How To

A repair to my wife’s Mac Mini

My wife’s computer is a unibody, late-2012 Mac Mini, model A1347 with Fusion Drive, which we’ve had since then, having ordered it to our specs directly from Apple. We’re happy with it. It’s a lovely little computer with more than enough oomph for my wife’s needs (she is an author).

The HDD on her Mac was silently failing and her computer was getting slower. A quick disk speed test revealed that its write speeds had decreased by about 75%.

Running First Aid on the system volume did not yield any insights into the HDD’s true state. Thankfully, there’s a little app called DriveDx, which I talked about in a previous post. Running that app revealed the HDD’s problems.

The SSD wasn’t doing too well either, but at least its lifespan was at about 50%.

The solution was simple: I needed to replace the HDD. A 1TB SSD would suffice, so I ordered one (an ADATA SU800 1TB SSD). My wife continued to use her computer as usual, since it was still working, although I made doubly sure that it was backing up to Time Machine. I would restore her data from those backups after I replaced the HDD.

Once the SSD arrived, I got to work. I didn’t want Ligia to experience an outage longer than a few hours, so the pressure was on. My plan was to open up her machine, clean the insides thoroughly of dust, replace the thermal paste on the CPU and GPU, then replace the HDD with the SSD. After putting it back together and booting up, I would need to do a data restore.

Here is a gallery of photographs from that process. The insides were indeed full of dust and the thermal paste had dried up. I followed this guide from iFixit, although I have to say it’s not entirely accurate, as detailed below.

I was on my own when it came time to work on the AirPort/Bluetooth board, where the setup differed quite a bit from the guide. There were also a few screws whose location was different in the guide. So I took photos before I disassembled things, just to be safe.

While I love the design of the Mac Mini (inside and out) and I think it’s a fantastic little computer, it’s tricky to work on. Everything has to fit together just right. The things that gave me problems when it came time to re-assemble it were:

  • the minified SATA cables, which kept popping out of their slots on the motherboard and are really only held in place by the cowling (the little piece of plastic in a semilune shape),
  • re-seating the top drive, whose side screws have to slide into some holes in the back of the case, but there is little to no tactile feedback when they’re in place, and there’s no way to check things visually; it actually fits asymmetrically over the bottom drive, which is a bit illogical, but that’s how the engineers worked out the hardware design,
  • and the antenna plate. Oh wow, the antenna plate was a chore to work back in… It has to fit in just right, hugging the inside edge of the case with an indentation made in the wire mesh from which it’s constructed, and for some reason, it just didn’t want to go back in properly. It was off by less than 1 mm, yet it meant that I couldn’t put the screws back on. Be careful with that one!

When it was time to boot it up, the Mac Mini refused to do it. I stared at a black screen for a minute or two, wondering if I’d forgotten to connect some cable inside it, and then it occurred to me to re-seat the AC cable, which is notoriously hard to plug and unplug on this machine, because its slot is too tight. That turned out to be the problem. Whew.

Another wrinkle that I ran into was the Fusion Drive. This machine has an actual SSD inside of it, not a blade SSD, which is what you might find in an iMac or a MacBook. That was a bit of a surprise to me. Anyway, come time to reformat the drives, I figured I could re-enable Fusion Drive and end up with a single volume that used both the Apple SSD and the new ADATA SSD. Nope. While you can run the commands in Terminal to “marry” the two SSDs into a Fusion Drive (see this post for the details), checking the resulting volume with Disk Utility gives an error and Mojave refuses to install on it. So… no Fusion Drive for my wife, I guess. Then I figured I could create a software JBOD in Disk Utility to end up with a single volume once more, and I did that, and it worked, but once again, Mojave refused to install on it. So I had to simply format each SSD as a separate drive and use the 1TB SSD as the system volume, leaving the 128GB Apple SSD as a secondary volume to be used occasionally.

A quick check with DriveDx showed me that the new SSD was doing just fine.

And a disk speed test showed things were humming along nicely.

Here are some Geekbench scores for good measure.

My wife’s pretty happy with it now, she says it is faster than before and it doesn’t crash anymore, which it used to do every now and then. And if my wife’s happy, then I’m happy.

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How To

To split or not to split your Mac’s Fusion Drive

In a recent post, I wrote about upgrading the original (and failing) blade SSD in my iMac to a bigger and faster NVMe module. During that upgrade process, I wondered whether splitting my Mac’s Fusion Drive would result in better performance, but decided against it for simplicity’s sake.

Even though I decided against splitting my Fusion Drive at that time, I read articles that advocated for it and suggested even better performance was to be had by allowing the SSD and HDD to run as separate volumes. The idea is to install the OS and select files and folders on the SSD, with the bulk of the files on the HDD. For the sake of experimentation and learning something new, I decided to tinker with my iMac and see if I could squeeze out some extra speed.

For those who are wondering what I’m talking about, Fusion Drive is an Apple technology built into macOS that creates what is essentially a hybrid drive, by combining an SSD module (NAND flash) with a traditional HDD (platter drive) and presenting the two as a single volume to the user. The protocols that govern the data I/O are called Core Storage. Apple writes: “Presented as a single volume on your Mac, Fusion Drive automatically and dynamically moves frequently used files to flash storage for quicker access, while infrequently used items move to the high-capacity hard disk. As a result, you enjoy shorter startup times and — as the system learns how you work — faster application launches and quicker file access.”

I’ve been using Fusion Drive since it came out, retrofitting my iMac at the time with a new SSD and thus making it run faster than its original specs. I love this technology, because it offers significant performance improvements for a fraction of the cost of buying a large SSD, which used to be be quite expensive a few years ago.

The long and the short of it is that it’s not worth it to split your Mac’s Fusion Drive. If you’re currently running Fusion Drive on your Mac, keep doing that, you won’t see any significant performance improvements if you split it. Actually, some things may run slower than before, and you’ll also have to deal with a few inconveniences, as detailed below.

I’ll present both scenarios here and you can decide what to do for yourself. There are multiple methods to it. These are the methods I’ve chosen. The number of Terminal commands that you have to run for either scenario is minimal, and the time involved has to do mostly with backing up your computer, waiting for the OS to reinstall and for your data to be restored from backup. For example, if you’ve got a 3TB drive and you’re at about 50-60% usage (and you should be at that threshold or lower on any hard drive), then you should figure on 4-5 hours for either of the two scenarios.

