Ugh, SSDs in the MacBook Pro

Last summer I posted my MacBook Pro review and I soon started hearing complaints about the SATA interface only running at 1.5Gbps speeds and not 3.0Gbps. The SATA 3Gbps standard has been around since 2004/2005 and the NVIDIA chipset Apple uses in the unibody MacBook Pro supports 3Gbps mode.

To understand why Apple limited the machines to 1.5Gbps I first went to NVIDIA to see if they made a custom version of the GeForce 9400M chipset without SATA 3Gbps support. Apple's partners are always nervous about talking, so NVIDIA's response was carefully worded:

"[The] GeForce 9400M offers complete support for SATA Gen2. You need to ask Apple if you have any questions specific to their systems."

In other words, the chipset supports it, Apple did something funny with its systems to break support for it.

Apple eventually released a firmware update to enable SATA 3Gbps support, but the update carried a strange warning from Apple:

About MacBook Pro EFI Firmware Update 1.7

MacBook Pro EFI Firmware Update 1.7 addresses an issue reported by a small number of customers using drives based on the SATA 3Gbps specification with the June 2009 MacBook Pro. While this update allows drives to use transfer rates greater than 1.5Gbps, Apple has not qualified or offered these drives for Mac notebooks and their use is unsupported

Apple's official statement is that 3Gbps SATA drives aren't supported? What? This is 2009 right?

Now the performance difference between 3Gbps and 1.5Gbps SATA operating modes isn't noticeable in real world usage. You need an SSD to consistently saturate 1.5Gbps SATA and even then, it is only in sequential reads. In fact, it's not the performance loss of going down to 1.5Gbps SATA that I care about. It's the next problem.

This is an OCZ Agility SSD, it's based on the Indilinx Barefoot controller. With the 1.5Gbps version of the unibody MacBook Pro firmware (EFI v1.6) this drive doesn't work properly. Given enough disk activity and the machine will freeze, requiring a hard reset (hold down the power switch for a few seconds). I know because I put one in my 15-inch MacBook Pro.


OCZ's Agility. A great drive, it just doesn't work in a 2009 unibody MacBook Pro under OS X.

Updating the MacBook Pro to EFI 1.7, thus enabling 3Gbps operation, makes it even worse. You can't even reliably install OS X half the time.

This is a SuperTalent UltraDrive GX, another Indilinx Barefoot based SSD:

It, too, doesn't work in the unibody MacBook Pro. Once more, I know because I tried it in my own personal system. In fact, the only non-Apple supplied SSD I could get to work in the system without constant crashes was Intel's 80GB X25-M G2 (I didn't try the G1 or the 160GB G2).

I asked Apple what was going on and the only response I got was that the drives I was using weren't supported. These drives work perfectly in my testbeds and in other notebooks and my Nehalem Mac Pro, but not in my unibody 15-inch MacBook Pro.

I've been a staunch advocate of Apple's hardware and software for years now, but this is a dangerous precedent that Apple is setting. The point of standard specifications is so that end users can buy any component adhering to the spec knowing that it will work in any system implementing the spec. This isn't an OS X incompatibility, this isn't even an Apple incompatibility, this is a specific issue between certain SSDs and the 2009 unibody MacBook Pros. Instead of admitting to that and committing the resources to fixing it, Apple is making the mistake of stating that non-Apple hardware isn't supported. These are storage devices, the only things that you absolutely didn't have to have an Apple logo on in order to guarantee operation.

Note that this wouldn't even be an issue in the first place if Apple offered halfway-decent SSD options on its systems.

If it were an Indilinx problem, why not work with Indilinx to fix it? There's a definite incompatibility but I'm willing to bet it is related to whatever kept Apple from enabling 3Gbps on these machines from the start. Some have speculated that the custom SATA cable Apple runs from the motherboard to the drive bay is to blame. It's the only explanation given that these problems only happened in the 2nd generation unibody MacBook Pro systems.

It's unacceptable and I'm guessing the next version of the MacBook Pro will magically fix all of the problems.

