How-To: Swap Your iMac, Mac mini or MacBook CD/DVD drive for a super-fast SSD

macminiopen

When I wrote a series of How-To guides showing how easy it was to swap old Mac hard disks for new solid state drives (SSDs), I focused on raw upgrades — slow mechanical drives for fast chip-based ones. The reason was simple: put an SSD in your Mac instead of the old hard disk, and you’ll be blown away by the speed increases. But as several readers have noted, there is another way to add an SSD to your Mac: you can keep your old hard drive, and instead replace the Mac’s CD/DVD optical drive, also known as a SuperDrive.

Swapping a SuperDrive for an SSD has a mix of pros and cons. It’s typically a little easier and less expensive to replace the SuperDrive than a stock hard drive, and you’ll always wind up with more internal storage than you started with. But you also lose CD/DVD reading and writing abilities — things fewer people care about these days — and you’ll need to set up your Mac to properly take advantage of the SSD. Read on for the details…

macmini

Which Macs Have Swappable Optical Drives?

If your Mac has a CD/DVD drive built in, there’s a very good chance that it can be swapped for an SSD. There are millions of Macs with optical drives, including iMacs sold prior to late 2012, Mac minis sold prior to mid 2011, and 15″ MacBook Pros sold prior to late 2013. Apple still sells non-Retina 13″ MacBook Pros with optical drives; this model hasn’t been updated with new hardware in a long time.

(Techies will note that the most significant speed improvements will be seen on late 2008 or newer machines, as those Macs support faster SATA II or SATA III storage devices, including most SSDs. The SATA III standard Apple began to support in 2011 is backward-compatible, so an SSD with SATA III support will work in SATA II Macs, just at slower (but still noticeably better than typical hard drive) speeds.)

speedtestssd

What Does Swapping The Optical Drive For An SSD Get Me?

Short answer: much faster speeds. Every Mac’s overall performance is weighed down by the computer’s slowest parts. Even if your CPU, graphics card, and other components are on par with current-generation Macs, your apps and files could be stored on a slow hard drive that takes a long time to load and save things you’re using. Putting an SSD inside your Mac, then moving OS X and your apps over to the SSD, can radically improve the Mac’s speed: it’s possible to get 4X to 5X improvements in OS X and app loading times, a difference you’ll notice every time you wake your Mac from sleep or switch apps.

One extra benefit of choosing the optical drive for an SSD swap: unlike a hard drive to SSD swap, there’s no need to buy a special cable with a thermal sensor to install the SSD, since the Mac’s existing optical drive cable already has a thermal sensor attached. Unless you want to add a mounting kit, a sub-$20 part, all you need is the drive itself.

What you’ll lose is the ability to read and write optical discs, which at one point was a big selling point of computers but has become less important over time. Some people buy Apple’s external $75 USB SuperDrive to keep around “just in case.” I personally haven’t used my optical drive in around two years, and consider any optical drive purely optional at this point.

samsung2tb850

Which SSD Should I Buy?

For most Macs, I’ve recommended Samsung’s 850 EVO drive (rated 4.7 out of 5 stars with nearly 4,000 reviews), the SSD I use and love, and readers have told me they love theirs, too. Samsung just introduced a 2TB version of the 850 EVO, which offers incredible storage capacity for an SSD with the same outstanding warranty and performance found in the 120GB, 250GB, 500GB, and 1TB versions.

Personally, I opted for a 1TB 850 EVO before the 2TB version was released, and I’d recommend going for as much capacity as you feel comfortable buying. I feel a lot safer with my important photos and files on an SSD versus an aging mechanical drive. But if you’re going to have both the SSD and original hard drive in your Mac, you could pick a smaller SSD for OS X and your apps, keeping your music, photos, and videos on the old hard drive. Samsung also makes the 850 PRO, which has an even longer warranty and faster performance than the 850 EVO, if you’re willing to pay a premium for them.

Image courtesy iFixit

Image courtesy iFixit

Swapping Your iMac’s Optical Drive

The excellent DIY repair shop iFixit publishes iMac model-specific optical drive replacement guides for the 21.5″ iMac (late-2009, mid-2010, and mid-2011), 27″ iMac (late-2009, mid-2010, and mid-2011), and earlier 17″, 20″, and 24″ models that are about as far back as you should consider for possible SSD swaps.

