The SSD Discussion

Apple inadvertently mitigated some of the dangers and annoyances of a mechanical hard disk in the Air by going with a 1.8" drive. These drives are used in the iPod and are designed to be rugged, cool and quiet. Because we're comparing an already low power, quiet drive to the SSD many of the advantages of the SSD just aren't as noticeable.

One aspect of SSD performance that isn't often talked about is that performance doesn't change as the drive gets fuller. Mechanical disk drives are designed to write to the outer most sectors first (where read speed is the fastest) and the inner most sectors last (where read speed is the slowest). When your drive is mostly empty, everything gets written to the fast part of the disk. As it gets full, data is written to the slower parts and thus you get degraded performance. The same doesn't apply to a SSD, since we're just writing to flash; performance is the same regardless of what part of the flash you're reading from.

If money were no object and we had to make a recommendation today, we'd still take the SSD over the mechanical drive. It is more responsive in the areas that bothered us the most when using the Air, it increases battery life by a good 14% on average and most importantly - it lowers the risk of a drive failure while on the road. The first stipulation of that recommendation is the one that's worth paying attention to: if money were no object.

Apple charges a hefty $999 for the 64GB SSD option, and on a $1799 notebook that's not insignificant; we're talking 55% of the price of a standard MacBook Air just for a drive swap. Apple isn't making that much profit on the drive either. The 64GB Samsung SSD Apple uses in the Air costs around $760, Apple actually makes more from the 200MHz CPU upgrade than the $999 SSD.

The beauty of solid state storage is that it's based on Flash, whose prices are directly influenced by Moore's Law. We've been told that within 3 months you can expect the cost of these 64GB SSDs to drop by around 30%, so we'd be looking at around $530 for the same drive in the near term. Obviously we're talking about cost here, if we apply the same 28% markup Apple currently uses on the SSD option to the new price we get around $680 for the SSD upgrade in 3 months. There's no guarantee that Apple will pass on the savings but if they don't, you can always shop around for the drive from another vendor such as DVNation.

Price isn't the only thing that will improve with time: performance will as well. When the transition to solid state disks first started happening the controllers (the chip that sits between the PATA/SATA interface and the Flash memory) were hardly optimized for performance. Because performance was so poor, the first SSDs were used for industrial applications where the ruggedness of the drives were most important and performance didn't really matter.

As controller technology advanced, so did performance but since the SSD market was still small the manufacturers had to pick and choose their battles. The natural fit for higher performance drives was the 2.5" SATA SSD market, after all these drives would be going into expensive notebooks. Controller development for PATA drives just wasn't as far along and thus PATA SSD offerings generally lagged behind in performance compared to their SATA counterparts.

The ZIF connector, it's bendy

In order to maintain the slim form factor of the Air, Apple stuck with a PATA interface for the hard drive; this isn't your grandmother's 44-pin PATA connector, it's a 40-pin low profile, ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) ribbon connector. There is no SATA equivalent so if you want to build a very small device you need to rely on a PATA drive, which is exactly what Apple did. Unfortunately, it also means that the $999 SSD Apple uses isn't the fastest SSD in the world - the 2.5" models are much quicker.

What about Smaller SSDs?

While the 64GB drive used in the Air is fairly expensive today, you can find cheaper 32GB drives on the market. The cost to manufacture the 32GB version is exactly 50% so the retail price ends up being about half as well. The problem is that 32GB isn't enough space for an often used OS X machine.

The default install of OS X and all of its applications that ship with the Air eats up close to 20GB of space; add a few necessities like Microsoft Office or Photoshop, not to mention copying DVDs/movies to your hard drive to watch them unless you want to lug around the external DVD drive as well and you'll quickly run out of space on a 32GB drive.

Ouch, only 19.96GB free? Hurry up Moore, we need larger SSDs.

When we were done installing all of the applications and test files needed for our benchmarks on the 64GB SSD we only had 19.96GB available. That's more than enough if you never install another application or copy any large content over, but chances are that won't happen.

