Add an ExpressCard solid state drive to some MacBook Pros

While I appreciate that the Macs of today are leaps and bounds faster than their predecessors, that doesn’t mean I’m always happy with the speed of my machines. Consider my MacBook Pro, an early 2008 model (matte screen, 2.6GHz, 4GB RAM). While it’s plenty fast in typical use, there are times when I wish it were faster—when booting, launching certain large and/or sluggish applications, and working on large documents, for example.

All of these things are related to the hard drive, of course—and as my MacBook Pro already has a 200GB 7200rpm hard drive in it, it seemed the only path to a faster Mac involved an expensive (and labor-intensive) replacement of the hard drive with a solid state drive (SSD). Unfortunately, my budget precluded such an upgrade—256GB SSDs cost more than $700, which puts one well out of the realm of affordable upgrade for me.

Then, while I was mulling what other options might be available, I stumbled across this hint by Craig Tapley, sitting in the Mac OS X Hints queue. In that hint, Craig explains how to use an ExpressCard SSD as a boot disk in certain MacBook Pros. Prior to reading this hint, I didn’t even know they made SSDs in ExpressCard form.

With my curiosity piqued, I set out to investigate more. Chris used a 24GB FileMate SSD, which is what I was planning on using…until I spotted the 48GB version of the same drive on sale for $125 (as of this writing, it’s back up to $162). Posts on the Newegg site by Mac owners indicate that the drive worked well for them, so I took a chance and ordered it.

The FileMate 48GB solid state drive

What follows is a summary of my experiences with installing, setting up, and using the drive in my 2008 vintage 15-inch MacBook Pro (2.6GHz, 4GB RAM, 200GB hard drive)—including some performance test results. I’ll state upfront that this isn’t really a fair fight—the SSD is rated faster than the internal hard drive, plus it’s brand new, while the internal drive has been working away for the last 15 months or so.

Fair or not, I do think this is a valid comparison, as it’s something anyone looking for more speed out of their current MacBook Pro might consider. With that said, there are some things to keep in mind before you dive into a project like this.

Pre-start considerations

First, this solution won’t work with every model of MacBook Pro. Obviously, the machine needs to have an ExpressCard slot, which rules out the current-generation 13-inch and 15-inch models (though the 17-inch versions still have ExpressCard slots).

Second, the Mac needs to be relatively new in order to boot from the ExpressCard slot. How new is a bit of an open question—a post on the Newegg forums indicate that a 2006 model wasn’t able to boot from the ExpressCard slot, but my 2008 machine does so just fine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a definitive reference anywhere.

One thing you can check is your machine’s model identifier, in System Profiler (in Applications -> Utilities). In the Hardware Overview section (the one that appears when System Profiler opens), look at the Model Identifier field. Machines with “4,1” and “5,1” at the end of the identifer are known to be bootable from the ExpressCard slot; machines with “2,1” are known to not be bootable. Based on a Google search, it appears that “3,1” models can also boot from the ExpressCard slot, but I haven’t seen that firsthand.

(Even if your machine won’t boot from an ExpressCard SSD, it will still see and use the drive as a regular, though very fast, hard drive.)

Finally, not every ExpressCard SSD may just work “out of the box.” The FileMate SSDs definitely do, but a commenter on the Mac OS X Hints hint thread indicates that Verbatim, and possibly other brands, require a driver to work, and even then, are not bootable. Proceed at your own risk, and buy from a vendor with liberal return policies.

Installation and setup

Installing the drive couldn’t be much simpler—just insert it into the ExpressCard slot until it clicks into place, and then wait for it to appear in the Finder. This is one of the most appealing factors about an ExpressCard SSD—installation is simple (and you get to keep your hard drive, too). Sure, the performance isn’t what you’ll get from a leading-edge internal SSD, but compared to a hard drive, it’s still very good (as you’ll soon see).

The drive in the ExpressCard slot, seen from the side and directly above.

When installed, the drive sits completely flush, revealing just an activity light and a miniature USB port. (Click the image at right for a larger view of the inserted drive. And the light isn’t really that bright; that’s the result of a long exposure in dim light.)

That tiny little USB port is not an inbound USB port, but an outbound port—it’s there in case you want to connect the drive via USB2, for use with machines that lack an ExpressCard slot. After testing the drive in this mode, though, I wouldn’t recommend it for normal use—it’s very slow when used in USB2 mode.

After I inserted the drive, it mounted nearly instantly in the Finder. System Profiler then reported the drive as a serial ATA device, which is probably why it was usable as a boot disk.

Once installed, I inserted my Snow Leopard installation disc and started installing OS X on the drive. I customized the installation to minimize its size by removing excess printer drivers and the extra languages. Because the drive is only 48GB in size, it’s important to make the most of the space available.

I then installed and/or copied my key applications from the internal drive to the external drive. I didn’t worry about trying to make absolutely everything fit; only those programs I use regularly are installed on the SSD. For example, I chose to only install iPhoto out of the iLife ’09 application suite—I rarely use GarageBand, iWeb or iDVD on my laptop, so I can just reboot and use them from the internal drive when the need arises.

