How to make a MacBook zippy -- just add an SSD (updated)

Two week update: The SSD drive died this morning when I woke the MacBook from sleep. After a hard restart, the drive no longer showed up at all. I've ordered a replacement and will let you know if that one lasts longer than two weeks.

Original post follows. --km

I guess it runs in the family. About a month ago, my mom's MacBook Pro (a 17-in., 2.5GHz model she bought last summer) started freezing randomly -- and the only way to get things moving again was by picking it up, tilting it to the right and then carrying on with the task at hand. Diagnosis: bad hard drive and/or sudden motion sensor. Mom couldn't bear the prospect of being without a laptop for even a few days -- how else to keep track of Clay Akien's comings and goings -- so she bought a $1,299 MacBook to tide her over. I, in turn, promised I'd sell her "gently used" MacBook for her when she was back up and running.

Thus, a couple of weeks back, I inherited that MacBook. After selling my late 2008 MacBook Air to a Windows-loving co-worker who is gradually seeing the error of his ways, I paid mom off and set about looking for ways to tart up the MacBook. I had to do something to make it feel special -- and doubling the RAM wasn't quite enough. So I cast about looking for a solid-state disk (SSD) drive I could install in it. 

Yes, I know it's kind of like putting a set of 20-in. chrome wheels on a Honda Civic (not that there's anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say). But so what? I've really taken a shine to SSDs, despite the fact they're more expensive per-gigabyte than traditional drives. And, lucky me, the extra money from the Air covered the cost of a new drive.

After consulting with Computerworld's resident storage guru, Lucas Mearian -- he recommended an OCZ drive -- I coughed up $279 for a 120GB OCZ Apex SSD from and got busy. Lucas recently reviewed the very drive I bought and found it to be a solid performer, though no threat to the king-of-the-hill Intel X25-M.

While there are apparently some issues with SSD use on the Windows side -- something about aligning partitions and all kinds of tweaks to get them to work properly -- I had no such problems on the MacBook. The architecture of this particular laptop makes swapping hard drives a breeze. Open up the battery compartment, remove one small screw, disconnect the old drive, reverse the steps to install a new one and in five minutes you're ready to go.

I fired up the MacBook, installed Mac OS X 10.5 from the install DVD that came with the laptop, transferred my files over from a Time Machine backup and was up and running in about two hours. And I'm loving the feel of my newly invigorated MacBook.

If you're using an SSD, you notice the difference on boot-up, which takes just 22 seconds from start-up chime to desktop -- easily less than half the time it would otherwise take. Applications launch in a flash and, not surprisingly, the SSD is ghostly quiet. (It should be; there are no moving parts.) I haven't had time to determine whether battery life is markedly improved, though I had few complaints about battery time when I reviewed the top-end MacBook last fall. And I've certainly not seen any shorter times when using the MacBook on battery power.

As I'm wont to do whenever I get a new computer, I ran a quick Xbench benchmarking test. The results were about what I had expected -- in a good way. The faster SSD yielded an Xbench score for the MacBook of 144. That's on par with the SSD-based MacBook Air I had parted ways with. (The Air had a score of 141.) And both were far ahead of the Xbench scores for the 2.4-GHz MacBook I tested in October (122) and my old 2007-model 17-in. MacBook Pro (118).

Now, I'm under no illusions that my 2-GHz MacBook is a match for MacBooks and MacBook Pros with faster Core 2 Duo chips. But I'm not sequencing DNA or looking for ET in the cosmos. I'm surfing, editing, e-mailing, doing some Photoshop work (Elements launches in six seconds, by the way) and in general enjoying the feel of a much faster machine at a decent price. (I will say that I miss the Air's lighted keyboard.)

So if you're wondering about SSDs and whether they're worth it, my answer is -- if you have the money -- yes. In fact, if you're leery of adding a drive yourself, Apple will cheerfully build a MacBook for you with an SSD. But be prepared to really pay for the privilege: Apple charges $450 for a 128GB drive and $900 for a 256GB version.

I do, on occasion, wonder what this machine would feel like with an X25-M. But for that, I'm going to have to wait for Intel's SSD prices to drop and capacity to grow. For now, the OCZ drive, which has performed flawlessly so far, will do just fine.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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