Your best bet is honestly sticking with the 80GB PATA drive (unless money really isn't an object in which case just buy the SSD now and buy a larger one later) and upgrading to a 64GB or larger SSD when they are available.

The Impact of SSD on Battery Life System Performance: iPhoto & iWork
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  • bsozak - Monday, January 18, 2010 - link

    For the price difference between the two it seems hard for me to justify the SSD version, though intuitively it would seem like the advantages would be greater. The odd thing to me is the number of people who claim to really notice the difference, even though the benchmarks don't seem to be that drastically different in a lot of areas.

    I also wonder if the type of SSD makes a difference? I've heard great things about Runcore SSD which has some really good pricing here - but if I end up dropping that kind of coin for moderately better performance, I don't think I'd be too happy.
  • bsozak - Monday, January 18, 2010 - link

    That link didn't seem to take, so let's just try this:">
  • pink78 - Friday, April 11, 2008 - link

    I've heared that next-gen MacBook pros are to recieve the multitouch trackpad:">

    is that true?

  • RedWolf - Thursday, February 21, 2008 - link

    The start of the review comes off as a bit too pro-apple. It was quite thorough and by the end, I didn't feel the same pro-apple bias. I thought the comparison to the Ferrari was excellent. The MBA is a luxury. If you can't afford two laptops you should get a more practical laptop and skip the MBA.

    I was dissappointed in the lack of a mention of Windows on the MBA. My Dell Inspiron 700M is getting a bit old and I'm looking for a replacement. I have a need to run windows regularly. How does the MBA run windows in bootcamp? Does the drive sharing work?

    I can see the MBA working for people who have the money to spend on a third computer (second laptop) and for anyone who does a lot of typing but needs a laptop that can be carried around. I can also see it working for my wife (the primary user of our 700M). She wants something that is light and easy to carry around the house. One of my biggest complaints about my 700M is the cramped keyboard. A full size keyboard would be wonderful.
  • AnnonymousCoward - Tuesday, February 19, 2008 - link

    1 button trackpad? Lame!
  • kac77 - Tuesday, February 19, 2008 - link

    I feel the review was good overall. But really I think the MBA was put in the most positive light as possible. Everyone says it's a niche product, well what niche is that?? Once you start to go deeper the whole niche theory, or "Its not made for you" aspect starts to appear rather light in common sense. Lets look at the supposed markets:

    College Students

    OK the MBA could possibly work it here. However, how many of you had two computers when at college? The MBA really does require a companion PC in order to assure the buyer that he/her can reinstall the OS if problems arise. In addition, having 1 USB port in college would be insane. When I was in College mine got a thorough work out. I transferred files to and from via USB drives, logging onto the network, installing software which was apart of the class. That one USB would be a hindrance no matter how you look at it.

    Traveling Managers (Marketing or Sales I presume)

    These people use their laptops even more than college people do. They are designing presentations. Most of them require the need to VPN into their office network in order to retrieve misc files they might require. They are downloading email often from remote locations so having 3G capability would be mandatory. Since there isn't a express port or PCMIA slot they are stuck with WIFI?? Trust me on this the sales guy isn't sitting in Starbucks in order to download his/her email or work on the latest spreadsheet.

    These points are what I'm talking about. When you just scratch the surface it appears fine but when you go deeper the lack of ports, no drive, no 3G, no Ethernet, (and no, being in IT I am not going to have the Marketing department change their own battery or hard drive) I think it makes the MBA become more of a product you get to do small work on a weekend when you happen to want a latte.

    Finally what wasn’t touched on at all, transferring files from the host PC. Most likely you are going to want to put some music on your computer, or just sync those files that you need for work. I’ve heard reviews from other sites that this process can take way more than 2.5 hours more like 5 or more. Some weren’t even able to complete the process without using the Ethernet dongle. In addition, you can’t use the one USB port with the Migration Assistant. Just how much weight would have been added to put on FireWire anyway???

    The overall thing with this device is that in order to achieve a baseline of functionality you are conceivably carrying around an Ethernet dongle, possibly the Super Drive (probably not in college, but most definitely if you are traveling) a USB extension cord, plus some sort of 3G device if you really want to be mobile. Once you are carrying around all of these things have you really saved any weight? With 3G this product really would have made some sense. The argument to looking forward where all information is on a network somewhere or at home would have held some weight. Without it the product comes off as trying to sell a drowning man a glass of water.

