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Jumping from HDD to SSD: A cost-effective experiment

16 Dec 2013

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In this issue of Brian's Brain, Dipert discusses his successful upgrade from an HDD to SSD in a refurbished 2010 15" MacBook Pro that runs on Windows 7 and Mac OS X. The transition from a Toshiba 500GB 5400 RPM HDD to the Samsung 500GB 840 Series SSD resulted in faster performance and less instances of rebooting.

At the beginning of the year, when my girlfriend was in the market for a new computer, I successfully persuaded her to purchase a refurbished mid-2010 15" MacBook Pro (specifically a model MC373LL/A). Even though she got it from Small Dog Electronics versus directly from Apple, it was still a candidate for AppleCare warranty extension. Its 2.66GHz Intel Mobile Core i7 64bit "Arrandale" (I7-620M) processor touts two physical cores and 4MBytes of L3 cache, along with both "Turbo Boost" (to 3.33GHz) and "Hyper Threading" support, the latter allowing the system to recognise four total "cores" or "threads" (two real and two virtual). And it supplements the on-CPU (dual-die MCM) Intel graphics with a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 330M GPU, dynamically switching between them as needed to optimise performance versus power consumption (a third-party application called gfxCardStatus enables user control of the process).

Upon receiving the system, I immediately bumped up the memory from 4GB to 8GB, a particularly important upgrade considering she'd be running Windows 7 virtualised "on top" of Mac OS X, using Parallels Desktop. Only one bottleneck remained, and it was a biggie ... the Toshiba 500GB 5400 RPM HDD. Its 3Gbit/s SATA interface might optimise sequential access transfers, but random read and write performance remained fundamentally hampered by its archaic rotating magnetic media nature. I'd long ago transitioned my various laptops from HDDs to SSDs, so I had some idea of what her system was capable of if I eliminated its HDD "boat anchor." But the substantial gap between potential and reality only became clear to her when she more recently added a SSD-based mid-2013 11" MacBook Air to her computing stable. Its CPU and GPU resources were underpowered compared to its MacBook Pro peer, but the MBA still ran rings around the MBP in both Mac OS and virtualised Windows.

Her continued happiness, therefore our continued relationship bliss (ok, maybe I'm exaggerating that last bit), necessitated that I actualise my longstanding promise to transition her older system from HDD to SSD. She was only using a fraction of her existing hard drive's capacity, so I could have gone with a less expensive lower-capacity SSD. But given how cost-effective SSDs have become nowadays, and given that I didn't know how her computing usage might evolve in the future, I decided to select an identical-capacity SSD successor. Specifically, I chose a Samsung 840 Series SSD, the 500GB version of which I've recently seen for as low as $260.

Whereas its 830 Series precursor was based on two-bit-per-cell MLC (multi-level-cell) flash memory technology, Samsung transitioned to three-bit-per-cell TLC (triple-level cell) flash memory for the 840 Series (which has subsequently been replaced by the 840 EVO line, leveraging even smaller-lithography TLC flash memory). Similarly, Samsung's "Pro" line transitioned from SLC (single-level, i.e. one bit-per-cell) flash memory on the 830 to MLC flash memory on the 840. Theoretically, the technology migration might lead to degradation of both reliability and performance, but the former can be handled via controller advancements in combination with spare storage space. As for the latter, keep in mind that we're still comparing against a still-much-slower HDD alternative. And holding three (versus two) bits of data in each storage transistor definitely improves the pricing situation.

Before continuing, I need to explain that while my girlfriend normally runs Windows virtualised, the operating system is actually installed on a NTFS partition created using Apple's Boot Camp utility, thereby giving her the option to natively boot Windows on the system if she wishes (Parallels can utilise both virtual disc images and physical hard drive partitions). Cloning the HFS+/Mac OS partition was simple; I tethered the SSD to the system via an USB2-to-SATA adapter, then ran Shirt Pocket's SuperDuper! to accomplish the mirror (Bombich Software's Carbon Copy Cloner is an alternative that I've also used in the past). A subsequent system boot from the USB2-tethered SSD confirmed that the Mac OS clone was successful.

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