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Apple's iMac, MacBook Pro lines are SSD friendly

Lucas Mearian, Computerworld | May 6, 2011
Apple's new iMac line-up, unveiled earlier this week, includes technology that better marries the popular all-in-one desktops to the speedy NAND flash storage that Apple is using in more and more of its computers.

On top of that, Intel -- which worked closely with Apple on the new Thunderbolt connectivity technology -- is making noises about its own hybrid drives, which could spur drive development to move even faster.

The iMac isn't the only recent Apple product to become more SSD friendly. The MacBook Pro models unveiled in February are also optimized to take better advantage of SSDs.

The latest MacBook Pro models use the SATA 3.0 specification for the internal drive connection, which can take full advantage of a new breed of SSDs that also use the latest 6Gbit/sec SATA specification. (It's the same connection speed yesterday's iMac firmware update enabled.)

In stock form, the new MacBook Pro comes with a 750GB 5400rpm hard disk drive. But Apple allows customers to upgrade the laptop with one of three capacities of SSD: 128GB, 256GB or 512GB. Moving to an SSD significantly boosts the computer's speed but adds hundreds of dollars to the final price, depending on which model you're buying.

The SATA 3.0 specification is important because it doubles the bandwidth over SATA 2.0 from 3Gbps to 6Gbps. Given that SSDs can send bursts of data at speeds beyond 3Gbps, the higher bandwidth means potentially more speed in the future.

IDC Analyst Jeff Janukawicz said SATA 3.0 is important because of an SSD's vastly better performance over a hard disk drive, particularly in server-client architectures.

"When an SSD is coupled with the latest generation SATA 6Gbps interface, it will deliver the most throughput for demanding client systems," he said. "As a result of accelerating storage I/O, users can expect faster access data, quicker application loads, and boost to overall system performance."

But for desktops and laptops, the same is not true.

According to Michael Yang, an SSD analyst with research firm iSuppli, because read/write operations in consumer devices occur mostly in bursts of I/O, they're not likely to take full advantage of the 6Gbps throughput SATA 3.0 offers. In general, he's only seen a 10% to 20% performance increase in SSDs using SATA 3.0 connectivity.

"Sure, [the throughput] is 2X, but fundamentally, the flash hasn't changed, and the performance change will come from the SSD's controller design," he said.

As SSD performance continues to scale, however, with some drives achieving 500MB/sec or more in throughput, greater bandwidth will make more of a difference.

Apple Hardware image
The top-end Apple MacBook Pro now uses the SATA 3.0 specification for the internal drive connection, which offers 6Gbps link speed.


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