How to split your Fusion Drive

First and foremost, did you backup your computer? If you did, go ahead and create a bootable drive using Apple’s instructions, then boot into it by pressing the Option key as soon as your Mac restarts and holding it down until you see the Apple logo. You need to boot into a separate drive because you’ll be deleting your internal drives entirely, including the boot and recovery partitions.

Once you’re in, open Terminal and get a listing of your disks and volumes.

diskutil list

Your Fusion Drive presents itself as a logical volume group that appears as a separate disk with an HFS+ or APFS partition. Say your SSD is disk0 and your HDD is disk1, your Fusion Drive would be disk2 or disk3. In my case, it was disk3 (disk2 being the bootable recovery drive). Now unmount your internal disks.

diskutil unmountDisk disk0

diskutil unmountDisk disk1

You’ll want to delete that entire disk containing Fusion Drive. Be forewarned, this deletes all you data. Did you backup your computer?

diskutil apfs deleteContainer disk3

Now that Fusion Drive has been nuked, you’ll still have your separate drives that you’ll want to make sure are erased. The eraseDisk command requires that you offer a new name for each disk, so I chose to name them SSD and HDD, to keep things simple.

diskutil eraseDisk JHFS+ SSD disk0

diskutil eraseDisk JHFS+ HDD disk1

Now you’ll want to do a fresh install of macOS onto the SSD, and after that’s complete, you’ll boot up into your fresh install and go to Utilities/Migration Assistant, in order to do a selective data restore. Here you’ll have to decide for yourself, based on the total size of your SSD and your data set, how much of it you’ll want to restore onto the SSD. The rest you’ll need to copy manually from the backup drive onto the HDD. In my case, I restored my user settings and the system and libraries folders onto the SSD, and I copied the following folders onto the HDD: Documents, Downloads, Movies, Music, Parallels (in case you’re running some kind of VM software) and Pictures. Each of those folders was too big to keep on the SSD, even though I have a 512GB module (remember the rule about keeping your drive at or below 50-60% usage).

Once you complete all that work, you’ll need to create links to these folders on the HDD in place of your folders on the SSD. Mojave won’t let you do this when you’re logged into your account, so you’ll need to boot up into recovery mode and open Terminal once more.

Go to your homefolder on the SSD.

cd /Users/yourusername

Delete the folders that are now present on the HDD. You’ll need to do this for each folder that you’ve moved there. Hopefully you’ve written down their names ahead of time.

sudo rm -rf foldername

In your homefolder on the SSD (same location as above), make links to the folders on the HDD. I chose to put mine at the drive’s root level. You may choose to put them in a folder. Just don’t give it the same name as your username, I hear that may cause problems. You’ll need to do this for each folder.

ln -s /Volumes/HDD/foldername

That’s it, restart and use your computer. However, you may find a few inconveniences — these are the ones I experienced:

  • I noticed no performance improvements. There wasn’t even an improvement in the bootup time. Nothing, nada, zilch.
  • While Apps may open up faster, if they’re still accessing files on the HDD, editing will still be sluggish. In order for you to see that performance boost talked about with SSDs, both apps and their files need to be on the SSD.
  • In my case, I had to keep the Photos library on the HDD, because it was too big to keep on the SSD, and while Photos may have opened up fast, loading up the library took forever, until enough of the recent photos were cached on the SSD to allow me to work with my library. So things were a LOT slower with this app.
  • I kept my mailboxes on the SSD so I was hoping for better performance from Mail, but I didn’t get it. I have a lot of mail stored locally, so in theory, things should have worked faster because everything was on the SSD, but they didn’t. I also experienced odd issues, like when moving messages between mailboxes, it took a lot longer and sometimes didn’t register. I’d drag and drop them, then come back to the app a little while later and find them in the same place, just as if I hadn’t moved them.
  • iCloud would display an odd notification icon, but when I’d go into it, there was no message. This icon was displayed continually for as long as my Fusion Drive was split. See the screenshot below.
  • While Time Machine will backup both internal drives, data restores will only restore the files from the SSD. I don’t know why and I don’t know how to fix that, so keep this limitation in mind. You can go into the Time Machine drive manually and copy the files over afterward, but if you run a restore operation on your computer and you wonder where most of your stuff is after it’s completed, don’t freak out, just know you’ll need to get it manually from the drive.
See that “1” over iCloud? It was there all the time.
This is the kind of performance the SSD provided when my Fusion Drive was split. It looks impressive, but hold on until you see the same test with Fusion Drive enabled, later down in this post.

How to enable your Fusion Drive

After about a week of running my Mac with a split Fusion Drive, I’d had enough and decided to re-enable it. Here’s how I did it. Before you proceed with this, I’ll ask you again, did you do a full backup of your computer? This will wipe all your data.

Using the same bootable drive, I booted into it and opened up Terminal. Since you’ll be wiping all your internal drives again, you need to be booted from an external drive.

Apple recommends this single Terminal command that is supposed to do everything in one fell swoop. It didn’t work for me, perhaps because my SSD module was a newer NVMe running off an adapter card, not the Apple-approved blade SSD manufactured specifically for this kind of thing.

diskutil resetFusion

I had to do it with a few more commands. First, find out your disk IDs.

diskutil list

Now unmount your internal disks.

diskutil unmountDisk disk0

diskutil unmountDisk disk1

Then create a merged virtual hard drive with Core Storage.

diskutil coreStorage create Macintosh\ HD disk0 disk1

Now get its logical volume group name (the very long alphanumerical name that appears in Terminal after you type this command).

diskutil coreStorage list

Now format and create the JHFS+ volume that will run Fusion Drive.

diskutil coreStorage createVolume yourlogicalvolumegroupname jhfs+ Macintosh\ HD 100%

Don’t worry about formatting the drive to APFS. That’ll happen automatically when you install Mojave. Besides, APFS is not an entirely separate file system, it’s a container running inside HFS+, so like I said, don’t worry about it. That’s it. Now quit Terminal and do a full restore from Time Machine, but prepare yourself for an incomplete data restore (see the reasons given in the previous section). Once the data restore is complete, you’ll need to manually copy the folders that are missing from the Time Machine drive. Or, as I did, you can do a full restore to a backup set that existed before I split my Fusion Drive, which means you’ll get all your old data back in all the right places, but you’ll still need to get your newer files manually from the Time Machine drive.

