Keep your MacBook alive with an SSD upgrade

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So you have a MacBook (or any PC or notebook really) that’s a year or two old and things seems to be slowing down a little. You basically have two choice. Suck it up and just live with it. Or buy a new notebook. And burn some cash in the process of course. Sure, you’d get new spanking CPU and perhaps even a faster GPU to boot. But hey, unless you are dying to run the latest games in all 2000 FPS glory, 90% of the time, you don’t really need that extra horsepower.

In fact, if your usage patterns are anything like mine, you’d probably need a system that can multitask better. And what’s keeping this slow is the one thing that’s not really ‘upgraded’ even if you buy a new machine. What’s that? Your hard disk of course.

Wait a minute. Aren’t getting a bigger hard disk considered an upgrade? And to add to that, getting a faster 7200RPM one? Perhaps even the faster 10K RPM ones? In terms of performance, even a faster spindle speed provides a minor speed boost.

That brings me to the point of this article. If you really want to extend the life of your notebook, an SSD upgrade is inevitable. If you are wondering what an SSD (solid-state drive) is, just Google it and you’d find the answer.

In this article, I’d share the considerations I made in my decision, the choices I was considering and why SSD was the ultimate choice. This could perhaps help you make your decision too, which is exactly my intent of this article. Next, I would provide some pointers on which SSD you should get. I do have strong and personal opinions on this and I’ll get to this when I discuss this in my article. Lastly, I’ll share some tips and links to get you through to process of installing the SSD, and all the way going through an easy upgrading process, as painless as I’ve personally gone through with my upgrade.

So here goes! And do bear with me. This turned out to be quite a lengthy piece that I’ve written!

1. Why SSD? 

Firstly, SSDs aren’t cheap. Thus, you really need to know what you need one in order to even stomach the idea of buying one. Today, SSDs are about 10 times the price compared to a regular hard disk per gigabyte. I’m calculating this based on the two choices I was deciding on my hard disk upgrades, a 750GB 7200 WD Caviar Black, going for about SGD200 (as of this writing – note the price increase as well due the the Bangkok flood) and the Intel 320 Series 2.5″ SSD which I eventually bought for SGD735. This equates to about SGD2.45 per GB for the SSD, and just a mere SGD0.27 per GB for the HDD!

SSD vs HDD: Is it worth it?

So, is it worth the upgrade? You would need know how much you are willing to pay to get a faster multitasking and more responsive machine. To better answer this questions, I’d suggest you reflect on how your usage patterns.

As for me, I run a lot of programs at the same time, a heavy multi-tasker. This is due to the nature of my work. They may not be exactly CPU or GPU intensive applications such as graphic editing softwares or massive mathematical number crunching apps. What I use daily are your regular applications, such as a work processor, spreadsheet application, email client, web browser, and so on. And I too also like to keep my Windows virtual machine running all the time in the background to run Windows-only applications on my MacBook.

But because I run so many of them at the same time, things can get quite clunky and slow at times. This is simply because even with 8GB of RAM, there’re simply not enough memory space to keep everything in there at the same time. And not especially when I can a virtual machine that already takes up a quarter of that amount of RAM! So, if there aren’t enough memory to keep all these applications running at the same time, all modern OSes relies on non other than the next available storage device to ‘extend’ its memory capacity. Without getting too technical, this is basically the function of swap files where unused or inactive portions of the memory is temporarily ‘swapped’ to be stored in the much slower hard disk to free up the super fast RAM for an actively running application that needs the extremely precious RAM real estate.

While this is generally not too big of a problem if you actively use a few (1 or 2, maybe 3) applications at the same time, and even than, rarely swaps between them, that you might be ok. But if you regularly experience slow response from your machine along with the sound of your hard disk trashing. Then you’d be a good candidate to consider an SSD upgrade.

What I’ve simply pointed out here is the I/O bottleneck. You may have the fastest CPU in the world. But if your CPU needs to fetch data from the hard disk all the time, it simply waits there for your hard disk all the time. Much like driving a real fast Lamborghini Gallardo on street full of traffic lights and slow trucks in front of you.

So, while SSDs are about 10 times the price of the hard disk, it makes it up by being 4 times faster! That means much less traffic jam! And if your system can ‘swap’ data faster from your SSD to your RAM, it simply means you get a more responsive machine!

It’s important to understand this point well and how SSD improves your system. It will not boost your Battlefield 3 rendering speed from 200fps to 800fps. That’s just simply wrong expectations. Your machine won’t be overall faster. It will however be a lot more responsive. Much more than you’d expect.

Now that you know why you need to just get that SSD, let’s now decide which SSD you should buy!