Note that you only need to do this for programs that install additional pieces when you install them; programs that can be used via drag-and-drop should run just fine from the internal drive.

Another possible solution would be to install everything from iLife, but then replace the rarely-used programs and their frameworks with aliases (or symbolic links, via Terminal or SymbolicLinker)) pointing to the originals on the internal drive. I haven’t tried this, but will probably do so to save myself having to reboot to use these programs. I expect it should work, but as of yet, that’s an untested theory.

If you have programs that use scratch disks, such as iMovie, Final Cut Express, and Photoshop, you may want to set them up to use your internal drive for scratch space. Technically you’ll be giving up a bit of speed, but you’ll keep a lot of read and write operations off of the SSD, which should help its longevity.

After installing my apps, I copied over key data files from the internal drive. Once again, I didn’t copy everything, only the files and folders I access regularly. I also copied over many programs’ preferences and settings, to save myself the trouble of setting them up from scratch again.

Finally, I ran Software Update and let it update the OS and installed applications. This took a couple of reboots, but I eventually had a machine with OS X 10.6.2 installed and ready for use. When all was said and done, I had about 25GB left on my 48GB SSD, which is a good amount of free space. In addition, my internal drive has over 100GB available, and that’s before I clean out some of the redundant applications. Given this laptop isn’t my main computer, this is more than enough storage room for my needs.

Subjective impressions and objective performance

During the software update reboots, I got my first glimpse of the speed of this drive—reboots seemed very fast. Applications launched notably quicker, and file copying also seemed to be noticeably faster. But those were all subjective impressions; how did the drive measure up in ojective testing?

In two words, amazingly well. The speeds on this SSD are incredible, and the impact they make on my MacBook Pro’s performance are easily observed and measured. I ran a series of tests while booted off the SSD, and then repeated those tests while booted off the internal drive. Both systems are running 10.6.2 with an identical (and minimal) set of startup tasks.

As I stated earlier, this is an inherently unfair comparison: the internal drive has been used regularly, and is clearly not in “as new” condition. However, it is very representative of a drive in any other used MacBook Pro that someone may be considering upgrading, so I think it’s fair to see how it compares to the new ExpressCard SSD. (I also used iDefrag Lite to look at the fragmentation on the 200GB drive, and it wasn’t very bad at all.)

I booted off both the internal and the external drives (to remove any boot drive bias), then ran each test three times off each disk, and averaged the results. Hopefully this will remove any anomolies that may have crept into any one test. I focused my tests on real-world tasks such as booting up, copying and duplicating files, and launching applications.

I also ran two benchmark tests: the venerable Xbench, and the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, which can be downloaded as part of the DeckLink software suite. With Xbench, I looked only at the disk performance figures, and not the overall score for the system.

ExpressCard SSD vs. internal hard drive

Xbench sequential Xbench random Blackmagic read Blackmagic write Cold boot Duplicate files Copy to SSD Copy to hard drive Launch 10 apps Launch CS3 Unzip archive
200GB internal drive 71.04 30.00 52.3 52.2 38 11 5 -- 5 10 42
48GB ExpressCard SSD 99.27 63.42 127.0 72.3 14 7 -- 8 3 6 35

Xbench figures are scores, and higher is better. Blackmagic results are in MB per second, and higher is better. All other results are in seconds, and lower is better. Best results shown in red bold type.

Cold boot: Timed from drive selection screen to a usable desktop after login. Duplicate files: A folder containing 360 files totalling 248MB was duplicated. Copy files: That same folder was copied from the SSD to the hard drive, and vice-versa. Launch 10 apps: A folder containing aliases to Address Book, Calculator, Chess, Dictionary, Font Book, iCal, Safari, Stickies, Text Edit, and Activity Monitor was created. All aliases were then opened at once, and time was tracked until the last Dock icon stopped bouncing. Launch CS3: How long it took to launch Photoshop CS3. Unzip archive: The time required to expand a 216MB zip archive containing 20 files. All tests performed by Rob Griffiths using a 15-inch MacBook Pro (2.6GHz) with 4GB of RAM, the FileMate 48GB ExpressCard SSD, and a 200GB 7200rpm internal hard drive.

As you can see from the results, the ExpressCard SSD easily outpaced the stock internal drive. What the figures don’t show is just how snappy the machine feels after this upgrade. Small applications open basically instantly; larger applications still open very quickly. Duplicating files happens with amazing speed, and the boot time is simply incredible. My MacBook Pro even opens programs notably faster than does my Mac Pro.

Over time, these performance figures may decline somewhat, as the number of read and write operations on the drive increases. However, the inherent speed edge of the SSD should allow it to still easily outpace the internal drive even if the performance drops.

