Sunday, July 28, 2013

Buying Guide: Best Mac SSD: 6 solid state drives reviewed and rated

Buying Guide: Best Mac SSD: 6 solid state drives reviewed and rated

Buying Guide: Best Mac SSD: 6 solid state drives reviewed and rated

It's always sad to see a much-loved Mac start to feel slow and doddery as time goes on, with longer start-up times and more waiting around for things to load. When you see the nippiness of something like the iPad or MacBook Air, it can make you feel as though you want to replace a Mac that should still have plenty of life left in it, really.

Fortunately, there's a cheaper way to put some nippiness back in your old machine: swap out its SATA hard drive for a solid-state equivalent. Solid-state drives, or SSDs, ditch the spinning disks of regular hard drives in favour of extremely fast flash storage.

Decent-size SSDs are now easy to find for prices that really won't break the bank these days, and that's what we're testing here. If you're uncertain about installing a drive yourself, a sk at your local Apple Authorised Service Centre if they can help. Installing an SSD can make older Macs feel like new - or maybe even better!

It's not just replacing old drives that SSDs are good for, though - if you've got a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac and want some fast external storage, you can use any one of these drives with a Thunderbolt drive caddy to give yourself some additional external storage that's as fast as an internal SSD.

How we tested: Guaging an SSD


When regular spinning hard drives were the only really viable storage option, the interface used to connect them to the computer didn't have to be that fast. SATA II was what most computers used up until a few years ago, but as SSDs became more popular, it quickly became clear that the SATA II connection was actually acting as a bottleneck for their performance - the drives were faster than the connector was.

Newer Macs all use SATA III connectors, which lets SSDs run at their full capability. Because we're interested in these drives as upgrade options for older machines that you want to give a speed boost to, as well as being ways to make a lovely new Mac even faster, we ran two sets of tests.

Pretty much any Mac older than 2011 will have SATA II connectivity instead of SATA III, so to make sure that you can see the results for performance in the kind of machine you have, we ran all tests over both connections. First, each drive was connected to a Seagate GoFlex Thunderbolt caddy plugged into a 2012 Mac mini, in order to test their SATA III performance.

Once those tests were finished, each drive was used to replace the internal hard drive in a 2009 MacBook Pro 13-inch, which only has a SATA II connector. We ran the exact same set of tests in each case, and the benchmarks on the fo llowing pages will show you both the internal and external results for each drive, along with the results from testing the original hard drive in the MacBook Pro, as a baseline.

Our test suite of choice was QuickBench on OS X 10.8.3. We cloned the same OS install and other files from one drive to another. QuickBench performs a range of read and write tests using various different file sizes, including small random read and write rests, and larger file read and write tests. We had these tests run for 10 cycles each, and we ran the suite of tests twice for each drive when connected over SATA II and twice connected over SATA III.

To put together our benchmark charts, we looked at each drive's results over the two test runs, and selected sets of results that produced the highest average score for that drive. This ensures each drive is represented at its peak performance.

Test one: Value for money

Seagate 600

The Seagate 600 240GB is the newest drive here, so hasn't had a chance to come down in price yet. This makes it the highest-priced of all the drives here by a fair margin, so it's no surprise to see that it's also the most dear in terms of price per gigabyte, costing 78p per GB.

The next two drives are a good step down in price, with the OCZ Vertex 4 256GB and KingSpec C3000 240GB coming in at 67p per GB and 66p per GB respectively. The Vertex 4 is actually around £12 more expensive than the C3000 to buy overall, but because it's a 256GB drive instead of a 240GB one, they're nearly identical for over all value.

The Kingston SSDNow V300 240GB is actually better value than the 65p per GB we've rated it at here suggests, because our review unit was the full upgrade kit, which costs £10 more than buying just the drive. The drive alone would be 61p per GB, making it among the top contenders.

The Corsair Neutron 256GB costs a similar amount, but the extra space means that you're paying a slightly reduced 59p per GB of storage, which we would consider to be excellent, but it's made to look almost ordinary by our winner.

The Samsung 840 Series 250GB comes in at a b argain 54p per gigabyte, making it nearly 10% better value than the Corsair Neutron, and a full third cheaper than the Seagate 600. The prices are all impressive when you take into account how much SSDs used to cost, but they're still more expensive than hard drives: a 500GB hard drive of an equivalent form factor to those we're looking at here would cost you around 8p per GB. This means that the scores below are graded only as relating to other SSDs - otherwise traditional hard drives have the edge.

test 1

Test two: Extras

Vertex 4

SSDs tend to come with a few different varieties of extras: some come with upgrade kits for fitting your new drive and eve n transferring from the old one, while others will give you just a few essentials, or just the drive itself.

