Mac Pro is getting slow

Apple just announced a completely redesigned Mac Pro that will be available in the Fall of 2013. The current model has been around since 2006 and was in desperate need of a serious upgrade. As I impatiently waited for this hardware announcement, I discovered a way to boost my Mac Pro’s performance so I could continue using it productively.

When I bought my Mac Pro in early 2008, it was the fastest computer Apple had ever produced. Over my next four years, I was able to increase its capabilities by upgrading its memory to 14 gigabytes and adding a larger hard drive for more storage capacity. My Mac Pro has been a real workhorse for me in my consulting and web design business.

Mac spinning beachballBut in 2012, I noticed that it was really slowing down. The reason? My theory is multiple upgrades to OS X and other software applications placed increasing demands on the aging hardware. Sometimes I encountered the “spinning beach ball” — 20, 40, 60 seconds or more — for  reasons I could not predict nor understand! Needless to say, it was getting very frustrating.

I considered upgrading to a new computer and thought about whether to buy a new Mac Pro tower or possibly switch to a large-screen all-in-one iMac. An additional factor was my very nice 30-inch Apple Cinema Display, which made the iMac alternative less attractive. The Mac Pro models Apple was selling were pretty expensive and didn’t provide me with the power boost I was seeking. Plus, there was the promised but non-specific 2013 Mac Pro redesign.

I needed to do something but didn’t feel like replacing my computer just yet.

Upgrading My Mac Pro

I had a theory that my Mac Pro’s performance bottlenecks were from excessive disk activity on the startup drive. What if I switched to a solid state drive to my system? SSDs have no moving parts and therefore no latency wait times. Plus, SSD read/write specs are much faster than traditional spinning platter hard drives. SSD downsides? Their storage capacities are on the low side and price/gigabyte costs are higher.

What minimum capacity did I need? How should I configure my files for maximum efficiency and performance?

First I needed to analyze the my current setup. Of my startup hard drive’s one-terabyte capacity (1,000 GB), here was the rough usage breakdown:

Mac Pro hard drive space allocation

Since I couldn’t buy (or afford) a one-terabyte SSD replacement drive, I decided to keep my existing hard drive and dedicate it to my User Data (my Home directory) only. The new SSD would be my startup drive and contain only the operating system and my software applications.

My calculations showed that I required no more than 120GB of space to contain the OS X System, Applications and Library folder items.

I opted for a 240GB Mercury Electra 3G SSD 2.5″ Serial-ATA Solid State Drive plus a AdaptaDrive 2.5″ to 3.5″ Drive Converter Bracket from Other World Computing. Total price in October 2012 was $259 with shipping (it’s a bit less now).

OWC Solid State Drive (SSD)Installation Process

The SSD was easy to install. I just screwed the thin “drive” into the adapter bracket, opened my Mac Pro, and inserted it into one of the available drive bays. Then all I had to do was:

  1. Format the new solid state drive. I named it SSD to easily distinguish it from my traditional Mac’s spinning hard drive.
  2. Perform a clean install of OS X Mountain Lion on the new SSD volume.
  3. Restart the computer from the freshly minted SSD startup drive.
  4. Re-assign the default home directory to the existing one on the original Macintosh HD. This essentially told the computer to keep using my current home folder where all my files resided.
    • Open System Preferences > Users & Groups
    • Right-click (Control-click) the Current User and select Advanced Options…
    • Select the correct Home directory

Assign Mac home folder

Installing OS X and Applications

I considered cloning the both the system and applications from my existing hard drive to the new SSD but quickly decided against it. I wanted a clean install of everything I was going to put on the new drive. Plus, I had accumulated many orphaned and outdated versions of software applications that I didn’t want to dump onto a pristine SSD.

The whole process installation process was very fast, no doubt because of the speedy solid state architecture versus relatively slow spinning hard drive platters.

Next up: Installing applications. I just copied apps from my existing Macintosh HD >Applications to the new SSD > Applications as I needed them, leaving behind old or unused applications.

For most apps, a simple drag-copy between drives worked fine — except Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite. They required complete re-installs from their original DVDs. That didn’t really surprise me knowing Microsoft and Adobe!

New storage configuration:

New HD vs SSD storage breakdown

The Results

After only a few hours of live use, I could tell …

  • My system was faster that before – MUCH faster
  • Startup times were much faster
  • Applications were opening much faster
  • And have virtually eliminated the annoying spinning beach balls… Everything was snappier!

In fact, I believe the useful life of my Mac Pro has been extended for at least a year. That should easily get me through to the recently announced (but not yet available) Mac Pro model that’ll come out later in 2013.

I’ll probably upgrade then. But then again, I might even wait a little longer!