Design Con 2015

From HDD to SSD: a transition (and a resulting system) most speedy

-December 12, 2013

At the beginning of the year, when my girlfriend was in the market for a new computer, I successfully persuaded her to purchase a refurbished mid-2010 15" MacBook Pro (specifically a model MC373LL/A). Even though she got it from Small Dog Electronics versus directly from Apple, it was still a candidate for AppleCare warranty extension. Its 2.66 GHz Intel Mobile Core i7 64-bit "Arrandale" (I7-620M) processor touts two physical cores and 4 MBytes of L3 cache, along with both "Turbo Boost" (to 3.33 GHz) and "Hyper Threading" support, the latter allowing the system to recognize four total "cores" or "threads" (two real and two virtual). And it supplements the on-CPU (dual-die MCM) Intel graphics with a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 330M GPU, dynamically switching between them as needed to optimize performance versus power consumption (a third-party application called gfxCardStatus enables user control of the process).



Upon receiving the system, I immediately bumped up the memory from 4 to 8 GBytes, a particularly important upgrade considering she'd be running Windows 7 virtualized "on top" of Mac OS X, using Parallels Desktop. Only one bottleneck remained, and it was a biggie ... the Toshiba 500 GByte 5400 RPM HDD. Its 3 Gbps SATA interface might optimize sequential access transfers, but random read and write performance remained fundamentally hampered by its archaic rotating magnetic media nature. I'd long ago transitioned my various laptops from HDDs to SSDs, so I had some idea of what her system was capable of if I eliminated its HDD "boat anchor." But the substantial gap between potential and reality only became clear to her when she more recently added a SSD-based mid-2013 11" MacBook Air to her computing stable. Its CPU and GPU resources were underpowered compared to its MacBook Pro peer, but the MBA still ran rings around the MBP in both Mac OS and virtualized Windows.

Her continued happiness, therefore our continued relationship bliss (ok, maybe I'm exaggerating that last bit), necessitated that I actualize my longstanding promise to transition her older system from HDD to SSD. She was only using a fraction of her existing hard drive's capacity, so I could have gone with a less expensive lower-capacity SSD. But given how cost-effective SSDs have become nowadays, and given that I didn't know how her computing usage might evolve in the future, I decided to select an identical-capacity SSD successor. Specifically, I chose a Samsung 840 Series SSD, the 500 GByte version of which I've recently seen for as low as $260.



Whereas its 830 Series precursor was based on two-bit-per-cell MLC (multi-level-cell) flash memory technology, Samsung transitioned to three-bit-per-cell TLC (triple-level cell) flash memory for the 840 Series (which has subsequently been replaced by the 840 EVO line, leveraging even smaller-lithography TLC flash memory). Similarly, Samsung's "Pro" line transitioned from SLC (single-level, i.e. one bit-per-cell) flash memory on the 830 to MLC flash memory on the 840. Theoretically, the technology migration might lead to degradation of both reliability and performance, but the former can be handled via controller advancements in combination with spare storage space. As for the latter, keep in mind that we're still comparing against a still-much-slower HDD alternative. And holding three (versus two) bits of data in each storage transistor definitely improves the pricing situation.

Before continuing, I need to explain that while my girlfriend normally runs Windows virtualized, the operating system is actually installed on a NTFS partition created using Apple's Boot Camp utility, thereby giving her the option to natively boot Windows on the system if she wishes (Parallels can utilize both virtual disk images and physical hard drive partitions). Cloning the HFS+/Mac OS partition was simple; I tethered the SSD to the system via an USB2-to-SATA adapter, then ran Shirt Pocket's SuperDuper! to accomplish the mirror (Bombich Software's Carbon Copy Cloner is an alternative that I've also used in the past). A subsequent system boot from the USB2-tethered SSD confirmed that the Mac OS clone was successful.

Neither SuperDuper! nor Carbon Copy Cloner could be used, however, to clone the NTFS/Windows partition. Internet research suggested that I might be able boot Clonezilla off a USB flash drive and use it to clone both partitions at once. However, particularly given that I'd already successfully mirrored the HFS+/Mac OS partition, I decided to go a more conventional (translation: more likely to first-time succeed) route. I used Twocanoes Software's Winclone (which I previously covered back in March of 2008) to back up the NTFS partition to a USB flash drive. I then swapped out the HDD for the SSD successor, booted Mac OS from the SSD, created a sufficient-sized FAT partition in Disk Utility, and restored the NTFS partition to it.

The first time I attempted the restore, Winclone hung. Internet research revealed that I needed to make the destination partition slightly larger than the original (250 GBytes). I went with 255 GBytes and the restoration succeeded without further hiccups (Winclone also offers facilities to optionally shrink the source Windows image). Natively booting into Windows initially produced a bit of consternation when my attempts to use the laptop's built-in keyboard and trackpad produced no results. As it turns out, this is a known issue related to Apple's Boot Camp drivers ... tricks to forcibly resurrect these peripherals exist, but fortunately all that I needed to do was patiently wait a few minutes and they re-emerged of their own accord.

I needed to re-activate both Windows 7 and Office 2010; both operations went smoothly and were done online in a matter of a few seconds. Back in Mac OS, I deleted the old virtual machine definition (just to be safe...this might not have actually been necessary) and created a new one pointing at the now-SSD-housed Windows 7 build, a process which also went smoothly. As was the case with my Mac mini, Dropbox and a few other apps required Mac OS re-activation due to the mass storage migration, which wasn't a hassle at all. And now that I was using a SSD, I installed Trim Enabler in order to ensure that the operating system would optimally manage the "unofficial" storage device.

That was it; the system is functioning just fine. And best of all, as forecasted, it's running much faster, too. Here's a comparison of the before-and-after boot times for both operating systems:

comparison of HDD and SSD boot times

My girlfriend rarely reboots either operating system, instead just putting them to sleep in-between computer usage sessions. But even so, she still notices the much speedier SSD, both (in general) in terms of the system's overall improved responsiveness and (specifically) thanks to the far fewer (and shorter-duration, when they appear) Spinning Beach Balls she now encounters:



Was a roughly $300 upgrade, encompassing both hardware and software, worth it? I'd certainly say so, considering that it'll substantially postpone the necessity to purchase a much more expensive newer computer. Reiterating what I wrote more than a year ago:

Swapping out the HDD for a SSD makes a several-year-old system feel like a close approximation of a brand new laptop. It's hard to explain, until you've personally experienced it, how incredible it is to have a system completely boot in just a few seconds, a fraction of the delay previously experienced. Application load latencies are similarly speedy. In these fiscally challenging times of lingering economic uncertainty, a mass storage subsystem upgrade is certainly a compelling alternative to a full-system replacement.

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