As a programmer my main concern is having a good amount of screen space in my work environment. Due to the Macbook’s inability to offer good dual screen support without having to resort to an external USB GPU (or two Thunderbolt screens), I was curious if the Mac Mini was a good alternative. This mainly due to the fact that it has 2 display ports for external displays, but the device looks pretty underpowered on paper.
So I took the plunge, got a mid-range Mac Mini (mid 2011 model) and tried to upgrade some of the slow components without having to pay Apple a fortune to do the work. First stop : replacing the dreadfully slow 5,400 rpm drive with a SSD.
This guide uses your Mac’s recovery functionality combined with the useful-as-always Time Backups. No need to prepare a Lion installer on a USB device, no need to wait an hour for your Mac to finish downloading Lion’s installer. All-in-all this procedure should take you around an hour, depending on the size of your backup and the speed of your local network.
- Recent Time Machine backup of your system
- 2+ gigabyte USB stick (all data will be erased, make sure you back up anything relevant on it)
- (obviously) brand new SSD
- The correct screwdrivers (T6 and T8 Torx)
- Very important !! Due to the poor quality of the screws used in the device. Don’t try to use the wrong screwdriver or you’ll end up regretting it.
- Some common sense
First of all you obviously need a compatible drive. Despite it being (yet again) poorly documented the 2011 Mac Mini model does indeed support SATA-3 (6gb), so you can actually get some incredibly performance out of this. I ended up picking the Samsung 830 Series 128 gb model, due to it’s (on paper) high amount of possible read/write cycles before the thing starts to fail. Since the Mac Mini consists of laptop components, make sure you get a 2,5 inch model or it obviously will not fit.
As far as I know most 2,5 inch SATA2 / SATA3 models will work on your Mac Mini because, unlike the iMac models, Apple did not add specific features (read: thermal sensors) to the disks included in the Mini models.
Once you have your shiny new SSD ready to go make sure you have a recent Time Machine backup of your system. For the sake of this guide I’ll assume you have access to a device that allows you to make TM backups of your Mac, since it makes things a whole lot easier in the end. After you made sure this is done, download Apple’s Lion Recovery Disk Assistant tool , run it and let it make a Recovery Partition on the USB stick.
When this is done we can go on to the hard part …
Opening your Mac Mini
Much less lazy people than myself have prepared some decent documentation on this, but some of the hardest steps are absolutely not necessary. Follow the guide up to step 12 and just skip the part about removing the Logic Board, since you should have sufficient access to the primary disk. This might require a bit more fiddling around but if you made it this far it’s much better to just skip the risky step of taking out something as delicate as the Logic Board. Follow steps 18 and on to see how to take apart the Apple-specific cable connectors on the HDD. Don’t forget to put the black shielding on your new SSD or you will run into electric interference issues .
After this, put the entire thing back together and get ready to restore Mac OS X to your new SSD.
Booting from the Rescue USB Stick
When you’ve put everything back together, plug in the USB stick you created earlier and start up your Mac. Keep the Option key pressed when you hear the Mac OS X sound and boot from the USB device.
Before you do anything else you need to make a bootable partition on the new SSD. In order to do this you need to start the Disk Utility from the Rescue stick’s menu. Select the SSD from the panel on the left and click on ‘Partition’, as seen in the screenshot below (using the USB device for testing purposes, make sure you select the actual SSD when doing this ;))
If your drive is not listed in the menu to the left, it probably means the disk connector on the Logic Board came loose. Since you need to screw the Wifi/Bluetooth antenna directly on top of the new disk, this tends to happen. Worst case scenario your SDD is not compatible with the Mac Mini or is broken … But try to check the connection first!
Set ‘Partition Layout’ to 1 Partition, Name it whatever you want and select Mac OS Extended (Journaled) as the format. Before you hit Apply, click on ‘Options’ and set the partition scheme to GUID Partition Table as seen below.
Which will result in this :
All done ! Now all there’s left to do for this step is to hit Apply.
Restoring the Time Backup
After you made the primary partition on your new disk, you can go back to the main menu and select ‘Restore from Time Backup’. Follow the steps and point it to the device that stores your backups, select the most recent date and restore it to the partition you created in the step above.
Now all you have left to do is wait for your backup to be restored, reboot your Mac and you should be greeted with your old desktop – all settings intact, but much much snappier due to the increased speed of the SSD. No more beach balls and unresponsive applications for you ! Welcome to the club.