The Secret Apple Doesn’t Want You to Know: A “new” Mac for $200

Tech Features

The new Apple MacBooks introduced recently (including today’s 13” Mac Book Pro with Retina Display) are undeniably great and lustworthy. But if you’re not ready, willing or able to shell out a couple grand for a new one, there’s a way to radically improve the performance of your current MacBook.

Unless you have a MacBook Air or a new MacBook with Retina Display, chances are you have what’s called a Hard Disk Drive (HDD) in your machine. These are the same drives people have had in their computers (laptops or desktops) pretty much since the modern age of computing. The benefit of HDDs is that they’re relatively cheap and can store large amounts of information. The downside is that they have moving parts—a disc that spins. As with anything with moving parts, there is a tendency towards breakage and degradation.

So, if your computer is running slowly—giving you the rainbow-colored beach ball of doom whenever you open an application, for instance—it likely means that your hard drive has degraded, and is struggling to spin fast enough and/or read all the information stored on it in order to do what you want it to do.

At this point—which typically takes about two to three years to begin occurring—most people opt for a new machine; figuring that there’s no alternative. Conveniently, Apple tends to upgrade their product line every couple of years, and so there’s often a new machine shining at you from the Mac store, compelling you to trade up, just as yours starts to slow down.

No beef from me for doing so. Certainly, a new Mac will come packed with features that justify the expense. Or does it….

While Retina displays are fantastic to look at, we’ve sort of entered a weird age of diminishing returns when it comes to MacBooks. At this point, the advantages of new machines have less to do with what you can do with them (access the Internet, create documents, store photos, etc.), and more with their weight and battery life. With substitutes like iPads out there for traveling (see my article on how you can use your iPad as your main work machine), for many people issues around battery life and weight are not very important.

And, so, perhaps spending the money to upgrade the laptop you bought a couple of years ago isn’t a requirement. But, what about that pesky hard drive issue?

There is another option.

Any of us who have iPhones or iPads have become accustomed to apps opening instantly, and generally being super-responsive. This is because rather than using old-school hard drives (HDD) that spin, they instead use solid state “Flash” drives (SSD) that have no moving parts, and, therefore, perform much faster.

These solid state drives, due to Moore’s Law, have—over the past few years—become increasingly inexpensive, and able to store large amounts of stuff. Therefore, a 256G SSD drive, while once obscenely expensive in comparison to the same size HDD, is now affordable (remember, iPhones and iPads have relatively small storage space (the new iPhone5 tops out at 64G).

What Apple doesn’t want you to know is that you can, with little more “technical” skills than it requires to change a lightbulb, swap out your HDD with a SSD drive, and radically improve—even beyond what it was prior to your HDD degrading—the performance of your old machine to such a degree that you will find yourself feeling like you have a brand new machine. Best part: you can do this for around $200 instead of the ~$2,000 it requires to buy a new machine.

So, if you have 30 minutes of active time to devote to this project, and about $200, here are the steps required to breath new life into your machine:

1. Order what you need:

• SSD drive: Samsung 830 256GB SATA Internal Solid State Drive (you could go with more storage space, but the price goes from $189 for 256GB to $508 for 512GB; if you’ve got more than 256GB of stuff on your machine, I’d suggest moving some of it—photos, movies—to an external drive).

• Cable to connect your new drive to the USB on your computer so you can clone your HDD to your new SSD (more on this below). This cable does the trick. The accompanying disc that makes this a “Harddrive Upgrade Kit” is worthless; you won’t use it.

• A tiny screwdriver. This one has all the bits you need and is nicely magnetic.

Hard Disk Caddy (OPTIONAL, but recommended). This is so that you can move your HDD to the space that is currently occupied by your optical (ie DVD drive). This will give you more space to store files, BUT you will no longer be able to put DVDs or CDs into your computer. Also, if your HDD is really shot this makes no sense. If, on the other hand, your HDD is working, but sluggish, it’s a great way to double your storage space (move all your photos, movies, etc. to this HDD, but leave your apps, etc., on your new SSD).

2. Download Carbon Copy Cloner.
This piece of software (free 30-day trial) will make an exact copy of your machine on your new SSD. This means that it’s bootable; i.e. you can start your machine up from the copy of your machine. This is VERY different than, for instance, a Time Machine back up, which backs up your files, but does not do so in a way that you can boot from (You have to put them back in the right place, deal with permissions, etc.). Nightmare.

3. Format your new SSD.
Plug the cable you got from the list above into your new SSD and run Disk Utility on your Mac. Erase the SSD, and rename it (I called mine, “George’s SSD”). This reformats it in a manner that allows your Mac to talk to it.

4. Make a clone of your HDD onto your SSD.
With the SSD still plugged into your cable, run Carbon Copy Cloner. It’ll ask you if you want it to create a recovery partition. You do. After this is done, clone your disk. Depending on how much stuff you have on your HDD, this could take a while. It took about five hours for me to clone around 120GB.

5. Check to make sure the Cloning worked.
With the new SSD still plugged in via your cable, shut down your mac, and then restart while holding the Option key down. Once the machine starts up you should see options for which disk you want to boot from. Boot from the SSD. Don’t be disheartened if it takes a few minutes (remember, you’re transferring information over USB—not fast). Open some apps, and docs, and make sure everything is working okay. Assuming it is, shut down your Mac.

Now comes the fun/scary part.

6. Replace your HDD with your SSD.
Unplug your Mac, turn it on its back, and pull up the little lever that opens the battery/HD cover. Using your little screwdriver unscrew the screws around your HDD, and then pull the little piece of tape that pops it out. Pop in the new SSD, making sure to connect the male to the female parts of the interface, and screw it back in.

If you’re not replacing your optical (i.e. CD/DVD drive) with your old HDD, you’re done. Just pop the battery cover on, and reboot your machine (normally, i.e. without holding down “option”), and enjoy your new mac. You should also make sure Trim is enabled on your new drive. Download this app (free), and run it.

If you are, continue…

7. Take the entire back of the Mac off.
Unscrew all of the other screws around the cover so that the entire back of your machine comes off. Make sure you remember which screw goes in which hole.

8. Remove the Optical drive.
Unscrew JUST the screws around the optical drive (being careful not to unscrew the onces connected to the fans). Pop it out, and decouple the male from female connector.

9. Put the HDD into the Disk Caddy.
Only tricky part here is changing out the Phillips screw driver bit for an Allen-style bit, and unscrewing the sides of the HDD so that it will fit into the caddy.

10. Put the HDD caddy into the Optical Space.
It takes a little jiggling, and if the connector unhooks, you must press it back together (you’ll see what I mean). There’s really only one way it can go in, so you just have to massage it into place.

Screw everything back together, plug your machine in, and reboot normally.

Now, your machine should scream with speed (remember to enable Trim), and you have extra space via your HDD, which is sitting in your Optical drive’s old space. You can completely wipe this HDD (using disk utility), and then put whatever you want on it. Again, don’t put your apps or system files on this HDD. You want those on your SSD, as they are giving you all the speed. Instead, put your docs, photos, music, etc. there.

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