Over the past several years, I've written four columns about upgrading my computer hardware to make Photoshop run faster without having to buy an entire new system. My last upgrade was an Other World Computing Seagate Momentus XT 500GB drive with 4GB of flash RAM cache, reviewed here.
You can trace the links back from there to the three columns that preceded that one if you want to read the whole saga. That's probably a good idea before hitting me with questions about what works best and what is most cost-effective.
Well, now I'm replacing that hard drive with an OWC Electra MAX 3G 960GB SSD [Ed. Note: See important addendum below]. This is the end of the line, because I honestly can't figure out any further enhancements to this machine.
There's a more general question I'm investigating, too: How much do you gain by trying to soup up an elderly machine with an SSD? We all know they make state-of-the-art machines astonishingly fast. Maybe, though, drive speed isn't the bottleneck in an older system. I've already souped up my 2007 2.2 GHz Core Duo MacBook Pro to the point where it's more than twice as fast as it was originally on Photoshoppy stuff. It performs comparably to a fast 2009 or a slow 2010 machine. That's a nice return on my investment, but maybe I've pushed it as far as it can go.
Understand that for most of you the Electra MAX 3G 960GB, priced at a whopping $1,045, is severe overkill. I had several reasons for testing this model, not the least of which is that my current 500 GB Seagate Momentus XT hybrid drive is almost full, and configuring a 480 GB SSD in exactly the same way (so I could get meaningful comparison runs) would be a considerable headache. Most of you won't need this capacity, or the nifty fact that the 960 GB drive is actually two 480 GB drives, so you can configure it as a single drive (as I have) or as a 480 GB RAID1 array.
Furthermore, 6G SSDs are now insignificantly more expensive than 3G's. The extra performance won't do you any good in an older system with a 3G bus, but if you later recycle that drive into a 6G system, you'll pick up a substantial performance boost for free.
Finally, if you configure your machine for two internal hard drives, you can get by with an OWC 120 GB SSD ($129) that holds your operating system, applications, and scratch space, and you'll see almost as much performance improvement as having everything on the SSD.
But if you want a really honkin' big and fast drive, this baby is it.
So, why go this upgrade route in the first place? Why not just get a new machine? One reason is cost. Incrementally improving my machine has cost me much less than half what a new machine would run (up until this extravagance, and it would still be true if I had gone with a smaller drive), and it has extended the life of the system by several years.
Another reason may be compatibility. This laptop still runs Snow Leopard, which means it runs my business-critical software that will die on a newer Rosetta-less machine. A new machine may also have different I/O ports, demanding expensive or possibly even unavailable adapters for your peripherals.
Under those circumstances, maximizing the performance of an old system makes a lot of sense. But, maybe I've already taken it as far as it'll go? We're about to find out.
Since I was testing an older machine, it made sense to also test older software, so I looked at performance with both Photoshop CS4 Mac (which was severely limited in how much memory it could use) as well as CS6. I also compared it to our high-end 2009 27-inch iMac, whose quad-core processor, faster and more efficient processors, faster data buses and 16 GB of RAM can trounce my laptop (which only supports 6 GB RAM).
For general purpose tasks, the Electra MAX made things a bit peppier, but not by a lot. The SSD'd MacBook Pro booted in 25% less time and launched Photoshop in 30% less time, but my mail client, word processor, and voice dictation programs were not noticeably faster. Somehow, I expected more.
Running Lloyd Chambers' DiskTester revealed that the SATA bus in this old machine simply isn't up to supporting full 3G performance. It's not uncommon in older machines for the manufacturer to save money on I/O by using slower components. The Electra MAX clocked in at 120–128 MB per second, only half of what this SSD is capable of in a more modern system. Keep that in mind if you're souping up an old machine; you may not need the very best-performing SSD.
Moving on to Photoshop, I ran Lloyd's Photoshop benchmarks. As expected, there was very little difference with the Small benchmark, which mostly exercises the processor; it ran at most 10% faster under CS4 and CS6 with the SSD. The iMac ran that benchmark in 2/3rds the time under CS4 and 1/6th the time under CS6, which took full advantage of the iMac's 16 GB of RAM.