As each guide notes, the process of replacing an iMac’s SuperDrive with an SSD should take a confident and reasonably computer-savvy person less than an hour; if you don’t feel comfortable opening your own Mac, ask a friend. You’ll need two large suction cups to remove the iMac’s glass front, a T10 Torx screwdriver, and a spudger. If you’re opening a 27″ iMac, you’ll also need a thin and small but solid piece of metal to lift up the screen — iFixit recommends a common paperclip. I’ve gone through the iMac upgrading process before, and while there are a bunch of steps to follow, none is particularly difficult.

iFixit’s guides walk you through all of the steps except one: placing the tiny SSD you buy within an adapter/caddy as large as the optical drive you’re replacing. Since the SSD is so small and light, some people skip the adapter and just uses pieces of double-sized tape to hold their SSDs in place. But if you’d like to use a mount to keep your SSD firmly within the old optical drive bay, you have a couple of options. This $9 Micro SATA Cables-branded adapter is inexpensive and praised for its fit in 27″ iMacs. Alternately, this $19 Nimitz hard drive caddy is designed to fit a variety of 2009-2011 iMacs. Pick the one you prefer.

Image (2) mac-mini-teardown.jpg for post 18072

Swapping Your Mac mini’s Optical Drive

Swapping parts inside recent Mac minis is, in a word, daunting. Although they’re super-simple from the outside, they’re the opposite of user-friendly when it comes to DIY repairs; iFixit’s guides correctly describe many upgrades to unibody (metal-topped) Mac minis as being “difficult.” This is the mid-2010 Mac mini guide, for which you’ll need a 2mm hex screwdriver, T6 and T8 Torx screwdrivers, a spudger, and a Mac mini Logic Board Removal Tool, plus hours of disassembly and reassembly time.

Earlier Mac minis are easier to open, requiring a putty knife, Phillips #00 Screwdriver, and spudger. Later mid-2011 and 2012 unibody Mac minis lack optical drives, but can instead get upgraded with a $30 dual-hard drive kit that includes all the tools and parts you’ll need.

If you’d like to use a mount to keep your SSD in place within the optical drive bay, this $19 Nimitz hard drive caddy is designed to fit 2009-2010 Mac minis. Alternately, this less expensive $9 Micro SATA Cables-branded adapter can be made to fit inside Mac minis, though you’ll only be able to use two screws to hold the drive — not a problem if your Mac’s going to stay in one place.

macbookprossd-1

Swapping Your MacBook’s or MacBook Pro’s Optical Drive

MacBooks are probably the easiest Macs for optical drive to SSD swaps for a variety of reasons: they require the fewest tools (a Phillips #00 Screwdriver and a spudger) and the fewest steps, as well as fairly simple parts. You don’t have to remove major components such as a logic board or screen to access the optical drive.

iFixit publishes separate guides for the 13″ unibody metal MacBook, non-Retina MacBook Pro 13″ (mid-2010, early 2011, late 2011, and mid-2012 to present day), the non-Retina MacBook Pro 15″, and MacBook Pro 17″, all of which involve little more than using one screwdriver, opening the bottom compartment, and disconnecting some connectors before reassembling the machine. To hold the new SSD in place within the former optical drive bay, this $9 BrainyTrade drive caddy works with the metal 13″ MacBook and pre-Retina, pre-2012 13″/15″/17″ MacBook Pros.

diskutilityssd

What Do I Do Once The SSD Is Installed?

If you’ve installed the SSD as a replacement for your optical drive, using the SSD is easy. Open OS X’s Disk Utility app (found in the Applications > Utilities folder or by typing Disk Utility under Spotlight search), and select the new drive. Erase the drive using Mac OS Extended (Journaled) formatting. Then, you can choose to either use the drive as a spare (assisting your prior hard drive with extra files), or turn it into your primary boot disk.

bootdrive2

There are two easy ways to turn your new SSD into a boot disk. One is to install a new copy of OS X on the drive, then install only the apps and files you want. You can do this by holding down Command (⌘) and R after restarting your Mac, choosing Reinstall OS X from the OS X Utilities list, and selecting the new SSD as the destination for OS X. This will give you a completely fresh start, though your emails, app settings, and other files will need to be separately hunted down and brought over from your other hard drive.

bootdrive

The simpler option is to back up your Mac’s old hard drive to an external drive using Time Machine, then restore the backup to the new SSD. Follow the directions here. You may need to go to System Preferences > Startup Disk and select your new drive, or OS X may give you the choice to boot from it after the restoration is done. You should find that your emails, files, and apps have all been brought over intact. Just confirm that the SSD backup is working by using it for a day or three to make sure everything is where it should be. At that point, you can erase your old hard drive and use it for spare storage.

More From This Author

Check out more of my How-To guides, editorials and reviews for 9to5Mac here! In addition to my SSD guides for iMacsMacBook Airs + Retina MacBook ProsMacBooks, Mac minis, and Mac Pros, I’ve covered a lot of different topics of interest to Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, and Apple Watch users.

