On Equipment: How I Supercharged My MacBook Pro

This past fall has brought a lot of change to my life on almost every front. After making the big switch to a self-employeed freelance lifestyle I knew something had to give with my computer setup. I have had several versions of the iMac since the main task I had for it was photo editing and I liked the bigger screen of the iMac. The problem with the iMac is that I am effectively chained to my desk. Now I like my office, but there are times (more than you think) where a change of scenery can give you a boost in productivity or perspective. So with the move to self-employment I had to go mobile. Enter my new unibody MacBook Pro. I didn’t mind the move to a 15″ screen as much as I thought I would. Although I did pickup an Apple Cinema Display for serious photo editing work. I find I use both options, depending on my mood. It is nice to have the choice.

So what is “Supercharging” Anyways?

The stock hard drive in a MacBook Pro is fairly fast and robust, offering a good balance between storage size, disk read/write speed, and power consumption. One could also add noise/vibration to that list since you don’t really notice the stock 5400RPM drives making any noise or vibration. Almost any device can be “modified” to improve from its native performance. Look at the aftermarket automobile industry. In the computer world this is where stores like NCIX thrive selling the newest fastest part to all the computer geek type folks out there looking for that extra edge in performance. It also marks a bit of a divide in the Mac vs PC debate since most Mac’s (with the exception of the Mac Pro) don’t really have that many parts that can be modified. The iPhone, iPad, iPod can’t really be modified at all.

So what can be modified on a MacBook Pro (or iMac for that matter) to affect performance? You can change the hard drive, the RAM, and the operating system. That may not seem like much, but you may be surprised at the results of making a change to these components.
My beloved MacBook Pro
NOTE: For those techy types whose knowledge eclipses mine, this is not written for you. It is meant more as an introduction for those with a little less knowledge, but a lot of curiosity.

Step One, The Operating System

Apple has been quite aggressive in updating its operating system. I have been using a Mac since 2007 and this summer they are projected to release their fourth major upgrade (version) of the OS. Provided your hardware is somewhat current, each OS upgrade makes your existing hardware and software run faster (in my experience). To top that off, the last upgrade from 10.5.8 (Leopard) to 10.6 (Snow Leopard) cost only $29! That was the best value upgrade I have ever done. But it doesn’t stop there. OS X 10.6 is Apple’s first fully 64-bit operating system (Windows 7, released shortly after is the first real 64-bit OS for Windows that actually works, I am not including Vista on purpose) . Without going down that rabbit hole, think of it this way. We have been using the world of 32-bit computing for a long time. All of the hardware released in the past several years is capable of performing its tasks at 64-bit, but is limited by the older operating systems that only ran at 32-bit. This is somewhat like having a nicely paved four lane highway, except all the traffic is limited to the inner lanes by traffic cones preventing the use of the outside lanes. So installing the new OS is somewhat like removing the traffic cones and getting to use the new lanes for the first time.

Except for those running on OS X 10.6 its not quite that simple. In OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard), only parts of the system are automatically setup to run in 64-bit mode. Apple chose to leave all of the user applications running in 32-bit mode in case there were complications. The core of the system runs in 64-bit, just not the apps (basically). This is like turning the outside lanes into HOV lanes instead of for general traffic. So we are half way there, then. So what if you want to try you whole system at 64-bits? Keep reading.

  1. Find out if your system can be booted into 64-bit mode. This will involve a little foray into geek land with system app called Terminal. Copy and paste this command (highlighted in orange) into the prompt and it will tell you if your system “EFI” is 32 bit or 64 bit.    ioreg -l -p IODeviceTree | grep firmware-abi In my case it returned the answer “firmware-abi” = <“EFI64”>, so I am good to go for trying 64 bit operation. If your hardware is newer than mid 2008, give or take, you probably don’t need to check this.
  2. Try booting your system into 64-bit mode by holding dow the keys “6” and “4” at the same time right after your system makes the chimey noise. I hold them down until I see the grey Apple on the screen. Not sure if you need to hold them that long, that’s just how I do it. The next time you boot your system it will revert to 32-bit mode unless you hold 6 & 4 down again. This allows you to test your system and apps and make sure everything works dandy before committing to a more permanent solution. In my experience doing this, I was able to notice a difference between both modes with more system intensive tasks (photo editing, for example). Do this until you are comfortable or willing to try the next step.
  3. Before starting the next step make a backup of your system with Time Machine or Carbon Copy Cloner or Superduper, just in case things get messed up.
  4. Open up Terminal again and enter the following command (copy and paste):     sudo systemsetup -setkernelbootarchitecture x86_64 ,this will tell your system at startup to always boot into 64-bit mode.

There, one step done and your system is already faster.

Step Two, Memory

Most systems today come standard with 4GB of RAM, which is honestly plenty for most applications. The current limit for a MacBook Pro is 8GB. You will want to think about increasing the amount of memory in your system for two main reasons.

  1. You use system demanding apps on a regular basis such as Aperture/Lightroom/Photoshop, video processing/converting apps, or gaming apps (not meant to be an exhaustive list). These kinds of apps will use every resource at their disposal, especially RAM. In this case more is GOOD. If you browse the web, write Pages documents, etc. you probably stopped reading this a while ago don’t need to think about this unless…
  2. You use a system that is a few years old. If you do you may really want to max out the amount of RAM in your system. The maximum is most likely 2GB or 4GB in that case. Increasing the amount of system memory to its maximum will have  an impact on performance, even in a web browser.

Swapping out or upgrading system memory is actually quite easy on a Mac. If you are unsure check out the awesome guides at iFixit.com, or ask one of your geeky friends (I somewhat unfortunately fall in that category for a growing amount of friends/family….). Your system is cruising now, ready for the big one!

