Apple's SSD Strategy

Despite the rumors, the 2011 MacBook Pro lineup does nothing to change the storage setup of the machine. All of the models have a single 2.5" 5400RPM hard drive and an integrated slot-load DVD drive.

I personally don't mind the lack of hard drive options. While 5400RPM is pretty slow, any additional money you spend on storage should go towards an SSD and not a faster mechanical drive. If you need the additional capacity there's always the optibay route, which replaces the optical drive with another 2.5" HDD bay. Other than installing Mac OS X, I pretty much never use the optical drive so the optibay approach in my opinion is a good combination of the performance of an SSD with the mass storage of a mechanical disk.

Apple offers an array of BTO (Build to Order) SSD options, however the drives are likely of average performance. Pricing actually isn't bad for the upgraded 13-inch and especially the upgraded 15-inch models. At $100 for a 128GB drive you really can't beat the upgrade price there. We're probably only one more generation away from seeing a standard SSD on some of these models.

Apple SSD Upgrade Pricing
128GB 256GB 512GB
13-inch 2011 MacBook Pro $250 $650 $1250
13-inch 2011 MacBook Pro (high end) $200 $600 $1200
15-inch 2011 MacBook Pro $200 $600 $1200
15-inch 2011 MacBook Pro (high end) $100 $500 $1100
17-inch 2011 MacBook Pro $100 $500 $1100

In the MacBook Air Apple standardized on a Toshiba controller, delivering performance nearly identical to Kingston's SSDNow V+100. I wouldn't be surprised if Apple used the same controller in the new MacBook Pros. The SSDs are still 3Gbps and will be a huge improvement over the standard hard drive, but just know that you aren't getting the best performance possible. In exchange for the price premium, what you do get is a drive that Apple will support completely (and also official TRIM support, no 3rd party drives have TRIM support under OS X). In the past Apple has had serious compatibility issues with 3rd party SSDs, so there is some merit to the BTO SSD option.

This isn't Mac specific advice, but if you've got a modern Mac notebook I'd highly recommend upgrading to an SSD before you even consider the new MacBook Pro. I've said this countless times in the past but an SSD is the single best upgrade you can do to your computer.

To be honest the new MacBook Pros feel slow to me right out of the box. The issue is that once you have a few applications installed and start multitasking with a notebook that only has a 5400RPM hard drive application response time stops being consistent.

It seems like the more you have installed, the greater the chances are of there being small file random reads/writes going on in the background while you're trying to do other things on your computer. These aren't huge IO operations, but since we're dealing with mechanical storage they significantly reduce the throughput of other IO requests. For example, opening an image in Photoshop will take longer if the sequential read operation is constantly interrupted by several other reads spread out over the platters. The same is true for launching an application. Application launch speed is one area where an SSD really shines. The process of launching an application involves a lot of sequential and seemingly random reads (they aren't totally random but they aren't totally sequential either). On a hard drive the seemingly random operations aren't fast to begin with, but interrupt them with any other IO requests that may be happening in the background (saving files, backing up a disk, launching another application, etc...) and the application you're trying to launch will take significantly longer. In my older SSD articles I called this the "fresh test". When you first get a new computer everything responds quickly and applications just fly open. After a few weeks/months/years the performance stops being so fresh and instead everything seems to take forever. The graph below is one I've used in the past, it simply shoes the performance benefit realized from switching to an SSD when trying to launch a few applications in parallel:

The improvement is staggering. Generally speaking application launch time isn't really impacted by which SSD you get. In my experience pretty much all of the current crop of SSDs on the market will launch single (or even multiple) applications in about the same time. What really separates one SSD from the next are three things:

1) Reliability
2) Performance in periods of unusually heavy IO activity
3) Performance over time

The first one is really difficult to quantify. Reliability is the one area where going with a larger manufacturer typically helps. Intel, Samsung, Toshiba, all of these controller makers sell in large quantities to OEM systems and have significant experience in testing and validation. Reliability is also an area where I would say the Apple SSDs are probably going to be a good bet. They may not be the fastest, but Apple has likely tested them and is comfortable that they will at least work problem-free for a while. Apple also apparently does some firmware tuning of its own to make its SSDs play a bit nicer with OS X.

The second vector of differentiation is worst case (or best case depending on how you look at it) performance under load. This isn't just launching a single application, or even loading multiple, but it's how the drive performs when you're doing a lot at once. Perhaps you're running a backup, installing an application, opening a document, loading a web page, downloading a movie, downloading emails and trying to open another application all at once. In these sorts of situations you will notice a difference between SSD performance.

Performance over time is another important factor to consider. Building a good SSD controller really boils down to knowing how to manage data written to the drive's NAND. To measure performance over time we're really looking at quantifying write amplification and measuring how effective TRIM is at restoring performance.

I try to tackle as much of these items in our SSD reviews as possible, and we're constantly evolving so expect to see even more depth here going forward.