In my case, I needed to copy the mailboxes, which are located in ~/Library/Mail/V6 from the newest backup set (the one with the split drive) to my computer, and that gave me all my mail, including the interim stuff. I also copied the latest Photos library, and that gave me all my photos, including the interim stuff. Then I went through the Documents and Downloads folders on the Time Machine drive, sorted by date modified and copied the interim files onto my computer. I didn’t need to go through the other folders because I knew I hadn’t worked on other stuff. And once I did this, my data restore was complete. Mail and Photos still needed to rebuild their libraries though, and that took a while.

And because I use Backblaze to backup my computer offsite, I also needed to uninstall and reinstall that, then inherit a previous backup state (don’t worry about this if you’re not using Backblaze).

When that was done, Backblaze told me it had “made” my computer inherit my backup state, as if it had forced it to do this, in a non-consensual way. Kind of a funny way to word things, but their service works well.

Here’s the kicker. I ran another drive performance test after all this, and these were the results.

Actually a little bit faster than before 🧐

Everything runs fast now, and it runs as expected, without hiccups.

As I said at the start of this article, if you’re already running Fusion Drive, do yourself a favor and leave it running. You’ll avoid headaches you don’t need, unless you like complications.

The only way I can see to speed up my iMac even more, is to purchase a large 3-4TB SSD and run it as my only internal drive. That might be a little faster. But as you can see from the test screenshot shown above, my iMac is no slouch right now. And 4TB SSDs are still fairly expensive. It might actually be cheaper (and possibly faster) to get a 2TB SSD and a 512GB NVMe module, and run them together with Fusion Drive, although the overall capacity wouldn’t be the same. Food for thought.

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Apple iMac
How To

An upgrade to my 2013 iMac

I’ve worked on a few upgrades to our family computers in recent months: my 2008 MacBook Pro, my mom’s 2007 iMac and my own late-2013 iMac (A1419, EMC 2639). This is the tale I’d like to recount for you now, because it’s something that I’ve had to deal with since last autumn (october of 2018), and I’ve just recently (I hope) finalized the upgrade/repair. There’s a valuable lesson in here for the people at Apple Support, if they’re interested.

It started with my iMac slowing down to a crawl over the course of a few days, back in late 2018. At first I thought it was spyware or a virus. I checked everything: every app, every file, every process. I removed apps, one by one, to see if it would fix the problem. It didn’t. I ended up removing all of the apps but those that came with macOS, and the problem still persisted. I wiped the drive clean and reinstalled the OS, then reinstalled the apps anew, one by one. It was just as bad. I ran hardware tests using Apple’s software and everything checked out. I scoured the web for solutions. There were some suggestions online that iCloud could cause slowdowns when the syncs weren’t going properly. I checked the Apple Server Status page and indeed they’d been having some problems with iCloud, but they were marked as resolved. I checked Photos and there were major issues: my photos weren’t syncing properly across my devices, and there were image compression/corruption (?) issues going on, with diagonal blue lines appearing all over my recent photos, lines that persisted even when opening the photo at full resolution.

I called Apple Support and began a series of interactions that did not end with any sort of solution. From the start, they agreed that iCloud was causing the slowdowns and had me go through a series of steps such as logging in and out of iCloud, disabling and enabling the various iCloud syncing options, etc. to no avail. Mail started acting up as well, so they suggested I disable Mail syncing, because I had “too many messages in my mailbox”. Documents started acting up, with iCloud Drive showing up empty on my computer, so they suggested disabling that. In spite of the fact that I’d already done it, they tried to convince me to reformat my computer and start fresh. I kept getting a hunch that something else was amiss and asked them if they were sure this wasn’t a hardware issue. They said no. They told me to wait for the photos to finish syncing, then enable the other iCloud features one by one, and things would get back to normal. They didn’t. We kept going back and forth, with Apple Support posting one update per day (or less) to the case, asking me to do this and that, and even though I’d complete their requests and post more updates during the day, they wouldn’t respond till the next. I offered to pay a case fee to expedite issues. I explained to them that this was my main computer and I couldn’t do my work. This went on for weeks, with me getting more desperate and the techs telling me they’d stop helping me because I couldn’t stay calm.

With things going nowhere and Apple Support techs who couldn’t care less, I decided to exercise the “nuclear” option. I found Tim Cook’s email address and wrote him an email. I didn’t expect a response, but I wanted to vent. To my surprise, a short while later I got a response, not from him but from his office, promising me my issue would be forwarded onto someone who would get back to me. I waited a couple of days and… nothing. No one contacted me. I figured I’d try my luck again. I got the same response, but someone finally contacted me and connected me directly with an advanced support technician. There’s apparently a “third tier” of tech support that is only available on a case by case basis; I guess after almost a month of my computer being down for the count, I qualified.

It took a while longer to get to the bottom of the problem: daily communications, screen sharing sessions, uploading log files to Apple servers, trying various steps, etc. It took over a week. iCloud was at first to blame, then Adobe software, then finally, after my case was put in front of a senior technician directly responsible for iCloud connectivity, my issue turned out not be software related at all, but caused by hardware. Hold on to your hat, because as it turns out my HDD was going bad. That was it. It was as prosaic as that! In total, I’d lost over one month of my time and I had to appeal to Tim Cook’s office, all because Apple Technicians couldn’t pinpoint a failing hard drive from the get-go.

Once the problem was found out, it was an easy enough fix. I opened up my iMac and replaced the HDD with a fresh one. I also found and installed a piece of software called DriveDx, which gives detailed stats about hard drives and can let you know of a bad drive before it actually fails. Most drive diagnostic apps rely on the S.M.A.R.T. status flags, but that’s not enough. DriveDx does a whole lot more. The app quickly let me know that the blade SSD (the second half of the Fusion Drive on my iMac) was also close to its lifespan. Since it was still working okay, I decided to hold off on replacing it last year, choosing to monitor it with the app and only replace it when it was close to failing. Here is a gallery of photographs from the time I replaced the HDD. I also chose to take apart the chips and heat sinks and to replace the thermal paste, which had become dry and cracked. Before I put my computer back together, I cleaned the case and the parts thoroughly with a brush and soft cloth, because a lot of dust had accumulated inside and on them. After I put my iMac back together, it worked beautifully once again. I know I could have replaced the HDD with an SSD, and I plan to do it in the future. It’s just that I want to get a 3-4 TB SSD and their prices are still a bit high.