Step Three: The Hard Drive

The processor and memory in your computer do an unfathomable amount of math calculations every second. Each new system does it exponentially faster than its predecessor. So what is holding things up? The answer lies with your hard drive. Traditional mobile hard drives run in speeds from 4200RPM to 5400RPM to 7200RPM. In a simple sense, the faster the speed, the faster it can read and write data. In testing one of my hard drives I found its read/write speed to be in the range of 65MB/s (a 7200RPM drive). Which is not too bad, but leaves a lot of room for improvements. What is changing the computer world right now is a new kind of drive call a Solid State Drive, or SSD for short. I tested the SSD that I am using in the 265MB/s range for read/write. Now that is the kind of performance increase I am talking about!!

Making the best use of a conventional hard drive:

  1. Consider changing from your (most likely) 5400RPM drive to a 7200RPM drive. This will give you a small edge in performance. The downsides include the potential for more vibration/noise than what you are replacing.
  2. Consider changing to the Seagate Momentus XT. It has 4GB of SSD memory and a conventional spinning hard drive. It uses its own internal software to recognize commonly used files and loads them onto the SSD portion. The result after it “learns” your system is very noticeable. I have installed one of these drives in my wife’s MacBook, thanks to a generous donation from my friend @humandoing. The result was dramatic! The system startup and app startup times are quite fast. For a 3 year old laptop it really motors!

If you are still reading, then you may be brave enough to try converting to SSD. If you need more convincing look no further than the new MacBook Air. It doesn’t have an internal hard drive in favour of an SSD. I have seen videos of those little machines running Photoshop without flinching. Considering that the processor, graphics processor and entire system is designed for power efficiency, not raw processing power, the end result speaks volumes about the benefits of Solid State Memory. Now here is where things get interesting. I have a 500GB drive in my stock laptop. To buy the same size in an SSD would cost THOUSANDS of dollars. Not an option for right now. Eventually these prices will come down. That means that a compromise has to be made somewhere.

  1. Keep system the same. Benefit: I get to keep 500GB of storage. Drawback: Slower. Want more speed.
  2. Remove 500GB drive and replace with SSD I can afford. Benefit: I get SSD speed and some storage. Drawback: I will have to leave a lot of files at home, or have to access them via a slower interface (USB, Firewire).
  3. Remove DVD Drive and replace with existing 500GB drive. Benefit: SSD can be smaller=cheaper since it only needs to hold the OS and apps AND I still get 500GB of onboard file storage. Drawback: Lose the ability to use internal DVD drive. DVD drive can still be accessed as a peripheral device.

After some thought I chose option 3. Other than installing the odd piece of software from a DVD, I rarely use it. In my case it was  good trade-off. Look again at the MacBook Air. It does not come with a DVD drive at all. In my case I do not miss it at all. If I really want to use it I can access it as an external device. I think a lot of people are expecting Apple to do this when they redesign the MacBook Pro lineup sometime in the spring of 2012. Apple has a history of early adoption of technology (Thunderbolt, USB, SSD), and for cutting support to technologies before the general population really wants (5.25″ & 3.5″ Floppy drives).

SSD Conversion Options

Your really get a good/better/best options when considering this kind of upgrade. Here is the summary:

  1. Good: Make your own interface cable and mount it in place using bubble gum tape and tension. This solution comes by way of some true geekery and splicing of wires and some electrical tape. You need enough of a skill level with wiring, but the end goal is to get the SATA plug on the back of the hard drive to attach to the port where the DVD plugged in. The extra wire keeps the HD “secure” when the bottom case is put back on. This solution gets the job done, but isn’t pretty. Benefit: VERY inexpensive. Drawback: Requires some knowledge of wiring, requires tension for wires and some faith/luck that it will stay in place.
  2. Better: Buy a DVD drive shaped caddy with built in SATA connectors and spot for HD to slot in (example). Buy an external DVD enclosure for later use via USB connection (example). Benefit: Fairly low cost option. Installs well and easily. Drawback: Confusing to find in the first place. I honestly wouldn’t have even known where to look before I knew more about this kind of mod. Without some knowledge or experience you are left guessing and ordering parts online.
  3. Best: MCE Optibay. MCE Tech offers a complete system (link), and a helpful site to choose the correct parts for your project. They also include a piece of software that allows the external drive to play DVD (movies) properly. Without it your system does not recognize the DVD. Very easy to install, less than 10 minutes total. Benefits: Complete package, easy install. Drawbacks: Most expensive option, doesn’t ship with a bezel for the front of the external DVD drive (what’s that about?).

For my system I chose the MCE Optibay system. I ended up doing it the same time as my friend @humandoing, so we saved a bit on shipping by ordering two. If I were to do it a second time, I would go with option #2, since I know enough about the process to browse through computer parts sites and find what I need. I am glad I did choose the Optibay to start with, because other choices were just to daunting at the time. Now I look back and am calling myself a wuss, but whatever.

The result? 64-bit OS X Snow Leopard, CHECK! 8GB of system Memory, CHECK! 100GB SSD (named Lightning) and a 500GB 7200RPM second drive, CHECK! Does this list of upgrades improve processing speeds for image editing, you bet. Did it help me write this post any faster….nope.

UPDATE::: (July 2012)

If I were doing this again (and probably will with my next MBP purchase as I don’t expect to go with the Retina Display Macbook Pro yet), the other option would be going with the Data Doubler kit by OWC (Other World Computing). Also the price of the MCE Optibay has come down quite a bit, to much more of a reasonable rate.

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