In use, the SSD behaves exactly like a hard drive. My machine still goes to sleep when I close the lid, or when it reaches its idle timeout limit. It wakes from sleep just as it did before, and safe sleep (the Mac writes its memory to disk before sleeping) works perfectly. In other words, there’s no day-to-day difference in using this ExpressCard SSD, other than remembering that I really shouldn’t eject the drive while the machine is on!

So if the speed is great, and the cost is relatively cheap, and there are no operational trade-offs, this upgrade is all-systems-go, right? Well, probably, but there are some possible downsides to consider.

Look before you leap

One of the biggest concerns with this swap is the limited size of the SSD. At only 48GB, you probably won’t be able to fit all of your applications and files on the SSD, especially if your MacBook Pro is your only Mac. In my case, because this isn’t my primary work machine, I can fit everything I want to fit on the SSD. If you can’t, though, you’ll be running some applications, and opening some data files, from the internal disk—thereby negating some of the speed gain from using the SSD.

Another concern is that ExpressCard SSDs are a relatively unknown entity, and it’s not clear how they’ll survive the rigors of startup disk duty in the MacBook Pro. While they have long mean time between failure values (MTBF; a measure of reliability), typically 2x to 3x those of physical hard drives, writing data to an SSD over and over (as happens with a boot drive storing cache, temporary files, and so on) may shorten its life.

I’ve only been using mine for about a week, so I’m in no position to comment on reliability, obviously. To protect myself, however, I’ve set my system up to back up my data files (I don’t really care about applications or the system itself) to my internal drive. I also use Time Machine to back everything up to an AirPort-connected hard drive, so I feel comfortable that my data is safe, even if the drive goes belly up.

Also, because I’ve only been using the SSD for a short period of time, I can’t comment on its affect on battery life—I don’t expect any great change, but if I do notice that the SSD is drawing more power, I can just reboot from the internal drive to conserve battery life.

Finally, there’s the question of heat. An ExpressCard SSD can get warm, especially if it’s being written to on a constant basis. However, after using mine for quite a few hours over the last few days, I can say I have no qualms about the heat. There were times, especially when running the two benchmark suites, where the area near the ExpressCard slot would get quite warm—but not much warmer than the left palmrest would get if I ran the same tests on the internal hard drive.

In normal use, as in preparing this report’s text and images and surfing the web, my MacBook Pro is actually cooler than it was before—especially the area of the left palm rest, which sits directly over the hard drive. With the internal drive being used primarily for data, the left palm rest is only very slightly warmer than the right, and is pleasantly cool to the touch.

Yes, the speaker grille area on the left is warmer than before—about 84F (29C)—but I find this much less annoying than a warm palm rest, as I don’t tend to leave my fingers on the keyboard if I’m not typing—but I do rest my hands on the palm rests.

As for the drive itself handling the heat, FileMate has stress-tested them in temperatures above 167F (75C), and the drive continued to work. In my machine, it hasn’t ever gotten anywhere near that warm. Earlier, I shut down the machine after a few hours’ continuous use, and pulled out the SSD. I then used a USB temperature probe to measure its temperature, and got a reading of 90F (32C).

Still, if you’re going to go down this route, I strongly recommend having a good backup plan in place, just in case your SSD gives up the ghost for whatever reason. The nice thing about this setup, as opposed to replacing the internal drive with an SSD, is that you’ve always got a built-in bootable backup available, assuming you leave OS X installed on your internal drive.

The last word

I have seen the future, and it’s solid state. It’s amazing how far SSDs have come in just a few short years. In late 2006, a Fujitsu laptop with a 32GB SSD commanded a $1400 premium over the hard drive version of the same machine. Today, you can buy a 32GB ExpressCard SSD for just over $100—and that drive probably has much faster read/write performance than did that $1400 unit from 2006.

While large-capacity internal SSDs are still quite pricey, leading to a tradeoff betwen storage capacity and performance, an ExpressCard SSD offers something of the best of both worlds. By putting the operating system, applications, and key data files on the SSD, you’ll see a huge increase in performance on your MacBook Pro—and you’ll still have your internal hard drive available for both additional data storage and as a failsafe in case the SSD fails. Sure, it’s slower than an internal SSD, but it’s much faster than a hard drive.

Making this move may not be for everyone, but personally, I’m thrilled with the results of the experiment. In typical use, my laptop is now measurably faster than my Mac Pro at the things I do most often—launch apps, open documents, and work with files in the Finder. The MacBook Pro will fall behind once I start doing something graphically- or CPU-intensive, of course, but for routine work, this modified MacBook Pro is now a real speed demon.

Looking forward, I expect that the physical hard drive’s days are numbered. As SSDs continue to get faster and cheaper, it will make less and less sense to go with a traditional hard drive. Until those days are upon us, though, an ExpressCard SSD upgrade for a MacBook Pro provides a nice peek at the future, without giving up the security blanket of a full-sized hard drive to fall back on.

[Senior editor Rob Griffiths offers Mac OS X tips and advice at MacOSXHints.com.]

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