Life in a Solid State

The MacBook Air that I bought in late 2009 was never much of a speed demon, but by the end of last year it was operating so slowly that it was nearly unusable. Startup times, application launch times, even accessing open and save dialog boxes all seemed interminable, due mostly to the lamentably poky hard drive that shipped with the laptop.

I finally did something about that earlier this week when I pried open up the laptop casing, removed the hard drive and replaced it with a brand new solid state drive that I ordered from Other World Computing. Even for someone like myself who has very limited experience and comfort with the innards of delicate machinery, the installation process was fairly straightforward, especially with the aid of OWC’s handy installation videos.


The Need for Speed

The post-replacement experience has been dramatically, even shockingly faster than what I had become accustomed to before. The MacBook Air now boots in just a few brief moments, applications practically spring to life, and accessing anything on the ‘disk’ is effortless. Even with just 2 gigabytes of RAM, I’m able to run Adobe Photoshop CS5 comfortably alongside several other, smaller applications — in and of itself, this development is mildly revolutionary.

I first wrote about the availability of these SSD upgrades back in January, but I dithered on buying one for some time. I’d never used a solid state drive in a personal computer before, and I wasn’t sure how much of a difference it would make, especially since there was no way to exceed the sluggish 1.86 GHz processor at the heart of my MacBook Air. What I’ve realized now — and it’s long been a well-known fact to SSD converts and people who are generally smarter than I am — is that the operating system and applications spend far more time waiting for hard disks than I could have guessed; a solid state drive fundamentally re-factors this equation. It really is like getting a brand new computer.

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  1. hey Khoi:

    welcome to the SSD club. i did the same treatment some months back on my 3 year old macbook. WOW. the difference is remarkable. you’re going to LOVE IT! :-)

    and, i recently acquired a new macbook AIR 13″ … of course, it’s all solid state. there’s no going back once you’ve gone SSD.

    ENJOY!

  2. They are not all the same – the kit from OWC uses one of the fastest hardware sets around. Even if you have the SSD-equipped Air from that generation, upgrading to this device form the Apple branded one is a revelation.

    Sandforce makes the OEM chipset for several vendors, although OWC seems to be the only source for the fussy Air hardware. Worth tracking down for any Mac notebook that seems as if its getting long on the tooth…like you, I was very happy to hug my notebook again.

  3. For me upgrading to Runcore SSD (PATA) a year ago and installing coolbook (A MUST) is absolute game changer. those 4200 drives were so sloooow.

    It is so much right now for what I do that I cannot find upgrade to the new mba a big need.

    With SSD even keeping 20gb mailbox does make sense as it searches through it at the speed of light (literally it shows valid emails as I type letters).

  4. I got a 2xSSD RAID enclosure from OWC that fits in one of my mac pro’s drive bays and man does that thing scream.

  5. The difference between SSDs with Samsung controllers that Apple use, and the Sandforce based OWC drives are slim in the real world.

    Given Sandforces poor reliability and customer service record, I’d go with an Intel drive, Crucial C300/400, or a OWC backed Sandforce drive.

  6. I recently purchased the base model 11″ Air and am very happy with its performance. It make my 2010 13″ MBP screen look now res and huge now. not to mention the wait while things load.

    glad you enjoyed the upgrade.

  7. i would only trust an intel ssd in any sort of work computer. they might be slower than the sandforce controller ssd’s, but they are much more reliable and the last thing i want happening is a crash in the middle of my development cycle.

    cant for wait lion to come out with trim support.

  8. but how do you get around with such a small amount of space? i mean affordable ssd drives are 120-240gb. thats not quiet a lot…
    now i have a 500gb drive and i have around 200gb left space.

    do i have to put my itunes and my iphoto library on an external drive? would time machine save them?

  9. Lion is basically paving the way for the elimination of Virtual Memory. With SSD’s being the future, Apple is building state saving into the OS. This sets up a situation like iOS has: SSD, no VM

  10. Same experience here. My MBA was getting slower and slower, putting in a SSD brought it back to life. Very snappy!

  11. I upgraded my 1st gen MacAir about a year ago. I totally agree – it was like getting a brand new computer. I did some speed comparisons with my 8 core 6GB Mac Pro – and the old MacAir opened files almost as fast as the MacPro. Off course – compiling is still much faster on the desktop :)

    Link

  12. I totally agree: doing an OWC upgrade (240 gig) SSD on my 2.5 ghz MacBook Pro was like getting a new computer. While doing this upgrade is not for people who feel odd about opening up their computer, it’s not all that tough.