The Medium benchmark was another matter. The Electra MAX speeded my laptop up by 50–100%. The iMac was now only three times faster than my venerable laptop.
The Huge benchmark is representative of what happens when you see Photoshop's progress bar creeping along at a snail's pace, because you've started swapping a lot to the scratch disk. Under CS4 the iMac and the Momentus-configured laptop turned in nearly identical times, because their internal drives had similar throughput. Under CS6 the iMac turned in a time that was 40% less than the MacBook Pro, because the extra RAM did help. But it didn't blow away the MacBook.
So, what did the Electra MAX drive do to that benchmark? It aced it. It cut the time for running the Huge benchmark on my MacBook Pro nearly in half! Under CS4, the 2007 MacBook Pro left the 2009 iMac in the dust. Under CS6, it still beat it by about 10%.
Now, that's the most extreme case. In my typical Photoshop use, the Electra MAX gave me a boost somewhere between the Small and Medium benchmarks. That's nice; I won't complain about trimming 25–35% off of times. It's not like buying a whole new system, but it pleases.
(Oh, and in case you're wondering how this compares to the state-of-the-art, the latest MacBook Pro Retina runs the Medium benchmark six times faster than my SSD'd laptop.)
The conclusion? Even in a fairly ancient machine with its very limited I/O, an OWC SSD is a very worthwhile upgrade to your system.
IMPORTANT ADDENDUM Fri. Oct. 26: Murphy's Law always wins. After turning in this review, I took off on a one-week trip. Almost immediately, I started having corruption problems with the Electra MAX, with half my applications unrunnable and Disk Utility reporting unrepairable node damage. As soon as I got home, I copied off the new files I'd created on the trip and successfully reformatted and repartitioned the Electra MAX.
I attempted to restore my system and data two different ways:
—booting from the OS install disks and using Time Machine.
—booting externally using my Momentus HD in an external case and using Carbon Copy Cloner to port the HD over to the Electra MAX.
Both methods failed repeatedly, with no consistent stopping point over many, many attempts. The SSD would spontaneously dismount itself from the system in the middle of the process and remain invisible to the OS even after a reboot. It would reappear if I shut the laptop down entirely and restarted it.
I'm going to run some further tests to tell me if the drive is being inherently unreliable or just unreliable as an internal drive in my system.
This is the second sample of this drive that has misbehaved for me. The first failed almost out of the box, so I ignored it and got a replacement. It happens to reviewers on occasion and it's properly ignored unless it points to a deeper problem.
At this point, I think there's a deeper problem. I don't know if it's an incompatibility with my system or a more inherent flaw, but I can no longer recommend the Electra MAX 3G 960GB SSD at this time [the links have been removed from the article —Ed.].
This doesn't change any of my performance measurements nor conclusions about the value of an SSD; they still hold. Just not this SSD, for me, anyway.
This also doesn't change my very high opinion of Other World Computing or the general quality and reliability of their products. I've been buying their stuff for as long as I've owned Macs, and they will continue to be my preferred vendor. Their service and support have been consistently exceptional, too; their people are just wonderful. (And that's not me getting favorable treatment—I was buying from them long before they had any idea who I was or what I do for a living.)
Computer geek Ctein enhances your drive, vim, and vigor on TOP on Wednesdays.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Joe Kashi: "Some SSD drives are faster and more reliable because they use better internal controller circuitry. I've been using Crucial M4 series SSDs for some time now and they have proven very reliable with Windows 7 Pro. The same drives were less reliable under prior OS versions and required reformatting to the new OS after a failure like Ctein describes.
"Hence, part of the problem may be generally OS related, part may be due to controller incompatibility with the OS or related problems, and part may have to do with the increased internal waste heat and/or noise arising from the higher chip densities of very high capacity drives.
"There's one final reliability-degrading factor with very high densities: Each bit has a finite chance of failure and it's an additive effect. Twice as much capacity means twice as many individual bits, which in turn means that the chance of failure doubles (or perhaps even more due to increased internal heat). Ideally, the controller should be able to map, relocate, and block any bits that show signs of incipient failure, but a particular internal controller may not do this efficiently or reliably and the SSD then becomes unreliable."