. A third way is to keep your HD and replace your DVD drive. Companies such as OWC sell kits that have all that’s needed to do that. And finally, you can install the SSD as an external Firewire or USB drive, although the interface speed could be a bottleneck.

In the near future, there should be Thunderport SSD drives that should be screamingly fast. It’s not hard to see where Apple is going with Thunderport. At work, you’ll attach your lightweight MBP or MBA to their new Thunderport display and automatically have a large monitor, be on the company’s network with its large drives and have a speedy non-WiFI Internet connection. If you need to go, you can disconnect in a few seconds.

–Mike Perry, Seattle

Automated Home has an article by someone who upgraded a white MacBook to an SSD plus a 1TB hard drive.

automatedhome.co.uk/New-Prod … Drive.html

Here’s their summary of the result:

–Michael W. Perry, Seattle

Joining the merry bandwagon ArsTechna has a article on adding a SSD to an old Core Duo MacBook:

arstechnica.com/apple/guides/201 … -drive.ars

It gives complete details about the installation, including moving your data and applications, with lots of pictures.

Here’s their conclusion:

–Michael W. Perry, Seattle

Tom’s Hardware has a look at the “Best SSDs for the money”

tomshardware.com/reviews/ssd … ,2998.html

That certainly fits me and may fit you. Just keep in mind that they’re more oriented to PCs than Macs.

–Michael W. Perry

InklingBooks,

Great post, I read it with real interest. You’ve really got me thinking about a SSD now. I’ve got the same MacBook and I’m still satisfied with it.

I got a refurbished Mac Mini from the Apple store and for some reason it came with 4 GB installed instead of the 2 GB that the product description listed. (At the last minute (I decided not to send Apple a great email taking them to task for not sending me what I ordered–I decided they might not see the humor in it). The Mini is just great with Lion but the MacBook struggles a bit with only 2 GB of memory. Even though 2 GB is supposed to be the max for this model I read somewhere (OWC, I think) that if you install 4GB in the MacBook it can use about 3 GB of it. I’m just trying to decide if I should go back to Snow Leopard since the MB was snappier with that version. So maybe Snow Leopard and a SSD would be the best combo for me.

Have you by any chance tried Lion with your MB? And how much memory do you have installed?

Don’t worry about the Apple police making a middle-of-the-night visit. I’ve heard they’re aware that some units will ship with more than their specs say. The specs are the minimum you get. If the unit they fixed was a special order with more than stock RAM, you’ll get that extra RAM at no cost. That’s nice of them.

BTW, I’ve bought most of my new Macs over the years as refurbs and I’ve never had a bit of trouble with them. If anything, what you get is a bit more reliable, since they’ve been checked twice.

Under Lion, RAM is a problem with Macs that can’t make use of at least 4 Gig. My iMac with 3 Gig has more spinning wheels with Lion that it ever did with earlier versions. But keep in mind that a lot of that sluggishness is disk swapping (RAM exchanging with disk space to give the illusion of more RAM). A SSD will make that swapping almost invisible. With Lion, my iMac has become a bit irritating, while my MacBook with 2.5 Gig of RAM and the SSD remains snappy.

I got a 60 Gig SSD, and that’s all I need and more for my on-the-go writing. But I am starting to wonder if I should have gotten at least 120 Gig. Next year I plan to upgrade my desktop to a Mac mini and install an SSD in it. Managing two drives when the more active one is a 60 Gig SSD sounds a bit messy. 120 Gig would be much better. I could put everything on it and use the HD for Time Machine backup.

That said, by time I make that upgrade, SSDs should be cheaper, so when I get that Mac mini, I can also get a larger SSD fast enough for its faster hard drive bus. This SSD has gotten me addicted to apps that load almost instantly.

–Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien