Last September, we reviewed the Other World Computing (OWC) Aura Pro SSD, the first and thus far only third-party SSD for Apple’s line of Retina MacBook Pros (rMBP). At the time of the review, only the 15-inch rMBP had been released, but that was soon followed by the introduction of the 13-inch version in October. Because Apple used the same propriety drive form factor in both Macs, the Aura Pro now works with either model.
Our review of the 480 GB SSD revealed significant performance gains over the stock 256 GB Apple SSD and while the cost was high at $580, purchasing a stock rMBP and upgrading to the Aura Pro SSD was only a few dollars more than purchasing Apple’s upgrade to the 512 GB SSD.
But customers who chose the OWC upgrade route faced some issues. First, because the rMBP SSD used a non-standard connection, how could the drive be mounted to a Mac before installation in order to clone user data? Second, once the upgrade was complete, what could the stock Apple SSD be used for?
Answers previously existed to both questions but they were not ideal. For users who needed to clone their data from the rMBP’s stock drive to the OWC SSD, a third drive with a USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt connection could be used as a “middle man,” with users first cloning or backing up their data to the third drive, then installing the OWC SSD, and finally cloning or copying the data back from the third drive.
As for what to do with the Apple SSD, some users may wish to simply keep it safely tucked away in case they need to send their Mac in to Apple for repair and want to send it with only Apple parts inside. Alternatively, with the launch of the 13-inch rMBP, a market of used SSDs is growing and a user may be able to sell the drive to offset much of the cost of the OWC upgrade.
Thankfully, OWC has now released a far more satisfactory answer to the rMBP SSD questions: the Envoy Pro, a bus-powered USB 3.0 external storage enclosure that is designed exclusively for the unique rMBP SSD form factor.
OWC sent us one for review and we’ve spent the last few days putting the enclosure through its paces.
Box Contents & First Impressions
The Envoy Pro can be ordered as a standalone product (US$79.99) or bundled with an Aura Pro SSD, which saves about $30 compared to purchasing the products separately. In our case, we received a standalone empty unit, which came neatly packed in a small OWC box.
Inside is the Envoy Pro, a carrying pouch, a USB 3.0 cable (Type A to Micro B), a concise owner’s manual, and a small bag containing the screws needed to mount the drive and close the unit. While OWC normally includes any required tools with its products, the Envoy Pro comes without the necessary Torx T–5 screwdriver. The logic behind this decision is that those using the Envoy Pro will almost certainly have purchased an Aura Pro, which includes the Torx T–5 driver.
With everything unboxed you’ll immediately notice the quality of the enclosure. Small and solidly constructed, the Envoy Pro is made from aluminum that is indistinguishable from that found on MacBook Pros. Both the color and texture of the unit perfectly match our testbed 15-inch rMBP.
Another nice feature is the height of the enclosure which, when sealed up after installing the Apple SSD, is perfectly matched to the height of the rMBP. As a result of these design choices, the Envoy Pro is one of, if not the best looking, most Apple-like third party accessories I’ve ever seen. It blends beautifully with the rMBP and unsuspecting passersby will undoubtedly think it is simply the latest high quality Apple accessory.
The enclosure has just a few simple features. A light in the front powers on and flickers to indicate drive activity; the micro B USB port is located in the center of the back of the unit; and the bottom holds two rubber feet that keep the drive steady on the desk and prevent it from easily sliding around.
As mentioned above, the Envoy Pro is bus powered, meaning that no separate power cable is required. It draws all necessary power from the USB cable, which makes it great for portable applications or for keeping your desk neat and tidy.
If you haven’t removed the stock Apple SSD from the rMBP yet, see our Aura Pro review for instructions and pictures of that process. Once you have the Apple SSD out of the rMBP and in hand, the installation into the Envoy Pro is simple.
First, remove the two Torx T–5 screws holding the case shut (if they aren’t removed already; ours were). Then, slide the case apart so that the top moves away from the USB connector. This will expose the internal components and slot for the SSD.
Remove the single T–5 screw that is at the opposite end of the board from the SATA connector, line up the key hole on the SSD module to match the connector, and then gently insert the Apple SSD, keeping the drive as low and parallel to the board as possible. Once completed, give the drive a little push to ensure that it is fully seated in the enclosure.
Next, replace the screw that will hold the drive in place and slide the top of the enclosure back on until it locks tight. Screw in the two T–5 screws on the bottom and then place the adhesive rubber foot (included in the screw bag) over the groove where the exterior screws are located.
