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The SSD Upgrade: Giving my Mac Mini a kick up the backside

November 24th, 2014

Martin

I was disappointed in my Mac. I’d treated myself to one after a successful contract came to an end, and justified it on the grounds that it would help me fix the Macs of others. And indeed, it’s done that job well!

But the Mac Mini I chose, the standard model, came up short. A little research showed it was built around a laptop-strength processor, and its 4GB RAM is not really up to scratch for modern Operating Systems. Even a doubling of that RAM a few months ago didn’t really lift it enough.

Step forward, the brilliant iFixit website, which is rightly applauded for its upgrade guides for all sorts of tech. As soon as a new phone is out, they’ll pull it apart scientifically, and give it a ‘Repairability’ score. Apple often score poorly on these scores (and are getting worse – compare my 2012 Mini to the 2014 model), but their guide to an SSD upgrade to my Mac Mini looked very doable for an experienced upgrader such as I!

(Also, it couldn’t be worse than my experience de-gluing a MacBook a few years back – 6 wasted hours trying to crack that particular nut).

What is an SSD upgrade? And why is it so fast?

The hard drive you’ve probably got in your PC or laptop acts like a stack of old-timey vinyl records: the disks spin around and a reading arm moves zips back and forth thousands of times a second letting a ‘needle’ read the data.

Photo showing the interior of a hard drive

The internals of a traditional hard drive, showing the actual disks (or ‘platter’) and the head which reads them

When the computer needs a file, the hard drive looks up that file in its own ‘table of contents’, its index, and then spins the disks around to the right place for the ‘needle’. It all happens in the blink of an eye, but these processes soon add up when the computer is booting up in the morning, or defragging, or copying great numbers of files.

A Solid State Disk (SSD) on the other hand, has no moving parts, no spinning disks. It’s made up of silicon chips, a little like the RAM on your computer. That means there’s no ‘looking for data’, no delay while the hardware lines itself up to read the information. The chips which make up the SSD are extremely fast anyway, and the computer has much faster access to information stored on them.

Photo of a solid state disk

The internals of a Solid State Disk (SSD) showing the chips which store your data

I’ve said it before: giving your computer an SSD upgrade is one of the best ways to give it a noticeable speed boost, especially if you’ve already added RAM, and taken advantage of Ship Shape’s Speed Up My PC service.

The SSD Upgrade Kit

The Mac Mini is an amazing thing, really. It’s compact, silent and rather attractive, and runs the same OS X as everything from the Macbook Air to the Mac Pro. Except more slowly.

But one of the odd things about the 2012 Mini is that it came in two models: standard and server. The server comes with two hard drives, but my standard one comes with only one. However, the kicker is that the chassis is the same, and so my Mac has space for an extra drive, while being significantly cheaper than the server version. And with that saved money, we can grab ourselves the necessary parts. I bought the iFixit Mac Mini SSD upgrade kit, and you can choose yourself a decent SSD from the usual outlets (see Recommended Parts, below).

The best thing about the Mini’s spare hard drive space is that we can pick a small SSD if funds are tight, and keep the larger, standard hard disk in place. That way we benefit from the speed offered by an SSD upgrade, while keeping the huge storage space of the standard drive for our documents, photos etc.

Then I got the screwdriver out!

The Process, and cleaning up

For someone like me, this is the fun bit: pulling the computer apart and having a look at its innards. With Macs, this is often a little scary, even for experienced tinkerers, but not so with this Mini. Here’s my Mini under the knife:

(Note that this was a personal project, done in a cosy office rather than the Ship Shape workshop!)

I’ll admit it was a little nerve-wracking pressing the power button when everything was put back together, but thankfully it all worked first time! Except, of course, I was still booting from the original disk, and so not getting the full SSD speed boost.

The final stage was to copy the old hard drive to the SSD, and format it to free up the space. There were a few false starts, but Macs handle these changes more elegantly than Windows PCs, and I was soon back in the familiar desktop, albeit running from the new drive.

The Difference

I’ve done SSD upgrades on other computers in the past, but even I was impressed with the amazing boost this has given the Mac Mini.

The time it takes the Mac Mini to boot up and become usable has always been a problem for me. It’s a good couple of minutes before you can fire up your web browser smoothly, and my 2010 Windows 7 laptop is probably faster. After the upgrade, this Mac is ready to do anything in about 30 seconds.

I’m sure the Mac’s doing some jobs in the background, but another advantage of SSDs is that they can handle several processes at once without them affecting each other. A traditional hard drive, of course, can only put the needle in one place at a time.

Benchmark

Being the geek that I am, I made sure to benchmark the Mac Mini before I started, and repeat those tests after the SSD upgrade was complete. NovaBench is a little program which tests the different parts of the computer and gives them a score, as well as reporting on a few stats. Here’s my before and after reports:

Hard drive benchmark report

Old hard drive

Solid state disk benchmark report

New solid state disk

Note the ‘Drive Write Speed’ in these two pictures.

Of course, numbers are great, but they mean nothing if the experience of using your computer isn’t any different. For me there is a world of difference. My Mac Mini’s gone from a decent, convenient place to play with photos and store music, to a computer that’s a joy to use.

If you’re looking for that extra boost for your PC or Mac, then I’d definitely recommend looking into adding an SSD upgrade. Once you’ve done this, going back to a normal hard drive (like with that 2010 laptop) just isn’t the same!

The Ship Shape Hardware Upgrade Service

Here at Ship Shape, we’re experienced upgraders. We’ve added SSDs to every type of Windows PC, from desktops to compact laptops, and we’ve upgraded RAM, processors and all sorts of other hardware in PCs of every shape and size.

If your computer could benefit from an upgrade (and what kind wouldn’t?), get in touch today for free advice on the best course of action. Excluding parts, a job like this costs just £55 with Ship Shape PC Repair. You might just need our 1-hour Spring Clean service (only £35), but whatever your needs, we can see to them. Give us a call on 0771 254 1126, or find Ship Shape PC Repair on Facebook and Twitter.

Recommended Parts – Solid State Disks

If you’re looking to do this yourself, or want to know your options for SSDs, take a look at these:

Samsung 840 EVO 250GB 2.5 inch Basic SATA Solid State Drive

This is a top-of-the-range SSD, so if you can afford it, go with the Samsung. They’ve got a reputation for quality.

Crucial CT256MX100SSD1 256GB MX100 SATA 2.5 Inch 7mm SSD Includes 9.5mm Spacer

The Crucial SSD is also good quality, but it’s a little cheaper than the Samsung for the same price

Intel SSD 320 Series 40GB 9.5mm 2.5 inch SATA2 Solid State Drive

If you’re on a tight budget, one option you have is to install a very small SSD, and keep all your documents on the original hard drive. You’ll still get the speed boost without breaking the bank. this model is 40GB, compared to the 256GB of the other two.

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