    Link

    The only issue I have is with deep sleep. My computer will not sleep if left open: engergy saver will turn the screen off but not the “hard disk” which means that touching the track pad will wake it up. This is not true when deep sleep is working correctly: only hitting a key on teh keyboard will wake up the machine.

    Given that there’s no hard disk in the machine this is less of an issue but it is an issue if one is working off of battery power on a plane and dozes off, lid up.

    I was told by OWC that this is addresses in a Sandforce firmware update which needs Windows to install. I asked them if I could send the SSD back for them to do it and they said no. This is the only bug in the ointment for me in doing this upgrade.

    I’ve recently ordered a new MacBook Pro (had to as my wife needs a new computer and in our house we trickle down) and ordered it with an Apple SSD which I’m hoping will solve the sleep problem. I’m not too happy about reading here that others have found the Apple supplied SSD lacking compared with the OWC… Time will tell as I’ll have the two side by side next week.

    Thanks for the update Khoi, do let us know if your computer sleeps correctly.

  13. @Richard – I have the same issue in my MacAir and now also my iMac 27 inch which I put a SSD in. I find that if I try to get it to sleep with the keyboard shortcut it will wake up after about 3 seconds – but if I choose the suspend from the apple menu it will actually fall asleep. Hope this helps.

  14. My Macs have had a tendency to slow down over time as well. I often fill the drive then free up space when performance is degraded. So once a year or so, I clone the internal drive, reformat, then clone back. This revitalizes my machines’ performance.

    Fragmentation on the Mac is controversial, but I anecdotally think it works for me.

  15. That is so true.

    I was thinking about upgrading my Macbook (early 2008 model) to a MacBook Pro. But it turns out that a simple SSD upgrade was enough to make the machine usable again. And so much cheaper.

  16. I was having dinner with a friend last night who’s a computer scientist, and his brother develops the latest and greatest Intel SSDs. His brother won’t give him anything specific, but what’s coming in the near future is supposed to be mind-boggling.

    What OCZ just introduced with their Vertex 3 drives is only going to benefit the latest MacBook Pros that support SATA 3 that goes 6 Gbps (and Mac Pros with the right SATA card). Even without that latest stuff, my Mac Pro with the OCZ Vertex 2 240 gig drive is a screamer. Boot times are more than 3 times faster than before. I’m tempted to get a second 240 gig drive and turn it into a RAID 0 boot drive. :-D

    One thing I find important to do is to move the user accounts to a separate drive. That way you can still use your user folders without being restricted by the size of your boot drive.

  17. @Tim: Right, thanks for that. Of course, if I can choose a menu item I can close the lid. The machines sleeps fine if I do either. Its when I walk away from it, lid up that it has issues. Again, the screen sleeps fine as it should, it’s the motherboard/SSD/fan that seems to be still awake.

    If you’re experiencing this on a new Air and an iMac with Apple brand SSDs then it’s either something in the system that needs fixing or firmware on the drive controllers (whatever brand apple is using).

    Again, thanks for your suggestion. The upgrade is so meaningful to me that I really hesitated about buying a new computer, even with the increased processor speed/graphics card speed and more. My current (old) computer is incredible now with the SSD installed. For those who go back this far, it feels like an SE/30 felt after having a Mac Plus or SE for a year.

    This is a decent piece about the benefits of an SSD upgrade on both old and new hardware.

    Link

  18. I did the same thing to my MacPro last August. I put in 4 SSD drives into a single stripped RAID array.

    The speed increase was fantastic… and well worth the price for me!

  19. This morning, I put a hybrid SSD drive into my 2009 MBP. 500 GB Momentus XT with 4GB of SSD for as sort of a secondary cache. It’s very snappy and not much more expensive than a 500 GB drive.

    It’s my toe-dip into SSD and I see a definite performance increase.

  20. I’m awaiting delivery of the 360GB OWC SSD for my 11″ MBA. Can anyone suggest good speed tests i could run before and after the swap, to gather some empirical data on the improvements with the new drive?

    (and btw, i know the cost of the 360GB is extreme. But I figure that with the cost of the 11″ MBA and the 360GB SSD, I’ll have invested about as much as i spent on a Titanium Powerbook years ago. My upgraded MBA will be much closer to my ultimate laptop than the Titanium PB was).

  21. SSD is great untill 2 years later when you need trim support to kick in which we dont have. For you guys that are cloning and reformating, how are you reformating? are you putting it in a windows box and say use intels trim utility to format it correctly?

    Also on new install are you guys direclty installing Snow L from dvd to the ssd or are you installing on hard drive and then clining to ssd?

    thanks

  22. @weiran
    I don’t have experience with the Rev A Airs that had PATA controllers that really were quite slow and may have been a bottleneck for any SSD, regardless of upgrades.

