Funky Cables and SSDs

Apple doesn't just use the extra chassis volume in the iMac for heat dissipation, the system also comes equipped with a single 3.5" hard drive rather than the smaller 2.5" drives you find in notebooks. With the exception of the entry level iMac which comes with a 500GB drive, the remaining iMacs ship with a 1TB hard drive. By today's standards 1TB isn't anything to be excited about, particularly if you're storing a lot of music, photos and videos. The drives are all 7200RPM and come from either Seagate or Western Digital.

Retail drive cost is around $65 and the cost to Apple is likely even lower than that as an OEM ordering in bulk. With less than 3% of the cost of the high end 27-inch iMac being devoted to the hard drive it's clear that Apple doesn't view storage as anything other than a commodity. This philosophy extends to Apple's take on SSDs as well. While my review system didn't come with a SSD, Apple tells me that the 2011 iMacs use the same SSDs that the 2010 iMacs offered as an option (apparently a Toshiba based SSD - confirmed it's the same Toshiba SSD used in the 2011 MacBook Pro). The SSD isn't available on the $1199 iMac.

There's only one drive offered: a 256GB Apple branded drive for $500 in lieu of your internal hard drive. If you want it in addition to the 1TB hard drive it'll be $600 or $750 if paired with a 2TB hard drive. I don't have to tell you that while I believe an SSD is worth that much money, the drive Apple will sell you isn't exactly worth its upgrade cost.

While it's possible to add an SSD on your own, doing so requires a pretty lengthy teardown process. There are great tutorials online that help show you the way as well as provide you links to all additional cables that you'd need. There's no tray for the SSD to live in by default so you either have to cleverly adhere it to the inside of the chassis or order a part specifically designed to do so.

Apple opted for high quality fairly standard SATA cables for the iMac so I don't believe we'll see the compatibility issues on the iMac that we've seen in the MacBook Pro. In typical Apple fashion there are no spare power cables just laying around inside the iMac, instead you'll have to split power off from the hard drive to power both it and your aftermarket SSD. The whole process looks doable with a bit of patience and the right tools.

Apparently Apple likes to query HDD temperature quite frequently and uses that data in determining fan speed. In order to keep those requests off the SATA bus Apple supplies a custom power cable with surprisingly low gauge wires to not only power the hard drive but also return temperature data to Apple's fan controllers. The cable looks like this:

The standard SATA power cable is five pins. There's one pin for each voltage rail (3.3V, 5V and 12V) and two pins for ground. Apple's custom cable has seven pins, the remaining two are for temperature data. If you replace the iMac's internal hard drive with a drive that doesn't provide the appropriate temperature data, Apple's fan controller will go bonkers and try to cool what it assumes is an overheating drive.

When presented with this information, our own Brian Klug had a simple suggestion: short the two temperature pins to fool them into thinking all is good. It turns out that Apple provides a similar suggestion if you have a SSD-only iMac. Awesomely-named-site has the scoop.

On the iMac, HDD power is provided through a proprietary connector on the motherboard. Short pins 2 and 7 (just connect the two using a simple wire) and you'll be able to run the iMac with no HDD plugged in and avoid the uber-spinning-fans. I'm guessing if you want to run with your own 3.5" drive in there that doesn't work with Apple's sensor setup simply short those two pins on the power cable itself (you'll have to tap into and modify the cable for this to work) and you should be good to go. Given that this is a review sample from Apple, and that Apple isn't too fond of me taking their review samples apart, I haven't tried the solution. But if shorting pins 2-7 on the motherboard header works, then shorting those two pins on the cable should work as well.

Now it's a pain that we even have to have this discussion, in fact it's the lack of easy upgrades that makes me so uncertain about the iMac. It's a fast machine with a great display but what happens in a couple of years when I need a faster GPU or even sooner when I want an SSD or larger HDD. At least the latter is possible.

With PCIe it's completely feasible to bring some modularity to these components. If anyone is willing to break the mold and explore something unique it's Apple, unfortunately I'm just not seeing that here.

