Review: MCE OptiBay Hard Drive kit for Unibody MacBook Pro

MCE's sled replaces your built-in optical drive with either a regular 2.5 inch Sata or an SSD

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.

The plan

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.

Included: TOP LEFT: MCE optical drive sled, TOP RIGHT: external USB DVD enclosure for your old optical drive, MIDDLE: included screwdriver, BOTTOM LEFT: CD of installation instructions BOTTOM RIGHT: SSD drive (not necessarily included)

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.

The Tools

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.

I went with a 128 GB Crucial SSD. it handles 6 Gigabit speeds, although my 2008 MBP only handles 3 Gigabit so it doesn't go as fast as it would in the newer MacBooks

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.

All done, just need to close it up

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: Hey, check out the shout out in that add!

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”.

Click the CHOOSE button next to HOME DIRECTORY, and choose your old User folder on your old drive

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.

Before and After enabling TRIM support on the SSD with "TRIM Support Enabler "

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.]

A weird experience for a Mac user - manually updating the firmware on your SSD drive from 006 to 007

Done

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.

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Comments
17 Responses to “Review: MCE OptiBay Hard Drive kit for Unibody MacBook Pro”
  1. dj_aris says:

    Doc, I happen to have the EXACT same MBP and I performed the EXACT same operation a week ago, as my optical drive died… I should note though: for me, the worst part is the disconnection / reconnection of the camera/sensor/wifi/bluetooth cable from the motherboard. It seems very fragile and when I first booted after the procedure and none of the above was working I got a bit nervous… It needs a little effort (but not too much!!) to securely lock on the motherboard.

    Once set, I benchmarked the SSD (Crucial m4 in my case) around 260MBps read speed (compared to the 80MBps of my old Western Digital 7K drive). Blazing fast. Especially in multitasking / opening many apps.

    btw, Optibay might be the “real thing” but it’s also ridiculusly expensive compared to other similat (no name) frames on the internet.

    Another note: cloning your drive is really convenient (that’s what I did as well), but it’s with a fresh install that the drive will really show off. I haven’t formatted (only cloned) any drive since early 2009 when I got my MBP (hear that, Windows users?) but I plan to do so when Lion launches.

    And finally a tip, there are also tools to clone your Bootcamp partition, now that is really useful unless you want to spend hours of installing Windows…

    • Hey dj_aris,

      So, what is your boot time now? I measured mine from power button press until my Mail app opened the message window (I put Mail in my start up items).

      If you measure from the boot chime, knock 7 seconds off my times.

      – The Doc

      • dj_aris says:

        In my case, results are more dramatic. I turn the MBP on and hit “option” to reach the boot selection menu. From there the 7K drive boots in 49 seconds to the desktop (no apps opened) while the SSD takes around 22 seconds (same installation – cloned drives).

        But since we are OSX users, who cares about boot times? I mean, I only reboot every once in a week or so…

        The actual benefits is in real life multitasking: faster response, fewer beachballs etc.

        And I’m perfectly happy with my 2,5 year-old computer, frankly there is absolutely no reason to change it. In fact, those 2011 MBPs practically have faster CPUs and GPUs. But, if you don’t play (lots of) games(*) or don’t encode videos then I think even a C2D CPU with a fast SSD drive beats them in everyday tasks.

        (*) That said, my 9600M GT plays the brand new Dirt 3 just fine (in 1280×800 medium settings) :-). And I would play more games if I didn’t have to reboot in Bootcamp [bummer].

  2. Ed A says:

    The slower your drive is, the more improvement your will experienc with SSD. Laptop drives, esp MacBook drives are very slow. True, improvement is measured in seconds, but there definitely is a subjective huge improvement in feel and responsiveness that can be had.

    I put one in my 2007 MacBook and it feels like a new computer. It’s awesome and I so recommend it.

    I also understand that SSD with Sandforce controllers don’t need Trim support. I recommend looking for those.

  3. f8andbthere says:

    Just curious, what are the preferred tools for cloning bootcamp?

  4. James Katt says:

    I recommend getting as large of an SSD as you can afford with the Sandforce Controller.

    Many things are speeded up by the SSD.