    But the B and C revisions had decent SATA controllers. Given that the stock Samsung SSDs had a claimed max speed of about 90MB/s read, 70 write, I wan’t surprised to see the Sandforce based drives really make a difference – they are in the neighborhood of three times faster. Enough to notice in day to day use – enough to dissolve my frustrations with the device.

    The other options you mention do not deal with the lack of TRIM support under SL as well as the SF, but are excellent choices, too, although I have not seen them in a form factor that can fit the prev gen Airs. I’d be curious to hear the reliability concerns – not something that I had come across when researching.

  23. I saw similar speedups after I installed RunCore SSDs in several MacBook Airs Rev. A & B, but each installation was motivated by a failure of the stock 1.8″ 120 GB Samsung magnetic disk. I was able to recover the data in each case (with GNU ddrescue), and it looks like these Samsung drives have a definite tendency to develop bad sectors.

    Many of the bad sectors could be read after several retries – that will let the Mac continue to run, but with agonizing pauses. Not to mention the fact that the 1.8″ drives are pitifully slow to begin with.

    I think the MacBook Airs Rev. A through C are one case in which computers do really get slower as they age, and they benefit more than most from an SSD upgrade.

  24. I did the same with my MCP i7 also with OWC Mercury Extreme but I’m having auto-sleep issues. I had to disable that feature altogether. It is not a show stopper but the promised FirmWare update is taking very long…

  25. I recently upgraded my 3 (maybe 4 now) year old Mac Mini with a Crucial C300 64GB SSD. Everything went smooth and its very much like getting a new computer. I can probably use this at least another 2 years without feeling the need to upgrade.

  26. How do you set up your drives? I’ve been considering replacing the DVD drive in my MBP with an SSD, but then what? Do you just put the OS and apps on there, and leave your user folder on the spinny? How do you work with Time Machine (or other backups) with this setup?

  27. I strongly recommend anyone who switches to an SSD drive to do regular full-bootable backups. I switched my old MBP to a dual-disk setup w/ an OCZ Vertex 2 and a 1TB Western Digital HD. But within the first month, the SSD got corrupted twice and bricked a third time, all after being put to sleep or not completely shutting down.

    Fortunately I kept all my user account files on the HD so I didn’t lose any files. Now I do a full daily backup of the SSD to the HD (with Superduper) and I make sure the HD has a bootable system on it in case the SSD gets corrupted while I’m on the road.

    Don’t get complacent. These SSDs, though lovely and fast, are much more likely to suffer catastrophic failure. Do yoursefl a favor and backup often.

  28. @David I did the DVD drive removal surgery. It was fairly straightforward as long as you’re comfortable cracking the case open and don’t care about the warranty. A 256GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSD went in there and a 1TB WD in the regular disk slot.

    The system boots off the SSD (blazingly fast) but I keep user accounts and a bootable system on HD. You can use something like Superduper to backup the SSD to the HD on a regular schedule.

    I also keep all my apps on the HD, except for the most frequently used ones (like Adobe CS and Xcode). This way the SSD doesn’t get too full, although each time an app does an auto-update it insists on installing the update to the boot volume, so over time more apps are migrating to the SSD.

    Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I wouldn’t trust my pictures, music, email, and work files to the SSD. Overall, though, it’s been fabulous. I don’t want to give this setup up, even though the new MBP speed numbers are way up there. Would hate to have to go back to a one HD or SSD system.

  29. “Just” 2 gigabytes of RAM… “sluggish” 1.86 GHz processor. Can you hear yourself? OS neXt bloatware can make even modern hardware seem slow. That is your fundamental problem.

  30. I literally just made the plunge 2 weeks ago and installed a 256GB SSD in my late ’08 24″ aluminum iMac, along with doubling the 2 gigs of memory to the 4 gig maximum. like the article says, it’s really like getting a brand new computer – and in some ways, better. I don’t do any video or photo work so my hard drive was unquestionably the tightest bottle neck in the system, and that fact only becomes more apparent the first time you boot up your newly SSD equipped system.

