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  • The iMac SSD Transplant Report

    January 14th, 2015

    It’s quite certain that the designers of recent iMacs didn’t consider what might be required if you wanted to change anything more than RAM. And on the 21.5-inch version, you can’t even do that. So this forces you to load up such Macs on Apple’s build-to-order page when you place your order, so you don’t have to concern yourself about lost upgrade opportunities.

    Now I bought my late 2009 iMac towards the end of that year, a few weeks after release. I did customize some, with an Intel 2.8GHz i7 processor, and the upgraded graphics card. I kept the standard 8GB RAM, since I could always flesh it out later if I wanted; that was the one thing that could be upgraded easily.

    Indeed, when the time came to move to 16GB RAM, I did the deed in about five minutes from the time it took to lift the iMac from my desk, place the screen on a large towel, open the tiny cover at the bottom of the unit, and replace the RAM.

    Although that RAM upgrade should not have made a substantial performance change, or at least I didn’t expect one, I found that some apps seem to be less apt to clog system resources. A particular example was Parallels Desktop, where I was able to launch into a Windows virtual machine somewhat more quickly, with fewer slowdowns impacting other apps. Understand that I seldom gave Windows more than 1GB of RAM, so the slowdowns shouldn’t have been as drastic as they were.

    In any case, I appreciated the modest performance boost, but still suffered from long startup times, amounting to several minutes because I launch half a dozen apps at startup, and opening one of those large productivity apps, such as Adobe Photoshop and QuarkXPress, took 20 seconds or more. Anything that involved copying large numbers of files seemed glacial, and the 1TB Western Digital Caviar “Black” drive that shipped with the iMac was regarded as reasonably swift for its time.

    So I enlisted the expertise of Other World Computing, who specializes in Mac upgrades, to suggest a suitable drive upgrade for review. We settled on the closest match to the stock drive, OWC’s 1TB Mercury Electra 6G SSD. If you want to buy one, it retails for $478, a fairly normal price for such a device. If you can don’t need that much storage, or can rely some on an external drive, you can get a 480GB SSD for $259.

    OWC also includes some useful features that make it suitable for use on Macs. So what OWC calls “global wear leveling algorithms” and “StaticDataRefresh” are said to eliminate the need for one of those TRIM hacks, not officially supported with OS X Yosemite, which are often necessary for third-party SSDs.

    The major claim to fame with SSD is a performance level several times higher than a traditional hard drive without the wear and tear. OWC advertises “sustained reads up to 535MB/s and writes up to 443MB/s,” although I made no effort to verify that claim.

    Alas, you can’t just pop the hard drive out of an iMac and put a new one in. Installation involves a laborious process that you shouldn’t try without some careful instructions. You’ll also need to buy a special kit that contains some special tools and a pair of suction cups. OWC sells such a kit for $59. They have also posted an instruction video that makes the process seem less intimidating. It’s still not a cakewalk, but if you pay close attention, and you’re comfortable with a tiny Torx screwdriver and fiddling with slim, delicate wiring harnesses, you’ll probably do all right.

    In addition to the SSD and the drive installation kit, OWC also sent along a 3.5-inch drive adaptor — the SSD is a 2.5-inch device — although you actually can get by without it.

    Oh, and by the way, next-generation of ultra-thin iMacs are even more difficult to upgrade. In place of magnets to hold the glass in place, Apple has moved to a special adhesive tape.

    In any case, I received the kit on a Saturday, and steeled myself for the installation the following Monday. I watched the video several times, and kept it available on another Mac, the review iMac 5K that has since been returned to Apple, just in case I needed a refresher. And I did.

    I won’t detail all the steps here. But it starts with using the two suction cups to pry the glass from the iMac’s chassis. After that, you have to unscrew a bunch of tiny Torx (six-point) screws to remove the LCD display. All this has to be done real carefully, and it’s best to have some clean, soft surfaces on which to place the delicate components you’re removing. Disconnecting the LCD involves unplugging some real slim wiring harnesses, and you have to be extremely careful. It’s not that replacement cables are necessarily expensive, but getting them from a local Apple dealer or even an Apple Store will not be easy. They are not regarded as user serviceable parts. To prepare myself for the process, I ran a full clone backup to the external FireWire 800 drive with Carbon Copy Cloner.

    The LCD Panel is Removed from Gene's iMac!

    From beginning to end, it took over an hour to install the SSD. The photo at the left shows the iMac at the point where the LCD panel was being removed. The only fly in the ointment was the dust that accumulated inside after five years in dusty Arizona, and it required a few moments to blow it out. No doubt I improved the long-term reliability of this computer in the process.

    After the iMac was closed up, I carefully reconnected all the peripheral cables and the power cord. Since I had to install a new OS onto an empty drive, I pressed Option during the startup process to allow me to select the Yosemite restore partition from the backup drive. The relative speed of the installation signaled what I’d expect once the iMac had its own OS.

    The migration process required some four hours to restore 500GB of data to the new drive, about the same as the same migration procedure took on the iMac 5K. Once restored, I was able to give the SSD the acid test, and I was amazed. Normally it takes up to three minutes for my Mac to boot and all startup apps to load. This time the process took little more than 30 seconds to complete, and I hit the desktop in 15 seconds flat. Most apps launched instantaneously, and Adobe Photoshop took maybe three seconds. QuarkXPress 10.5 loaded in about 10 seconds.

    As any of you who has used an SSD can testify, just about everything runs amazing fast, and the dream of almost instant response is realized. Indeed, it is now hard to detect much of a difference between my old iMac, and the iMac 5K — the latter came with a 1TB Fusion Drive, which gives you most of the performance of a true SSD — which goes to show how much of what you do on a Mac is drive related.

    Based on the system tools I put into action, the iMac is also running a lot cooler now, since the drive generates little or no heat, usually not much higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit after some intense action. It’s hard to complain about that. The sole downside, and it’s minor, is the fact that a 1TB SSD generally formats to around 960GB capacity, short of the 999GB used by the previous drive. But that’s really a minor trade off to gain those amazing speed advantages.

    True, an SSD, and the accompanying installation kit, aren’t exactly cheap. But it’s a lot less expensive than buying a new Mac. If you would rather not engage in such extensive transplant surgery yourself, and I understand why, see if a local Mac dealer would do it for you; an Apple Store would refuse for obvious reasons.

    You can also ship your iMac to OWC’s own plant, of course, but first see if you find a nearby dealer to handle the chores, because it will cost less, particularly when you include the cost of shipping. A nearby authorized Apple dealer, MacMedia of Scottsdale AZ, considers iMac drive upgrades a Tier 2 process for which it charges $95. It’s definitely worth the peace of mind if you choose to take this step.

    Now OWC normally sends out review hardware for 30-day evaluations. But since reviewing this drive involved a complicated installation process, they aren’t exactly rushing me to return it.

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