SSD Upgrade: How to get new life out of your mbp

I’d been hearing rumours for ages, mostly from Tom, that an upgrade to an SSD drive was worth its weight in gold.  And this was before the new MacBook Airs came out.  But once I tried one of those and was blown away to see iPhoto launching in a second or two, and everything else with similar speed, I was faced with the difficult decision:
  • do I spend £1500 to get one of these babies
  • do I spend £300 on just the SSD and upgrade my mbp

I guess the choice was pretty obvious.  My machine is around 2 years old* and for the £1500 or so I spent on it, I thought it should last a little longer.

*MacBook Pro (15″ Late 2008), 2.4 GHz, 4GB RAM, Core 2 Duo, 64 bit, 250 GB 7200 rpm SATA) courtesy of MacTracker

Executive summary

If you don’t have time to read the detail all you have to know is that you need to upgrade to an SSD.

  • regular HD: 23.9 secs to load a small Xcode project (using Xcode 4 GM)
  • with SSD: 6.1 secs

I’d like to have tested how much speed improvement was gained just be re-installing OS X but didn’t have the time … Certainly my existing install was 1.5 years old, and it was upgraded to Snow Leopard rather than freshly installed.

Approach

Swapping out your HD is greatly simplified if you use Time Machine and this writeup assumes you do.  The upgrade operation is simple and is described in the following steps, however it’s the caveats which make all the difference.

  1. buy an Intel X25 SSD
  2. get your hands on a Torx screwdriver
  3. create a Time Machine backup of everything that’s important to you
  4. follow the video and instructions and swap out your HD with an SSD
  5. install a fresh version of Snow Leopard
  6. reinstate your important files using Time Machine
  7. sync back your system data with MobileMe

Buy an Intel X25 SSD

Intel seems to have the best SSD on the market for for a mbp, here’s a 160 GB model on Amazon for £300, it will definitely works for late 2008 mbps 15″ and 17″, leave a comment if it works for other models.

Buy a TORX screwdriver

I got mine on Ebay for $5, here are some listings.  You’ll need this to transfer the HD drive mounting screws from the old drive to your new SSD.

Create a Time Machine Backup

This is actually the tricky part.  Some of the larger SSDs available are 160 GB, but the drive you currently have is mostly likely 250 or 500 GB or more.  So you need to be quite picky about what you decide to load onto the new drive.

I basically removed all of ~/Library and /Library but kept my applications because it would take ages to download them all again.  Now this does mean you’ll lose some customisation you’ve setup with your apps, but you shouldn’t lose any data.  There are of course many apps that store important data in ~/Library/Application Support/<app-name>.  You need to take careful care to backup the data you’ll need, and ensure the rest is saved in the cloud.  Here’s a list of what I saved:

  • the whole app support directory for 1password
  • the library for LittleSnapper

Now I should mention I’m a MobileMe subscriber – ie I’m one of the few who was willing to shell out $60/year for over the air synching of contacts, etc.  But the service is invaluable for any kind of multi computer syncing, all my prefs, keychain, mail rules (30+), dashboard and dock items, etc, were saved and easy to migrate.

Follow Video and SSD Install Instructions

Thanks to Robert Hodgen for putting together a video and detailed instructions for installing the Intel X25 SSD.

In the video he uses a 17″ unibody MacBook Pro, around 2008 by my guess, and in fact on 2008 and later mbps it’s easier to install, no need to unscrew the back cover like he does, just pop open the battery cover (this is gone by 2009) and the HD is right there, easy to access.

The one thing that didn’t work for me was installing the firmware, I’d be curious to hear if anyone else gets it working.  The link to the firmware is in the comments, I downloaded the zip which auto-mounts, then right clicked on the disk volume and chose ‘burn to CD’.  But during the bootup process when the new SSD was installed, when I held the option key and inserted the CD it came up as not recognised, after about 20 seconds a question mark graphic appeared on the screen.  Can’t say I’m any worse for wear without the firmware update, but of course maybe the disk would be even faster with it 😉

Reinstate your files with Time Machine

This was another sticking point.

I specifically made sure my entire Time Machine backup was was a lot less than the 160 GB capacity of the new drive, I think it was around 120 GB.  But when I installed Snow Leopard from scratch and followed the option, “reinstate from Time Machine backup” it claimed the new disk was not big enough.

At first I was concerned, but there was a message, “you will also be able to reinstall individual files/folder from Time Machine later”, and in fact this was the case.

After the basics of Snow Leopard completed installing, I got had an option where I could select any of the 4 Time Machine options (roughly, from memory)

  1. all files in your user directory
  2. your applications
  3. your preferences
  4. some extra files

I selected options 1 and 2.  Between that, the data stored on MobileMe and a few folders I manually backed up from the Application Support folder, I was able to fully reinstate my system.

For the curious, most of my ports installed binaries were preserved fine during the upgrade, and they were in the standard dir /opt/local/*.

A few apps died though:

  • Photoshop
  • Microsoft office apps
  • iLife apps
  • iWork apps

They all had to be reinstalled.

Sync back your system data with MobileMe

This was another caveat.  When you hit sync the operation appears to go through all your targets and sync correctly (obviously choose ‘replace local data with MobileMe data), however in practice the data doesn’t seem to update.  The way MobileMe sync appears to work is that there’s a preliminary sync, but the main one only happens when you launch the app you’re syncing too (keychain, address book, etc).  So just launch all these and it should be fine.

Feedback

If you attempt this update let me know how it goes for you.

    5 thoughts on “SSD Upgrade: How to get new life out of your mbp

    1. Hi,

      Yep, ssd makes all the difference. I switched from an mbp to a lower specced macbook air with ssd and doing most of the day to day work I do (xcode, web browsing) it functions noticably faster.

      Glad you like your new ssd 🙂

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