My Mac is now silent. After installing a solid state drive (SSD) with no moving parts, the drone of my iMac’s hard drive and fans has given way to such an absence of sound that I only hear the high-pitched squeal of my office lights.

My Mac is now fast. Even with 400GB of available space, OS X Yosemite’s constant hard drive accessing had brought my quad-core, 3.4GHz Core i7 machine to its knees. Now I’m seeing five times the hard drive speeds, apps are loading instantly, and my iMac feels as responsive as the MacBooks and iPads that beat it to the SSD game.

Last week, buoyed by (finally!) reasonable SSD prices and a desire to try a DIY project, I walked through the steps to replace a prior-generation iMac’s hard drive with an SSD. Similarly excited readers have pointed out that older MacBooks and certain other Macs are also easy to upgrade… but at least one Mac (surprise: the Mac mini) is not. So below, I’ll show you some great SSD options that you can install yourself, ask a tech-savvy friend/repair shop to handle for you, or choose as external solutions.

iMac 27"

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The Big Picture

It’s hard to believe, but back in 2008, Apple offered a 64GB solid state drive upgrade to the original MacBook Air for a whopping $1,300 premium over the laptop’s normal price. At that time, a consumer 1TB drive cost around $4,000, and Apple wasn’t even attempting to sell one.

A lot has changed even over the past year. SSDs are faster, more reliable, and a lot more affordable. Today, excellent quality SSDs start at $60 (120GB), climbing to $120 (250GB), $231 (500GB) and $420 (1TB) — still not as cheap as traditional drives, but better. The Samsung 850 EVO I installed in my iMac is 5 times faster than the 1TB hard disk it replaced and has no moving parts, so it’s tiny, silent and cooler-running. It also has a five-year warranty and a longer expected lifespan than most hard drives; if you’re willing to pay more, the 850 PRO version has a ten-year warranty that eclipses all but the most expensive enterprise-class desktop hard disks.

Internal or External?

Although performance will vary based on the specific Mac you’re upgrading with an SSD, Macs released over the past five years will likely see bigger gains if you replace their internal hard drives rather than adding SSDs as external drives. A new SSD inside an older iMac, MacBook, Mac mini, or Mac Pro will lead to much faster OS X performance, app loading, restarting, and file accessing. But if you buy an external SSD and connect it using something faster than USB 2 or FireWire 800 — say, a spare Thunderbolt or USB 3 port — you’ll see definite speed improvements for whatever files and apps you place on the SSD.

My personal advice would be to consider an internal solution, if possible following a DIY hard drive replacement guide like the ones linked below. If you’re concerned about damaging your Mac during the replacement process, you can opt to have a tech-savvy friend or local Apple repair store handle the SSD replacement for you. And if you prefer an external drive — and don’t mind cutting the performance benefits down somewhat — there are some good, though more expensive options below.

MacBook/MacBook Pro: Internal + External SSD Options

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courtesy iFixit

 

Aluminum-bodied MacBooks and MacBook Pros made in 2012 or earlier can be upgraded with 2.5″ internal SSDs, including the Samsung 850 EVO I carefully selected for my iMac. As shown in these iFixit guides (MacBook Pro 13″ 2009 / 2010 / 2011 / 2012, and MacBook Pro 15″), the process requires little more than one Torx T6 screwdriver, one Philips #00 screwdriver, and a flat-head screwdriver (or spudger) to accomplish. It’s even easier for the short-lived 2008 metal MacBook, which has a pop-off bottom panel for easier hard drive replacement.

 

Replacing the hard drive of the unibody MacBook Pro requires only a handful of steps: backing up your old drive (preferably using Time Machine), removing the bottom cover of your MacBook using Torx screwdrivers, removing the hard drive, replacing it with the SSD, then reattaching the bottom cover. For a variety of reasons, it’s even easier than the iMac hard drive swap I discussed in my prior article, and all you need is the screwdriver, the SSD, and the confidence to do it yourself.

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If you’re going to do an internal hard drive swap, there’s pretty widespread agreement that the Samsung 850 EVO ($60-$420) I previously recommended offers a superb combination of speed, reliability, and quality for the price. It has a 4.7/5-star rating on Amazon, versus the 850 Pro, which sells for more ($98-$555) and has a 4.8/5-star rating. By contrast, the most popular portable external SSDs right now are Samsung’s new USB 3.0-based T1 (250GB/$174, 500GB/$300, 1TB/$569, shown above), with 4.5/5-star ratings. If you’re willing to spend quite a bit more and have a free Thunderbolt port, Elgato’s Thunderbolt Drive+ (256GB/$425, 512GB/$780) has Thunderbolt and USB 3.0/2.0 interfaces.

Mac mini: Internal + External SSD Options

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courtesy iFixit

 

Internal SSD replacement for the 2010 to 2014 “unibody” Mac mini requires considerably more effort and skill than doing so for the MacBooks and iMacs. You’ll need to disassemble the Mac mini’s chassis, fan, and antenna plate before disconnecting the logic board and hard drive — with steps that become even more challenging on the most recent 2014 models. My suggestion would be to leave an internal drive upgrade of this model up to a professional.