    I didn’t comment here to brag though, I want to point out a few things that no one pointed out to me for anyone who happens to Google: 24″ iMac SSD upgrade and stumbles across this comment. First of all, you’re going to need a 2.5-3.5″ hard drive conversion kit, and if you have the newish 21.5″ or 27″ iMac, make sure you look into solutions for the temperature sensor (for those models they went away from a sensor that simply sticks on to the drive, to a superior cable that plugs into the drives built in sensor. And to complicate things even more, each brand of HD has it’s own custom cable, so the chances anything will work with your SSD are pretty slim. The best solution I’ve seen is spending a few bucks on the older “stick-on” style sensor and using that instead). As far as the conversion kit goes, the particular model the guide I followed recommended, forces you to screw in the hard drive jerry-rigged style (because the SATA/power cables are only long enough to plug into a 3.5″ drive) so I chose one that duplicates the exact dimensions of a 3.5″ drive and you simply plug/slide in your 2.5″ drive and it fits perfectly. I saw a few on newegg that worked like this and I’m sure any of them would work. Even if you’re fairly competent/comfortable with working inside/taking apart computers, the hard drive removal for an iMac might seem a little bit daunting with it’s suction cups and all, but it really is quite simple. They fit together tightly, but Apple made them pretty simple to take apart with the right tools and some patience. I didn’t want to take any chances, so I bought the tools iFixit recommended and followed one of their guides that gave step-by-step instructions, and the whole process was very simple – in fact it was such a nice break from the norm (I do PC repair for a living) that it was even kind of fun. Do your research, use the correct tools, watch a couple videos on YouTube for practice, print out a iFixit’s step-by-step guide, and I promise you can’t screw it up. If you have a 3-4 year old Mac you’re considering replacing, replace the HD with a SSD and max out your memory (you’d be surprised how inexpensive memory is right now) instead, and you’ll actually have a faster machine in the end.

    Now it’s just up to Apple to FINALLY implement native TRIM support so that addicting SSD performance doesn’t degrade after a few months. The last I heard they were adding it to Lion, but apparently the latest build of 10.6 shipping with the new MacBook Pro’s with Apple-included SSD’s already have it. I’d LOVE to update my computer sometime in the next couple weeks and see that they added it. If you don’t know what TRIM is do some research into it (I’d explain it if this post wasn’t already too long), but don’t let it scare you away from an SSD, apparently the performance degradation isn’t nearly as bad with OS X.

  31. Trim support is not crucial in my view. Leo Laporte on a recent episode of MacBreak Weekly said that he talked to two different Intel engineers at a conference and one said that trim was important and the other said it wasn’t. So if Intel who is one of the pioneers of SSD’s isn’t positive then I think we are ok with or without it.

    My Crucial C300 has garbage collection which works when the drive is idle to restore performance when trim is not available.

  32. @rf: “These SSDs, though lovely and fast, are much more likely to suffer catastrophic failure.”

    I don’t think this is true, at least not in my experience and I’ve been using an OWC 240 gig SSD for quite a while now. I back up daily with Superduper as I did pre-SSD (much faster now) but I’ve had absolutely no problems and my machine seems as fast now as it did the day I did the upgrade. As I said above, my only issue on a 3 year old MBP is sleep: the screen sleeps, the motherboard/HD/SSD/Fan doesn’t if the lid/screen is left up. Put the screen down or choose sleep from a menu and everything works as it should.

    I have 5 friends who have done similar upgrades, 3 with OWC, 2 with Crucial and none have experienced “catastrophic” or any other kind of failure.

    No doubt some will experience problems but this is true in the hard disk world as well.

  33. I bought a late-2008 MacBook Pro with a 2.93 GHz CPU, 4GB RAM and a 256 GB SSD about 2 years ago. It totally transformed my user experience. I’d never go back.

    To rudely remind me how life used to be, I cranked out an old IBM ThinkPad yesterday for the first time in 4 years. It has a 900 MHz Pentium III, 512 MB RAM and a 20 GB HD. It took over 4 hrs to bring the Windows XP SW up to current release (connected to 100 Mbps broadband).

    I never realised how far things have progressed in the last 5-10 years until last night. SSD is second only to very fast broadband in making that happen.

  34. @Chris – After reading into some detailed explanations regarding how SSD drives work, I really can’t see how anybody wouldn’t recommend TRIM support in the OS. Not that I think it will ALWAYS be necessary, I think someday soon the drives themselves will perform the same function internally, (and yes I know that’s what garbage collection is, but it’s widely agreed that garbage collection isn’t as efficient as TRIM) but as long as SSD’s slow down so dramatically when data is written on top of existing data, there needs to be something that automatically wipes the cells marked as “erasable” in the background. The only other solution I see beyond the drives doing this automatically, is creating cells that can be re-written to as fast as they can as if they’re “virgin”.

  35. @Alex – I see what your saying. My only point is that the if engineers at Intel whom are much more knowledgeable on this than we are then clearly the jury is still out. Its very possible TRIM will be very important in the end who knows.

    I can say that without TRIM the Garbage Collection on my Crucial C300 seems to work nicely.

  36. @Fred – its probably a good idea for apple to support it, if not all SSD have the feature.

    Plus perhaps with the SSD drives that Apple uses they have done their own R&D and determined TRIM is important.

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