Update: I've received at least one report of the latest Indilinx firmware fixing the issues outlined above. I tested with the latest firmware in both of the examples I used, but there's been some theorizing that the problems are related to the chipset/motherboard which would explain the variance between systems. At the same time I've received additional reports of Indilinx drives not working from other users so unfortunately it appears that there's no complete solution to the problem at this time. The recent report of it working shows that there may at least be hope if you get the right combination of drive and MacBook Pro.

In case you're wondering, Apple's recently released OS X "Performance Update" that was designed to address drive stuttering issues does nothing for SSDs - it was simply intended to fix issues with mechanical drives. I confirmed this with Apple.

Unfortunately that leaves users with very few options. You could either buy the overpriced SSDs directly from Apple, or give the third party versions a try (presumably OCZ's Summit and Corsair's Performance series use a similar enough controller that they should work). I've been using the X25-M G2 in my 15-inch MBP for a little over a week now and haven't had any issues with the EFI 1.7 update. You could stick with a hard drive but anyone who has gone down the SSD route knows that's not a good option. Or just wait and hope Apple fixes it with the Nehalem update next year.

If you haven't heard, I'm a bit coo-coo for SSDs, because the performance improvement you can get from a good SSD is just awesome:

15-inch MacBook Pro 250GB HDD 80GB Intel X25-M G2 SSD
Time to Launch 15 Applications Sequentially 40.7 seconds 16.0 seconds

 

Application launch time is reduced significantly, in general everything opens like it was just in memory. CPU intensive tasks don't see an improvement but day to day usage is where you'll notice it the most. And that's where it's most valuable honestly.

Just Pick Your Screen Incredible Battery Life Under OS X
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  • Baron Fel - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    Why didnt you mention the 15" HP Envy? It beats the MBP in everything but battery life... Reply
  • solipsism - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    There is a distinct difference in these machines. For starters, these MBPS have been out many months and won’t be getting an update until after the holidays. If your focus is solely on a Clarksdale quad-core processor.

    Note that it doesn’t beat the nearly half-a-year old 15” MBP in a lot of areas. It’s nearly 10% thicker, only has a 6-cell battery, while not having an optical drive. I hope that the MBPs come without an optical drive in favour of the OS being installed on a SD Card, but Apple isn’t HP with dozens of machines with the same display size. Apple still runs like a boutique shop so when they commit to removing the optical drive to run a Core i7 quad-core it’ll be for all their 15” notebooks.
    Reply
  • far327 - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    Apple equals proprietary gayness!! Design is great. Quality is stellar, but Apple is GAY!!! Reply
  • aapocketz - Thursday, November 12, 2009 - link

    I like apples line of laptops, they seem quite well built, though I don't really see a huge benefit of unibody design, I think my ancient ibm laptop is just as nice. I don't really love the glossy screens either. Overall they are nice.

    apple has some impressive engineering and decent innovation capabilities but their closed and protected platform and general company philosophy is disturbing to someone who relies on and enjoys the openness of hardware and software platforms.

    Consider apple disabling support for Atom cpus in the newest OS updates, ostensibly to prevent homebrewers from using the OS on their own hardware like netbooks. Man I certainly don't love Microsoft, but we would be way worse off if Apple dominated the market. I am fine with them as long as they only want that single bite of the apple though.

    I like choice and flexibility, and apple computers tightly integrated platform may be a good choice, as long as its not my only choice.
    Reply
  • robco - Thursday, November 12, 2009 - link

    You have to see on in person to understand why the unibody design has benefits. While still being less than an inch thin, the MacBooks are incredibly rigid. Little flex at all. They feel rock solid. I do agree that the ThinkPads are nice and solid too. If I hadn't gotten a MBP, a ThinkPad was my second choice. You can now custom order the 15 and 17" models with a matte display.

    I find OS X to be a nice compromise. I like Linux, but it's not always easy to find good software. A lot of FOSS runs under OS X. There's also virtualization to run Linux alongside OS X. A friend who does web development loves the fact that he can run Office, Eclipse, Apache, Tomcat and MySQL all on the same machine easily.

