Add an ExpressCard solid state drive to some MacBook Pros

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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.

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