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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  • philipma1957 - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    I purchased a mid range mini a Qaud 2.3 with just a 1tb hdd. I added a samsung 830 512gb ssd as the second drive. If you put the ssd in with no format and boot with an external drive you then go to disk utility the internal ssd and internal hdd are highlighted in red. The disk utility sees it as a broken fusion answer yes to fix it and in under a minute you have a 1.5tb fusion. then do an internet recovery to load mountain lion and you have a standalone mac mini with a killer 1.5tb fusion. Everything you mention in your tests(about the ssd being taxed) is less true basically because the ssd is huge and in a 1 to 2 ratio with the hdd. This is the closest I have come to a 1.5 tb ssd.

    I copied a 500gb eyetv folder with 30 18gb recordings easy peasy. So if you have a 2012 or even a 2011 mac mini and mountain lion just add a big ssd and fusion away.
    Reply
  • hypopraxia - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    I am with you on this one. Fusion drive with a higher SSD to HDD ratio nets huge gains in snappiness and overall SSD-ness of the fusion drive. I have only encountered IO slowdown once or maybe twice in the 2 months I've been running with Fusion. Reply
  • MaxComrie - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Love my job, since I've been bringing in $5600… I sit at home, music playing while I work in front of my new iMac that I got now that I'm making it online(Click on menu Home)
    http://goo.gl/xeJPd
    Reply
  • Samus - Saturday, January 19, 2013 - link

    ^^ SPAM ^^ Reply
  • Munkyman42 - Tuesday, March 05, 2013 - link

    eeep!

    I wonder if this'll work on my 2010 Mac Mini Server. If I can squeeze another year or two or performance with even a 64GB SSD upgrade my wallet would be thrilled!
    Reply
  • Mr_SkoT_A - Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - link

    I have done it on a late 2008 Unibody Macbook and an original Mini Server. Works like a charm! Reply
  • Hughmungalous - Friday, August 30, 2013 - link

    I DID IT on a late 2008 macbbok ;-P 250GB Samsung 840 with a WD Blue 640GB HDD its been in a fusion for about 3 months now and runs beautifully... its basically a media server for me and my wife and it never slacks on its duties!!! its snappy switching profiles and logging in and out... wifey uses safari and flash games and what not and i never hear her complain anymore about her slack windows computer... i use it for heavy downloading light gaming and media server. Mr_SkoT_A Just installed i did the fusion setup which was fairly easy, except i used a specific number and got a 860GB drive instead of using a "100%" value to create the (correct amount) 890GB drive so i have 30GB of my drive in fusion limbo right now... all in all i love it the samsung drive was a smart buy i would love to hear from someone who runs with like a 60gb SSD and a 1TB HDD would be nice to know how much money i could have saved Reply
  • techdaddy1 - Wednesday, May 29, 2013 - link

    Hello...can you please clarify regarding booking from an external drive? So you're saying you just installed a ssd you purchased into the machine in addition to the HDD that it came with and disk utility automatically created the fusion? did you need any extra parts to install the ssd? Anything you could tell me would be appreciated. I just purchased the Quad 2.3 Mini as well. Thank you for your time :-) Reply
  • niccopernicus - Sunday, November 03, 2013 - link

    I just had my original iMac (recent (not the newest) model with a 2.93 GHz Core i7, now running Mavericks) hard drive replaced with a larger one. I had a 512 SSD installed at the same time, which was formatted and ready to use when i got it back. Is there a way to do the manuver you describe above with Disk Utility now that has already been formatted? Reply
  • hypopraxia - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    So, after I read up on core storage, I rolled a fusion drive in my 2011 macbook pro 13", using a 240GB SSD (sand force controller) and the stock 320GB HDD. (I removed the optical drive. Stupid optical drive...) It honestly feels like a 550GB SSD. Then again, My ratio of SSD to HDD is 3:4, so as always, YMMV. Reply

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