OWC upgrade SSD boosts capacity, performance of MacBook Air (January 14th, 2013)
Product Manufacturer: Otherworld Computing
- Drop-in replacement for Apple SSD
- Speed boost
- Capacity increase
- USB 3.0 case for old SSD included
- Scary drive "flex" upon installation of some models
Solid state drives (SSD) are fantastic. They are power-sippers as compared to a spinning platter, more resistant to shock, and other elemental damage. Even if you just count the performance increases, it comes as no surprise that Apple has shifted most of its desktop and portable line to SSD storage.
Tragically, the price per gigabyte is dramatically higher than that of platter-based hard drives, so the capacities as-shipped tend to be much lower. Compounding the problem, Apple is using a handful of custom connectors on its MacBook Air line, preventing a simple drop-in of a drive available anywhere. Peripheral manufacturer OWC has addressed the upgrade situation with the Aura Pro line of drives for use in the MacBook Air, and MacNN has spent some time with the model for the 2010 11-inch model of Apple's laptop.
When sold, the original 11-inch Core 2 Duo MacBook Air was limited to 120GB of storage, in the higher end model available at both retail and the online Apple store. It came at a premium, driving the cost of the machine up $200. As tested, we were loaned the 240GB Aura Pro + USB 3.0 Envoy drive case, which currently retails for $320. Two other models are available as well- a 120GB with case for $180 and a 480GB model for $700. Everything a user needs for installation is included with typical OWC attention to detail, such as the T-5 and Pentalobe screwdrivers required for cracking the case of the MacBook Air.
The installation process is very simple, and very easy to perform. The bottom plate of the laptop comes off without difficulty, the original drive is removed, and the new Aura Pro is installed. As a bit of advice for the installer, the 2010 MacBook Air requires both the original drive and replacement Aura Pro to "flex" just a bit for installation.
This reviewer has been retrofitting and repairing Apple hardware for the better part of three decades, but still the process was a little unnerving. The OWC SSD for the 2011 and 2012 models of MacBook Air don't need this flexing step, according to the representative we spoke with. Also, some of the screws have very slightly varying length in the external case, so these should be clearly marked during disassembly, as to not cause problems with the reinstallation.
OWC does not include data cloning software with its drive, nor should it -- this should be left as an exercise for the reader, dependent on experience level and preference. We did both a clean install of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion software to the drive from the official Apple USB 2.0 flash drive, as well as performing a clone and reinstall of existing data from the old drive, using Mike Bombich's Carbon Copy Cloner. We moved 88 gigabytes of data in just seconds under an hour, to an external USB 2.0 hard drive.
Following reinstallation and use, and after a period of "fiddling" with the machine, we noted an unscientific feeling of faster performance, So, we tested the speed of the drive nearly empty and then performed an hour of shuffling files to and from the drive, both clean and with existing data to simulate the user's daily experience, and to see how well the OS dealt with scattered files on the drive. Following the shuffling, we repeated the same testing.
Regardless of drive loading, the replacement OWC drive outperformed the Apple-provided Samsung-provisioned stock SSD by 15 percent in reading, and 11 percent in write operations. Thus, we weren't kidding ourselves regarding the speed, assuming the general rule that a device needs to be 10 to 15 percent faster to see any perceptible gain is accurate.
Our experience with the replacement drive from OWC was stellar -- it's an amazing upgrade, and the boost in internal storage is a giant plus. Installing the old drive in a USB 3.0 case is a very nice addition for users with so-equipped machines, and naturally, the case is backwards-compatible to USB 2.0 speeds for use with machines not blessed with the faster protocol.
We'd be remiss if we failed to mention that it's not for everyone, though. The MacBook Air 2012 11-inch model retails for $1,000, but the 2010 model that we tested in has a street value significantly less than that and is out of warranty. OWC has assured us that upgrading the SSD does not void the warranty on the MBAs unless the user accidentally breaks some other part during installation (an unlikely occurrence).
It is a good boost, but not an experience-altering one that launches it past the performance of a new machine. The cost-to-benefit ratio of the upgrade, versus applying the funds towards a new computer, should be considered. Models of this drive do exist for newer versions of the MacBook Air, as well as the 13-inch model, so the financial equation varies somewhat given time and model variances.
Financial issues aside, the OWC Aura Pro is a solid upgrade. There are no finicky issues with drivers, no super-complicated installation procedure, or any hangups with software. Experienced technicians can have the drive installed in the machine in less than a half an hour, and even journeymen can have it done in less than an hour. More storage capacity and faster performance in a single package is a no-brainer, assuming the cost isn't an issue.