The 17-inch MacBook Pro Report: From Slug to Sprinter

January 29th, 2015

I know full well that Apple isn’t about to consult with me about every product marketing decision. So when the 17-inch MacBook Pro was killed in 2012, I may have mourned for the loss of my favorite note-book, but I could understand that maybe it was a little too large and heavy to attract a large number of users. Or I am assuming that is one possibility, the other being that making a Retina display variant might have been too expensive given the state of the technology then. Obviously Apple knows how to do a 27-inch 5K version now, but I do not expect them to resurrect the larger MacBook Pro.

After all, it’s not that sales of Macs have been suffering any.

While it’s certainly heavy and all, I’m quite satisfied with my MacBook Pro. I don’t use it near as much as I used to, of course, because I haven’t traveled so much in recent years. But I do carry it — make that lug it — with me on visits to clients, particularly when my iPhone isn’t up to the task of handling the computer chores I need to perform.

While it benchmarks well enough, to me the MacBook Pro is a real slug mostly because of the traditional 500GB hard drive. Having placed a 1TB SSD in my late 2009 iMac, I can see what a tremendous performance improvement you get from just going SSD. Even though processor-intensive tasks move no faster, anything that requires disk access benefits.

So the boot process on the MacBook Pro would take several minutes since I loaded several apps at startup. Disk-intensive tasks would drag, and I had the impression I was using a fairly lethargic computer. But the specs say otherwise. The unit I have, a standard configuration, sports a 2.53 GHz Intel Core i5 processor, and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 300M graphics card.  So it should be no slouch by any means. Since the hard drive tests OK, my solution was obvious, and that was to replace the drive with an SSD.

So I again wrote Larry O’Connor, CEO of Other World Computing (OWC) to see if he could send me a review SSD to install on the MacBook Pro. We settled on a Mercury Electra 6G SSD with 480GB capacity, just shy of the internal drive’s 500GB. Rather than have the old drive catch dust, I also asked them send me an OWC Express Silver drive enclosure as its new home. The SSD lists for $259 at OWC’s site; the enclosure is just $15 extra. OWC also tells me that they offer a OWC DIY Bundle combo kit that includes the drive, the enclosure, and a set of the tools you need to perform the transplant. Even better, it’s only $267.

Why OWC? Well, their SSDs are highly rated, and can be used on Macs with OS X Yosemite without having to use those TRIM hacks for maximum long-term performance.

Having survived replacing the drive on an iMac, I felt I could handle almost anything, but the chore that awaited me was relatively simple. On the iMac, I started out with having to use suction cups to separate the front glass from the LCD. The installation process included removing and reinserting several delicate wiring harnesses. There was the potential for damage to the glass, the LCD and the cables, although I survived the ordeal.

Upgrading a 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro is mostly intuitive if you’ve poked inside Macs before. If not, OWC has a set of useful instruction videos on their site. The required tools include slim Philips head and T6 Torx screwdrivers. Both came in the iMac upgrade kit I received from OWC for the iMac upgrade, so I was ready to go.

Apple doesn’t seem to be happy about customers tearing down their Macs for upgrades. They can’t legally stop you from doing so, but they sometimes add complications to the disassembly/assembly process. For the 2010 MacBook Pros, though, it’s quite easy, except for one potential gotcha, You see, there are 10 of those slim Philips head screws keeping the case shut. So the first step is to remove them, but seven of those screws are so tiny they can get lost real easy. So keep a cup or ash tray at hand, and watch yourself.

I mean really watch yourself. During the course of removing those screws, four of then upped and vanished. I was working on my computer table, using a large towel to cushion the MacBook Pro. The installation came at the end of a particularly long day, and maybe my concentration was off. Or maybe I should curse Apple for using such small screws, so easy to lose.

The actual removal of the drive is simple. First remove the two screws from a plastic cover; the drive itself is connected to a SATA cable. Preparing the new drive merely involves unscrewing four retaining screws from the old device and attaching them to the new drive. I had everything back together in five minutes, but what about the missing screws?

Well, I simply filled every other slot, more or less, and it came together pretty well. I could survive that way, but I was able to order four replacement screws that may have arrived by the time you read this. But what about those missing screws? Well, they are still missing. I checked the desk, the carpeting under the desk, everywhere I could think of. Maybe they’ll be found eventually, but it’s a lesson well learned. Be very careful when you disassemble your tech gear.

