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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  • marraco - Sunday, November 15, 2009 - link

    Each mac is obsolete, offer lots less functionality, are MUCH slower, have the worst screens, sound, video, processor. have problems or plain incompatibility with most hardware, and 99% of useful software don't run on macs (no, once you run them on virtualized windows, you have all, and each problem of windows, -wich need too buy for extra money)-, and runs too much slower.

    also, macs are much harder to use, once you try to do something not basic, or find a problem (and macs are crammed with problems), the only way to solve it, is to open a text screen, and hand write LOTS of cryptycal commands.

    you go to support, and they start forcing you to sign a contract agreeing to pay to apple U$S 100 or support, EVEN UNDER FIRST DAY GUARANTEE.
    Then you find that those "genius bar dudes" are completely clueless...
    Reply
  • robco - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    I just upgraded to the midrange 2.66GHz 15" model. I agree that it is the sweet spot for portability and usability. I had gotten used to the 13" display on my MacBook, but the added screen real estate is nice and the weight increase is minor. The brightness provided by the LED backlight is great. The battery life is incredible, especially when using the 9400M. The build quality so far has been excellent. I can see why Apple hasn't "upgraded" the GPU yet, the 260M seems like little more than a rebranded 9600M. But it works for the few games I play on my computer these days. It does get awfully hot when using the 9600M under load.

    I considered switching back to a Windows machine, but couldn't find anything that was as thin and light as the MBP, or match the build quality. Those that came close tended to be higher end machines and the cost savings dropped considerably. Having brought my MacBook in to the Apple Store for service, I can say that the service is quite good.

    I tried to wait for Arrandale, but couldn't hold out. I may not have the fastest notebook available, but it's fast enough for my needs.
    Reply
  • SteveMinne - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    First release of Snow Leopard nicked battery life about 40% off Leopard. Instand huge downgrade. Rounds and rounds of Apple and third party updates now have that down below 20% heading toward 15%.
    Your 10% testing is solid. It's just still too optimistic for this social media driven world.
    The apps I have on all the time are TweetDeck (Adobe Air), Entourage, and Firefox (and by extension Flash). I run 10-15 add'l apps on and off through each day. It's these main three that hit the cpu much harder at times than when on Leopard. I have no time to isolate testing as you have but have watched them in Activity Monitor.
    Should also mention I switched to 32 bit Safari months ago. So I'm reporting increased power consumption based on third party apps sitting on Snow Leopard.
    Finally, I am also finally coming around to liking Snow Leopard. I've advised dozens of folks to wait and most have. Your real world experience and mine have saved a lot of folks early adoption pain.
    Keep up the good work.
    Reply
  • GeorgeH - Tuesday, November 10, 2009 - link

    "I used IE8 and Windows Media Player 11 in Windows 7 while I used Safari/iTunes in OS X. The results I got were both expected and quite revealing."

    Absolutely expected, but thanks for redoing the test with IE and WMP anyway.
    Reply
  • sigmatau - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    Ya, very biased test. Run Windows 7 on a Mac to get benchmarks instead of running it on a PC. Good one! Reply
  • GeorgeH - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    My comment was in reference to an earlier article where Windows battery life was measured using Safari+iTunes, nothing more.

    For the record, there was absolutely nothing biased about this test - a Mac IS a PC, just one with a different BIOS.
    Reply
  • sigmatau - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    Um yes it was biased. Running anything Windows on a Mac and taking benchmarks for that and comparing it to native Apple software is biased. Windows runs slower on a Mac. Apple does everything within its power to make MS products look bad. Just look at their iTunes for Windows, complete crap compared to the version that runs on Macs. Reply
  • darwinosx - Tuesday, November 10, 2009 - link

    Really good article but I'm surprised be a few of the comments. Mostly about Flash. It's well known that Flash for the Mac sucks. But thats an Adobe issue not an Apple issue. If Flash is acting up for you then uninstall it first using Adobes uninstaller. then reinstall. Don't install over the exiting version. Not all hardware is the same as your generic PC. The motherboard isn't. It is designed by Apple and IBM engineers. Same with the battery and its controller. For generic PC parts Apple has much higher and more stringent quality control standards than Dell or HP etc. So you are much less likely to get a bad part or own that does not perform to spec. If you do have an issue then Apples support is head and shoulders above everyone else. No one else is even close in customer satisfaction. Regarding SSD's it snot like some PC's don't have issues with various makes. I'm using a Crucial 256MB SSD in my 15-inch MBP, 2.8ghz, 512MB 9600GT. Runs very well. I've had just about everything at one time or another during my 20 years in IT and this laptop is way above the pack in every category. A lot of companies these days are offering the option of Macs and every IT Architect I know of has jumped at the chance. We value quality, performance, support and stability as well as the great multi-tasking and efficient use of proc and large amounts of ram that only OS X and Linux/Unix provide. Not like that warmed over version of Windows with all the same old issues. The trackpad is incredibly useful. PC companies are starting to put larger trackpads on their laptops but nothing like what Apple has. As far as prices go you don't have to pay retail. I have a work issued MBP and my own as well. I saved about $400 buying mine over the internet instead of in a store. I had to laugh seeing prices comparison with a Dell 1555. What a cheap hunk of plastic junk. I can't tell you how many work issued Dell's have died on me over the years. About 5 or 6 years ago I had three brand new Dell laptops, top of the line business models, die on me in a single year. 3 brand new laptops croaked in one year. No wonder I have seen so many companies dump Dell and buy HP business laptops. I do like the HP W series laptops and Thinkpads are decent although not as well made with the same material quality as they once were. But I don't see anything keeping me from sticking with macs for a long time to come. The quad cores should be out soon. With 8 GB of ram and quad core you will be able to run multiple VM's as well as OS X making MBP's the most versatile laptop you can buy today. Reply
  • marraco - Sunday, November 15, 2009 - link

    ...and the sound of those macs are awful. really crap hardware.

    you play am mp3, and half of the instruments don't sound. those cheap speakers cannot reproduce half the frequencies.
    Reply
  • Griswold - Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - link

    Thats alot of bullshit in this wall of text. Dont they teach you apple fanboys how to structure a post?

    Especially the QA part on the off-the-shelf PC parts. If their QA was so great, how come they didnt avoid that shitstorm with nvidia IGPs? And thats not the only example.
    Reply

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