The Golden Age of Mac Upgrades is (Once Again) Upon Us

| Dave Hamilton's Blog

Years ago we Mac users enjoyed the ability to spend a little bit of money to upgrade our admittedly-expensive computers. It may seem like those days are behind us, but the reality is that we're truly in the thick of a new golden age of upgrades.

Back in the day, sites like Low End Mac flourished with daily advice telling us which machines to upgrade and how to do so. TMO was born during this time, and what a great time it was. We upgraded our processors, we upgraded our RAM, we put in faster-spinning (and larger) hard drives; it was an awesome time to be a Mac user with an eye on easy-and-affordable upgrades.

Then June 6, 2005 happened. Intel was the enemy right up and through June 5th. Then Steve Jobs took the stage on the morning of the 6th and told us that Intel was not only our friend, it was our future as Mac users. Seven months later the first Macs featuring Intel chips were available for sale to consumers, and shipped shortly thereafter. By August, 2006 the transition was complete, and all those PowerPC Macs we all had in service experienced "end of life" in a way we had never imagined.

Sure you could (and still can) run older versions of Mac OS X on those PowerPC Macs, but the concept of upgrading them suddenly lost its appeal because it was based on all the wrong architecture.

Over the next few years upgrades dried up. Of course RAM vendors were selling product like crazy, but CPU upgrades – those upgrades that really took your computer to the next level – were shut out of the mix for the most part. You couldn't upgrade from PowerPC to Intel inside the same box on the same motherboard, so a new computer was part of the equation.

Add to this mix the migration to laptops as the most popular computers – and with CPU upgrades being a near-impossibility on laptops and iMacs – and the concept of an economical, game-changing upgrade fizzled out.

Until today... 

I've said many times in the last 5 years that adding an SSD is the single best upgrade I've ever done to any computer. Ever. The reason is that today's computers are not constrained by the speeds of their processors – it's the disk speed (or lack thereof) that slows things down.

Load up something like iStat Menus (or even OS X's Activity Monitor, if you can get it to launch early enough in the boot process) and watch your processor as your Mac starts up. Rarely, if ever, will your Mac's CPU hit 100% as it is loading all that stuff you have set to launch on boot. Dropbox, your email, your web browser, everything. All of those things read a ton of tiny little files, and all of that means your CPU sits relatively idle while waiting for its data to come in from the disk.

Then upgrade to an SSD (even one connected via USB) and watch the same thing. Your CPU will often be pegged at 100% as it does its job processing the data from all those little files. And your Mac will probably boot in one-tenth the time in normally does (seriously – I went from a 10 minute boot time to a thirty-second boot time on my 2007 iMac I use in the studio for Mac Geek Gab).

All of this still holds true. The problem is that SSD drives are expensive, and most folks found it hard to justify the expense despite knowing it was the right thing.

Until today... (yes, I said it again)

SSD prices have come down so much that drives which work well in older Macs are often selling for less than fifty-cents per gigabyte. This means that your 2007 iMac (or mine) with its 7-year-old 250GB drive can easily be upgraded to a similarly-sized SSD for less than $150. That math works for me, and probably works for you, too.

Your older Mac likely doesn't need (and can't take advantage) of the very fastest SSDs out there – and the good news is that it doesn't need to for you to see a huge speed advantage. The big speed boost in startup and launch times I mentioned earlier is not because the SSD is capable of pumping data much faster than its rotational brethren (even though it is), it's because of the fact that an SSD doesn't have to seek (much) to find that data in the first place. You request, it delivers. With a rotational drive, you request, then it seeks to the start of the data, and then it delivers. That's the difference, and you can even see about 90% of the speed benefits of SSD by connecting one via your older Mac's (much slower) USB2 bus.

Check your Mac's model, but you can probably get away with the lower-end-of-the-price-spectrum SSDs without noticing any difference at all. Here's what we've tested thus far:

(we'll be testing more and updating this list)

And, in these 6 and 7-year old machines, they all perform the same because the busses we're using are the older, SATA II type, which means 3Gb/s maximum. In fact, on many of the 2008/9 MacBook Pro models, if you put a SATA III drive in it will slow down to 1.5Gb/s, so you're actually better off using a SATA II drive (like the OWC Electra 3G) in those.

