Friday, January 16, 2015

Do Me a Solid (State Drive)

Acronyms, we are bombarded by them, especially in the tech world. Sometimes to the degree that they don't even register anymore. But there has been one that I have been keeping on my tech radar for a while and that is SSD. It stands for Solid State Drive. And essentially, what is means is memory used as storage. Remember the days where people were having a problem differentiating RAM from ROM? Are you still, LOL? Well RAM (random access memory) was once defined as active system memory and ROM read only memory) as file storage. Think of a person sitting down at a desk. RAM would be the person's brain and ROM would be the files in the filing cabinet under the desk. In earlier versions of the Apple OS, you used to have a ROM disk that allowed you to allocate ROM for use as RAM so that files could be cached there for quicker access. When RAM became less expensive, that went away because RAM (as memory cards in your computer) is always better than mechanically based hard drives.

Enter SSDs. These are storage units comprised of RAM. And if there is one term to describe them, it would be... fast. In Boston parlance, wicked fast. Unfortunately, they are pretty expensive. But I have been biding my time, waiting for them to come down in price or go on sale. And, well, I finally made the move over the Christmas holiday when there was a sale at OWC I couldn't pass up. So I bought two Crucial M500 960MB drives, one for my PC and one for my iMac. Here is how the installation went down for both.

PC Install

I had built a system from parts I purchase from NewEgg and couldn't be happier. Last year, I have upgraded several of the components, but had the same case. There was plenty of room to install another drive, though poking around the case to find the power cable and SATA connector was a bit tricky, it was getting a little tight for space. But I managed and installed the drive.

Formatting the drive using the built-in Administrator utility. I formatted it using GPT (GUID) instead of MBR, not strictly necessary for Windows 7, but what I have read mostly supports using the newer format.

I had to then find an app I could use to clone the drive. Went to my goto source for apps, download.com and found several. But I wanted something free I could just use once, figuring I probably won't need to do this very often. After a couple of misfires, I settled on Macrium Reflect Free v5, because like the name says, it was free and very popular on the site (almost 4 million downloads). Took about an hour to clone the drive.

Next was something fairly simple, changing the SATA settings in BIOS. For good and sometimes ill, PC motherboards allow users to adjust low level system settings that affect how your motherboard behaves under certain conditions. Some hardware additions require certain settings. In this case, the SSD requires SATA to be set on AHCI which is more recent protocol that the more common IDE setting. Once that was done, I had to make sure that the SSD was plugged into the primary 6GB port so it would be the first boot device and on the fastest port.

Again, the 2.5 to 3.5 drive adapter wasn't necessary, but I like to it be tidy inside the computer, so I used the drive adapter to secure it into position.

Once it had the PC up and running, I noticed at first that the original drive wasn't being recognized properly and was concerned that it either wasn't going to work right or work optimally. I soon discovered that there was a bug that didn't play well with SSD and HD on the same bus, but Microsoft had released a patch that took care of that and once installed, it showed up normally.

If you have a PC, even a fast one, after you have used it for some time, it begins to take a while to boot up. Not just to see the desktop but to really have it useable. It's a go upstairs and make yourself a pot of coffee and then have a cup with your favorite muffin slow. Yeah, it's really about 5-10 minutes, but it seems like forever. After the install, it takes about 30 seconds, barely enough time to warm up my chair.

The Results

Never it let it be said that I don't appreciate the benefits of open architecture, both in hardware and software. Having a large case in which to add the drive and adapter, plus changing the settings and installing the patch, all fairly easy, though if you don't do the research you might get stuck with an underperforming HD or a non functional SSD. Also, TRIM was automatically available under Windows.

Apple Install

Even my iMac was becoming a little slow booting up. With all the startup apps, definition updates and the like. It wasn't as bad as the PC, but it definitely took a good 1.5-2 minutes to boot up all the way. I was looking forward to seeing major improvements.

The iMac was going to be a different experience. There is no roomy case to install another drive and taking it apart was going to be a chore, but I was ready for it. I already had a Universal Drive Adapter ($25) in my possession already and I have used it many times to facilitate my hard drive issues with my and my clients' machines. So I hooked the SSD up via USB to my iMac.

Next, I considered my cloning options. I really couldn't use Time Machine or even CrashPlan to restore a backup, since Time Machine isn't bootable and CrashPlan would take days over the internet to restore. So I opened my copy of Carbon Copy Cloner and off it went making a complete, bootable copy of the drive onto the newly formatted SSD. Took about two hours to complete.

Again, the 2.5 to 3.5 drive adapter wasn't necessary, but I like to it be tidy inside the computer, so I used the drive adapter to secure it into position.

I installed the SSD into the adapter, it was time to crack open the iMac and install it internally. Check out the lovely installation manual I found on ifixit.com. The most trouble I had here was making sure that the glass facing the LCD panel was free of dust, fingerprints and hair before finally closing it up.

Booting it up, I noticed two things immediately. The speed of the boot and the jet engine roar of the fans. Whoops. I hadn't realized that when I disconnected the hard drive, I also removed a temperature sensor that monitors the drive temp and adjusts the drive speed. There was no place on the SSD to install that, so I had to resort to a third party software solution or I would go deaf. I ended up going with HDD Fan Control. It did the trick but I hadn't realized at the time that there was a free alternative.

Getting Fit and TRIM

Lastly, there was the issue of TRIM. The way a SSD handles file deletions differs from that of traditional hard drives where files are marked for deletion and then overwritten when necessary. SSDs use both Garbage Collection (GC) and TRIM to effectively delete unwanted data while preserving the speed of the drive. GC alone can perform this function to some degree but to the eventual detriment of the drive due to excessive rewrites. GC is built in to most newer drives, but TRIM is a function provided by the operating system that handles the GC overhead and reduces the wear and tear. Apple supports TRIM but only on Apple devices. For shame, Apple. To remedy that, you have to use the TRIM Enabler. This allows TRIM to function on 3rd party devices, but you sacrifice some security on your computer due to the way Apple wrote its certificate signing protocols. Understand that if you are not a hacker and are not installing questionable software, chances are that this won't ever be an issue. Heck, I did it. But you do need to be aware of it.

The Results

I knew I was going to have to spend a little time getting this installed properly, but what I wasn't expecting was the additional cost. Mind you, I didn't really need a drive adapter ($15.00), but I wasn't going to let my new drive just hang by the SATA connectors inside my iMac. Also, there was (I found after starting this post) a free, though beta, alternative to the HDD Fan Control called Mac Fan Control, but I had already plunked my $30 bucks down (a ridiculous price for a one-trick pony). And then with Apple not supporting TRIM on 3rd party drives, having to pay an additional $10 for the TRIM Enabler was kind of criminal, but the cheapest of the three additional items I had to shell out for. Seriously glad I got a good deal on the drives.

But don't be fooled. Anything that requires disk access will be amazingly fast – boot time, game level loading, database access, opening large image files, running a SQL-based web application, etc. – but your computer's processing speed will be the same. So complex calculations for math, image manipulation, video editing, etc. are only sped up by the amount of disk access those processes use. Overall, though, it's a huge timesaver for those having to wait for their computers to perform disk-based tasks. If you can find a good deal, it's an avenue worth exploring.

Note

While the cloning process using Carbon Copy worked well, there was an issue getting the cloned drive to recognize my existing Time Machine backups. I found a very well written and annotated explanation of how to get TM running again with your existing backups here. I tried it and it worked for me.