Pimping my MacBook Pro late 2008 – Part 3: setting up an SSD as second disk bootable

Putting an SSD as second disk on the MacBook Pro late 2008 is relatively easy. There are just two delicate moments to deal with, the wiring is fragile and requires steady hands, and the last step of the process consists of creating symbolic links (using the Terminal). I am satisfied with the results, 8 GB RAM and a 60 GB SSD as boot disk, OSX Lion: the boot time has more than doubled, and the sleep and wake times even more. The usually sluggish apps such as Mac Mail run faster now. I’ve not got time to benchmark everything, but my MacBook Pro definitely feels like new and it performs much better than it ever did. I think this budget upgrade is well worth it, if you haven’t got the big dosh to buy one of the new MacBook Airs. Keeping the user home folder on the original disk somehow impedes the performance because that path is still in daily uses. But I think that isn’t a huge compromise.

In Part 1 of this blog post, I show how to upgrade the RAM to 8GB. In Part 2 I show how I installed an SSD as a second disk on my MacBook Pro, replacing the DVD drive (SuperDrive if you like). Until now I didn’t have time to talk about the system setting changes that I had to make to get it all working. This post addresses that part. As I began writing this 3rd part, I realised that I didn’t take many screenshots while I was working on this, but luckily it’s still fresh in my memory and I can lookup resources to link in here.

Once I put the last screw in place, I plugged the power chord back on and turned the computer on. After the logon OSX Lion automatically detected the new SSD and launched the Disk Utility. I chose the suggested disk partition mode, which is journalled Mac OS extended. This went so fast that I doubted if I clicked the button or not. Nothing to it.

My MacBook Pro originally shipped with a 320 GB disk and it’s only got 30 GB free space left now, so I can’t clearly fit all my content on a 60 GB SSD. I chose a smaller SSD to keep the cost of this upgrade reasonable, so I have to compromise a little bit. Instead of copying everything over, I decided that I only wanted to copy the system files and the installed applications. That requires less space and I still get the speed boost (most of it, at least) I’m expecting.

A quick google and I downloaded Carbon Copy, a handy tool that iss apparently meant as a backup utility but it does a nice job. In the screenshot below I indicate the files that I’ve selected for copying, I left the rest unchecked. Actually this screenshot is made after I was done. Once the essential system files are selected, chose the destination to be the SSD that must be empty at this stage, then launch it.

Selective carbon copy of my HD to the SSD
Selective carbon copy of my HD to the SSD

This process took a very long time to complete, I think about 3 hrs (I just let it run and tended to other domestic chores and came to check it a short time before going to bed. After Carbon Copy completed I was ready to boot on my brand new SSD! But since I didn’t copy over the users folder, which actually contains all my settings and my personal files, I expected some trouble, so I got Plan B ready before continuing. My Plan B consisted of: 1) creating a second user with Admin rights, and 2) not immediately changing my default boot disk. Now I could reboot my Mac.

At boot,  I pressed and held the Option key (the one with a fork looking symbol) – must be done before you hear the chime and keep holding it till the Mac prompts for a boot disk. I selected my SSD disk and about 22 secs later I got the login screen. When I logged in with my normal account I was greeted with a lot of errors, Safari couldn’t find any of my settings, FireFox the same, I kind of expected this to happen and knew what I would do to fix it. What was happening is really simple, when I only had one disk I also only had one Volume which was my boot disk. So the Mac could find everything relative to the root folder of the boot Volume.

Two volumes on my Macbook Pro
Two volumes on my Macbook Pro

By booting on a second volume, the SSD, the path to my user settings was lost: the system is looking for my user folder on “/Volumes/Macintosh SSD”, but it should actually be looking on “/Volumes/Macintosh HD”. This kind of problem is easily solved by creating symbolic links. I created two symbolic links, one for my user home folder and another one for the /Users/Shared folder which I use to Parallels disk images. I logged out and logged back in, everything was now working fine. At this point I was confident that nothing would go wrong, so I changed my default Boot disk: / System Preferences / Startup Disk.

What did I gain now?

Since I still have both disks in place, comparing the performance was just a matter of booting up on one disk, timing that, and repeating the process for the second disk. With my original disk the booting time is 51 secs, with the new SSD my Mac booting time is now 22 secs. The Sleep and Wake times have also now been reduced to less than 5 secs on average, all my applications run much faster than they used to.

Conclusion?

I am satisfied with the results, the boot time has more than doubled, and the sleep and wake times even more. The usually sluggish apps such as Mac Mail, Adobe InDesign and DreamWeaver run faster now. One exception seems to be Omnigraffle Pro, it’s faster but still exhibits some long wait moments thaT I expected would be gone, this may have to do with my home folder still being on the slower hard disk. I did not take time to benchmark everything else, but my MacBook Pro definitely feels like new and it performs much better than it ever did. I think this budget upgrade is well worth it, if you haven’t got the big dosh to buy one of the new MacBook Airs. Keeping the user home folder on the original disk somehow impedes the performance because that path is still in daily uses. But I think that isn’t a huge compromise. I wish I chose a slightly larger disk though, because I’ve now only got 10 GB free space left on the SSD, but I’ve achieved my initial goal.

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