Boost your Mac's speed with a hybrid drive

The king of the hill in today’s storage world is the solid-state drive (SSD). These drives use flash memory, have no moving parts, offer incredible access speed, and can make a huge difference in the performance of your computer.

Unfortunately, they’re also size-restricted and still quite expensive—replacing a standard 320GB hard drive in a new $1499 13-inch MacBook Pro with a 512GB SSD will set you back an extra $1400, which is nearly the price of the entire machine. Yikes. You can save some cash by giving up capacity—you can go from a standard 320GB drive in that same MacBook Pro to a 128GB SSD for only $300 more (or 33 percent of the cost of that particular Mac).

But what if you’re not well-off enough to fork over that kind of money, or if you’re not willing to give up storage capacity in exchange for the speed boost offered by an SSD? Are there any other alternatives out there?

One relatively new option is Seagate’s Momentus XT 2.5-inch hard drive. Seagate calls the Momentus a “hybrid” hard drive, as it combines a relatively-small 4GB SSD with a standard 500GB hard drive. From a user’s perspective, though, the SSD is hidden—the drive appears as a standard 500GB hard drive, and there’s no user access to the SSD.

That’s because the drive’s firmware manages the SSD, identifying the most commonly-used disk sectors—not files, as you might suspect—and then moving those bits to the SSD. You as a user simply work with files as you always do, letting the drive do the management for you.

These hybrid drives promise a bit of the best of both worlds: SSD speed with traditional hard drive costs. With only a 4GB SSD, though, you won’t get anywhere near the speed boost you’d get from a full SSD. But at only $125 for the 500GB Seagate drive, you’re not paying much of a premium for the speed boost that you do get.

So how does this drive work in the real world? To find out, Macworld senior contributors Rob Griffiths and Kirk McElhearn installed the drive in their MacBook Pro and Mac mini, respectively.

MacBook Pro with Momentus XT hybrid drive

I recently purchased a new MacBook Pro—a mid-2010 2.66GHz 15-inch model with the anti-glare high-resolution (1680-by-1050) screen. This machine was an obvious upgrade over my 2008 model in every way except one: the hard drive. My older machine included an ExpressCard slot, into which I installed a 60GB ExpressCard solid state disk. This drive was super fast, relatively inexpensive, and left my internal drive (a 200GB 7200-rpm model) in place to store larger data files.

The new machine, by contrast, lacks an ExpressCard slot, and includes a 500GB 5400-rpm hard drive. So when I read about the Seagate hybrid hard drive, I figured it was an easy way to gain back some of my lost hard drive performance—without shelling out the money required for a large, “real” solid state drive (and giving up some amount of storage space).

As the new drive was also 500GB, I wouldn’t be giving up any size, and because it’s a 7200-rpm drive, I’d be gaining speed even if the solid-state portion of the drive turned out not to help much at all. In short, for $125, it seemed like a relatively inexpensive way to possibly see some nice performance increases.

Of course, the first step in using the new drive was getting it ready to install, then installing it. I first installed the new drive in a FireWire enclosure, then used SuperDuper to clone my existing MacBook Pro’s hard drive to the new drive.

With that done, it was installation time—which meant taking my brand-spanking-new MacBook Pro apart. Thankfully, Apple made this task relatively easy on the new MacBook Pros (and it’s even documented in the owner’s manual). Remove 10 screws from the lower case, a couple of smaller internal parts, pop out the old drive, transfer the mounting brackets to the new drive, reverse the process, and you’re done.

At first boot, the differences weren’t that dramatic. But the nature of the hybrid drive is that its performance improves over time (to a limit, of course) as the drive figures out what bits to keep on the SSD.

As an example, the cold boot time on my old drive was 38 seconds. The first cold boot time on the new drive was about 35 seconds—better, but hardly anything worth noting. As I repeated the cold boot tests, though, the time kept dropping, eventually stabilizing at about 25 seconds (where it remains as of today).

Application launching was similarly improved—the first launch time was reduced a bit, probably due to the faster speed of the drive. The second launch time was much faster, just as it would be on the stock internal drive. But where things differ is on a launch after a reboot, or after running a number of other apps—as long as the solid state drive still holds that app, the launch times are quite fast. If you reboot with a normal drive, all app launches will take their normal “first launch” times.

