October 28th, 2011 • 5:23 pm
In my experience, speed and noise are the two trickiest, most subjective aspects of personal computing, especially for power users. Some people can’t hear fan noises, or they don’t notice them, or they don’t care. Others can be driven mad by hums and whines, even if they are not loud at all. As for speed, it depends on so many factors that, when a user tells you that his or her machine is fast or slow, it simply does not really mean anything to you until you’ve tried using the machine yourself, doing either the same things that he or she does or what you would normally do with the machine.
My own personal experience with noise levels is that, overall, things have improved dramatically since the days of the horrendous PowerMac G4 MDD. Of course, I’d like my 2009 Mac Pro and my external hard drives to be even quieter (if not silent), but on the whole, most of the time the fan noise is tolerable and there are no whines or hums.
As for speed, I find that we have really reached a plateau in the past few years, partly because CPU performance has been increased, not by ramping up the chip’s frequency or so-called “clock rate,” but by multiplying the number of cores — and most software programs fail to make full use of these multiple cores — and partly because hard drive technology itself appears to have reached some kind of plateau too, if not in terms of capacity, at least in terms of speed.
At the same time, lately Apple and other Mac software developers don’t seem to have been as focused on performance improvements as they were a few years ago. Remember the days when one of the big selling points of a new version of Mac OS X was that, in spite of the addition of numerous new features, the new version was actually faster than the previous version on the same hardware? I haven’t heard Apple make such a claim in a while, and Lion, on the whole, certainly does not feel any faster than Snow Leopard was.
I shall not even mention here the abysmal performance levels of Microsoft and Adobe software on Mac hardware… It is positively embarrassing and shameful, but apparently these developers do not feel any embarrassment and certainly have no shame.
All this is to say that, as a power user who tends to work very fast and expect high responsiveness from his machine, I have always been highly aware of speed/performance issues and find myself on a never-ending quest for a faster, more responsive workstation. Because of this, for the past few years I have been keeping an eye on the evolution of the technology known as “solid-state drive” or SSD. I didn’t want to be an early adopter, because of the high cost involved (for limited capacity) and the uncertainty associated with this new technology, so I didn’t include an SSD drive in my custom configuration for the Mac Pro I bought in 2009, but I knew that, eventually, this might be an upgrade worth considering.
Then the other day, after I posted a blog item about performance levels in iTunes 10.4 and iTunes 10.5, I got an e-mail from a reader sharing his own experience with using iTunes to manage a large music library. He too had experienced problems with iTunes 10.4, but said that he had managed to work around them (to a certain extent) by replacing his machine’s startup hard drive with an SSD, even though his large music collection was still, of course, on a separate hard drive. His view was that one of the bottlenecks in iTunes performance is the library file itself, which can be kept on the startup volume, separate from the music files (by choosing the appropriate option for the iTunes Media folder in iTunes’s preferences). Even though his music files were still on a hard drive, the basic library files were now on the startup SSD, and this appeared to have helped significantly.
This got me intrigued, and I started to do some reading on the current state of SSD technology and available options for my Mac Pro. Because I have to use Microsoft and Adobe software in my work (and I am also a Logic Pro user), I knew that capacity would be an issue. I examined my startup drive carefully to identify what I could get rid of in order to reduce the total footprint of my system and applications, and determined that I would still probably need a drive with a capacity of at least 200 GB.
I checked a number of reviews, and ended up deciding to go with OWC‘s 240-GB Mercury EXTREME Pro 6G SSD. It was definitely not the cheapest option, especially for me in Canada, since OWC is US-based, but I felt that it offered the right mix of performance, reliability, and support for me as a Mac user. It was still a hefty chunk of change ($499US + shipping, duty, and tax), but I felt that it was worth it at this point in time. Best of all, after discussing this with my employers, they agreed to cover the cost of the upgrade, given that they hadn’t made any contribution to my home office equipment in quite a while. (I purchased the 2009 Mac Pro with my own funds.)
I have never had any problems with OWC over the years, and I didn’t have any this time either. The shipping options are still rather expensive for Canada, and there is no escaping the duties and taxes at the border, but other than that, the delivery was super fast and I got the drive within a few days.
For the installation process itself, I had two options: either I could start again from scratch in order to create a clean Lion install and reinstall only those applications that I really needed, and then rebuild all my customizations and settings, or I could trim my existing startup volume and then just mirror it. In the end, I decided against doing a clean install, simply because it would have been a rather time-consuming process. I mounted the small 2.5″ SSD drive on the special Mac Pro adapter I got from OWC, and put it inside the Mac Pro in one of the four regular storage slots. (I already had a hard drive in that slot, but it was one that I wasn’t using much.)
I then used SuperDuper! to copy my startup volume (which I had managed to bring down to 160 GB of disk space) onto the SSD. The process took less than two hours. (I didn’t stay in front of my computer the whole time, so I don’t know exactly how long it took.) I then selected the SSD as the startup volume and rebooted.
I have now been using the SSD as my startup volume for a couple of days and my observations are as follows.
The transition was pretty much seamless. I didn’t have to reinstall any applications, and the vast majority of my settings and preferences were fully preserved.
The machine’s startup process is now significantly faster, especially after logging in. The trick that Lion uses to make you believe that everything relaunches instantly (by showing an image capture of your work environment first, basically) almost works. (With a regular hard drive, it is rather more frustrating: it looks like everything is launched instantly, but then you have to wait quite a bit just the same before things actually become usable.) This is important for me because, for a number of reasons, I probably end up rebooting up my machine more often than the average user. One of the reasons is that I am a member of the AppleSeed program, so I have to install new versions of Mac OS X on a regular basis and reboot. Another one is that, for some reason, in my work I tend to encounter bugs that require a restart. (The latest one is an occasional bug with SuperDuper! backups that causes an endless loom of mounting/unmounting disk images that can only be stopped by rebooting. Apple is investigating.) Yet another one is that I have yet to invest in a UPS system for my machine and our power utility here in Nova Scotia is notorious for its crappy service and frequent outages.