FTC: We use income earning auto affiliate links. More.

You’re reading 9to5Mac — experts who break news about Apple and its surrounding ecosystem, day after day. Be sure to check out our homepage for all the latest news, and follow 9to5Mac on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to stay in the loop. Don’t know where to start? Check out our exclusive stories, reviews, how-tos, and subscribe to our YouTube channel

Comments

  1. kittykatta - 7 years ago

    2012 feels like Apple’s last year of being “Pro Notebook Manufacturers”

    Don’t get me wrong, the Retina machines they offer nowadays are absolutely amazing BUT… the limitations in (affordable) storage/upgrades make them a bit crippled for mobile work. So I’ve been stuck with this “outdated” 2012 machine that I’ve been incrementally upgrading over the last 3 years.

    2012 MacBook Pro 15
    – i7 / Dedicated GPU
    – 32GB Memory
    – 512SSD + 2TB HDD (replacing the optical drive)

    As a photographer then I’ve been lusting over a Retina screen for years and actually just bought a Retina Macbook. But what did I get for my $1500?

    2015 MacBook Pro 13
    – i5 / Integrated Video
    – 8GB Memory
    – 256GB HDD

    Its just sad that Apple gave up on the Power User/Pro market. They kill Aperture. They rarely upgrade Hardware specs. And they release big MacBook Airs and try to pass them off as MacBook Pro’s.

    • Josh Lambert (@jml12286) - 7 years ago

      A new 15″ retina i7 with 512GB ssd, dedicated video card and 16gb ram is $2500
      I would say thats not too terribly bad compared to getting the base 2012 non retina pro for $1799 then adding a 512GB ssd, and more ram. Even the higher end model of 2012 was $2200 and didnt come standard with an ssd.
      Also consider that the Retinas now use a pcie based SSD and are faster than anything you can put in the 2012 or older. Better battery life, awesome display and thinner profile with usb3, full size hdmi and 2 thunderbolt ports.

      The only 2 things I could consider downsides of the newer retina compared to old pro are:
      1. Not have 2 hard drives inside (though portables are cheap and slim now, also you can get slim SD card storage)
      2. Not having more than 16gb ram

    • Oliver Guy - 7 years ago

      How did you get 32gb of RAM into that? I have the same computer as you with the exception of replacing the optical drive and I have 16gb of RAM vs the 32. Apple said 8gb was max for that machine, but 16 was the actual limit. How?

  2. kidonl - 7 years ago

    I wonder if it’s not better to put the SSD where the old HDD was, and that HDD into the Superdrive spot. At least in my MBP (Late 2011), the link speed on the Superdrive seems to be a lower speed SATA than the HDD one. But I might be wrong as I’m not that into it, I just had someone tell me the Superdrive runs on lower speeds.

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

      There have been some very interesting discussions on this point, and it is indeed possible, though it can create a need for a thermal sensor-equipped cable for the SSD. The benefit in certain machines is a gain of SATA III speeds for the SSD versus SATA II, if the lines are at different speeds. Some people would be happy to pay the cost of the thermal sensor (and do the extra work to shift the SSD/HD locations) to get the extra speed.

      • Piotr Kleina - 7 years ago

        Hey, I’m just about to swap my HDD in MBP 13″ for an SSD and was wondering if I also need a thermal sensor-equipped cable? I’ve never heard of anybody having problems with fans after upgrading to SSD but now I see it’s quite common. I checked ifixit’s guide and they don’t say anything about buying special cable. Thanks for you help.

      • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

        It should work without a special cable in the 13″ MBP.

  3. Justin Grover - 7 years ago

    The 15″/17″ early/late 2011 MacBook Pros have a well documented issue with adding anything faster than a SATA II drive in the Optical slot. Some fixes worked for some users, but some of us are/were plagues with random drive dismounts and other fun stuff. OWC covered it extensively in their blog.

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

      Their suggested remedy is basically to move the SATA II drive into the optical slot and put the SSD in the hard drive bay, the same solution as discussed in the @kidonl comment above. It’s a couple of extra steps but achieves the same purpose – improved storage capacity, improved speed.

    • Mickey Hancharenko - 7 years ago

      There is also a SATA link speed negotiation bug with Macs containing the NVIDIA MCP79 Northbridge chipset. This includes the 2008 Aluminum MacBook and I also believe the 2009 Mac mini. If you install a SATA III (6Gb/s) SSD to replace the internal hard drive, link speed is negotiated at SATA I (1.5Gb/s) speeds and not at the full SATA II (3Gb/s) speed supported by the board. You MUST buy a SATA II SSD if you want the 3Gb/s link speed.