While there’s no way this drive is as fast as my old ExpressCard SSD, it’s notably faster than the stock drive that came with the machine. Boot times are faster, and as you can see in the SpeedMark results below, all of the drive-related times are much faster. Not bad for a $125 investment. I haven’t noticed any excess heat or reduced battery life either, though I didn’t do any regimented battery life testing.

Sure, some day I’d like to go to a full SSD—but until they drop to the same price per gigabyte as today’s drives, Seagate’s hybrid drive seems like a great compromise.—ROB GRIFFITHS

SpeedMark test results: MacBook Pro with Momentus XT

We wanted to see how the Momentus XT drive would affect overall system performance, so Macworld Lab installed one in a 15-inch 2.66GHz MacBook Pro identical to the one Rob used. Below are the before and after results.

Seagate Momentus XT Speedmark 6.5 scores

Speedmark
6.5
Score
Duplicate
1GB
File
Zip
2GB
folder
Unzip
2GB
folder
Pages
'09
Open
Word
Doc
iTunes
10
AAC to
MP3
15" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core i7
500GB 5400-rpm hard drive
151 29 190 65 80 106
15" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core i7
500GB Seagate Momentus XT
160 23 170 50 74 107

Speedmark 6.5 results are scores; higher scores are better. All other test results in this table are in seconds; lower results are better. Best result in bold.

Seagate Momentus XT Speedmark 6.5 scores

Import movie
archive to
iMovie '09
iMovie '09
Export to
iTunes 10
for iPhone
iPhoto '09 200
JPEG import
Call of
Duty 4
framerate
15" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core i7
500GB 5400-rpm hard drive
86 88 44 62
15" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core i7
500GB Seagate Momentus XT
76 87 37 62

Call of Duty results are scores; higher scores are better. All other test results in this table are in seconds; lower results are better. Best result in bold.

 

Seagate Momentus XT Speedmark 6.5 scores

Photoshop
CS5
HandBrake
0.9.4
CineBench
R11.5 Graphics
CineBench
R11.5 CPU
15" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core i7
500GB 5400-rpm hard drive
58 422 16 160
15" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core i7
500GB Seagate Momentus XT
59 422 16 161

CineBench R11.5 Graphics results are scores; higher scores are better. All other test results in this table are in seconds; lower results are better. Best result in bold.

Seagate Momentus XT Speedmark 6.5 scores

Mathematica-
Mark 7
Parallels
WorldBench
Multitask
test
Aperture 3
import and
process
Multitasking
15" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core i7M
500GB 5400-rpm hard drive
5.8 361 137 77
15" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core i7
500GB Seagate Momentus XT
5.8 360 136 76

MatheMaticaMark 7 results are scores; higher scores are better. All other test results in this table are in seconds; lower results are better. Best result in bold.

How we tested. Speedmark 6.5 scores are relative to those of a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo Mac mini (Mid 2010) with 2GB of RAM, which is assigned a score of 100. All iMacs were tested with OS X 10.6.4. The MacBook Pros were tested with 4GB of RAM. We duplicated a 1GB file, created a Zip archive in the Finder from the two 1GB files and then unzipped it. We converted 135 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. In iMovie ’09, we imported a camera archive and exported it to iTunes using the Mobile Devices setting. We ran a Timedemo at 1024-by-768 with 4X anti-aliasing on in Call of Duty 4. We imported 200 JPEGs into iPhoto ’09. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 23 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. For our multitasking test, we timed the Photoshop test again, but with the iTunes MP3 encoding and file compression tests running in the background. We used Handbrake to encode four chapters from a DVD previously ripped to the hard drive to H.264. We recorded how long it took to render a scene with multiprocessors in Cinebench and ran that application's OpenGL, frames per second test. We ran the Evaluate Notebook test in MathematicaMark 7. We ran the WorldBench 6 multitasking test on a Parallels 6 VM running Windows 7 Professional. We timed the import and processing time for 200 photos in Aperture.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith

We saw a 6 percent increase in Speedmark 6.5, bumping the 15-inch 2.66GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro's score from 151 with the stock drive to 160 with the Seagate Momentus XT drive. The most significant areas that saw improvement were the duplicate, zip, and unzip tests (which improved by 20, 15, and 6 seconds respectively) and the iPhoto 200's test. The iPhoto test results improved by 16 percent. The import movie archive to iMovie test also experienced a significant (but not exemplary) improvement of ten seconds.

