I’ve not been a Mac user for very long, so when I bought my MacBook Pro I decided to buy it with a 750GB hard disk as I knew I wanted to use VMware Fusion for a couple of virtualised Windows VMs and thought that I would need to have as much space as possible. At the time the biggest solid state drive offered by Apple was a 256GB unit and this came in at a fairly hefty premium. Instead of this I chose the 7200rpm Apple 750GB SATA drive (rebadged from Hitachi) and thought that this was well worth the extra few pounds at purchase time; however after around 8 months of owning the Mac I started to get fed up with the free-fall sensor in the hard drive making a knocking sound every time I moved the laptop, or if I adjusted my position too quickly even if sitting down in a chair. Doing a lot of travel also seemed like a potential hard drive failure in the making, so looking around again at the solid state drives available I opted for an OCZ Vertex 4 512GB M (Micron branded memory cell) drive, purchased for ~£320 from DABS. At this price I was pretty happy to upgrade, but since I didn’t really know one end of Mac OS X from the other it was always going to be an interesting process to transfer my applications and data from the original spinning disk to the new SSD.
Doing a little bit of research I discovered that the Mountain Lion OS is only available via the App Store or on an Apple store purchased USB pen drive. So even if you’re currently running OS X Mountain Lion you have to download the installer first in order to be able to unpack it onto a USB drive of 8GB or larger ready for a clean installation. This took me a couple of hours to prepare, and using the Lion Disk Maker 2.0.1 tool I eventually created a working alternative to the internal HDD boot loader. Now, I mentioned that I hadn’t worked with Macs for very long, but being competent with other OSs I didn’t find this next step too hard to figure out; the key thing to know is that you can select the boot volume at startup by powering the Mac on whilst holding down the Alt (Option) key. With the original disk fitted you will just have the option of booting from the internal disk (labelled by default as Macintosh HD) or from the Recovery Disk. So what is this Recovery Disk? In a similar fashion to Microsoft’s Windows 7 Recovery Mode this option is a small on disk installation of Mac OS (in a semi-hidden partition) which you can use to either repair your installation or help with a reinstall. In the event that your internal hard disk were to fail completely 2011 and later MacBooks even have their own firmware based boot loader which can boot into a recovery mode where the OS files are downloaded over the internet from Apple.
The reason I mention this is because Apple’s Time Machine backup application does not restore your Recovery HD partition – even if you have a full disk backup, so in order to pave the way for a restore I needed to carry out a fresh installation of Mac OS onto the new SSD so that Apple’s installer would automatically create the Recovery partition. This is important because if I selected the Restore from Time Machine backup when booting from my new Lion install disk I would no longer have a Recovery partition and would be forced to use the EFI boot in event of an OS repair.
Now, first I established a full Time Machine backup using an external USB connected hard disk, and kept this updated over a couple of days to make sure everything was working fine. Then once I had a couple of hours spare I powered off the Mac and got my new SSD ready for installation. At this point I discovered I had one tool missing, as after easily removing the external case to the base of the laptop using a small posidrive screwdriver I found that there is a rubberised cradle which the original disk sits in. There are four tiny cap head bolts that fit into the sides of the drive (acting as axle studs), and these have a Torx T5 fitting which need to be removed and replaced on the new disk. These allow the SSD to rest in the cradle and be secured by a clamp bar that screws down to secure the axles and prevent movement of the disk. After getting the right tool and securing these studs to the new SSD and connecting the SATA cable the laptop can be closed and is ready for power on.
Plugging in the USB Lion boot disk and holding down the Alt key during power on allowed me to select the USB boot installer. This bit is well documented elsewhere online, but make sure that before installing the OS you use the Disk Utility to create a single partition on the new SSD in the correct format because Apple’s Recovery Partition requires a GUID partitioned volume in Mac Extended (Journalled) format. Once done the installer will run for 20-30 minutes and will automatically repartition your SSD so that both the OS and Recovery partitions are eventually created. During the installation of Mountain Lion you will be asked for the name of your default user account; it’s a good idea here to choose something which is not the same as your original username. I chose ‘Local Admin’ because when you come to restore your data using Time Machine you will do this logged in as a different user than the one which you are attempting to restore.
Finally, once the clean OS installation of Mountain Lion boots successfully you can go through the basic startup questions which get your Apple ID set up etc. or I suppose skip entirely since you’ll be restoring from Time Machine. At this point I could already tell that the new SSD was absolutely flying, everything seemed nice and quick and all programs opened up virtually instantaneously.
After attaching my external Time Machine disk and selecting ‘Use this disk’, the system automatically discovered the most recent backups which were present on disk, and I chose (in my view now incorrectly) to try to restore the original Macintosh HD volume onto my new SSD disk. This seemed to be restoring the whole volume into a sub-folder of the new operating system installation so I cancelled this and ran Migration Assistant instead. From here I was able to restore all users, applications and system configuration over the top of my clean installation which took around 2.5 hours to restore approximately 200GB. Once complete I was very happy to find that after a reboot my Mac was almost identical to my previous installation. After logging in I discovered that Microsoft Office for Mac 2011 believed that it had been transferred to a new system and required me to re-enter my product key, and rebuild something called the Microsoft Database Utility which stores the Outlook identity for each user. This was straight forward, but other than this every other application (including VMware Fusion) operated perfectly without any effort. Even the virtual machines which were previously powered off started up in seconds, showing me how blisteringly fast the Vertex 4 is and a perfect upgrade for the MacBook.
What do you need for the upgrade?
- Small posidrive screw driver (e.g. the type used to tighten screws in glasses frames)
- Anti-static strap and a surface to lay out a towel on which to do the work
- Torx T5 or T6 screw driver
- External USB/Firewire disk for Time Machine backup
- New SSD (I tested OCZ Vertex 4 512GB M with MacBook late 2011 and up to date EFI)
- 8GB or larger USB pen drive for OSX Mountain Lion installer
- Product key for Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac (if installed)
How much time will it take?
- Initial Time Machine backup (of approx 200GB) – 3 hours
- Create OSX Mountain Lion installer USB pen drive – 30 mins
- Carefully open MacBook and install blank SSD drive – 15 mins
- Partition new SSD and install OS X – 35 mins
- Restore Time Machine backup (of approx 200GB) – 2.5 hours
In all honesty I probably spent a couple of days reading up on the process described above, many articles I found make it seem like a 5 minute job but in reality it’s probably worth picking a day when you won’t be busy to get everything ready so that you don’t need to rush. It’ll probably take between 5 and 8 hours to perform the whole process end to end depending upon the amount of data you have. Getting a full Time Machine backup done first is critical to the end result, but obviously if something doesn’t work quite right you can always put the original disk back in and try to straighten things out. I think the most important thing to know is that the Recovery Partition won’t be created if you restore directly from the Time Machine backup using either the EFI boot or Mountain Lion installer, you need to do a clean installation first onto an empty 1 partition disk and the rest is fairly straight forward. You can always delete the ‘Local admin’ user (or whatever you choose instead) once you have restored your original user(s), but I think I’ll keep it as a useful back door in the event that something goes wrong with my normal login.