SSD – The Need For Speed

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.

Upgrading the Mac Pro to SSDs. After opening the side, the DVD drawer is slid out half way to allow the bable to be unplugged from the rear of the drive before fully removing the tray. August 02, 2011. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

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.

Upgrading the Mac Pro to SSDs. Rather helpfully, the late 2009 Mac Pro has two SATA cables with power connectors in the DVD drive bay. August 02, 2011. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

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.

Upgrading the Mac Pro to SSDs. The OCZ SSDs; primary boot disk will be the 240Gb Vertex 3 Max IOPS and the secondary will be the 120Gb Agility 3 - shown with a traditional 3.5" hard drive for size comparison. The DVD tray is to the right. August 02, 2011. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

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.

Upgrading the Mac Pro to SSDs. The OCZ Vertex 3 mounted in the OWC Multimount. August 02, 2011. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

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!

Upgrading the Mac Pro to SSDs. The OCZ Agility 3 mounted in the Akasa SSD & HDD Adapter. August 02, 2011. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

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!

Upgrading the Mac Pro to SSDs. Both OCZ drives in their adapters, fitted to the DVD tray, ready to be installed. August 02, 2011. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

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.

Upgrading the Mac Pro to SSDs. Both OCZ drives in their adapters, fitted to the DVD tray, ready to be installed. August 02, 2011. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

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.

Upgrading the Mac Pro to SSDs. Both OCZ drives in their adapters, fitted to the DVD tray, being installed in the Mac Pro. August 02, 2011. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

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



16 responses to “SSD – The Need For Speed

  1. Amazing, great blog.
    I can see older 2nd hand MacPro machines suddenly becoming very attractive buys. It sounds relatively straightforward but clearly not for the faint hearted and I don’t suppose it was a quick job. Be good to have an update in a few weeks to see how it’s going.

    • Absolutely right; a fast SSD and maxing out the RAM will definitely make any Intel Mac Pro a bit of a speed demon!
      It is very straightforward – precautions like not touching any exposed circuitry and earthing oneself by touching the computer case (whilst plugged into the mains but NOT switched on) are always good steps to take. If one doesn’t require all the drives, then it’s even easier to fit an SSD in a traditional HD bay. The method I’ve outlined means that you can have up to six internal drives as long as the optical drive is used as an external device. As far as speed, all the physical stuff took around an hour, with software and data taking probably a day or two to move about / install.

  2. Hi Ed- I’m using both DVD drives on my early 2009 Mac Pro. One is a blu-ray. Anyway around this without sacrificing the four HD bays or will I just have to remove one of the DVD drives?

    • If you’re using all 4 HD bays then the only practical choice is to remove one of the optical drives. This will also then free up a SATA cable to plug the SSD into. There is a messier way around which I don’t recommend and will be expensive – installing a SATA or a SATA RAID card and then installing an SSD. To attach it though you’d probably need to use cable ties and hang it from somewhere! Not ideal! I’d recommend taking out the DVD drive and getting an external case for it; most elegant way to do it 🙂

  3. The optical drive bay does indeed have forced air flow, it is by way of the intake fan of the power supply. That intake fan is even visible on some of your photos.

    • It has air extracted out but no intake fan; the power supply does indeed have a fan, but this is an extractor fan. For best results for cooling, there should be an intake and an extractor fan and only for this reason, I’ve kept away from installing conventional HDs in the DVD bay. As I mentioned though, SSDs produce practically no heat, so this is not an issue.

  4. I’ve done something similar, but a bit cheaper to my mid-2010 i7 MacBook Pro recently. The stock drive has been replaced with a 500GB Seagate Momentus XT disk. These contain a small amount of fast SSD memory and a 7200rpm disk with a controller that automatically optimises what is in the SSD and what is on the hard disk. I needed to open the case of the MBP to upgrade the RAM so it was easy to replace the hard drive at the same time too. After 5 or 6 reboots the machine now starts up like it had an SSD fitted, even the photoshop monster has a positively snappy start up.

  5. There does not need to be an intake fan to cool drives, the important part is air flow, the fan location isn’t so critical. I’ve seen similar arrangements cool drives on Compaq workstations, the drive cage has an exhaust fan but no intake fan in the drive duct. The arrangement worked fine for 15,000 RPM drives too, the machine was made for hot, high speed drives. I also have several hard drive enclosures of several types that have an exhaust fan but no intake fan.

    • Interesting to know that works in a case – Many years ago when IBM’s Deskstar HDs were failing and got the name ‘Deathstar’, I used to have four in a workstation; because of a very good cooling system (intake and exhaust fan) the drives never gave me an issue. The enclosures are slightly different as often the case acts as a heatsink and dissipates heat as well; also the only heat is from the drive as opposed to a computer which has heat generated from the processors, graphics card and drives. Thanks for you feedback though and interesting to see that the 15,000 rpm HDs were kept cool enough.

  6. I’ve been looking to upgrade my MacPro for some time but have been waiting on some new drives to emerge, seems we’re on the next big leap in terms of SSD technology.

    For those interested, and who haven’t filled up their drive bays, I got a couple of these drive trays in preparation:

    Keep us posted on reliability

    • I don’t think we’re there yet for storage as the cost is too expensive and the capacities aren’t there, but for the OS and programs, I think SSDs are ready for the prime time. I’ve had my Mac Pro running 24/7 with the new SSD for two weeks now and it’s been stable and fast. Can’t recommend them highly enough!

  7. I´m think to do the same on my early 2009, so a question is in my mind… sata velocity in optical bay conector are “negocitated” to 1,5 gigabits instead of 3 gigabits that sata II is… It´s that a problem? Make osx sata conections turn on 3 gigabits? Thanks for your answer.

    Actually i´m using a Compact Flash to sata II reader in the lower conector, sometimes it appear like 1,5 Gbs other like 3 Gbs… coping 32 Gb CF in about 4 min….

    PD. Another way i´m thinking is to put a pci-e card that make sata III – 6 Gbs and make a raid 0 whith 2 enterprise level hdd

    I use the mac pro only for video editing in a professional way, now in final cut pro X… some help is needed…

    Best regards.

    • I haven’t found it to be a problem as the entire system is extremely quick. I haven’t timed things to compare, but the speed difference is so huge that you notice it immediately. Also it frees up your hard disk bays for storage, which is a great bonus.
      I have since installed the OWC Accelsior which is a RAID 0 PCI card. It’s an amazing bit of hardware and I thoroughly recommend it, even over the SSD drives. I’ll be doing a full review soon.

  8. Thank you Edmund for great advise.
    Ps. Pix mania are offering the latest ssd with discount for a limited time

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