MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

I recently decided to forgo getting a new computer and give some new life to my now 3 year old 2.5 ghz MacBook Pro. SSDs (solid state drives) have come down in price enough so that putting one in is an option and because an SSD has no moving parts it’s faster, quieter and cooler than a mechanical hard disk. It’s still not as cheap per gigabyte of space as a hard disk but the price is low enough now so that it’s a possibility if one wants to get more speed out of an older machine instead of upgrading to a new machine just for the faster processor.

The drive I bought is the Mercury Extreme Pro SSD from Other World Computing. 120 gigabytes is a sweet spot for price but I wanted to replace the 250 gigabyte drive in my computer so bought the 240 gigabyte SSD.

I’m running off the SSD now and it’s extremely fast, silent, and makes a lot less heat than the hard disk I replaced. I’m happy and this should give me at least another year on this machine before Apple eventually comes out with solid state MacBook Pros.

Solid state drives or, given what Apple has done with the MacBook Air and the iPad, solid state storage (not necessarily in drive form) is the future and I’ve decided not to buy another machine with a hard disk if I can help it.

The Install Process

The SSD install is the same as a regular hard disk which I did on an older machine, documented in detail here: MacBook Pro Hard Disk Replacement.

Rather than copy my internal hard disk onto a backup hard disk, installing the SSD, then starting from the backup and cloning it onto the SSD, I saved a step by copying the internal hard disk directly onto the SSD and then installing it. This way I could test the SSD by starting from it as an external drive to make sure it worked and once installed the machine is ready to go with the latest backup of my hard disk in one step. The next few images show taking apart an external firewire drive so I can use its chassis to hold the SSD and connect it to my computer via firewire 800.

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

External firewire hard disk drive to be taken apart and used to hold SSD for initial backup.

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

External firewire hard disk drive taken apart.

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

External firewire hard disk drive taken apart with hard disk removed to expose chassis.

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

250 gigabyte hard disk (left) and 240 gigabyte SSD (right).

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

SSD in firewire chassis for initial backup. It’s not screwed in, it’s just got the power and data buses connected.

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

Before backing up I used Disk Utility to partition (GUID for Intel) and format the SSD. Then I used SuperDuper to copy/clone the internal hard disk on my computer onto the SSD.

I use SuperDuper daily to back up my hard disk (now SSD) onto an external firewire drive which lives in the basement in a fireproof box. SuperDuper is one of the single best pieces of software I’ve ever used on any computer, period.

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

MacBook Pro with top deck off. Top deck holds keypad and touchpad. Hard disk to be replaced on left, optical (CD/DVD) drive on right. Opening is battery compartment. Most of the screws that need to be removed are used to hold the top deck in place.

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

Quick and dirty diagram to hold screws for MacBook Pro case. Excuse dysgraphic handwriting but hey, it works for me. There are only two torx screws and a multitude of small and larger phillips screws. If one did this for a living one could put them all in a bowl and fish out the right ones for each step. I need to keep them separated to know which ones go where.

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

Hard disk removed from MacBook Pro, SSD ready to put in. This step was different from my earlier hard disk replacement experience with an earlier version of the MacBook Pro. The hard disk bracket and the ribbon cable on top and its tape made getting the hard disk out a bit more difficult as I was nervous about crimping or breaking the ribbon cable which is stuck to the top of the hard disk. With patience it came out and the SSD went in easily.

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade

MacBook Pro with SSD installed. All that’s left is to replace top deck and all the screws.

I got it all back together easily and it booted relatively quickly the first time. It takes a bit of time for Spotlight to reindex a backup and as it gets more indexed things move faster. As I write this the entire SSD is indexed and boots extremely fast. Launching applications like Safari or MarsEdit (what I’m using to write this post) is near instantaneous.

I used Lightroom to process these images, not because they were shot in RAW but because I somehow set the S90 to 3200 ISO and I wanted to get the noise out of the images in Lightroom rather than iPhoto. Lightroom launched incredibly fast and working with the images felt like I was using a quad core MacPro.

Conclusion

The SSD is a very worthwhile upgrade or replacement for an internal drive on a MacBook Pro and while a MacBook Pro with an SSD installed not as light as a MacBook Air, it’s ultra quiet, has a very long battery life, has a faster processor, has a CD/DVD drive, a large 15″ screen and hopefully this upgrade will keep me computing for another year at which point we’ll see what Apple has come out with.