6Gbps SATA 6Gbps Performance & SSD Recommendations
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  • brettski - Thursday, November 10, 2011 - link

    Total NYC sales tax is 8.875%.
    NY state tax is only 4.5%
    Reply
  • brettski - Thursday, November 10, 2011 - link

    i'm sorry... state is 4%, city is 4.5%, plus Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District surcharge of 0.375%= 8.875% sorry... mixed up the city and state rates. Reply
  • gstrickler - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    What are you talking about? Most of us non-gamers don't even need a dedicated GPU, much less 256MB of graphics memory. I'm currently running on a late 2007, 15" MBP which has an 8600M GPU with 128MB of graphics RAM, and I only use it because there is no IGP on this machine. Once you get to the level of the Nvidia 9400M, IGP is plenty for a non-gamer, and even 32MB allocated to graphics RAM is more than adequate. The exception is if you need OpenCL support, since Intel's IGPs don't support OpenCL.

    I wish Apple offered a 13" MPB with a higher resolution (1440x900) matte display or a 15" with AES-NI and without a dGPU. I could use the faster CPU and HT, but I don't really need quad-core (but it's nice to have it available when on AC power), and battery life is far more important to me than a GPU or maximum CPU speed.

    In fact, what I would really like is a 15" with matte display, no dGPU, Core i7-2720QM (for AES-NI support) with the ability to disable 2 cores/4 threads when on battery power. The 2011 15" lets me get close, if I use gfxcardstatus to disable the dGPU. If I can get software to disable 2 cores when on battery, it'll give me everything I'm asking for, but at a fairly hefty premium ($+150 for the matte display, $+400 for the Core i7-2720QM and Radeon 6750M + 1GB that I'll never use). Of course, what that means is that I'll either get the entry level 15" without AES-NI support and use gfcardstatus to disable the dGPU, or I'll wait for the next update and see if the options are any better.

    Notes to Apple:
    1. Make a matte screen an option on all machines, for no more than a $50 premium (no forced upgrade to a higher resolution)
    2. Offer a 15" without a dGPU (e.g. make the dGPU a separate plug-in module)
    3. Offer a 1440x900 screen for the 13" MPB.

    I doubt I'll see any of those, but it doesn't hurt to ask.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    "Most of us non-gamers don't even need a dedicated GPU"

    Most people don't need a truck, that doesn't mean no one does. This is branded as a pro machine, and at nearly 2 grand the GPU doesn't fit the bill.
    Reply
  • alent1234 - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    MAcbooks are thin, long battery life, nice screen and good build quality first. specs second. until sandy bridge came out laptops with long battery life cost just as much as a macbook or more.

    a lot of the people that buy these are mobile pro's who need to use a laptop for hours while away from a power source
    Reply
  • sync216 - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    256MB is fine for the 64xxM series GPUs. The performance improvement going to GDDR5 and a faster GPU is much higher than the improvement from 256 to 512 would have given. For customers who really need the additional graphics performance (and corresponding graphics memory) apple is offering the very fast 6750M with 1GB. Reply
  • Demon-Xanth - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    ...Apple is more like Sony than Acer? Their core buisness is no longer computers, but gadgets. Reply
  • michael2k - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    Um, this was evident in 2001 when the Titanium PowerBook was first unveiled, then the iPod later that year, then the music store in 2004, etc.

    Also, you have it backwards, their core business is computers, they just happen to know how to turn computers into gadgets. They treat the iPod like a computer (firmware updates on a regular basis), which means they aren't disposable. Contrast that to the average phone OEM with Android who won't see updates for longer than 6 months, where Apple pushes updates to their iPhone for over 29 months.
    Reply
  • jameskatt - Friday, May 06, 2011 - link

    Nearly all of Apple's products are computers:

    Mac Pro = desktop expandable computer running OS X
    iMac = all-in-one desktop computer running OS X
    Mac Mini = non-expandable desktop computer running OS X
    MacBook Pro = high end laptop computer running OS X
    MacBook Air = high end netbook computer running OS X
    MacBook = basic laptop computer running OS X
    iPad = tablet computer running OS X
    iPhone = handheld tablet computer with phone running OS X
    iPod Touch = handheld tablet computer running OS X
    AppleTV = multimedia appliance computer running OS X

    OS X has two variations - Mac OS X and iOS. The core operating system is the same for both.

    Apps for both are written using Apple's XCode Development System.
    Reply
  • quiksilvr - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    I'm surprised SSD isn't standard to begin with. $1199 for a 13" laptop and you don't even get dedicated graphics? Seriously? The HDDs aren't even 7200rpm. This is insulting to the nth degree.

    If you want a solidly built, well-spec'd, thin and fairly priced system, get the Envy 14. You get 7200rpm HDD, dedicated graphics, an HD webcam with TWO microphones (necessary for sound cancelling), a backlit keyboard and even Photoshop and Premiere.

    Until Apple drops their prices to a realistic and reasonable level, avoid it completely.
    Reply

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