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Macbook Air hard drive replacements from OWC

- May 11th, 2012

macbookair2012

Macbook Air is a hit for Apple, and its success has spurred competition in the form of Ultrabooks, Intel’s spec for the next generation of ultra-slim, lightweight and energy-efficient Windows laptops. Both make traditional notebooks feel like bloated antiquities that pose a risk of denting your thighs, and burning your junk. (Though as an aside, you know you probably have it pretty good, when your biggest problem is “my laptop is too heavy and hot.”)

I love my mid-2011 Macbook Air—tucked into a backpack on the go and plugged into an Apple Thunderbolt Display at home, it’s become my primary machine. Equipped with an Intel Core i7 processor and a solid state hard drive (SSD), it outperforms the 2007 iMac it replaced in every way, except for one: upgradability. What happens when a Macbook Air runs out of hard drive space?

Increasingly, computers are designed not to be very user-serviceable (which works for the average consumer, but can be kind of a drag for techier users, whose computers spend half their lives with their cases open, a pile of oddly shaped screwdrivers nearby). If the Intels, Apples and Dells of the world had their way, no one would repair or upgrade their computer, and everyone would chuck them and buy brand new ones every 18 months or so.

So, as ergonomically awesome as late model laptops may be, hard drive upgrades can be inconvenient and expensive. And factory SSDs tend to be skimpy—64GB or 128GB of storage are most common. For a primary machine, that’s just too small. I ordered my MBA with a 128GB drive, and sure enough, within a week the thing was more than half full. Apple offers a couple of limited and pricey SSD upgrade options for Airs, but only at time of initial purchase, and the upgrade isn’t available on the least expensive model, which sticks you with a 64GB drive.

Currently there’s only one aftermarket solution for upgrading the SSD in Macbook Air—OWC’s Mercury Aura Pro Express. I’m currently using a 240GB review unit loaned to me by OWC. With twice the theoretical throughput (6Gb per second) it’s noticeably snappier than my stock SSD, but more importantly it nearly doubles its storage capacity. Furthermore, OWC sells housings which allow those who upgrade to continue using their stock SSD as a handy ultra fast external.

owc_aura_pro_tools_supplies

OWC's Mercury Aura Pro Express SSD upgrade for Macbook Air (note: USB drive, pictured top, not included)

Is buying the upgrade worth it? Yes, for some users. You might seriously consider investing in the Aura Pro Express if:

  • You own a Macbook Air model with a 64GB drive—by this point you’re undoubtedly cursing just how small 64GB seems.
  • You use your computer for disk intensive tasks, or otherwise put a premium on performance—OWC units are just plain faster than stock SSDs shipped by Apple. While the difference may not be make or break, it’s noticeable to anyone.

Installation

Replacing the stock SSD proved easier than I expected. In fact, it was dead simple. it simply required turning some screws. They’re pentalobe and Torx screws, and regular humans generally don’t keep these screwdrivers lying around, but OWC solves that problem by including both a pentalobe and torx screwdriver when you buy a Mercury Aura Pro Express. The SSD is slot is readily accessible on the logic board once the back panel of the MBA is removed. The whole process takes only a few minutes, and didn’t require any nerve-wracking yanking, unhooking or breath-holding.

owc_aura_pro_mba_inside

Removing and replacing a few screws is all it takes to replace a stock SSD in a Macbook Air

Performance

I didn’t do extensive side-by-side testing (there are many published benchmarks, as well as detailed installation instructions just a Google search away) but I did directly compare the times required to copy a large media folder, first with my stock SSD and then again once I’d cloned the drive’s contents onto the OWC unit:

Stock SSD, copying 6.35GB folder: 48.9 seconds
OWC Mercury Aura Pro Express 6G, copying 6.35GB folder: 36.1 seconds

Booting from the OWC unit was also noticeably quicker (though in fairness, any SSD feels speedy off the boot and starts up a machine in a fraction of the time required for a traditional spinning-disk volume. In other words, the Macbook Air is already fast).

SSDs are the new frontier—if you’re not using a computer equipped with solid state storage, you will be soon. SSD drives are fast, silent, have no moving parts, don’t draw a lot of power (which greatly improves battery life on laptops) and unlike traditional hard drives, they don’t crash (that’s huge). A year or two from now, it’s likely that 500GB or even 1TB SSDs will be standard, but until then, stock SSDs are just a little bit too small, and OWC has stepped in with a fix. They sell models for 2010 and 2011 Macbook Airs, ranging in price from $259.99 to $1029.99 on their website.

Follow Chris Vandergaag on Twitter for tech talk, wise-ass comments and non sequiturs: @ButNoSeriously

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3 comments

  1. Greg Gazin | May 12, 2012 at 11:09 am

    NIce to see expansion capability to extend the life of your gadgets. Great piece!

  2. mercadeo internet | May 17, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    While our benchmark tests revealed consistently faster performance from OWC’s Sandforce-based SSDs over the stock Apple drives, we have also heard reports that some MacBook Airs are shipping with Samsung-sourced SSDs that offer performance nearly as fast as the Aura Pro Express. Though there was a slight noticeable performance difference in our regular use over the Toshiba-made drive, in particular when launching apps or scanning large collections of images, we don’t feel like the performance advantage is necessarily worth the cost. (If utmost performance is a concern, you probably aren’t using a MacBook Air anyway.) We feel the primary reason to consider spending the cash on a Aura Pro Express is the extra capacity, and OWC is offering something you just can’t get from Apple or elsewhere.

  3. Chris | May 22, 2012 at 3:34 am

    Hi mercado,

    My MBA was equipped with the Samsung – there was an observable difference in both boot and copying speed with the OWC drive. As you mention, the difference is probably even greater with the Toshibas.

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