2. The one SSD to rule them all!

Firstly, its important to know which SATA revision your machine supports. The latest MacBooks all support the latest SATA III revision with a faster 6Gbits/s interface. That means you would reap the benefit of the latest SSD models out there that supports the faster SATA III interface. However, if you’re like me with the 2010 MacBook Pro model, you’re down with a SATA II chipset with a 3Gbits/s interface. But hey, 3Gbits/s is still a very fast!

Simply spoken, SATA II gives you a 300MB/s throughput and SATA III gives you 600MB/s throughput. Theoretical that is. Why is this important? Well, for one, pricing of course. a SATA III SSD is still significantly more expensive compared to a SATA II SSD. So why spend more now when you can’t reap the benefit of a faster SSD?

There simply is no point! You see, with an SSD, the speed quantum is just vastly different compared to a regular HDD. Even with the fastest HDD spindle speed, the transfer rates are just a little over 150MB/s, and that’s with a larger 3.5” desktop HDD. The regular 2.5” 7200 RPM notebook HDDs gets you about 80MB/s rates. So even a SATA I interface is good enough in many cases. That’s why you can always go and get the fastest HDD out there that you can afford. It’s almost always never fast enough than the SATA interface you have!

And the other reason not to go for the faster SSD now is that the price per GB of an SSD is dropping significantly every year! Thus, the argument of future proofing your current SSD for a faster system is cancelled out with the significantly cheaper cost of getting a newer and larger capacity SSD when you do get your new machine that supports a faster SATA interface!

Now that you know the class of SSD you’ll be getting, the immediate next decision is the capacity. Why? Unfortunately, an SSD isn’t cheap at the moment. So, you simply can’t go too crazy can get the biggest capacity SSD you can get. In fact, the most popular SSD capacity now is in the regions of 120-160GB. That’s where the sweet spot is as such SSDs goes at about the US$250 regions. With that price, you can easily get a 1TB HDD already with cash to spare!

While I can’t really help you to decide how much you need, all I can advice is this. It’s time to check your notebook and trim down all the ‘fat’. Archive old files to an external disk and see where you’re at. Buffer it a little more and there you go, the capacity you need on your SSD. For me, that’s at about 200+ GB that I absolutely need on the SSD. Therefore, I went  with the Intel 320 Series 300GB 2.5″ SSD (more on this choice later).

Another option if you need more space than you can afford is to see if an option for a 2nd HDD caddy for your notebook. In the case of the MacBook Pro, this is possible by replacing the SuperDrive with a caddy such as this one available here at eBay that I’m using myself. In this case, you have the option of maintaining your existing HDD for extra storage while putting in place a much faster SSD as the primary storage device. This allows you to then continue to have an overall large capacity on your MacBook. The question is then what you’d want to be on the SSD and what can be left remaining on the HDD.

Lastly, which should you buy! There are many different brands, make and model out in the market today. And you’d probably also hear many a great things about the super-fast Sandforce-based SSDs which also seems to be cheaper in price.

Now, let’s take a step back and remember that this is a persistent storage we are talking about here. And what you’d also come to expect and taken for granted from a device such as the HDD (and SSD) is the reliability of your data. To me, reliability far outweighs performance. And I’m always willing to pay a premium to know my data is safe. Thus, looking at this data here Intel has the best (lowest) return rate at only 0.3%, and improvement from 0.6% just the year ago in 2010! And if you look at OCZ and Corsair which primarily uses Sandforce controllers, it looks like the return rates has increased over the pass year. While this is still relatively lower as compared to HDD return rates, I’d still go for the most reliable device I can get.

So if you asked me which brand I’d recommend, I’d easily say Intel. Perhaps even SAMSUNG 830 Series Solid State Drive (Apple uses the same chips in the MacBook Airs too!) if you can find them. And Intel even gives you a 5 year limited warranty!

3. The (as) painless (as possible) upgrade process

This section is written specific to MacBook Pro users like me. But you’d probably can use the similar steps if you use other notebooks (even Windows).

Firstly, my definition of a painless upgrade is the ability to run a couple of steps and then quickly continue to use the notebook as if nothing’s change within the same day. And if your current HDD capacity is within the range of the SSD you are purchasing, then you can really get this experience!

The quickest way to do this is to simply clone your hard disk content over! It’s as simple as that. On OS X Lion, you simply need to use an application called Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) to get this done. And instead of me duplicating what the great Internet can provide, here’s a link to an article that describes exactly what you need to do.

Clonezilla is also another option which is also usable for Windows macines but I’d still go with Carbon Copy Cloner because its just so easy to use!