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The same sort of 2.5″ internal drives can be used in the Mac mini as on the other Macs. While the 2010 Mac mini limits you to FireWire 800 or USB 2.0 — probably not worth the effort of adding an external SSD — the 2011 model has a Thunderbolt port, and the 2012 version has USB 3.0 ports, making external SSDs easier to add. If USB 3.0 is an option, go with Samsung’s T1 (250GB/$174, 500GB/$300, 1TB/$569). Thunderbolt-only users can consider Elgato’s professional-class Thunderbolt Drive+ SSDs, which just dropped in price: OWC offers them for $368/256GB or $628/512GB. Covered in aluminum housings and fully port-powered, these drives are the rare SSDs with a Thunderbolt interface, also including USB 3.0 and 2.0 compatibility. They have rare 5/5-star ratings on Amazon, where their prices are significantly higher (256GB/$425, 512GB/$780).

Mac Pro: Internal + External SSD Options

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Current-generation Mac Pros ship with large, fast SSDs, making replacements highly unlikely for the time being, but first-generation Mac Pros can definitely benefit from the speed increase. As iFixit’s guide notes, the process of installing a new drive is as simple as flipping a rear latch, pulling the Mac’s side panel and hard drive bay out, then using a Philips head screw driver to attach a hard drive sled to your new drive.

But with an SSD, there’s another step: you’ll need a 2.5″ to 3.5″ hard drive adapter bracket such as NewerTech’s AdaptaDrive ($15) to mount the tiny SSD inside a large hard drive bay. The company also sells the OWC Mount Pro (now only $18), which lets you mount the SSD on a custom-fit replacement for the Mac Pro’s hard drive bay. This is an easier solution, and the one I’d pick if installing an SSD in the Mac Pro.

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The Mac Pro’s physical size and multi-drive-ready internal architecture make it an ideal candidate for an internal SSD. If you’re considering an external drive, you might want to think again. The built-in, outdated USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 ports aren’t going to cut it, and users have reported very mixed experiences adding USB 3.0 cards — somewhat better results with more expensive ones such as Caldigit’s FASTA-6GU3 Pro — to this computer. My advice would be to stick with an internal solution.

iMac: Internal + External SSD Options

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I’ve discussed the iMac in much greater detail in my prior article, but the internal and external SSD recommendations are basically the same as for the MacBook Pro: the Samsung 850 EVO ($60-$420), Samsung 850 Pro ($98-$555), Elgato Thunderbolt Drive+ ($368/256GB$628/512GB), or Samsung T1 (250GB/$174, 500GB/$300, 1TB/$569).

All Macs: Preserving Your Software (If You’re Replacing An Internal Drive)

Preparing your Mac’s old internal hard drive to be replaced is pretty easy. You can run a complete Time Machine backup to an external drive (preferably one that’s connected with a cable rather than over Wi-Fi), or complicate the process somewhat by using a complete drive cloning app.

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In my opinion, going the Time Machine route is a better idea when starting fresh with an SSD, and it costs nothing. After backing the drive up, you just turn off and unplug your iMac, swap the drives, then hold Command-R down on the keyboard when first restarting your Mac. Any recent version of OS X will boot into Internet Recovery mode, enabling you to use Disk Utility to format the SSD (choose Mac Extended + Journaled), then restore directly from your Time Machine backup. The restoring process will take hours, but you’ll come back to a fresh installation of OS X with everything pretty much as it was left on your old drive.

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If you want to go the more complex route, you can order this $13 (reg. $16) USB 3.0 to 2.5″ SATA III Adapter Cable, connect it to your iMac and SSD before opening up the machine, and run SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner to transfer the old drive’s contents to the new drive. This will let you start using your iMac right away after the drive is swapped, without waiting hours for Time Machine, and for better or worse pretty much guarantees that every one of your files (and potentially plenty of cruft) will be exactly where it was before.

Should you want to swap an optical drive for an SSD, or add an SSD to a Mac Pro’s empty drive bay, nothing needs to be done to prep software beforehand. Backing up your Mac is always a good idea before opening it up, but all you’ll need to do after the SSD installation is run OS X’s Disk Utility and format the new drive.

What About Trim?

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A number of readers have asked about Trim support for third-party SSDs, a topic that’s both important and potentially somewhat confusing. Trim — automatic recycling of SSD space freed up by deleting files — is a background task performed by your Mac. It’s handled in the background by OS X, though for reasons unknown, Apple generally provides Trim support only for its own drives.

Cindori’s free application Trim Enabler (Pro version $10) enables Trim support for third-party SSDs under OS X, including the latest 10.10.2 and 10.10.3 versions. Please note, however, that Trim Enabler must be turned off each time you do a OS X system update (say, from 10.10.2 to 10.10.3); if you forget, you’ll see a gray box when the machine tries to reboot after an update, and you’ll need to follow these instructions to make the machine work properly again.

Conclusions

Whichever option you choose for your Mac will yield significant dividends. With an internal drive, 3X to 5X speed improvements across apps and other files are typical with SSDs of the caliber recommended above; using an external drive will deliver a nice improvement for whatever files you store on it. There’s no better (or more cost-effective) way to speed up an old Mac today.

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