The process of launching the big, slow crap applications from Microsoft and Adobe is also significantly improved, which again is important in my case not just because I have to use these applications, but because they crash on a regular basis, which forces me to relaunch them again, and again, and again. They do not launch instantaneously now (like more lightweight, better designed applications do), but they do launch much faster, and that helps alleviate the issue somewhat.
The responsiveness of the system as a whole and of individual running applications is of course significantly better. It all depends on how much they depend on access to hard drives, of course. My SSD volume only contains my system, my applications, and my user folder, but all my documents and all my media files are still on separate hard drives. The reason for this is an issue of disk capacity. I have to leave some space free on my SSD (so that Photoshop can use it as a scratch drive, for example) and having the necessary disk space for all my files in SSD would cost me thousands of dollars.
But still, just having the system, the applications, and the home folder files (preferences, application support, caches, etc.) on a SSD does make a significant difference. On the whole, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s an order of magnitude faster. But it does provide a nice, significant overall speed boost. I don’t have time to take detailed, scientific time measurements in order to compare the responsiveness and performance levels with what I used to get with a hard drive, so my observations are inevitably subjective and impressionistic.
You also need to remember that this upgrade does not change anything to the situation with my Internet connection, which peaks at 1.5 Mbps and is sometimes significantly less than that. There is nothing that I can do about this for now, but things will change next year when we move into a new house with better Internet service. That will be the next big “upgrade” for my computer system and it will probably have a significant impact on the overall responsiveness of my system as well.
What about the situation with iTunes and my large music library? Well, things are definitely better, but I have to admit that the situation is definitely not as improved as I had hoped it would be. I still get the Spinning Beach Ball of Death, and the iTunes interface still suffers from far too many inexplicable hiccups and temporary freezes that don’t have any obvious cause. The performance of the third-party AppleScript scripts that I use regularly in iTunes is still totally unpredictable. I would say that, on the whole, things are twice as fast in iTunes as they used to be with a startup hard drive, but iTunes has such a long way to go that twice as fast is still not enough to bring it to an acceptable level of responsiveness with a large music library like mine. (Like I said, only the iTunes application itself and the basic .itdb, .itl, and .xml files are on the SSD. The music/media files themselves are still on a separate hard drive.)
I should also note that one of the ways that I managed to trim down the disk space requirements for my startup volume was to move the entire contents of my “Downloads” folder to a separate volume. The folder itself cannot be moved or replaced with an alias, but you can select a different folder in Safari and in other applications as the destination for downloads, so that most downloads will go to that new destination instead of the built-in “Downloads” folder in your home folder. Even then, some applications are still not well-behaved and will continue to use the built-in “Downloads” folder, so I’ll need to continue to keep an eye on it from time to time, but most of my downloads will now go to a separate folder on a hard drive.
The reasons for this are not just that I tend to download quite a bit of stuff (mostly live Prince bootlegs, but also other stuff, like HD movie trailers, etc.) and that takes up quite a bit of disk space. My “Downloads” folder just a temporary storage space and the stuff I want to keep ends up being stored elsewhere. So there is a lot of reading and writing activity involved with this particular folder and I feel that keeping that activity on a hard drive instead of the SSD will help extend the life expectancy of the SSD. As well, most of these files do not need to be readable at a higher speed, since they are media files whose playback does not require more than HD-level speed anyway.
There are drawbacks to this approach, of course. Like I said, even though you can change the default destination for downloads in Safari’s preferences and in other applications, there is still stuff that will end up in that built-in “Downloads” folder. In addition, you can give your separate “Downloads” folder a custom icon if you want to, but as Lion users know, this won’t help in the Finder sidebar, where all folder icons have the exact same appearance, except for the built-in ones. So there is no way to give that separate “Downloads” folder a non-generic icon in the Finder sidebar. (I personally find this restriction maddening. What on earth is wrong with wanting to use colour and custom icons to make things more intuitive and easier to see and target? Isn’t that what having a GUI is all about?)
But on the whole, having a separate “Downloads” folder that is not in the default location is not a huge problem, and can help keep the disk space requirements for the SSD at a manageable (and affordable) level.
Apart from these improvements, the only small problem I have noticed with the SSD so far is a new behaviour in NetNewsWire that I hadn’t noticed before. Sometimes, when I browse RSS feeds, when I select the next entry in a feed, there is a small hiccup of a second or two before NNW actually switches to that next entry. Then again, maybe I had the problem before, but whenever it happened, I would hear lots of hard drive activity and sort of know what was going on, whereas now, of course, a SSD is perfectly silent, so I can no longer tell when there is, for whatever reason, lots of disk activity that might explain a temporary slowdown.
The bottom line here is that my startup volume in my Mac Pro is now a 240 GB SSD, which is only two-thirds full, and this provides me with a really nice overall performance boost, especially in those crappy applications from Adobe and Microsoft that are so painful to use, yet so necessary in today’s professional world. Switching from a hard drive to a solid-state drive is not a life-altering experience, but it is probably as good as, if not better than, getting a brand new machine (i.e. a 2011 Mac Pro) with regular hard drives.
With a five-year warranty on the SSD, I am reasonably confident that this investment will bring lasting benefits and that, whenever I upgrade to a new machine, I will be able to continue to use this drive, if not as the main startup volume, at least as another fast drive for some of my applications or documents.