Turbocharge Your MacBook Pro on the Cheap! (Hardware Review)

Background

I bought my first Apple computer in June 2009 – I was a hardcore PC guy since the ’80s, even though my work is heavily focused on graphic design and photography. This always came as a surprise to people since creatives have historically been associated with the Apple brand – so be it, whatever. Growing up with computers and not having a ton of extra cash, I always justified my PC-partisanship with the ol’ “you get more bang for your buck” argument. However, as a youth, I spent many, many hours tinkering with my windows machines, figuring out problems 90% of the time. Since I was young and in school, I never thought to attach a dollar amount to my own time. Now that I’m a grownup, have a family and work a ton every week – I most definitely attach money to my time – and anything that saves me time saves me money. It didn’t take long to discover that, after purchasing a 17″ unibody MacBook Pro, this machine (and Apple in general), was going to save me a ton of money!

I apologize for the long-winded intro, but a little background provides context to better understand my motivation. Being frugal by nature, I’m always on the lookout for things that will improve my workflow – the more time I can save, the more billable hours I have available to the world. And if a product happens to accomplish this, and is inexpensive – I have to try it out.

What’s this little slot for?

Many MacBook Pros have a small ExpressCard/34 slot on the side; only the 17″ unibody models have it now, but I believe older MacBook Pros have them. I recently read about a Solid State Drive (SSD) that fits in the small ExpressCard slot – there’s not much use for this port, and I doubt many people even use it – but anything that does fit it can take advantage of the amazing 3Gb/sec throughput provided by the internal eSATA connection. By putting an SSD in this slot, you can easily supercharge your mac!

I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of why SSDs are so much better (see: faster) than conventional hard drives, but believe me when I say they offer many advantages over their mechanical, spinning counterparts. You can use an SSD in place of the hard drive in your MacBook Pro – but they are 3 to 4 times as expensive right now – and typically at lower capacities. So unless you’re independently wealthy or don’t mind eating ramen for a few months, you’re probably not rocking an internal SSD in your laptop.

Good, fast and cheap? You don’t say…

Last year Wintec released their Filemate 48GB ExpressCard SSD – what makes this card special is threefold. First, it’s cheap. And by cheap I mean inexpensive. I picked one up for $140, shipped (it seems to fluctuate in price by $30). Second, it’s FAST – especially its read performance – often exceeding 120MB/sec. Third, it’s bootable. 48 Gigs isn’t huge, especially compared to the MacBook Pro’s internal 500GB  hard drive. But 48GB is plenty of space for the Snow Leopard operating system and a good number of applications.

The setup!

In a nutshell, you simply install Snow Leopard to the (HFS+ formatted) SSD, then use Snow Leopard’s “migration assistant” to copy over your applications and settings (it would be a pain to have to install them twice!!). When the OS is installed, restart the computer and hold down the alt/option key when the screen is black – a menu will appear prompting you to select your boot device (SSD or the internal hard drive). When you SSD boot into Snow Leopard for the first time, you’ll want to change your “home” folder (where all your documents, pictures, etc reside) to the pre-existing folder on the internal hard drive. See this excellent article for a step-by-step how-to for changing the OS X home folder location. The 48GB Filemate is not big enough for all my data, so it’s a good thing Snow Leopard makes it easy to use just one home folder location, even though you have the operating system installed in two locations – it’s ingenious, really. Click here for great step-by-step instructions describing this whole process – it really helped me out.

How fast, you say?

So now you have Snow Leopard and all your applications in two places – the internal drive and the removable SSD, and all your personal data is still on the internal drive. When booting up to the SSD for the first time, it’s insane how much faster it is than the “sluggish” 7200 RPM 500GB hard drive. I’m not a hard-core-analyst-tester-guy, but I can tell you this: booting into Snow Leopard and loading the Chrome web browser and no other applications takes about 1 minute, 24 seconds with the internal hard drive. Booting into Snow Leopard and loading Chrome, Photoshop CS4, Bridge CS4, Lightroom 2, Firefox and NetNewsWire took a whopping 34 seconds. The applications load so fast, the icons don’t even have time to “bounce” in the dock. They’re just…open. Talk about a time saver! In general there’s just a whole lot less lag. Sorting through photos is quicker, switching apps, opening and closing – it makes an already fast machine into this super-robot that sits there, tapping its robot foot, waiting for you to hurry up and do something.

Conclusion: Buy it.

So for $140, you can truly turbocharge your Mac – I can’t think of any upgrade at this pricepoint that will increase overall performance to the extent that this little SSD does. Yeah, you can get an even faster, bigger SSD to replace the internal hard drive for even more mind-blowing acceleration, but you’ll be dropping many hundreds – even thousands of dollars for speed and capacity. By getting a “cheap,” smaller SSD to complement the internal hard drive, you’re truly getting the best of both worlds. To summarize, I highly recommend the Wintec Filemate 48GB SSD.

In closing, I want to warn you to do your research with other SSDs; some don’t use the eSATA connection and will surprise you with lackluster USB-grade performance. Others, including the 64GB version of the Filemate, aren’t necessarily bootable in the MacBook Pro. So it definitely pays to google around for other people’s experiences before committing to your final purchase. Eventually all SSDs will come down in price for the rest of us hairy knuckle-draggers to buy, but until then we at least have some viable (nay, downright exciting) options. Thanks for reading, and good luck!