    As for dominating the market, I don't think that's Apple's goal - unlike Microsoft. Apple seems pretty happy with their market segment overall. They're raking in a lot of money.

    I like my Mac and it's a solid machine. That being said, I'm hardly a fanboy. There are certain circumstances where people should get a Windows machine. As far as Atom support, Apple never supported Atom in the first place, I don't see why they should be expected to provide it or continue providing it. AFAIK, OS X uses some of the optimizations in the Core and Core 2 Duo chips that aren't present in the Atom.
    Reply
  • setzer - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    Okay, this is just a supposition because I don't have an actual macbook to test, but I would bet the reason OSx provides so much better battery values is because Apple is running the cpus at a much lower voltage than the defaults, ie, what is here: http://www.thinkwiki.org/wiki/Pentium_M_undervolti...">http://www.thinkwiki.org/wiki/Pentium_M_undervolti...

    this does make a difference in battery longevity and by default windows doesn't undervolt processors.
    Reply
  • blufire - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    I believe it may have more to do with napping and shutting down components more frequently/aggressively.. Reply
  • araczynski - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    the macs are starting to smell like pc's now, incompatibilities all over the place. Reply
  • damianrobertjones - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    ...so you'd think that with less hardware to code for, that they'd get it right! Reply
  • tuskers - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    At the Mac coverage at this time and place. As a long-time reader of Anandtech, this feels completely out of place from "coverage" and more non-topical than anything I've ever read here, before. We've seen the Macbook Pro reviews already.

    My guess is that this has to do with one (or more) of three things:
    - Anand has turned into the "Mac person" who needs to justify his fanboi-ism.
    - There's too little tech news in the holiday season, so this is a classic "fluff" piece, that was easy to write.
    - Apple paid the site to publish said fluff piece.

    Regardless, journalistically, this is one of the worst pieces I've seen here.
    - Failure to analyze the market from a "competitors to Apple" sense. Dell and HP's "representatives" aren't competing with Apple with their mainstream products; instead, they're competing against each other. They're competing on low price to justify expenses with corporations. Most corporations don't care if a laptop is slightly thicker. Instead, pick laptops that are trying to out-Apple Apple, like the Envy or Adamo; Asus and MSI also offer intriguing competition and increasing market shares. Rather than looking at it as "Apple is a mainstream computer maker with 15% of the market", realize that the more true statement is "Apple is dominant in a high-priced niche market which doesn't focus on computing power, here is how it compares to other products competing for that market."
    - Exaggeration of differences. The highlighted weight of the 15" MBP is within rounding error of the compared model! And in marketing specs instead of actual product weights, no less.
    - Focusing on the battery so much without mentioning that other laptop brands only have to pack a replacement battery to achieve longer battery life. Yes, maintenance is a little more difficult, but you aren't making an honest comparison given that the unibody Macs discarded this functionality.
    - A token "please get SSDs to work properly!" plea, without research. Does the "Mac Edition" OCZ Vertex work or not? It's true that OCZ has admitted it as marketing hype, but the least you could do is expose it. You even go so far as to say that some people might be happy to know that random combinations might work-- because people have SSDs lying around.
    - I'm amazed a commenter put together the "Flash is 32-bit, so of course it runs slowly talking to 64-bit Safari" before Anand did.
    - Blanket statements without truth to them. For instance, the claim that 1920x1200 screen in the 17" is not "bigger than anything else on the market". You simply need to select an Alienware model at Dell's site (a competitive price range for the MBP 17", no less). And then, Anand complains that the pixels are too dense-- a common complaint, which is why Dell offers more 1080p screens instead. I own an Inspiron with a 1920x1200 screen that I bought several years ago. They aren't an Apple monopoly because Apple's the only one that can do it. This whole scenario is worse than simple marketing hype.

    I'll leave it there, I'm sure I could find more though. I expect better from this site, Anand!
    Reply

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