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Use an external SSD to make an old Mac feel new (without cracking it open)

Glenn Fleishman | April 9, 2015
My mid-2011 Mac mini had slowed down. Way down. Starting with Mavericks, the mini would eventually bog down after a number of days between restarts, and require a force restart or manual one.

My mid-2011 Mac mini had slowed down. Way down. Starting with Mavericks, the mini would eventually bog down after a number of days between restarts, and require a force restart or manual one.

It took several minutes to power up and start loading apps, and then around 20 minutes, if not longer, to be fully responsive — this despite 16GB of RAM. My late-2011 MacBook Air, with just 4GB, restarts and is available within a couple minutes. What gives?

I had to figure it out, because I increasingly found myself wasting time and waiting.

No pressure, honestly

You'd think someone writing the Mac 911 column would have plenty of ideas, and yes, I did. Restarting would often free up 20 to 40GB of disk space on the mini's internal 500GB hard drive. (See this Mac 911 column for more about caches.) But the Mac wasn't any faster after a restart than before.

I used WhatSize (which I also reviewed) to free up almost 90GB in unneeded files, which seems to help a little. There was clearly something to do with temporary files and available disk storage slowing things down.

Using Activity Monitor, and in the Terminal, the top command, I could see I was often running up against the limits of physical memory, but the Mac didn't seem to be under "memory pressure," which would cause a lot of disk activity. During the slow post-restart, pre-usable phase, neither memory nor disk storage was an issue.

Mavericks added memory compression, a way to maximize physically installed RAM that gave new life to my MacBook Air. But neither that nor swap, in which hard disk space is used to store inactive elements of memory, was causing problems as well, according to Activity Monitor.

And I didn't have an easy path to the obvious solution: swapping in an SSD, a solid-state drive that could be orders of magnitude faster than the 5400 rpm hard drive in the mini. The last few years of mini models have hard drives locked away like an idol in the Temple of Doom. iFixit ranks the swap-out as "moderate," even though it has 20 steps in each direction. I usually don't quail at disassembling a Mac, but this had too many chances to go wrong.

But it is, of course, possible to use an SSD in an external enclosure. I went that route, and solved the slowdowns.

The many choices for external SSD

I came at this problem not wanting to buy a new Mac yet, and also wanting to keep the cost to about $300, while getting something I would reuse with a new computer or for portable storage later. To get a comparable mini with the same amount of storage and memory would cost at least $700, and that's without a built-to-order Fusion drive (HDD/SSD combo), but a regular hard drive. (There's no SSD option from Apple.)

 

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