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  • stm1185 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    So basically to get rid of having a tower, which probably can take up floor space you don't use anyway, you get about $700 worth of desktop hardware and a $1000 monitor rolled into one at the price of $2000. Which does not seem that bad of a deal, except I could never see myself having a monitor that costs more then the computer used with it. It seems very backwards.

    For instance is the experience with having 2560x1440 resolution over 1920x1080 better then the experience that you get with $1600 worth of hardware over $700? I think I would say No.
  • MrBigglesw0rth - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Did you stop to consider what youre going to get for that 900$ more hardware cost? The main thing would be an SSD, then double the RAM. After that, what? Better speakers? Another optical drive? Expensive headsets? Maybe $300+ for 15% better processing power? How about a new paintjob on your car?

    Dont be silly. The best investment would be something you look at constantly; the display. When youre looking at minimal computational gains over a vastly better viewing experience for 2-3 new computer builds to come.

    Also, this isnt 1995 anymore. You can get 80% of the power for 20% of the cost. The largest cost in a good system today is a quality SSD and a quality screen, followed by the CPU, mobo/ram, etc.
  • aguilpa1 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Fine a display is important and that is why I have 3 of them at 5760x1080, 120Hz Alienware Optx23's but ONLY if the displays are independent of the system, meaning not built in whereby the computer becomes obsolete and then what??? How are you going to upgrade the motherboard on a proprietary and overpriced all in one? Proprietary junk will never be of great value no matter how pretty they are. It's been tried again and again.

    Keeping your old monitor that is still good to save money makes sense but not on an all in one unit. It never has and never will.
  • harshbarj - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    That is a good point! I have been running the same lcd now for 7 years and this is the 5th desktop to use this monitor. It was the first high end gaming 19 inch lcd on the market when I got it and even today it still looks great. Had I gone the imac way (which I would never as I play games) and bought an all in one, I would have needed to buy a new monitor with each new system.
  • headbox - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    whatever. You can get a 23" widescreen display for barely over $100 now. You're just not in the crowd of people that can afford upgrades. All of these price criticisms always come from people that Apple doesn't market towards anyways: broke nerds. For MANY people, $2000 is not a big deal for a computer every 2 years (or less.)
  • harshbarj - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Really? Best price on newegg is about $150 and that monitor is noticeably smaller in height than my 19 inch. Anyway why replace something that still works just fine? Seems kind of stupid to me!

    Also for MOST people $2000 is a big deal.
  • samirotiv - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    buddy, this is a 27 inch LED backlit IPS display. What you're talking about is a TN display.
  • samirotiv - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    Don't get me wrong, I do agree with you. 2000USD is an investment. Some people have very basic performance needs, and can live with the same machine for 5 years. They value a good display, way more than a fast CPU. They attribute almost no importance to a GPU. A Mac takes almost no space, has almost no cables, no clutter. Some people value that.

    Besides, macs have a decent resale value too. But if I wanted a machine for myself, I wouldn't take a mac. I'd go for a custom built one.
  • utlragear - Monday, June 11, 2012 - link

    Well it's not like blowing $2000 for an imac will get you major performance anyway. Apple only ships mdgrade hardware and it's always been that way. They pocket an extra $1000 off each isucker, and that can be PROVEN and broken down in itemized price lists. If one must, just build a PC for $700 that runs rings around an imac. Then hackintosh it and it will be faster than the one apple ships for $2000 by far. PROOF that they do exactly what I'm saying they do. But I can't see any reason to run an OS that is no better than win 7. If you want someone that has almost no cables get an ALL IN ONE PC. They are not like that because they are Macs. Macs are simply PC's anyway. There is NO value in it simply being apple. That statement will make some people mad, but sometimes when you break up someone's fantasies they also get mad.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Sunday, May 29, 2011 - link

    A 27" 2560x1440 IPS display with LED backlighting is going to cost a lot more than a 23" 1080p LCD with a TN panel.


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