My Mac is now silent. After installing a solid state drive (SSD) with no moving parts, the drone of my iMac’s hard drive and fans has given way to such an absence of sound that I only hear the high-pitched squeal of my office lights.
My Mac is now fast. Even with 400GB of available space, OS X Yosemite’s constant hard drive accessing had brought my quad-core, 3.4GHz Core i7 machine to its knees. Now I’m seeing five times the hard drive speeds, apps are loading instantly, and my iMac feels as responsive as the MacBooks and iPads that beat it to the SSD game.
Last week, buoyed by (finally!) reasonable SSD prices and a desire to try a DIY project, I walked through the steps to replace a prior-generation iMac’s hard drive with an SSD. Similarly excited readers have pointed out that older MacBooks and certain other Macs are also easy to upgrade… but at least one Mac (surprise: the Mac mini) is not. So below, I’ll show you some great SSD options that you can install yourself, ask a tech-savvy friend/repair shop to handle for you, or choose as external solutions.
The Big Picture
It’s hard to believe, but back in 2008, Apple offered a 64GB solid state drive upgrade to the original MacBook Air for a whopping $1,300 premium over the laptop’s normal price. At that time, a consumer 1TB drive cost around $4,000, and Apple wasn’t even attempting to sell one.
A lot has changed even over the past year. SSDs are faster, more reliable, and a lot more affordable. Today, excellent quality SSDs start at $60 (120GB), climbing to $120 (250GB), $231 (500GB) and $420 (1TB) — still not as cheap as traditional drives, but better. The Samsung 850 EVO I installed in my iMac is 5 times faster than the 1TB hard disk it replaced and has no moving parts, so it’s tiny, silent and cooler-running. It also has a five-year warranty and a longer expected lifespan than most hard drives; if you’re willing to pay more, the 850 PRO version has a ten-year warranty that eclipses all but the most expensive enterprise-class desktop hard disks.
Internal or External?
Although performance will vary based on the specific Mac you’re upgrading with an SSD, Macs released over the past five years will likely see bigger gains if you replace their internal hard drives rather than adding SSDs as external drives. A new SSD inside an older iMac, MacBook, Mac mini, or Mac Pro will lead to much faster OS X performance, app loading, restarting, and file accessing. But if you buy an external SSD and connect it using something faster than USB 2 or FireWire 800 — say, a spare Thunderbolt or USB 3 port — you’ll see definite speed improvements for whatever files and apps you place on the SSD.
My personal advice would be to consider an internal solution, if possible following a DIY hard drive replacement guide like the ones linked below. If you’re concerned about damaging your Mac during the replacement process, you can opt to have a tech-savvy friend or local Apple repair store handle the SSD replacement for you. And if you prefer an external drive — and don’t mind cutting the performance benefits down somewhat — there are some good, though more expensive options below.
MacBook/MacBook Pro: Internal + External SSD Options
Aluminum-bodied MacBooks and MacBook Pros made in 2012 or earlier can be upgraded with 2.5″ internal SSDs, including the Samsung 850 EVO I carefully selected for my iMac. As shown in these iFixit guides (MacBook Pro 13″ 2009 / 2010 / 2011 / 2012, and MacBook Pro 15″), the process requires little more than one Torx T6 screwdriver, one Philips #00 screwdriver, and a flat-head screwdriver (or spudger) to accomplish. It’s even easier for the short-lived 2008 metal MacBook, which has a pop-off bottom panel for easier hard drive replacement.
Replacing the hard drive of the unibody MacBook Pro requires only a handful of steps: backing up your old drive (preferably using Time Machine), removing the bottom cover of your MacBook using Torx screwdrivers, removing the hard drive, replacing it with the SSD, then reattaching the bottom cover. For a variety of reasons, it’s even easier than the iMac hard drive swap I discussed in my prior article, and all you need is the screwdriver, the SSD, and the confidence to do it yourself.
If you’re going to do an internal hard drive swap, there’s pretty widespread agreement that the Samsung 850 EVO ($60-$420) I previously recommended offers a superb combination of speed, reliability, and quality for the price. It has a 4.7/5-star rating on Amazon, versus the 850 Pro, which sells for more ($98-$555) and has a 4.8/5-star rating. By contrast, the most popular portable external SSDs right now are Samsung’s new USB 3.0-based T1 (250GB/$174, 500GB/$300, 1TB/$569, shown above), with 4.5/5-star ratings. If you’re willing to spend quite a bit more and have a free Thunderbolt port, Elgato’s Thunderbolt Drive+ (256GB/$425, 512GB/$780) has Thunderbolt and USB 3.0/2.0 interfaces.
Mac mini: Internal + External SSD Options
Internal SSD replacement for the 2010 to 2014 “unibody” Mac mini requires considerably more effort and skill than doing so for the MacBooks and iMacs. You’ll need to disassemble the Mac mini’s chassis, fan, and antenna plate before disconnecting the logic board and hard drive — with steps that become even more challenging on the most recent 2014 models. My suggestion would be to leave an internal drive upgrade of this model up to a professional.
The same sort of 2.5″ internal drives can be used in the Mac mini as on the other Macs. While the 2010 Mac mini limits you to FireWire 800 or USB 2.0 — probably not worth the effort of adding an external SSD — the 2011 model has a Thunderbolt port, and the 2012 version has USB 3.0 ports, making external SSDs easier to add. Go with the Elgato Thunderbolt Drive+ (256GB/$425, 512GB/$780) if you can’t use USB 3.0, and Samsung’s T1 (250GB/$174, 500GB/$300, 1TB/$569) if USB 3.0 is an option.
Mac Pro: Internal + External SSD Options
Current-generation Mac Pros ship with large, fast SSDs, making replacements highly unlikely for the time being, but first-generation Mac Pros can definitely benefit from the speed increase. As iFixit’s guide notes, the process of installing a new drive is as simple as flipping a rear latch, pulling the Mac’s side panel and hard drive bay out, then using a Philips head screw driver to attach a hard drive sled to your new drive.
But with an SSD, there’s another step: you’ll need a 2.5″ to 3.5″ hard drive adapter bracket such as NewerTech’s AdaptaDrive ($15) to mount the tiny SSD inside a large hard drive bay. The company also sells the OWC Mount Pro (now only $18), which lets you mount the SSD on a custom-fit replacement for the Mac Pro’s hard drive bay. This is an easier solution, and the one I’d pick if installing an SSD in the Mac Pro.
The Mac Pro’s physical size and multi-drive-ready internal architecture make it an ideal candidate for an internal SSD. If you’re considering an external drive, you might want to think again. The built-in, outdated USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 ports aren’t going to cut it, and users have reported very mixed experiences adding USB 3.0 cards — somewhat better results with more expensive ones such as Caldigit’s FASTA-6GU3 Pro — to this computer. My advice would be to stick with an internal solution.
iMac: Internal + External SSD Options
I’ve discussed the iMac in much greater detail in my prior article, but the internal and external SSD recommendations are basically the same as for the MacBook Pro: the Samsung 850 EVO ($60-$420), Samsung 850 Pro ($98-$555), Elgato’s Thunderbolt Drive+ (256GB/$425, 512GB/$780), or Samsung T1 (250GB/$174, 500GB/$300, 1TB/$569).
Whichever option you choose for your Mac will yield significant dividends – with an internal drive, 3X to 5X speed improvements are typical with SSDs of the caliber recommended above. There’s no better (or more cost-effective) way to speed up an old Mac today.
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