21 Comments

  1. Thanks Jonne. The SSD makes an enormous difference in the speed of RAW processing images. It’s quite amazing and worth doing. Both Lightroom and Aperture hit the disk a lot and of course, with SSD each disk hit is like a memory hit: very fast.

  2. Brilliant write up and the photos make it really easy to follow.

    Thanks, and very glad you are pleased with the update.

    Best wishes,

    Jon

  3. Hi Richard,

    Ran across your blog searching for tips on upgrading a MacBook Pro 15.4″ Unibody from HD to SSD. I’m planning to use the OWC 240GB drive and had a question.

    You said you clone your internal drive to the new SSD in an enclosure (USB or FireWire) and then booted from the SSD drive before you actually installed it in the machine right? This sounds like a great way to make sure it’s all working and I wanted to make sure I understood this correctly.

    Also, do you have to reinstall OS X 10.6 from DVD after cloning to the SSD?

    Thanks

  4. Larry: I think we’re in exactly the same boat and I’m happy to help you in any way that I can. Rest assured, the upgrade works, is a good idea and will make your MacBook Pro scream (fast).

    I use SuperDuper to back up my computer every day so this operation was much the same as my daily backup. I just wanted to save a step so did it the way I did.

    When you do this kind of back up with SuperDuper there is never a need to reinstall anything, everything is exactly as it is on the master hard disk. The backup is a true clone all the way down to permissions, prefs, etc. The only thing that will need to be redone (automatically) is spotlight’s index.

    Method 1: Back up internal hard disk onto an external hard disk. Open machine, take out internal hard disk and put in SSD. Connect backup hard disk to machine and start up off it. After formatting SSD, copy the backup onto it. Start up from SSD and you’re set.

    Method 2 (which I did): Put SSD in a firewire enclosure. Backup internal hard disk onto it. Open machine and put SSD in. Book from SSD, you’re done.

    My method saves a step but you’ll need a firewire enclosure to put the SSD in to do it. If you don’t have it then you’ll certainly need an empty external drive to back up onto so you can copy the backup back onto the SSD at some point.

    With a backup like this, you never have to reinstall anything. A cloned backup is an exact duplicate of the original.

    SuperDuper is the best application for this. It’s from Shirtpocket software. http://shirtpocket.com/

    Once you have it, use it daily to back up your computer.

    If you’ve never done surgery like this on your computer, read my post on replacing my hard disk, it will help and I link to a useful video at OWC for doing the job. Get the right tools from them if you don’t have them.

    Good luck, let me know if you need help.

  5. Thanks for the explanation Richard. Does it work to clone a larger drive to a smaller one? For instance, a 500gb (with only 100gb in use) to a 240gb?

  6. Larry: Absolutely. No problem at all. Good question though, cloning by definition might seem to imply one needs the same size on either end.

    To avoid confusion, let’s just say we’re making an exact copy of one drive on another. The second drive receiving the copy should be big enough to hold all the information.

    A tip on drive sizes and data, and this holds true for HDD or SSDs: OSX needs a bit of extra room on a drive to write scratch files and many people having performance problems with Macs are having them because they’ve filled their primary drive up too much. Be careful how close you get to full on any drive.

    Good luck Larry.

  7. Have you noticed any more battery life using the SSD vs HD. One reason I want SSD is to conserve battery life since there “should” be less power required since there are no heads to move back and forth and the machine would run cooler.

    Just wondering what your experience has been.

  8. Larry: I’m not sure although it does seem like I’m getting more battery life now. It’s not a huge boost in life but some.

    It just so happens that my battery was doing poorly right about the same time that I did the SSD install and I called AppleCare and they sent me a new one (no charge). So, I have a brand new battery in the machine now. I also calibrated it to Apple’s standards which few do and that helps battery life a lot.

    http://support.apple.com/kb/HT1490

    In my experience, the biggest drain on battery life is safari running flash. If you quit from safari every now and then (it launches instantaneously with the SSD) and avoid heavy flash sites (almost impossible to do these days) you’ll do better.

    But, if you change no habits and just put in the SSD I’m sure battery life will improve some.

