Difficulties abound when upgrading a 2011 iMac's hard drive

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Apple’s latest iMac models have a lot of things going for them. Unfortunately, easy upgradability is not on that list.

Upgrading an iMac has always been a challenge, but with these 2011 models, there's another hurdle besides the intimidating glass and LCD panel removal that awaits those who are brave enough to open one up.

If you’ve never been under the hood of the aluminum iMac, let me tell you that it’s not for the casual user. Here’s a quick rundown of the steps involved. I used a toolkit and instructions from iFixit.

iMac teardown

Suction cups are recommended for removing the glass screen cover, which is held in place by strong magnets. Once the suction cups are in place, it doesn’t take much to lift the glass off.

A Torx wrench is required to remove the eight screws holding the LCD panel in place.

You need to use something like a bent paper clip to start lifting the LCD off. At this point, don't rush to lift the LCD up completely—you risk damaging the connected cables. Slowly lift the LCD, enough to reach in and detach the four cables that connect to both the motherboard and the back of the display.

After the cables are detached, you can lift the LCD completely and remove the display. Finally, you have access to the hard drive and other internal components.

When reassembling the iMac, make sure to avoid getting fingerprints and dust on the glass screen cover or the LCD itself.

Hard drive upgrade issues

Not intimidated by taking apart your iMac? Still interested in do-it-yourself hard drive upgrades to the iMac? Well, last week peripherals maker OWC discovered an issue with the 2011 iMacs that might finally dampen your enthusiasm.

According to OWC, Apple made changes to the boot drives in the 2011 iMacs. The drives have new firmware that has a different way of tracking the drive’s temperature. Without this firmware, the iMac knows that there’s a drive, but doesn’t know how hot it might be. As a precaution, the iMac then cranks its internal fans to run full-bore—6000 rpm, which creates a hard-to-ignore roar. We contacted Apple for confirmation and a comment about this, but we haven’t yet heard from the company.

We went through the teardown process detailed above to access the hard drive and replace the standard 1TB Seagate Barracuda drive with our own 2GB Seagate Barracude drive. When we booted the iMac with the newly installed (and non-Apple provided) Seagate drive, the fans did indeed start running loudly.

HDD Fan Control

HDD Fan Control is a $10 application that installs as a preference pane to allow you to adjust the speed of the internal fan and to set temperature thresholds. We used this software to control the fan. By default, HDD Fan Control sets the speed of the fan to 1000 rpm, which is much quieter than the 6000 rpm that the fan spins at without the utility.

To get the iMac working so I could observe the fan, I used HandBrake to convert a DVD file that was ripped to the hard drive. HDD Fan Control sped up the fan to keep the temperature down.

As reported by OWC, the iMac with a drive you’ve installed yourself will not pass the Apple Hardware Test that is bundled with new Macs. (It’s on the applications disc.) Failing the test may not be a big deal, since we know why it’s failing, but the AHT is frequently used by Apple certified repair folks. Failure of the AHT could mean that issues usually covered under the system’s warranty may no longer be covered.

OWC says that shorting out two leads on the drive connector can solve the Apple Hardware Test failure issue, but that’s a step farther than we were willing to go. There is also a report that a hardware component has been developed that provides the needed hard drive temperature information to the motherboard.

Apple Hardware Test

The vast majority of Mac owners turn to Apple for simple, pre-configured systems that they can set up and use without worrying about such things as shorting out pins, third-party fan utilities, or suction cups. These users are much more likely to connect an external USB, FireWire, or (soon) Thunderbolt drive if they need extra storage space.

But what if your hard drive fails after the warranty period expires? On this model, your options are much more limited. When the hard drive fails, you're going to be faced with making a painful upgrade or—more likely— shelling out the money for a new Mac while junking the old one.

[James Galbraith is Macworld’s lab director.]

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At a Glance
  • Apple iMac (Mid 2011) family

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