Mac mini with Seagate Momentus XT

I bought a 320GB Momentus XT hybrid drive and a SATA enclosure with a FireWire 800 connection to use with my 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Mac Mini. My Mac Mini has 4GB 1067 MHz DDR3 RAM and a standard 320GB hard drive. My intention was to use the Momentus XT drive externally, since I was hesitant about opening my Mac mini and changing the drive. Since the mini has a 5400-rpm internal hard drive, it was clear that even this solution would provide an increase in speed. But given the results I saw with the drive, I took the plunge and installed it internally.

First, I compared the standard Mac mini internal drive with two external setups: an external 7200-rpm drive, and the Momentus XT, and connected both via FireWire 800. Booting took 91 seconds using the internal 5400-rpm drive, 88 seconds with my external 7200-rpm drive, but dropped to just over 60 seconds with the hybrid drive after several reboots. For the Momentus XT, I booted it several times because its adaptive technology is supposed to improve performance over time as the drive “learns” which files you use often.

I also timed the opening of two sets of applications, one of ten big applications, and another of ten smaller ones. My tests gave results of 60 seconds for the 5400-rpm drive, 51 seconds for the 7200-rpm drive, and about 5 seconds for the hybrid drive. The launch times for the first two drives were much faster if all the apps were quit and relaunched in the same session, but the interest of the hybrid drive is that this rapid launch persists across reboots. For the small applications, they all launched on the hybrid drive in about 2 seconds, compared to 5 seconds for the 5400-rpm drive. And what about iTunes? It had always been slow to launch for me, with a library of nearly 60,000 items. From dock-icon-click to iTunes window display is only 4 seconds, compared to nearly 20 seconds with the 5400-rpm drive.

Seeing the positive results of using this hybrid drive even for a couple of hours, I went ahead and installed it in my Mac mini; this is no mean feat, but with good instructions on the Web, I was able to do it without any major difficulties. (Be forewarned: this is not an easy task, and if you’re not comfortable with small, delicate bits of computers, please don’t try this yourself. You can have a computer technician do it for you if you’re really interested in making the switch.)

The differences in performance between the two drives were quite stunning. Startup time dropped to 36 seconds, and application launching is nearly instantaneous for most programs. iTunes took the same 4 seconds it took when attached externally via FireWire, while Microsoft Word opened in 4 seconds as well, compared with around 10 seconds before. I found that applications that launched on the Momentus XT universally were faster than applications launched using the standard Mac mini  hard drive. However, if I launch a big application that I haven’t used recently (that’s not cached in the SSD) launch times are faster than with the stock Mac mini drive, but not as noticeably.

The Momentus XT drive offers a number of areas where it’s faster than a similar drive without the SSD component. The only place I notice this in everyday work is with startup time, application launching, and opening large files that I’ve worked on before. Since the base speed of the drive is faster than the stock Mac mini drive, there is naturally an across-the-board speed improvement for operations that use the disk (copying, zipping and unzipping files, etc.), but I wasn’t able to compare the Momentus XT drive with a standard 7200-rpm drive.

Given the speed increase in application launching, I’ve set up the programs I use most to start up at login, something I hadn’t done in the past because of the big delay in startup. My only criticisms of the Momentus XT is that it runs noisy and hot. With the stock drive, my Mac mini's fan was most often running at the minimum speed of 1500 rpm. Now, with the Momentus XT drive, it runs higher, never getting below about 1650, and often, in normal, non-intensive usage, between 1800 and 1900 rpm (and higher when I do something that hits the CPU a lot).

The noise was quite noticeable when I first tried the drive in an external enclosure, and I can still hear the noise from the Mac mini now that it’s installed internally. Nevertheless, the improvements this drive offers make it well worth what it cost.—KIRK MCELHEARN

[Senior contributor Rob Griffiths is Master of Ceremonies at Many Tricks. Senior contributor Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just Macs on his blog, Kirkville. Twitter: @mcelhearn. Kirk’s latest book is Take Control of iTunes 10: The FAQ.]

Product mentioned in this article

(1 items)

  • Seagate Momentus XT 500GB

    Seagate's Momentus XT hybrid drive delivers zippy performance that falls between a standard hard drive and an SSD, without much added cost.

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