Some other items to consider as you upgrade:

  • MCE's OptiBay Drive Kit - this allows you to install an SSD (or move your hard drive) to the optical bay, leaving both hard drives in the system. If you have a non-Unibody MacBook Pro, this is the only option I've found for doing this.
  • OWC's Data Doubler - does the same thing as MCE's OptiBay on slightly newer Macs. Given the choice, I'd probably pick OWC's Data Double over MCE's OptiBay (simply because of my personal predictions about each company's longevity).
  • NewerTech's AdaptaDrive - SSDs are typically 2.5" drives, and you might be putting them in an iMac replacing a 3.5" drive. If so, you'll need this AdaptaDrive ($15) to make the new drive fit in the same spot that the old one comes out of.

Lastly, make sure to visit iFixit for instructions and videos about how to do your upgrades. Those folks rock at what they do for all of us.

Indeed, the Golden Age of Upgrades has returned for us Mac users, and I couldn't be happier about it (truth be told, neither can my family, because they're the ones really seeing the benefits of my latest upgrade experiments!).

Comments

John F. Braun

I’d like to add to what my esteemed colleague has stated and suggest that, while an SSD is certainly a worthy upgrade, considering what many refer to as a hybrid drive is another option. 

Right now I’m aware of two major players in this space, the first being Seagate, with their Momentus XT drive (of which I have the 750 MB first generation in my current MacBook Pro with a 1.5 Gbps SATA bus) and the second being Toshiba.  While they are rotational drives, they incorporate an SSD-like cache which gives one performance better than a rotational drive, but not as quick as an SSD.

The main benefit of these drives is, at this point is that you can get a 1TB version from either vendor for $100 or less.  So for those that would like to get 1TB of storage, but aren’t yet ready to pay for a 1TB SSD (which right now is almost certainly more that $100) consider a hybrid.

geoduck

Funny you should mention that. I just ordered an OWC Data Doubler for my 2012 15” MacBook Pro (Non Retina). It comes with a 1TB Toshiba hybrid drive. I’m looking forward to seeing how it improves performance. I ran several benchmarks on the system and I’m going to compare them with what I get after the upgrade.

Hagen

Note that if you have a hard drive and SSD in the same place, you should be able to use some command-line wizardry to turn them into a Fusion drive, giving you the best of both worlds.

I’m uncertain what happens if you try to use a Hybrid drive as part of a Fusion setup, though. Better to stick with a standard drive if you wanna try the Fusion setup.

macobjectivist

Though I have a lot of respect for the author and listen to the podcast on a nearly weekly basis—I want to call B.S. on this article.  The information is factually accurate in terms of the fact that certain Macs can be upgraded—but I question the relevance of upgrading 2007 to 2009 Macs for anything more than a short term gain.  If faced with the choice of buying a used Mac from that era and updating the hardware or buying a business class Dell, Lenovo, or HP with Win 7 or Win 8.1—I would choose the later.  A good Windows PC is serviceable and upgradable.  2012 and 2013 Macs—largely—are not.  Even if a Mac of the vintage mentioned in this article is upgradable to 10.9—why bother because it will run Mavericks so poorly.    I wouldn’t sink $300 into a 5 year old so so that it MAY be able to run Mavericks well and then have it not be upgradable to the next Mac OS.

furbies

@ macobjectivist

I just dropped a OWC 480GB SSD into my Early ‘09 Mac Pro, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction, that maxing out the RAM (already done that) and swapping out a HDD for a SSD is well worth the money for me.

cjeff

I have looked on iFixit and can’t find any video tutorials for using a data doubler to add an SSD in a late 2009 iMac. OWC also does NOT have a video tutorial for installing the Data Doubler in the optical drive slot. All it has is a tutorial for replacing the optical drive, not for installing the data doubler. I’m at a loss as to how to get the data doubler properly installed without the instructional videos.

furbies

@ cjeff

1) install the 2.5” drive into the data doubler

2) disassemble your iMac using the instructions for replacing the optical drive, to the point where you’ve removed the installed optical drive, and then just reverse the instructions to reassemble, but install the data doubler in place of the optical drive.

