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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  • SmCaudata - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    Edit: I meant ASUS Laptop. Reply
  • JimmyJimmington - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    Do people really buy 17 inch laptops? I could never justify spending that much money on something I can't even take to school. Might as well build an amazing desktop... And then use the leftover money to buy a great laptop... Reply
  • The0ne - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    Not many of us would shell out $2500 for one but many of us would for 1/3 the price with similar if not better specs. Reply
  • damianrobertjones - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    Can we have a roundup of the following machines

    Dell
    Toshiba
    HP
    etc
    etc

    That would make everything fair.
    Reply
  • Zak - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    Not everyone can afford an SSD, SSDs offered by Apple as BTO are crap and overpriced, and a fast 7200rpm HD does make a difference.

    Z.
    Reply
  • Zak - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    " Apple figures someone who wants such a big machine will probably have some fast external storage to connect to it..." And still no SATA? BTW, the screen on the 17" is indeed amazing.

    Z.
    Reply
  • mschira - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    I like the logic you draw with the heavy load test.
    So that all makes sense.
    Some other thing:
    Did you check battery time on a Hackintosh?
    Like an Acer Timeline get's up to 7 hours on Win7, what can it get when we make it a Hackintosh?
    M.
    Reply
  • CharonPDX - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    You compare the 17" to an HP and a Dell, which are both monsters. (But, they are nearly 1/3 the price, for noticeably more CPU power.)

    You compare the 13" to a Dell that is slightly larger. (Compare to the HP Envy 13; then you'll get a definitive Apple win, as the HP costs more than a 13" MBP.)

    But you don't do the obvious comparison: 15" MacBook Pro to HP Envy 15.

    I think the MacBook Pro would lose out instantly in this comparison. It is what the 15" MacBook Pro *SHOULD* be right now.

    For the 17"? You dismiss the Dell and HP as being too big. Yet they both cost less than $1200. And HP offers an identically-sized model that throws in a 1080 screen and Blu-ray player for $1300. For that matter, you can completely max out the HP's specs (fastest mobile Core i7, 8 GB RAM, dual 500 GB hard drives, Blu-ray writer, etc,) before it becomes more expensive than the MacBook Pro. (And then, by only $50.) I'm sorry, but it's not worth the massive loss in features (or $1000, if you take the 'stock' 1080/Blu-ray HP,) to save 1.1 lbs.
    Reply
  • ChuckyP83 - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    I think you are missing the point of the article. Comparing a one piece aluminum vault of a laptop to a flimsy, plasticky, lowest-cost-built Dell (or HP or whoever) just doesn't work just on specs buddy. Nobody knows how to build a laptop as solidly as Apple. That is a fact you CANNOT argue (I think Apple patented their manufacturing technique). Apples don't compete on price and specs because the ways they surpass the average PC competition aren't easily quantifiable. Not sure why I am even replying to this guy.... Reply
  • The0ne - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    That is subjective. I have many dell laptops and they aren't cheap. I have my 17" with me as a backpack hiking weight in China and it still works afterward. Granted the Macbook quality might be a bit better but when people like you said it in your way you make it out as though Dell or HP has horrible quality build, that the laptop wouldn't last being carrying around, that a drop would kill it, etc. Unless you don't know how to lug around a laptop the build quality is the least of your concern.

    The bottom line is that most of us are fine with the build quality of Dell, HPs, Acer, etc. But some people don't mind spending A LOT more to have nicer metal pieces and looks. Seriously in the end what would you prefer, function or style?

    You're too much of a Apple fanboy. Thank God no one builds laptop, or in more general terms hardware, like Apple. I won't even go into the details of their greatness here. Their hardware is not perfect as you know. Knowing this and claiming no one does it better than they do is fan-boyish.

    Apple doesn't have a patent on manufacturing techniques. If they did it would be a very specific process that is not covered by countless generations of manufacturing processes. They could, like Intel, put a freeze on the process to prevent any changes. But this has severe advantages and disadvantages.

    "Apples don't compete on price and specs because the ways they surpass the average PC competition aren't easily quantifiable. Not sure why I am even replying to this guy.... "

    Who else besides me thinks these sentences is a load of BS? Please respond to this user if you do. Apple don't compete in price and spec because lets see...they are the only ones selling them and thus can dictate the prices? They surpass the average PC competition so they can do whatever they want because the user wouldn't be able to quantify the reasons? O.o

    To be honest, I'm not even sure why I'M responding to your post. It's so lame, riddled with false facts it's not even funny. Urgh.
    Reply

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