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

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.