Upgrading the Mac Pro to SSD
The main cause of a sluggish computer is generally a low amount of RAM, slow processors and slower hard drives. The best advice I can give anyone who wants to speed up their machine and also make it more stable, is to upgrade the RAM to as much as can be afforded. Processors are generally hard to change out or upgrade (as this will often mean either complex adapters or a new motherboard) and hard drives usually do make a noticeable difference when going from 5400rpm to 7200rpm and then to 10,000rpm.
A few years ago I got my first ever computer with an SSD; the original MacBook Air. The speed with which it booted up and programs started up was stunning. Roll on a few years and SSDs have come into their own. They are not only much faster but have also dropped significantly in price and the best ones even maintain themselves.
I recently decided that I was going to upgrade my Mac Pro to an SSD drive. I use my machine to do image processing (using Aperture), hold my fully searchable archive of around half a million images (using Aperture) and also edit video using Final Cut Pro. The launch of Apple’s OS X Lion seemed like the perfect time and I set to researching the SSD market.
I decided to go for an OCZ Vertex 3 240Gb Max IOPS SSD. This has a Sandforce controller (fast becoming a standard and something you should go for both for speed and also maintenance abilities – basically cleaning out any garbage that is accumulated as files are deleted). This would be my boot drive. Thinking things through and being a huge fan of Final Cut Pro X, I wanted to use it as my main editing program, so realised that having a dual boot system would be best as I could then install Final Cut Pro Studio (FCP 7) on the second boot drive, giving me full access to my older video projects (Apple recommends using separate partitions or boot drives for best results). For the second drive I went for a smaller and cheaper drive; a 120Gb OCZ Agility 3 SSD.
With my Mac Pro already having all four drive bays filled, I looked to OWC for a solution. They have a very neat adapter that lets a 2.5″ or 3.5″ hard drive get mounted in the CD / DVD drive bay of the Mac Pro. I had seen this several years ago and feared it unstable because of heat buildup (This bay doesn’t have an intake fan) but knowing that SSDs produce practically no heat (and consume minimal power) meant that it was the perfect solution. Alas I ordered the mount before I had decided on having two SSDs so I also found a similar adapter in the UK made by Akasa which I promptly ordered. I must say that I do prefer the OWC method and may well get another one of their multi mounts!
My machine is an early 2009 Mac Pro which very usefully already has twin SATA and power cables coming into the DVD drive bay. Earlier models will have the cable for the optical drive and a spare port on the motherboard, for which you will need a SATA cable and a power cable (probably with a MOLEX splitter). My other problem was that as all 4 HD bays were populated and I wanted to use both the DVD bay cables for the two SSDs; what to do about having a DVD drive? I decided to do away with it! With most software being downloaded and image delivery to clients via Cloud drives (like MobileMe and DropBox) the need for a DVD drive was not a priority. For those occasions when I might definitely need one and also for exploring making BluRay films, I decided to get a portable slimline LaCie x6 BluRay drive. This would also come in handy if I decide to fit an SSD drive in the DVD bay of my 15″ MacBook Pro someday!
The Mac Pro case (which is a work in design genius on every level) was opened and the side taken off. The DVD tray was then pulled out sideways but only half way. The cable was pulled out from the DVD SuperDrive and the tray was removed fully. The SSDs were then installed, leaving a lot of space between them for air to circulate (even though they do run cool – the cooler, the better in my opinion). The tray was put in halfway, both SSDs were attached to the cables, tray was pushed and everything closed up.
I first started with installing Snow Leopard onto the Vertex 3 SSD and then upgrading it to OS X Lion. Setting were transferred via transfer wizard and I installed all the programs from scratch (using remote disk to access the DVD drive on another machine). I then emptied all the excess stuff from the old hard drive to make it smaller in used capacity and cloned it, using Carbon Copy Cloner, onto the Agility 3 SSD.
The speed difference is amazing. The OS boots up in a matter of seconds and programs open up in a flash. Extra RAM is definitely the first step to a faster and more stable system; changing out your hard drive for an SSD is a very close second!
To give an idea of speed, my old drive was an extremely fast, enterprise class WD VelociRaptor HD spinning at 10,000rpm. It has a sustained read and write speed of 126MB/s. The OCZ 240Gb Vertex 3 Max IOPS has a maximum read speed of 550MB/s and write speed of 500MB/s. That is some speed increase!
Addendum: Although for this project I used a Mac Pro, the same principle is true when installing a compatible (most 2.5″ drives will be) SSD into a MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac (although much more complex & possibility of voiding warranty – so do check) and PCs of most shapes and sizes. An SSD will speed up your boot time, the startup of any programs, access to any files on the SSD as well as faster shutdowns. You will also gain from less heat, no noise and less power being consumed.
Since writing this article, I have found a European dealer for OWC products called Macupgrade. The team there have kindly offered readers of the blog a 10% discount across the store. Code: macupgradephoto