A few weeks ago (about seven months after replacing the HDD), DriveDx told me the blade SSD was fairly close to failing, so I chose to replace it with a Samsung 960 Pro M.2 512 GB NVMe SSD module that I already had, so this upgrade only cost me about $16 for a Sintech NGFF M.2 NVMe SSD Adapter Card, which seems to be the card everyone recommends for MacBooks and iMacs.

I’ve enclosed a separate gallery of photographs of this upgrade below. You’ll laugh when you see one of the photos, so I’ll explain: in what seems to be an iMac design flaw, the cylindrical bracket that secures the screw for the blade SSD is only glued to the motherboard. Unlike every other screw bracket which is secured directly to the motherboard with metal, this one is not designed into the motherboard. Underneath it, on the other side of the motherboard, there are circuits running right across that spot. It seems to me like at the time (2013), the blade SSD and its screw bracket were afterthoughts of sorts for the hardware design team. My bracket came right off the motherboard. I had no glue in the house, only some silicone-based adhesive that takes up to 24 hours to harden, so I put a dab of that under it, tightened the screw and stuck a wood shim in-between the case and the top of the screw, to hold it in place while the adhesive hardened. I know it looks terribly unrefined, but it’s been working fine.

There are two things I should tell you about this upgrade: (1) this particular SSD tends to run hot, so DriveDx will warn you about its temperature, and (2) after booting up my iMac for the first time, it didn’t see the new NVMe SSD, so I powered it down, opened up it up again (thank goodness I hadn’t yet closed it completely) and re-seated the SSD and its adapter in the blade SSD slot. After I did that, it saw it, recognized it, and I was able to boot into recovery, go into Terminal and recreate the Fusion Drive, then reinstall the OS and restore my data.

In spite of the temperature warnings, my iMac has been working great so far. I noticed a bit of a speed boost, but since I’m still using Fusion Drive and I’m tied to a spinning hard drive, a lot of the oomph of the SSD can’t be seen. I suppose I could have chosen to install the OS on the SSD and keep my files on the HDD, but I prefer to work without complications. A single 3.5TB volume works for me. If I could have a single 24TB drive that holds my OS and all my files (that are currently sitting on three external hard drives), I’d be happy with that.

I would like to thank Tim Cook’s office for responding to my messages and getting me out of a real bind. I was at the end of my wits at the time, so the tone of my emails to them was gruff and biting; they could have chosen to ignore me. I don’t know what I’d have done if they hadn’t stepped in. But I do wish I didn’t have to exercise that option. Apple Support should have found out the issue from the start. It wasn’t something arcane, it was a simple drive failure.

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How To

An upgrade to my mom’s 2007 iMac

If you thought my MacBook Pro was old, then you’re going to be surprised to hear that my mom has a 2007 iMac 24″ (model A1225) that’s still fully functional. Nothing has ever gone wrong with it, in spite of sending it to Romania via a shipping container (on one of those big ships) when she moved here, in spite of wild electricity fluctuations both in the US and in Romania, and in spite of being buried in paperwork all these years on her desk. It’s been working just fine and now that I’ve upgraded it, it’s working even better.

I saw an even greater difference in performance after the upgrade, as compared to my 2008 MBP. Not only was it slower than my MBP before the upgrade, but it’s now faster than it. I couldn’t understand why until I realized that the MBP’s hardware caps off at SATA I (150 MB/s) speeds while the iMac’s hardware is SATA II (300 MB/s). Yup, it was made a year before my laptop and yet it’s faster than it. It was also less expensive. There’s a lesson in there somewhere…

I’d upgraded this iMac’s RAM to the max it could handle (6 GB) a couple of years after she bought it, so the only upgrade I could make now was to swap out the HDD with an SSD. I opted for a 1 TB SSD that would replace her aging 320 GB HDD. Yup, this was the original HDD that shipped with the computer, and it worked just fine for 11 years!

Here is a set of photos taken during the upgrade. Since I’d never opened this iMac, I figured it was due for a thorough cleaning and a replacement of the thermal paste. I used this guide from iFixit to help me out. I’m glad I cleaned all of it; even though it didn’t have as much dust and lint inside as I’d expected, it needed to be cleaned.

A word of warning: there aren’t a lot of guides for this iMac on the internet, which means I wandered into unknown territory when I took all of it apart. I had to take photos of the screws and their positions, and of the wires and the sensors and oh boy… just be careful and keep track of everything if you decide to take it all apart… The back is plastic and uncharacteristically for Apple, the screw mounts are plastic, and that means you have to be gentle when you’re screwing components into the frame or else you’ll strip the plastic threads. This was the most complicated take-apart job I’ve undertaken so far, even more complicated than my iMac G5. I’ve never seen so many sensors and power cables running everywhere. And once I got it open, it was aluminum foil city… you’ll see what I mean.

As you’ll see from the photos, I ended up not using graphite pads. I went ahead and cut up pads for its chips, but when screwing back the heat sink assembly I noticed that one of the pads had fallen out, which meant that it just wasn’t making proper contact between the chip and the heat sink. I couldn’t risk having the other pads fall out as well and ruining my mom’s computer in the process, so I ended up using thermal paste for all of the contact points except for the GPU, where the pad seemed to stay in place securely. You’ll see a piece of cork under the graphics card below. It’s actually helpful when you screw the heat sink on top of the card, because the screw heads will dig into the cork and not turn, up to a point.

Be careful with this heat sink assembly you see below, the pins that secure it over the chip have to be de-cored (I don’t know if that’s the right word for it) so you can pull them out safely. Then you’ll have to push the cores back in place to secure the pins; if you break one… good luck hunting one down.

When you put the whole thing back together, leave these two screw mounts unused.

The two screws that you think go there, actually go here.

