Review: MCE OptiBay Hard Drive kit for Unibody MacBook Pro
SSD’s (Solid State Drives) are all the rage these days, and if the MacBook Air is any indication, Apple has plans to include them in most of, if not all of, their future computers. SSD drives boast a number of benefits over traditional hard drives, such as increased speed, low heat, low power consumption, and durability in cases of accidental droppage (do to their lack of moving parts). In fact, really their only main drawback (for most users) at this point is their price, as $200 only gets you around a 128 GB SSD drive these days, where you can get a (2TB or larger) regular drive for that price.
Now while Apple might be rolling out SSD’s in all its new gear, what if you don’t have the money for a new system? Can adding an SSD to an older Mac make enough of a performance difference to justify pouring money into your old Mac, versus saving towards a new one? Odds are it depends on the age and condition of your system, but here’s my experience.
First, some background on my tech abilities – I am by no means an Apple Genius Bar tech, but I DO have a set of small computer screw drivers and have opened up Mac Pros, MacBooks, and Mac Minis to replace things like hard drives, AirPort Cards and RAM before, so I’m not scared to get in there (although I don’t want to go back into a mini if I can help it). With the right tools, I would rate this a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1-10 difficulty, but I didn’t really have the right tools, so I would bump it to a 6 or 7 for me.
My system is a late 2008 MacBook Pro (5,1) 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo, with 4 GB of RAM. Aside from maxing out the RAM the only other modification I had made was replacing the stock 80 GB (I think) 5200 rpm drive with a 7200 rpm 500 GB SATA. Since I rarely travel, I was willing to sacrifice a bit of battery life for the faster speeds. Yet as time wore on, I was feeling that speed less and less, and thought perhaps upgrading to an SSD might be just the thing to rekindle my romance with my MBP.
I did quite a bit of research into the SSD upgrade before undertaking it, and by far the mod of choice amongst the geeks on the interweb is to completely remove your MacBook’s optical drive (your CD/DVD drive) and replace it with an SSD. Actually, most people move their stock SATA drive into the optical drive slot, and install the SSD into the traditional hard drive bay to ease with any boot problems, thus giving them TWO hard drives. This unfortunately means you’ll lose your DVD drive (sort of). Doing this allows you to keep your OS and applications on the faster SSD drive, and all your media and files and such on the slower “regular” drive. This will allow your computer to boot faster and launch apps quickly without wasting the precious SSD drive space with files that don’t benefit from the speed boost.
I realized recently how infrequently I burned or read CDs or DVDs on my MacBook Pro when I went to burn one and got an error message telling me my laser was out of whack. A blast of spray air fixed it, but it occurred to me that it had been well over a year since I used the drive. I have 3 other Macs at home as well as a couple at work, so I wasn’t all that worried about being stuck without a DVD drive (and actually, as I found out, you get to keep your DVD drive as well, but more on that in a bit). But since my MacBook was not my main “media hub Mac” where I sync my media to iPhones/iPad, I knew any ripping I was going to do wasn’t going to be on the MacBook.
I opted for the MCE OptiBay Hard Drive kit which for $99 is a pretty good deal. You can opt to also buy hard drives drives (both regular and SSD) directly from MCE as well, but I found a good deal on an SSD so I just went with the kit.
Included in the kit is the hard drive bracket that will hold your new (or old) hard drive and replace the optical drive mechanism. They also include a free USB 2.0 enclosure that you can put your MacBook’s old optical drive in, essentially converting into an external DVD/CD burner. Much like the original MacBook Air external DVD burner, this needs TWO USB ports in order to power the drive, but it is quite slim and can easily be put in my laptop bag for the one time a year I’ll need it.
In addition to the drive bracket and USB enclosure, the MCE OptiBay also comes with a double-sided screwdriver and a CD of very thorough instructions. I’d like to say that the included tool is all you need to complete the job, but depending on which model MacBook you’re opening the type of screws may be slightly different, and I found I also needed T6 screw driver, and a very tiny Phillips (all I can tell you size wise is it said .05 on it). For those of you are squeemish about doing the job yourself, you can send your laptop in to MCE for $49 and have them do all the work.
I’m not going to provide a step by step “loosen these screws, then unhook this” guide, as again, the instructions that come with the kit are full color and very thorough, covering all unibody models. The truly tricky part is just getting the right tools, as some of the screws are quite small and in hard to reach places, so buying a set of computer screwdrivers in various sizes is a good idea (This one looks OK). It helps when putting them all back together if you have a magnetic screwdriver that can hold the screws as you try to lower them into the more hard to reach areas. I did NOT have one, and had to flip the computer over and shake it a couple of times to free a lost screw. In all it took me about 1 hour, and I would guess it would take an Apple service rep about 10 minutes with the right tools, so you can use that as a guideline to how hard it will or won’t be for you.
