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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  • tipoo - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    Its a shame that their base 15 inch, a 2000 dollar laptop, has a 256MB card by default. Even for non-gamers, that's starting to become a bottleneck. Especailly as this "pro" machine will make it into the hands of creative professionals, doing video work, rendering, mudbox, etc.

    Interesting about the performance differences in the HD3000 and 320M under Windows vs OSX.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    p.s whats an SNB GPU? Is that a typo? SB, perhaps? Reply
  • Brian Klug - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    When we say that, we're just referring to the Sandy Bridge (SNB) GPU. Essentially it's shorthand for the Intel HD Graphics 3000.

    -Brian
    Reply
  • IntelUser2000 - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    The official short form for Sandy Bridge is SNB, not SB. SB is South Bridge. Reply
  • dcollins - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    For some reason Sandy Bridge is alway abbreviated as SNB. It took me a while to figure out. Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    The baseline 15" MBP is $1800, not $2000.

    In any case, it is an unusual update. Usually the performance delta between MBPs hasn't been so extreme. The last generation had a common GPU between all 15" models, the main difference being video RAM. Now they have completely different GPUs, one being REALLY fast and the other not much better than the one that was in the models from last year.
    Reply
  • saleem.kh - Sunday, March 13, 2011 - link

    Dear, please consider approximately 9.5% US Sales Tax on $1,799. Then total price reaches to $2,000 approx Reply
  • PeteH - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    There is no such thing as US Sales Tax, only state and local sales taxes. State rates range from a low of 0% to a high of 8.25% (I don't happen to know the range of local sales taxes). Adding 9.5% to the price of a computer seems completely arbitrary. Reply
  • turtle44 - Thursday, June 02, 2011 - link

    sales tax in NY,NY is 11% don't say what you don't know. Reply
  • sfdiesel - Monday, July 25, 2011 - link

    Sales tax in Portland, OR is 0%. So, adding 9.5% to the price of a computer does seem completely arbitrary.

    Do say what you don't know.
    Reply

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