  9. Hi,

    I’m reading lots of current comments that the Sandforce controller on these Mercury drives is causing kernel panics on laptop Macs (most seem to be Macbook Pros) as they hibernate/restore out of sleep. I wonder if you’ve experienced this? Not sure OWC firmware fixes have yet sorted this out – seems this is getting reported despite people having very new (Dec 2010/Jan 2011) drives…

  10. Gerard: I’m not having any problems like that, my computer is completely stable, no crashes at all. The only issue I have is as mentioned above, if I leave the lid open and the screen goes to sleep, the hard disk (SSD) does not go to sleep ever and the fan remains running. This may not be a big deal but it does use battery power so when traveling I have to make sure to close the lid if I leave the machine for any length of time. I usually do this anyway but now it’s even more important to preserve battery.

    I’m not sure which version of the SSD controller firmware I have, is there a way for me to test that and tell you?

  11. Glad to here your system is basically stable.

    I think OWC released a new firmware version on 1st Nov 2010:

    http://eshop.macsales.com/Customized_Pages/Framework.cfm?page=sf_firmware.html

    (OWC claim this firmware fixes these issues, but I saw product reviews dated Jan 2011 that indicated people were experiencing this with ostensibly new drives. Perhaps they were purchased from other resellers rather than direct?)

    …I’m not sure how one checks SSD firmware version, but know that it requires an erase and a Windows computer/bootcamp etc. for the OWC with Sandforce.

    The lid open/ssd doesn’t sleep is a real pity though… yes, you can work around it by closing, but I tend to have the laptop open more or less all day, going back and forth between laptop work and other stuff and closing the lid only before bed… so I’d quite like it to sleep as per power saving prefs.

  12. Gerard: I think I’m going to call OWC today and see if in fact my issue with sleep is related to this firmware update. Sounds like it is, thanks for the heads up on that. I wonder if their warranty covers this…

    It doesn’t bother me all that much though because my machine is connected to power while on my desk and that’s the only place it might sit for hours without being used with the lid up. However, why not attempt to solve this if there’s a solution. Thanks.

    Let me know what you eventually do and how it goes.

  13. Hi,

    FYI you should be able to hibernate after this firmware update is applied to your SSD. Announced just a few days ago:

    http://eshop.macsales.com/owcpages/sf_firmware.html

    I think I’ll be going for the Crucial M4 though which will shortly be in retail:

    http://thessdreview.com/our-reviews/crucial-m4-256gb-sata-3-ssd-review-–-unexpected-performance-in-a-small-package/

    Could be there’d be little speed benefit on older Macbook Pros, but the new 2011 models have faster SATA buses so I’d see benefit were I to update…

  14. Gerard: Yes, I’ve known about that OWC firmware update, I talked with them on the phone about it and they say they’re working on an installer that will run in Mac OS. I got irritated with them because I offered to send mine back and have them install/apply the firmware update as I don’t run Windows here but they told me to wait for the OSX updater.

    I’m not convinced that this firmware update does the trick and the reason is, I now have a new MacBook Pro with an Apple-supplied SSD and it too doesn’t hibernate correctly with the screen/lid up. Could be that whatever SSD hardware they’re using needs a firmware update as well but my guess is that all SSDs lack whatever it is on their controller boards to allow OSX to believe their a hard disk and when it sends the signal to sleep they can’t/don’t get the message.

    This is a problem with the OS as much as it is with the SSDs; MacBook Airs with soldered on flash memory don’t sleep correctly as well.

    Good luck with your SSD upgrade, I’m sure it will be great.

  15. Pity the couldn’t sort you out with a firmware update, I also take lengths to avoid Windows around here…

    Your findings with a new MBP not hibernating properly with a factory SSD are very interesting. I expect Lion will sort things out?

    Fingers crossed!

  16. Gerard: I don’t think it’s a big problem and I’d buy another OWC SSD in a second. Now that I know it’s not a brand thing I too have my fingers crossed that Apple is aware of it. I’ll probably call AppleCare and report it next week just to make sure it’s on the record.

    Even if this sleep issue cut battery life in half, now that I’ve gone SSD there’s no going back and I’d live with it. It doesn’t but the speed increase is so dramatic that it’s worth pretty much anything. Good luck with your SSD upgrade, let me know if I can help.

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