Thursday, 13 January 2011

Scary Disk Upgrade for MacBook Pro

Six months away from home puts a lot of strain on a laptop, especially on it's disk capacity. Towards the end of my stay in Switzerland I was down to my last 15Gb of disk space of my original 160Gb drive in the MacBook Pro, and was regularly deleting and restoring content, especially movies and other large items. I decided that when I got home I'd look at getting a new bigger (and maybe faster) drive, and maybe even consider installing it myself.
So, about a week ago, I started my first upgrade project of 2011, and began my customary background research. There were three elements to be considered:
  • Price of components
  • Compatibility of drive
  • Difficulty of performing the upgrade
Price - although I'd been working in the financial capital of Switzerland I didn't come home having made my fortune, and I still needed to watch the pennies. I had to weigh up the cost of the drive and any tools I might need and the cost of either doing the job myself or getting a specialist to do the job for me. I did have plenty of time on my hands, so that wasn't going to be a problem. I figured that it would cost somewhere between £100 and £150 to get a professional installation, but I could be without the laptop for up to a week. I'd also be restricted in the range of drives available. A quick search on Amazon suggested that I could probably get a decent replacement drive for about £50 plus a few extra pounds for the tools I would need.

Compatibility - I knew there would be some physical restrictions on the drive I could use bearing in mind the age of the MBP - late 2007, so I was going to rely on review comments from people who had successfully performed the task themselves. Again, Amazon is great as a research tool for this type of activity. I was hoping to upgrade to a 500Gb disk, preferably running at 7200 RPM, but would consider a slower drive if this was likely to be an issue

Difficulty of upgrading - I'd never opened up the MBP before, other than to install the extra memory I purchased when I first bought the machine, lifting it up to 4Gb. But this was child's play compared to delving around inside the case as required by this upgrade. There are plenty of videos and instructions on the internet, and I watched as many as possible and downloaded some instructions onto the GoodReader app on the iPad.

With these options considered and evaluated, I decided I could do the job myself and started the process in earnest. I selected a Seagate Momentus 7200.4 Laptop 2.5 inch Hard Disk Drive 500GB SATA 7200rpm 16MB (Internal) with G-Force Protection (ST9500420ASG) drive which had good reviews and had been proven to work fine in my model. This cost about £55 from Amazon. I knew from the videos that I'd need a specialist screwdriver that I didn't possess - a Torx 6, and I ended up buying a great little tool that included 9 bits which live in the lid of the screwdriver and fits in a pocket, or can be slipped into a small space in a suitcase (Silverline 633922 9 Piece Precision Screwdriver Set). I also needed a plastic/nylon spludger to ease things out of their natural surroundings inside the Mac, and I also invested in an anti-static wrist device, just in case. The whole lot came to under a tenner.

Eventually, all the bits and pieces arrived, with the disk being the last thing to show, and I was ready to go. I cleared the work surface, strapped on the anti-static doodah, arranged all my papers and watched the You Tube videos once again.

Things went fine to start off with. All the screws were easy to remove, and it was time to remove the keyboard. I knew this would be hard - primarily because it's the step in the process when you can cause the most damage. However, it was easy to pry the back part off and get to the cable connector on the motherboard which was also easy to unclip. But I really struggled to pry the front off (as I expected). Eventually I realised that there were still two screws holding the assembly in place, and once these were removed everything came off smoothly. I had bent the very front of the keyboard assembly slightly but not enough to cause any real damage. It would have been more prudent to have a check list of screws to remove and to have ticked these off as I took them out (and replaced them later) and I wouldn't have then made this mistake.

The next steps were really plain sailing, although there was a ribbon cable firmly glued to the existing hard drive which took some coaxing to remove, and before long I had the new drive in place, all the connectors plugged in and the whole box put back together again.

I had cloned the original disk before starting the operation, using Carbon Copy Cloner, and my intention was to boot up using the ExpressCard SSD as usual, format the new drive and then simply restore the contents of the cloned disk onto the new disk. I now understand why this was not such as good idea, and if I'd thought about it, I should never have expected it to work, and it would have saved me a lot of sweaty palms and palpitations. Worse still, it had me looking in the wrong direction in an attempt to resolve the problem.

When the MBP went into boot mode everything seemed OK, but I couldn't log onto my user account. I tried zapping the PRAM, and other diagnostic tricks on start-up but nothing worked. Eventually I booted up from the cloned USB disk which at least got me into the system and allowed me to get the new drive set-up. I figured with the new drive restored to the same state as the original everything would be OK - but I still couldn't log onto the system from the SSD. I could at least boot up from the new drive.

I decided to ditch the SSD for the time being and get the system fully functional on its own, which meant doing a software update as I was now booting into OS X 10.6.3. With the OS now running version 10.6.6 I nearly had a normal working system, but there were still a few software configuration issues which needed resolving.

This was the moment when I saw the light - the new disk had a slightly different name to the original! Once I had corrected this, most of those software configuration issues vanished. At nearly midnight I decided to call it a day and go back to it in the morning. I had now occurred to me that this may have been the reason that the SSD wasn't working properly, but I'd already reinstalled Snow Leopard on the SSD (at version 10.6.0).

First thing yesterday morning, I updated the SSD with OS X 10.6.6 and tried to boot from it. It worked perfectly.

If you have any technical ability at all and are considering this modification to an older MacBook Pro I seriously recommend that you do it. My specific configuration complicated the installation, but for a straight swap, things should be much simpler. I would, however, suggest that you invest in a disk caddy and format and set up the new drive before fitting it. It should take away some of the worry when you reboot after installation. You can pick one up for under a tenner, and you can always use it to store your old drive and use it as a media drive or backup device when you've successfully upgraded.

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