SSDs (solid-state drives) are much faster than old-school hard drives, making it possible to get a few more years of life out of an old, slow computer by upgrading it to a faster drive. This is written after the following updates:
- Upgrading a 2008 White (pre-Unibody) Macbook 4,1 (Core 2 Duo 2.1GHz 1GB RAM) with a Kingston SSDNow V300 SSD and 4GB RAM
- Upgrading a 2009 (pre-Unibody) Mac mini 3,1 (Core 2 Duo 2.26GHz 4GB RAM) with a Crucial M500 SSD.
- To identify your exact model of Mac, go to EveryMac.com.
First of all: It’s worth it if your Mac is around five or six years old. It makes a big difference in daily use for fairly low cost.
Just one catch: Not all SSDs will always work as fast as you’d want. You need to be careful when choosing your brand, since many Macs built around 2007–2011 come with the buggy Nvidia MCP79 SATA controller. Those Macs will not work with their full 3Gbps link speed with a lot of current SSD’s, instead falling back to 1.5Gbps only. The bad combination might give you other issues as well. Even if you can’t get 6Gbps like modern machines, you’re still much better off with 3Gbps than 1.5Gbps if you have a choice. You can check if you have the MCP79 by going to the upper left hand corner Apple menu, choosing About This Mac, More Info, System Report and the SATA section. Here, you’ll also see the negotiated SATA link speed.
SSD’s that have the Sandforce SF-2281 controller are most problematic, and the SF-2281 happens to be one of the most common ones. In short: Nvidia MCP79 + Sandforce SF-2281 = no good.
The Kingston SSDNow V300 I chose for the White MacBook 4,1 has the SF-2281, but since the MacBook doesn’t have the MCP79 and doesn’t support 3Gbps SATA in the first place, there’s no issue. See EveryMac.com for your machine’s specs. The Kingston is a top-value Sandforce drive.
However, the Mac mini has the Nvidia MCP79 controller, and after extensive googling I found out I couldn’t use the Kingston or other Sandforce SSD’s, at least not at maximum speed. Also, one of the most popular and reliable drives, the Samsung 840, was reported as having compatibility issues as well. This ruled out most SSDs for this machine, including Intels, Samsungs and SanDisks. OCZ was an option since they have a firmware update to fix the SATA 3Gbps issue even on their Sandforce drives, but their reliability record is appalling, so I went with the Crucial M500, regarded as reliable. The M500’s controller is a Marvell, and there were online reports of the M500 functioning full-speed with the Nvidia MCP79 controller. And yes, it works fine at 3Gbps, as you can see from the screenshot above. Installation went without a hitch and the old machine is now almost like a new box.
While you upgrade to an SSD, it’s worthwhile to do a clean install of OS X while you’re at it, instead of cloning your old setup. Install the latest version your machine supports. This, again, can be found on Everymac.com. In my case, the Mac mini went all the way up to OS X Mavericks, while the Macbook got OS X Lion.
The best how-to’s for actually changing the drive can be found in the Videos section of OtherWorldComputing’s site, complete with cheesy “OWC ROCKS!” hard rock soundtracks!
All in all, two successful updates, giving a new lease of life for a couple of old Macs.
[Edit 10 Sept 2015: The Mac mini that got the SSD in January 2014 also got 8GB RAM and Yosemite in summer 2015. On Yosemite, it’s a bit slow under heavy loads, but OK for everyday work, and I still expect to get a year or maybe even two out of it. That said, I wouldn’t pay for upgrades for a Mac that’s more than five, max six years old.]