I know now why Apple has decided to make their display assemblies one-piece. While it might be easier to take apart a magnetic glass top that sits over the display instead of prying apart an assembly stuck to the case with adhesive strips, you only get to appreciate that design change when you polish the display for half an hour at the end of the upgrade, trying to remove the smudge marks that you left on it when you took it apart, and when you blow away every single particle of lint with a lens blower before you put the glass back on top, only to discover that you needed to clean some more spots, but you’re too tired to do it over. You might be tempted to cuss at that point… On the other hand, when your one-piece display assembly somehow sucks in fine dust that decides to settle into a spot in the middle of the display and in a corner and is quite visible but you can’t do a thing about it, as is the case with my 2013 iMac, you are also tempted to cuss.

I still say the newer iMacs are easier to service than this older iMac and also than my old MacBook Pro. They’re also more beautiful inside. I can clearly see the attention to detail and design that went into something few people will ever see, simply for the sake of doing good work. That’s something I appreciate more and more and I get older.

The inside of my 2013 iMac

Here are some screenshots that show the specs of the upgraded computer. You’ll see that the disk write speeds went up from about 40 MB/s to 240 MB/s. It’s not exactly 300 MB/s, which is the theoretical max of SATA II, but it’s still a huge jump in speed and the computer shows it in real world use.

The highest version of macOS I could install was El Capitan. The App Store still bugged me to install Mojave but when I tried, it told me I couldn’t do it. I know Apple wants everyone who can upgrade, to upgrade to Mojave, but they might want to check their notification code to exclude those with older hardware that can’t upgrade. I get the same notifications on my 2008 MBP, which I also can’t upgrade to Mojave.

I’d like to encourage you to explore upgrade options for your older computers. An SSD will probably make the biggest difference in performance and their prices have really come down during the last couple of years. From an environmental standpoint, upgrading an older machine to keep it working well is always going to consume less resources than making a new one. And there’s something to be said for keeping a good machine well maintained: if it’s served you well, it deserves a bit of TLC from you, a bit of regular maintenance to keep it working, as was its purpose from the start.

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How To

An upgrade to my 2008 MacBook Pro

I have a fully functional MacBook Pro made in early 2008 (model A1260). While it’s fairly slow when editing photos and I wouldn’t try to edit 1080p video on it, it’s just fine for word processing, web and email. It has become slow over time, as is the case with older hardware, so I thought I’d give it an upgrade. Since I maxed it out when I bought it, the only upgrade I could give it now was to switch the HDD with an SSD.

This MBP was my main computer for a number of years. I really put it through its paces during its heyday, and by that I mean the sound of its little fans going into overdrive to cool its chips isn’t a rare memory for me. When I bought an iMac, the MacBook Pro became my wife’s laptop, and she used it to write quite a few of her published books on it. Fortunately, I did something few people do with their laptops: I bought an aluminum stand for it right after I bought it, and we’ve used it (mostly) with that stand through all these years. I believe that’s what’s made the difference in its longevity.

When you use a laptop on your lap, you are shortening its life considerably, in spite of what its name (lap-top) implies. A laptop needs to stay cool, and making it work very hard to achieve that while it’s pulling lint and crumbs from your lap through its air intake, just isn’t going to do it long-term. Its chips will overheat and in the end give out, as I’m sure has been the experience of many people.

Here is a set of photos taken during the upgrade process. Although I’ve opened my laptop multiple times in the past, once to replace a faulty fan and another to replace a bad wireless card, I referred to this guide from iFixit to refresh my memory. I didn’t just replace the HDD, I also took the laptop completely apart in order to clean out the dust and replace the thermal paste on its chips. I’m really glad I did it, because there was a lot of dust and lint inside (as you can see from the photos) and the thermal paste had become dry and brittle, which isn’t a good thing.

I should caution you first: if your computer is still under warranty, such work will likely void the warranty. Take it to a trustworthy and authorized shop to have it done. Also, don’t expect the job to be as easy or look as clean as it does in the guides posted online. Here’s what my desk really looked like while doing the work. Know what you’re getting into before you open up your computer.

If you’ve looked through the photos and are wondering about the new thermal paste… I ended up not using any. I’d heard good things about a replacement for thermal paste: graphite pads, so I used those instead.

While I’m fairly sure they do what they say they do, which is to enable much better heat transfer than paste without degrading over time, I wouldn’t recommend them for this application, because unlike paste, they don’t stick to the chip at all, and they’re so light even a wisp of breath can blow them away. I was stubborn and did it anyway, but the way you have to fit the heat sink over the chips and turn the whole assembly over in order to tighten the screws means the pads will likely fall out or shift position, and that’s not good in either scenario. If they fall out, you’ll have nothing in place, leading to chip failure, and if they shift and touch other stuff on the board, like the little transistors next to the chip, they can cause a short-circuit, because unlike paste, they conduct electricity. I’m sure they’re great on regular motherboards where you simply sit them over the chip and close the heat sink on top, but not here, where the chips are tiny and you have to fiddle with and turn over the heat sink assembly to get it in place.

Our daughter had broken off one of the keys a few years ago, so I took this opportunity to replace it. Did you know there are websites that sell individual keys for reasonable prices? I didn’t; that was new to me.

I’d like you to see that there are six lights under each key on this keyboard. This is worth noticing because many laptops nowadays brag about having lighted keyboards and “individual lights under each key” when they mean a single LED, while back in 2008, this MBP had six LEDs for each key!

Last but not least, a set of screenshots for the specs. The two specs that are different now are the disk size and speed. The new disk size is 1 TB, which is going to be plenty for this old timer. The speed is capped off at SATA I (1.5 Gb/s or 150 MB/s) by the laptop’s hardware. With the new SSD, I’m getting somewhere between 125-130 MB/s, which is less than the theoretical max but about right in real world speed. Before the upgrade, I was getting somewhere between 40-60 MB/s.

The highest version of macOS that I can install on it is El Capitan, which means it still (sort of) works with iCloud: the photos sync up with my other devices, but the documents and desktop don’t. I know there are hacks out there to enable an upgrade to Mojave, but I’d rather use what’s officially available.

The question that needs a final answer is this: can I see a difference? The answer is yes. The laptop’s gotten a little snappier and for what I need it to do, it works great now. Most of all, I’m amazed that after 10 years, it still works, and it works well.