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  • February 24, 2010 - 2:48 pm

    Mat - Thanks for the review. This is going to be a hot accessory. Others have complained about heat. Had any issues?

  • February 24, 2010 - 3:35 pm

    Chris Schmauch - The biggest heat source on my MBP is the videocard… so no, I haven’t noticed the SSD itself causing excessive heat.

  • April 24, 2010 - 4:53 pm

    PJ - Looks like the capacity for truly FAST expresscard ssd’s is stuck at 48GB with this Wintec Filemate with it’s 115MB/sec (read) and 65MB/sec (write).

    These speeds are required for fast boot installations but 48GB is just a bit small (though people, like yourself, are installing them on MacBook Pro’s with impressive results.)

    Anything bigger than 48GB “with the same r/w speeds* would be a big help, and, of course, 128GB would be ideal. But not been a movement above 48GB at these speeds since early 2009. All the bigger capacity ones so far (May 2010) are at slower USB 2 speeds (but btw, are advertised as “fast”.)

    Thanks for the article: expresscard ssd’s are a great way to make an older laptop faster even than newer ones (provided, of course, the older laptops can boot from the expresscard slot – and some machines manufactured in the past 3 years can do this.)

  • April 25, 2010 - 1:29 am

    Lars Hedemann - Hey Chris
    Found this review via Amazon, and also have read Macworld’s review of the Wintec SSD + all the hints at Macosxhints.com. Good to see a true user’s review, in the same line of work that I am in, as I have already bought the 48 GB, knowing that it wont boot my 2007 Macbook Pro. However, I knew at the time that I was going to get the next rev. Macbook Pro that CAn boot via the Filemate SSD, and here we are, with my 17″ i7 on the way (should receive it next week), so I am anxious to try it out.

    My reasons for going the Filemate SSD route, is the same as yours. I have been juggling back and forth between doing this, or buying a very expensive internal SSD, which I knew could only go to 256 GB. And I NEED at least 400 GB for al my stuff. Could have bought the optional 52 GB SSD for the new MBP’s, but jeesus, what a price.

    So here I am, with the Wintec Filemate 48 GB handy, my new MBP on the way, and I have some questions for you before I get some of that sweet SSD love.

    A bit about myself: I am an independent graphic designer, have worked with Macs for around 18 years, I do heavy Photoshop, Indesign, Acrobat work, often working with files from 300-1000 mb. I also use Aperture alot, and some other 3D rendering apps.

    Ok, to the questions:

    1. The way I often work is that I have my Macbook Pro in Clamshell mode, connected to a 24″ Eizo screen. Do you have any experience with clamshell mode and this SSD?

    2. I am a backup freak. I use three different systems (and offline system too), to make sure all of my clients files are safe. I need to know that if my internal HD dies, I can keep working on the clone (via SuperDuper) with almost no downtime, for as you so correctly state: Time IS money. How stable is this SSD in terms of heavy graphics work. How long have you been using it now?

    3. Third. I read on Macosxhints, that he had the system on the SSD synced with a version on the internal HDD, so that if the SSD died, he could just boot up from the internal HDD. Have you done something similar?

    4. Do you keep ALL your apps on the SSD, or just the ones that benefit the most?

    Thanks for this excellent review, anxious to read of your experiences after these 3 months…

    Best,
    Lars

  • April 25, 2010 - 8:59 am

    Chris Schmauch - Hi Lars, congrats on the new i7 on its way – I’m envious! I think you made the right choice sticking with the HDD for the internal – SSDs of that size are still way too expensive to justify. I’ll do my best to answer your questions.

    1. I haven’t used it in clamshell mode, but I don’t really see how that’s relevant to the SSD, unless you’re wondering if it simply works or not. I do hook it up to my 60″ tv all the time as a second monitor @ 1080p to play movies while I work. I was just watching a blu-ray rip of avatar while editing files in lightroom, so it’s got the capability to do both.

    2. I’m a photographer and graphic designer (AD for The Wave Magazine) so I know what your workflow is like. I haven’t had any instability problems up to this point. The system has retained its snappiness. I even recently loaded a few thousand fonts, which I was concerned about since this always makes my programs load sooo sloooow on my PCs, but I haven’t noticed a difference. At all. Pretty amazing. That could be more about how the mac handles fonts than the SSD, I don’t know. I have tried putting files on the SSD temporarily to work on to see if it would be faster, but I haven’t really found this to be the case. I think the Filemate works best for running the system and apps and working with files on another drive.

    3. I know you can back up the OS and SSD to your main drive using super duper or whatever but I haven’t tried it. I have most of the apps installed on the main drive so if I chose to boot to it or if something happened to the SSD it wouldn’t be a huge pain. The main drive is still used for all my document storage at a system level so if the SSD crapped out I’d just lose out on some of the apps I’ve installed since I made the initial dupe and any settings I’ve changed in the apps. Not a huge deal, but I’ll admit it would be ideal to just sync the OS once a week. I’m relatively new to the mac as this laptop was my first mac, but I should probably make the effort to figure this out 🙂

    4. I think it makes the most sense to run all your apps off the filemate, unless they won’t fit of course. I don’t see why any app wouldn’t benefit, and it just seems “messy” to distribute your apps over multiple locations. I imagine that would make backing up that much more complicated.

    Hope this helps, good luck!