Monday, January 13, 2014

Switching my 2009 iMac to an SSD - six months later

What do you call a $1,500 computer that contains a fragile and unreliable component in the core of an unserviceable case? What do call the guy who designed it?

The computer is an iMac, and the guy, Johnny Ive, is often called a genius. Not by me though.

My iMac's first drive died after 2 years of use; I paid for an (badly executed) Apple store replacement and was later reimbursed as part of a recall program. Two years later that drive died.

Yeah, not happy. I hate spending the money, but the hassle of working with Apple service is worse. Backups, hauling the 17" iMac around, waiting, the restore, spending money for a drive that's 4 years obsolete (Apple only replaces 'like-with-like')... Ugh.

So I decided to explore my options. I ran off an external enclosure for a while; I was surprised how well that worked, though the still living internal drive seemed to trigger startup glitches. That gave me time to think; I decided I wasn't willing to throw the 2009 iMac out. On the other hand, if I was going to put more money into a 4yo machine I wanted more reliability, and I wanted performance that would carry me through 2017.

So I bought a 1TB Samsung 840 EVO SSD for (then) $650. I ran it in an enclosure for about a month -- if it failed I wanted a hassle free return. Once it passed the high mortality startup phase I paid First Tech Minneapolis around $140 or so to do the swap (See Ives: not a genius. Among other things, FirstTech says they install a temperature sensor that prevents the amok fan problem).

It was perfect. Well, actually, no. I started having kernel panics. Which had nothing to do with the SSD, one of my firewire cables was coming apart. It took an inordinate amount of time to figure that out. That wasn't the only problem associated with my migration, the process of swapping drives, backup, restore, and Mountain Lion upgrade uncovered lurking problems like...

Gordon's Tech: OS X Mountain Lion cannot delete sparsebundles containing over 262,144 bands (2TB+)

... after cloning the primary drive to an external firewire drive, I noticed an old Permissions bug I've probably ignored for years. Sophos Antivirus didn't seem to like the clone, and I decided it wasn't worth the bother anyway, which led me to Sophos uninstall heck (mostly missing documentation). Next building a Mountain Lion Install SD card for my new SSD exposed weird behaviors of the ML Installer...

... I decided it was a good time to move my iTunes Library to an external firewire drive. That meant I needed to make some room. No problem, I could just delete a 2.4TB Carbon Copy Cloner sparsebundle...

Happily the last big problem was four months ago. So I've had a chance to see how things worked.

Which is very well. Aperture was getting painfully slow, now it flies. My VMWare Fusion XP used to thrash my hard drive, now it zooms. Overall this is the biggest performance improvement since I went from an 8086 to an 80386.

I can't speak for reliability -- the main reason I went SSD. For what it's worth, Samsung claims ...

Samsung's 840 EVO SSD uses TLC memory, yet because of the sophistication of the controller chip and its software, it will outlast any other component of the laptop or desktop it's in, according to Chris Geiser, senior product manager of Samsung's Memory and Storage Division.

"If I'm writing 10GB a day to a 120GB SSD, it will last over 10 years," Geiser said.

Ten years would be fine. Less biasedsources vary.

I think I made the right call. I spent about $800, but I got a high performing machine that should be good for 4-5 years -- not less because the heat output is diminished. A new iMac with faster CPU but overall equivalent performance (and no DVD!) costs $2,800.

There's only one obvious defect -- my iMac's 2009 hardware test now fails because a fan is not detected. Bummer.

Some bullet points from my installation are below...

  • I did a fresh Mountain Lion install on the new drive including an admin account with a distinct name (you don't want to cause a name collision with the restore).
  • Since I was running off an external drive I used Migration Assistant to move data over the SSD after I did my fresh install.
  • I unwittingly upgraded to iTunes 11, but I've finally gotten used to it. Fortunately by the time I upgraded many of the worst bugs were fixed.
  • I put my 340GB iTunes media on an external 2TB drive. I don't need SSD performance for that, external works fine, I have backups and I avoid using costly SSD space and I reduce write traffic on my SSD (writes shorten SSD lifespan)
  • As with all drive migrations I had to delete my Google Drive data, reinstall Google Drive and let Google restore my files.
  • I started out with an encrypted drive but I ran into problems with startup accounts. I suspect this was partly related to my fraying firewire cable kernel panic problem, but I ended up removing the encryption. I may try it again in a few months.
  • I researched the various TRIM debates and decided not to use the Trim Enabler hack. If performance lags in a year or so I'll create a fresh image then reformat. I hate messing with core system functions.
  • After migrating to the SSD Time Machine let me continue against my prior backup. That was a pleasant surprise.

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