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Reviews

Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera

When it launched a little more than a year ago, the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera took the industry by storm. It is the first (and quite possibly still the only) 2.5K video camera under $5,000 able to use EF, ZE and MFT-mount lenses. It stores the video on SSDs, in 12-bit RAW format with 13 stops of dynamic range (unheard of in virtually all video cameras). It has both SDI video output and Thunderbolt, for super-fast video downloads to your editing station.

The Blackmagic Cinema Camera with EF Mount from Blackmagic Design brings to film makers a tool that many have waited for. Recording to a 2.5K image sensor, the camera is capable of recording 12-bit RAW DNG files, as well as ProRes and DNxHD formats to built-in removable SSD drives, while delivering 13 stops of dynamic range. And it does so at a previously unheard of price point.

The camera is housed in an elegant, minimalist enclosure, crafted from a single block of aluminum. It can be used hand held or mounted on industry standard hardware. The lens mount accepts Canon EF and Zeiss ZE lenses, and the LCD touchscreen provides monitoring, plus the ability for the user to add metadata such as shot number, filenames and keywords.

To handle the high data video output, the company includes a full version of DaVinci Resolve, its premier color correcting software for Mac and Windows. Also included is a copy of UltraScope. When connected to a computer via Thunderbolt, the software provides technically accurate waveform monitoring, displaying six live scope views on a single monitor.

Since everything has been designed to provide high quality acquisition, the camera is perfect for independent film, television commercials and episodic television production, all places where image quality is paramount. And being affordable, it will also find its way into wedding, sporting event and music video capture.

Dynamic Range

  • Captures a super wide dynamic range of 13 stops into 12-bit DNG files for a true “filmic” look
  • Preserves detail in both shadows and highlights, and even handles indoor shots while keeping the details of any images captured through windows
  • Allows for keeping all sensor data and enhancing the creative decisions during DaVinci Resolve color grading

EF Compatible Lens Mount

  • Supports optics from leading lens crafters such as Canon, Zeiss and many more
  • Compatible with EF, ZE and MFT-mount lenses
  • Allows full electronic control of the lens – simply point, set iris and focus on command

Capacitive Touchscreen Display

  • Five inch touchscreen allows for setting up a shot, as well as playback from the SSD using the transport control buttons below the screen
  • Enter shot data and update the camera’s settings using the capacitive touchscreen display
  • Double tap to zoom the image for fast and accurate focus
  • Data strip displays information including record status, shutter angle, ISO, battery level, record time and more

Metadata Entry

  • Features built-in metadata entry so that files include information compatible with popular editing software
  • Dramatically speeds up the whole post production process
  • Entering metadata is easy – simply tap the capacitive LCD touchscreen to display the slate where information can be entered including shot number, search tags, scene number, Timecode, and more
  • Set shot number and other data to increment automatically
  • Metadata is compatible with leading editing software and is fully searchable, bypassing the time consuming task of searching for specific shots when editing a project

SSD Recorder

  • Built-in SSD recorder uses low cost 2.5″ SSDs
  • Allows for 2.5K uncompressed CinemaDNG RAW 12-bit capture, as well as Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD compressed video formats
  • Play back directly from the camera, mount the disk to any computer, or use Blackmagic Design’s HyperDeck Studio deck
  • With Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD video formats, record for more than five hours on a single 480 GB SSD
  • All file formats conform to open standards used by most professional NLE software
  • When finished shooting, simply connect the SSD to a computer and edit or color shots straight from the disc

Connectors

  • Uses only standard connections, no custom cable required
  • Dual balanced microphone/line audio inputs for recording high quality uncompressed audio
  • 3 Gb/s SDI out for on set monitoring or for sending to live production switchers
  • Includes 12 to 30 VDC input for power and battery charging
  • Stereo mini (3.5 mm) headphone output
  • LANC remote control and high speed Thunderbolt port for computer capture

Open File Formats

  • Camera uses standard file formats
  • Recording native 2.5K resolution uses the open CinemaDNG format, delivering full 12-bit RAW recording quality
  • Choose 1080HD recording into ProRes and DNxHD compressed video formats for even greater compatibility

Included Software

  • Full DaVinci Resolve 9.0 software including Resolve USB dongle for Mac and Windows
  • Shoot wide dynamic range images and then make color correction decisions in post production
  • Media Express software for video capture from the camera’s Thunderbolt port
  • UltraScope provides technically accurate waveform monitoring
  • Connect the camera to any computer using Thunderbolt to display six live scope views on a single monitor
  • Use UltraScope on set or in any location for parade, waveform, vectorscope and histogram signal measurement
  • Includes picture view, audio level and phase monitoring

Buy it here: Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera with EF Mount

Or here: Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera with EF Mount

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How To

How to create a Fusion Drive on a mid-2011 iMac

Yes, you can enable Fusion Drive on older Macs. I’m not sure how this method will work with Macs older than 2011, but I know for sure that it works on mid-2011 iMacs, and quite possibly on other Macs made since then. I have just completed this process for my iMac and I thought it would help you if I detailed it here.

I like Fusion Drive because it’s simple and automated, like Time Machine. Some geekier Mac users will likely prefer to install an SSD and manually separate the system and app files from the user files which take up the most space, which is something that gives them more control over what works faster and what doesn’t, but that’s a more involved process. Fusion Drive works automatically once you set it up, moving the files that are used more often onto the SSD and keeping the ones that are accessed less often on the hard drive. This results in a big performance increase without having to fiddle with bash commands too much.

The hardware

My machine is a 27″ mid-2011 iMac with a 3.4 GHz processor and 16GB of RAM. I bought it with a 1TB hard drive, which I recently considered upgrading to a 3TB hard drive but decided against, given the fan control issues with the temperature sensor and the special connector used on the factory drive.

imac-basic-specs

I purchased a 128GB Vertex4 SSD from OCZ. It’s a SATA III (6 Gbps) drive and when I look in System Info, my iMac sees it as such and is able to communicate with it at 6 Gbps, which is really nice.

ocz-vertex4-ssd-128gb

ssd-specs

The hardware installation is somewhat involved, as you will need to not only open the iMac but also remove most of the connections and also unseat the motherboard so you can get at the SATA III connector on its back. You will also need a special SATA wire, which is sold as a kit from both OWC and iFixit. The kit includes the suction cups used to remove the screen (held into place with magnets) and a screwdriver set.

