MacBook Pro: Upgrade… Adventure? [Updated]

Disclaimer: This article is technical in nature, and will only make sense to those who know computers.


The short story: 2009 13″ MacBook Pro + Adding an SSD = Headache.

Things Are Slowing Down

It begins with the ignominious Spinning Beach Ball of Death (SBBoD) on my wife’s 2009 White Unibody MacBook. She’d been having trouble for some time, but it seemed to be getting worse. She has a lot of pictures, videos and music, and her hard drive was nearly full. Having re-installed OS X from scratch once before, I knew there was little that could be done to make it better.

Our first thought was that it was time to replace our computers. Mine has been slow as well lately, and I’ve had my eye on a MacBook Air for a while. The only downside to the Air–for me–is the lack of an optical drive. I still use mine on a daily basis. Of course, cost is always an issue, and two new MacBooks at the same time would cost a pretty penny. I therefore turned to the upgrading option.

My wife’s MacBook only had 2GB of RAM, and a 250GB hard drive. Clearly, it was time to improve upon this. I ordered a 640GB hard drive, and an 8GB RAM kit (2x4GB) for her laptop. At the same time, I ordered the same 8GB upgrade kit for my laptop, in order to upgrade mine from 4GB to 8GB. I also ordered a Samsung 830 series 256GB Solid State Drive (SSD). The drive is also SATA 3.0, which provides a 6 Gbps read speed. My research pointed to the Samsung 830 series as being one of the best out there.

First Upgrade

Once the equipment came in, I made a Time Machine backup of my wife’s MacBook, then began the process of upgrading her laptop. Installation was straightforward (I’m not going to cover the installation, as a quick Google search will give you better instructions than I could provide here anyway). After installing the RAM upgrade and the hard drive, I fired up my Lion installation disc, and restored from the Time Machine backup. (I later learned this prevents the recovery partition from being created, and that I should have installed Lion, then chosen the restore data from my Time Machine option, rather than the initial restore I chose. Oh well, life goes on.) Immediately, it was clear how much the RAM made a difference. iTunes was much speedier, applications launched quicker, and overall performance was vastly improved. She still got the SBBoD, but only when playing Facebook games, and it was much reduced from before the upgrade.

So, with the first upgrade completed, and working wonderfully, I moved on to my own computer. That’s where things got hectic.

Second Upgrade

Day 1

So, to provide a little background on my computer, I have a Mid-2009 13″ Unibody MacBook Pro (Model 5,5 in case you’re wondering). It’s a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo with 4GB of RAM. I also have a 250GB hard drive, of which about 100GB is free (I keep most of my files on our Home Server, which had dual-redundant backups.) Performance has been good, but not spectacular, especially since the OS X Lion upgrade, though how much of that had to do with another issue that’s later detailed I don’t know. Still, I was ready for a performance boost.

I created my Time Machine backup, intending to follow the same steps as for my wife’s MacBook. After installing the hard drive and memory without difficulty, and re-assembling my MacBook Pro, everything seemed to go along smoothly. I popped in my Lion installation disc, and kicked off the restore from Time Machine backup. Not far into the restore, I received error messages; it wouldn’t restore my backup. No biggie, I figured, I’ve still got all the data on my original hard drive. I chose to do the clean install of Lion, and kicked it off. It seemed to proceed well, and so I left it installing and went to bed.

Day 2

Woke up the next morning to check on the installation, to find it had not completed successfully. Weird, I thought, but gave it another try. Again, it failed the installation. These installations took some time as well, so the entire process wasn’t very quick. By now, I was starting to grow a little more agitated. I began Google searching, and found that most users chose to clone their hard drive to the SSD while it was connected externally to the computer, rather than the method I chose. I wasn’t sure it was necessary, but decided to do so, only slightly differently. Not wanting to disassemble my MacBook Pro once again, I connected my original hard drive via USB and booted from it. Then, I began Carbon Copy Cloner and cloned the original drive to the installed SSD. Everything seemed to progress properly. After the cloning, and booting, the computer seemed to run well. I could immediately notice a speed increase. However, when I tried running the BlackMagic Disk Speed Test tool, I began getting errors. Write errors were cropping up, and I noticed I was now seeing the SBBoD myself–something I had hardly ever seen before on my computer. Still, I plugged on.

After trying to determine why the speed test was failing, I started Googling, and found people complaining about the brand of RAM that I bought (Corsair). Resigned to the idea of having to once again disassemble my MacBook, I swapped back to the original RAM, fired it up and tested it. At first, I believed that was the problem, as BlackMagic seemed to run better, though still threw up the occasional error. After a few hours though, it was clear there was still a problem. The SBBoD was coming back more and more, and seemed to be getting worse. It was obvious now that the RAM wasn’t the issue, but instead, had to be the SSD.