      OWC had a pretty nice write-up on this a while ago (I can’t find the link at the moment), but is still the reason why they still sell a SATA I/II SSD as well as their newer line of SATA III SSDs.

  4. Arin Failing - 7 years ago

    This may sound dumb, but can you set up Boot Camp to load Windows from the HDD, and OS X from the SSD? I’m just not sure if Boot Camp requires both OSes to be on the same hard drive. I’ve offloaded all of my important files and media onto a 3TB external, which has been partitioned to also hold Time Machine backups. My wife needs Windows for work, unfortunately, but I’ve been so invested in Apple for years, now, I don’t want to switch back. This could potentially give me the best of both worlds?

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

      It doesn’t sound dumb at all. People have been trying to make this work (with some challenging workarounds) for a while. The short answer appears to be that you could install OS X on the SSD, and _both OS X and Windows_ on the HDD in order to use Boot Camp. Another possibility would be to avoid Boot Camp and just use Parallels, which offers great emulation of Windows apps (and even enables you to run Windows apps without leaving OS X).

  5. Great write-up. What do all of you think about upgrading a 2007 iMac 4GB memory to an SSD? My aging iMac still runs but its gotten very slow. Wondering if it would be worth the time, expense, trouble to put an SSD in it. Thoughts?

    Matt

    • Mickey Hancharenko - 7 years ago

      I also have a Mid-2007 iMac7,1. I have replaced the processor with a 2.8GHz Core 2 Extreme X7900 and added 6GB of RAM and a 1TB WD Black. The SSD would be a nice upgrade. Even though most memory manufacturers claim this unit can only support 4GB of RAM, it does support a 6GB configuration with one 4GB and one 2GB PC2-5300 SODIMM. You’ll lose the slight boost in dual-channel mode, but if you’re hitting your 4GB cap, you’ll see better performance out of having the additional 2GB.

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

      As a general statement, I’d say that if you have an old machine with SATA (particularly SATA II or III, but SATA is OK) that you want to keep using, an SSD has rapidly become the best bang-for-the-buck component you can install. I also wrote a guide on RAM upgrades (http://viptest.9to5mac.com/2015/03/04/how-to-boost-mac-speed-ram-upgrade/) which could help you out; 4GB of memory is pretty tight for running recent versions of OS X, so if you can jump to 6GB, that will help a bit.

  6. Aaron W. (@awolAD) - 7 years ago

    Making this upgrade is in fact surprisingly simple if you’re not afraid to take apart your Mac. And I was terrified, so that goes to show how simple it actually is so long as you follow the directions carefully.

    VERY IMPORTANT – I’ve skimmed the comments below, but couldn’t see if someone already posted this or not. For whatever reason on older machines, Apple nerfed the connections at a firmware level. The affected models are 2008/2009 MacBook/MacBook Pro 13″, 15″, and 17″ models. (Model IDs: MacBookPro5,1; 5,2; 5,3; 5,4; 5,5 and MacBook5,1; 6,1; 7,1). Also affected are iMac models 9,1; 10,1; and 11,1.

    If you’re going to install an SSD in a Mac that doesn’t already have a SATA III SuperDrive or HDD connection, you MUST use an SSD with a SATA II connection. If you rely on the “backwards compatibility” of SATA, you will actually only get speeds equivalent to SATA I.

  7. Anthony Collins - 7 years ago

    I have a 24″ iMac (Early 2009) 2.93 GHz Intel Core-2 Duo, 8GB 1067 MHz DDR3 memory. I’m thinking of putting an SSD in the optical drive slot. Is this doable?

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

      @Anthony, yes, it’s doable – the aforementioned OWC Mercury Electra 3G is recommended as the right replacement for the optical drive in that particular machine.

      • Anthony Collins - 7 years ago

        Thank you Jeremy! In your opinion, do you thinks it’s worth it?

      • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

        SSD swap made a profound difference for my iMac, which now runs silent almost all of the time and is remarkably faster. I would definitely do it if you’re hanging onto the machine for a while.

  8. Dani Flexer - 7 years ago

    Replaced my Optidrive with a Crucial SSD. BlackMagic speed-test showing a disappointing 215/245 MB/s and machine has not imporved much in terms of speed.

    The System Report shows the Link Speed of the NVidia MCP79 AHCI as 3 Gigabit, which indicates to me a maximum transfer rate in both directions of about 300 MB/s. Is this what I should expect? How do you get 516 MB/sec?

    Per Crucial, had I replaced the HDD and not the Optidrive with the SSD I would get better performance. Given that the HDDs SAT shows the same speeds, is that true? Would that not cause the fans to run notoriously loud due to the proprietary heat sensor in the iMac 2009’s HDD?