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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  • ImSpartacus - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    Apple doesn't do something unless they can do it 100%.

    They won't default to SSDs until they are on the logic board like the MBA. We'll probably see the disk drive go at the same time.

    Maybe Apple will continue to use hard drives for storage? That might be the reason we are still seeing 5400rpm drives. Apple doesn't want to upgrade everyone to 7200rpm drives only to have 5400rpm drives the next year, even only for storage.

    But who knows?
    Reply
  • Tros - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    I imagine they'd go for the MBA-SSD and the larger platter-based storage, and just partition. But to do that smoothly, they need a better partitioning system (to keep it user friendly); ZFS. Reply
  • Nentor - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    Apple doesn't do something unless they can do it grand (or make it seem grand).

    Why put in SSD standard if they are still a luxury? As long as the average pc user is not fully aware of what SSD are and what are the great benefits you can still demand premium for them as an upgrade for people that do want one.

    Just watch, when SSD are becoming the standard Apple will put put them in and market the hell out of it and make it fit the whole Apple image.
    Reply
  • dsumanik - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    Dude, if your hdd is integrated into your mobo... Not only do have the disadvantage of not being able to upgrade to faster/larger capacity drives...

    If the disk fails you need to replace the whole board - $$$
    If something on the board fails, you lose all your data - facepalm
    Apple dictates the price of of the hdd, even when it's a yer old - $$$

    A simple, 2 screw user replaceable hdd is the elegant solution and always will be.

    Wake up peeps...

    They aren't supporting other drives because they want to sell you outdated technology at a higher price.... End of story.
    Reply
  • JasperJanssen - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    Dude, do you even have a vague clue what you are talking about?

    The MBA doesn't have an SSD soldered onto the mainboard, it has it on a standardised daughter card. And by standardised I don't mean standardised by Apple, although to be fair Apple is the main supplier of machines using it at the moment. It's a card not unlike minipci(e), and entirely swappable from one machine to a replacement. Also, Apple isn't the only one supplying these drives.

    It's entirely possible that other thing&light manufacturers will start using them, as it's a very useful form factor.
    Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    There is no dedicated GPU in the 13" MBP because there isn't room for it. Look at other notebooks in the same size and price class such as the Lenovo x220. Same situation, integrated GPU only. An dedicated GPU means bigger motherboard, which defeats the purpose of notebooks that are so small. Reply
  • Wieland - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    Sandy Bridge laptops haven't been on the market very long. It's way too early to make a conclusion about what is and isn't possible in terms of size. That said, the Sony Vaio S is basically the exact same size, lower weight, lower price, and offers almost as much battery life, and it is configurable with two different versions of AMD Radeon Graphics (6470M, 6630M). The new Vaio Z will probably be even more impressive in this regard. Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    The 13" MacBook Pro is a constant 0.95" thickness. The Vaio S ranges from 1.08" - 1.24" thick, a 14% to 31% difference. So the 13" MacBook Pro has significantly decreased internal volume which will definitely constrain how you lay out internal components and the thermal room on the machine impacting whether it's worthwhile to put in a discrete GPU. Reply
  • claytontullos - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    Have you dealt with HP's tech support? It's like pulling teeth to get anything done.

    My ram in my Dv4 was bad, it would randomly cause windows to crash both in Vista and Windows 7. My ram failed memtest86 with over 4 million errors after a few minutes of testing... however my ram would pass HP's 5 second ram test with flying colors.

    HP's support first insisted I revert my laptop back to Vista and in any event would not service my laptop because the ram passed their "test."

    I will never buy another HP product.
    Reply
  • quiksilvr - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    I won't judge a race based on the actions of few. At the same time, I won't judge a company just because one of their products didn't work that well for me. That's like saying I bought a 4 pack of Duracells and one of the batteries weren't working so now I buy Energizer.

    And to be fair, it isn't like HP made the RAM. If you were getting random crashes, you obviously didn't do anything and are clearly under warranty. Simply say "I turned it on and it keeps crashing" and they'll say "Okay here send it back" and 9/10 they will pay for shipping (depending on where you got it from).

    Now I'm not an HP fanboy (far from it, I own a Lenovo), but prior to that I owned a zd8000 for about 5 years with no problems. Does that mean that HP is utterly flawless and no one makes a product like them? No. But I know quality when I see one and I stand by what I said: The Envy 14 is probably one of the best laptops you can get. Hell, it's only $999 and it blows the MBP out of the park.
    Reply

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