2nd-drive-ssd-kit

You can choose to do the installation yourself if you are so inclined, but realize that you may void the warranty on the original hard drive if something goes wrong, and this is according to Apple Tech Support, with whom I checked prior to ordering the kit. Here are a couple of videos that show you how to do this:

In my case, it just so happened that my iMac needed to go in for service (the video card, SuperDrive and display went bad) and while I had it in there, I asked the technicians to install the SSD behind the optical drive for me. This way, my warranty stayed intact. When I got my iMac back home, all I had to do was to format both the original hard drive and the SSD and proceed with enabling the Fusion Drive (make sure to back up thoroughly first). You can opt to do the same, or you can send your computer into OWC for their Turnkey Program, where you can elect to soup it up even more.

The software

Once I had backed up everything thoroughly through Time Machine, I used the instructions in this Macworld article to proceed. There are other articles that describe the same method, and the first man to realize this was doable and blog about it was Patrick Stein, so he definitely deserves a hat tip. I’ll reproduce the steps I used here; feel free to also consult the original articles.

1. Create a Mountain Lion (10.8.2) bootup disk. Use an 8GB or 16GB stick for this, it will allow you to reformat everything on the computer, just to clean things up. Otherwise you may end up with two recovery partitions when you’re done. I used the instructions in this Cult of Mac post to do so. The process involves re-downloading 10.8.2 from the Apple Store (if you haven’t bought it yet, now is the time to do so) and an app called Lion Diskmaker.

2. Format both the original HD and the SSD, just to make sure they’re clean and ready to go. Use Disk Utility to do this, or if you’re more comfortable with the command line, you can also do that (just be aware you can blow away active partitions with it if you’re not careful).

2. List the drives so you can get their correct names. In my case, they were /dev/disk1 and /dev/disk2.

diskutil list

3. Create the Fusion Drive logical volume group. When this completes, you’ll get something called a Core Storage LGV UUID. Copy that number, you’ll need it for the following step.

diskutil coreStorage create myFusionDrive /dev/disk1 /dev/disk2

4. Create the Fusion Drive logical volume. I used the following command:

diskutil coreStorage createVolume paste-lgv-uuid-here jhfs+ "Macintosh HD" 100%

5. Quit Terminal and begin a fresh install of Mountain Lion onto the new disk called “Macintosh HD”.

6. Restore your apps, files and system settings from the Time Machine backup using the Migration Assistant once you’ve booted up. Here’s an article that shows you how to do that. When that completes, you’re done!

The result

Was it worth it? Yes. The boot-up time went from 45-60 seconds to 15 seconds, right away. And over time, the apps and files I use most often will be moved onto the SSD, thus decreasing the amount of time it’ll take to open and save them.

At some point, I expect Apple to issue a utility, like Boot Camp, that will allow us to do this more easily and automatically. Until then, that’s how I set up Fusion Drive on my iMac, and I hope it’s been helpful to you!

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Reviews

Hardware preview: ioSafe SSD – fireproof, waterproof, crushproof and shockproof

Back in September 2009, I wrote about the ioSafe Solo, a fireproof and waterproof drive. In January 2010, at CES in Las Vegas, ioSafe, the company behind these disaster-proof drives, launched a new product, the ioSafe Solo SSD.

It’s the same size as the ioSafe Solo, it looks the same outside, except for the branding, which now adds “SSD”, but inside, it’s a whole new ballgame. Instead of using a regular 3.5″ SATA drive, they’re using a 2.5″ Solid State Drive. This means they have even more spare space to play with when it comes to disaster-proofing the device — which they certainly did!

The ioSafe SSD isn’t only fireproof (same serious specs as ioSafe Solo), and waterproof (better specs than ioSafe Solo, now with full immersion up to 30 ft for 30 days with no data loss), but it’s also crushproof (5000 lbs, any axis with no data loss) and shockproof (20 ft drop into rubble, 1000g shock for 1ms with no data loss).

Here’s a video from CES where Rob Moore, the company’s CEO, burns the drive, then floods it with a firehose, then has it dropped from about 20 feet, then has it run over with a bulldozer. In the end, even though the enclosure gets destroyed, the data stored onto it remains perfectly safe.

Quoting from the press release:

“Combining ioSafe’s new proprietary ArmorPlate, a military grade steel outer casing with SSD technology, the new ioSafe Solo SSD adds unprecedented shock, drop and crush protection to the existing fire and water protection.

The ioSafe Solo SSD combined with ArmorPlate helps to protect data in a two story building collapse, 5000 lb. crush forces, 20’ drop into rubble and up to a 1000g shock. In addition the original HydroSafe™, FloSafe™ and DataCast™ work to keep the drive cool during normal operation and protect the data from fires up to 1550°F for 1/2 hour and complete water submersion of 30’ for 30 days in fresh or salt water. Like all ioSafe products, the ioSafe Solo SSD comes with ioSafe’s Data Recovery Service, a “no questions asked” policy to help customers recover from any data disaster including accidental deletion, virus or physical disaster.”

The specs say the ArmorPlate military-grade steel is 1/4″ thick. That’s mighty thick. It also makes the ioSafe SSD about 5 lbs heavier than the ioSafe Solo. It now weighs in at 20 lbs.

I wonder if the whole device could withstand bullets, because then it would make a perfect military storage device for use in conflict zones. For example, it could be placed in tanks, humvees and helicopters to store video, audio and coordinate information during patrols. And at 256GB for the largest size drive, it could store plenty of HD video, if the military should want to go in that direction.

But let’s not go into hypothetical situations. The ioSafe SSD can work for disaster recovery right now. Should your place of business burn down or fall down or be flooded, any data stored on the ioSafe SSD will be available to you immediately, as soon as you dig it out of the rubble. That’s a tangible advantage. You can simply add this drive to your server room, or put it in the CEO’s or CFO’s office, and let him or her back up important documents to it, knowing they’ll be there in case of a disaster.

