Maryann Tobin

Some have described having a solid state hard drive in your computer to being addicted to caffeine. You just can't get up in the morning and function properly without it. For people moving from a Windows laptop to a Macbook Pro running Lion OSX, a solid state hard drive upgrade can be frustrating and complicated. But that does not mean its still not worth it.

The late 2011 Macbook Pro is supposed to be SATA III capable, which can mean the difference between read and write speeds of 60Mb/s, and up to 500Mb/s speeds. Solid state hard drives can also cut boot times down to less than 20 seconds and allow programs to open almost instantly, with little or no lag time when switching between programs. SSD's are much less likely to be damaged if your laptop takes an accidental landing to the floor. SSD's are also immune to accidental data loss due to exposure to magnetic fields.

There are two ways to go if you want to own a Macbook Pro with a solid state hard drive. You can special order it from Apple, or you can install a third party SSD. The biggest difference is pure speed.

For a variety of reasons, a factory built Macbook Pro will not reach SATA III speeds. That's partly because Apple has been installing slower SATA II Samsung and Toshiba SSD's and have not "tweaked" the hardware and /or software to accommodate the higher speed capabilities of their Intel Series 6 chipset. Other reasons include known issues with early 2011 Macbook Pro models that were running SATA III incompatible firmware or defective SATA cables.

The known issues were reportedly corrected by Apple in late 2011, but popping in an SSD and achieving the lightning fast speed SATA III can deliver is still hit or miss, according to Hardmac, Apple Support Communities, and my five (yes - five) personal attempts to get an SSD to work property in a late 2011 MBP.

After multiple conversations with Apple Support and countless days searching support forums, I have still not found a clear cut path to trouble free installation, but here is what I've learned.

The new Sandforce controllers in OWC, OCZ and Kingston SSD's, for example, can work fine in a late 2011 Macbook Pro. However it depends in part, on the firmware the manufacturer uses. The same goes for the Marvell controllers found in the Corsair Performance Pro and Crucial M4 SATA III drives.

Over the past few months I have attempted to install two OWC Mercury Extreme Pro SATA III SSD's with a Sandforce controllers, two Crucial M4s with Marvell controllers and the v 009 firmware update, and a Corsair Force Series 3 with a Sandforce controller.

The two OWC SSD's (one of which was a replacement return) worked, albeit not up to touted speed, but only as long as it was running through a USB port. The minute it was installed internally, the MBP refused to recognize the drive.

The first Crucial immediately locked up the moment I tried to clone the hard drive on the Mac. After that, it also refused to work in a relatively new Sony laptop running Windows 7. So there was clearly an issue with the SSD on that one.

The Crucial M4 was returned and replaced by the manufacturer with a refurbished SSD. I managed to get that one to run with a clean install of Lion, but there were spinning beach balls everywhere, sleep mode did not work, the screen blinked out every few minutes and it was almost as slow as the original spinning hard drive. It basically screamed "I'm incompatible" so it too, was returned.

The Corsair was the only one that actually worked when installed internally, but I did a few things differently and don't know for sure if that was what made the difference.

Rather than spend upwards of 6 hours installing a fresh copy of Lion 10.7, I formatted the SSD as Mac OS Extended Journaled using the disk utility and created a single partition. Then I booted directly to the SSD via a USB port and installed my OS by using a backup from Time Machine. After shutting down completely, I installed the Corsair Force 3 in the Hard Drive Bay and powered up with my fingers crossed.

The SSD was recognized and ran without any of the problems I had with the Crucial M4 or the OWC Mercury Extreme Pro 6G. Perhaps it was the drive itself, or maybe it was the clone of my OS using a Time Machine backup. Either way, it booted from the internal installation, but was still slower than it should have been.

The Force 3 has a Sandforce controller and is an SATA III, which was benchmarked by the manufacturer with sequential read and write speeds in the 550 Mb/s range. On my late 2011 i7 2.8Ghz Macbook Pro, Blackmagic Disk Speed test showed I was getting 110Mb/s write speeds and about 209Mb/s reads. Geekbench didn't give me much better news.

Conclusion: The SATA III Corsiar Force 3 worked, but only at SATA II speeds. Still the performance improvement was noticeable. My word processing software opened instantly, instead of taking up to a minute to completely load, photos popped right up, and boot time was cut by about 20 seconds.

However, I was still convinced that my late 2011 Macbook Pro i7 2.8Ghz was capable of more. So I decided take one last stab at trying to get near the lightning fast speed I became addicted to the first time I installed an SSD in a windows laptop some 3 years ago. So last week, I and ordered another SSD; the Corsair Perfomance Pro.

The Corsair Performance Pro came out about 3 months ago and has scored high in benchmark scores. It's also touted to be compatible with Mac OSX. It has a second gen Marvell controller and uses a Toshiba MLC flash chip.

Through all the trials and errors involved in trying to get the right mix of technical specs to play nice with my Macbook Pro, I have to say that the customer support from Crucial, Corsair and OWC was extraordinary. Returns and refunds were issued without hastle.

The new SSD is scheduled to arrive today.

Be sure to read part 2: Solid State Drive upgrade takes Macbook Pro to a new level

You mak also like: Macbook Pro headed for redesign in 2012?

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