Add an ExpressCard solid state drive to some MacBook Pros

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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