Figuring a fresh mind would help resolve the problem, I left the computer and went to bed.

Day 3

More Googling led me to results that indicated the drive itself might be bad. But oddly, if I connected the drive via USB, it seemed to work fine, with the exception of the speed (limiting an SSD to USB 2.0 speeds is quite unfair.) Not ruling out a defective drive, I continued searching online. After several hours of message board posts, and searching Apple Support forums, I found information related to the RF interference that SSDs have over standard hard drives. My MacBook Pro has a SATA 2.0 connection, so the drive is already slowed down from 6 Gbps to the slower 3 Gbps standard. That’s still leaps and bounds faster than my hard drive could handle, so I was okay with that. It turns out, that additional RF interference caused significant problems on the 2009 17″ MacBook Pro model, which people resolved by shielding their SATA cable with aluminum foil. I thought this was rather cheesy, but felt it worth a try. I wrapped the cable, fired everything back up and proceeded to test it out. It seemed better, but still had some issues.

About this time, I learned of the TRIM commands, and of a utility to enable that within OS X using TRIM Enabler. I installed it, rebooted, and performance seemed to be okay–certainly better than it had been.

Over the course of the day, I got the occasional spinning ball, but only for a few seconds, then everything would go back to normal. It’s clear this was a widespread problem, based on Google searches, but so far, I hadn’t found a sure-fire resolution for the problem. Everything from a bad SSD, to bad memory, to the SATA cable being bad, to the MacBook being defective seemed to abound, but no solution that fit each case.

Frustrated and disappointed, I went to bed.

Day 4

The computer seemed to work quite well. I only experienced a couple SBBoD, and it seemed to be running better. My hopes were that it was improving with time. Alas, by the end of the day, it was clear that something was still wrong. Heavy usage on the laptop caused more problems, and I was about ready to throw in the towel. I started pricing traditional hard drives, figuring I’d go with a 7,200rpm drive, rather than my existing 5,400rpm drive, which would still give me a performance improvement, just not as much as I’d hoped for by going with an SSD. I wanted to give it a couple more days. the improvements of this day provided a small amount of hope that things would improve.

Day 5

I continued researching the SSD drive, convinced the problem wasn’t necessarily the drive itself, but something to do with compatibility. I finally stumbled across some forums talking about Kingston SSDNow V+200 drives, and the fact that they used a Toshiba controller, rather than the more common Samsung controller. Being a Samsung drive, it left little doubt about which controller my hard drive was using. Still, I was hesitant to take the chance–actually, lazy might be a better term, as I dreaded having to re-clone the drive, and go through this all over again.

With a little more searching, I stumbled upon an interesting forum post that talked about the SATA controllers in the MacBook series, and how the EFI 1.7 firmware caused all kinds of problems with 3Gbps drives, and that rolling the firmware back to 1.6 resolved a lot of problems. More Googling about the EFI 1.7 issues finally revealed a host of other people with the same problem. In those issues, rolling the firmware back to 1.6 did indeed resolve their issues; the only downside? It halved the speed of the SATA to 1.5Gbps. Willing to take the risk, I found the firmware files I needed, flashed the firmware back to 1.6, and lo and behold, the problems went away. Unfortunately, this means I don’t get the performance speed I had originally wanted, but unfortunately, that’s the only solution. The fault lies with the SATA controller within the MacBook Pro itself; it simply doesn’t handle the 3Gbps drives well.

Day 6

After downgrading to the 1.6 firmware, I was able to work without any problems on my laptop. But still, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but wish I could find a way to get the full 3Gbps speed. So I did some more Google searching. Though it appears like a 50/50 chance, replacing the SATA cable that connects to the hard drive might fix the problem. A number of people have reported it as fixing the issue, yet other say no. I decided to make an appointment with the Apple Store, to see if they can help me out…

Day 7

[Updated] – After doing more research online, I decided to cancel my appointment with the Apple Store. Everything I could find indicate the problem is with Apple’s EFI, and SATA controller causing the issue. Changing the SATA cable would make no difference. I nearly returned the SSD drive, going so far as to request a return from Amazon.com, then ran one last set of benchmarks at home. My typical 250GB 5400rpm disk drive was reading/writing at around 30Mbps, but the SSD, even in the reduced 1.5Gbps mode reads and writes at over 90Mbps. That’s still a three-fold increase, which is certainly noticeable. Though not at fast as I’d hoped for, it’s still an improvement. Moving to a 7200rpm drive would likely not see similar results, as I would still have to continue running at the reduced 1.5Gbps SATA speeds, due to the EFI issues.

Therefore, I must hope that at some point, Apple will release another EFI update for the 2009 MacBooks to improve performance with 3rd party SATA II drives. The chances of that happening–while slim–are not entirely far-fetched. Let’s hope they do something, and sooner, rather than later.