Placing the old drive in the Express Silver enclosure was a snap. The drive slides into the chassis-mounted SATA port. You just place the cover on the case, attach it with the two supplied screws, and you’re ready to go. It attaches via a cable to a computer’s USB 2.0 port, and it’s bus-powered. No power cords needed.

I used the old drive for a quick installation of OS X Yosemite 10.10.2 on the new drive, and to restore my data via Apple’s Migration Assistant. And I walked away. It took several hours to transfer roughly 250GB of stuff.

When I returned, I put the MacBook Pro though its paces, launching apps, checking email, editing a word processing document, and updating this blog. Over several restarts, I measured the speed. The full startup process was reduced from several minutes to 30-40 seconds, which included loading four apps. From the very first, I could believe I had purchased a new computer. Without the heat buildup from a busy hard drive, the unit also runs cooler. With a lower voltage storage device, the battery may last somewhat longer too, but I didn’t do any actual measurements.

The long and short of it is that, as SSDs become cheaper, they become a more compelling upgrade for an older computer, Mac or PC. It also means that you can use your hard-earned money for other purposes, because any Mac of recent vintage is plenty fast for most tasks. If nothing fails, you’ll get years of reliable performance, so might as well wait till Apple gives up on releasing upgrades for your Mac, and maybe not even then.

Most Macs these days have SSDs. Apple’s compromise, the Fusion Drive, is available on the Mac mini and the iMac and, for most of you, provides most of the benefits of the pure SSD for a far lower price. In a year or two, it’s possible prices for high capacity SSDs will be cheap enough that Apple will include them on all models as standard issue. For now, an OWC SSD is as perfect a Mac upgrade as you’re apt to find.

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7 Responses to “The 17-inch MacBook Pro Report: From Slug to Sprinter”

  1. TzTerri says:

    I picked up a 2011 Used 17 inch Macbook Pro with a matt screen last year that was in brand new condition to replace my 2007 17 inch Macbook Pro. I love this laptop, don’t know what I’m going to do when the day comes that I need to replace it.

    It’s hooked to an Apple 30 monitor which I also love.

    I do intend to put a 1 TB SSD in it later this year and upgrade the memory from 8 gigs to 16 gigs.

    Hopefull Apple will at some point reintroduce the17 inch Macbook Pro. I love this laptop, don’t know what I’m going to do when the day comes that I need to replace it.

    I do intend to put a 1 TB SSD in it later this year an upgrade the memory from 8 gigs to 16 gigs.

    • The upgrade process is similar to mine. The 1TB OWC drive that I installed in my iMac will fit in the MacBook Pro.

      Enjoy. Apple will probably never do another 17-inch notebook.


  2. michael says:

    I did the upgrade thing on my 2008 17 inch MBP using a 48 GB ExpressCard SSD for OS and Programs. I also replaced the HDD with a WD 1 TB HDD. Performance was much improved and I put off getting a newer model because something better was always around the corner.

    Late 2014 I got a new Retina MacBook Pro. It’s just so much better – I really only use the old 17 inch for iTunes now.

  3. Avi Learner says:

    Cup or bowl is an okay way to set screws aside. Put a small magnet in the bowl to collect the screws and secure them from floating away, if you use one.

    Better yet, use a pill box or two to separate them into the order that you remove them. On MacBook Pros, there are a few of different lengths. So using a 7day pill box to keep them in the proper replacement order is quite practical. The pill box lids will also secure the screws should you need to delay reinstallation, or move to another area to reassemble. Especially at my tender age (63).

  4. don says:

    Not to be too off point but I did the upgrade on my 2009 15″ with a hybrid 750G + 8G ram. Like a new machine. Only issue, hybrid drive is noticeably noisy when everything else is quiet. Slight hum…..but hey!!! 2009 MBP and still flawlessly functioning with over 350G used on the 750? I think I spent well and wise.
    That said, I thought 2011 was the last year for the 17’s. No?

  5. Gunnar Forsgren says:

    The 17 inch is plagued by the motherboard solder issue where a graphics chip works itself loose at the pins due to repeated thermal expansion/contraction when warm/cold. Apple accepted a recall program for all 17s where the problem manifested itself.
    I was lucky to have the problem in that recall window and had the motherboard of my 17 replaced for free by an Apple authorized service partner. But those who haven´t used their 17 enough for the video chip to come loose could be in for the inevitable treat as further machines die one by one. The recall program will cease at the end of 2016 so after that no chance for a free repair. The solution if it happens (the display typically goes all white) is to look for a new motherboard on Ebay. They repair only machines that fail a special Apple video hardware diagnostic test that service shops have access to.

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