    For example:
    1. Photoshop works faster since its SSD scratch disk is up to 10 times faster than the hard drive version
    2. Backups are faster. A backup from SSD to external hard drive is 3 times faster than a hard drive to external hard drive backup.
    3. Launching applications is faster. This makes it very pleasing when using tons of apps.
    4. The Finder is faster. Copying and duplicating files is faster. Searching is faster.
    5. Mac OS X is highly disk intensive. It does page-outs to swap files when it runs out of memory. 4 GB RAM IS NOT ENOUGH when using multiple apps to avoid page-outs. In fact, 8 GB RAM is not enough either. Apps, these days, like to grab large chunks of memory. As of this moment, for example, Safari is grabbing 573 MB of RAM. If you use numerous apps simultaneously, then you force Mac OS X to use memory swap files on the disk. SSDs fabulously speeds this process up, making the operating system work much faster.
    6. etc.

    • Hery says:

      Would I be still fine with a 64Gb SSD? I mean, if I store my data in secondary HDD using OptiBay, wouldn’t it be slower if the applications in the SSD needs to reach for the files in the HDD, as opposed to reaching them directly in the SSD?

  5. Che says:

    Good info.

    But you say you’ve maxed your RAM at 4GB. The MacBook Pro 5,1 supports 8GB.

    Best.

  6. Dan says:

    The right side fan in my late-08 was on its deathbed, so I pulled the trigger on new fans and a second hard drive.
    For less than half the cost of MCE’s kit, I replaced my Superdrive with the original Hitachi hard drive in a generic SATA optical bay kit, and I replaced the fans too with new OEM parts, all shipped to me from a US distributor. The generic ($10-20) SATA kits aren’t identical to MCE – they don’t have the built-in mounting bracket on the hull side – but they’re the exact same thing that ifixit is pushing for $60. The MCE kit would likely be a bit more secure, but the generic doesn’t move one bit. Don’t buy from ifixit.

  7. Amy Lavin says:

    Wow, amazing mod and I got 1 more to intro you. Apple logo mod by iapplelogo.com
    Let me know how do it work out for you. Thank you.

  8. Ray Strayer says:

    Doc-

    Go to OWC Mac Sales and look at their memory kits, my Macbook 4,1 has 8 Gig installed. Depending on ow old the system is you may have to update the UEFI or what ever it is called EFI maybe. (Kinda like the advanced BIOS that Macs use.) In fact even the brand new and 2011 and I think a few of the slightly older ones can support 16 Gig if you can afford to 8 gig Dimms, very expensive. But my white 4,1 2.4Ghz C2D is running 8 Gigs ram even though originally Apple spece’d them for only 4 GB. For a while the best you could do was 1×4 GB dimm and 1×2 GB dimm for 6 but 8 GB works now.

    Thanks,

    Ray

  9. Mark says:

    I have a Macbook Pro 5,1 with 8gigs of RAM and trying to install a Corsair Force GT SATA3 SSD.

    I used the slot from the old hard drive and have TRIM enabled, but I can’t get it to run at SATA2 speeds.

    (I read Macbook Pro 5,1 EFI cannot handle SATA3.).

    Profiler says:

    Vendor: NVidia
    Product: MCP79 AHCI
    Link Speed: 3 Gigabit
    Negotiated Link Speed: 1.5 Gigabit
    Description: AHCI Version 1.20 Supported

    Could it be the Corsair SSD firmware isn’t developed enough? I am running the latest version.

    Does anyone know what if I buy the Optibay, the link speed in the other bay will give me SATA2 speeds on my SSD?

    Any help please??!!!

    Us 5,1 users are hard to find!

  10. Saint says:

    WARNING: Stay away from MCE technologies. Ordered one of their items, had problems, including technical issues and an excess charge from them on my credit card, and they did not resolve these. They did not even respond to my attempts at contact.

    I should have searched the web for issues like this first. Search for “mce technologies complaints” and you will find many users with similar (and worse) experiences with this firm.

  11. Micah says:

    Un-WARNING: I’ve personably have been a loyal MCE customer and advocate since 1998 and I’ve never had one issue with them. The OptiBay is a system transformer, I love it! Rational people listen, all companies major and small businesses alike have had goof ups but to post that on a review of one of their amazing products is going a little bit out of the way. Google “apple complaints” and up comes a list longer than you can go through in a life time. So are you not going to buy from Apple and tell everyone to stay away? Highly doubtful. Keep it up MCE Technologies! And great review Macenstein!

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