    This device really has one market …the CEO. This is a person who checks email at home or in the office isn’t really going to be accessing the VPN much from a remote location. Having 1 USB port would be fine. He isn’t doing the presentations, someone else usually is. At best while on the go he’s taking notes. For this person this device makes perfect sense but for anyone else I just don’t see it.
  • MacTheSpoon - Saturday, February 16, 2008 - link

    Thanks very much, this was a really comprehensive, excellent review!
  • Phrozt - Friday, February 15, 2008 - link

    Two comments about the benchmarks, one question about the battery.

    First, about the battery. It's been said that one of the shortcomings of the iPhone is that there are a limited number of times the battery can be charged. Does the Air suffer this same fate? Obviously this would have less of an impact than the iPhone situation, because the battery can clearly be removed and therefore replaced, but I'm still wondering about it's limits (especially after the mention of the 8 hour bug).

    As for the benchmarks, I think something needs to be said about the differences of expectations in real world use (in regards to the SSD vs. stock HDD argument). You said that you noticed everything starting/working quicker w/the SSD, but the benchmarks showed that in write situations, it showed an obvious disadvantage. I think it's important that you stress real world expectations in this situation. The more you use a computer, the more your expectations change. You *want* a program to start up at the snap of your fingers, but you *expect* saves/exports/transfers to take a long time. Therefore, from a real world useability standpoint, the SSD would be much better experience, because it improves in the areas where you have high expectations, and only falters in areas that you already have low expectations.

    Finally, about the usage tests. All three of these tests are heavily read reliant with almost no writing. Since the SSD takes longer to complete write projects, and therefore more energy overall to complete the process, I would be interested to see what the usage time would be if you were to script out a process that included a lot of PDF/image/file conversions/saves.

    All in all, a very good, in-depth and objective review. Wonderful job.
  • totenkopf - Friday, February 15, 2008 - link

    "Thinner and lighter" only covers about two thirds of ultraportable, It's still basically the same footprint... how is that helpful? Can you not handle two extra pounds and the oppressive thickness of the mac book? When you open it up it's the same size as the rest of the mac books! If you take an old walkie-talkie cellphone and make it lighter and slimmer and than call it ultra portable... IT STILL DOESN'T FIT IN YOUR POCKET! , They completely missed the point of the ultra portable! The asus eee can operate as an extension of your desktop by allowing you to write, surf and accomplish minor tasks away from your primary machine. Yes, it is not the most comfortable on the eyes or the hands... It's not supposed to be! Apple was afraid to make the necessary sacrifices to make a true ultra portable computer.

    As a thin laptop it's a failure! No removable battery? What if i want to use some optical media on a train/bus/plane? I have to plug in some stupid portable optical drive? that isn't convenience that's a tragedy. I don't care how nice the display looks if i'm looking at a machine with worse specs than a $700 cheaper mac book. Once again, Apple is selling form over function... that's right, you get nothing extra for your money, just the envy of other iNerds.

    And to the author: describing it as a ferrari is laughable. True, it isn't fit for use as your primary machine, but isn't it supposed to perform better than your primary machine? I'd call it the mac book "airhead". It's like that blonde, oxygen thief piece of arm candy you always wanted to make you look good around your friends!It doesn't actually do anything very well, but at least it's inadequate for everyday use.
  • Brau - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    "The SuperDrive won't work on a regular USB port as it draws too much power"

    Wrong. The MBAir Superdrive uses standard voltage and draws a normal 500ma of current. (See AppleInsider indepth MBA review). Apple has apparently simply chosen not to provide the driver that would allow this drive to work on other Macs, as it will still show up as a USB drive but can't be used. What remains to be tested is whether the MBAir Superdrive can even be used to import a burned CD/DVD on another MBAir once it has been initiated to a first machine. If it fails this test then it would indicate hardware based authentication ala Microsoft & Vista.

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