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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  • edlee - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    I get the cached solution for fusion. But I would rather just handle the usage myself and have os and applications on SSD and all media on a Raid array.

    SSD for life.
    Reply
  • Death666Angel - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    It looks better than I thought. I'm still not going to use it myself (Windows/Linux user here and I have no trouble managing more than one partition). But it seems better than the usual Windows caching solutions. Still, the non-technical people I know don't need more than a few hundred GB of space on their PC and no one has more than one HDD in their PC anyway. So the easiest way for them (which is what I always recommend) is to have a 256GB SSD and an external 1 to 3TB drive. All their work is on the SSD with daily/weekly backups and photos are on their external HDD (none of those people use the PC to view movies). Reply
  • tipoo - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    If you write a huge file, it all gets written to the SSD up to 117GB. But that SSD is filled with other stuff. Won't it be limited by the speed it transfers the old things to the hard drive? How does that work if the files aren't mirrored? Reply
  • name99 - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Read the damn article before posting. ALL those questions are answered there. Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Apple still lists the 3TB Fusion drive as incompatible with Boot Camp "at this time". Presumably this is due to how Apple is doing the BIOS emulation with EFI 1.10 and running into the 2.2TB drive size limit. Have you heard any methods to get 3TB Fusion working with Boot Camp or heard whether Apple has a solution in the works? Reply
  • tipoo - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Just curious, I think that's how Readyboost worked. You would have a flash drive immediately start sending data slowly to your computer while the hard drive took its time to seek the larger chunks of data. So I wonder if there is a large queue of data for a Fusion drive to read, it will read from both drives concurrently? Reply
  • tipoo - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    "In less than a year Apple could double the size of the NAND used in Fusion Drive at no real change to cost."

    But will they? If the iPods, iPhones, and iPad are any indication, they will more likely pocket the savings. Been a long time since a capacity doubling from them.
    Reply
  • name99 - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Oh for fscks sake.

    The iPod nano1 came in sizes of 1, 2, 4GB
    The 2nd gen came as 2, 4, 8GB.
    3rd were 4, 8GB
    4th was 4,8, 16GB.
    All at essentially the same retail price.

    Apple has showed consistent pattern (you also see it in the shuffle, or in iPod Touch), of doubling the storage until they hit a point which seems to cover almost everyone's needs. Then there is a year or two of stasis, then a new product category which requires more storage.

    Next time you want to post blatant nonsense, try to remember that on the internet people WILL call you out when you state bullshit.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Feeling self-important today? Yes, that's what I mean, there hasn't been a doubling since the fourth generation Nano. Or does "Been a long time since a capacity doubling from them" mean "they have never ever doubled capacity" in your little world? Reply
  • tipoo - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    "Then there is a year or two of stasis, then a new product category which requires more storage."

    Like the iPads, which would be ideal for storing HD video if not for the exorbitant prices of higher capacities, with zero bump for the base price since the first one?
    Reply

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