Solid State Hard Drives (SSD): You Have to See it to Believe It

I visited my local Apple retail store over the weekend and left with the crushing urge to spread the word about solid state hard drives (SSD from here on).  I went into the store to have the guys at the Genius Bar take a look at the battery on my MacBook Pro.  The battery had developed a bulge and was actually causing the back panel on my laptop to bend and twist.  The good news is that they guys at the Genius Bar took one look at the issue and promptly swapped out my battery with a brand new one at no charge.  I call that truly great customer service since my MacBook Pro was no longer under warranty.

But I digress.  While I was talking with two technicians at the Genius Bar, I mentioned that I had installed an SSD as my boot drive.  This really got their attention.  One of them politely asked if I would mind firing up the laptop so he could have a look.  Like many of us, he had read blurbs online indicating that an SSD could breath new life into an aging laptop.  Both gentlemen noted that they had each been considering the SSD option for their older MacBooks.  Obviously they both had the chance to play with the SSD powered MacBook Air’s, but they understood there was a big difference between the latest hardware and what they were running at home.

I fired up my MacBook Pro and spun the screen around so they could watch it boot.  One of the tech’s eyebrows went up dramatically and I knew the desktop had just arrived on screen.  He had to explain to the other tech that it was a cold boot, and not just a machine waking up from sleep.  This drew some more attention and a female Genius tech came over to see what was going on.  So we ran through another boot, just to get everyone on the same page.  The machine booted in seconds.  The 3 techs were stunned!  So, after asking permission, the tech went about opening a series of apps such as Safari, the Office 2011 apps, and the latest Adobe Creative Suite.  Again, they were all visibly taken back by the responsiveness of the system when launching some of the more gangly professional apps.  So we moved on to launch Parallels and see Windows 7 Pro boot in less time than any of them had thought possible.

The Apple techs were really, really impressed.  So we got talking about the different SSD options out there.  And, in my experience, all SSD drives are not the same.  I recently installed the cheapest SSD I could find in a Dell laptop for a friend.  My buddy wanted SSD, but price was his primary concern.  He picked up a drive I had never heard of.  And when we installed it in his notebook, not only was it no faster than his just replaced conventional hard drive, but it was actually slower!

The moral of the story is, when it comes to SSD, you get what you pay for.  Look for a drive that is a brand name and has good customer ratings and actually posts performance specs.  Also, look at the warranty.  Solid-state memory has a finite life span and the memory will wear out eventually.  Make sure you find a brand that stands behind their warranty.  Bear in mind that the price goes up dramatically as the capacity gets larger.  So weigh what you need to do on the computer against how much storage you can afford.  A friend suggested a creative solution to the price per megabyte problem and it was another feature of my MacBook Pro that captured the attention of the Apple technicians.  I used the OWC Data Doubler to replace my MacBook’s optical (CD/DVD) drive with the conventional hard drive that came with the computer.  That Data Doubler is a mounting bracket that fits into the MacBook’s optical drive slot and makes it very easy to mount an additional hard drive in the space.  With the SSD installed in the standard hard drive bay, you now use the SSD for a boot drive, the location of your home folder, and for your applications.  All data such as photos, iTunes, and other large files such as virtual machines can reside on the conventional hard drive.

Most of us use their optical drive only once in a great while, and it didn’t bother me to lose it.  I have a FireWire based external DVD writer that I use for installations and burning discs, so giving up the onboard optical drive in favor of a 500GB drive that I now use constantly was no big deal.  This has a number of effects on the normal operation of my laptop. First, the boot time an application load times are amazingly fast since they reside on the SSD.  Additionally, my Windows virtual machines run faster since they are located on the secondary drive.  And of even greater benefit, since the OS is not booting from the secondary drive, it too runs faster because there is less random demand on the drive slowing down the disk access for the VM.
Apple turned a lot of heads with the SSD drives in the MacBook Air computers.  I was shocked by how many technology reviewers were giving the MacBook Air amazing reviews and suggesting the most people could forgo the purchase of the much more powerful MacBook and MacBook Pro in favor of the performance of the MacBook Air.  The Air might have fast boot time and disk access, but it has an underpowered processor and it maxes out at 4GB of RAM.  It’s a great machine for the mobile writer on the go, but is very poorly equipped for users looking for a workstation replacement notebook.
The MacBook Air is a niche product.  It is a good, light, small portable computer.  And for users surfing the web, checking email, or writing, it is an exceptional tool for the job.  But for video editors, web developers, graphic designers, and overall power users, its just not a good primary computer.  But consider a MacBook Pro with an SSD boot drive combined with an additional hard drive in place of the optical drive, and you truly have the best of both worlds: exceptional performance, expandability, mobility, and enough drive space to keep all of the tools and data you need for day to day work.
With the SSD as an application and boot drive, apps launch so quickly that in many cases I can’t tell if the app was launched or just brought to the foreground.  This is the case with applications such as Address Book, iCal, Wallet, QuickBooks, Safari and QuickTime.  Apps such as the Office or Adobe Creative Suite are more obvious when they are launching, but even then they load in a fraction of the time it took with the stock hard drive.  The performance increase is impossible to miss.  In short, mind-blowing!
Of course the folks at the Apple Store know a lot about the Mac.  But they know mostly what Apple ships and what Apple supports.  When you consider third party solutions such as the OWC Extreme Pro SSD or the OWC Data Doubler, you gain the option to take existing Apple products— new and old alike— and breath new power and life into them.  Its hard to put into words, but the performance increase the SSD brought to my original Unibody MacBook Pro was nothing less than breathtaking.  It was truly a treat to see that Apple employees had the same reaction.
UPDATE: 8/17/11 9:50am
TheSSDReview.com is hosting a giveaway of a new OWC Electra 240GB SSD.  Follow this link for details.  The contest ends August 29th, 2011.
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2 Responses to Solid State Hard Drives (SSD): You Have to See it to Believe It
  1. Gina Reply

    Thanks for posting your ruetlss with the OWC Mercury Extreme Pro SSD. In your post, you mentioned that the durability was a mixed bag. Did the SSD suffer from the standard degradation in speed after it was full? OWC boasted on the 7% over-provision which was designed to prevent the speed degradation but I’ve haven’t been able to find sufficient reviews if it works properly. There are several reviews on the Mercury Extreme Pro RE edition with the 28% over-provision but I would like to hear how did the non-RE version performed in this area.Thanks Reply

  2. Steve Manke Reply

    @Gina,

    There were no performance issues with the drive overall. It is normal for a drive to preform sub-optimally as it becomes very close to full. It doesn’t matter if the drive is a conventional hard drive or SSD. Over-provisioning is not intended to keep the drive running fast as it becomes full. The over-provisioning is there to allow the drive to dynamically replace damaged and no longer usable sectors of the flash media as time goes on. As the media wears and becomes unusable, the bad portions are marked as to no longer be accessed and the drive uses some of the space from its over-provisioning allocation to make up for the space that would have been lost.

    Flash media does wear out over time. Over-provisioning is the way that a drive is built with 7% or 28% extra space, for example, that gets allocated back as usable disc space as other parts of the disc become unusable. This allows a 240GB drive to remain a 240GB drive rather than gradually shrinking toward being a 200GB drive.

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