Upgrading Your MacBook Pro with a Solid State Drive

Version 10
Last Modified: Aug 12, 2014 10:38 AM

(Note: while some portions of this user tip can be used when installing a new hard drive in your MacBook Pro, it is intended only for those upgrading to a SSD.)


There are, with most MacBook Pros (exclusive of the Retina display models) only two modifications that you can make without voiding your Apple warranty or AppleCare extended warranty – upgrading the RAM and upgrading the drive in the hard drive bay. If you’ve already upgraded your RAM and simply want more speed, you may want to consider upgrading your old hard drive with a SSD (Solid State Drive). Many people come to the MacBook Pro forum asking about SSD upgrades, so this user tip is applicable to those, primarily, who have already made the decision to upgrade. Note that I only recommend using a SSD in 2009 and later MacBook Pros with a 3.0Gbps to 6.0Gbps interface speed – and I recommend buying a 6.0Gbps SSD regardless of the fact that models with a SATA II interface won’t be able to use the full-negotiated speed of 6.0Gbps. Why? Because you may want to upgrade your Mac sometime in the future… although you'd likely be upgrading to a Retina model these days. But you may still want to use the SSD in an enclosure or in another machine.


Before you buy…

Before you purchase a SSD, there are a few questions that you need to ask:


What capacity do you need?

It’s just my opinion, but the bigger the better. Now you may want to install a 120-128GB SSD and simply use it as a boot device and as a place to store your most frequently used applications. This is certainly the least expensive approach. But most people will want to store much more than that on an internal drive save, perhaps, for large iTunes libraries and large photo/movie libraries. There are numerous advantages to a larger drive, however. If you do photo or video editing, the SSD makes a super-fast scratch/working drive for individual projects. You can always store your hefty data on an external drive, of course, but for working projects I recommend using your fast internal SSD. Currently, SSDs come in basically three usable sizes: 120-128GB, 240-256GB and 480-512GB. But Crucial is now shipping a 960GB M500 drive that sells for under $600. So decide, first, how much storage you can actually utilize before making any buying decisions. And Samsung now has a 1 Terabyte EVO drive - priced at about $800+ but which can be found for under $650. Decisions, decisions! See here for an excellent review of the Samsung 840 EVO 1TB drive. Crucial also has two high-capacity SSDs - the older 960GB M500 and the recently released 1 Terabyte M550, which sports faster speeds than the M500 series but is still available at a reasonable price. I would recommend any of these three drives, now, for those wanting the higher capacity. See a review of the M550 series here.


Which drive should I buy?

Unfortunately, there are no Consumer Reports articles out for SSDs on MacBook Pros. There is, however, a very good “information and buyers guide” website - Sean’s SSD Buyer’s Guide and Information Thread. It’s chock-full of information about how SSDs work, what technology individual manufacturers employ, and includes not only a ‘buyer’s guide’ but an almost endless thread containing users experiences. Beware, though, as it is primarily geared towards Windows users. Still, that shouldn’t stop you from reading much of the information there. One thing that I always look for in an SSD, too, is the “Mac-friendliness” of the drive – e.g., can the firmware be upgraded using a Mac or must it be upgraded on a Windows machine? Unfortunately, the majority of SSDs fall in the latter category. That, alone, may not be a showstopper for you in determining which brand of SSD to purchase, but it should at least give you pause.


Getting everything in place…

Before you begin your MacBook Pro surgery, here is a checklist of things you should have on hand:

  • SSD of choice
  • Enclosure for external drive (can be found at Amazon or OWC, prices range from $8-20, usually, for a USB 2.0 kit will all cables)
  • Toolkit that includes a Phillips #00 screwdriver, a Torx T6 screwdriver, and, possibly, a spudger – I recommend this kit - http://eshop.macsales.com/item/NewerTech/TOOLKIT11/ - from OWC
  • Carbon Copy Cloner (we’ll get into how to use this in a moment)


Start the process…

There are two ways to go about getting the data from your old drive to your SSD. The first is to install the SSD into your enclosure and make your clone before installing the SSD. The second is simply to install the SSD into your hard drive bay and your old hard drive into your enclosure and boot from the enclosure. No one way is better than the other. We’ll examine both ways here:

Install the SSD into your USB enclosure and plug it up. Use Disk Utility (Applications>Utilities folder) to format the SSD, erasing it and formatting as “Mac OS Extended (Journaled)” with a single GUID partition. Then use Carbon Copy Cloner to clone your hard drive to the SSD. If you are running Lion or Mountain Lion, choose the option to copy the Recovery Partition to the SSD. After the clone is complete, restart your computer whilst holding down the option key and select the SSD as the boot drive. You’ll know in a few seconds if your clone was successful.

Alternately, you can just go ahead and install your SSD into your MacBook Pro (endless number of DIY videos online – see OWC’s Installation Videos - http://eshop.macsales.com/installvideos/) and put your hard drive into the USB enclosure and boot from it. Then just boot from the enclosed drive and use Disk Utility to format the SSD and clone the contents of your hard drive onto your SSD as noted above.

Either method should work just fine. Be sure to visit the OWC video installation page, or the numerous videos on YouTube, about installing the drive into your MacBook Pro.


You’re almost finished…

Now that you have your cloned SSD in your hard drive bay, you should be able to hold down the option key and boot from the SSD. The first thing you’ll want to do is to go to System Preferences>Startup Disk and select your new SSD as your startup drive.

I would also recommend using Trim Enabler to enable TRIM on your new SSD. Not sure what TRIM does? See this Wikipedia article - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRIM. Note that with every .1 upgrade to OS X you will have to enable TRIM once again. I just make it a habit when I update my system. Some may ask of TRIM is necessary these days since most SSDs use proprietary garbage collection. I can only say that I still enable TRIM just in case... and Apple's SSDs utilize TRIM as well.


Up and running…

You should be up and running now, enjoying the many benefits of a SSD – particularly speed. You shouldn’t have any problems if you’ve followed these instructions.

The only problem that some people have run into, in my experience, has been with a faulty SATA cable (affecting 2009 models more than any other). If you’re having problems such a ‘beachballing,’ slow speeds, etc., look at replacing your SATA cable first – it’s the most likely culprit. You’ll also want to make certain that you stay up to date with SSD firmware updates – these cannot only eliminate ‘bugs’ in the firmware, but may also make your SSD operate more efficiently.


Retina model?

The newest MacBook Pros, of course - the Retina models - already come with a SSD installed. Until recently, though, you really couldn't upgrade your flash storage. Now, on certain models, you can upgrade the flash storage (although you'll void your warranty if you crack the case, so buyer beware). Both Other World Computing and Transcend produce flash storage modules so that you can upgrade your storage to up to 1 terabyte. Note that both the OWC and the Transcend modules will only work with 'older' Retina models or MacBook Pro Airs - not the newer models that have a PCIe interface. Still, having these options available is more than you could have hoped for previously. Will there ever be PCIe based flash storage available? Only time will tell. Not much else to say about Retina models.

Final note…

I do not recommend placing your SSD into the optical bay of your MacBook Pro – your start-up drive is meant to be in the hard drive bay and that’s where you want to install your SSD. Installing another SSD or a hard drive into your optical bay is beyond the scope of this user tip. And also note that this tip covers only one method – my preferred method – for getting your data to your SSD.