The thought just occurred to me — do you know how they could make it better? If it’s meant to survive disasters and be buried in rubble, it needs a geo chip of some sort, so you can locate it with a proximity device. It could be something simple that beeps faster the closer you are to the drive, so you don’t have to dig through all the rubble to find it, should it come to that.

And there’s another goodie packed into the drive: an eSATA interface. This, coupled with an SSD, means you’ll get blazing fast write and read speeds. You can see the eSATA connector on the back, next to the USB and power connectors.

Pricing for the three different Solo SSD models starts at $499 for 64GB, $749 for 128GB, and $1250 for 256GB. It’s a bit steep, but then, SSDs are still expensive, and no other drive on the market (that I know of) offers this level of physical protection for your data.

Images used courtesy of ioSafe. You can see photos, videos, specs and more information about the Solo SSD on their website.

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Thoughts

Predictions about computer drives in the future

72GB SanDisk SSD SATA 1.8"

On 1/16/09, Computer World published an article where the author paints a future full of SSDs. He puts forth the idea that drives will not only be replaced by memory chips, but that these memory chips will be integrated into the motherboard, doing away with the SATA interface. There are a number of things I don’t agree with in that article, and I’m not the only one who’s annoyed. Others have called out the author for his statements as well.

For one thing, let’s remember that computer memory once relied on chips integrated into the central circuits. Going back to that sort of approach would be like going back in time. Weren’t we supposed to progress, not regress? The advantages have to be truly worthwhile, and I’m not convinced.

A claim made in the article is that of increased speed: “By making the drive part of a system’s core architecture — instead of a peripheral device — data I/O performance could initially double, quadruple or more.” I love these nebulous claims, don’t you? It could double, quadruple or more. Hey, why not 8x faster? Maybe 16x faster? Let’s just inflate the numbers, it looks great on paper…

From my experience, I noticed that transfer speeds to flash memory vary tremendously — based on how much used space there is on the memory itself, or the file size. Larger files transfer much faster than smaller ones. Sure, in my experience, there was a SATA or USB interface in the way, but that doesn’t change what happens with the flash memory itself.

We should also keep in mind that flash memory is limited in the number of write operations it can take before it expires. On the other hand, regular hard drives have a much longer life span. I for one don’t want to be in a situation where I have to replace an expensive SSD on my laptop because I’ve saved one too many files and it has just gone belly up.

That brings to mind another issue: will these SSDs be soldered onto the motherboard, or can I pull them out and replace them as needed, like I do with RAM modules? I think you can readily imagine how inconvenient it would be to have to service your computer if its SSD is soldered onto the motherboard.

How about space on the SSD? What do I do if I want to increase the space on my drive? Do I have to buy another full SSD? I’d much prefer we had SSD bays, like RAM bays, where I could stick additional SSD modules to automatically increase the space, just like it works with RAM. A partitioning tool integrated within the OS should then allow me to resize my existing partitions and spread them over the newly available space, or to create another partition out of that space.

I keep hearing people say that 250GB or 160GB is plenty of space for your laptop. That’s nonsense. I’m always maxing out my laptop’s hard drive when I go on trips, because I fill it with photographs and videos which I then unload to my external storage when I get home.

I find that for my needs, a 500GB or 1TB laptop hard drive is what I need right now. At some point in the future, I may need more. I haven’t started working with HD video for example. I know that’s a tremendous space hog. I think a 1TB drive would be the minimum I would need if I started to work in that arena.

With SSDs, price is still an issue, and so is space, at least for now. I just don’t find it practical to spend money on SSDs at the moment, and I don’t think my opinion will change unless their prices and storage specs start to match those of regular hard drives.While we’re on the subject of price, where in the world did Gartner get their figure of 38 cents per gigabyte? That’s the figure quoted in the article. I’m sorry, Gartner, but you folks need to check your math. I came up with 9 cents per gigabyte recently.

On the other hand, I do understand that the additional interface between the motherboard and the hard drive is a bottleneck. If we can do something to speed that up, I’m all for it. But you’ve got to prove to me (and to other consumers out there) that your technology is affordable and reliable and offers tangible benefits other than tech media hype.

I’m also excited about the possibility of increasing drive space on a modular basis, where I simply put in more SSD modules in expansion bays on the motherboard, like I do with RAM. But there’s no indication that we’re heading in that direction from the article itself. Until we get to that point, I’ll still continue to think that SSDs are aimed at the wrong market segment. Not everyone is a MacBook Air-toting management type. The bulk of computer users out there need affordable technology with plenty of storage, well made, and reliable over 3-4 years or more. SSDs just aren’t there yet.

Image used courtesy of SanDisk Corporation.

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Thoughts

Solid State Disks aimed at wrong market segment

People are making a big to-do about Solid State Disks (SSDs) like this one. While I agree a 128GB size is impressive for SATA-connected flash memory, they shouldn’t be marketed as replacements for regular laptop hard drives. Yes, I think HD damage due to drops is a valid reason to try and use SSDs, but they’re still flash memory: they have an inherently limited number of uses before they die. Hard drives last longer, especially ones made nowadays. They can handle more read/write cycles. And, the biggest thing of all, they more capacity, especially with perpendicular bit storage.

You know where I think SSDs would work great? As secondary storage in addition to a regular hard drive. They could figure as a secondary drive on laptops or desktops, and be used for storage of all sorts of things that don’t need to be stored on the drive itself or that get fragmented quickly, like the page file, or the scratch disk in Photoshop. They could also be used to hold all of the temp files that the operating system generates. While you’re working on a file, say a Word document, the OS should store it automatically on the SSD, then transfer the saved document to the hard drive when you hit Save. Things like this could really help cut down on the HD fragmentation.

The SSDs could also be used to store vital OS files that are needed for boot-up (as was suggested a couple of years back, when flash storage was still too expensive and small). That way, computers could potentially start up instantly. The regular files would be stored on the HD, of course. But to say SSDs are hard drive replacements is a stretch. Their application as such, while suited for certain environments and laptops like the Panasonic Toughbooks, military equipment, or media players like the iPod, is ill-suited for regular laptops and computers, where storage needs are growing exponentially.

We should really focus our efforts on developing bigger, quieter hard drives for laptops and desktops, not on replacing them with expensive flash memory of unproven long-term reliability.

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