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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  • kamsar - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Reliability-wise isn't Fusion Drive basically RAID 0? If it's doing block level migrations and one drive dies there's nothing left.

    Sure hope you've got time machine on... ;)
    Reply
  • pgp - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Yes, technically I think it's more similar to a JBOD configuration, but the reliability should be the same...
    IMHO Fusion Drive is good for noobs, but I'd rather choose which files should be stored in the flash drive and which ones in the mechanical drive, know about the free space in each disk, so I'd prefer a 128GB SSD and, separately, a 1TB hard disk to a 1.1TB Fusion Drive.
    Reply
  • TrackSmart - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    I think drive configurations like this are really needed. Maybe not for you and I, but for 99.5% of people. Even people who aren't really "noobs".

    As an example, I purchased a 120GB SSD for a family member who is reasonably good with computers. It breathed new life into a 3 year old computer and was really noticed and appreciated. One year later, the whole thing was a disaster! There are documents, music, videos, etc all over the place. Usually 2 or 3 copies of the same files on both the SSD and the hard drive. Both nearly full. It took several hours to fix the mess.

    Bottom line: Most people can't, aren't willing, or aren't well-organized enough to keep files segregated between drives. Even people who you probably think would be able to handle it by virtue of being reasonably computer literate.
    Reply
  • kmmatney - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    I agree. I'm currently all SSD in my work laptop, but going the manual hybrid route in my home computer. Although I'm pretty organized, it is a pain to mov stuff around manually between the drives. For 2 of my kids computers, I just went with Seagate Momentus XT drives, and they've been great. Not as good as SSD, but a fraction of the cost. Reply
  • ToniCipriani - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Multiple copies could be easily avoided, actually.

    On my RAID-0 SSD + 1TB hard drive configuration, I installed Windows 7 in a way that all the profile folders (Users and ProgramData) existed on the hard drive by default, and created NTFS junctions on the SSD to redirect any old software. I never even needed to open the C Drive anymore, and all files and desktop settings reside on the hard drive automatically.

    For older machines XP should support junctions as well.

    Now filling up the drive, that's a different story. And let me guess, the browser got filled up with toolbars too?
    Reply
  • Zink - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Fusion drive is even easier to use than that though and it speeds up all of your programs and files as well as it can with the SSD size given. With a setup like that there are always going to be things on the HDD that get used regularly and they will never see a boost from the SSD. There is the upside of better reliability but outside that boosting 120GB or 240GB of the most accessed files seems even better than permanent segregation. Reply
  • dananski - Saturday, January 19, 2013 - link

    I have manual HD/SSD combinations in my desktop and laptop, have done the same for three PCs I've built for family and have similar setup for nearly every workstation at work. It seems that some users are naturally much better than others at handling their file storage, but I think it's invaluable for people to get good at organising the data systematically and consciously rather than to leave it up to an algorithm that might not have the same priorities.

    I don't like the sounds of every file being written to my SSD then moved to the HDD - I'd get through write cycles for no good reason whenever copying a file to that hybrid drive, and if my HDD doesn't have redundancy I'd feel safer with my important docs on the SSD, even if they're not deemed worthy of the speed boost.
    Reply
  • seapeople - Sunday, January 20, 2013 - link

    Couldn't you just put the "Pictures", "Music", and "Videos" libraries on the hard drive and keep the documents and everything else on the solid state drive? Seems to me like that would work for 99% of people and not require any user thought... So you have a video, you save it in the "Videos" location, etc, and these files would see very little difference being on the HDD vs SSD. Reply
  • Wolfpup - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Yeah, me too. Like my shows from my Tivo are obviously GIGAAAANTIC and don't NEED to have fast access to them. Ditto (even more so) for any music or iTunes stuff. It's not like it's THAT hard to figure out what to put where, but yeah, the average person unfortunately would probably be clueless about it. Reply
  • KitsuneKnight - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    It's not so hard if you can get away with just moving your music/videos/images to the HDD. It's much harder if the data you work with is absolutely massive, though.

    One artist I know has a SSD as their boot drive, and 3 HDDs. The PSDs they work with are absolutely massive, and they produce a huge number of them. Working with them on the SSD is far better than the HDDs, but even loading them on that is a bit on the slow side (as opposed to the multi-minute loads from an HDD). But, they have far too many to fit on the SSD.

    So they have the PSDs spread over the 4 drives, filling most of them up, having to manually shuffle them around. Something like Fusion Drive would work far better, as it would be doing exactly what she's doing, just without the manual effort to constantly move old files off the SSD (resulting in multiple hierarchies). The older PSDs would be migrated to the HDDs automatically. And if she starts working on an old set again, they could be promoted back to the SSD... with no user effort.

    And isn't that the point of computers? To make us do less work? It seems a lot of people want to do the jobs of a computer for them. While I'd prefer Fusion Drive to let you pin/hint files to certain drives, I'd say in most cases a 2 drive set up doesn't actually provide real world benefit over an intelligent (which I'm assuming Fusion Drive is) tiering system, even for most power users.
    Reply

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