Two hard drives in a MacBook Pro (2005-2008 model)
December 10, 2008
When I bought my 2nd gen MacBook Pro 15″ in late 2006, it was the top of the range with a Core2 Duo (Merom) processor clocked a 2.33 GHz, 2 GiB RAM and a 160 GB harddisk. Two years later it may look a bit shabby compared to the 5th gen Unibody MacBooks, but its inner values suggest that it can still take them on in a benchmark. Surely it wouldn’t be better but I suspect it would still put up a good fight, as a draw between the 4th gen and 5th gen MacBook Pros in the GeekBench results suggests.
One thing that makes a huge difference in the real world is RAM which is why I decided to spend about € 50.- on two 2 GiB DDR2 bars. I now have 4 GiB installed, though my chipset can only address 3 GiB (which I knew beforehand). I can report that this has made the machine a bit smoother when running many apps in parallel (which in my case is, uh, always). It’s not exactly warp drive, though.
If you want warp drive you’ll have to change, well, the drive! Most of the time when you’re waiting for your computer to do something (open an application, find a file, etc.), it’s not because it’s lacking processing power. It’s because it has to read files that are randomly scattered all over the harddisk. Harddisks are terrible at random access. They’re a bit like good old lazy V8s: huge capacity, but reluctant to change pace (and incidentally, not great in terms of power consumption).
Fortunately, there are alternatives to harddisks called Solid State Drives (SSDs) which are supposed to be much better at random access. But while most of the affordable ones merely provide impulse power, two models actually seem to deserve to be called warp drives: the Samsung SSD and Intel’s X25-M. These two are pretty much neck to neck in most of the benchmark, and since the Intel has the same price per capacity ratio but a bit more capacity (80 GB vs 64 GB) than the Samsung, I chose to buy the X25-M. Due to the strong demand for this device, it took me a while to secure one for a reasonable amount of money and so it finally arrived earlier this week.
Now, 80 GB isn’t much these days and certainly a step down from my 160 gigabytes of V8 muscle. But I wanted the best of both worlds, speed and capacity, so I decided to ditch the optical drive and trade it in for some harddisk space. After all, software isn’t distributed on CDs or DVDs anymore (except for proprietary operating systems, perhaps), nor are music and movies. Should I ever require an optical drive (e.g. to watch a rented movie), chances are good I’m at home where I can use my external USB/Firewire thingy.
On the 5th gen MacBooks, replacing the optical drive with a harddrive is, at least in theory, trivial because the optical drive is SATA as well. On previous MacBooks, the optical drive has a PATA connector so you’ll need a small controller that translates from ATA to SATA. In either case you’ll want to fit the harddrive into a cage that has the same dimensions and mounting points as an optical drive.
MCE Technologies offers a solution for this called OptiBay, custom tailored for the MacBook or MacBook Pro. If you purchase the harddrive cage by itself, it’s $129. Add $43 to that for international shipping with FedEx. A cheaper solution comes from newmodeus: an HDD cage that’s intended to take the place of a removable optical drive that some laptops have. It’s a mere $42. Shipping with regular US postal service costs just $8 and it only took a few days to get to Germany. The only minor inconvenience was that unlike UPS or FedEx, the regular postal service doesn’t do the customs stuff for you, so I had to go to the local customs office and pick it up. Normally I would have to have paid German V.A.T. on it, but since this is a business expense, I didn’t.
Unfortunately, the MacBook Pro doesn’t have a regular size optical drive. It’s thinner which means the cage won’t fit as is. I had to “adapt” it therefore with some cutting tools (a fine metal saw or a sharp side cutter will do, use sandpaper to smoothen the edges). I also removed the top lid and the front cover since those are unnecessary in the MacBook Pro. With these adaptions, the cage fit rather nicely into the empty space that the optical drive had left.
All this means I now have a fast SSD drive for the operating system, apps, personal data, etc. and my old big harddisk for large files such as my MP3 collection and movies (for which random access isn’t as crucial anyway). But has it worked?
Oh yes. The system is biblically fast. Even while I was copying all my data files over from the old harddrive to the SSD, every single application still opened in an instant. OpenOffice is up and running within 2 seconds. System upgrades now take longer to download than to perform. When automatic login is enabled, the system boots from power off to a fully functioning UI in less than 10 seconds… I could go on.
Admittedly there are a few disadvantages. The “adapted” cage isn’t the best soundproof location to install a harddisk. The CD/DVD slot right in front of the mounting position doesn’t help either. So the noise has slightly gone up, but it’s hardly noticeable, really. I also have no idea whether the motion sensor will put the harddrive to sleep in case the MacBook Pro falls (don’t care about that much, though). And then there’s power consumption. I haven’t done any tests yet, but I have the feeling it’s a bit worse than what it was before. It’s hard to tell because I failed to do a proper test before the operation. One thing I’d quite like to find out is whether the OS X can put the harddisk to sleep once in a while. It only has my MP3 collection and other large files, so it’s quite possible to completely avoid using the harddisk when on the road.
All these are minor issues, really. If you want to speed up your machine, forget everything else. Just get an SSD. And not just any, get one of the warp drives. The really good news is, however, you don’t have to compromise on space. If you’re like me and don’t need your optical drive much, you can have your cake and eat it, too. Warp drive and good old V8 muscle.
P.S.: If you’d like to attempt this at home, don’t worry, it’s not difficult. Fitting the cage to the right size was the hardest part, but if you’re willing to spend a bit more money, you can avoid that altogether by buying the OptiBay. You need a few good tools (Torx T6, Philips PH00 and PH0 screwdrivers, pair of tweezers). Then simply follow the excellent instructions on the iFixIt website.
 I know that the 4th gen machines have a newer generation processor, but its clock-speed is only marginally faster. And yes, they have a slightly faster chipset and graphics card, but how much of a difference is that going to make. As the benchmark shows, the factor 1.5 speed up of the frontside bus (667 to 1033 MHz) has nearly remained without effect.
 Judging from the various test reports I’ve read on different SSD models.
 These are MLC models and therefore affordable (which is the criterion here). Certainly there are faster SLC models, but they’re much less affordable.