The Samsung 840 Series actually offers two options, with the 'upgrade' pack of drive plus installation kit setting you back roughly £40 more than just the drive. For that, you get a SATA III cable, an external USB SATA connector, data migration software, screws, a mount for fitting it in 3.5-inch drive bays, and a plastic adapter for turning it from a 7mm thick drive to a 9mm thick drive.

£40 is rather steep compared to what these would cost you individually, but you can't knock the comprehensiveness or convenience. The normal version only comes with the data migration software, and since that's what we've used for our price comparison, that's what we'll score on.

The Kingston actually comes with an upgrade kit (the drive is available alone for about £10 less, but for that paltry price difference we strongly recommend getting the kit). It comes with SATA power and data cables, drive cloning software, 3.5-inch adapter brackets, a 9.5mm adapter, and a full-on external USB drive enclosure, which you can use for your new SSD in order to move the data across to it, and then put your old hard drive to keep around as an external drive once you've swapped. It's pretty much the perfect upgrade kit.

Alas, after that, it gets somewhat anaemic for added options. The OCZ and Corsair packages both come with 3.5-inch adapter mounts and screws, but that's it. The KingSpec comes with just screws, dialling it back even further. The Seagate comes with… nothing.

test 2

Test three: Reliability

Kingston SSD Now V300

A problem that plagued SSDs when they were first starting to catch on was their lack of long-term life, as well as their performance dropping severely after they had been in use for a while. The latter has since been addressed by the 'trim' command, a tool that ensures that old data on SSDs doesn't get in the way of new data.

All of the drives listed here support trim, but it also needs to be supported by the computer, and Macs are only enabled to use trim with Apple-supplied SSDs by default. Download Trim Enabler and you can activate trim for any of these drives, though.

However, there's still the reliability of the drives to consider, and this can be measured in two ways: Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF); and Terabytes Written (TBW - the total maximum amount of data that can be written to a drive in its life). The OCZ and Corsair are the best here, both offering a five-year warranty and claimin g an average of two million hours MTBF.

The Samsung offers a three-year warranty, with a lower (but respectable) 1.5 million hours as a quoted MTBF. The KingSpec drive is rated at 1.3 million hours MTBF, but comes with just a two-year warranty. The Kingston drive at least comes with a three-year warranty, but is rated for just one million hours MTBF - though it is one of the few here with a TBW listing: 128TB, which is the equivalent of filling the drive 500 times over.

The Seagate is an odd one, with a warranty that's rated either for three years, or until the TBW rating of 72TB is hit. It sounds poor, but hitting that TBW would still require filling the drive 280 times over, so we think the time will run out for most people first.

Test 3

Test four: Performance

Corsair Neutron

It's clear from the benchmarks that choosing an outright winner isn't easy. For the most part, the scores are closely aligned, with which drive is performing best trading places several times.

The Corsair was one of the more disappointing, though, coming in consistently with significantly lower speeds in the random read test than its peers. It manages to come in with a middle-of-the-pack performance for the random write test, but is also slightly off the pace for the larger file tests.

The Seagate is a similar story, looking even worse than the Corsair for the random read tests, and giving a middling performance for random write. It did well internally for the large file write test, though.

The Kingston SSD really didn't like being mounted in our old 2009 MacBook Pro. When connected over Thunderbolt, it delivered good speed - for the smaller random read tests, it was a leader - but when connected to the SATA II interface in the laptop, it consistently delivered around half the speed of the others.

The OCZ Vertex 4 was thoroughly disappointing in the random read tests, coming consistently bottom for all but the smallest tests. But it wiped the floor with all the others for the random write tests. Sadly for it, read speed is more important for home users.

The Samsung is built for reading, not writing. It offers leading (or near it) read speeds across the board, but the reverse is true for write speeds. This makes it great for casual users, then, but professionals will want to steer clear.

That leaves the KingSpec, which ultimately takes the crown for us despite not being the fastest that often. You see, it's also never the slowest. It performed only slightly below the leaders the entire way.

test 4


Bench 1

Bench 2

Bench 3

The winner: Samsung 840 Series

Samsung 840

Though the different drives here show strengths in different areas, we've decided to give the Samsung 840 series the overall award over its closest competition, the Kingston SSDNow V300, becaus e it beats it out in what we consider to be the two most important categories: speed and value, while also being rated for better reliability.

In truth, there's very little between these two drives if you have a newer SATA III Mac. But its slowness in SATA II devices makes it not ideal for older Macs. None of the drives here blew the others away in the speed stakes, so it came down to the overall package.

For us, the Samsung offers the fast read speeds that most home users want, great value, and a good level of peace of mind from its warranty.



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//PART 2