Once the drives are placed correctly, there’s still a bit or work to do. First, reboot your computer (it should find your old hard drive and boot from that normally. If it doesn’t, hold down the OPTION key while booting, and then select your old drive). Next, fire up Disk Utility, and format your SSD as “Mac OS Extended (Journaled)”. Next, download Carbon Copy Cloner. This sweet (and FREE) app will make an exact duplicate of your other drive preserving all your apps and settings, and you can select which folders you would like copied. I read over at LifeHacker that a good idea is to copy over everything except the User folder onto the SSD drive, and keep your User folder on the older drive. This lets you keep all your application settings and such without copying all your music and movies to the more expensive SSD, which may or ay not be tight on space. I bought a 128 GB SSD, and could actually have fit my whole user folder as well, but since I want to keep the drive as empty as possible, I followed the same procedure. Odds are looking back I could have gotten away with a 64 GB SSD drive and saved $80, but I suppose you can never have too much space.
Carbon Copy Cloner took about an hour to transfer my data. Next, reboot to the SSD drive (again, you can hold down OPTION while rebooting and select the drive so you don’t accidentally reboot onto your old drive). Once you are up and running, if you didn’t copy over your User folder onto the SSD, you’ll need to relink your user folder from your old hard drive. To do that, go into System Preferences, USERS, then hit the Lock at the bottom left, enter your password, then RIGHT CLICK on your name in the list of users, and hit “Advanced Options”.
Next, click the CHOOSE button next to HOME DIRECTORY, and navigate to your old User folder on your old drive. Reboot again, and you’re done. Sort of. Pretty much everything should work fine now, aside from maybe loosing your desktop wallpaper. I found when I launched iTunes I got a permissions error, and had to actually do a Get Info on my User folder, and re-add myself as a user in order to launch it. But so far that”s the only problem I’ve had.
Now, in theory you are done, and can begin enjoying your drive, but there’s two more things you can, and SHOULD do now that you have an SSD drive. The first, and easiest, is to enable TRIM support. TRIM is an SSD drive’s way of keeping things tidy and running smoothly, and by default OS X doesn’t automatically support it (at least pre-Lion). If you go into your “Apple System Profiler” and click on SATA, you’ll see TRIM is set to NO. Once again, Lifehacker had my answer and the free TRIM SUPPORT ENABLER is all you need. So download that and run it.
The final piece of the puzzle is something as a Mac user I’m not all that used to, and that’s manually checking for and installing firmware updates for the hard drive. In Googling, I found people mention they found huge speed increases with the latest firmware on heir SSD (although they were talking about the jump from version 001 to 006 or something). My SSD is the Crucial C300-CTFDDAC128MAG, and it ships with a firmware version of 006 (or at least mine did). You can find the firmware number in the “Revision” field in the System Profiler where you found the TRIM support earlier). Crucial’s site had a download link for version 007 of the firmware, and I decided if I was going to do this, I might as well do it right. So I downloaded an .iso diskimage from their site, which they then want you to then burn a CD of and then boot to. The irony of replacing my DVD drive with an SSD drive that I now needed the DVD drive in order to update was wonderful. Luckily, this gave me a chance to try out my “new” external DVD burner, and it worked great. If you aren’t familiar with burning disk images, basically, just fire up Disk Utility on your Mac, and you should see the .iso file on the left in your list of sources. Select it, insert a blank CD, and then hit BURN. Then, just restart your computer while holding down the C key. I eventually got this screen, and typed “yes”.
[NOTE: Some people on forums said updating the firmware would wipe the drive clean, and suggested backing everything up first. Since I still had my old hard drive intact and hadn't actually done anything new, I didn't bother backing anything up, and the firmware update did not do anything to my data. But since I don't want you yelling at me if it ruins your drive, I guess I will make the obligatory "Back up your data" disclaimer here.]
So there you have it. All done, and it took about 3 hours, including the install, copying the hard drive, reseting the home folder, and updating the firmware. Was it worth it? Well, kind of. Here are the speed bumps I noticed. (Note: my “old” times are based off my updated 7200rpm drive, so if I had the stock 5200 rpm drive, my times might have seen even larger gains).
Boot time: (from button press until my Mail window appears – auto login)
Old: 62 seconds
New: 38 seconds
Photoshop Launch (click until I see the windows and palettes appear)
Old: 17 seconds
New: 7 seconds
Word: (click until I see the windows and palettes appear)
Old: 23 seconds
New: 6 seconds
So yeah, anywhere from a 40% to 300% improvement, so that’s not anything to sneeze at (although many of you with newer systems might still smugly laugh at these times). It should also be noted that my drive SSD can handle 6 Gigabit speeds, but my computer throttles it back to 3 Gigabit).
So is it worth $300? I don’t really know. Honestly, we’re talking seconds ultimately, and having my computer boot an extra 30 seconds quicker, while nice, doesn’t really affect my bottom line. However, the speed at which apps open and the system responds in general DOES feel snappier, which ultimately will make me feel less of a need to lay down $2000 on a new MacBook Pro, so in a way it has saved me $1700.
Or, at the very least, this system will let the Bride of Macenstein feel like she got a faster hand-me-down when I buy a new model and give her this.
The MCE OptiBay kit worked great and had great documentation and instructions. My only regret, if any, is probably should have opted for a 64 GB SSD and gotten the same speed boost and saved some money, bringing the cost down to about $220 or so, which is more of a no-brainer. But for some reason, even though I was keeping my 500 GB internal, it just felt wrong in 2011 to buy a 64 GB hard drive, as I’m hoping my PHONE will have 64 GB come September.