The Compleat Writer: The MacBook Pro DIY Seagate Momentus XT Hybrid Hard Drive/RAM Upgrade, Part 1

While I'm evolving my relationship (and yours, if you've been following me) to backing up and protecting data, a more elementary issue intruded itself. The single most important storage device you have is the one inside the computer on which you do most of your work. That's where your very latest data gets stored first, and that's where you need quickest access to it. And though mine was installed brand-new just a year ago, while the MBP was still under its AppleCare warranty and evinced no mechanical problems, the dreaded spinning beachball had begun to make regular appearances, and all my apps had started to run at less than optimum speeds.

Growing Pains

The diagnosis didn't involve rocket science, only a quick look at Activity Monitor. Bluntly put, I'd outgrown my mid-2007 15-inch MacBook Pro's hard drive, getting down to a mere 7.5GB of unused drive space, just half the recommended minimum for good performance.

I poked around to see what I could dump or relocate, but didn't find much. Short of moving my iTunes, iPhoto, and/or iMovie libraries to one or more external drives, I saw no alternative but to upgrade the hard drive. I figured that, as long as this would involve a trip into the innards of my MBP, I might as well max out the machine's RAM at the same time by adding 2GB more.

Consumer Choices

I found three options on the menu, from which I could make my pick: (a) pay someone else to do this, with parts they'd supply, (b) pay someone to do it with parts I'd supply, or (c) provide my own parts and do it myself.

I called the Apple Store to see what they'd charge, only to learn that they'll only install components they sell you. An understandable policy, but that limited my choice of drive and made the price too high. I wanted a wider set of options, at lower cost. So I called Tekserve, the most reputable Apple repair center in the metropolitan New York area. They quoted me $150 to install the drive plus another $50 for the RAM, roughly doubling the MSRP of such components. So, after watching the excellent demo video available online from Other World Computing, I decided to do it myself.

Can I really do this? Should I even try this?

Not without some trepidation. Aside from replacing a keyboard after I spilled a cup of coffee on my old PowerBook (don't ask), I've never delved into the guts of any of my computers. This experiment would constitute a first for me. At the request of Mac Edition Radio's guiding genius, Harris Fogel, Seagate sent me a review unit of their new Momentus XT 500 GB Hybrid SSD 7200rpm hard drive. So, assuming that I achieved the installation successfully, I'd then get to test this drive and see if it lived up to Seagate's promises of "Up to 50% Faster Boot-up Speed," "Twice the Overall Performance," and "SSD-like performance" for its MSRP of $156.

Of course, I don't run a computer lab here; I can't do detailed bench tests or side-by-side comparisons, so the resulting report will be experiential, not scientific. It'll get complicated (or, from an experimental standpoint, hopelessly muddled) by my introduction of a variable that will affect the result: first, more than tripling my drive's memory capacity, and subsequently doubling my RAM. So how much of the overall improvement will be attributable to one or another of those factors, and how much to the qualities of an SSD hybrid drive, will involve some educated guesswork. Fact is, though, this sucker should become a screamer -- assuming, of course, that I don't screw it up.

Step 1: Installing the SSD hybrid drive.

Before starting out, I watch (for the third time) the OWC real-time videos on drive replacement. (They have these for every model, and for a variety of parts replacements and upgrades.) There are two of them, one real-time and one summary. The summary suggests that the process should take me 30 minutes. In the real-time tutorial, this procedure takes the presenter a little under 20 minutes, including what he indicates as some necessary careful jiggling and jimmying of the trackpad and the old and new drives. It's that jimmying and jiggling stuff that makes me nervous about going under the hood of any computer. I'm reasonably comfortable with tools; the straightforward process of extracting a mechanical part and replacing it with an equivalent doesn't scare me. It's when things need to get carefully tugged, wiggled, squeezed, twisted, bent, or such that visions of cracking or tearing or otherwise damaging an expensive doohickey float across my mind.

After getting the video going on an eMac (so I have it right at hand for reference purposes), I spread out a terrycloth towel to hold the MBP, the components, the tools, and the screws. Then I set to work. Seems I'm in luck. Thanks to my now-expired AppleCare contract, about which I've written previously, the pros at the Apple Store have opened my MBP up twice over the past 16 months, replacing just about everything except the keyboard and the screen. As a result, the machine has gotten somewhat accustomed to getting disassembled and put back together again, as machines do. None of the screws or connecting cables are frozen. Installing the Seagate SSD and closing up the patient after this transplant surgery takes me all of 40 minutes.

Step 2: The trial run.

Taking a deep breath, I fire it up. A blinking question mark appears on the screen. Inserting my Snow Leopard Installer disk, I reboot, holding down C, and, using Disk Utility, go through the process of formatting the new drive, then installing the OS -- about an hour for both procedures.

Next I update the firmware, which involves downloading a bootable CD ISO image from the Seagate site, burning a bootable CD therewith, then booting up in DOS from that CD and following the instructions for firmware update. None of this is self-explanatory (my review unit came with no instructions), but with the assistance of some online instructions at the Seagate site and a call to MER's editor -- who reminds me that it's a good idea to check periodically for updates on any firmware -- I figure it out. Big blue letters across my screen eventually spell out SUCCESS, and I shut the MBP down.

After which comes booting up to see if it all works. Apparently I've done it right. Wham! I'm on my MBP's desktop faster than ever before. Indeed, this is the quickest start-up I've experienced on any Mac. After that, I connect my ioSafe, set Time Machine going on a restore operation, and go to bed. About an hour and 40 minutes later, according to Time Machine, I have all my data -- about 150 GB worth -- on the new Seagate drive.  (To be continued.)

A.D. Coleman, Posted 5/16/11

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