Final Words

For the first time since late 2008, I went back to using a machine where a hard drive was a part of my primary storage - and I didn’t hate it. Apple’s Fusion Drive is probably the best hybrid SSD/HDD solution I’ve ever used, and it didn’t take rocket science to get here. All it took was combining a good SSD controller (Samsung’s PM830), with a large amount of NAND (128GB) and some very aggressive/intelligent software (Apple’s Core Storage LVM). Fusion Drive may not be fundamentally new, but it’s certainly the right way to do hybrid storage if you’re going to do it.

It seems that Fusion Drive is really made for the user who doesn't necessarily have a ton of applications/data, but does have a reasonable sized media collection. For that user, Fusion Drive should be a reasonable approximation of a well managed SSD/HDD setup with your big media files going to the HDD and everything that you launch frequently living on the SSD. I’m always going to ask for a larger cache, but I do believe that 128GB is a good size for most client workloads and usage models today. For me in particular I’d probably need a 256GB cache for Fusion Drive to win me over, but I understand that I’m not necessarily the target market here.

The real question is whether or not it’s worth it. I’m personally a much bigger fan of going all solid state and manually segmenting your large media files onto HDD arrays, but perhaps that’s me being set in my ways (or just me being right, not sure which one). Fusion Drive doesn’t do anything to mitigate the likelihood that a hard drive will likely fail sooner than a good SSD, whereas if you go with an internal SSD and external (Thunderbolt or USB 3.0) HDD RAID array you can control your destiny a bit better. Unfortunately, in situations where Fusion Drive is a choice, you don’t often have that flexibility.

On the iMac, Apple limits your options quite a bit. You can either buy a hard drive or the Fusion Drive on the 21.5-inch model, there’s no standalone SSD option. There the choice is a no-brainer. If you’re not going to buy your own SSD and replace the internal HDD with it (or try to see if OWC’s rMBP SSD fits), then the Fusion Drive is absolutely right choice. You’re paying handsomely for the right ($250 for 128GB of NAND is very 2011), but if you’re not willing to crack open the iMac case this is really the only way to go.

For the 27-inch iMac the decision is similarly difficult. Apple does offer a standalone SSD option, but it’s for a 768GB model that will set you back $1300. All of the sudden that $250 Fusion Drive upgrade sounds a lot more reasonable.

On the Mac mini side the decision is far simpler. The Fusion Drive is only available on the $799 configuration (for $250) but so is a 256GB SSD upgrade for $300. As long as you’re ok with using an external hard drive for mass storage, here I’d go for the big standalone SSD. The usual caveat applies: this  is only true if you’re not interested in cracking open the mini yourself and using a 3rd party SSD.

To make things simpler, I made bold the options I'd choose given Apple's current lineup in the table below. Note that this is still assuming you're not going down the DIY route (if you do go down that path, buy the biggest SSD you can find and rely on some external mass storage for everything else):

Fusion Drive Options
  Mac mini (2012) 21.5-inch iMac (2012) 27-inch iMac (2012)
Base System Cost $799 $1299/$1499 $1799/$1999
1TB Fusion Drive +$250 +$250 +$250
3TB Fusion Drive - - +$400
Largest Standalone SSD 256GB
(+$300)
- 768GB
(+$1300)

I am curious to see how long of a roadmap Fusion Drive has ahead of it. Will NAND get cheap/large enough that even the iMac can move to it exclusively? Or will we end up with systems that have more than enough NAND to easily store everything but large media files for even the most demanding of power users? In less than a year Apple could double the size of the NAND used in Fusion Drive at no real change to cost. I suspect another doubling beyond that would be necessary to really make Fusion Drive a one size fits all, but then we're talking ~2 years out at this point and I don't know how static everyone's usage models will remain over that period of time. Go out even further in time, to the post-NAND era and there are some really revolutionary things that can happen to the memory hierarchy altogether...

Fusion Drive Performance & Practical Limits
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  • thecartman - Thursday, May 16, 2013 - link

    Do you think it is worth upgrading the harddrive to a fusion drive when i use an iMac 27" for homework, browsing and image editing with editing? Reply
  • austoonz - Tuesday, May 28, 2013 - link

    I've been running a Crucial M4 240GB SSD in my 2007 Macbook Pro for years loving the SSD speed. Then in 2011 I purchased a top-of-the-line 27" iMac with only the 1TB HDD with plans to purchase a ThunderBolt SSD to boot from. However, ThunderBolt SSD's still haven't hit a remotely reasonable pricepoint, so I've been running a 120GB SSD in a FW800 case for a year or so now, and even that was SO MUCH FASTER than using the internal HDD, it seems even adding on FW latency it was still massively faster for everyday use, but I got annoying with using symlinks and folders just being a little strange in Finder...

    So I finally got round to changing things... the 128GB boot SSD on the iMac has been moved into the MBP, and the 240GB SSD (from 2008...) was installed inside the iMac and I setup a Fusion Drive with that and the 1TB.

    I'm definitely impressed... storage tiering for the consumer that actually works, and works very, very well. This is exactly what I'm after out of a consumer product, excellent performance for 90%+ of my usage, but still with the capacity for my music and iPhoto libraries, most of which are never seen or accessed.

    Thanks Anand for doing this review though - I really like reading reviews like this showing real-life usage rather than simply benchmarks.
    Reply
  • 9comp - Thursday, May 30, 2013 - link

    Hey I didn't understand the write method.

    When you write 6GB to the array, the first 4gb store on the ssd drive and the left 2gb to sata

    or

    little files 1mg-3.99gb are automatically store to the ssd and bigger files like HD movies (over than 4gb) are automatically store on the sata?!

    Please explain...
    Thanks
    Hagy
    Reply
  • ajcarr - Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - link

    I took my mid-2010 15" Core i7 MacBook Pro and replaced the optical drive with a 750 GB WD Scorpio Black (using an OWC DataDoubler), and the existing HDD with a 256 GB OCZ Vertex Plus R2 (no meed for anything faster: the machine only has SATA 2), and issued the command line incantations needed to create a fusion drive. The performance gain was incredible: in particular, Microsloth Word launched at about the same speed as on my mid-2012 13" MacBook Air. Repeated the operation with a friend's Core i5 MacBook Pro of the same vintage, but with a Seagate HDD this time, still using the OCZ (it was cheap, and 'good enough'), and again there was a huge performance boost. Basically, in both cases, the CPU is more than adequate for anything routine, three years after manufacture, but the fusion drive upgrades have given us perhaps *another* three years of life for our machines. I fully expect to receive flak for using OCZ drives, but after a year, neither of us has seen problems (possibly because I used slow, commodity OCZ devices that were mature). Reply
  • p4madeus - Thursday, September 25, 2014 - link

    I rolled my own Fusion drive in my 2012 2.3ghz quad i7 Mini as well, it only had a 1tb 5400rpm HDD stock in it. I had recently just outright replaced the stock 750gb 7200rpm HD in my 2012 MacBook Pro with a 1tb Samsung EVO (I'll keep the optical drive, for now) so I had this better 7200rpm drive laying around. So I got the kit for the Mini and replaced the stock 1tb 5400rpm drive with the 750gb 7200rpm drive from my MBP and added a 480gb Crucial M550, end result is a 1.22TB fusion drive with a good 16/25 SSD/HDD ratio...it screams...not quite as much as the straight 1tb SSD in my MBP, but is night and day compared to the stock 5400rpm 1tb HDD. Reply

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