But if you are like me, wanting to install the SSD alongside with the HDD using a 2nd HDD caddy, then things would be a little different. Firstly, here’s a good bunch of videos to show you how you would install the 2nd HDD caddy with the SSD in it. I’d recommend putting the SSD caddy in it because you’d less likely want to swap the HDD in the future and therefore also want to maintain the easier access to the HDD. Here’s a HDD caddy that you can buy if it fits your MacBook Pro model.

Then to get started on the SSD, there are two ways you can do it. The first is to pretty much start afresh and reinstall OS X on your SSD and reinstall all your applications. The other is to trim down your existing HDD by copying out any files into an external disk to a point where the capacity is less than the SSD you’re buying.

I’ll start with the latter method which is to trim down your HDD by deciding what you want to be left on the SSD and copy out everything else to an external storage. Of course, you have to make sure that the remaining files can fit into the SSD you plan to purchase. Once you’re done trimming down the ‘fat’, run the cloning process as describe above. One thing that I’d recommend you do is to give a identifiable name for the SSD volume instead of the generic “Macintosh HD”. Once done, the SSD is now bootable as per your HDD. To select your SSD as the boot disk, hold on the option key immediately after you turn on your MacBook. Select your SSD disk to boot and once in, run Disk Utility again and erase your existing HDD volume. You can then copy back your files from your external storage and perhaps even continue to decide what should stay on your hard disk and your SSD. Obviously, files that you expect to access very often should be on the SSD and lesser used ones remain on the HDD.

The other method of reinstallation was what I eventually decided to do. It’s not necessarily better but I decided to refresh my OS X installation because I’m now a more seasoned Mac user and want to undo all the junk and experiments I’ve done on my existing installation, thus also trimming out fat that I don’t ever need.

To do this, you’d need to firstly create a Lion OS X recovery USB disk (assuming that you are already upgraded to Lion OS X). And here’s how you can do it instead of paying Apple $69.99 for it. If you’re still running Snow Leopard, simply pop in your recovery DVD that came with your MacBook. BUT, if you’re like me and no longer has a SuperDrive on your MacBook pro, then here’s how you can create a USB install disk for Snow Leopard. Then, simply boot into the USB disk and install the OS on your SSD. You may need to first run Disk Utility to initialize and create a partition on your SSD before installing OS X.

Once done, you’re ready to load back applications that you need. And since your existing HDD still has all your existing data, you can then start to move back your data in, firstly by moving over all the files you want to reside on the SSD from the HDD.

BUT! First things first, you should also enable TRIM if your SSD supports it. You can do it easily with the following script posted here on my dropbox. I personally used this so I know it works. I can’t seem to remember where I downloaded this script from anymore to give the author his due credits. So if you do know where this script originated from, do let me know!

After that, you can simply then just delete everything else you don’t want left on the HDD (OS, applications, etc). However, my recommendation is to copy out all the files you want to remain in the HDD to an external storage, erase the HDD back and then copy back your files again. This would be the foolproof method to refresh your entire system and also not leave your HDD ‘bootable’.

While you can perhaps use the migration assistant to bring back all your data into your new mac, I’d prefer a more manual approach to ensure I get the freshest possible OS X installation. And if you’re as insane as I am, here’re some tips that you can use to recover data without rebuilding them again from your existing installation.

A. iPhoto and iTunes Libraries

If you plan to remain them in the same default folder, effectively having them on the SSD, then it’s fairly simple. Just copy over the iPhoto Library folder in your existing Pictures folder to the same location on the SSD and similarly the iTunes folder in your existing Music folder.

However, if you plan to move these to your HDD or a different location altogether, the simply copy or move them to where you’d like them to be. To open it with the new iPhoto or iTunes, hold down the option key and launch iPhoto or iTunes. From the resulting menu select ‘Choose Library’ and point it at the moved location. It’s as simple as that! And everything would remain, including your iDevice still being in synced with the ‘new’ machine. But for iTunes, you need to make sure you allowed iTunes to organize the files you imported for you in order to have this ease of moving just the iTunes folder.

B. Moving your Apple Mail configuration and local mail storage.

If on Lion, do this step first to unhide your Library folder.

Then do the copying (or moving) as per listed here on this site.

C. Any other applications…

By now you probably figured that all application data is stored in the Library folder. So if there are any applications that you want to remain it’s existing configurations or data, then the Library/Preference folder is one place to look for that. The other is the Library folder itself. Just copy over any references of the application over and you should be fine.

The Internet is also a great resource to look for this so your answers are usually just a Google away.

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1 Response

  1. Karan Chaubey says:


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