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MacBook Pro DIY Surgery: SSD Implant, Optical Drive Extraction (from July 25, 2012)

Last year I decided to finally get a personal MacBook Pro after years of using my Google-provided MBP as my only machine. I've documented the steps below if you're interested in a MacBook Pro setup with an SSD boot volume and an internal HDD for storage.

Since this was mainly going to be a home computer with photo editing as the most intensive task, I narrowed my choices down to an iMac and the non-13" MacBook Pros. After realizing the iMacs are difficult to DIY upgrade and even more difficult to use on the couch, I narrowed even further to the Pros. The 17" would be the roomiest for photo editing, but the cost of the 15" would leave me more money for upgrades (and I could always buy an external monitor). I really wanted lots of hard drive space without messing around with external drives, and I was eager to experience the speed of an SSD.

After the October 2011 MacBook Pro models were announced, I ordered a February 2011 15" i7 2.0GHz MacBook Pro from the Apple Refurbished Store. Apple refurbs are a great deal, and I was able to pick up the lowest-end 15" model for less than $1500.

I decided to get a smaller SSD to boot off of and keep all of my photos, movies, and music on the provided 500GB HDD. I settled on an OWC 60GB SSD (6Gbps). I also picked up a generic hard drive caddy off of Amazon to hold the HDD in the optical bay of the MacBook Pro.

Then it was time to scrub and prep:

  • I ensured the MBP was working and installed all firmware updates
  • I had a USB to SATA/IDE cable lying around so I connected the SSD to the computer to install Snow Leopard via DVD
  • Once the OS installation finished, I rebooted to the SSD to make sure everything worked. I highly recommend doing this before surgery to troubleshoot any issues that come up, but I didn't have any issues
  • I turned off hibernation and hard drive sleep, and enabled noatime
  • While still booted from the SSD, I formatted the HDD to erase its OS and I partitioned it to a 60GB volume and a 440GB volume (more on this later)
  • I ran Repair Disk Permissions and Verify Disk via Disk Utility to be safe
  • While I still had the Superdrive working, I ripped the Snow Leopard DVD and the iLife DVD that came with the computer using Disk Utility and archived them to the 440GB volume

Finally, surgery time:

  • I read different recommendations on which bay the SSD and HDD should go in. Some say the HDD should stay in the default bay due to the shock protection. The OWC blog said the optical bay drive on the 15" and 17" models is flaky when it has a 6Gbps connection and is combined with a 6Gbps SSD. My MBP ended up coming with a 6Gbps connection, so I put the SSD drive in the original HDD bay, and the HDD in the caddy in the optical bay. I'm not too worried about the drop protection since this is mainly going to be a stay-at-home machine
  • I used iFixit's guides on removing the optical drive and replacing the hard drive to guide me through this process
  • Overall this was much easier than expected and took about an hour

Post-op:

  • Since I had done all the prep work already, it was easy to boot right into the SSD and ensure everything was working
  • I had disconnected the battery per iFixit's instructions, so the system time had been reset
  • I connected my Google MacBook Pro to the personal MacBook Pro and started the latter in Target Disk Mode. Then I ran rsync to transfer over all of my personal files
  • I followed Matt Gemmell's Using OS X with an SSD plus HDD setup post on how to set up symlinks to divide data between the SSD and HDD and ensure every app works correctly by default. I pretty much followed all of his suggestions

The system files and much of my home directory are on the SSD. iTunes files, ~/Photos, ~/Movies, etc. are on the 440GB partition.

I created the 60GB HDD partition so I could keep a bootable backup of the SSD. If the SSD ever fails, I'll still be able to use the machine as normal without an external drive until I get a replacement SSD. I set up Carbon Copy Cloner to make a daily copy of the SSD to the 60GB HDD partition, so reverting to the backup should be seamless.

Lastly, I signed up for Crashplan Pro to keep all of my volumes backed up on their servers. Not having to actually connect external drives has made regular backups effortless (but I still make irregular backups on external drives to have local copies).

Eight months later and the setup is still going strong. With today's Mountain Lion release, I realize another benefit of the daily bootable backup: I can install ML right away, and if it mucks up my machine I can always revert to the backup partition!

Roshan Vyas