Advice from an Apple Tech: How to replace the optical drive in a Unibody MacBook Pro with a second hard drive

Unibody MacBook Pro with SSD
Photo: Chris Barylick

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Sometime around 2008 and with the advent of the first MacBook Air, Apple made the declarative statement that the end was in sight for optical drives built into its notebooks. At the time, the lack of an optical drive was a unique feature for the company’s new ultralight notebook, and the MacBook and MacBook Pro units of its day still unquestionably arrived with optical drives, but change was in the air.

Now, at the end of 2013, Apple definitely had a point in asserting that the optical drive could be done without—especially when a USB optical drive can now be purchased for under $35—and an incredibly fast and useful second hard drive can be installed in your Unibody MacBook Pro.

This is what this how-to covers:

  • Removing both the optical drive and hard drive in the MacBook Pro;
  • Placing the laptop's hard drive in a bracket and installing it where the optical drive used to be;
  • Installing a new solid-state drive (SSD) in the laptop's hard drive compartment, which makes the SSD as the primary drive.

With that in mind, it’s time to look into swapping out your Unibody MacBook Pro’s optical drive for a speedy hard drive. Here’s a list of items that you will need.

  • SSD Photo: Chris Barylick
    A second 2.5-inch SATA notebook storage device. Choose a drive that works best for you. You can add a second hard drive so you can have more storage space. If you add a SSD, you'll breath new life into your laptop, because the speed and responsiveness of the SSD as the primary drive will help your MacBook Pro's overall speed.
  • 2nd drive unimbp mcebracket Photo: Chris Barylick
    A hard drive enclosure kit specially made to fit the Unibody MacBook Pro. I used MCE Tech’s $29 OptiBay. This enclosure holds the drive that fits into the MacBook Pro’s optical drive slot. Other places where you can buy an enclosure include BrainyTrade, iFixit, MaxUpgrades, NewMode, and OWC.
  • A driver set with a small Phillips head screwdriver as well as a Torx 6 driver.

Before you proceed, back up your data. Not only is it always good to back up your data before doing a hardware upgrade, you can use the backup to set up your new primary storage device.

Step 1: Open the laptop

Removing screws from a Unibody MacBook Pro Photo: Chris Barylick

Place your Unibody MacBook Pro on a soft, static-free surface. Turn the MacBook Pro upside down and discharge any static from your body by touching a piece of metal and begin removing the screws, keeping them organized as you go.

Step 2: Disconnect the battery

Open Unibody MacBook Pro Photo: Chris Barylick

Remove the bottom plate, put it to the side and disconnect the battery before you proceed.

Step 3: Disconnect other items

Unibody MacBook Pro drive cables Photo: Chris Barylick

Disconnect the optical drive cable, camera cable and the cables hooked into the AirPort/Bluetooth bracket around the top left hand side of the computer. Remove the screws holding the AirPort/Bluetooth bracket into place, then remove the AirPort/Bluetooth bracket itself, then disconnect the right speaker/subwoofer cable from the logic board before disconnecting the hard drive and optical drive cables from the logic board.

Step 4: Remove the optical drive

Unibody MacBook Pro optical drive Photo: Chris Barylick

Once the cables and the AirPort/Bluetooth bracket are removed, you can easily access the three screws holding the optical drive in place.

Gently lift the optical drive out of the MacBook Pro’s case, then be sure to disconnect the optical drive cable, two small black Phillips head screws and the small metal mounting bracket from the optical drive. Transfer these parts over to the new drive enclosure.

Step 5: Remove the hard drive

Removing a hard drive from a Uniboday MacBook pro Photo: Chris Barylick

To swap your current hard drive, remove the two Phillips screws holding down the hard drive bracket, carefully lift the hard drive out of the MacBook Pro case, disconnect the hard drive cable and use your Torx 6 driver to remove the screws from the sides of the hard drive.

Step 6: Install the drives

Unibody MacBook Pro hard drive bracket Photo: Chris Barylick

Insert the hard drive that came with your laptop into the enclosure you bought, then place the enclosure into the MacBook Pro’s optical drive slot and replace the optical drive’s three screws.

Unibody MacBook Pro with SSD Photo: Chris Barylick

Once the enclosure is in place, swap the hard drive screws over to your new storage device, attach the hard drive cable, insert the new drive into place and replace the hard drive bracket.

Step 7: Put everything back into place

Go through the previous steps, reinserting the hard drive, optical drive and AirPort/Bluetooth cables back into their slots on the logic board. Reinstall the camera and right speaker/subwoofer cables, put the AirPort/Bluetooth bracket back together and reinsert the screws you removed before reconnecting the battery and putting the MacBook Pro’s back plate back on and replacing the screws to complete the upgrade.

Step 8: A new start

Finally, boot your MacBook Pro. It will still boot from the old hard drive, but when Finder launches, it should offer to initialize your brand new hard drive if you haven’t formatted it or cloned your data to it already. You can also boot into recovery mode by holding down Command-R at startup, then you go through the steps to set up the new drive. Or you use Time Machine to restore your system to the new drive.

Granted, you may miss your optical drive on occasions when someone hands you a CD or DVD and you have to find an external USB unit, but when your MacBook Pro is now running off a faster hard drive and has a robust second drive to save large projects to, it’s hard to look back.

While this is a fairly substantial number of steps to follow, remember that iFixit has a complete set of MacBook Pro repair guides available for viewing and download. Always take your time, especially if you’re unsure about a step.

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