That’s usually how iFixit say how to do such upgrades/repairs.

cjeff

@furbies Thanks for the response. That’s what I was thinking but the problem is that unless the Data doubler has the exact same screws in the exact same places, how will I know how to install the data doubler correctly ? I really don’t want to guess. I’ve also heard horror stories about the alignment being off, etc ... I’m shocked that neither OWC or iFixit has a video tutorial for this upgrade.

furbies

@ cjeff

The Data Doubler sled mimics a optical drive by having the mounting points in the same places as a optical drive.

so:

1) install the 2.5” drive into the data doubler as per the instructions for mounting a drive on the sled.

then:

2) disassemble your iMac using the instructions for replacing the optical drive, to the point where you’ve removed the installed optical drive, and then just reverse the instructions to reassemble, but install the data doubler in place of the optical drive.

That’s usually how iFixit say how to do such upgrades/repairs.

FCompton

@macobjectionist

I’ve upgraded my 2007 iMac with a 500GB SSD and that alone has given my, now 7 year old Mac, a number more years of faithful service. Running 10.8 without a sweat. The only reason I have not moved to Mavericks is some specialized software that the publisher has gone out of business and I don’t really want to move to a replacement and I’m not certain that it will run under Mavericks.

Definitely worth the upgrade, especially with the 15 second boot time. Sorry, no B.S.

Really don’t know what relevance was of referring to buying a “new” windows machine was, though. This was upgrading older Macs. Anybody can just buy a new machine.

Melissa Davis

@cjeff

I’m actually doing this project myself this weekend and here’s the link to the video for the OWC Data Doubler. You’ll note they say specifically you’re to use the screws that came in the package with the Data Doubler. Hope this helps. Good luck!

http://eshop.macsales.com/installvideos/macbookpro_15_unibody_mid09_dd_h/

Melissa Davis

@cjeff

My apologies, wrong link was copied — that link is to my MacBook Pro 2009, but for iMac 2009 I see a link on this page:
http://eshop.macsales.com/installvideos/imac_late_2009/

I do see a Data Doubler link on there, but I made the comment about the screws because I remember seeing that in the video for my model about using the screws provided which I hoped would answer part of your question.

Like @furbies said, I also take it to mean you’re supposed to combine the info in each of the tutorials to do the upgrade. I hope it all works out for you! smile

Substance

I too will throw a shout-out for hybrid drives.  For those of us with a lot of data - especially those who are using one Mac in their house as a media server of some sort (even if it’s just iTunes) - a hybrid drive makes a lot of sense.  I upgraded a late 2009 iMac with the Seagate 2TB hybrid drive and now most of my apps open with just one bounce (if not one, then two!).  Boot times are significantly better, probably not as good as an SSD but for the cost savings, higher storage capacity, I think it’s a good investment in the right situation.

I’d love to see you guys do a comparison of SSD’s vs. hybrid drives.  Also since you guys have had great articles on NAS devices in the past, maybe an update on DIY media servers, such as what you can do with NAS devices vs. an always-on iMac or Mac mini with a large hard drive serving up iTunes content.

Dave Hamilton

@Substance - Absolutely. It’s still not cost-effective to run SSDs for media servers. You don’t need the lower latency that an SSD could provide there, anyway… and if you need raw transfer speed you’re still going to get that cheaper in a RAID-type setup with spindle drives than you would with an SSD setup. With even cheap/slow drives in a 4-disk RAID I’m easily able to soak up my Gigabit Ethernet pipe here. Much cheaper to do that with rotational drives than SSD.

Really my focus here is on the daily-driver Macs, not those repurposed (or dual-purposed) as a media server.

For your machine, I would have recommended a slightly different approach. Assuming it’s a dual-purpose machine I would go with a straight SSD internally to run the system and all your apps, etc., (256GB would do it) and then store all your media on a FireWire 800-connected rotational drive (2TB, 4TB, whatever you like). You’re golden there.

Dave Hamilton

(to me the only place a hybrid drive even begins to make sense is a laptop where you don’t want to muck around with an external drive… but even then, most older laptops can make use of the aforementioned DataDoubler or OptiBay to turn the SuperDrive bay into a home for the larger rotational drive while putting the SSD in to boot from)

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