Once the USB cable is connected, the enclosure’s light will power on and the drive will be mounted by OS X. From here, you have full access to the SSD inside, just as you would with any other external drive. You can clone your data between drives, wipe the drive in preparation of selling it, or configure it as a fast scratch disk. How you use it is up to you, but you’ll want to save it for tasks that can take advantage of its speed, which we’ll discuss next.
USB 3.0 is a fast interface with a maximum theoretical speed of 5 gigabits per second (about 640 megabytes per second). Real world speeds never reach theoretical maximums, so we know that the external SSD housed in the Envoy Pro will be slower than an internal SSD connected directly to the motherboard. To determine how much slower, and what the performance impact would be, we ran a series of tests on both the Apple SSD and the OWC Aura Pro SSD, with separate evaluations for each one in both external Envoy Pro and internal native configurations.
First, the stock Apple 256 GB SSD:
Write performance from the Envoy Pro seems to top out at around 300 MB/s, while the rMBP’s internal SATA connection can push the drive to just under 400 MB/s sequential writes. On reads, things are much closer, with speeds nearing 500 MB/s and only about 30 to 50 MB/s separating the Envoy from the internal connection.
There are bound to be limitations in any storage controller, and the Envoy Pro’s ASMedia 1053e seems to be limited to supporting slower writes while read operations approach OWC’s advertised “up to 500 MB/s” claim. Still, there aren’t many single drive USB 3.0 devices that can hit 300 MB/s writes, and most users will be satisfied with the performance.
Curious about the performance with other drives, we also tested the OWC Aura Pro in the same manner as we did with the Apple SSD:
As we determined in our Aura Pro review, the OWC SSD is faster than the Apple SSD, so we expected to see our performance increase as a result.
Internal reads reached about 550 MB/s compared to about 470 MB/s for the Envoy Pro configuration, roughly the same as the Apple SSD and a good indication that the read limit for the Envoy Pro is right around that number.
Pointing to some differences in the way the OWC and Apple SSDs are architected, however, the writes for the Aura Pro in the Envoy enclosure are significantly better than those from the Apple SSD, reaching about 440 MB/s. Again, the internal connection wins by about 100 MB/s, but the performance is still very fast for a bus-powered, single drive enclosure.
Heat is managed well thanks to the aluminum design and the fact that the rMBP SSDs don’t produce much heat to begin with. Even under full load the enclosure was no warmer to the touch than the surface of the rMBP.
A further result of cool operation is noise level, which is absolutely silent. There is no need for a fan in the Envoy Pro, and we were unable to detect any electronic “whine” that is sometimes associated with solid state drives and accessories. Throughout our testing, the Envoy Pro ran perfectly cool and quiet without any issues.
Revisiting the Aura Pro SSD Performance
OWC uses advanced garbage collection and wear leveling techniques in its SSD firmware and advertises that its SSDs won’t slow down over time, as can happen with other SSDs under heavy use. While degraded performance over time has become less of an issue in the SSD market as the technology has matured, we decided to take a look back at our Aura Pro SSD, which we’ve been running in our rMBP test system since we reviewed it in September 2012.
Three months is hardly long enough to provide a definitive analysis of performance over time, but keep in mind that our test system is heavily used, with frequent system wipes, large application testing, and huge virtual machines pounding the drive every day. As a result, our drive should be “showing its age” at least a little bit by now.
We took the values we received from the DriveGenius BenchTest during our initial review of the Aura Pro and ran the tests again for comparison:
Our results were positive. There is almost no difference in performance between a “fresh” Aura Pro tested during our initial review and a heavily used Aura Pro. Again, this is not the most definitive test; we’d be curious to see how the drive performs in a year or two, but there are no signs thus far that three months of extremely disk-intensive use will slow down the Aura Pro.
I now find myself in uncharted territory. I do not believe that I have ever awarded a 5-star rating to a product that I have reviewed on TMO. I’ve seen many great pieces of software and hardware, but there are always one or two small factors that separate a great product from perfection.
I can find no such factors with the Envoy Pro. From its lightweight and sturdy design that matches the Retina MacBook Pro perfectly, to the ease of installation and use, to its high performance USB 3.0 interface, there is nothing that I can find fault with in this product. And, although design can be highly subjective, I find the device absolutely beautiful and on par with the best that has come out of Jony Ive’s labs.
Yes, the price may be a bit high for some users, but you get what you pay for, which is access to a propriety Apple interface, high quality aluminum construction, quiet operation, and beautiful design. If you have a Retina MacBook Pro and you are considering an upgrade to the Aura Pro SSD, you simply can’t go wrong with the OWC Envoy Pro.